Sunday, March 31, 2019

My Two Cents on the Israeli Elections

The other day someone actually asked me to give them a brief guide to the coming Israel elections. So here it is, from my perspective - which is no more authoritative than anyone else's:

I'm assuming that people here are interested about the wellbeing and security of the State of Israel. If you don't care about that, then you're either voting Zehut (if you care about drugs, and are willing to join any coalition to get them) or UTJ (if you only care about getting money for yeshivos, and are willing to sell Israel's security for it).

I'm also assuming that most people here realize, as most Israelis have come to realize, that the left-wing parties have shown themselves to have a woefully mistaken approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. There is no such thing as real peace with the Palestinians in any foreseeable future. And one can only look back and laugh bitterly at the numerous politicians and army officers who claimed that the Gaza disengagement would bring security, and that if any missiles would be launched, the IDF would flatten Gaza with full international support. The fact is that as terrible as the current situation with Judea and Samaria is, there are no significant alternatives at the moment that are any better.

Now, some people think that Blue-and-White, led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, are the New Messiahs, insofar as they are Not Bibi. Personally, I think that it's absurd to think that Gantz, a person with absolutely zero experience in politics, is remotely suitable for a job that requires great political acumen and experience. And while Lapid originally seemed promising, more recently he seems to be a shallow hack just seeking popularity.

Bayit Yehudi - a party that I supported in the previous election, and which I support in municipal politics - lost my support when they continued to rally around Rav Druckman as their spiritual leader, despite his support of serial abuser Motti Elon and refusal to apologize for such support. Ironically, they tried to crush the criticism of Rav Druckman by telling people that it would harm Bayit Yehudi; they didn't realize that in this day and age, it's precisely that sort of cover-up which loses support.

Zehut seems to be very popular with several people in my neighborhood. Actually, it's the very popularity of it with certain notorious anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists that rang alarm bells for me. Looking into it more, I think that most Zehut supporters have not given serious thought to the ramifications of Zehut's platform, which, practically speaking, calls for all-out war against the Palestinians, the entire Arab world, and making even many staunch defenders of Israel (including religious Jews) renounce their support. Not to mention the fact that Zehut refuses to commit to supporting Bibi for prime minister, and is open to endorsing Gantz/Lapid.

So, there's Likud. It's a mainstream party with some excellent people that stands for Israel's security. And however much one is repulsed by Bibi (and I must say that as a former fan, I have been very disappointed by his egotism over the last few years), the fact is that he is incredibly savvy and has successfully led Israel to economic prosperity and relative security in a very, very difficult climate.

I was therefore considering voting Likud. Still, Likud sometimes gets weak at the knees, and occasionally leans a lot more left than one would expect from its ideology. It needs propping up from the right. Yemin HaChadash - the breakaway from Bayit Yehudi, led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked - seems to fill that role best. As one person said, Yemin HaChadash is Likud's ideology actually put into practice.

Now, some people are claiming that it's dangerous not to vote for Likud, because if Blue-and-White ends up being the largest party, then President Rivlin might ask Ganz to form a coalition. That seems to be unrealistic fearmongering, for two reasons. First, it doesn't look like they will be the largest party. Second, even if they are, there are not enough other parties that will endorse Ganz/Lapid as prime minister - Bibi is ahead by around ten to fifteen seats. It seems much better to vote for Yemin HaChadash, and make it more likely that Bibi will form a coalition with right-wing parties than with Blue-and-White.

There, that's my take on things. Unlike with hyraxes and rationalism and firmaments, I speak with no particular expertise. Feel free to disagree! Meanwhile, here's a link to a very useful unofficial FAQ that someone prepared about Yemin HaChadash. 

Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax

The pesukim about the camel, the hare and the hyrax, which appear in this week's parashah, have been used by many to argue for the Divine authorship of the Torah, based on the claim that these are the only animals with one kosher sign; while others use it to argue against the Divine authorship of the Torah, claiming that these verses contain biological errors. My book on this topic, The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax, is available at the museum, at select bookstores, and online at this link. There's also a lot of information in The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, which you can buy at this link, and also download the chapter on the hyrax FREE! But meanwhile, here is a summary of the topic, based on the final chapter of The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax.


1. The Torah lists four animals that possess only one kosher sign.

2. The Talmud, following its own principles of drawing additional meaning from words in the Torah, infers that the Torah’s list is exhaustive.

3. Elsewhere, the Talmud states that this topic argues for the Divine origins of the Torah, but the meaning of this is disputed:

Approach A: The simple reading of Rashi is that the argument refers to Moshe being familiar with the physiology of the four animals in the list.

Approach B: Alternately, one can argue that it refers to Moshe knowing all the local animals that possess one kosher sign.

Approach C: Tosafos explains that it refers to Moshe knowing about an animal called the shesuah, but this is a difficult explanation, as the simple reading of the verse does not indicate that the shesuah is a type of animal.

Approach D: Beginning in the eighteenth century, it was claimed that the Talmud’s argument refers to the Torah saying that there are no other such animals in the entire world. This argument rests upon (a) the boldness of the claim and (b) the veracity of it (as per point 2 above).

4. Making an argument from the boldness of the claim is fundamentally flawed, as there is no claim in the Torah that there are only four animals in the world possessing one kosher sign. Simply speaking, they are presented merely as examples from the region of the Land of Israel that were a particular dietary risk for the Jewish People. The idea that the list is specified as being exhaustive would only be accepted by someone with an a priori belief in the divine origins of the Talmud.

5. The lamoids and peccaries from South America also possess only one kosher sign. To posit that they are of the same min as camels and pigs (respectively) can only be done with a novel definition of min that grants a high degree of unspecified flexibility in categorizing new species under the Torah’s preexisting range of types. Accordingly, making an argument out of the exclusivity of the list is greatly weakened.

6. There is overwhelming evidence (discussed in chapters six and seven) that the shafan and arneves are the hyrax and the hare, and there are no alternative viable candidates. Positing the existence of extinct and unknown species is not viable in this case, for reasons explained at length in chapter four.

7. According to all evidence, the hare does not bring up the cud. To resolve this problem, we must say that the term ma’aleh gerah is an idiom that refers to such phenomena as ruminant-style chewing or cecotrophy, and/or to invoke the concept that "the Torah speaks as in the language of men." These approaches are viable, albeit somewhat difficult.

8. There are conflicting reports as to whether the hyrax regurgitates its food. Based on my own extensive observations of hyraxes, it appears that they do sometimes regurgitate small amounts. It is likely that the hyrax practices merycism, which can be defined as ma’aleh gerah without difficulty. If it does not practice merycism, then it can only be defined as ma’aleh gerah on the basis of its manner of chewing, probably requiring us to invoke the concept that “the Torah speaks as in the language of men.” As with the hare, these approaches are viable, albeit somewhat difficult.

9. Since we are forced to define characteristics such as merycism, ruminant-style chewing or cecotrophy as ma’aleh gerah, then there are still further types of animals that possess only one kosher sign, even with our novel flexible definition of min.

10. These further examples of animals with one kosher sign raise a problem with the Talmud, which apparently claims that the Torah’s list is exhaustive. However, there are two approaches which explain the Talmud in a way that avoids this problem:

• The Talmud is only making a statement about the exclusivity of the camel (due to it being the only ma’aleh gerah animal that is domesticated, or that lacks upper teeth, or that is a true ruminant); but the hare and hyrax may indeed share their characteristics with other animals. This only leaves the problem of the lamoids, which can perhaps be rated as a type of camel, albeit with some difficulty.

• The Talmud is only giving a rule for the general region surrounding the Land of Israel, but there may indeed be other such animals in remote regions of the world. This fits well with how various other seemingly universal rules in the Talmud are explained by other authorities - including Chazal themselves! - as only referring to local animals.

You can see a colony of hyraxes, and many more animals of the Torah, in our live online tours at the Biblical Museum of Natural History!

Monday, March 25, 2019

Who Else Should Help Desperate Kollel Families?

There are all kinds of charity campaigns for kollel families in desperate financial distress. Letters and appeals are sent out to Jews across the spectrum. But there's one group of Jews that doesn't seem to be asked to help these families.

Here's a letter that ought to be sent to all kollel families that receive help for being in severe financial difficulties:
"Rabbosay, there's a very serious poverty problem with countless kollel families. In response, there are many families around the world that contribute funds. This mitzvah, of helping people in need, is not one that only takes place when they give their credit card number. Rather, it's a mitzvah that they prepare for all the time, when they are working to earn the money that enables them to help those that need it.

"Rabbosay, we need more people to participate in this mitzvah. Specifically, we need YOU. For the existing donors, while they have a mitzvah to give tzedakah, they can choose to help your families, or they can choose to give to other causes. But for you, it's a mitzvah to help your families specifically. Each of you has a responsibility to help your own families with their basic needs. That responsibility, as delineated in the kesubah, is fulfilled by working. As Chazal say, it is better for a person to engage in even a lowly trade rather than casting themselves on others for support.

"Now, it's not easy to find work, especially for people who lack training and experience. But there are organizations which will help you do so, or which will provide you with the opportunity and means to pursue a job training program. There is Keren Kemach, there is Mafteach, there is Lemaan Achai, there are more.

"Leaving kollel is a very hard decision to make. But if one's family is not getting their needs met, then it's a straightforward requirement. And it's also crucial to think about your childrens' futures. If each of the families that we help has an average of eight children, who are being raised to follow the same path, and an average of at least six out of eight of these children will actually do so, then the problem will be at least six times worse in the next generation. What are we going to do about that?"
I showed this letter to some charitable friends who give money to help desperate people in kollel, and asked them what they thought about it. One said that it's not his place to tell people what to do with their lives, it's only his role to help them in difficult times. Another said that it's just futile.

Maybe they are right. But personally I think that it's everyone's responsibility to do what they can to motivate people to make the right decisions in life, especially when their bad choices are harming other people. And when you're giving people money, you have the chance to get their attention.

Furthermore, I think that there's even a strong case for saying that those who decide to make the right choice and take on their responsibilities will receive more financial aid. Perhaps even for saying that those who point-blank refuse to do anything themselves will not receive any aid beyond food coupons. Certainly Chazal and the Rishonim had a very dim view of people who see no reason to support themselves and not to live off charity.

See too: 
Did They Teach You This In Yeshivah?
Is It Better To Be Supported In Kollel Or To Work?
What's Wrong If Someone Wants To Support People In Kollel?
Vilna Mussar about Educating Children towards Employment 
The Economics of Torah Scholarship in Medieval Jewish Thought and Practice
The Little Red Hen 

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Another New Camel Species!

Recently, I discussed the evolution of a new species of camel, Camelus ArtScrollus Blackhoofus, which appears in the Stone Chumash and the Schottenstein Talmud. Someone directed me towards the extremely useful Stone Tanach, in which yet another novel species of camel appears. I'd like to name this one Camelus ArtScrollus Cartoonus. Just take a look at this:

The donkey hoof is great, and so is the sheep hoof. But what on earth is that cartoonish camel foot on the right? (Actually, if you google "cartoon camel," the illustrations are a lot more accurate!)

Aside from the cartoonish nature of it, it's not even remotely zoologically accurate. The illustration depicts a hoof that is partially split, but that's not what a camel has. Camels do not have any kind of hoof - instead, a camel has a foot, partially divided into two toes at the front, each bearing a nail:

So here again we have a mistaken conception of what a camel's foot looks like. And it's for the same reasons as the other fabrication. First, there is a mistaken translation of the passuk (due to the lack of realization that there are two different approaches to translating mafris parsah, and according to neither does it mean "split hoof"). Second, there is a lack of effort to actually look at the physical reality and see if the illustration makes any sense.

Interestingly, if you look at Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's Living Torah, the translation and commentary is vastly superior:
Among mammals, you may eat [any one] that has true hooves that are cloven and that brings up its cud. However, among the cud-chewing, hoofed animals, these are the ones that you may not eat: The camel shall be unclean to you although it brings up its cud, since it does not have a true hoof.
true hooves (Saadia; Rashbam; Ibn Ezra; Ibn Janach; Ralbag). Maphreseth parsah in Hebrew. Or, 'that has cloven hooves' (Targum; Rashi; Radak, Sherashim). 
does not have a true hoof The hooves of the camel are so reduced that they are like claws, and the padded soles support most of the weight. Some, however, understand the padded sole to be the 'hoof' here, and translate it, 'does not have a cloven hoof' (Rashi).
Rabbi Kaplan notes that the camel does not have a true hoof at all. I'd argue that correspondingly, it's more correct, according to Rashi's approach, to translate parsah as "foot" or "sole" rather than "hoof."

The truth is, it doesn't actually matter terribly much if someone has the wrong idea as to why a camel is not kosher. But if you're going to the effort of producing illustrations to explicate the passuk, what's the point of giving illustrations that are hopelessly mistaken?

Meanwhile, if you'd like to get a real-life understanding of the topics of kashrut and the shemonah sheratzim that appear in this week's parashah, sign up for Shemini - Live From The Biblical Museum of Natural History!


Saturday, March 23, 2019

Belated Purim Pix

Hope you all had a great Purim! We dressed up as "The Greatest Showman" - I was P.T. Barnum, my wife was Lettie the Bearded Lady, and my children as Anne Wheeler, Phillip Carlyle, Caroline Barnum, Jenny Lind, and General Tom Thumb!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

I Messed Up

I really messed up in my last post. The question of whether people in kollel who are in dire straits are helped by giving them a bigger kollel check is one to be discussed in the abstract - not in reference to a particular good-hearted neighbor who is working this week to help people. Sometimes I get so caught up in making a point that I forget the basics. I'm sorry.

Monday, March 18, 2019

What Is Purim Charity?

"And Mordecai wrote these things, and sent letters to all the Jews... that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor."
"One is obligated to give to poor people on the day of Purim... And one should not be particular about Purim money, rather give to every person who puts out his hand..." (Rambam, Mishneh Torah)

Purim is a season for Tzedakah. In the past few days I have given to a certain charity (more about that one soon), but I have also turned down some requests.

The first category of requests that I turned down was for institutions. Now it happens to be that all the institutions that approached me were institutions with which I have a deep ideological disagreement (i.e. chareidi yeshivos and kollels). Still, even if it would have been institutions that I admire, I would not have given. Goodness knows I have my own institution which I believe to be an extremely worthy cause, with enormous costs to cover, and yet we do not take advantage of the "giving spirit" at this time to do so. Because Purim is a time to give to the poor, not to institutions.

Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, in his Kovetz Halachos, states this explicitly. He says that although on Purim there is a law that one should give to whoever stretches out their hand, this does not apply to those collecting on behalf of institutions, because that is not Matanot L'Evyonim.

In the past I've pointed out how there are some amazing dati-leumi yeshivot that take advantage of the Purim giving spirit in order to teach their students a lesson about helping the poor. Yeshivat Lev HaTorah in Ramat Beit Shemesh and Yeshivat Ashreinu in Beit Shemesh both send their students collecting, not for themselves, but for others - for charities that help truly poor people. Fabulous!

This year I was also approached by a very, very good-hearted and utterly selfless person, who wants to help kollel families in dire straits. And he wants to do so in a way that is dignified - not as a shameful handout, but rather offering them the opportunity to learn for a few hours on Purim and receive a generous stipend.

I couldn't agree that this was a good cause. It's clear from Chazal and the Rishonim that the notion of choosing to live off charity rather than working is wrong (not to mention raising one's children without the education and values to work). It's also catastrophic for Israel.

The person agreed with me that they should be working (although we disagreed strongly about whether they are benefiting society at all by learning Torah). But, he argued, given that their poverty is a reality, are we supposed to just abandon these people to suffer?

I wasn't sure how to answer that, and I had to consult with a friend who works in the field. He pointed out that if it's a matter of actually having food to eat, there are organizations which provide that. Anything beyond that should only be given in a framework that addresses the underlying problem, not perpetuates it.

To this I would add that the notion of giving money in the form of a stipend for learning so as to help them in a dignified way makes it all even worse. Financial assistance to those who choose not to work should be given in a framework that makes it clear that this is a bad choice - not dressed up as a stipend for doing something good.

My preference is to support the poor via a wonderful local organization called Lemaan Achai. They help families in a way that gets them to financial independence. Furthermore, for Purim, they practice Smart Chesed - giving them what they actually need in terms of long-term assistance, rather than just money for a Purim Seudah. It's a fabulous tzedakah organization that should serve as a model for others.

(One final note. Whenever you're approached by a "tzedakah" collector that doesn't seem to be a legitimate cause, you can always question yourself as to whether the reason that you are refusing to give is out of stinginess rather than a legitimate disagreement. Perhaps the solution is that after declining such requests, one should immediately set aside money for a legitimate cause.)

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Pi and Rambam

Today, March 14th, is Pi Day (3.14). And pi has been yet another of the battlefronts in the Rationalism/Mysticism Wars.

Rambam (in his commentary to Eruvin 1:5) explicitly describes pi as being an irrational number (i.e. a number that cannot be accurately expressed by a fraction). Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, in Torah, Chazal and Science p. 155, claims that Rambam "was not merely repeating an accepted piece of information, since this fact was as of yet unknown to the rest of the world." Rabbi Meiselman further claims that Rambam deduced this from the Talmud (positing a very strange inference that Rambam derived this from Chazal approximating Pi as three rather than using a fraction, which he claims means that they knew that Pi could not be accurately expressed as a fraction). As such, Rabbi Meiselman presents this as evidence that Rambam, and in turn Chazal, possessed wisdom that was ahead of their time, and was somehow derived from the Torah or some other such supernatural source.

Rabbi Meiselman's claim that has been echoed by others, such as Jonathan Rosenblum and Rabbi Yaakov Menken. They all use it to delegitimize the rationalist approach, claiming that if Rambam had supernatural knowledge of science, then it's foolish to believe that Chazal (who were even greater) made scientific errors.

However, this claim about Rambam and pi is completely false. Rambam's statement about pi is by no means extraordinary.

Boaz Tsaban and David Garber note that "Various ancient Greek writers, including Hero, Eutocius, and Simplicius, understand the difficulty of finding an exact value for the ratio, and seem to realize the possibility of its being irrational," although they did not say so definitively. It is thus certainly no surprise that after centuries of failed efforts to calculate the value precisely, people would conclude that it is indeed irrational.

The fifth-century Indian mathematician Aryabhata wrote that “Add four to 100, multiply by eight and then add 62,000. By this rule the circumference of a circle of diameter 20,000 can be approached.” The 15th century commentator Nilakantha Somayaji interprets the original words as saying that not that is this an approximation, but that the value is irrational.

Then, at the turn of the ninth century, the Persian mathematician Muhammad Al-Khwarizmi notes that there are several different methods for calculating Pi. A marginal note (I am not sure when it was written) observes that "It is an approximation not a proof, and no one stands on the truth of this, and no one but Allah knows the true circumference of the circle, as the line is not straight and has no beginning and no end, we merely attempt to approximate and discover the root, but even the root has no definition as no one may know its exact value but Allah, and the best of these approximations that is to multiply the diameter by three and seventh as it is faster and simpler and only Allah might know it true."

The Muslim scholar Abu al-Rayhan al-Biruni, who lived from 973-1048, was familiar with Aryabhata's works. In The Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, [Roshdi Rashed ed.], vol. 2, London/New York, 1996, p. 454), Boris Rosenfeld and Youschkevitch note that al-Biruni described Pi as irrational. In their discussion of medieval Arabic science, they further note that "...Arabic mathematicians repeatedly expressed their belief that the ratio of the length of a circumference to its diameter was irrational... Subsequent European mathematicians were also sure that pi is irrational but only J. H. Lambert, a native of Alsace, in 1766 succeeded in proving this."

Thus, the irrationality of pi was certainly not "as of yet unknown to the rest of the world." Just as the early Greeks seem to have suspected and just as the early Indian and Muslim scholars were certain, Rambam was likewise certain that pi is irrational. (As for Chazal, there is absolutely no reason to believe that they knew pi to be irrational, but even if they would have known it, this would be consistent with others in antiquity.)

Rambam was an utter genius. But he wasn't ahead of his time scientifically, and he did not have any supernatural sources of knowledge about science. If someone wants to delude themselves into thinking otherwise, it doesn't really bother me; the only problem is when they use this mistaken view to try to delegitimize those who take an honest, factually-based, rationalist approach. And such delegitimization is also, ironically, the ultimate perversion of Rambam's legacy.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Evolution of Camelus ArtScrollus BlackHoofus

Did you know that there's a special edition of the ArtScroll Stone Chumash which features color illustrations at the back? I recently came across it and I was surprised to discover that it depicted a species of camel hitherto unknown to science. I think it should be named Camelus ArtScrollus BlackHoofus, the ArtScroll black-hoofed camel. It wasn't too hard to figure out how it evolved.

The picture is to illustrate the Torah's description of animals that meet the criterion of possessing split hooves, and those that don't. Instead of photos, ArtScroll uses high-quality artwork. And the illustration of the camel's foot is this:

But what on earth is that? The picture shows a big black hoof with two gray nails on the tip. But that's not what a camel has. Here are photos of a camel's foot:

As you can see, the camel doesn't actually have a hoof at all. Instead, there is a just a big furry foot, with two nails at the end.

So how did ArtScroll come up with the idea that the camel has a big black hoof, split at the tip? The answer is that it comes from a common mistranslation of the Torah.

The Torah’s first requirement for an animal to be kosher is that it is mafris parsah, which is often understood to mean that the animal must possess a split hoof. However, as I explained in great detail in The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax, there are actually two different classical explanations of this phrase, and neither of them translates it this way.

According to Rashbam, the word "mafris" is based on the same root as "parsah," which refers to a nail-like covering. Accordingly, the phrase mafris parsah means that the animal "hooves a hoof," or to put it in better English, "forms a hoof." The requirement of it being split is expressed in another phrase, shosa'as shesa.

According to Rashi, on the other hand, the word mafris is not based on the same root as parsah. Instead, mafris means "split" (and shosa'as shesa means fully split). Parsah is defined by Rashi (to Vayikra 11:3) as having the meaning of the Old French word plante. This refers to the sole of a foot - not necessarily to a foot that is hooved (i.e. encased by a hard covering). Accordingly, the phrase mafris parsah means that the animal "has a split foot."

Thus, according to neither view does mafris parsah mean "split hoof". It either means "has a hoof" or "has a split foot."

Now let us turn to the Torah's account of the camel:
אַךְ אֶת זֶה לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִמַּעֲלֵי הַגֵּרָה וּמִמַּפְרִסֵי הַפַּרְסָה אֶת הַגָּמָל כִּי מַעֲלֵה גֵרָה הוּא וּפַרְסָה אֵינֶנּוּ מַפְרִיס טָמֵא הוּא לָכֶם
This verse is often translated as meaning that the camel's "hoof is not split" - i.e. that it has a hoof, but the hoof is not adequately split. But that's not what it means at all, according to any view. According to Rashbam, it means that the camel does not have a hoof - instead, it has a big furry foot with nails. (To put it another way: according to Rashbam, the camel is disqualified because it does not have a proper hoof at all, let alone one that is split.) According to Rashi, on the other hand, it means that the camel's foot (not hoof) is not adequately split, as Rashi explains there:
 מפרסת פרסה ושסע איננה שוסעת - כגון גמל שפרסתו סדוקה למעלה אבל למטה היא מחוברת:
“Which divides the foot but is not split” —such as the camel, whose foot is split at the tip but is joined at the back. (Rashi to Leviticus 11:26)
According to Rashi, the camel is disqualified is because its foot is not adequately split. There is no reference to the camel either having or lacking a hoof. (Rashi's explanation of the camel having a foot which is only partially split is consistent with camel anatomy, but one does wonder whether Rashi, living in France, ever actually saw a camel in the flesh.)

Thus, ArtScroll's reference to a camel having "a hoof that is split at the tip" is not based on any Rishon - and thus its corresponding illustration is not rooted in any zoological reality.

The problem is that most people are not aware that there are two different explanations of the Torah here, and they blur both explanations together in their minds. So most people read the requirement of mafris parsah as meaning that the animal must have a split hoof. And then when the camel is described as "ufarsah einenu mafris," they understand this to mean that it has a hoof that is not split. Thus emerges the creation of the camel illustrated in ArtScroll, which has a big black hoof. But there ain't no such thing!

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Return of the Mexican Rabbit Zealot

Here is a letter that I sent to ArtScroll last week:


Sometimes, there are additions to a work which detract from it. It is disappointing to see that a certain note was added to the latest edition of the ArtScroll Talmud. (As you may recall, 16 years ago you hired me as zoological consultant for Chullin.) The problematic addition in the latest edition is a note to Chullin 59a, regarding the identity of the shafan, which reads as follows:
"[For a wide-ranging discussion of this topic, and a strong defense of the traditional view that the shafan is the rabbit and not the hyrax, see The Identity of the Shafan, by Dr. Isaac Bettech.]"

I have long been familiar with Dr. Isaac Betech of Mexico, who was one of the zealots involved in engineering the notorious controversy over my works. Dr. Betech is single-minded in his religious obsession that the shafan must not be the hyrax (because in order to contrive his own particular forced explanation of how the Torah's four animals with one kosher sign are the only such animals on the planet, he wants the shafan to be the rabbit). In order to attain this objective, he engages in the most ludicrous pretzel-twists of intellectual dishonesty, which I and others have documented at length (and links are provided below).

To call his discussion of the topic "far-ranging," therefore, is a little misleading. He tries to overwhelm the reader by writing about a wide range of animals and sources, but what he describes as "Torah and scientific research" is entirely directed towards a predetermined goal. And amazingly, in a book that professes to be the definitive and comprehensive study of this topic with "more than 1000 bibliographical Torah and scientific sources," he fails to cite the only dedicated work on this topic that had ever been published - because it was written by me!

But far more problematic is the description of Betech as attempting to defend the "traditional" view. The view that the shafan is the rabbit is not the "traditional" view; it's the medieval European view, because they didn't have hyraxes in Europe. They broke from the original tradition of people from the Geonic era, who lived in the region of Israel, and were familiar with the hyrax. To describe the identification of the shafan with the rabbit as being the "traditional" view is akin to speaking of the "traditional" view that the tzvi is the deer (which Rashi points out to be a mistaken European innovation), that the nesher is the eagle, or that the olive is the size of seven olives. These are medieval European Ashkenazi views that were innovations, not traditions from Jewish communities in other parts of the world or from antiquity.

(Amusingly, Betech tries to make the reverse argument. In his summary at, he writes that since the Spanish Rishonim identified the shafan as a local animal, and there are no hyraxes in Europe, therefore the shafan cannot be the hyrax! He can't countenance the fact that it was precisely because the hyrax was not a local animal that Europeans transposed its identification to the local rabbits!)

You can ask anyone in the field of Biblical natural history (such as Dr. Zohar Amar and Dr. Moshe Raanan), and they will all tell you that it's clear beyond any doubt that the shafan is the hyrax, and cannot possibly be the rabbit. The reason is the very clear passuk in Barchi Nafshi:

הָרִים הַגְּבֹהִים לַיְּעֵלִים סְלָעִים מַחְסֶה לַשְׁפַנִּים: תהילים קד:יח 
"The high hills are for the ya'elim, the rocks are a refuge for the shefanim."

The pasuk tells us two things about shefanim: that they hide in rocks, and that they are associated with ya'elim. Ya'elim are ibex, the mountain goats of the Judean hills that are especially prominent in Ein Gedi, which is named after them (and in Shmuel I 24, it states that David was hiding among the ya'elim in Ein Gedi). If you go to Ein Gedi, you see ibex climbing the hills, and you can also see small furry animals hiding among the rocks, exactly as the pasuk describes - hyraxes.

Isaac Betech would have you believe that the author of this passuk, who groups his reference to the ibex with a description of animals that hide in the rocks, was not speaking about the animal that hides in the rocks right next to the ibex! Instead, he claims, David HaMelech was speaking about the rabbit of Spain - an animal that never lived anywhere near the Land of Israel and was thus completely unfamiliar to David HaMelech and to his audience, and which moreover does not hide under rocks but rather in burrows! It's simply ludicrous.

(The hyrax also matches the description in Shemini of an animal that brings up food via its throat, which it does in small quantities, as I have observed and filmed on several occasions. And contrary to Betech's claim, the shafan is no more of a sheretz than is a rabbit - in fact, it is much larger, and more of a leaper.)

I understand that you were probably placed under a lot of pressure - Isaac Betech is experienced at manipulating Gedolei Torah to write letters in support of his agenda, which he uses to bully people into kowtowing to his demands. Indeed, a few years ago he launched a massive campaign to prevent Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks from coming to Mexico. However, he was ultimately unsuccessful, which shows that it is possible to stand up to that kind of pressure.

For the sake of intellectual integrity, as well as retaining a good name with intelligent people, you might wish to consider removing the new note. Or perhaps you could re-write it to be more accurate:
"For a passionate defense of the medieval European view that the shafan is the European rabbit and not the hyrax of the Land of Israel, see The Identity of the Shafan, by Dr. Isaac Bettech. For a discussion of the classical definitions and the historical processes which led to many of the Torah's animals having their names later transposed to other animals, see Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin's work The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom."
Meanwhile, I am attaching the chapter on hyraxes from my encyclopedia, for your interest. The more involved discussion is in my book The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax (second edition), and I am available for any questions that you may have. You might also like to visit The Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh, where the passuk from Barchi Nafshi is illustrated in an exhibit that combines both ibex and a live colony of hyraxes. (In fact, there are numerous zoos that exhibit both species together, because of their close geographical and environmental association).

Finally, here is a list of some of my articles pointing out the absurdities in Dr. Betech's presentation, and explaining further evidence why the shafan has to be the hyrax and cannot be the rabbit:

Where are the Pandas, Penguins and Polar Bears of Psalms?
Ruach HaKodesh and Reason
The Quest for Truth: A Fascinating Case Study
From Non-Disprovable to Possible to Probable to True
The Primary Reason - Clarified
Circular Reasoning at its Best

And here are two articles by Rabbi Dr. Josh Waxman that further illustrate Betech's intellectual dishonesty:

The Problem with Dr. Betech's Book
A Review of The Enigma of the Biblical Shafan

Best wishes,
Natan Slifkin

Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin
Director, The Biblical Museum of Natural History

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