Thursday, June 16, 2016

Day of the Bardelas

It's Bardelas Day! 

Today, Daf Yomi reaches Bava Kama 16a, which discuss a mysterious creature called the bardelas. Many students of the Gemara have been perplexed by this animal, which appears in several places in Shas. Here is an extract from The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom which discusses its identity.

The Mishna discusses the laws regarding which animals are classified as dangerous, such that their owners have a higher degree of liability for damage that they cause:
The wolf, the lion, the bear, the leopard, the bardelas, and the snake are muadin (rated as expected to cause damage). (Mishna Bava Kama 1:4)
What is the bardelas? As discussed in the chapter on the cheetah, this is not a Hebrew or Aramaic term but rather a Greek term. In Greek, it refers primarily to the leopard but also to the “lesser leopard” i.e. the cheetah. The leopard is already mentioned prior to the bardelas in the Mishna’s list, under its usual name of namer, and thus the term bardelas must refer to the cheetah.[1]

As we shall see, this is apparently the view of the Yerushalmi. The Babylonian Talmud, on the other hand, queries the meaning of the term bardelas, presumably due to the Sages of Babylonia being relatively isolated from Greek culture and language. It answers that the bardelas is the hyena:
What is the bardelas? Rav Yehuda said: The nafraza. What is the nafraza? Rav Yosef said: the afeh (אפא). (Bava Kama 16a)
Afeh is the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew tzavua.[2] Thus, according to the Babylonian Talmud the bardelas is to be identified with the tzavua, which is the hyena. But this leads the Talmud to raise a difficulty with this interpretation:
Let us raise a question: R. Meir said, also the tzavua, and R. Eleazar said, also the snake, and Rav Yosef said, the tzavua is the afeh! (Bava Kama 16a)
The question being posed by the Talmud is that since the tzavua is listed by R. Meir as a separate creature from the bardelas in the Mishna, then they must be different types of animals. The Talmud answers that this need not be the case:
This is no difficulty; one refers to a male tzavua, while the other refers to a female tzavua. (ibid.)
The Talmud considers that both male and female hyenas are dangerous. It takes the term bardelas as referring to one gender of hyena, and the term tzavua as referring to the other gender of hyena. But while this is the view of the Babylonian Talmud, the Yerushalmi is of a different view, for two reasons. First, it apparently understood the term bardelas as referring to the cheetah, and second, the Yerushalmi is of the view that only a male hyena is considered potentially dangerous:
It was taught: R. Meir said, also the tzavua. R. Yose, son of R. Avin, said, R. Meir was only talking about a male tzavua, which has its hour when it is as dangerous as a lion. (Y. Bava Kama 6b)
Later, we shall further explore the danger posed by the hyena, as well as other aspects of the views of the Talmud regarding male and female hyenas. For now, let us note that the Babylonian Talmud identifies the bardelas with the tzavua, which in turn refers to the hyena. This identification was accepted by Maimonides, who gave the Arabic name of the hyena:
Bardelas – an animal that is called al-tzaba in Arabic. (Maimonides, commentary to the Mishna, Bava Kama 1:4)
In 1338, Shlomo ben Shmuel of Gurgang published a Hebrew-Persian dictionary, in which he identified the bardelas as “an animal that lives in cemeteries, digs up the dead and eats them.”[3] This undoubtedly refers to the hyena. A little over three hundred years later, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Chagiz (1620–1674), a resident of the Land of Israel, refers to Maimonides’ description of the bardelas, and writes about it at length. He describes it as somewhat similar to a donkey; presumably this is a reference to the hyena’s mane, longish neck and large ears.[4]

Rabbi Moshe Reischer was a nineteenth-century resident of Palestine who was forced to emigrate and moved to Galicia. He wrote a popular work about the Land of Israel which includes a brief section on its fauna, in which he discusses the bardelas at length – presumably because his European readership was unfamiliar with this animal.[5] He cites Maimonides’ Arabic translation of al-tzaba, and notes that the Arabs of his day refer to it as al-daba, which is synonymous due to the common transposition of “tz” with “d.” Rabbi Reischer says that he saw the hide of a hyena, but apparently did not see a living specimen. He gives a fairly accurate description of the hyena, describing its mane as extending down its back, though exaggerating its size somewhat in describing it as being as big as a donkey.[6]

While in this passage the Talmud identifies the bardelas as the hyena, it seems that other references to the bardelas in the Talmud do not refer to this animal.[7] Instead, they are apparently a corruption of the word mandris. This appears to refer to the mongoose or similar such creature, as we shall discuss in the chapter on the mongoose.[8]

(The chapter continues to discuss the Gemara's description of how the hyena changes into different animals, and concludes with an inspirational concept, based on Perek Shirah, about how the hyena is an essential part of the circle of life. With thanks to Rav Moshe Shapiro, who told it to me a number of years ago. You can buy The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom at this link.)

[1] See Binyamin Mussafia, Mussaf HaArukh; Menachem Dor, HaChai BiYemei HaMikra, HaMishna VeHaTalmud, p. 64; Avraham Ofir-Shemesh, “The Bardelas.”
[2] See Targum and Radak to I Samuel 13:18 and Avraham Ofir-Shemesh, “The Bardelas.”
[3] Cited in Wilhelm Bacher, Ein hebräisch-persisches Wörterbuch aus dem vierzehnten Jahrhundert (Strassburg, 1900).
[4] Yaakov Yisrael Chagiz, Korban Mincha (Izmir 1675), Chapter 7; also cited by Rabbi Eliyahu HaKohen in Midrash Talpiyot (Izmir, 1736), anaf bardelas. Rabbi Chagiz also relates a belief that the hyena hypnotizes people by dancing and singing, after which it lures them to its lair and kills them.
[5] Rabbi Moshe Reischer, Shaarei Yerushalayim (Warsaw, 1868), pp. 18–19.
[6] Rabbi Reischer also relates a belief that the hyena hypnotizes a person. According to Rabbi Reischer, it does this by dancing in front of him on two legs while drumming on its belly, causing the onlooker to fall into hysterical laughter and lose his mind. The person then follows the hyena to its lair, whereupon it kills him, eating only his brain.
[7] Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Chagiz and Rabbi Moshe Reischer, loc cit. See Tosafot to Sanhedrin 15b s.v. Vehabardelas.
[8] Avraham Ofir-Shemesh, “The Bardelas in Ancient Rabbinic Literature.”


  1. FWIW, in modern Hebrew the word is "tzavoa".

  2. And tomorrow is the day of the lion where the Gemara claims that a lion normally eats its prey alive as opposed to killing it first like other animals. Is this another misconception of Chazal?


      Lions Eat Elephant Alive

  3. Could you explain why according to the Yerushalmi ברדלס is a cheetah?

    Rabi Meir in the Yerushalmi is the same Rabi Meir that is brought as a question in the Bavli. The Bavli concludes that a צבוע and ברדלס are just different genders. By the adoption of the terms צבוע זכר we see that צבוע is the more general species. Is ברדלס male or female then? By saying ברדלס is female we can understand the Yerushalmi as follows: The mishna states that the more dangerous female צבוע known as a ברדלס is Muad. Rabbi Meir adds even the male צבוע is muad, to which Rabbi Yose son of Rabbi Avin points out that Rabbi Meir was only talking about when it is angry.
    Thus the only dispute between the Bavli and Yerushalmi is if a relaxed male ברדלס is muad.

    Thus the Yeruashlmi doesn't seem to suggest ברדלס is a cheetah.(!)

    1. That's a rather forced reading of the Yerushalmi.

      If the word צבוע is the general name, R' Meir should have said "even the male צבוע". What he actually says is "even the צבוע" without specifying a gender. If you want to claim that it is immediately obvious that R' Meir is only adding a male צבוע to the list since the mishna has already listed the specific name of the female צבוע, then why does R' Yosi qualify the statement by limiting it to a male צבוע? If he wanted to qualify R' Meir's statement to only certain times, why didn't he just say "R' Meir was only referring to times when it's dangerous"? Limiting it to a male צבוע is completely redundant according to your approach.

      On the other hand, if the Yerushalmi thought the ברדלס was a completely different animal (regardless of what it actually had in mind), then absolutely no mental gymnastics is required. The only open end is to identify which animal it could have had in mind. If, as R' Slifkin claims, there exists a reasonable candidate such as the cheetah, then bending over backwards to force the Yerushalmi and Bavli into agreement seems senseless.

    2. Dave, I think that you are missing the main point, which is that ברדלס is a Greek word and the Bavli is often puzzled as to what Greek words are referring to. For example, the Bavli doesn't know that the Apikores in the Mishnah in Chelek refers to Epicurus and relates it to the world Hefker instead. So there is no reason to go through all kinds of pilpul to make them come out the same. Beside the fact that the Yerushalmi and Bavli often offer different interpretations of the Mishnah.

      Baron is correct in his demonstration that your reading is extremely forced; what I'm showing here is that there is no reason to accept any forcing at all.

      What is instructive is to learn a Yerushalmi and Bavli in parallel and see the differences in reasoning and conclusion between them.

    3. Are you sure that the interpretation of Apikores is because they didn't know about Epicurus. The Rambam definitely knew about Epicurus (since he talks about his views in the Moreh) And yet interprets (In his commentary to the mishna on Chelek) Apikores as being an Aramaic word (meaning to denigrate the torah and the wise, and then extended to all denial of torah fundamentals). (And while it is possible that he changed his mind, we also know that he updated the commentary throughout his life (for example the 4th of the 13 ikkarim, which is a few paragraphs later))

    4. It is a good question as to why the Rambam used the Gemera's derivation from the word Hefker, but it is possible that he simply went with the Gemara rather adding a distraction explaining Epicurus. But that is not the same as saying that the Bavli itself did the same. Someone who actually knows something will come up with other examples. I believe the Bavli isn't 100% sure what Afikomen is either.

    5. Also, you can see that the Rambam is rationalizing the Gemara because he give the Gemara's explanation and then add his own extra piece that it refers to one who denies the fundamental principles of the Torah, which is not present in the Gemara.

  4. The wolf, the lion, the bear, the leopard, the bardelas, and the snake are muadin (rated as expected to cause damage). (Mishna Bava Kama 1:4)

    How is a wolf more dangerous then a lion or bear ??

    1. What Rabbi Slifkin meant by "rated as expected to cause damage" was: "Can be expected to cause damage", not "ranked according to how much damage we expect them to cause".

    2. Ok how is a wolf expected to cause more damage then the other anamals

    3. DWL: It isn't (or at least the Mishnah doesn't assert that). They are all simply Muadin.


    1. That page discusses whether wolves will attack humans. Muad means that is likely to attack and cause damage. Attacks on non-humans are included.

  6. I was kinda hoping you'd also have a rationalist comment about a deceased person's spine turning into a snake. That was in today's Daf too!

  7. With regard to the snake and the spine, see Rav Hirsch's letter to Rav Wechsler in which he references the gemara as he writes:
    "The Talmud in Bova Kama declares “A human spine, after seven years, turns into a snake; this applies only if he did not kneel at Modim. “ Anyone who reads this finds it laughable, but Pliny says the same statement almost word for word, “After a number of years the human spine turns into a snake.” Chazal, however, used this to teach a mussor lesson. To any mind it is clear that every similarly surprising statement of Chazal, if we look into it, was accepted as true by the scholars of the time.
    We find that Chazal themselves considered the wisdom of the gentile scholars equal to their own in the natural sciences. To determine who was right in areas where the gentile sages disagreed with their own knowledge, they did not rely on their tradition but on reason. Moreover they even respected the opinion of the gentile scholars, admitting when the opinion of the latter seemed more correct than their own."
    See Zoo Torah

  8. This article was a bit boring because it wasn't bashing anyone. I was hoping for an article more similar to the type of articles you usually write.

  9. Rabbi Slifkin -- this list seems pretty arbitrary. Were these merely the dangerous animals historically encountered when visiting animal enthusiasts? And it seems to be quite specific (depending on how you define bardelas) in referencing 3 large felids (lion, leopard and cheetah) while only mentioning a single canid (wolf), without mention of the African wild dog. And then the bear and the oddly listed snake.

    Needless to say, there are so many types of snakes. The ball python, one of the most popular pet snakes today, is supposedly known as P. regius because Cleopatra kept one (or some), and so would have been known in that time and region, and yet is one of the most docile snake species around. And then you have rat snakes that are a bit frisky, and still then larger nonvenomous snakes that are nearly impossible to tame (carpet pythons, etc), and then of course venomous ones -- and yet they are all classified under one term.

    It all appears to come across as very unsophisticated.

    1. It's not at all arbitrary. These are the only dangerous animals in Eretz Yisrael.

    2. Interestingly, there are also wild boars in Eretz yisroel, but since the halacha forbids raising pigs in Israel, they wouldn't need to be included in a discussion of muadim.

  10. The fact that an animal is Muad doesn't mean that it is on the rank of the most dangerous animals in the world. It means that there is strict liability for damages in public areas (at least). As opposed to oxen on public roadways where the Mishna imposes a no-fault liability scheme: each person assumes half the of the damages no matter whose animal did the damage.

    So the reason to be on the list is going to include how dangerous the animal is, how common it is to need to possess such an animal, the fact that the animal is actually available locally and whatever other factor would affect the liability rule. If there are species of snake that don't damage, then the Mishna will simply have a null effect, since no liability will ever result.

  11. There are many other animals that are dangerous - why not list those ?

    A Hyena or Cheetah may do severe damage - but could a mongoose.

    1. Mongooses are not dangerous. There are no other dangerous animals in the region.

    2. Dear Rabbi NS, your post too quickly - I see where you explained mongoose for other sections of Gemarah. Times have changed - hardly can a imagine anyb Orthodox Jew today having these dangerous animals. Now is your chance to be among the first - meaning for the zoo. Thanks for clarification.

  12. Is there a place in Rabbinic literature where it says that the Bardelas, when it meets a man, dances, laughs and cries in order to lure him into its lair; and once it has caught him, it sucks out his brains? Or is this a description of the hyena, applied to bardelas?

  13. Is there a Chazal that the bardelas when it meets a man, dances, laughs and cries in order to lure him into its lair; and once it has caught him, it sucks out his brains? Or is this just a description of the hyena?


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