Discover more from Rationalist Judaism
Denying Chazal's Belief in Spontaneous Generation
There are many statements in Chazal referring to the spontaneous generation of various creatures. While this belief might sound absurd to people today, it was in fact entirely reasonable and normative in the ancient world - none other than Rambam ridicules those who do not believe it.
In the charedi world, the standard approach is to claim that this phenomenon indeed used to exist, but "nature has changed" and it is no longer found. (This runs into various difficulties, discussed in my book Sacred Monsters, which I shall not go into here.) A different approach, however, is found with charedi anti-rationalist rabbonim who seek to present themselves as sophisticated thinkers that are well-versed in science, such as Rabbi J. David Bleich and Rabbi Moshe Meiselman. They are dogmatically opposed to saying that Chazal predicated halachos on a misunderstanding of the natural world, so no matter how much evidence there is for that, they have to find a way around it. However, they can't bring themselves to insist that spontaneous generation really does take place (though R. Bleich does insist that it can't be disproved!) So they claim instead that Chazal never actually believed in spontaneous generation.
Now, one obvious problem with this approach is that the entirety of traditional rabbinic thought - every single Rishon and Acharon - interpreted Chazal as believing in spontaneous generation. Is it not preposterous, even arrogant, to claim that you understand Chazal's words better than every single Rishon and Acharon who ever lived? And it also goes strongly against the charedi ethos of claiming great respect for the mesorah and for traditional rabbinic authorities.
But in this post I would like to concentrate on a different problem with this approach: the way in which its advocates conveniently ignore sources in Chazal which expose the impossibility of their interpretations.
Let's begin with the most famous case of spontaneous generation, that of lice. The Gemara says as follows:
Rabbi Eliezer said: One who kills a louse on Shabbos is like one who kills a camel on Shabbos (and has violated Shabbos)… Rav Yosef said: The Rabbis disagree with Rabbi Eliezer in the case of lice, which do not reproduce (and are thus not considered to be proper life-forms)… (Talmud, Shabbos 107)
This seems like a straightforward statement that lice spontaneously generate, which is indeed how all the Rishonim and Acharonim understood it. But R. Bleich and R. Meiselman both insist that when Chazal said that lice do not reproduce, what they meant was that lice do not reproduce in a way that is visually detectable. Halachah does not take into account microscopic phenomena, and that's what Chazal meant. (They do not attempt to explain why Chazal presented this in such a misleading way as to lead all the Rishonim and Acharonim astray.)
Now, the immediate problem is that lice actually do reproduce in a way that is visually detectable. Lice eggs are not too small to be seen by the naked eye. R. Bleich therefore claims that the Gemara is actually talking about a different, unknown species of louse. He does not acknowledge the difficulty of positing that lice infestations back then were a different species, nor of claiming that the halachic mesorah at one point changed to be referring to a completely different species!
R. Meiselman, on the other hand, claims that "what is sub-visual is not the egg itself... but the relationship between egg and parent", which he explains to refer to the cycle of lice laying eggs which then hatch into other lice. But that is not sub-visual either! So R. Meiselman argues that "since this relationship was not historically perceived (the ancients did not realize that lice hatch from nits - N.S.), the halachah treats it as non-existent." Whoah! So if ancient people didn't notice/realize something that is perfectly visible, then halachically it doesn't exist?! That is a staggering claim, with extraordinary ramifications! (So the sun doesn't halachically go on the other side of the world at night? And a baby born after an 8-month gestation is not halachically alive?)
Anyway, another problem is that the immediately ensuing passage in the Gemara shows that Chazal were aware of the possibility that lice hatch from eggs, and negated it:
Abaye said: And do lice not reproduce? Surely it was said, “God sits and sustains from the horns of aurochsen to the eggs of lice” (which shows that lice come from eggs)?—That refers to a type [of organism] which is called "eggs of lice" (but not that lice actually hatch from these). (Talmud, Shabbos 107)
Surely if Chazal did not believe in spontaneous generation, and were merely intending to negate sub-visual phenomena, then they could have just said that, yes, God sustains the eggs of lice, but they are sub-visual! R. Bleich and R. Meiselman both attempt to answer this, but in brief words that seem designed more to obfuscate than elucidate - after trying for a while to wrap my head around the cryptic contrivances, I just gave up.
But, at a broader perspective, any attempt to explain what Chazal had in mind when they described lice as "not reproducing" must surely take into account their general view of how creatures come into existence. And that leads us to our next mysterious creature: the salamander.
II. The Salamander
Chazal say the following about the salamander:
The Rabbis taught: “The tzav, according to its kind” (Leviticus 11:29) — to include the arvad, and also the nefilim, and the salamandra. And when Rabbi Akiva would reach this verse, he would say, “ ‘How diverse are Your works, O God!’ (Psalms 104:24) ...You have creatures that grow in the fire, and You have creatures that grow in the air; those which grow in the fire would die instantly if exposed to air....” (Talmud, Chullin 127a)
It was universally believed in the ancient world that salamanders are generated in fire, grow in it, and cannot survive outside it. If Chazal believed in the spontaneous generation of even a larger creature such as the salamander, why would they not have believed in the spontaneous generation of much lesser creatures such as lice? Also, here we have another case of Chazal having an incorrect belief about the natural world!
R. Meiselman, despite publishing an 800-page allegedly authoritative book on Torah and science, designed to refute the heresies presented by yours truly, simply doesn't mention salamanders. It's a source in Chazal that refutes his forced explanations, so he simply ignores it!
R. Bleich has the following to say about the salamander: "Aggadic references to mice arising from dirt (Sanhedrin 91a) and salamanders from fire (Hagigah 27a) have no bearing on this discussion. Quite frequently, aggadic statements involving exaggeration and hyperbole are allegorical and intentionally inaccurate. Illustrations of edifying teachings are often presented in terms best understood by the intended audiences."
What on earth is this supposed to mean with regard to the Gemara's statement about salamanders? It's not an exaggeration or hyperbole - it is a calm description of how this salamander lives and dies. There's nothing which indicates it to be allegorical or intentionally inaccurate. And it was certainly understood as a factual, accurate account by all the Rishonim and Acharonim. Moreover, R. Bleich fails to cite the following source from the Midrash Tanchuma:
There are creatures that thrive in fire, and not in air, such as the salamander. How so? When glassmakers heat the furnace for seven consecutive days and nights, out of the thick of the flames emerges a creature that resembles a mouse, which people call a salamander. If a person smears his hand with its blood, or any other of his limbs, fire has no power over that part of him, because a salamander is generated from fire. (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeshev 3)
This is clearly a non-allegorical, non-hyperbolic description that is intended to be accurate. R. Bleich ignores this, presumably because it refutes his claims about Chazal's infallibility and about their not believing in spontaneous generation.
III. The Mud-Mouse
Finally, we come to the mouse that is generated from earth:
A certain sectarian said to Rabbi Ami: You say that the dead will live again—but they become dust, and can dust come alive? He replied... Go out to the field and see the rodent that one day is half flesh and half earth, and on the next day it has transformed into a creeping creature and has become entirely flesh. (Talmud, Sanhedrin 91a)
Again, there is no reason whatsoever to accept R. Bleich's claim that this is hyperbole, allegorical, or intentionally inaccurate. Meanwhile, R. Meiselman claims that Rabbi Ami did not himself believe that such a creature exists, but was merely telling the sectarian that since he believes in it, he should not deny techiyas hameiseim. Of course, this is a remarkably strained interpretation.
Furthermore, refuting R. Bleich's description of the mouse as "aggadic," and challenging R. Meiselman's claim that Chazal didn't actually believe in its existence, is the fact that the Mishnah itself discusses the laws of such a creature:
A mouse which is half flesh and half earth; if someone touches the flesh part, he becomes impure; if he touches the earth part, he remains pure. (Mishnah, Chullin 9:6)
R. Bleich simply fails to mention the Mishnah. R. Meiselman claims that weren't definitively stating that they believe such a creature to exist, but they were "merely familiar with the persistent rumors of the creature's existence and wished to clarify its halachic status." But if they were open to the possibility that a mouse can be generated from earth, then isn't it overwhelmingly likely that they also believed that lice can be generated from sweat?
Furthermore, both R. Bleich and R. Meiselman fail to mention the following passage from Chazal about the mud-mouse, in which they actually expound a drasha from a passuk as specifically existing in order to address the mud-mouse!
I might think that a swarming creature causes impurity, but a mouse that is half flesh and half earth, which does not cause swarms, does not cause impurity. But it is logical: The rat causes impurity and the mouse causes impurity; just as “rat” is as its meaning, so too “mouse” is as its meaning (and thus a mouse that is half flesh and half earth would transmit impurity). Yet alternatively, one could say, just as the rat procreates, so too the mouse referred to is one that procreates, which excludes a mouse that is half flesh and half earth and does not procreate! Therefore it teaches us, “[And this is impure for you] among the swarming creatures [which swarms on the land]”—to include the mouse that is half flesh and half earth, that one who touches the flesh becomes impure and if he touches the earth he remains pure. (Midrash Sifra, parashas Shemini 5:6; Talmud, Chullin 127)
Are R. Bleich and R. Meiselman going to claim that Chazal had a drashah for a creature that they didn't believe existed?! Evidently it's much easier for them to simply ignore this Chazal.
The sad thing is that due to the impressive accomplishments of both R. Bleich and R. Meiselman in various fields, many people can't bring themselves to recognize their sophistry, irrationality and intellectual dishonesty in areas which challenge their anti-rationalist dogmas. That's the common mistake of those who do not follow Rambam's maxim to accept truth from wherever it comes - which has the corollary of rejecting falsehood from wherever it comes.