Sunday, June 28, 2015

Confronting Dinosaurs

How do you evaluate whether a professed expert on Torah and science is worth his salt? One step (of many) is to see whether he is ready to confront dinosaurs.

I don't mean whether he is ready to jump into an enclosure of cloned velociraptors and stare them down. (I wouldn't do that, either.) Rather, I'm talking about whether he is ready (and has already thought about) some very basic questions. Like, when the dinosaurs live? Did they live at the same time as people? Did they all live at the same time as each other? And if so, why are their fossils consistently found in different layers of rock?

Interestingly, the Christian Young Earth Creationists (YECs) are eager to confront dinosaurs. At the $27 million Creation museum in Kentucky, there are prominent animatronic dinosaur exhibits, complete with models of the humans that the Christian creationists believe lived alongside the dinosaurs. (As far as I know, they do not explain why the thousands of dinosaurs fossils are all found in layers of rock that do not have fossils of humans or modern animals.) The Christian YECs are interested and excited to talk about dinosaurs from within their religious worldview, in which they are very confident.

Yet there is no parallel to this amongst Orthodox Jewish YECs. Whether they ultimately claim that dinosaur bones are an incredible work of art created by God, or that they lived before the Flood, one finds that Orthodox YECs simply do not want to discuss the topic at all. This is especially significant in that dinosaurs are probably the most basic of all Torah-science questions. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I put a photo of the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex on the cover of The Challenge Of Creation - not just to scare away charedi readers, but also to stress that I am willing to confront dinosaurs.

Perhaps the most striking example of this aversion to confronting dinosaurs is with Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's Torah, Chazal and Science. Despite the book being over eight hundred pages long, it does not once discuss dinosaurs!

The only reference to dinosaurs at all in Rabbi Meiselman's book appears on p. 531, where Rabbi Meiselman rejects the approach of the Tiferes Yisrael that dinosaurs are from a previous epoch. He also indirectly expresses a viewpoint on dinosaurs in a footnote on p. 500, where he refers to a change in animal behavior after the Mabul, and references the Ramban to Bereishis 9:5, which suggests that before the Mabul, animals were all herbivores. That might have been a reasonable suggestion in Ramban's time, but it's simply laughable to propose it seriously today. Is Rabbi Meiselman claiming that Tyrannosaurus rex, velociraptors, and saber-toothed cats all ate grass and leaves?! Aside from the fact that their physiology clearly shows that they were carnivores, we actually have fossilized remnants of their stomach contents and excrement, which show that they were carnivores - as well as a famous fossil of two dinosaurs that died locked in combat.

While Rabbi Meiselman does not explicitly discuss dinosaurs, he does tell us what he believes to be the (only legitimate) approach to the age of the universe. Unfortunately, his approach to this is rather muddled. Often he says vaguely that "time was measured differently back then", which could theoretically mean that there was indeed an age of dinosaurs, but he also insists that it is forbidden to modify traditional beliefs regarding the universe being a few thousand years old (p. 493). He further claims that there is no legitimate scientific evidence challenging this because the laws of nature were different back then and thus all methods of dating the world as being more than a few thousand years old are invalid. Rabbi Meiselman claims that scientists have no way of knowing otherwise, and that all their conclusions are based on an unproven premise that the laws of nature were always constant.

In a previous post, I have noted that the consistency of historical processes is not a presumption of modern science. Rather, it is a conclusion, drawn from observations of the uniformity present in geology and other phenomena. This was the subject of the very first post that ever appeared on this blog, William Smith and the Principal of Faunal Succession.

(In a possible attempt to counter this argument, Rabbi Meiselman claims on p. 504 that the results of a universe that developed under completely different laws of nature over six days perfectly mimic that of a universe that developed under a single set of laws over billions of years! I'm simply lost for words that such a proposal could be put in print, and that a book espousing such a thing can be taken seriously by anyone.)

But aside from all the scientific evidence that the laws of nature were not different back then, what about the dinosaurs? And the therapsids? And the woolly mammoths?

Forget abstract jargon about radioactive decay and cesium atoms. Think about something tangible and familiar, such as animal life. The fossil evidence clearly shows that there were dinosaurs and all kinds of other creatures which lived before people (since no fossils of contemporary creatures are found in the same strata). These animals lived and died and fought and ate and bred - we even find dinosaur nesting sites. Did all that happen in the space of twelve hours? Did it happen in a universe in which the laws of gravity, the speed of light, and everything else - the very fabric of natural law - was drastically different from what we see today?

And it's not as though there was only one period of prehistoric creatures. The fossil record shows beyond doubt that there were numerous distinct periods. The therapsids lived before the dinosaurs; the dinosaurs lived before the mammoths. And even among dinosaurs, different layers of rock reveal distinct eras. Stegosaurus, Brachiosaurus and Allosaurus are never found in the same layers of rock as Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops, and Velociraptor. The conclusion is that each existed in a different period; the former lived in a period which has been termed the Jurassic, while the latter lived in the Cretaceous period. This is not part of some evil conspiracy by scientists, nor the result of mistakes on their part. Any paleontologist could win instant fame by finding a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil in Jurassic rocks - but nobody has ever done so, which shows that T-Rex lived much later, in the Cretaceous.

We see in the rocks that there were countless generations of all kinds of animals, living in distinct periods, leading ordinary animal lives. This is clearly a process that takes many thousands, even millions of years. To describe it as all occurring in one day is simply ridiculous, unless one is taking the word "day" to mean something other than "day." It is not remotely meaningful to talk about "time being different back then." Countless generations of creatures lived and died, in distinct eras - how is it not legitimate to describe that as taking a long period of time?

In fact, I would say that an even stronger question is, how can you write an 800 page book purporting to present the sole legitimate perspective on these topics, and not even address this most basic of questions? Have you never even thought about it, or are you really that afraid to confront it? If the former, then you have no place presenting yourself as an authority on this topic. If the latter - well, then even the Christians have you beat.

If someone claims to be an authority (and especially if they claim to be the sole authority) on Torah and science, and yet they show that they can't even discuss dinosaurs, then they've been caught with their trousers down.

Monday, June 22, 2015

"Your Book Bores Me. I'd Rather Eat Someone."

In the following video, a lion reviews The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom. He doesn't find it very interesting and prefers to bite his handler in the leg instead:

Others, however, did indeed find the book interesting:
"In The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom Rabbi Natan Slifkin has produced a groundbreaking work of outstanding scholarship, vast erudition, and a truly engaging approach to an understudied topic. The work will be eye-opening for many, who had only a vague sense of the intense interest the Hebrew Bible and Judaism’s sages had for the Divinely created diversity of the animal kingdom. A wonderful book, magnificently produced, that should be on every Jewish bookshelf." - Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
(If you do decide to purchase the encyclopedia, I'd be very grateful if you could buy it from my website or from the museum website. The absolute worst place to buy it is Amazon.)

Friday, June 19, 2015

Moses and the Suckers

A friend of mine, a mohel and also a physician, is strongly against metzitza b'peh. Unfortunately, he lives in a country where he is a lone voice, battling against numerous other mohelim who are staunchly in favor of it. He told me how at a conference on mohalim, he tried to convince them not to do it, arguing not only that it has no halachic necessity and is dangerous, but also how in that country, there is a threat of a metzitzah b'peh expose leading to bris milah being banned altogether.

But his arguments fell upon deaf ears. In desperation, my friend tried a different tactic. He proposed to his opponents that he and they go to the Gadol B'Torah of their choice, that they both present their arguments, and that they both agree to go by whatever he says.

Personally, I thought that this was very foolhardy. Any Gadol B'Torah remotely recognized as such by his opponents would probably insist on metzitza b'peh! But it was irrelevant. One of his opponents stood up, and announced: "Even if Moshe Rabeinu himself were to come and rule that we shouldn't do it, we would not listen to him!"

Wow, what a response! The formulation is especially interesting in light of the fact that whereas the opponents to metziza b'peh argue that it is not part of the Talmudic requirement, its proponents argue that it is halachah l'Moshe miSinai. You'd think, therefore, that Moshe Rabeinu could therefore have something to say about the matter!

But in fact, this response is spot on. The hypothetical construct of Moshe Rabeinu coming refers to a scenario of there being absolutely certainty that there is no halachic reason to do metzitza b'peh. But as I wrote in my post "Suckers for Orthodoxy," the reasons for insisting on metzitza b'peh have nothing to do with halachah. Rather, it is due to meta-halachic considerations. These are rooted in Chasam Sofer's approach that when there is any kind of threat to Judaism from the outside, one should fictitiously elevate the importance of practices. 

Thus, since there is opposition to metzitza b'peh from external sources, such as non-Jews or Modern Orthodox Jews (it's not clear which is more dangerous in their eyes - my friend was called "a Reformer"!), one must ipso facto insist on it being non-negotiable. This non-negotiability can be dressed up in whatever way suits the needs at hand - call it mesorah, call it kabbalah, call it halacha l'Moshe Sinai. It's a meta-halachic social strategy, not a halachic position.

Thus, I do indeed understand this person's response. I just think that such meta-halachic social strategies should be weighed against a proper understanding of the topic, likely responses from the wider world, and the safety of babies.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Guest Post: Was Rabbeinu Avraham a Solipsist?

Copyright 2015 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved

Was Rabbeinu Avraham a Solipsist?

Continuing [1A] with the Discourse's analysis of R. Ammi,  Rabbi Meiselman spots another contradiction.  The Rambam, in his Letter on Astrologylists three sources of knowledge: (1) sense data, (2) reason and (3) knowledge "that a man receives from the prophets or from the righteous." [1]  But, according to Rabbi Meiselman, the Discourse gives no validity to authority as a source of knowledge, hence a contradiction with the Rambam's third source of knowledge. [2]

The problem with this argument is straightforward: the Discourse make no such extraordinary claim (a claim that no one who visits a doctor or calls an exterminator could agree with). As we would expect, the Discourse explicitly embraces expert opinion as a source of knowledge and specifically grants Chazal authority in Torah. [3]   In invalidating some of the medical advice of Chazal, he remarks that the advice was not validated [4].  He does not say that he personally investigated them and found them lacking, but rather that there were not validated by contemporary medicine.  

Similarly, in confirming Chazal's health recommendations, he says that they are "essential to health as has been validated by investigation and the medical practice of the physician".  Here, Rabbeinu Avraham does attribute Chazal as the source of knowledge, as well as the confirmation by contemporary medicine.  Moreover, Rabbeinu Avraham nowhere tells the reader to embark on his own investigation, but to rely on what he himself writes in the Discourse. [5]

In claiming a contradiction, Rabbi Meiselman most likely refers R. Ammi's hypothetical rejection of Yehoshua.  By Rabbi Meiselman's argument, R. Ammi could not reject the authority of Yehoshua over R. Ammi's logical arguments, while simultaneously respecting Yehoshua as a source of knowledge.  However, we have already shown that the Chasam Sofer explicitly agrees with the Discourse's understanding of the Talmud. [6]  Yet, the Chasam Sofer certainly accepted knowledge from the righteous or a prophet as a source of knowledge.

Rabbi Meiselman may also refer to the following statement earlier in the Discourse (translation mine): 
You should know that anyone who desires to support a well-known opinion [7] and to give respect to its author and accept his opinion without any investigation into the matter as to its veracity, that this is an improper methodology and prohibited...
However, this statement does not claim that knowledge cannot be derived from a knowledgeable authority.  The statement merely emphasizes that one should not blindly accept such statements purely based on who said them "without any investigation" (for example by consulting with other authorities).  Hence, when the Jewish Sages claim that the Sun goes behind the sky-shell at night, we do not accept this view simply because of their greatness.  Likewise, in modern times, we don't accept geocentrism which was the near-universal opinion of both the ancient and medieval greats, both Jewish and Gentile.  Instead, we understand that the science of astronomy has made great advances since then and that these statements need to be re-examined.

Thus, Rabbi Meiselman sets forth a false dichotomy: either an authority is considered reliable in all that he says on a subject or no knowledge can be derived from him.  He makes a similar statement in TCS (pg. 225) in an attempt to prove that the Chazal's medical knowledge was received knowledge (ellipses mine):
Chazal, however, were not physicians...Why then should they be considered a "source" at all in this area [medicine]?  Why should they not be considered amateurs quoting hearsay? Evidently ... Chazal's advice was of a permanent nature because it was not based on experimentation but upon a Torah source. [7a]
To bring this misconception this into sharper relief, consider the field of ethnomedicine, the study of traditional medicine as practiced by various cultures.  One important aspect of ethnomedicine is the discovery of new drugs based on an understanding of traditional remedies. (For example, see this list of drugs derived from ethnomedicine).  In this case, traditional remedies are a important and irreplaceable source of knowledge, but such knowledge is not accepted blindly.  Rather it forms the starting point for research and verification [8].   We can simultaneously place a high value on a given source of knowledge yet retain a skeptical approach.

Perhaps Rabbi Meiselman's argument is a bit different:  Rabbeinu Avraham favors reason over authority, while the Rambam lists sense data, reason and authority as three sources of knowledge with no particular ranking.  Does the Rambam favor reason over authority as Rabbeinu Avraham implies?  The answer is clearly "yes".

To begin with, one can simply ask: if the only three sources of knowledge are sense data, reason and knowledge received from an authoritative figure, whence does the authoritative figure derive his knowledge?  In the Rambam's hierarchy of knowledge, the third source, authority, is derived from the other two (sense data and reason).   While the Rambam implies this hierarchy, do we find that he makes this explicit?  The answer again is "yes".

In his Treatise on Logic, the Rambam gives a slightly different categorization of the sources of knowledge: 
  1. Sense data (e.g. this object is black)
  2. First ideas (e.g. if a=b and b=c, then a=c)
  3. Conventions (e.g. it is important to thank someone that helps you)
  4. Traditions (e.g. knowledge received from trusted person or group)
The Rambam prioritizes the first two sources of knowledge as giving knowledge which is universally agreed upon and undoubtedly true.  In addition, knowledge derived from the first two sources plus "secondary ideas" (like geometric theorems) is termed "apodictic" or demonstrably true. [9]

In contrast, knowledge derived from conventions or traditions are not universally recognized and result in a knowledge with a lower level of certainty.  Knowledge derived from traditions form the art or rhetoric and may involve weaker forms of reasoning such as reasoning by analogy, which is disallowed in the art of demonstration. [10]

Thus, the Rambam does put reason above authority in the hierarchy of knowledge sources.  But we can ask: how does this apply practically to statements of Chazal?  Are their scientific statements to be treated in the same way, as described by the Discourse? 

The Rambam answers this quite clearly in his Letter on Astrology.  While most of the letter is devoted to rejecting the general accepted belief in astrology, at the end of the letter he addresses another difficulty: if the Talmud accepts astrology, how can we reject it?  He offers a number of possible grounds for rejecting such Talmudic statements, including the possibility that the Talmudic statement is simply in error.  He concludes with the following aphorism (discussed earlier), which asserts the priority of reason is such circumstances: "A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back". [11]

We see once again that Discourse aligns quite well with the Rambam.  In the next post, we'll address some other discrepancies claimed by Rabbi Meiselman between the Discourse and the Rambam.

Comments are both welcome and encouraged. I'll make every effort to address any questions or arguments posted in the comments.


[1A] After a short interlude far away from lions.

[1] Know, my masters, that it is not proper for a man to accept as trustworthy anything other than one of these three things. The first is a thing for which there is a clear proof deriving from man's reasoning—such as arithmetic' geometry, and astronomy. The second is a thing that a man perceives through one of the five senses—such as when he knows with certainty that this is red and this is black and the like through the sight of his eye; or as when he tastes that this is bitter and this is sweet; or as when he feels that this is hot and this is cold; or as when he hears that this sound is clear and this sound is indistinct; or as when he smells that this is a pleasing smell and this is a displeasing smell and the like. The third is a thing that a man receives from the prophets or from the righteous. (Letter on Astrology)

[2] It is unclear why Rabbi Meiselman needs to quote the Rambam here.   No human being can navigate the world without accepting, at least provisionally, knowledge obtained from others.   Any time that you consult, say, a doctor, an architect or or a plumber, you are relying on the fact that they have knowledge that you don't have through your own perception or your own reason.  Only a solipsist can claim to rely entirely on knowledge directly acquired through their own perception or reason.

In fact, the Rambam is not making any kind of novel or innovative statement here.  He is simply reminding the reader that any belief should have some source, either primary or secondary; the mere fact that some claim (in the case, the efficacy of astrology) is written in a book or is believed by the masses is not valid grounds for acceptance.  Thus he writes
The great sickness and the "grievous evil" (Eccles. 5:12, 15) consist in this: that all the things that man finds written in books, he presumes to think of as true—and all the more so if the books are old. And since many individuals have busied themselves with those books and have engaged in discussions concerning them, the rash fellow's mind at once leaps to the conclusion that these are words of wisdom...
Were it true that the Discourse completely rejects expert the expertise of others as a source of knowledge, there would be no need to find a contradictory statement from the Rambam. 

[3] We are not in duty bound to defend the opinions of the sages of the Talmud, concerning medicine, physics and astrology, as right in every respect simply because we know the sages to be great men with a full knowledge of all things regarding the Torah, in its various details. Although it is true that in so far as knowledge of our Torah is concerned, we must believe the sages arrived at the highest stage of knowledge, as it is said (Deu. 17, 11.) "In accordance with the instructions which they may instruct thee, etc.," still it is not necessarily so concerning any other branch of knowledge.

[4] "Since we find that the sages themselves had said, concerning nledical knowledge that the opinion of such and such a Rabbi did not prove to be true, as for instance, The eagle-stone (Sabbath fol. 66b), or other things mentioned."

[5] These two paragraphs should go without saying, but are included in the interest of thoroughness.  We can dismiss any author by interpreting what he says to be nonsensical.  And an author whow never relies on outside knowledge is being nonsensical.

[6] We showed that this was the view of the Rambam as well, but our reasoning doesn't depend on that argument.

[7] Perhaps instead "the opinion of a well known person".

[7a] Obviously, Rabbeinu Avraham's explanation is much more straightfoward: some of Chazal's medical knowledge was well-found and some not.

[8] For example, see J Ethnobiol Ethnomed. 2007; 3: 25. "The present zootherapeutic study describes the traditional knowledge related to the use of different animals and animal-derived products as medicines by the Saharia tribe reside in the Shahabad and Kishanganj Panchayat Samiti's of Baran district of Rajasthan, India. ... Further studies are required for experimental validation to confirm the presence of bioactive compounds in these traditional remedies and also to emphasize more sustainable use of these resources."   This is just a single sample found randomly using a google search.

[9] The same applies to ideas, first and second; by second ideas I mean such as geometric theorems and astronomic calculations, which are all true, because they may all be demonstrated by premises, most of which come close to the first ideas. In like manner, all the results of experience, e. g., that scammony is a cathartic and gall-nut causes constipation, are also true. Whatever becomes known through one of these three truthful channels the logicians call apodictic. After these preliminaries, you must know that every syllogism both of whose premises are apodictic, we call a demonstrative syllogism; and the making of these syllogisms and a knowledge of their conditions constitute what we call the art of demonstration.

[10] When, however, one or both premises of the syllogism belong to conventions, we call it a dialectic syllogism; and the making of these syllogisms and a knowledge of their conditions constitute the art of dialectics. When one or both premises of the syllogism belong to traditions, we call it a rhetorical syllogism; and the making of these syllogisms and a knowledge of their conditions constitute the art of rhetoric. [...] In general, however, the demonstrative syllogisms do not use analogy under any circumstances, nor do they use induction except under certain conditions; but the art of dialectics does use general induction; and the art of rhetoric uses the analogical syllogism.

[11] The summary of the matter is that our mind cannot grasp how the decrees of the Holy One, blessed be He, work upon human beings in this world and in the world to come. What we have said about this from the beginning is that the entire position of the star gazers is regarded as a falsehood by all men of science. I know that you may search and find sayings of some individual sages in the Talmud and Midrashim whose words appear to maintain that at the moment of a man's birth, the stars will cause such and such to happen to him. Do not regard this as a difficulty, for it is not fitting for a man to abandon the prevailing law and raise once again the counterarguments and replies (that preceded its enactment). Similarly it is not proper to abandon matters of reason that have already been verified by proofs, shake loose of them, and depend on the words of a single one of the sages from whom possibly the matter was hidden. Or there may be an allusion in those words; or they may have been said with a view to the times and the business before him. (You surely know how many of the verses of the holy Law are not to be taken literally. Since it is known through proofs of reason that it is impossible for the thing to be literally so, the translator [of the Aramaic Targum] rendered it in a form that reason will abide. ) A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back... (Letter on Astrology)

Friday, June 12, 2015

Leopard Encounter

(If you are reading this via email subscription, you will have to visit in order to watch this amazing video!)


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

When Lions Don't Attack

I've been getting a lot of questions about the safety of going on safari. Last week, I explained why the woman who was killed in the Lion Park was doing something dangerous, in that she opened her window in a small artificial environment where lions associate humans with food. Today I would like to discuss in more detail the safety and dangers involved in regular game drives.

Here is a photo of an adult male lion, that I took yesterday:

Now, it looks as though I was really close to the lion. The explanation for this is that in fact, I was indeed really close to the lion. Here is a picture that I took of our other car:

Lions sometimes eat people, and there is absolutely nothing to stop him doing so. The driver has a rifle, but he would not have time to load it and use it. So why is this safe? Because lions identify cars as things that are inedible, non-threatening and uninteresting. A person sitting in a car - even the spotter sitting on a special seat on the hood - is simply part of that inedible, non-threatening and uninteresting item.

But if you were to step out of the car, or even stand up and thereby break the outline, it would be extremely dangerous. In fact, it would be even more dangerous than simply going for a walk in the bush to look for lions. Allow me to explain why.

Most animals have a "flight zone" and a "fight zone." The flight zone is the large area around the animal within which, if you penetrate that area, the animal will move away. The fight zone is a much smaller area around the animal within which the animal does not feel it has space to move away, and will instead fight to protect itself.

If you go for a walk in the bush, and enter a lion's flight zone, it will move away - they usually avoid confrontation with humans. But if you are in a land cruiser, you can enter the lion's flight zone and it will simply ignore you (assuming that it is accustomed to cars). However, if your car approaches the lion and you then separate yourself from the car, you have immediately entered the lion's fight zone, having entirely bypassed the flight zone. This makes the lion extremely likely to attack.

The upshot of all this is that game drives are safe, provided you remain seated in the car. Break the rules, and they are extremely dangerous.

What about in the lodges? There is no fence around the lodge that keeps wild animals out. Here is a picture of me outside my cabin, photographing a herd of impala at the waterhole that is about fifty feet from my room:

The waterhole is also visited by leopards and lions. In fact, a leopard passed through the lodge while I was sleeping, and sometimes I hear lions roaring at night. So how is it safe to walk around the lodge?

Again, it depends. Of course, historically there have been lions and leopards that were determined man-eaters, and would seize people under any circumstances. But most lions and leopards are not like that, and do not pose a threat to people except under certain conditions. At night I lock my room and it would indeed be dangerous to walk around, since there could be a leopard around that would seize me. But walking during the day or early evening is fine, since there are people around, and a leopard would not usually attack a person under those circumstances.

Tomorrow we fly back to civilization and end off our tour with some interactions with captive lion cubs, leopard cubs and hyena cubs. We just had a kumzitz around the fire and everyone agreed that this was the experience of a lifetime, and the greatest trip they have ever taken. If you'd like to join next year's Africa adventure, please be in touch! I would also like to take this opportunity to mention that I will be in NY for about two weeks at the beginning of August, and I am available for speaking engagements, then in LA for the third week in August; please be in touch if you would like to arrange something. And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go; I hear a noise outside my cabin that I want to investigate.

Monday, June 8, 2015

In The Jungle

My Torah-in-Motion group have arrived at the Thornybush game reserve, adjacent to the Kruger. On our first game drive, we were exceptionally lucky:

Yes, that is an adult male lion. He yawned, and stretched:

...And then got up and walked right past our car. We could have leaned out and touched him!

We also saw elephants, a bushbaby, rhinoceros, a civet, a huge herd of impala, and the following beauties:

Can't wait to get up at 5:45 a.m. for the next game drive! Meanwhile, as I settle down in my cabin for the night, I can hear a lion roaring outside...

Sunday, June 7, 2015

What A Beautiful World

"One who sees beautiful trees and beautiful creatures says, Blessed is He that has such in His world.” (Talmud, Berachos 58b)

The Dassie on Table Mountain

I'm in the middle of my Africa tour with the Torah-in-Motion group, and we've been fortunate to see lions, kudu, sable, monkeys, hippos, crocodiles, giraffes, and a herd of elephants swimming across the Chobe river in front of our boat. We've also had some interesting interactions with animals - here's a photo from one of them:

But one of the species that I was most anxious see was the hyrax. Of course, I have seen wild hyraxes in Israel on countless occasions, but I was curious to see it in a different country.

Everyone here says that Table Mountain in Capetown is the place to see them. Its rocky nature is perfect for the shelter-seeking hyrax. Unfortunately, on the three previous occasions that I have visited Table Mountain, it had been closed due to bad weather. Fortunately, on Friday, the skies were gloriously clear, and we were able to take the revolving cable-car up the spectacular mountain.

At the top, my group was planning to take a leisurely stroll around a small area. But I wanted to maximize my chances of seeing a hyrax, so I went charging off to cover as much ground as possible. After half an hour, I still hadn't seen any hyraxes, and I was rather disappointed as I rejoined my group by the cable car.

"Did you see the hyrax?" they all asked. "It was right near us!"

Serves me right for leaving them, I thought. So I went to where they had seen it, and after a few minutes, there it was! It was spectacularly posed on the side of the mountain, with the entire bay area behind it:

While I couldn't see any differences between the hyrax in South Africa and the hyrax in Israel, there is a difference in their names. Here in South Africa, hyraxes are called dassies. While nobody could tell me the source of this name, I think that I have managed to figure it out.

In many English translations of Tanach, you will see shafan rendered as "rock badger." This reflects the appearance of the hyrax as a badger-like animal, and its constant connection to rocky habitat (unlike the rabbit!). But "rock badger" is in fact an English translation for the German name for the hyrax, klipdachsKlippe means "rock" and dachs refers to a badger - think of the dachshund, which is a dog (hund) bred for hunting badgers. So the name "dassie" is presumably a variant on dachs.

Anyway, I was very pleased to have seen the dassie. It meant that I didn't have to implement my back-up plan for showing a photo of a hyrax on Table Mountain:

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Something Beautiful in Beit Shemesh

Most of my posts about Beit Shemesh have not been very positive. But something wonderful transpired in Ramat Beit Shemesh today. (Since I spent the day in Botswana, this report and photos comes from my wife.)

Today is the yahrzeit of the three martyrs, Eyal, Gilad and Naftali hy"d. It has been designated as a "unity day." In Ramat Beit Shemesh, the dati-leumi schools and ganim organized a chain of girls and women around a street that forms a circle. They sang, recited Tehillim, and listened to a speech by a family member of one of the boys. In these photos, you can see some girls holding a poster that states "Acheinu KOL beis Yisrael." How beautiful!

On a related note, there is a new website called "Why Beit Shemesh?", which lists the benefits of this town. It's making me homesick - though on the other hand, if I was in Beit Shemesh today, I would not have seen a newborn giraffe, five lions, a herd of sable antelope, and over a dozen elephants swimming across the river in front of our boat...

Monday, June 1, 2015

Dangerous Encounters

Everyone is writing to me about the American woman who was tragically killed by a lion today at the Lion Park, a place close to where I am now, and which I have visited several times. Apparently it happened because she had left her car windows open. This is jarring for people who join me on our Africa trips, because our land-rovers don't even have windows. (Or roofs, for that matter.)

However, the circumstances are entirely different. The Lion Park is a small artificial environment with captive lions that are used to being fed by humans and associate humans with food. Wild lions, on the other hand, are not intimately familiar with humans and do not associate them with food. As long as you stay seated in the vehicle, the lion perceives you and the vehicle as a single, inedible entity. The important thing to remember is not to stand up in the car or lean out of it.

I must admit, though, that I am not exactly a poster boy for safe interactions with wild animals. Here's a video from yesterday (as usual, those reading this via email will have to visit the website to see it). This was while I was filming material for a documentary at Akwaaba Predator Park in South Africa. This particular piece of footage will not be used in the final product!

You can come see a non-dangerous striped hyena at The Biblical Museum of Natural History. (It's not dangerous because it's stuffed.)

Off to Zimbabwe tomorrow! Lehitra'ot!

(Thanks to my good friend Jake Shepherd for all his help in South Africa!)

(P.S. I'm not yet choosing a winner for yesterday's caption contest, because entries are still coming in.)

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