Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Beasts of the Sea

Don't miss the important announcement at the end of the post!

While reading Moby Dick this summer, I was surprised to come across a reference to a concept found in the Gemara:
On the second day, numbers of Right Whales were seen... Seen from the mast-heads, especially when they paused and were stationary for a while, their vast black forms looked more like lifeless masses of rock than anything else... And even when recognised at last, their immense magnitude renders it very hard really to believe that such bulky masses of overgrowth can possibly be instinct, in all parts, with the same sort of life that lives in a dog or a horse.
Indeed, in other respects, you can hardly regard any creatures of the deep with the same feelings that you do those of the shore. For though some old naturalists have maintained that all creatures of the land are of their kind in the sea; and though taking a broad general view of the thing, this may very well be; yet coming to specialties, where, for example, does the ocean furnish any fish that in disposition answers to the sagacious kindness of the dog? 
The sea-horse steed of Aquaman
The highlighted text is found in Maseches Chullin:
Everything that exists in the land, exists in the sea, with the exception of the chuldah (weasel or marten). (Talmud, Chullin 127)
It turns out that this was a widely-held belief in antiquity, referenced by Pliny the Elder and by later writers in Christianity and Islam. It held theological significance, being seen as expressing the symmetry of Creation. In the 17th century, Sir Thomas Browne argued that it was a "vulgar error," and we see that Melville rated it as only potentially true in the broadest of senses.

There is also another Talmudic reference to this concept:
Abayey said: "The donkey of the sea is permissible [as food]; the ox of the sea is prohibited. And the way to remember it is: The impure is pure, the pure is impure." (Avodah Zarah 39a)  

But what does the notion of a "marine counterpart" actually mean? R. Chezkiah da Silva (1659-1698), author of the Pri Chadash commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, argues that the "donkey of the sea" and the "ox of the sea" refer to actual aquatic versions of oxen and donkeys—i.e. creatures which were essentially oxlike and donkeylike in form, complete with four legs, but which happened to be aquatic. (He discusses this in the context of arguing that an aquatic creature does not need to be a fish in order to be rendered kosher by the presence of fins and scales--which has ramifications for a certain species of squid.)

Meeting a sealion twenty years ago, back when I had hair.
The notion of an aquatic donkey and ox is by no means as unreasonable as it may first appear. After all, the Mishnah mentions a “sea-dog,” which refers either to a seal or an otter—and both these creatures are indeed essentially extremely dog-like. Others, however, interpret the "sea donkey" and "sea ox" much more loosely, to refer to certain fishes that have certain points of resemblance to donkeys and oxen.

It took quite a bit of research for me to nail down what the "sea donkey" and "sea ox" actually are. And then it took some further effort to actually acquire them! Both of them will be making an appearance at the "Feast of Legends from the Sea," at the Biblical Museum of Natural History. We've change the date of the event yet again, to accommodate people visiting Israel for Sukkos - it turns out that hardly anyone keeps two days anymore, and many people are leaving Israel on the night after Sukkos, so we are having the dinner that evening! More details are at this link.




31 comments:

  1. "It turns out that hardly anyone keeps two days anymore and many people are leaving Israel on the night after Sukkos"

    Speak for your own crowd.

    PS Do they stay in the airport until mo'tzai yom tov in chu'l, or do they return to their homes in Jewish areas? A midnight flight from BG arrives in JFK at around 4AM local time.

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    1. Huh? If they leave Tuesday night, they arrive Wednesday morning. That's not chag in chu"l.

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    2. Not if travelling West back to the US....... Maybe they do something clever with the date line......

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    3. If he means leaving Tuesday evening yes. I understood he meant they leave Monday evening, or Tuesday morning, not keeping 2nd day yom tov in Israel. They can make sure they take a plane leaving such that it is after YT in NY.

      Unless I am missing something, per Google, for example, a Delta flight leaving TLV at 12AM Tuesday morning arrives in JFK 5.05AM Local Tuesday morning.

      My substantive point still stands of course.

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    4. It seems odd to come to a blog known to be frequented by a particular "crowd", and go to the trouble of commenting on a post written by a prominent figure in that "crowd", in reference to the timing of an event obviously directed at that "crowd", the terribly clever line "Speak for your own crowd."

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    5. They leave Monday night. Remember, they are observing one day in Israel.

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    6. JT. If they leave Monday night, that is the issue. They will arrive simchas torah in the US.

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    7. Mr Coleman,

      He said 'it turns out that hardly anyone keeps two days anymore, ' no mention of referring just to his crowd.

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    8. Nit Picker (!),
      If you carefully reread my comment, you will observe that it suggests that the commenter is in the wrong for ignoring the background information, the IMPLICIT as opposed to EXPLICIT, if you will. For example, if you came home from shul and said to your wife, "No one is home for Shabbos," she would understand that despite your lack of explicit clarification, you meant that (almost) no one IN YOUR SHUL or neighborhood is home for Shabbos, not no one IN THE WORLD or universe.

      Capisce?

      Delete
  2. > It took quite a bit of research for me to nail down what the "sea donkey" and "sea ox" actually are. And then it took some further effort to actually acquire them! Both of them will be making an appearance at the "Feast of Legends from the Sea,"

    ... wait, didn't that quote from the gemara indicate that the first is kosher, but the second is not? Is the halacha not like Abayei then?

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    1. I said that they are both making an appearance, not that they are both being served!

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  3. Maybe Melville knew of the Talmudic reference directly.
    There is a part of Moby Dick where a preacher retells the story of Yonah. The retelling embellishes it substantially, using numerous elements mentioned in Midrashim.

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  4. If the "sea ox" is not kosher, why will it be appearing at the feast?

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    Replies
    1. Phew! Almost managed to expose him. Keep trying.

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    2. what? slifkin conspiracy theories? don't believe a word of them....

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  5. "it turns out that hardly anyone keeps two days anymore"

    I attribute this to the loss of the true concept of "Minhag HaMakom" in the aftermath of the destruction of much European Jewry and the failure to the American rabbinic institutions to formulate a 'Minhag America'. (American specifically as the largest Jewish community by far for many years after WWII.)

    Discussing the loss of 'Minhag HaMakom' in favor of 'Minhag of county that tried to kill my (great)grandparents' might make for an interesting post on Rationalism. e.g. What's the Rationalist view of one person waiting six hours between meat and dairy and their neighbor waiting three hours because of where a great-grandparent they never met immigrated from? Is this model sustainable or is it breaking down over time? Do we see this happening already with the push (especially in Israel) to abandon the ban on Kitniyot and the second day of Yom Tov when visiting Israel?

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    Replies
    1. If you are interested in that Rabbi Jonathan Ziring has a series of lectures (as I recall in Hebrew) on the subject on YU Torah where he discusses the opinions of multiple posekim on the subject.

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  6. > with the exception of the chuldah (weasel or marten).

    That's oddly specific. Any idea why the weasel, of all terrestrial animals, was thought not to have an aquatic counterpart?

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    Replies
    1. because its name is related to h'aledd, earth.

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    2. hence, i'd guess that the weasel being an exception isn't found in earlier non-Jewish sources

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  7. Wouldn't say "hardly anyone" - that reflects a lack of awareness beyond one's own circles. But yes, it is definitely true that more and more people are keeping one day (myself included, when we were there for Pesach.)

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  8. RNS - I commented on something Charles Hall wrote, specifically, his inappropriate penchant of using your blog to air his political opinions, regardless of how irrelevant to the topic. You responded by censoring both our comments. Mr. Hall is on your Board, whereas I am merely a purchaser of your books and monographs and (possibly) the longest active participant in this forum. Censoring comments to protect your Board members from well-deserved criticism does not give one confidence in the integrity of the blog.

    Feel free not to print this, but I would at least appreciate the courtesy of an email to me (which you and the museum's secretary have.) If Hall is to be shielded from criticism, he should be told to keep his divisive politics out of this forum. If he cant even do that, then he's not the kind of guy you want associated with your apolitical work to begin with.

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    1. DF you are wrong.

      I virtually never censor comments. Sometimes it takes me a while to see them and let them through, sometimes they go to spam for reasons that are unclear, sometimes they don't come through at all. But I didn't censor them.

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    2. Didn’t see any of it, but perhaps he deleted his own comment?

      I know for a fact that R Slifkin has been accused of comment censorship by many when he is doing no such thing.

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    3. Well perhaps it was inadvertently deleted or I confused it with another matter, and if so, I certainly apologize.

      I value this blog, even when I disagree. Other blogs - and here I am thinking specifically of the old Hirhurim site - basically "jumped the shark" when they began overly censoring or limiting the comments platform. Don't allow that to happen here.

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  9. I would ask though: is it that more and more people are starting to hold like the Chacham Tzvi and not carrying an overseas mentality with them... or are they just lazy and don't want to deal with more Yom Tov. Nafka mina would be those going the other way- I do NOT think that there has been a corresponding rise in Israelis keeping TWO days when visiting Chutz LaAretz. Granted, one can argue that the base populations are different, but when we are talking about people who have made aliyah and are now effectively changing their shita...

    [full disclosure: despite the popularity keeping only one day and my being a alum of Gush (where the Brisker "day-and-a-half" is popular) I keep two days when I am in Israel for Yom Tov. Which, granted, is pretty rare, but still.]

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  10. "it turns out that hardly anyone keeps two days anymore"

    Not including Reform or Conservative Jews outside of Israel, is there any data about Orthodox Jews not keeping the second day of Chag? If there is any movement to one-day observance, is this a cognitive or reflective decision or more of a artifact of assimilation?

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    1. The people I know feel like they're getting an unwanted slap on the wrist for living in chutz l'aretz. People don't like feeling "punished" and they don't like the awkwardness of observing Yom Tov in a place where all their Israeli family and friends are not. So, they disregard it. I think you can call it cognitive dissonance. As I wrote in my comment earlier, I think part of the cause is the loss of a sense of Minhag HaMakom. The requirement to keep two days isn't a slap on the wrist, it's just keeping your Minhag so long as you've not yet taken up residence where the prevailing Minhag is different. Today, when most of our Minhagim are static, based on the national origins of grandparents and great-grandparents, the earlier concept of Minhag HaMakom is lost.

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  11. can the "sea ox" be steller's sea cow?

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  12. Do you have a citation for the Pri Chadash's comments?

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