Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Bats, The Platypus, And The Echidna

In my post of last week, "That's Bats!", I discussed the Gemara's claim that "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." I observed that this reflects a widespread but erroneous belief that bats lay eggs. I also critiqued the view of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, that the atalef of the Gemara refers to the platypus (which has the same name as the atalef of the Torah, which is the bat), on the grounds that (a) they would not have referred to the platypus with the entirely misleading name of a different creature that is popularly thought to lay eggs, and (b) they would not have known about the platypus, which lives in Australia.

Pursuant to publishing the post, I received a complaint that I did not properly explain Rabbi Meiselman's view. In this post, I will endeavor to do so more fully. But, as you will see, it merely makes his approach all the more problematic and downright bizarre.


Rabbi Meiselman does not claim that Chazal knew about the platypus per se. They had never been to Australia, nor had they received a vision of a platypus. Rather, he claims that they knew, "from their study of the blueprint of Creation," that there must be an animal, somewhere in the world, which lays eggs and nurses its young. He further seeks to explain why they would call the platypus atalef, which is the name of the bat in the Torah. Rabbi Meiselman explains that just as there is a bird called tinshemes and a sheretz called tinshemes, due to their sharing various characteristics, there is also a "bird" called atalef (the bat) and a quadruped called "atalef" (the platypus), which share significant characteristics. But what are these characteristics by which the platypus earns the same name that the bat earned as an ohf? Rabbi Meiselman first suggests that the platypus, like the bat, has characteristics of both mammals and birds - it is furry, yet possesses a bill and duck-like webbed feet. Alternately, he suggests, the platypus is like the bat in possessing special adaptations for maneuvering in the dark - the bat uses echolocation, and the platypus uses electroreception and mechanoreception (it has tens of thousands of tiny receptive organs on its bill).

That is Rabbi Meiselman's view. I will now present three reasons as to why it is unreasonable in the extreme and does not even assist in removing scientific error from this Gemara. Frankly, I don't really care if he, or anyone else, wants to believe that the atalef of the Gemara is the platypus. The problem is that he is using this in service of his claim that anyone who believes that the Gemara is making an erroneous statement about bats is an unsophisticated heretic.

I. Why Describe the Platypus as an Atalef?

First of all, as discussed at length in the previous post on this topic, if Chazal wanted to tell us about a creature that nobody (including themselves) had seen, the very last thing that they would have done is called it simply by the name of a known animal, the atalef. This is especially true in light of the fact that the term atalef already referred to the bat, which many people mistakenly believe to lay eggs, and would thus assume to be the animal that Chazal were describing.

Rabbi Meiselman seeks to explain why the platypus has significant similarities to the bat that earn it the name atalef. His first way of explaining this is that the platypus is intermediate between mammals and birds in not just one way, but a number of ways. The platypus is furry and nurses its young like other mammals, yet it possesses a bill and duck-like webbed feet as well as laying eggs like birds. Accordingly, the term atalef deservedly refers to the platypus. (In a footnote, Rabbi Meiselman adds that it is "interesting to note" that certain platypus genes resemble those of birds, though he admits that this is not of significance here, since halachah deals only with what can be perceived by the ordinary observer without special equipment.)

But it is very far-fetched to posit that the bat and platypus share the same name due to their both having characteristics of both mammals and birds, when the characteristics of birds that they have are fundamentally different! The platypus cannot fly; instead, it has completely different similarities to birds. Furthermore, webbed feet are not even particularly relevant to birds - some birds possess webbed feet and most do not, just as some mammals (beavers, otters, seals) possess webbed feet and most do not.

Furthermore, the bat's ability to fly is what classifies it in the Torah as a bird. It is what earns its position, not its name (just as the names of the other birds in the list do not reflect their ability to fly). Anything about the name and significance of the atalef would only reflect the ways in which it is different from other birds. 

Now let's turn to Rabbi Meiselman's second proposal, that the platypus shares the same name as the bat because atalef is defined as a creature that has (either instead of, or in addition to, intermediate status between mammals and birds) a special adaptation to the dark. In the case of the bat, this is echolocation, and in the case of the platypus, he explains, this is electroreception. But this does not work and is silly for several reasons:

1) The echidna also has electroreceptors (albeit fewer than the platypus), which it uses for locating food in the undergrowth at night. (To this I presume Rabbi Meiselman would respond that it doesn't use them for maneuvering, only for locating food. This would appear to be just another contrivance.)

2) Why on earth would this random feature be a defining characteristic of the atalef? Rabbi Meiselman seeks to make a pattern by noting that the mole, which according to Rashi is also called the atalef, also has adaptations to maneuver in the dark. But aside from this being a view unique to Rashi, Rabbi Meiselman repeatedly states that the Rishonim did not have a clear mesorah regarding zoology and often misinterpreted Chazal's statements because of this. Suddenly Rashi is grounds to create a new definition of the atalef? Rabbi Meiselman himself freely rejected the mole as an atalef in his previous explanation, when he said that the atalef has to have birdlike characteristics!

3) And finally, the clincher. Echolocation and electroreceptors?! Echolocation in bats was only discovered in 1940, using modern scientific technology. Electroreceptors were only detected in the platypus in 1984 by special investigative techniques, 180 years after the platypus was discovered. Rabbi Meiselman himself admits that halachah deals only with what can be perceived by the ordinary observer without special equipment. Indeed, he uses this to claim that Chazal described lice as spontaneously generating for this reason. But he wants to argue that the term atalef is based on echolocation and electroreceptors?! And if we're just talking about an ability to maneuver in the dark - well, there's nothing novel in that, all kinds of nocturnal animals and birds can do that.

In summary, there is no reasonable basis for saying that the platypus should earn the name atalef. And even if there were, Chazal could and should still have referred to it as "another type" of atalef.

II. How Would Chazal Have Known About Such A Creature?

The assumptions being made by Rabbi Meiselman are astounding. Let's make a list of all the things that Rabbi Meiselman claims that Chazal knew "from their study of the blueprint of Creation":

1. The bat is not the only creature which shares characteristics of mammalian and non-mammalian species.
2. Other creatures that share characteristics of both groups, which are thus also called atalef, do so in ways that differ from the bat.
3. In the entire world, there is exactly one creature in this class that has the mammalian/non-mammalian features of milk-secreting and egg-laying.

Note that Rabbi Meiselman gives no explanation whatsoever as to how their study of Torah led to this presumed knowledge. And it's not as though there is a lot of material in the Torah about the atalef to work with. On the other hand, there is an enormous amount of material in the Torah about cosmology, and yet Chazal were not able to figure out that the sun goes on the other side of the world at night rather than behind the sky!

Let us also recall that no Torah scholar before Rabbi Meiselman ever thought that Chazal were talking about anything other than the atalef of the Torah.

III. The Problem with the Echidna

Meanwhile, Rabbi Meiselman is so focused on explaining why the word atalef can refer to both the bat and the platypus that he has apparently overlooked another very basic problem with his entire approach. Even supposing he is able to explain why the term atalef refers to the platypus, and to thereby claim that the Gemara is not making a mistaken statement about bats, the Gemara's rule would still be wrong! This is because the Gemara mentions the atalef as the sole exception to the principle that "every egg-laying animal does not nurse its young." But the echidna (of which there are two species) is another egg-laying animal that nurses its young!

One might think that a person who believes the atalef to refer to the platypus can say that it also refers to both the echidna. But Rabbi Meiselman cannot do this. He does not explicitly say why, but there are several good reasons.

First, in order not to have it look completely lame that Chazal would use the term atalef for the platypus, Rabbi Meiselman has already argued that there are several reasons for using this term. The reasons that he gives (a beak, webbed feet) do not apply to the echidna.

Second, the platypus and the echidna are very different animals. The platypus is a mostly aquatic animal that resembles a beaver. The echidna is terrestrial and looks like a porcupine. One cannot claim that two such different animals are the same min.

There is a third reason why it is problematic to say that the term atalef includes both the platypus and the echidna. If any creature can be called an atalef merely because it lays eggs and nurses its young, then the Gemara's entire rule becomes meaningless. Remember, too, that according to Rabbi Meiselman, Chazal did not know specifically about the platypus and echidna; thus there could be any number and variety of egg-laying lactating animals in the world. The Gemara said that there is a lone exception to the principle that "every egg-laying animal does not nurse its young" - but if atalef can include any number and variety of animals that are an exception to this rule, then the Gemara is merely saying that "every egg-laying animal does not nurse its young, except for all those that do," which would make no sense.

Thus, Rabbi Meiselman, by arguing that the atalef is a term that is well suited to the platypus, and thereby made the description of the atalef correct, has simply forced a different error into the Gemara's rule.

Again, I must stress that I don't really care less if Rabbi Meiselman, or anyone else, wants to believe that the atalef of the Gemara is the platypus. The problem is that he is using this in service of his claim that anyone who believes that the Gemara is making an erroneous statement about bats is an unsophisticated heretic.

60 comments:

  1. Proof that Rabbi Yehoshua was correct, that the world was created in Nissan (RH 10b-11a): Look at a platypus... Do you think Hashem made it on erev Rosh haShanah, or the last day of Adar? Q.E.D.

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  2. I’ve gotta admit that I don’t generally read the ‘batty’ posts, (but wanted something stressless to read over lunch.) I get the gist of this, without following all the details, so I may be missing something. Could you explain what it is that leads Rashi to classify the mole as an atlef?

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  3. This is not a Rashi on the Gemara under the discussion. Rather, in Shabbos 78a, Rashi mentions that the atalef discussed in the Gemara there (under the name krushtina) is the talpa, which is Old French for the mole.
    Rashi to Vayikra 11:18 says that the mole is similar to the bat and that they are therefore both called tinshemes. Presumably, he means that they are both furry creatures with near-invisible eyes that live in similar habitats - bats in caves, moles in tunnels. The mole and the bat also seem to be associated with each other in Yeshayah 2:20. (Perhaps another factor in Rashi's identification of the mole may be that the word talpa sounds very similar to atalef.)

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  4. Rabbi Meiselman does not use this peshat: "to insist that anyone who believes that the Gemara is making an erroneous statement about bats is an unsophisticated heretic." He believes that anyone who believes that Chazal are making an erroneous statement is a heretic because that is how he reads the Rishonim on the issue. Those who approach this Gemara with the belief that Chazal may err in statement about the natural world will obviously understand that the assumption that the atalef is the bat is the most, or only, reasonable one. However, those who approach this Gemara with an axiomatic belief that Chazal cannot err will say that the assumption that the atalef is the bat is the least reasonable one, and is in fact impossible. I am sure that if the statement about the atalef was made by a Rishon, and not Chazal, Rabbi Meiselman would have no problem saying that it refers to the bat. He would agree, in a vacuum, that the bat is the most reasonable candidate by far. But this is not in a vacuum. Rabbi Meiselman offers what he believes to be a possible interpretation of the Gemara, but if he did not have this interpretation, he would not say that they were referring to a bat. He would say: I don't know what they were referring to.

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  5. OK, I will edit the post to read that he uses this explanation in service of his claim about heresy.

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  6. Micha: LOL

    R' Slifkin: I think you put your strongest point last. The bottom line is that R' Meiselman's "solution" is proposed for only one reason: as an interpretation of the gemara that does not require conceding that Chazal's statement was factually incorrect.

    But the "solution" doesn't actually accomplish that goal. By defining "atalef" in a way that excludes the echidna (an egg laying nurser), R' Meiselman's "solution" leaves Chazal's statement with an error: it turns out there is an egg laying nurser other than the atalef.

    Therefore, by his own opinion, R' Meiselman's "solution" cannot be correct.

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  7. I don't think that it is "in service of" either. Whether or not he has a reasonable peshat in this Gemara, he holds it is heretical etc. He is not suggesting this peshat in order to enable me or you believe that Chazal do not err; he holds that we must believe that regardless. He is just giving a stab at providing what we would call in Yeshiva a "dachuk" andswer to a "tzarich iyun gadol" question.

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  8. I just realized something else. At the end of the chapter, Rabbi Meiselman says that it is still possible that an actual egg-laying bat will still be found. But that would mean that the platypus would disprove the Gemara's principle!

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  9. He is not suggesting this peshat in order to enable me or you believe that Chazal do not err; he holds that we must believe that regardless.

    To be sure, he holds we must believe it regardless, but he is still offering this explanation to make it more palatable i.e. in service of it.

    He is just giving a stab at providing what we would call in Yeshiva a "dachuk" answer to a "tzarich iyun gadol" question.

    He doesn't seem to think that it is dachuk at all. And his book constantly trashes everyone who takes a different approach.

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  10. I just realized something else. At the end of the chapter, Rabbi Meiselman says that it is still possible that an actual egg-laying bat will still be found. But that would mean that the platypus would disprove the Gemara's principle!

    No - because it would just mean both that bat and the platypus are "atalefs"

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  11. Ah, good point. Still, he doesn't claim that they are both the same min - rather, he claims that the bat is the atalef in the class of ohf, and the platypus is the atalef in the class of chayah.

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    1. If such a bat was found, he would say that the platypus does not share enough charecteristics with the bat to be called an atalef.

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  12. And what would he say to someone who says today that the platypus does not share enough charecteristics with the bat to be called an atalef?

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  13. He would say that that is fine, and eagerly await a better peshat in the Gemara.

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  14. You must be joking. Have you read his book? Have you seen his endless trashing of people who claim that modern science raises serious problems for the Gemara?

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  15. No, I am not joking. You still seem to be stuck on the idea that his suggestion that the platypus is the atalef somehow supports or justifies his position vis-a-vis Chazal erring in natural sciences. It has nothing to do with that. He believes Chazal do not err, and would believe that even if there was no such thing as a platypus. If someone were to tell him that they find his platypus peshat unreasonable, but they still believe be'emuna sheleima that Chazal were correct in their assertion, just we have no idea what they were referring to, I don't think Rabbi Meiselman would have any problem with that. If someone says that the platypus peshat is not reasonable, therefore we must fall back on the idea that Chazal were referring to a bat and were wrong, then he would "trash" (your word) that belief.

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  16. I really don't understand the Gemara at all. How could Chazal have erred about bats? Bats were extant at the time of Chazal in the places they lived. The Egyptian fruit bat is and was common in the Middle East from Egypt to Pakistan. It's simply a matter of observation to know that bats don't lay eggs. So it's really weird. How could they get this wrong?

    R' Slifkin, your thoughts?

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  17. Yehoshua Duker, nowhere in this chapter does he acknowledge that his explanation about the platypus is difficult in any way. And the constant explicit theme of the book is about how his brilliance and "professional expertise" in Torah and science shows how Chazal should be understood. On p. xxiv he claims that "there is no scientific discovery that presents a serious challenge to the integrity of our mesorah."

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  18. Moshe David Tokayer, it's a simple matter of observation to know how many teeth people have, and yet people got it wrong for thousands of years.

    Knowing that bats do not lay eggs, on the other hand, is not a simple matter of observation. If you ever came across a bat with young (and they weren't the kind of animals that people would seek out), you'd just assume that it already hatched and the egg is gone.

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  19. Did you read the book? You write: "nowhere in this chapter does he acknowledge that his explanation about the platypus is difficult in any way." How about page 335: "Perhaps, then, the name of the ataleif is [connected to those features]," or, on page 336: "We can only guess as to what [the ataleif] may be," or the same page: "The platypus may very well be {the ataleif]" or, on page 337: "If the theory I have outlined is correct." It is obvious that he is proposing this as a possibility, not as "a definitve statement about the natural world," to recycle some vocabulary from the general discussion.

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  20. Sure, he has the requisite "possibly" and "maybe"s. But nowhere does he admit that this approach is difficult in any way. Furthermore, he explicitly says that science poses no serious challenges to the Gemara. He has no sympathy whatsoever for someone who believes that bats do not lay eggs and that it is unreasonable to explain atalef as the platypus and who therefore feels that this Gemara is incorrect.

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  21. Daniel, HampsteadMarch 27, 2014 at 7:21 PM

    Back here in London we have been reading his book.
    I cannot say I will agree to every one of his conclusions, however the feeling I get is that otherwise non learned people who have mainly been exposed to Rabbi Natan and his books were unaware that there is a wealth of material out there from Rishonim to acharonim who have very right wing views on the infallibility on Chazal.
    People need to be exposed to all the relevant information to be able to decide.

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  22. "Everything that bears live young, nurses them,
    Sharks and snakes bear live young and do not nurse them.

    and everything that lays eggs, gathers food for its young, except for the atalef, which, even though it lays eggs, nurses its young."
    Amphibians, many reptiles and at least one species of bird lay eggs but do not gather food for their young. Cowbirds and cuckoos lay eggs but trick other birds into doing the food gathering.

    The Talmud is obviously wrong.

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  23. You wrote: "He has no sympathy whatsoever for someone who believes that bats do not lay eggs and that it is unreasonable to explain atalef as the platypus and who therefore feels that this Gemara is incorrect." I would assume (though I have not asked him) that he does have sympathy for those who believe that bats do not lay eggs, and would also have sympathy for one who thinks that it is unreasonable to explain atalef as the platypus. It is your third step that is the leap. He would expect one in that position to say: I don't know what they were referring to, but they were referring to something that existed in their time." Not because this is a "better" peshat in the Gemara that the bat, (in fact, it is no peshat at all), but he believes that your third step: "therefore feels that this Gemara is incorrect," that he has no sympathy for, as his understanding of the traditional Torah sources negates this possibility.
    Bottom line, instead of attempting to show how the atalef cannot be the platypus, the only issue that really needs to be resolved is if Chazal were infallible in their definitive statements about the natural world. If one is convinced that they were, then all you will accomplish with your "platypus attacks" is to put them back at a tzarich iyun as to what Chazal were referring to in this Gemara. If one does not believe that they were infallible, then it is patently obvious that they meant the bat and there is no need for discussion. The atalef Gemara cannot be a proof, in and of itself, as to whether or not Chazal were infallible in this domain.

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  24. The problem is that he is using this in service of his claim that anyone who believes that the Gemara is making an erroneous statement about bats is an unsophisticated heretic.

    Yes, he should not have included the word "unsophisticated" (-:

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  25. Daniel, Hampstead said...
    Back here in London we have been reading his book.
    I cannot say I will agree to every one of his conclusions, however the feeling I get is that otherwise non learned people who have mainly been exposed to Rabbi Natan and his books were unaware that there is a wealth of material out there from Rishonim to acharonim who have very right wing views on the infallibility on Chazal.
    People need to be exposed to all the relevant information to be able to decide.


    Daniel, you are correct that there are is a wealth of material and Rabbi Slifkin has discussed it. Rabbi Slifkin has never denied that there are those who maintain that Chazal are infallible in their scientific views. It is Rabbi Meiselman that takes the view that *all authorities* maintain the infallibility of Chazal in science in some form. This view is incorrect, IMO.

    For example, Rabbi Slifkin highlights authorities who maintain Chazal's infallibility in his monograph The Sun's Path at Night. Here is one small quotation the he brings from Rav Moshe Isserles: "I say that the words of our Sages, of blessed memory, were all founded upon the true wisdom, and there is no snare or crookedness in their words, even though sometimes at first glance that they do not agree with the words of the scholars which are derived from proofs, especially in matters of astronomy[...]For certainly it will be found in their words, as will be explained in these chapters, that they knew the secrets of astronomy just as
    the gentile scholars knew them, and even more than them, for the Sages knew them also via other means that were hidden from all the gentile scholars."

    So I agree that people should be exposed to both sides, and if they read the material in Rabbi Slifkin's works, they will be. Rabbi Meiselman's book, on the other hand, is a brief for his position and does not adequately discuss other possibilities, IMO.

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  26. Rabbi Slifkin,

    I have a very hard time believing that people didn't know how many teeth they had. Where did that come from?

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  27. Aristotle got it wrong, and everybody just relied on him - nobody bothered to check it out.

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  28. Aristotle got it wrong, and everybody just relied on him - nobody bothered to check it out.

    When you're talking appeal to authority in the prescientific era, Aristotle was the paradigmatic authority. Meiselman might be sooo much happier (intellectually, anyway) back then.

    ...he claims that the bat is the atalef in the class of ohf, and the platypus is the atalef in the class of chayah.

    I can see the dissertation title now: "On Zoological Taxonomic Rules in the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature with Notes on Correspondences and Noncorrespondences with the Linnean System"

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  29. More specifically, Aristotle said that men had more teeth than women.

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  30. Mouth Full o' TeethMarch 27, 2014 at 10:19 PM

    I think it was that women had fewer teeth than men.

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  31. If Aristotle had counted the teeth in a multiparous woman, his error is explainable. A large scale study found that the more kids a woman has, the fewer teeth she'll have. Not quite "gain a child, lose a tooth" the way the old saying has it, but along those lines.

    The argument from authority fallacy still applies.

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  32. benevolent monikerMarch 28, 2014 at 12:36 AM

    Rabbi slifkin; you haven't convinced me. Why would anyone make a specific and incorrect point of claiming bats lay eggs?! It's one thing to have a hazy assumption; it's another to canonise it!

    I will pay £36 on your PayPal link (despite my antipathy towards those who ask others to support an apparent lifestyle choice of sitting on the internet arguing with crazies) if you can adduce a contemporary to chazal who believed bats lay eggs. For all the years you have devoted to the subject I still have no idea where chazal got there science from, and "they guessed" isn't scholarship.

    I will of course make a similar donation to the institution you mentioned a few posts ago that provides workplace training to those who have none if you don't manage to come up with anything useful.

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  33. The teeth issue is so off topic but so interesting. What do you mean "no one bothered to check it out"? I just counted mine in 10 seconds. You're saying that for hundreds of years no one did that?

    While we are on off topic issues, I just learned in the gemara (beitza 6b) that an egg that has not been laid (i.e. the hen was killed before it had a chance to lay it) can not hatch a chick. Is that scientifically true (sounds suspicious). If not, what does R' Meiselman have to say about it?

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  34. someone who read the bookMarch 28, 2014 at 5:17 AM

    Rabbi Slifkin's main difficulties are:
    1)
    "But it is very far-fetched to posit that the bat and platypus share the same name due to their both having characteristics of both mammals and birds, when the characteristics of birds that they have are fundamentally different!"

    Why? The proposition is that the term atalef only denotes that *there are* both bird and mammal characteristics. The proposition *is* that it is a broad class.

    Why do you insist that every member of the class must share the exact same set of shared characteristics? That seems to be an arbitrary narrowing of the class--no less arbitrary than making it a broader class.

    I agree that it is always preferable to have a tighter definition than a looser definition. But that doesn't mean a loose definition is "far-fetched".

    Let's be clear: The only absolute thing Chazal tell us about this class (assuming arguendo that it is a class) is that it lays eggs and nurses its young. Anything else we would say about what this class includes and does not include is conjecture.

    2)
    "Furthermore, webbed feet are not even particularly relevant to birds - some birds possess webbed feet and most do not, just as some mammals (beavers, otters, seals) possess webbed feet and most do not."

    Good point. But by omission you seem to concede that the bill is a indeed unique characteristic of birds which the platypus shares.

    3)
    "Furthermore, the bat's ability to fly is what classifies it in the Torah as a bird. It is what earns its position, not its name (just as the names of the other birds in the list do not reflect their ability to fly). Anything about the name and significance of the atalef would only reflect the ways in which it is different from other birds."

    This argument seems to making sweeping assumptions that one need not subscribe to.

    4)
    "The echidna also has electroreceptors (albeit fewer than the platypus), which it uses for locating food in the undergrowth at night. (To this I presume Rabbi Meiselman would respond that it doesn't use them for maneuvering, only for locating food. This would appear to be just another contrivance.)"

    If I'm not mistaken, the platypus relies on those electroreceptors exclusively to find food in the water because IT CLOSES ITS EYES underwater--making it effectively blind as a bat. It would starve without such an ability.

    For the echidna, electroreceptors only enhances its ability to find food. It can easily survive on food that it finds with its eyes during the day.

    Hardly a contrivance.

    5)
    "Rabbi Meiselman himself freely rejected the mole as an atalef in his previous explanation, when he said that the atalef has to have birdlike characteristics!"

    He wasn't using Rashi as an authority to identify the actual animals atalef refers to, but to only show how broad the atalef class can potentially be.

    And Rav Meiselman did not say with certainty that the atalef HAS to have birdlike characteristics. He was very equivocal about the exact parameters of this "intermediary class".
    You are simply incapable of presenting his approach with accuracy.

    6)
    "Rabbi Meiselman himself admits that halachah deals only with what can be perceived by the ordinary observer without special equipment. Indeed, he uses this to claim that Chazal described lice as spontaneously generating for this reason. But he wants to argue that the term atalef is based on echolocation and electroreceptors?! And if we're just talking about an ability to maneuver in the dark - well, there's nothing novel in that, all kinds of nocturnal animals and birds can do that."

    Please. This is only a problem in the formulation.
    The unique similarities of the bat and platypus are still apparent to the observer-- they both do not use their eyes AT ALL in finding food and navigating in the dark--One can see this common unique characteristic even without knowing how exactly they do it.

    To be continued...

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  35. someone who read the bookMarch 28, 2014 at 6:25 AM

    Continued from above:

    7)
    "One might think that a person who believes the atalef to refer to the platypus can say that it also refers to both the echidna. But Rabbi Meiselman cannot do this. He does not explicitly say why, but there are several good reasons."

    Again, this is inaccurate.
    Rav Meiselman on page 336 explicitly does not rule out the possibility that the echidna might be included in the class of atalef by broadening the class to include all intermediate creatures which are a cross-over between mammals and non-mammals.

    As you point out, this would make the approach somewhat "lame", so it is not the preferred one.
    There may indeed be another way of dealing with the echidna.

    I suggest we can use the principle of Rav Meiselman (and of Rav Chaim Kanievsky) you mentioned in this post--that the halacha only recognizes phenomena that are accessible to a casual observer-- in order to classify the echidna within the rule of "kol hamolid yonek".

    From what I've read, the echidna does not lay its eggs out in the open whatsoever like the platypus not like any bird. The female grows a flap of skin specifically during the mating season and deposits the single egg directly into this pouch completely concealed from view. The egg stays there and the hatchling remains in the pouch to suckle there for months until it finally emerges for the first time complete with spines. Then is suckles from outside the pouch until maturity.

    It seems to be more similar to marsupials than to any egg-laying creature.

    In fact, the egg-laying characteristic of the echidna was discovered by accident:
    http://www.jstor.org/stable/1760833

    So halachicly, the echidna could probably be included in the "kol hamolid yonek" rule and poses no challenge.

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  36. You mean, "I couldn't care less," not "I don't care less." The latter statement makes no sense.

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  37. The teeth issue is so off topic but so interesting. What do you mean "no one bothered to check it out"? I just counted mine in 10 seconds. You're saying that for hundreds of years no one did that?

    Yup. Check it out. It will help you appreciate the mistake of those who believe that Chazal could not have erred regarding things that appear today to be "obvious."

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  38. Why would anyone make a specific and incorrect point of claiming bats lay eggs?! It's one thing to have a hazy assumption; it's another to canonise it!

    Why would anyone make a specific and incorrect point of claiming that men have more teeth than women? That the sun goes behind the sky at night? That there are mice which grow from dirt? That salamander come from fire? That hyenas change gender and species?

    Besides, this case is even easier. It's not that Chazal went out of their way to say that bats lay eggs. Their point was that bats differ from other birds in nursing their young.

    if you can adduce a contemporary to chazal who believed bats lay eggs. For all the years you have devoted to the subject I still have no idea where chazal got there science from, and "they guessed" isn't scholarship.

    "Chazal" is not a person. It's lots of people in different places over a period of time. The sources of their science include Babylonia, Greece, their own observations, etc.

    Even in more recent times there was a belief that bats lay eggs. In County Clair, Ireland, there was a belief that it is unlucky to come across a bat's egg. (see http://www.amazon.com/Bridle-Pegasus-Warren-R-Dawson/dp/0766157482#reader_0766157482) Heck, even today many people think that bats lay eggs!

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  39. Why do you insist that every member of the class must share the exact same set of shared characteristics? That seems to be an arbitrary narrowing of the class--no less arbitrary than making it a broader class.

    It's not "arbitrary." It's assuming that if two animals share a name, it's because they share certain actual similarities.

    "Furthermore, the bat's ability to fly is what classifies it in the Torah as a bird. It is what earns its position, not its name (just as the names of the other birds in the list do not reflect their ability to fly). Anything about the name and significance of the atalef would only reflect the ways in which it is different from other birds."

    This argument seems to making sweeping assumptions that one need not subscribe to.


    No, it is a reasoned argument, unlike your claims, which are simply contrivances designed to attain the end result.

    If I'm not mistaken, the platypus relies on those electroreceptors exclusively to find food in the water because IT CLOSES ITS EYES underwater--making it effectively blind as a bat. It would starve without such an ability.

    Actually, you would appear to be mistaken. "Most of the prey of the platypus emit little or no electrical signals, and the evidence for field navigation with electroreception in the wild is non-existent." (http://tinyurl.com/oyf9q7a)

    For the echidna, electroreceptors only enhances its ability to find food. It can easily survive on food that it finds with its eyes during the day.

    Hardly a contrivance.


    LOL. Hardly a contrivance?

    And Rav Meiselman did not say with certainty that the atalef HAS to have birdlike characteristics. He was very equivocal about the exact parameters of this "intermediary class"

    Right, he's very vague and uncertain. But if you disagree with him, then you're either unsophisticated, a heretic, or both!

    The unique similarities of the bat and platypus are still apparent to the observer-- they both do not use their eyes AT ALL in finding food and navigating in the dark--One can see this common unique characteristic even without knowing how exactly they do it.

    Sure, it's apparent to the observer - if you go underwater to watch a platypus eat!
    And fruit bats do use their eyes to find food. Most of them do not use echolocation at all. So that blows that theory out of the water.

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  40. Rav Meiselman on page 336 explicitly does not rule out the possibility that the echidna might be included in the class of atalef by broadening the class to include all intermediate creatures which are a cross-over between mammals and non-mammals.

    Once again, he even recognizes that his approach is wishy-washy and depends on contrivances that you could spin any way you want, as long as they reach the desired result. And this is supposed to be a "sophisticated, professional" approach that shows that there is no challenge from science to Torah?

    From what I've read, the echidna does not lay its eggs out in the open whatsoever like the platypus not like any bird. The female grows a flap of skin specifically during the mating season and deposits the single egg directly into this pouch completely concealed from view...
    In fact, the egg-laying characteristic of the echidna was discovered by accident...
    So halachicly, the echidna could probably be included in the "kol hamolid yonek" rule and poses no challenge.


    LOL, this gets better and better.

    The echidna indeed does not lay its eggs in the open. But nor does the platypus. In fact, for a long time after the platypus was discovered, it was not known that it lays eggs. This was only discovered after extremely extensive efforts.
    By the way, echidnas do not lay their eggs directly into a pouch. They lie on their backs, lay eggs, and roll them down their stomach under a flap of skin. This can be seen from the same sort of careful studies that were necessary to reveal that platypuses lay eggs, and that they close their eyes underwater. Actually, it's easier to know that echidnas lay eggs than platypuses, because whereas platypus eggs are hidden at the end of an eighty-foot tunnel, echidnas carry their eggs around with them under a flap of skin. Echidna eggs were thus discovered before platypus eggs.

    Also, the fact that platypuses nurse their young is certainly not something that one can see via simple observation. Unlike regular mammals, they don't have teats! The milk is exuded through pores. For a long time after the platypus was discovered, people did not know if they nursed their young.

    No doubt you will twist yourself into even more of a pretzel to contrive further ways of wriggling around all this. Because, for you, the bottom line is that Chazal CANNOT be wrong, and therefore any argument, no matter how unreasonable and contrived, can be employed (and you will convince yourself that it is perfectly reasonable and not at all contrived).

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  41. "No doubt you will twist yourself into even more of a pretzel to contrive further ways of wriggling around all this. Because, for you, the bottom line is that Chazal CANNOT be wrong, and therefore any argument, no matter how unreasonable and contrived, can be employed (and you will convince yourself that it is perfectly reasonable and not at all contrived)."
    I am glad to see that you have finally understood that this is not about the reasonableness of the interpration, but it is coming from an ironclad prior assumption.

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  42. FYI - the platypus does not have a bill.

    Bills are bony projections that form a bird's mouth. Bills do not have nostrils, because they are not noses.

    The platypus does not have a bill. It has a large, rubbery nose, complete with nostrils

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  43. benevolent monikerMarch 28, 2014 at 5:45 PM

    OK, so you searched on Google and found an oral folk legend in modern day Ireland about bats laying eggs. I could also do that. It's not contemporary to chazal, whether 100bc to 400bc, and whichever side of the roman - Persian iron curtain you care to address.

    A person could mistake teeth numbers by incorrect extrapolation from juveniles or those whose wisdom teeth don't develop. There are Greek myths about salamanders. There was a Babylonian cosmology with the sun doing weird things. Asserting thay hyenas changing gender, like bats laying eggs falls into the category of as yet inexplicably random. If you spent time researching Babylonian / Persian science you may find answers as well as a rather paltry contribution from me....

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  44. Why do you use American English spelling?
    You are from England, I believe.

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  45. Question for the group: Onkeles translates atalef as atalefa... does that indicate that in aramaic the two words refer to the same creature? Would this present a difficulty to Rabbi Meiselman's view or not?

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  46. "A person could mistake teeth numbers by incorrect extrapolation from juveniles or those whose wisdom teeth don't develop. "

    Right. And a person could make a mistake about bats laying eggs by incorrect extrapolation from other birds. (Remember, the bat is listed in the Torah as a bird.)

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  47. Rabbi Slifkin. Thank you. Elegant, simple and plausible. Unfortunately still not scholarship - just arguing with crazies on the internet.

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  48. Akiva
    "Bills are bony projections that form a bird's mouth. Bills do not have nostrils, because they are not noses.

    The platypus does not have a bill. It has a large, rubbery nose, complete with nostrils"

    Wikipedia Beaks
    "Although beaks vary significantly in size, shape and color, they share a similar underlying structure. Two bony projections—the upper and lower mandibles—are covered with a thin keratinized layer of epidermis known as the rhamphotheca. In most species, two holes known as nares lead to the respiratory system."

    Platypus Wiki
    "The unusual appearance of this egg-laying, duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed mammal baffled European naturalists when they first encountered it, with some considering it an elaborate hoax."

    Admittedly however,
    "Unlike a bird's beak (in which the upper and lower parts separate to reveal the mouth), the snout of the platypus is a sensory organ with the mouth on the underside."

    Enough with the semantics here. It ain't called a duck-billed platypus for nothing.

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  49. Can Josh Duker please explain why he is continually harping on the same point, that R. Meiselman has an unshakable prior belief that the Gemara is essentially infallible. We all get this.

    The question is a) whether it is a reasonable belief, b) whether the contrary position is heretical.

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  50. Natan Slifkin said:

    "The echidna indeed does not lay its eggs in the open. But nor does the platypus. In fact, for a long time after the platypus was discovered, it was not known that it lays eggs. This was only discovered after extremely extensive efforts.
    By the way, echidnas do not lay their eggs directly into a pouch. They lie on their backs, lay eggs, and roll them down their stomach under a flap of skin. This can be seen from the same sort of careful studies that were necessary to reveal that platypuses lay eggs, and that they close their eyes underwater. Actually, it's easier to know that echidnas lay eggs than platypuses, because whereas platypus eggs are hidden at the end of an eighty-foot tunnel, echidnas carry their eggs around with them under a flap of skin. Echidna eggs were thus discovered before platypus eggs."

    Please correct me if I am wrong: I gather that the echidna lays eggs, and then carries them in some sort of pouch where they are hatched. They later emerge from this pouch into the larger world. The platypus, on the other hand, lays eggs in some hidden burrow, and does NOT carry them in a pouch until hatching. If this is correct, perhaps egg-laying creatures in the context of the beraisoh in question are defined as creatures whose young first encounter the outside world directly from eggs, and birthing creatures are those whose young first encounter the outside world directly from their mother's body. If so, the platypus is a birthing creature and the echidna is an egg-laying creature, and Rabbi Meiselman's suggestion works.

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  51. Does the duckbilled platypus have a bill?

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  52. Naar Ivri - aside from being ridiculously contrived, your theory would also seem to have the opposite result from intended. It would mean that the echidna rather than the platypus is egg-laying!

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  53. OJ:

    The nares are at the junction between the bill and the head, and not on the bill itself. As you point out, a beak or bill is bone, and separates in the middle to form the mouth.

    A duck billed platypus has a nose that is broad and thin and looks like a duck's bill. Hence the name. But at the end of the day, it's not a bill.

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  54. As far as the Torah is concerned, I think it would qualify as a bill.

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  55. Natan Slifkin said...
    "Naar Ivri - aside from being ridiculously contrived, your theory would also seem to have the opposite result from intended. It would mean that the echidna rather than the platypus is egg-laying!"

    Sorry, slip of the "pen". What I meant to write is the reverse- that the platypus is an egg-laying creature because its young enter the world directly from eggs, whereas the echidna is a birthing creature because its young enter the world directly from the mother's body.

    (Was this slip-up not evident from the context of what I wrote?)

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  56. But they travel from the egg to the "pouch."

    And by this token, would an emperor penguin not be rated as laying eggs?

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  57. someone who read the bookApril 2, 2014 at 6:46 AM

    What's the comparison?

    From here:
    http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/emperor-penguin/

    "Emperor penguins spend the long winter on the open ice—and even breed during this harsh season. Females lay a single egg and then promptly leave it behind. They undertake an extended hunting trip that lasts some two months! Depending on the extent of the ice pack, females may need to travel some 50 miles (80 kilometers) just to reach the open ocean, where they will feed on fish, squid, and krill. At sea, emperor penguins can dive to 1,850 feet (565 meters)—deeper than any other bird—and stay under for more than 20 minutes.

    Male emperors keep the newly laid eggs warm, but they do not sit on them, as many other birds do. Males stand and protect their eggs from the elements by balancing them on their feet and covering them with feathered skin known as a brood pouch. During this two-month bout of babysitting the males eat nothing and are at the mercy of the Antarctic elements."


    Seems like the Emperor penguin eggs are first laid normally--completely exiting the mother's body and then afterward are they covered by the male penguin.

    The Echidna's egg is laid directly into its pouch and is never for a moment outside the mother's body.

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  58. "The Echidna's egg is laid directly into its pouch and is never for a moment outside the mother's body."

    That is simply not true, and would be an anatomical impossibility. You don't know what you are talking about.

    I can't believe I'm even having this argument. The nuances of the birthing habits of echidnas? Chazal must be rolling their eyes.

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  59. Dear Rabbi Slifkin,
    I would like to suggest that the echidna problem is unnecessary as a means of discrediting Rabbi Meiselman's credo of the infallibility of Chazal.
    Let us say that the knowledge of the existence of an egg laying lactating animal was derived from Chazal's understanding of "spiritual underpinning".
    I'm sure,or almost sure,that Rabbi Meiselman would not say that the knowledge they gleaned from " underpinnings" consisted of an encyclopaedic knowledge of all the natural sciences.
    Had this been the case we would be hard put to explain why for instance Chazal didn't teach us how to cure infection with antibiotics,or why they didn't tell us that bloodletting is more likely to kill than cure.
    So according to Rabbi Meiselman the "spiritual underpinnings" gave Chazal an interesting snippet of information about the platypus whilst omitting to inform of the echidna.
    I think it is fair to say that when I say "something is the only exception to a rule" I mean it is the only exception of which I am aware (or has been understood from my knowledge of underpinnings ).
    This echidna/platypus issue should not become a red herring,a distraction from the main issue which is ,that you have been basely and cruelly attacked and the support that you could have expected from our Torah leaders has been pathetically meager.

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