Wednesday, May 1, 2013

When Lions Attack

(Yes, it's another arcane post on Talmudic Zoology, following my earlier post about when wolves attack. If this is not to your tastes, please accept my apologies, and come back another time! But if you're an accomplished Talmudist, I would like to request your input, on behalf of all readers of The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom.)

How do lions hunt their prey? This has been extensively researched by contemporary zoologists studying African lions, and there is little reason to believe that it would have been any different for the Barbary or Asiatic lions that were familiar in Biblical and Talmudic times.

When a lion hunts its preferred prey – large herbivores such as cattle – it needs to first kill its prey in a safe manner so that it cannot be injured from its horns and hooves. The first stage in this process is to bring the animal down. Sometimes, the lion can do this by using its paws to drag the animal down. If the prey animal is too big for this, the lion will leap onto the victim’s flanks, using its claws to grip the victim, often using one paw to grasp its muzzle, while using its teeth to grasp the animal by its neck. This causes the animal to topple down onto the ground, and will sometimes cause it to break its neck. If the animal is still alive, the lion will kill it by biting its neck from the front, in order to clamp the trachea shut, or its muzzle, in order to seal the mouth, thereby causing asphyxiation. The lion will then usually eat its prey on the spot, but if it fears disturbance (as may well be the case when having killed cattle), it will drag its victim a considerable distance to suitable shelter.

The Talmud discusses two different types of lion attacks, one of which is considered normal and the other abnormal. The normal form of attack is rated in the legal category of shen – literally, “tooth” – which applies to damage sustained by animals eating their food in a normal way. This form of damage is normally very common, in terms of domestic cattle eating whatever produce they come across. As a result, the owners of the damaging animals are not liable if the food consumed was in a public domain – the person who left it there should have been more careful. This is a blanket exemption applied across the board to owners of all animals that cause such normal damage in the course of eating – even in the case of a pet lion eating its usual food, which could be someone else’s cow. On the other hand, if an animal causes damage in an abnormal way, this is rated in the legal category of keren – literally, “horn,” – and the owner of the animal is liable.

However, the terms that the Talmud uses to describe the different forms of lion attack are difficult to translate and understand. One type of attack is called dores, which literally usually means “trample,” while the other is called toref, which literally means “tear”:
Shmuel said: If a lion tramples and eats an animal in a public area, the owner is exempt (from full damages); if it tears and eats the animal, he liable. If it tramples and eats he is not liable – because it is the usual way for it to trample, and it is therefore equivalent to eating fruit and vegetables, which would be categorized as shen in a public area and exempt. But if it tore, this is not the normal behavior (and it is rated as keren, for which the owner is liable.) (Talmud, Bava Kama 16b)
The Talmud proceeds to query whether “tearing” is truly an abnormal way for a lion to eat, based on Scriptural verses which seem to present this as the norm, and explains that the verses are referring to particular scenarios:
Is it really the case that “tearing” is not normal behavior? Surely it is written, “The lion tears for its cubs” (Nahum 2:13)? – That is for the sake of its cubs (and not for its own food, which would be abnormal). “And strangles for its lionesses” – for the sake of its lionesses. “And fills its lair with its prey” – for the sake of stocking its lair. “And its den with prey”” – for the sake of its den. (Ibid. )
There are different opinions amongst the traditional commentaries regarding how to explain the differences in the terms “trampling” and “tearing.” Rashi and Tosafos explain “trampling” to refer to eating the prey animal while it is still alive, whereas “tearing” refers to killing it first; but in light of what is known today about lion attacks, that they always kill their prey first, this is difficult. Rabbeinu Chananel explains that “trampling” refers to a normal act of killing that involves the "venom" exuded by the claws, whereas “tearing” refers to an unusual form of attack in which the lion uses only its teeth. This can perhaps be made to work for the references to the lions trampling (which would then describe a typical attack that involves claws as well as teeth) but would be difficult to reconcile with the Gemara's description of a lion tearing for its cubs, lionesses and den.

I was wondering if it could be said that “trampling” means killing it first, as lions normally do, and “tearing” means tearing chunks off it while it is still alive? Or, “trampling” means killing and eating it immediately, while “tearing” means dismembering it and eating it later (but this may raise a problem with wolves, which are described elsewhere as “tearing” their prey)?

There are two other references in the Talmud to a lion "trampling" its prey which also need to make sense in light of whichever explanation we adopt:
Rav Acha bar Ada said in the name of Rav Yehudah: Whoever gives terumah to a kohen who is an am haaretz, is as though he gives it to a lion. Just as with a lion it is uncertain if it will trample and eat or not, so too with the kohen who is an am haaretz, it is unclear if he will eat it in a state of ritual purity or ritual impurity. (Sanhedrin 90b) 

One who marries off his daughter to a boor is as though he has bound her and placed her before a lion. Just as a lion tramples and eats and has no shame, so too a boor beats his wife and cohabits without shame. (Pesachim 49b) 
So, what is the best way to explain the difference between "trampling" and "tearing"? Your input is appreciated!


  1. I wonder if you will get any comments saying please go back to discussing chareidi society ? :-)

    are there "secular" talmudic-contemporary sources that discuss how they thought lions interact with their prey?
    Joel Rich

  2. Alas, no. (at least, not that I have been able to find, and I doubt that any such sources exist.)

  3. This might shed some light on the topic and it is really cool. Battle between a group of female lions and a herd as well as some crocodiles.

  4. Could "trampling" be referring to the prides crowding and consumption of the animal on the spot (the accepted norm) hence the inevitable treading on the corpse of the victim and "tearing" could be referring to the more cheetahlike habit of tearing off as big a piece as it can carry and running for sheltered dining facilities (less common lion behaviour)?

  5. These pictures make me appreciate the rishonim who are of the opinion that kodem hacheit, all animals were herbivorous!

    (Incidentally, this opinion also explains the abundance of violence and cruelty that God seemingly built into nature, a condition which seems to contradict everything the Torah stands for. It wasn't originally the plan!)

  6. bldal - nice idea, but it doesn't work - the Gemara is talking about a single lion "trampling."

  7. (As a non-Talmudist but definitely a rationalist)
    I think the key here is to:

    (a) Work backwards from what would logically make a lion owner liable or not for an attack by his pet in a public area and then see if it could be made consistent with the various statements.

    (b) Keep in mind the fact that the Talmud is specifically discussing a 'domesticated' lion, as opposed to a wild one. Thus shen/keren could be based on how a pet lion would normally/abnormally eat and not how a wild lion would do so.

    It seems to me that liability should be due to the mobility of the lion -- if a pet lion attacks an animal entering its space, the owner would not be liable and if the lion chases after an animal that is a safe distance away, the owner would be liable.

    So I would define doress as pounce on/eat on the spot and toref as involving a chase (and maybe the ability to drag). Note that a chase would be the normal way for a wild lion to kill its prey, but a domesticated lion is likely kept penned and fed easily pounced on livestock. Interestingly, in the wild normal/abnormal would be reversed with a chase being normal and simple 'pouncing' being very unlikely.

    The Talmud is then right to reject the biblical verses because they describe how a lion kills in the wild, and not the normal feeding of a domesticated lion.

    I think this leaves sufficient room for interpretation of the final two references, with dores referring to a probable unpleasant event--doing either of these things and not expecting the bad outcome is about as smart and walking up to someone's pet lion and expecting not to be pounced on and eaten.

  8. Coincidentally, a friend pointed out to me just last night while discussing your posts about wolves that Lions do eat their prey alive. (He watches those nature shows on TV and I believe he saw it there.) A google search for "lion eating prey alive" does turn up a number of YouTube videos showing that.

    It certainly seems like it's not typical but still happens often enough that many people have filmed it, so it makes sense that the Talmud might discuss it.

  9. Very interesting!

    But I'm not sure if this is the correct explanation of the Talmud. It's talking about what lions *usually* do, not what they do on rare occasions.

    Still, it's worth mentioning!

  10. R' Slifkin - if tearing is the one for which an owner is liable, isn't it by definition *not* what they usually do?

    Separately, despite having neither a zoological background nor broad talmudic shoulders, the seems to make perfect sense to me.

    Trampling = the first stage in the killing process - dragging the animal down. Fits with the definition of trampling as an every day word, and from my untrained perspective I'd expect being knocked down by a lion to result in death in the typical case.

    Tearing = using it's teeth for the "second stage" where the knocking down did not itself kill the animal.

    It fits with the psukim as well, as they seem to indicate the lion "tearing" not to kill the animal in the first instance, but to feed those it cares for (cubs, lioness) - in other words, ripping off chunks of already dead flesh (which would necessarily involve the teeth) for them to eat.

    Just a thought.

  11. I don't understand your difficulty, but I'll try to explain my understanding of the sugya in light of the science you presented, and maybe that will solve the problem.

    I suppose either there is a misprint in the Rashi, or his language isn't clear, but even so, his explanation is easy to understand. Toref is when the lion mortally wounds the animal, but it survives the attack for a certain amount of time. (i.e. the Lion renders it a treifa) - This would fit well with the pasuk in Nahum- I've heard that Lions sometimes wound animals and then drag them back to their cubs, who can learn to hunt with 'training wheels' as it were. (I'm not a zoologist, so this could be bunk, but this seems to be what Rashi is getting at.) It would be keren because the lion is killing in an abnormal way - not primarily for the sake of food, but for education.

    Dores is the normal way of obtaining food you described, whereby the lion tramples and kills in one violent act. This is what Rashi means by "m'chaim ochel" rather than the language I would expect if your reading of rashi were correct- "b'chaim ochel." - He starts eating from when it is still alive, meaning the first bite is taken when the animal is alive. (Either the lion bites on the back of the neck to help trample, or he bites the throat to deliver the deathblow)

    The gemarra in Pesachim, referred to in the Tosafot on the daf, talks about the lion not waiting until its prey is dead i.e. ra'ui l'achila - the am haaretz, as it were, takes his wife when she is not ready (i.e. ra'ui l'tashmish - he has no shame forcing tashmish cf. Chagiga somewhere around daf 4 or 5, it is basic assumption you must get your wife in the mood before tashmish.) The gemarra in Sanhedrin also explains along similar terms - the Kohen am ha'aretz who recieves terumah, you don't know if he will wait until he is ra'ui le'echol or not.

    The whole point is that an am haaretz, like a lion, is not patient when it comes to taking what he wants, so one should be careful what you put in front of them.

    This explanation raises a difficulty with the mishnah in Chullin, which says that large animals become treifah with derusah of a lion. But this isn't so hard, it could simply mean an unsuccessful derusah - if it were successful, the animal would be a neveilah! This would also explain rabeinu chananel's assumption that dores means with the claws - i.e. the lion normally kills its prey on the spot when it uses its claws (because it tramples the animal) either breaking its neck or subduing it for a deadly bite. (Rabbeinu Chananel had a different understanding of the mechanism by which death happens - assuming that the claw-wounds delivered in trampling were the cause of death, but nevertheless is correct generally - if the claws grip deeply enough to trample the animal, that will result in hunting k'darcha) but toref is when the lion just bites its prey, inflicting a mortal wound, but not killing it right away. (Obviously if Rabeinu Chananel saw a lion firsthand, he would see they pounce pawfirst, so it is inevitable that the claws will be involved - rather, he means that they do not puncture deeply enough inject venom, or as we see it, to gain the traction to trample the animal. Thus, the main wound is the bite, not the clawing, which is insignificant in this case) Rabbeinu Chananel might have doesn't address the third case, where the lion tramples successfully but doesn't kill, because this animal would escape from the attack with only light wounds - which may render it a treifah, but isn't nogea to the sugya at hand- prehaps it would fall under grama or some othe p'tur. (B'derech teva, this would happen if the lion successfully trampled the animal using its claws, but the neck didn't break, and before it could bite the neck, it was chased off, either by a member of the herd, or the farmer.)

    Let me know if that helps!

  12. Question regarding the gemearh in Pesachim:

    Does a lion treat its prey differently if the prey is bound? Is there any significance to the fact that the A"H is compared to one that has bound his daughter?

  13. Should lions be kept as pets? If you do have a pet lion then anything it eats is clearly the owners fault weather its the natural way lions eat or not because its not (usually) the natural habitat that a lion lives in. Moral of the story...dont keep pet lions.

  14. It seems to me that the distinction between 'drusa' and 'trufa' in the discussions of the sages is dependent on whether clawing and biting were the major factors, respectively. The distinction made by Shmuel (also by Ravina) on 'drusat ha'ari' which requires only half payment while 'trufat ha'ari' requires full payment is for the unusual case where the lion simply tears off a piece of the live animal without a preliminary clawing attack, and eats the piece. The latter case is then quite different than the damage done by an animal eating normally.

  15. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. Yehudah from LA, please could you email me?

  16. I have issues with this part:

    "Is it really the case that “tearing” is not normal behavior? Surely it is written, “The lion tears for its cubs” (Nahum 2:13)? – That is for the sake of its cubs (and not for its own food, which would be abnormal). “And strangles for its lionesses” – for the sake of its lionesses. “And fills its lair with its prey” – for the sake of stocking its lair. “And its den with prey”” – for the sake of its den. (Ibid. )"


    It is my understanding that almost all killing by lions for food is done by prides of females, not males. The male lions almost always come after the females make the kill.

    Also, male lions have no part in bringing up their young. In fact, the males lions are a danger to the cubs.

  17. I think what I am saying here is common knowledge, but I'll add it anyway.

    Most lions eat on the spot, unlike other cats. The reason is that other cats, such as cheetahs or cougars will have their prey stolen, often by lions or hyenas or wild dogs. Sometimes hyenas even steal lion prey.

    I think some of the comments about dragging back some prey to the cubs in the den makes sense. But this is certainly done by female lions, not males.

    One more thing. I don't think lions care at all if their prey is still alive or not when the begin eating it. The only thing they care about is whether or not the prey is incapacitated to the point that it can not longer escape and it can no longer cause harm to the lion.

    The lions will most certainly eat their prey while it is still alive. This is not unusual. In actuality, the prey usually dies not so very long after the lions start to eat. But on youtube there is some (terrible) video of a pack of lionesses killing an elephant (at night when the elephant could not see very well). The struggle went on for hours. And the lions were eating and tearing out pieces of flesh while the elephant was still alive.

  18. SD,

    All three pictures embedded in this post are of male lions on the attack.

  19. Males make for better pictures. But females do more of the hunting.

  20. Natan Slifkin said...
    Males make for better pictures. But females do more of the hunting.

    I would also guess that when the Talmud discusses lions with owners these lions were mostly male. The only useful purpose of owning a lion is for show (display or possibly violent entertainment) and a male with a mane would be much more impressive.

  21. Why is cohabiting with one's wife considered in the same category as beating her?

    One is permitted and obligatory and one is forbidden.

  22. It is referring to beating as a prelude to cohabitation.

    By the way, check out my new post on lion attacks.

  23. Lions actually do hunt-they're just more likely to do so at night. This is why they're often asleep during the day. The lionesses OTOH hunt during the day, as they hunt cooperatively and rely on visual signals. This arrangement works, as there is always an adult around to protect the cubs. BTW, the lion is only a danger to the cubs when he's a new pride lion-the new lion will kill any cubs in the pride. This makes the lionesses go into heat.

  24. What is an accomplished Talmudist? What must he or she have accomplished?

  25. Too funny not to share:


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