With praise and gratitude to the Creator, I am delighted to announce the birth of a tumtum to my hyraxes! Baby hyraxes are absolutely adorable - check out the picture below. And what perfect timing - on the very day that we mention hyraxes in davenning!
"Tumtum" is a term from the Gemara, which refers to someone with no external genitalia, and thus with whom the gender is indeterminate. In humans, this is a genetic defect. In hyraxes, on the other hand, it's perfectly normal. The testicles of males are hidden inside the abdominal cavity, next to the kidneys. The penis is also hidden inside the body except during mating. In fact, for this reason, it took a long time before I could ensure that I had a true pair, and I had to do some trading with a local zoo; it was only this morning that I could finally be certain that I have a male and female.
Now, why would a hyrax have such an odd characteristic? Every other furry animal that I have owned, from dormice to fruit bats, has been easy to sex. Why would God create hyraxes to be so different?
Nor is this the only peculiarity of hyraxes. Although they are superficially very similar to large rodents such as woodchucks, there are all kinds of subtle yet significant differences. Hyraxes have stubby toes without claws. They have two very sharp (as I can painfully attest) pointed teeth sticking out of their mouths. Their fecal pellets resemble those of animals many times their size. They have an astonishingly long gestation period - eight months. But why would they be so different from every other small furry animal?
The answer is very simple. Hyraxes are on a different branch of the evolutionary tree from other small furry animals. The ancestors of the hyrax, such as the hyracoid pictures on the right, were cow-sized herbivores that were closely related to elephants. Hyraxes are therefore more closely related to elephants (and sirenians) than they are to any other living animal. That's why, like elephants, they have a retracting penis, tusks, a long gestation, and other characteristics that make them more similar to large herbivores than to rodents.
So, there's no need to contrive a variety of separate explanations for all the different peculiarities of my furry little tumtum. One simple explanation accounts for all of them. All we have to do is accept that God employed "creative wisdom," to use the phrase coined by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in His development of the world.
On Rosh Chodesh, we recite Barchi Nafshi, the special chapter of Tehillim that describes the wonders of the universe as God's creation. Amongst other phenomena, it mentions the hyraxes living alongside the ibexes in Ein Gedi. Thinking about how hyraxes came to be hyraxes gives us further insight and appreciation of the wonder of God's creation.
UPDATE: Here's a picture that I took of Mom and baby:
NEWSFLASH - I am visiting the US on a lecture tour this summer and I am available as scholar-in-residence for the last Shabbos in July and the first Shabbos in August. Please write to me if you are interested. Also, there are still some spots available on my kosher luxury African Adventure this July; check out this link for more details.