Thursday, March 24, 2022

Rav Chaim Kanievsky and the Grasshopper

In the aftermath of the passing of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, there are all kinds of things happening. Some are noble, such as people being inspired by his selfless utter dedication to his learning. Some are disturbing, such as organizations seeking donations by marketing dubious supernatural claims made in his name "just before he died!" And some are not especially helpful nor harmful, but are very interesting.

One particular Rav Chaim legend making a resurgence is the famous grasshopper miracle story. Rav Chaim was learning the Gemara about identifying kosher locusts (the swarming varieties of grasshoppers). He was struggling to understand certain aspects of the Gemara's discussion. Just then, a grasshopper miraculously jumped through the window and landed on the Gemara! By looking at it, he was able to resolve the difficulties in understanding the Gemara's discussion.

This story is sometimes told with even more remarkable aspects. There's a version in which after studying and releasing it, he realized that he needed to study the hind legs a bit more, but the grasshopper was long gone. But then a second grasshopper hopped in and on to his Gemara, giving him the ability to study its hind legs in detail. 

And then there are the sequels, in which people who discount the story themselves experience the same thing, in some cases even being punished by a plague of grasshoppers in their home. Rabbi Josh Waxman has an excellent discussion of the problematic messaging that people shouldn't be skeptical about miracle stories. (The story is printed in a certain sefer, about which Reb Yankel Galinsky is said to have quipped "I would say I don't believe it, but I am scared a plague of that sefer will occupy my house.")

But meanwhile, this week someone released a video in which he asked Rav Chaim if the basic story is true - and Rav Chaim confirms it! It's presented as an incredible confirmation of a miracle. Now, some people will say that the video shows a very, very old man who is not necessarily actually remembering what happened or even describing it in detail. But personally I have no problem believing it. And I'll tell you why.

Many years ago I was giving a Shabbos morning presentation about animals of the Torah at the enormous Boca Raton Synagogue. One of the examples that I like to discuss is the verse in Mishlei: "The gecko grasps with its hands, and is in king's palaces." It's about how geckos have an amazing ability to climb up  walls (which is accomplished through their incredible toe structure that uses molecular forces) and can thereby survive even in palaces, which have a cleaning staff that is dedicated to getting rid of such things. And lo and behold, I noticed that high up in the palatial shul, there was a gecko on the wall!

Here's another one. While I was finishing writing The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, I was stuck with a problem. The verses about lions attacking all speak about a solitary male lion lying in ambush. But, as everyone knows, that's not how lion attacks happen. It's the lionesses which do the hunting, in groups of lionesses which chase down their prey in a coordinated attack. I was sitting in front of my computer, struggling with this, and eventually decided to take a break and switch to reading the science news. Lo and behold, there was a story about a new study which revealed that it's only in the African savanna that lions hunt in such a way, whereas in dense forests (such as used to exist in Israel) it's the males that hunt via ambush!

Here's a third. Right now we are accumulating a collection of biblical and artistic model Noah's Arks for a new exhibit at the Biblical Museum of Natural History. One part of the exhibit is about arks from around the world which show local wildlife of that region, such as the African ark pictured here (revealing how people relate to the animal kingdom in terms of the local animals with which they are familiar). Yesterday, our director of PR announced to an interested party that the collection includes an ark from Australia with Australian fauna. I winced, because despite enormous effort, we had not been able to find such a thing. But lo and behold, just a few minutes ago as I started writing this post, I received a message from a friend in Australia with a picture of just such an ark that they had come across!

And so, if people are claiming that the grasshopper story is evidence of Rav Chaim's unique supernatural status, that's fine with me. Because it also means that I have unique supernatural status! Joking aside, I think it's clear that even if the grasshopper story is true, it is not especially significant. It could be simply a coincidence, or a fortuitous providential event that can happen even to someone like me.

But there is something in the video about Rav Chaim and the grasshopper which shows the true nature of his greatness.  

The average rabbi, even the average very very learned rabbi, will tell you point-blank that Ashkenazim can't eat locusts. After all, the Mishnah cites R. Yosi that a tradition is required as to which type may be eaten. The Yemenites and Moroccans have such a tradition to eat the migratory and desert locust (pictured here at the museum), but the Ashkenaz tradition is that we don't know which are kosher and therefore you absolutely cannot eat them. And there were authorities such as the Ohr HaChaim who spoke very harshly against it, which makes people especially nervous.

But Rav Chaim says otherwise. In the video, he says that it's a matter of dispute. And what he means is that there's a legitimate position that there is no Ashkenazi tradition of not eating locusts; rather, Ashkenazim simply weren't familiar with locusts, which don't live in that part of the world. As with the model Noah's Arks, people are generally only familiar with animals from their part of the world. According to this view, it's perfectly legitimate to accept the tradition from those who do have it, just as a community lacking a tradition regarding the kashrut of a certain bird is perfectly entitled to accept the tradition from a community that does have it.

In Rav Chaim's extensive monograph on this topic he has a remarkable insight which gives a further reason to permit locusts. Even according to the view that R. Yosi requires there to be a tradition, it is not described as a tradition that a particular type is kosher, and it is also not referring to a tradition that it has a specific Hebrew name. Rather, it is referring to a tradition that this insect falls into the general category that is named chagav (which includes the four types mentioned in the Torah, explained by Chazal to include four further types), based on its overall appearance. 

What does this mean? It means that the required tradition is just that this creature is in the general category of locust, rather than being a cricket or one of the many unusual varieties of grasshopper. Which is the case with the grasshoppers that are eaten by Yemenites and Moroccans.

This is the greatness of Rav Chaim. Not an embellished and insignificant story about a grasshopper entering his home. But rather, his incredible mastery of Torah, and his honest approach to it. How many people who are not directors of Biblical Museums of Natural History have studied so much of Torah that they have even covered this arcane zoological topic in detail and have rich insights into it? And how many people are honest and brave enough to describe the halachic situation as it really is, instead of according to the highly conservative frum way?

Meanwhile, you can see live examples of both species of kosher locusts at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, along with sundry exhibits such as our Locust-o-matic machine for preparing them for consumption. And if you're comfortable following the view that locusts are kosher, you can buy them at our gift store or purchase them online from our website. Actually, they make a great conversation piece for the Seder table, even if you don't eat them! (If you are a museum patron, you will be receiving a complimentary jar of locusts in the mail next week.) You can also read more about their kosher status on our Knowledge Base at this link

And here's something incredible. This video of Rav Chaim surfaced this week - and the laws of kosher locusts are mentioned in this week's parasha!

It's a miracle.


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53 comments:

  1. How much do I have to donate to the Museum *not* to get a jar of locusts in the mail? :-)

    I kid, I kid. I've actually eaten a locust myself. It wasn't bad.

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    1. Tastes like chicken?

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    2. I read that it tastes like French fries...

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    3. It tastes like whatever you fry it in.

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  2. At my Purim seudah this year the host had these locusts. He offered them to everyone. Regardless of halacha, I found it disgusting enough just to hold one much less eat one. A more charedi guest said "But there's no mesorah!" to which the host replied "There's more of a mesorah than there is for turkey"...

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  3. The locusts are kasher l'Pesach? If they are processed in any way, is there any hechsher?

    Asking for a friend. :)

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    1. I have the same question.

      RNS writes “Actually, they make a great conversation piece for the Seder table, even if you don't eat them!”

      I notice in the photo of the jar that although it says “Kosher” on the label, there does not appear to be an actual hashgacha from any known kashrut organizations.

      If this is indeed a food item - processed / dried, then if I have it on my table on pesach, should it not be kasher l’pesach (or at least confirmed as free of chametz) even if I don’t plan to eat it? Ownership of chametz is still problematic even if not eaten.

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    2. Rabbi Slifkin, could you please respond. Thank you.

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    3. They are not processed in any way other than being heated in a special oven that was never used for anything else.

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    4. Also, the farm that raises them for us told us as follows:
      אנחנו מקבלים את הכשרות גם לפסח כיוון שמנת המזון של החגבים היא עשב החיטה (החלק הירוק העלווה) ולא נכנס שום זרע חיטה למתקן הפיטום.

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    5. Great. So you can also eat them שרויה!!!

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  4. Replies
    1. https://kettlefreaks.com/products/god-saved-steak-not-lettuce

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  5. "This is the greatness of Rav Chaim. Not an embellished and insignificant story about a grasshopper entering his home. But rather, his incredible mastery of Torah,"

    Sorry but I watched the video too, and while I was pleasantly surprised that he said its a machlokes and some permit eating grasshoppers, I fail to see where in the video he displays "greatness" or an "incredible mastery of Torah". He literally just says it's a machlokes, and some permit. He doesnt even quote the names of those who discuss it.

    These hyperbolic words of praise from you make me suspicious that you are trying to play to the crowd - the crowd that (incorrectly) denounced you for denigrating RCK in your Hesped a few days ago.

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    1. I didn't mean the video. I meant his kuntrus on the topic.

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    2. Please provide a link to it

      Apologies for my unwarranted aspersions

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    3. קרני חגבים can be downloaded here: https://hebrewbooks.org/47701

      Delete
  6. "And lo and behold, I noticed that high up in the palatial shul, there was a gecko on the wall!"

    And then what? Did you remain silent about it or did you point it out to everyone and recommend everyone donate to Baba Natan's museum?

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  7. I wouldn't have called these stories sequels, but spin-offs.
    I don't know who you've talked to about this and answered straight away that there is no tradition, but they don't seem very learned. It doesn't take a RCK to know that it's a matter of debate.
    But then it depends on the way the question is asked: if it's theoretical, then that's the proper answer beyond any doubt. However, if asked halocha lemaase I don't believe RCK would have answered that way, as the most accepted view is that it's not enough to make it not ספק דאורייתא, and therefore not permissible.
    The turkey is not really in the same category, as the signs given by chazal for non-kosher birds are quite clearer than the ones for kosher locusts.
    I'm not saying locusts should for sure be off-limits for ashkenazis, I just don't believe RCK would have said ''yeah, go for it''.

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    1. " as the most accepted view is that it's not enough to make it not ספק דאורייתא, and therefore not permissible."

      He said it was a מחלוקת. The video is edited, so I don't למם' if he paskened one way or the other, or not at all.

      " if asked halocha lemaase I don't believe RCK would have answered that way,"
      So you're claiming that if asked הלכה למעשה he would paskened it's forbidden and there's no מחלוקת?!

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    2. I believe he would have said it's a machlokes and therefore you should not eat it.

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  8. can you also post a link to Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky, Rav Chaim's wife, telling over this story of the grasshopper herself?

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  9. Your overall point is well taken. (By the way, the video of his confirmation of the event is not that recent.) Yet:

    There is a verified story that at the burial of the Chazon Ish, someone made a comment to the effect of "Well, he was great, but he was no GR"A." The next minute, he was bitten by a scorpion. Yes, we know scorpions are native to the Middle East. But for that to happen at that very moment? See the mishneh in Avot.

    The second message in the above story is that one should be quite careful regarding the kavod of someone who likely would have considered a talmid chacham in any generation.

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    1. “There is a verified story that at the burial of the Chazon Ish, someone made a comment to the effect...”

      Verified by whom? Who witnessed the scorpion stinging that “someone”? Who was that “someone”. What was his name? Where did he live? Where was he stung, on his foot, or finger? Has anyone interviewed the witness(es) to ascertain what Is being proffered here as a form of heavenly retribution for belittling a Gadol?
      Or is this nothing more than a Bubbeh Meise. Or perhaps, even if the incident did occur, was it nothing more than a coincidence?

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  10. In a sense you're reporting on the prevalence of fortuity. Now it's the theorists turn to explain it. Is there a logic that encompasses fortuity or there exists only a core logic that is regularly violated by fortuity?

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  11. Locusts are permissible to one sect of devout Jews but forbidden to another. Same halachic confines regarding kitniyot are permitted to some Jews, others not. Women’s photos OK for magazines of one sect but prohibited for another. 1 day of observance for holidays in Israel and 2 required for residents outside of its borders. Seems that these various sects are importuning different Gods.
    What a religion!

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    1. None of those four items has anything to do with any of the others.

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    2. You had me up until the Yom Tov part. That is in the Talmud explicitly

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    3. The Talmud’s declaration of a two-day yom tov for residents outside of Israel’s borders is at odds with the Torah’s explicit instruction to observe just one day. So whose laws are you going to observe, the Talmud’s or the Torah’s?

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    4. Bas-Sheva:
      Nonsense chumras that have arisen in the past 20 years should not be placed on the same tier as minhagim from the Gemara.

      You might have had a point if you stopped after the kitniyos example.

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    5. Yosef R,

      You reply completely ignored the Torah’s commandment to celebrate only one day Yom Tov not two, regardless where the 2 day innovation emanated. Chumras for thee but not for me or vice versa. Whose Torah will you obey?

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    6. UW, what is the Torah's law when a situation occurs when you live in Babylon 2000+ years ago and it is unknown whether Rosh Chodesh Nissan was declared in Jerusalem on a Monday or a Tuesday? After you answer that, we can advance to modern times and the present fixed Hebrew calendar.

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    7. Anonymous 2:21PM,

      It is immaterial to ask about the solution to a misidentification of the exact day to celebrate Rosh Chodesh Nissan in Babylon 2000 years ago. Was the solution to create a 2nd day of observance in Babylon despite it being contradictory to the Torah’s directive to observe only one day? Perhaps, but this wasn’t the only time that The Rabbis distanced themselves from the Torah’s explicit mandate.
      You miss the point. The Rabbis could have told the Babylonian Jews to pick one day to celebrate the Yom Tov but they decided to pick 2. However, today there is no uncertainty of the exact day. So why not return to the original true requirement to celebrate only one day? That is what the Torah says. So why do the opposite of what the Torah commands?

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    8. There’s elasticity and diversity in Halachah. That’s the system. Don’t knock it. Or as Robert Zimmerman sang “…and don’t criticise what you can’t understand (for the times they are a-changing)”

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    9. There’s elasticity and diversity in Halachah. That’s the system. Don’t knock it. Or as Robert Zimmerman sang “…and don’t criticise what you can’t understand (for the times they are a-changing)”

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    10. UW, you said:

      > You miss the point. The Rabbis could have told
      > the Babylonian Jews to pick one day to celebrate
      > the Yom Tov but they decided to pick 2.

      But the Torah says that Passover is on a very specific date. That is - in your own words - "the Torah's explicit mandate."

      So, now it's YOU who is doing "the opposite of what the Torah commands."

      You're certainly not better than the Rabbis. And the Rabbi's solution guarantees that you will correctly observe the holiday one way or the other. Your method is a flip of the coin. Tails. You lose.

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  12. That African Noach's Ark is beautiful!

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  13. I have enjoyed reading your Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal World and use it as a reference whenever there are questions or discussion about animals in the Torah. So my question to R' Natan is this: when will you be publishing a sequel? Missing is information about birds, reptiles, insects and even fish. Can you share with us what your future plans are for the encyclopedia?

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  14. slifkins a class amaleke he tries to cool off everything thats spiritual and gives people chizuk

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    Replies
    1. Do chareidi trolls wear peyos as they sit under a bridge to eat the goats that pass by?

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  15. Many of these stories are examples of Louis Pasteur's remark about fortune favoring the prepared mind. How many other rabbis have had a grasshopper walk across their sefer without learning anything about its legs? How many people have wondered (a little bit) about the verses and saw the nature program without making a connection between the two, as they weren't thinking about the verses at the time? I know I fit into the latter category.

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  16. I haven't watched the video, but I was under the impression that the miracle of the grasshopper story is that the exact species of grasshopper he was learning about would appear whenever he learned about it, not just any grasshopper. That would certainly constitute as more than serendipity or "fortuitous providence".

    I like the rationalist approach much better than the chareidi worship of gedolim, however, it seems to me you're committing some of the same "transgressions" as the chareidim. Just like the chareidim find it necessary to shoehorn every great rabbi into their world view to give it validity, even when it may not be the case, I feel like you're trying to do the same thing here. Rabbi Kanievsky may have been an old man, and he may have been surrounded by his "chatzer", but I still believe had he wished to object to the whole "chassidic Rebbe" status described in the funerals post he would have. It seems to me that you're almost using his willingness to buck the trend on locusts and grasshoppers to provide some validity to your rationalist point of view. To me, the implicit reasoning of this article is: "Look rabbi Kanievsky was willing to leave the chareidi dogma with locusts and grasshoppers, he must have been less of a radical chareidi supernaturalist and more of a rationalist. I'm glad this great rabbi believed and provided validity to my point of view".

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  17. I respect your knowledge and I myself am more rationalist than not, I like your blog at times, but Rav Nosson, what you have written this week about Rav Chaim's death and especially even before he was buried, and throughout the shiva I don't believe has given Hashem any nachas. You have just stoked negativity. Regarding the locust story, Rav Chaim said it was true in the video and come on, do locusts plop down on your window often? I see them in the grass sometimes but even that is not often. So in the middle of Rav Chaim writing a sefer on locusts, one flies to his window and Rav Chaim examines it for his sefer's purposes, that is special.

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    1. 1. See the comments to the previous posts. Many people felt that what I wrote would very much "give Hashem nachas."
      2. We don't know exactly what happened with the locust and what Rav Chaim confirmed.

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    2. You have a lot of talent and what to contirbute to the Torah world but you are so jaded that you misuse it for negativity, lashon hara, and lack of kavod chochomim way too often. This is one of the big examples.

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    3. Rav Chaim says in the video that it came to him.

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  18. I think the issue with hashgacha pratis stories is all people have them. Religious and non-religious - and ALL religions. They also don't always turn out to be the "sign" we take them for. I have seen religious marriages built on the otherworldly signs that they were meant to be. I have seen them founder. I have seen up close a darn near miraculous meeting and marriage between a near-atheist Jew and a rather non-religious person from a very religious family (that family being Xtian and largely born again.) We all have stories, all of us. And all religions "go there" to prove they are correct. (This includes a book I saw of Jews for JC. Their miraculous tales once they got the "right" religion.) We are meaning making machines; we seek guidance and certainty; many of us seek leadership and father figures; others need guardrails or we will founder (think of the many BTs who have come from difficult or partly failed lies; the porn stars who "find G-d.") Life is hard. Some of us (I think) sadly and manipulatively, hold out religion as a way to solve all problems; and we are bad people when we do that.

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  19. The difference between the rationalism espoused nowadays by the popular agnostic secular figures and people who believe in miracles is that the former claim they haven't seen one and that they then expect regularity. Fundamentaly they don't believe in a rational universe in a philosophical sense. It's a universe in which the only difference is one says there are probably no miracles because I haven't seen any and the other says there are.

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  20. Reminds me of this book "The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day
    by David J. Hand"
    From the description, "In The Improbability Principle, the renowned statistician David J. Hand argues that extraordinarily rare events are anything but. In fact, they're commonplace. Not only that, we should all expect to experience a miracle roughly once every month.
    But Hand is no believer in superstitions, prophecies, or the paranormal. His definition of "miracle" is thoroughly rational. No mystical or supernatural explanation is necessary to understand why someone is lucky enough to win the lottery twice, or is destined to be hit by lightning three times and still survive."

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    1. Sounds like the Ramban on Yamn Suf it was just the strong winds etc.

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    2. I question the timing.

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    3. "Anonymous March 28, 2022 at 12:09 PM
      I question the timing."

      According to the "Sunday, March 27, 2022 The Grasshopper Revelation!" post, there was no fortuitous timing.

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