Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Sugar for Elephants

Longtime followers of my work will remember the brouhaha surrounding elephants and olives. Several years ago, it transpired that some people not only believe that Chazal (the Sages of the Talmud) were omniscient and infallible about scientific matters, but also the Rishonim (the Torah scholars of the medieval period).

In one episode, I was asked by some students about a Tosafist stating that an elephant could be made to jump up in the air, with all four legs, in order to retrieve food. I responded that this is not possible (elephants can rear up on two legs, but not jump entirely into the air). I pointed out that the Tosafist concerned had never seen an elephant, and would reasonably have believed it to be possible that elephants can jump. (See The Case Of The Jumping Elephant.) This led to a minor uproar; how could I accuse the Tosafist of being wrong?!

In another episode, I wrote a monograph to explain why the Rishonim of Ashkenaz, unlike the Rishonim of Sefarad, rated the kezayis as being such a large quantity. My answer was that the Rishonim of Ashkenaz never saw olives and were misled into thinking that they are large. Despite the overwhelming evidence that I brought for this, including testimony to this effect by some Ashkenaz Rishonim, my monograph was nevertheless rejected by a certain halachic journal on the grounds of it being insufficiently appreciative of the greatness of the Ashkenazi Rishonim.

In a similar vein, I have recently been engaged in debate with various people regarding the identifications of various animals in the Torah given by European Rishonim (such as identifying the tzvi as the deer, and the shafan as the rabbit). When I pointed out that these Rishonim were unfamiliar with the animals of Israel (such as the gazelle and hyrax), and were thus unable to correctly identify the animals of the Torah, the response was that I did not appreciate that these Rishonim did indeed possess such knowledge, due to divine inspiration or suchlike.

Of course, my position can be well defended; since there is widespread support for saying that even the Sages of the Talmud possessed no special knowledge of the natural world, certainly the same is true for the Rishonim. Still, it always helps to have additional and specific support. And so I was pleased when my friend Yeedle made a great discovery regarding sugar.

What berachah should be made upon eating sugar? Usually we make she'hakol on the juices and extracts of fruits, because by extracting the juice from a fruit, it is no longer halachically a fruit. But one of the exceptions to this rule is if the fruit was planted specifically for the purpose of extracting its juice. In such cases, the juice itself is considered the fruit, and one makes a berachah of  borei pri ha'etz.

The Tur, i.e. Rabbi Yaakov, son of the Rosh, following his father, rules that one says borei pri ha'etz on sugar. He explains that since the sugarcane itself isn't edible, it must be that the canes are planted for the extraction of their juice in order to make sugar, and therefore the sugar is considered as the fruit of the sugarcane, it deserves the berachah of ha'etz.

However, none less than Rav Yosef Karo negates the Tur's view, as follows:
 ואני אומר שאילו היו קנים הללו נמצאים בארצו של הטור לא היה טוען כן. שבמקום שנמצאים מוכרים מהם לאלפים ולרבבות למצוץ אותם. 

And I say, were these canes found in the land of the Tur, he wouldn't have made such a claim. Because in the places where they are found, they are sold in the thousands and ten thousands to be sucked. (Kesef Mishneh, Berachos 8:5)
In other words, since sugarcane only grows in tropical regions, the Tur was not sufficiently familiar with it, and did not realize that it is commonly grown to be eaten as sugarcane. (R. Karo's view is approvingly cited by Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim 202:13.)

Again, it's not really any great chiddush that Rav Yosef Karo did not consider the Tur to know about the whole world. But in today's Orthodox Jewish society, it's certainly a chiddush to some people, and so it's very useful to be able to point it out.

(Thanks to Yeedle for his help with this post; he also pointed out to me that there are those, such as Ramban in Berachos 36b, who disagree with the Tur not only because sugarcane is edible, but also because they say sugar can't be rated as fruit.)


  1. Just a quibble: you wrote "In other words, since sugarcane only grows in tropical regions". The Tur lived most of his life in Spain. Isn't Spain tropical enough to grow sugarcane?

  2. I understand that your point is the fact that R' Yosef Karo would be audacious enough to make such a claim, but is it correct? Why couldn't they grow sugarcane in Spain? -- at least this past century a lot of sugarcane was grown in Spain

    Sugarcane was grown in southern Spain in the times of the Tur


  3. I was wondering the same thing myself. But as you noted, the point is not whether R. Karo's claim is correct; the point is that he made it!

  4. A much bigger one is mushrooms as a shehakol since they derive their nourishment from the air! (Berachos 40b) Chazal didn't know that mushrooms live mostly on decaying matter in the ground or about mycelium networks. Indeed vegetables & fruit derive much more of their nourishment "from the air" (actually from the sun via photosynthesis)! I have seen attempts at trying to justify the shehakol ruling with modern science, but they are invariably lame.


  5. It's a remarkable fact that the overwhelming majority of matter in a tree (or any plant) comes from the air: it's carbon, that is left over when carbon dioxide is transformed to oxygen!

  6. The more important point to be made is this: were you to point out to the Tosafist in question that elephants can't jump and explain to him why, he probably would have accepted it. He was more interested in truth than dogma. It is his so-called defenders that miscast him as a closed-minded, omniscient demigod.

  7. Rabbi Slifkin, any plans to comment on Betech's article in Dialogue on the identity of the shafan?

  8. I haven't seen it (feel free to send me a copy), but I'm sure that I already addressed it sufficiently in The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax.

  9. Did you ever wonder why the gemara asks to define certain objects (and will even quote sailors from distant lands) while others it doesn't. Could it be that there were mesorah issues?
    Joel Rich

  10. Natan have you ever written about the ever famous ברדלס? The problem is, many people attribute this to animals that do not pounce but in the Gemara it is given as an example many times of a pouncing animal. ילמדינו רבינו


  12. Rabbi, have you seen the comments about you and the book ban in the book In Search of Torah Wsidom, by R' Yisroel Miller?

    I am curious your thoughts

  13. I haven't seen it, but I've heard a summary. According to what I heard, not only is the ban, according to his interpretation, indefensible, it's not even what the banners really meant.

    Please keep this thread on topic - people are welcome to email me on other matters.

  14. Rav Eliashiv was quoted by Rabbi Feldman as "they (the rishonim) can say it we cannot"
    How right he was.... Beth Yosef made the statement on sugarcane etc yet it did not affect his reverence to previous Rishonim and he died a holy man.
    Rabbi Natan Slifkin also says it but he goes a step further and allows his bats to relieve themselves over a picture of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
    Rabbi Slifkin, you may need to swallow hard but R Eliashiv ztls insight was astounding.

  15. Indeed. In Rav Hirsch's time, and certainly earlier, people surely checked their newspapers carefully before using them to line their cages.

  16. I have a pet and i line the cage with whatever paper is available.
    If it can be printed to be thrown away then there should not be any problem by not being wasteful and finding another use for the paper that would be thrown away.
    The fact that people get in a tizzy about pictures of Rabbis' shows a level of superficiality in the jewish community.
    why do the jewish papers throw pictures of Rabbis all over the papers. just put what the rabbi has to say no need for a picture. its also very silly to have pages lined with pictures of Rabbis, what on earth does a picture illustrate to people other than superficial ideals.

  17. To be honest i am getting fed up with this blog.
    As soon as any comment may make you uncomfortable you respond very sarcastically as in my previous comment to you on R Eliashivs amazing insight.
    Is it really beyond your capability to once, just once say someone else has a good point and you humbly raise your hands in defeat?
    Is this how your rationalist rambam would have dealt with tough questions by simply ignoring the topic like you have done to me, and whenever else a question on this blog gets to difficult for you to answer.
    Perhaps you want to take a moral lesson from our Gedolim who dont sweep things under the carpet like you seem to be doing. Whereas your community sweep the immorality of internet under the carpet, our Gedolim are brave enough to bring it out in the open and educate us on its safe use.


  18. If you go through the archives, you'll find plenty of times where I concede to others. Sorry that your point does not qualify as a good point.

    And what on earth does any of this have to do with the "immorality of the internet"?

    As for you describing the Gedolim as people who don't "sweep things under the carpet"... LOL, that's the funniest thing I've ever seen. Even Agudah's spokesman conceded that the Gedolim do that!

  19. Zach, the mushroom beracha is not a conundrum resulting from inadequate knowledge of the world exhibited by the sages. They were the ones who instituted berachot on foodstuffs, and they could pick and choose which beracha to make over particular foods. If they stated that one makes a 'shehakol' over mushrooms, so be it. The reason is basically irrelevant. Besides, mushrooms being a fungus are in a totally different category than any plant. A different beracha is, therefore, appropriate - even if the given reason in no longer viable.

  20. @Devoras hubby

    Your second comment was definitely "dan l'chaf chova" about the way R. Slifkin deals with challenges, and I wholeheartedly disagree with you.

    Your first comment about "they could say it, we cannot" is actually something worth addressing. Your perush is that "they could say it" (i.e. the rishonim could point out flaws in Chazal's reasoning or knowledge) because they maintained proper reverence for Chazal, whereas "we cannot" because we don't have that reverence.

    There is a point here in terms of the tendency we have today to gratuitously scoff at leaders and sages, past and present, and so even if we can point out flaws in Chazal, we lose our "right" to do so because it feeds into the scoffing.

    But that's not the only perush. I would argue that the statement means more to the effect that "they could say it" because they were ruach hakodesh-possessing, miracle-working, partly angelic figures, whereas we - even if we were to act perfectly and never scoff - are lowly mere mortals on account of yeridat hadorot.

    And on that count, this kind of thinking - which ironically people hold out of respect - actually has the potential for incredible disrespect. Disrespect first off because we are making them into (to use Garnel's term) "demigods", i.e. making it sound as if they couldn't have produced their astounding works of Torah if not for being superhuman.

    And secondly, these are people who value truth. Do you think they would find it appropriate or flattering for people not to challenge them if they got something wrong, due to our not being "pious" enough? More likely (I'd argue), they'd rake us over the coals for being intellectual sheep and not using every bit of sechel and knowledge at our disposal, and far from being offended by our challenges, they'd be ever too happy to declare:

    "My children have defeated me!"

  21. RNS, i also did not quite make out devora hubbys connection to the immorality of internet, and i would also say less arrogance on his part would have been in place, but his first piece on rabbi Eleashivs insight did actually strike a chord within me.
    You write it does not qualify as a good point but failed to explain why not.
    No, i am am not planning to convert to a supa dupa haredi but i do give credit to R Eleashiv on this one

  22. David.L, i understand your frustration in not getting a response from RNS in regards to the insight of R Eliashiv zt"l that Devoras Hubby originally posted.
    To tell you the truth i very frequently comment on this blog anymore for this very reason as i felt anything that got too tough for RNS he would wiggle his way out either by ignoring it or laughing it off.
    To add insult to injury, how ironic is it that just a couple of days ago on Jan 9th at 11am R Nathan responded to Devorah that there is no point in saying an answer is insufficient if you can not explain why not, yet today he writes "Sorry that point does not qualify as a good point" without explaining why!
    The inconsistency of this site is truly astounding.

  23. I did not say "Sorry that point does not qualify as a good point". I said "Sorry that your point DID NOT qualify as a good point" - for reasons that I had already explained.


  24. Here's the reason that I gave, spelled out in more detail: I'm pretty sure that Jews in 19th century Germany would not have refrained from using Jewish newspapers to line birdcages. And yet Rav Hirsch still felt that the Rishonims' approach to Chazal/Science was a lechatchilah.

  25. "R. Karo's view is approvingly cited by Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim 202:13"

    Should read " approvingly cited by TaZ (Magen David), Orach Chaim 202:13"


  26. Why would one say borei pri Haetz on Sugar cane instead of borei pri Hadama?

  27. I once saw a radvaz say regarding a bit earlier authority who says nachal mitzrayim is nile.

    that if he would have lived here he would not have said it.

    this happens to be shitas rashi, although he was not referring to rashi


  28. Excellent! Thanks for the reference. Here it is:

    שו"ת רדב"ז חלק ו סימן ב אלפים רו

    תשובה הרב המזרחי חשב כי נחל מצרים הוא הנילוס כאשר צייר באותה פרשה ואין לתפוס עליו לפי שהוא ז"ל צייר מה שלא ראה

  29. would sugarcane not be a ha'adama because its a plant growing directly from the ground?


    here benish quotes a rishon who says to answer the mordechai how many olives the throat can hold, to me it is not difficult, as I have seen olives in israel and jerusalem and even 6 are not as big as an egg

  31. I think the elephants have this really excellent blood regulation considering that they feast on sugarcane.


    just for contrast here you have klosenberger (divrei yatziv orach chaim ch. 113) in the context of those who say that rabeinu tam was mistaken about how long it takes 3 stars to come out in Israel say that anybody who says poskim (rishonim) made a mistake in reality is an apikores

  33. the chazon ish who calls rishonim angels says in the dateline kuntras, paragaph 11 the raavad's opinion that one can see a new moon after 6 hours is against the opinion of astronomers. paragraph 15 says similar thing about rashi. otoh when the baal hamoar says dry land at 32 degrees latitude is 180 degrees, he does not dismiss it as being mistaken and against scientific measurements.

  34. a teshuva in chasam sofer even hoezer 1:116 regarding the right of a woman who wants to divorce a man who deceitfully hid his epileptic condition.

    quotes a dispote between rosh and ravyoh, the rosh says epilepsy is infectious the ravyah disagrees.

    the chasam sofer says originally all doctors considered it infectious, but today the doctors do not, thus siding with the ravya against rosh.

    he uses this uptodate medical information as a factor in potentially deciding the halachah

    1. not a rishon but worth mentioning. rabbi feinstein has some doubt whether radvaz knew the actuality of the falashas.


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