There are all kinds of intriguing zoological references in this week's parashah. One is our old friend the hyrax (and there is a free chapter on the hyrax from my forthcoming encyclopedia available at this link). Another is the atalef, listed at the very end of the list of non-kosher birds. The general consensus of both Jewish tradition and modern academic scholarship is that the atalef is the bat.
Some people get very worked up about the fact that the bat is a mammal rather than a bird, which they perceive as a conflict with the Torah's divine authority. Now, while various rabbinic authorities have pointed out that the Torah is not always scientifically accurate, this case does not fall into that category. There is no “right” or “wrong” method of classification. A system of classification has no independent reality. It is simply a means by which we measure and describes the animal kingdom, depending upon our purpose. For the purposes of science, the animal kingdom is evaluated on its own terms, based on anatomy. For the Torah’s system of classification, the animal kingdom is presented in terms the relationship between animals and human beings, and their perception by the common person. Neither system is more correct than the other; they are just serving different purposes. In the Torah, anything birdlike is classified as ohf - including bats. This is not a scientific error, just a different system of language.
The Gemara, on the other hand, is another matter. In a curious passage, with no apparent halachic or hashkafic significance, it states as follows:
Everything that bears live young, nurses them, and everything that lays eggs, gathers food for its young, except for the atalef, which, even though it lays eggs, nurses its young. (Bechoros 7b)
Could the Gemara be referring to something other than a bat? Rabbi Joshua Waxman has presented a fascinating argument that the Gemara is referring instead to a species of owl known as the stryx, which does lay eggs, and was believed to nurse its young on milk. But, as Rabbi Waxman notes, this would still not make the Gemara scientifically accurate, since owls do not nurse their young.
Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, who insists in his book Torah, Chazal and Science that every definitive statement in the Talmud must be correct, and further insists that to say otherwise is heresy, takes a different approach regarding this statement about the atalef. Before the book was published, I predicted that Rabbi Meiselman would fail to address this Gemara. I was wrong - he addresses it at length (chapter 24). The reason why I did not think that he would discuss it is that I couldn't conceive of any way in which he could reasonably claim that the Gemara is scientifically correct. (See if you can spot the false assumption that I made.)
Rabbi Meiselman discusses this Gemara. And he argues that it does not present any scientific problem at all. He claims that the atalef is... the platypus.
No, I am not joking. Rabbi Meiselman claims that the atalef is the furry, mammalian, four-legged, web-footed, egg-laying, duck-billed platypus of Australia. He comments (p. 337) on the wonder of Chazal knowing about the duck-billed platypus: "In their day no one had ever seen one, nor could the Rishonim have imagined them; but Chazal knew that somewhere in the world they must exist."
Rabbi Meiselman acknowledges that this goes against the identification of the atalef given by the Rishonim. But he dismisses the Rishonim as having an inadequate mesorah and mistakenly understanding matters in light of the flawed science of their era. It is not clear to me why he considers this perfectly acceptable to state with regard to the Rishonim, but heretical to state with regard to Chazal.
To support his claim that the atalef is the platypus, Rabbi Meiselman argues that it doesn’t make sense to claim that the Gemara is repeating an erroneous belief that bats lay eggs, since this Aristotle and Pliny recognized that bats do not lay eggs. Yet this is hardly sufficient reason to prefer the platypus. Chazal were not always in sync with Greco-Roman views - unlike the Greeks, they did not know that the sun passes on the far side of the earth at night. A Google search for "do bats lay eggs" brings many thousands of results, revealing that even in the scientifically-literate 21st century, there is much popular confusion about this matter - certainly such a belief would have been vastly more widespread in antiquity. (Also, as noted above, the Gemara may have been referring to a bird that was believed by the Greeks to lactate, rather than to an egg-laying bat.)
Rabbi Meiselman further argues that Chazal not have mistakenly believed that bats lay eggs, if they observed them closely enough to know that they nurse their young. But even close observation of bats nursing would not lead to the conclusion that there are no eggs, just that one had not discovered them yet. Furthermore, in any case there is no need for close observation to conclude that bats nurse their young - one can just draw this conclusion from its generally mammalian physiology.
Positing that Chazal believed in egg-laying bats (as many people still do) or lactating owls (as was common in antiquity) is infinitely more reasonable than proposing that they knew of the duck-billed platypus! How could they have known of the existence of the platypus? Rabbi Meiselman vaguely asserts that they knew it from "their understanding of the spiritual underpinnings of the world." He does not explain how understanding the spiritual underpinnings of the world leads one to conclude that there is a duck-billed platypus. Additionally, as discussed at length in my monograph on Sod Hashem Liyreyav, there is scant traditional support for such a notion. Furthermore, if their understanding of the "spiritual underpinnings of the world" was not sufficient to enable them to realize that the sun passes on the other side of the world at night rather than doubling back behind the sky, it is rather unreasonable to propose that it was sufficient to enable them to decipher the existence of the duck-billed platypus.
(UPDATE: Note that Rabbi Meiselman does not claim that they knew specifically of the platypus. Rather, he claims that they knew that there must be another creature which, like the bat, has characteristics of both birds and non-birds. He also claims that they knew that this creature must have a different combination of those characteristics than bats do. Rabbi Meiselman provides no support for either of these two extraordinary assertions. Furthermore, if they knew that there must be other animals with other combinations of bird/non-bird characteristics, why limit it to a mammal that lays eggs? By this logic, there must also be a fish with feathers and an amphibian with a beak!)
But there is another powerful reason why Rabbi Meiselman's case is absurd. He is not arguing that the atalef of Scripture is a platypus, because that is listed amongst the category of ohf. So he argues that Chazal used the same name as the atalef of Scripture, which he agrees is probably a bat, yet here referred to a different animal. But consider how astonishingly misleading this is making Chazal out to be. Instead of giving the platypus any kind of unique name or description and informing us that it lives in Australia, they chose instead to use a name that the Torah uses to refer to a creature that also has mixed characteristics of mammals and birds, the bat, thereby misleading every student of the Gemara for the last 1500 years to mistakenly believe that they were talking about the same creature!
(Furthermore, if Chazal knew of the exceptions to the rule that egg-laying animals don't lactate, why didn't they mention the echidna, pictured at right?)
So, Rabbi Meiselman prefers to posit that Chazal were able to figure out the existence of the duck-billed platypus, which they misleadingly referred to with the same name as the bat, rather than positing that just as Chazal subscribed to the ancient belief that the sun travels behind the sky at night, they likewise subscribed to the widespread belief that bats lay eggs.
In perhaps the most remarkable twist of logic, Rabbi Meiselman concludes that “the very case that people cite as a challenge to Chazal is actually another demonstration that their knowledge was derived not from contemporary wisdom but from Torah itself.” But Rabbi Meiselman has not in any way proved that they actually derived this view from Torah. Furthermore, the issue is whether their knowledge is divinely correct, not where they derived it from. Chazal derived aspects of their understanding of the heavens being solid from Scripture, but this does not mean that it was correct!
Personally, I think that Rav Hirsch's approach, which is very well-founded in Chazal, the Geonim, the Rishonim, and the Acharonim, is the only reasonable explanation. According to this approach, there is no "problem" here, per se. "Chazal were the sages of God's law - the receivers, transmitters and teachers of His toros, His mitzvos, and His interpersonal laws. They did not especially master the natural sciences, geometry, astronomy, or medicine... we do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai." Thus, Chazal were simply relating an ancient and erroneous belief that bats lay eggs (or that owls nurse their young). Presenting this approach to the Gemara does not diminish the honor of Chazal. And nor, unlike the platypus claim, does it diminish the honor of the one presenting it.
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