Saturday, March 30, 2013

The ABCs of Writing an Encyclopedia

When I tell people that I'm in the process of writing The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, they inevitably ask, "Which letter are you up to?"

It's a strange question. Or rather, it's a reasonable question that is based on a strange supposition.

Why would an encyclopedia be written in alphabetical order? The only benefit of such an arrangement is to assist in finding the relevant entry. But we have tables of contents and indexes that can do that.

Since the arrangement is not necessary to assist in locating information, it can be dedicated to other purposes - such as expressing concepts.

In this week's parashah, we have a list of non-kosher birds. It's not in alphabetical order. The nature of the order is not easy to determine, but it seems to be based around a decreasing order of prominence. That prominence itself seems to be based on a variety of factors, including size, prevalence, and degree of abnormality.

For my encyclopedia, the volumes are divided according to the system of classification used in the Torah - chayos, behemos, flying creatures, etc. And in the first volume, chayos, the animals are divided and ordered following conceptual patterns used in the Torah itself - predators, kosher animals, etc. Within each section, the order also follows patterns that appear in the Torah, as much as possible. The primary predators are listed in the same order as in Scripture and Mishnah; the minor predators are ordered according to size and prominence. The kosher wild animals are listed in the order in which they appear in parashas Re'ay, which itself is apparently based on their prevalence. And so on and so forth. You can download the table of contents here and see for yourself.

(Incidentally, I've almost completely finished the first volume - I just have to finish the entry on lions. And, of course, raise considerable funding!)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Why Are Minhagim Important?

There's nothing like Pesach for causing perplexity and wars about minhagim - customs. Recently I was disappointed to hear a reasonably well-educated person effectively stating that minhagim are not important and can be freely abolished. In fact, while there is inevitable debate about precisely how important minhagim are, and what exactly is defined as a minhag, and the parameters of their applicability, there is no doubt that minhag is of great importance in Judaism. But why? Prof. Daniel Sperber, in volume three of Minhagei Yisrael, cites three reasons that are given (I'm writing from memory here, so I could be mistaken):

1) Stability. It's important to maintain established practice, so as to maintain stability in Judaism and avoid anarchy. (In times of turbulence, opinions will differ as to whether stability is better maintained by being more rigid, or by being more flexible. I think that reasonable people can understand that both viewpoints are reasonable.)

2) Preventing disputes. If everyone follows custom, this should prevent disputes. (Unfortunately in practice, this sometimes seem to have the opposite effect. However, this is more a result of the modern era, in which the ease of travel enables people from different communities to be lumped together with great frequency.)

3) Finally, Rav Kook states that since minhagim result from people desiring to demonstrate their passion for Judaism, they must accordingly be treated with great respect. (This would appear to apply to only certain types of minhagim.)

I think that before evaluating whether a given minhag should be maintained or not, it's important to understand exactly why minhag has an important place in Judaism.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Two Sentences of Inspiration

For many rationalists and skeptics in today's era, it's increasingly difficult to summon inspiration and faith with regard to Judaism. Torah codes and other outreach proofs just backfire. And when a critical eye is turned to the Torah and Talmud, many difficult questions arise. I constantly receive inquiries from people who are disillusioned and deeply distressed.

Personally, I am able to draw inspiration from the extraordinary Divine Providence that I feel with regard to how my own life has unfolded. But, aside from this being rather non-rationalist, it's not something that can be expected to inspire other people!

However, there is something else that I find extraordinarily inspirational. And it's not some sort of cute shtick, like a Scriptural encoding for Pi or a Midrashic reference to an unusual manner of frog reproduction. Instead, it is a very basic and fundamental part of Jewish history. Furthermore, notwithstanding the disturbing phenomenon of many millions of people that deny it, it is factually true.

The matter I am referring to was mentioned today by President Obama. I'm no fan of Obama, and the reference to Israel in his 2009 Cairo speech was severely disappointing. Still, unlike some people I know, I don't consider him to be Satan incarnate, either. In his speech upon arriving in Israel, he beautifully encapsulated the matter to which I am referring in two sentences:
“More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here. And after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish State of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history.”

And there you have it. A simple but mind-blowing historical account: an ancient home, centuries of exile and the worst, most irrational persecution in history, followed by the extraordinary return to the land and creation of a vibrant country. (And if you study some political history, you realize just how extraordinary it was that the State of Israel came into being and survived the War of Independence.) Is it not an astounding history?

It's tragic that many Jews, who will proudly point to the Hand of God in everything from missing a train to the landing of a locust on a table, entirely downplay Providence when it comes to the return of the Jewish People to their homeland and the creation of the State of Israel. It's far and away the most extraordinary and inspirational part of the Jewish experience.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Mouse Deer Tries To Attack Hare, Hyrax

There's a curious journal on Torah and science published by Bar-Ilan University entitled Bechol Derachecha De'ehu, or BDD for short. Many of the articles are excellent and reflect the rationalist approach to these topics. However, there are also several articles which reflect a decidedly anti-rationalist approach (such as those by various physicists claiming to correlate 21st century science with the first chapter of Genesis). In the latest volume, Zvi Weinberger argues that the arneves and shafan of the Torah are not the hare and hyrax, as all Biblical zoologists concur, but instead are the musk deer and mouse deer (echoing a suggestion first put forth in the 19th century).

Why does he suggest this? Weinberger points out that neither the hare nor the hyrax bring up the cud, as the Torah describes the arneves and shafan doing. In this, he is at least half and possibly entirely correct. The reingestion of special fecal pellets practiced by the hare, technically known as cecotrophy, cannot reasonably be described as ma'aleh gerah, which literally means "bringing up by way of the throat." This is notwithstanding the fanciful suggestion of Isaac Betech that the phrase is describing how the fecal pellets are "brought up" in the ascending colon (!) and subsequently pass down the throat when they are reingested. As for the hyrax, some claim to have observed it bringing up food for reingestion, perhaps in a reduced form of rumination known as merycism. Others, however, debate the validity of these observations and argue that it may instead be a form of communication. My video of my own hyrax engaged in what appeared to me to be merycism has been dismissed by some zoologists as showing a form of threat gesture instead. Thus, Weinberger is correct that the hare does not bring up the cud, and may well also be correct regarding the hyrax.

However, none of this is reason to reject identifying the arneves and shafan as the hare and hyrax. There is simply far too much evidence supporting their identification. As for the Torah's description of their bringing up their cud, this is no different from the Torah's description of the Heavens bringing down its dew. It is scientifically inaccurate, but "the Torah speaks in the language of man."

There is also a complete absence of viable alternatives to the hare and hyrax. The rabbit, as noted previously (see here and here), does not live in Israel. (Betech claimed otherwise, and when challenged, replied that rabbits are found in pet stores across Israel! I kid you not.) Nor, more importantly, did it live in Israel in Biblical times (Betech's alleged sources otherwise were conclusively shown to be mistaken references to hares; he has yet to acknowledge this error). Mouse deer and musk deer likewise did not live in Biblical Israel, nor anywhere nearby.

Weinberger presents some extremely unconvincing suggestions in response to this. He suggests that mouse deer and musk deer were familiar via trade routes. But this is not only almost certainly not true for the mouse deer. It also does not account for David and Shlomo choosing to mention the shafan (see here). Weinberger also quotes a professor from Machon Lev as suggesting that the mouse deer and musk deer did indeed live in Israel in Biblical times. But this professor's field of expertise is in technology! I don't understand why someone would quote a non-expert on such a thing. Weinberger does then quote a zooarcheologist, who points out that this suggestion is against all evidence. But this does not dissuade Weinberger from arguing it.

Weinberger acknowledges that there are difficulties with his approach, but argues that it is better to be faced with such difficulties than to have a problem with the straightforward meaning of the pesukim. I don't agree, and I don't think that there is an exceptional problem with the pesukim describing the hare and hyrax as maaleh gerah, whereas I do think that his approach does make a severe problem with the pesukim. Nevertheless, I greatly appreciate his honesty regarding his epistemology. He acknowledges the difficulties, and states that he is choosing to override them due to concerns stemming from his particular religious outlook.

The difference between Weinberger and Betech in this regard is striking. Weinberger freely concedes that he is disputing those who base their views on zooarcheology, unlike Betech, who claims that his approach (which identifies the shafan as the non-native rabbit) is "scientific" and "academic"! And Weinberger freely concedes that he is disputing Chazal and traditional authorities (regarding the identity of the arneves), as opposed to Betech, who claims that his approach (regarding defining cecotrophy as maaleh gerah) is "compatible" with every great Torah scholar in history! I have no problem with people adopting positions due to religious motivations, as long as they don't pretend that it is for scientific or academic reasons.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Happy Pi Day

(A re-port from two years ago, with some updates)

Today, March 14th, is official Pi Day. (The date is chosen because it's 3.14.) You can check out this link for a brief history of Pi. Meanwhile, I'd like to share a few thoughts about Pi in Jewish thought. I have not been able to research this topic anywhere near as thoroughly as I usually do, but I don't want to miss the date, so here are some thoughts.

There are those who claim that the description of King Shlomo's Pool having a diameter of 10 cubits and a circumference of 30 cubits is an example of a scientific error in the Bible. Now, I am certainly not ideologically closed to the idea of the Bible being scientifically inaccurate - there are several examples of this, such as with the kidneys, dew, firmament, etc., for which we invoke the concept of Dibra Torah k'lashon bnei Adam. However, I don't believe that King Shlomo's Pool is an example of this; it's just a convenient way of describing it. Although, it is perhaps a little problematic here because instead of saying that its circumference was 30 cubits, it says that a thirty-cubit line could encircle it.

A few days ago, a reader who is convinced that Chazal had a supernatural source of knowledge about the natural world gave King Shlomo's Pool as an example. Here is the idea, as presented by Rav Mordechai Kornfeld (and follow the link for further discussion):
A fascinating insight regarding the value of pi is attributed to the Vilna Ga'on. (Actually, there is no source to substantiate the claim that the Vilna Ga'on said it. The actual source for the insight may be credited to Matityahu ha'Kohen Munk (Frankfurt-London), who published the thought in the journals "Sinai," Tamuz 1962, and "ha'Darom," 1967.) In the verse that the Gemara cites as the source for the ratio of the circumference to the diameter (Melachim I 7:23), there is a "Kri" and a "Kesiv" -- a word that is pronounced differently than it is spelled. The word in the verse is written "v'Kaveh" (with the letter "Heh" at the end), but it is pronounced "v'Kav" (with no "Heh" at the end). The Gematriya of the word "Kav" is 106, and the Gematriya of the word "Kaveh" is 111. The ratio of the Kesiv (111) to the Kri (106), or 111/106, is 1.0471698. This value represents the ratio of the value for pi to 3 (3.1415094/3 = 1.0471698).

The question is, does this provide evidence for Chazal having supernatural sources of knowledge? I don't think so, for several reasons.

First of all, a person could argue that the kav/kaveh curio is simply a coincidence. It's not a matter of something being accurate to seven decimal places. There are two numbers, 106 and 111, which can be manipulated to give a certain value. There are doubtless plenty of two and three digit numbers which can be manipulated to give a similar value, and there are plenty of two and three digit numbers that can be derived from a verse. Some will see this as unduly skeptical, and at the moment, I am inclined to agree, since it's just too neat that it's exactly with the word describing the circumference that this gematria is found. But I don't think that I can conclusively show that it's not a coincidence.

As for the significance of the kri/ksiv, while Malbim and (of course) Maharal ascribe significance to both kri and ksiv, according to Radak they simply reflect uncertainties that arose in transmission.

Then, even if one wants to claim that Pi is encoded in kav/kaveh, does this reflect a supernatural encoder? The value of Pi was known in ancient times to several decimal places, and a human could encode it in this way. There is a Greek Pythagorean motto "God is ever a geometer" (ἀεὶ ὁ Θεὸς ὁ μέγας γεωμετρεῖ) — the number of letters in each of the six words are the first six digits of pi. A cute and deliberately constructed device, but not one that indicates that the composer of either the phrase or the language was supernatural!

Finally, even if one does feel that this strongly points to a supernatural encoder, it is not evidence of Chazal possessing a supernatural source of knowledge. The verse is assumed to have been written with Divine Inspiration, which means that God has supernatural knowledge, not man. With regard to Chazal, it does not appear that they knew the value of Pi to any decimal places. The Gemara gives the value of Pi as being 3 (Eruvin 14a), and Tosafos points out that, based on the context, the Gemara does not seem to be giving an approximation. Of course, there are various apologetics which argue otherwise, but Tosafos apparently didn't find them convincing. Thus, if someone wants to believe that the Gemara did not mean this, they can do so, but one cannot use the topic of Pi to prove that Chazal had superior knowledge of the natural world.

Furthermore, the Mishnah (Ohalos 12:6) says that "A square is greater than a circle by one-fourth," referring to the perimeter of each when the circle is drawn to the height of the square. This is true if Pi is assumed to be 3, but given a more accurate value of Pi, the perimeter of the square is actually closer to one-fifth longer than that of the circle.

Some readers will doubtless find it hard to accept that Chazal believed Pi to be 3. The question is whether there is basis for their disbelief, and an analysis of the Gemara and Rishonim reveals that there were much more basic mathematical errors committed by some (but not all) of Chazal. Tosafos (Eruvin 76a) says that Rabbi Yochanan and the Gemara in Sukkah misunderstood a statement by the judges of Caesarea to mean that the diagonal of a square is equal to twice the length of its side. Tosafos states that Rabbi Yochanan subscribed to this understanding of the judges of Caesarea, and that the Gemara in Sukkah rejected it precisely because it is mathematically inaccurate. Rashba expresses surprise at Tosafos attributing a simple mathematical error to Chazal, and he gives an alternate explanation, but he does not deny that Tosafos does indeed say this! Ran likewise expresses surprise that the judges of Caesarea erred in a simple mathematical matter, and cites an alternate explanation of Rabbi Yochanan’s misunderstanding of what the judges of Caesarea were saying, which somewhat lessens the error, but still leaves Rabbi Yochanan making genuine errors of both interpretation and mathematics. Tosafos HaRosh states similarly. Given all this, there is no reason not to take the Gemara's statement about the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter at face value.

Finally, we have Rambam on record as being the first person in recorded history to explicitly describe Pi as being an irrational number (see Wired Magazine's article on this). I don't know whether it is amusing or sad that some people co-opt the Rambam for anti-rationalist purposes. Jonathan Rosenblum declared that Rambam's statement about Pi is evidence that Torah scholars have supernatural sources of knowledge about the natural world. But first of all, while Rambam was the first to write this explicitly, it had already been hinted at by earlier Greek writers. Secondly, the idea that Rambam knew this via kabbalah or some other such source is ludicrous and a distortion of Rambam's fundamental ideology. Rambam himself wrote that even Chazal had no such supernatural sources of knowledge; he certainly did not consider himself to be privy to kabbalistic secrets!

Have a happy Pi day, and let's not undermine the credibility of Torah and Judaism by making extreme claims that do not stand up to scrutiny. There's enough to be proud of in our religion without having to resort to such shtick!

(See too the follow-up post from two years ago: Puzzled by Pi Perplexities)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Popularity of Olives

Pesach is approaching, which means that many people will be obsessing over the size of the olive-sized amount of matzah which is the minimum quantity to be consumed at the seder. My monograph "The Evolution of the Olive" is the most popular post ever on this blog. It has nearly 5000 views, which doesn't count all those who received it via e-mail. Countless people have expressed appreciation of it.

Why is this monograph so popular? Perhaps it is because so many people have wondered at the strangely large size of the kezayis given in most halachic works today. The mind cannot help but reel when confronted with a kezayis-book presenting, in pictures, a kezayis as being the size of several olives. And the historical explanation for this incongruity makes so much sense that it is immensely satisfying. "There is no pleasure like the resolution of doubt," as Redak famously stated (except that most people think that Chazal said it). Likewise, my Matzah Chart for Rationalists is also extremely popular.

Of course, there are some people who dislike the monograph (and it was rejected from a certain halachic journal). In some cases, this is because it reveals that the great Rishonim of Ashkenaz were not omniscient. But I wonder if in other cases the dislike is precisely because it makes so much sense. In a previous post, I asked why a certain theory is regarded as frum when expressed by kabbalists, but quasi-heretical when expressed by Rambam. One person suggested as follows:
Because one makes sense and one doesn't, and religious matters do not have to make sense... If it made perfect sense, it would be mathematic, not religious. By contrast, matters which today we call "kabbalistic" [even though they were never received from anyone] you can say literally anything you want, and adherents will nod enthusiastically. The less comprehensible it is, the more kabbalistic is it said to be.
I wonder if that might be the case here too. Perhaps it is precisely the mysteriousness and incongruity of the large kezayis that shows dedication to a higher authority.

(See too the following posts:
Why On Earth Would One Eat A Kezayis?
The Riddle of the Giant Kezayis Defense
The All-Time Most Popular Post)

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Adventures in Locust Hunting

Last week was not great for this zoo rabbi. One of my hyraxes, named Lorax, escaped, and despite the best efforts of my neighbors and myself to recapture it, our efforts proved fruitless. Then my fruit bat, Batsheva, escaped, and although I managed to recapture her two days later, her experiences left her in bad shape and she expired. And to top it all, I hadn't made it to the South to catch the locusts that had arrived in a plague from Egypt. The article about kosher locusts that I had written for The Times of Israel had been quoted by media outlets all over the world, but I hadn't actually gotten any! My students were begging me for a lecture on kosher locusts, and my chameleons, for whom locusts are a favorite food, were looking at me with accusing eyes (which, protruding from their heads, are particularly unsettling). And the Ministry of Agriculture reported that they had successfully fumigated all the locusts that had flown in from Egypt. Which was wonderful news for the farmers and the economy - let's not lose perspective here! - but not for my chameleons, my students and me.

Then, right before Shabbos, there was a report that a new swarm had flown in. And on Shabbos, a stranger came over to me, and introduced himself as Moishe from Australia. He said that he was part of a group of fans of this website, and he wanted to know where he could hunt for locusts. (He also excitedly told me about the huge "mozzie" that he had just seen; after some bewilderment, I figured out that this was Australian talk for a mosquito.)

And so, late last night, we planned our expedition. The latest reports indicated that a small swarm had settled in Nachal Lavan, near the Egyptian border. The Ministry of Agriculture were sending planes on Sunday morning to fumigate them. We would have to make an early start - partly because locusts can best be captured when they are dormant from the cold of night, and partly in order to get them before they were sprayed with pesticide!

At five o'clock this morning, Moishe and I hit the road. It's possible to drive incredibly fast at that hour, even while simultaneously scanning the road for hedgehogs and hyenas. There's also a new, wide bypass road that circumvents Be'er Sheva, speeding up the journey considerably. As we entered the Negev desert, a number of signs on the road warned of danger from camels crossing the road - their bodies are so high from the ground that if you hit one, it comes straight through the windshield. We didn't have that experience, which was fortunate for us, and also for the camels. The desert itself was vast and bare, with herds of oryx conspicuously failing to thunder across it. We made excellent time, but the sun had already come up, and it was going to be close. I didn't yet realize just how close it was going to be.

I found the rough road leading off the highway towards Nachal Lavan, and we began to travel down it. A large four-wheel drive vehicle was coming in the other direction, and we drove past it. In the rear-view mirror, I saw it turn around. I pulled over to the side as it drew up next to my car.

"Hi," I said brightly. "We're looking for locusts! Do you know where we can find them?"

The man in the other car, who was apparently from the Ministry of Agriculture, was not happy with me. "You have to leave this area right now," he said. "In two minutes, it's going to be fumigated." "Okay," I said in disappointment. And he drove off.

This was very upsetting. But meanwhile, Moishe from Australia had gotten out of the car, and he was peering into the bushes that were a short distance from us. "Crikey," he said, or some such Australian expression of astonishment, "This bush is full of locusts! Strewth! Blimey!" Or words to that effect.

Pesticides or not, I wasn't going to miss this opportunity. I grabbed a collecting box from the back of the car and made my way to the bush. There were locusts all over the branches!

At that point, two things happened simultaneously. I heard a voice thundering, "GET BACK IN THE CAR NOW!" It sounded like the Lord Himself speaking from the Heavens, but it was in fact the Ministry official, who had returned to check that I had left, and was shouting from a loudspeaker mounted on his truck. Then, at the same moment, there was a noise like a hundred thousand beating wings. I looked up, but instead of seeing a black cloud of locusts, I saw two planes swooping towards me, spraying pesticides as they approached.

It was like a scene from a movie. Moishe and I grabbed some locusts in our hands, and with fistfuls of bugs, we ran back to the car and slammed the doors closed. The Ministry Man was shouting something about my being fined, the planes swooped overhead, and I stepped on the gas and raced out of there. Being killed by pesticides would not be a great way to go. Can you imagine the headlines? "Zoo Rabbi Fumigated in Locust-Hunting Expedition. 'He Really Bugged Us,' Say Opponents."

Well, that was the end of our success for this morning. We drove around further, but we found nothing other than countless more locusts that had already been fumigated. They were lying on the ground, twitching, and I took a few dozen; I can't even feed them to my reptiles, but perhaps when they stop twitching, I can pin them to a card and sell them as souvenirs for the Jewish Museum of Natural History. We had managed to collect a total of seven live, unfumigated locusts in the approximately five seconds of time that we had, and I'm hoping to start a breeding colony. Here's to happy times all round!

Picture is for display purposes only. Do not eat fumigated locusts!

Friday, March 8, 2013

My IDF Plan, The Netziv

The controversy over charedim not serving in the IDF has always been quietly brewing in Israel, but right now it is more heated than ever. Non-charedim do not see why an entire community should be exempt from the difficult burden that is placed upon everyone else. Charedim, behind the bluster of ridiculous claims about Torah being destroyed (as if there is no Torah learning without 18-21 year old charedim!), understandably fear their way of life being seriously changed. Any form of compromise appears impossible; it's just going to be a battle.

I'd like to propose a plan. It's something that would still be seen as innately unfair by those who do not believe that charedim learning Torah contributes to Israel's national welfare, but at least they ought to see the value in reaching a mutually acceptable compromise. And it's something that ought to be acceptable to charedim. The reason is that it is the approach of the father of the yeshivah world, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin of Volozhin, otherwise known as the Netziv. (I would like to thank Binyomin Eckstein for directing me to these sources in a comment thread at Cross-Currents.)

The Netziv operates from a value system that is as charedi as you can get. In She'er Yisrael 11, he states that Torah is the main weapon of the Jewish people in defending itself against its enemies. He simultaneously notes that those who support Torah study have a share in such defense. And in Haamek Davar to Bereishis 49:14, he notes that the tribe of Yissacher were not suited to war, and studied Torah instead - until David HaMelech forcibly drafted them!

Apparently, then, under certain circumstances, even those learning Torah and defending the Jewish People in that way are nevertheless supposed to be drafter for actual combat. However, what is even more interesting is Netziv's description (in Haamek Davar to Bereishis 49:15) of what happens in other circumstances, when those learning Torah are not drafted. He states that they pay higher monetary taxes to support the military! And he states that they are to be available for whatever purposes the nation requires (i.e. some sort of national service). Furthermore, in Haamek Davar to Devarim 33:18 he notes that they must actually accompany the soldiers to study Torah and pray at the front line (presumably either because the protective force of Torah is geographically concentrated, or in order to boost the morale of the soldiers).

This raises a fascinating question. Since the Netziv believed that learning Torah provides the primary protection, why did he say that Yissacher has to pay extra military taxes and perform national service? I don't know the answer. But perhaps it was because he recognized that you can't claim to be sharing the burden when you're not putting yourself out in a way that meaningfully matches the sacrifices made by others. (This is a point that Rav Mattisyahu Solomon of Lakewood apparently missed, when he claimed this week that yeshivah students not only share the burden equally, but even give more than others. It showed an appalling insensitivity to the sacrifices made by those who serve in the IDF and send their children to be drafted.)

So, here is the Netziv's IDF Plan: Charedim who learn Torah are exempt from serving in the army, but they must pay higher taxes and perform national service, and they must send Torah Study Brigades to the front lines, instead of fleeing during war. I think that it is stating the obvious to point out that this is not what charedim do, it's not what they want to do, and it would not be acceptable to them. But why not, if it is proposed by the Netziv as being The Torah Way? (I think that the answer to that is also obvious, but I'll leave it to others to spell it out.)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Locusts and Rationalism

The rationalist vs. non-rationalist divide is extremely useful in understanding many issues in Judaism - even the controversy over the kashrus of locusts. Take a look at these rather rude comments which were posted over at the Zoo Torah blog:
obviously you never heard that the Taz (Y"D 85, 1), Ohr HaChaim (Vayikra 11: 21) and Aruch Hashulchan (Y"D 85, 5) assert that there is no mesorah on them and they are assur!! Zoo Rabbi???
I responded that I am certainly familiar with all the sources on this topic, thank you very much, to which the following retort appeared:
I would think otherwise as these are "very big guns" in your vernacular - who pasken for ashkenazim and even sefardim (Ohr Hachaim was Sefardi which I am sure you know) that it is assur! Yet, you eat them with no qualms whatsoever! I did not realize that slifkin was a Yemenite name. [either that or you simply are of the opinion that even these Gedolim's rulings can simply be discarded at whim]. It's nice to know that you apparently do not suffer from a case of anava - that you are familiar to "all sources on this topic". how about the teshuvos avnei yahpei vol. 8, 116 - to aris zivotofski and greenspan? I guess one may (hopefully erroneously) conclude that your brand of rationalist judaism is anything but.
So, allow me to explain why Rationalist Judaism very much endorses this approach to locusts. First of all, though, it's important to clarify that of course this is a complex topic, with which my blog post was an extremely brief outline. There are aspects to this topic which are beyond the scope of this post, too. And, as I hopefully made clear in my brief post, there are opinions on both sides. What I would like to do in this post is to explain how a significant portion of the opposition to eating locusts is rooted in a non-rationalist approach.

Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar of Morocco (Pri Toar, Yoreh De’ah 85:1; summarized in Ohr HaChaim, Vayikra 11:21) is the most prominent opponent to eating locusts. He brings several objections, not of all which can be addressed here, but his main objection relates to the description of locusts given by Rashi. This occurs in the context of the following ruling in the Mishnah:
"With locusts, anything that has four legs, and four wings, and kartsulin, and its wings cover most of it, (it is kosher). Rabbi Yosi said: And its name must be chagav." (Mishnah, Chullin 59a)
Rashi explains the word kartsulin as follows:
“and kartsulin” – they are the two long legs, aside from the other four, that are close to its neck (emphasis added), above its legs, to jump with them when it wishes to leap. (Rashi to Chullin 59a)
The problem is that, in contrast to the description given by Rashi, the locusts that are eaten by North African Jewish tradition have their leaping legs located further away from their necks than are their four walking legs. It is for this reason that Rabbi Chaim ben Ittur insists that the locusts claimed to be kosher cannot be the kosher locusts described in the Torah. He notes that some respond that there is no locust which matches the description given by Rashi, and therefore Rashi must be reinterpreted; however, he points out that there may well be many varieties of locust unknown to us, and the kosher types of locust are thus presumably unknown to us.

Now, in eighteenth-century Morocco, that might not have been an unreasonable position to take. However, in the 21st century, matters are very different. Zoologists have described over eleven thousand species of grasshoppers and locusts, amongst many hundreds of thousands more insect species. They all share the same basic body plan, in which the long jumping legs are the hindmost legs, further from its neck than the four walking legs.

Another point to bear in mind is that the desert locust, Schistocerca gregaria, for which there is a widespread mesorah, is far and away the most common and destructive locust in this part of the world. It is hard to imagine that the various references to locusts in the Torah do not refer to this species.

So, there are two possibilities. Either the kosher locusts are indeed those familiar to entomologists, described by various Torah scholars over the ages, and traditionally eaten by many different Jewish communities - and Rashi's description needs to be reinterpreted (as has been proposed in several ways) or is simply inaccurate. Alternatively, Rashi's description is to be taken at face value as being authoritative - after all, he had ruach hakodesh - and the kosher types of locusts mentioned in the Torah are fundamentally anatomically different from all other locusts known to science, have completely disappeared without trace, and the various Jewish communities with traditions of eating desert locusts are all making a grievous error. From a rationalist perspective, with its approach to nature, scientific knowledge and the authority of Rashi's comments, the choice is obvious.

Other sources cited by opponents to locust-eating are likewise weak from a rationalist standpoint. The Taz notes that the custom is not to eat any locusts, due to uncertainty regarding their identity. Indeed, it is not at all surprising that a scholar living in 17th century Poland would be uncertain regarding their identity. However, that has little bearing on whether a person living in the 21st century, with access to both modern entomology as well as North African traditions, would be uncertain regarding their identity.

Again, this is a complex topic, and there are other, more legitimate grounds for those who do not eat locusts, involving issues relating to the nature of tradition. (I must also reiterate that when I first ate locusts, some eleven years ago, it was after receiving a specific psak from my posek.) But, from a rationalist perspective, there is no reason to doubt that Schistocerca gregaria is the locust described in the Torah as being kosher, while at the same time it can certainly be understood that earlier authorities were in doubt, for reasons that are no longer applicable. Now, if I could only actually find some locusts...

(For those who asked - it is not possible to obtain kosher locusts in North America. In the UK, they can be easily purchased online at many reptile-food suppliers, such as

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Locusts Are Coming! Yum!

(Cross-posted at The Times of Israel and

In the last few days, a devastating plague of locusts, numbering in the tens of millions, has been sweeping across Egypt. In Israel, the Ministry of Agriculture is on full alert. A special hotline has been set up, and the pesticides have been prepared. Hopefully, modern agricultural technology will help us avoid disasters such as that of 1915, when a plague of locusts in Israel led to much tragedy.

Meanwhile, I have my own early warning system - a friend on military duty near the Egyptian border has promised to call me if swarms arrive. I'd love to see it first-hand, and to catch a couple of hundred to feed to my reptile collection - and to eat myself.

It is commonly overlooked that not only does the Torah permit man to eat certain mammals, birds and fish, but it even permits him to eat certain insects - namely, several types of locusts. The identification of the kosher varieties was lost amongst European Jews, who were not exposed to locust swarms. But Jews from North Africa maintained a tradition regarding kosher locusts.

The expert on identifying kosher species today is my colleague Dr. Zohar Amar, author of Ha-Arbeh b'Mesoret Yisrael. He has identified the species for which there is the most widespread tradition amongst North African Jews as Schistocercia gregaria, the Egyptian desert locust. This is by far the most common species of locust, and it is the species currently swarming in Egypt.

According to many authorities in Jewish law, even Ashkenazi Jews can adopt the North African tradition. This is because it is different from a situation such as that which existed with the stork, where certain communities had a tradition that it was a kosher bird, while others had a tradition that it was a non-kosher bird. With locusts, there is no tradition in Ashkenaz against these types of locusts being kosher; Ashkenazim simply lack a tradition either way. Therefore, according to many authorities, such as the late Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, it is possible to rely upon the North African tradition regarding kosher varieties.

I have eaten locusts on several occasions. They do not require a special form of slaughter, and one usually kills them by dropping them into boiling water. They can be cooked in a variety of ways - lacking any particular culinary skills, I usually just fry them with oil and some spices. (My wife, however, insists that I do not use her kitchen utensils for the task; she is locust-intolerant.) It's not the taste that is distinctive, so much as the tactile experience of eating a bug - crunchy on the outside with a chewy center!

The rationale for certain locusts being kosher may be a practical matter - when your crops are wiped out by locusts, at least you're not left with nothing to eat! But in modern Western society, eating bugs simply grosses out most people. Many probably see the Torah's laws of kosher locusts as a relic from a primitive, barbaric era. Yet an article in the New Yorker magazine (August 2011) noted that in a world with a burgeoning population of billions, insects provide a much more efficient and environmentally-friendly source of protein, amongst other benefits: 
"From an ecological perspective, insects have a lot to recommend them. They are renowned for their small ‘foodprint’; being cold-blooded, they are about four time as efficient at converting feed to meat as are cattle, which waste energy keeping themselves warm. Ounce for ounce, many have the same amount of protein as beef–friendly grasshoppers have three times as much – and are rich in micronutrients like iron and zinc. Genetically, they are so distant from humans that there is little likelihood of diseases jumping species, as swine flu did. They are natural recyclers, capable of eating old cardboard, manure, and by-products from food manufacturing. And insect husbandry is humane: bugs like teeming, and thrive in filthy, crowded conditions." 
Can you imagine what an impact it would make if Jews were known not for exploiting animals in factory-farming and indulging in massive gastronomic excesses, but instead for adopting a more environmentally and animal-friendly approach? In fact, eating locusts doesn't even make you fleishig, so you could have a locust cheeseburger. I say, let's get back to our Biblical roots and tuck in. Bon appétit!

(See follow-up article, Adventures in Locust Hunting)

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sounding Heretical, Sounding Frum

I was reading Menachem Kellner's Science in the Bet Midrash: Studies in Maimonides, and at one point, on p. 295, he mentions "Maimonides' notorious claim to the effect that the Torah as we have it is a concession to the primitive character of the Israelites leaving Egypt." On this sentence, he has the following footnote:
To traditional Jewish ears this sounds shocking. Indeed, Maimonides himself wrote about it: "I know that on thinking about this at first your soul will necessarily have a feeling of repugnance toward this notion and will feel aggrieved because of it" (Guide, III.32, p. 527). But the fact of the matter is that in structural terms, Maimonides is making a claim very similar to that made by Kabbalists; only when they make it, it sounds very religious. When Maimonides makes it, it sounds shocking. There is an important strand in Kabbalah, expressed openly by Nahmanides, amongst others, that the Torah as we have it exists in its corporeal form only because of the sin of Adam and Eve, and will cease to exist in the form in which we know it in the messianic era. I have a hard time understanding how that differs in structure from Maimonides' position (I realize that the music is very different.)
So, why does one sound very religious and one sound shocking? I have my own thoughts on the matter, but before I prejudice anyone's thinking, I would be interested to see suggestions in the comments.

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