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Here Comes Lice Day!
Tomorrow is Lice Day!
Yes, that's right. Tomorrow, Daf Yomi reaches Shabbos 107b, the page of the Gemara which references lice spontaneously generating. As you may remember, my pointing out that this is an errant belief (albeit with no halachic ramifications) caused a spot of bother back in 2004/5. As far as most of the Charedi Gedolim were concerned, such a view was utter heresy (or at least forbidden to say). This was notwithstanding the fact that my statement was simply a repetition of an observation that had been made by many great Torah scholars (such as, specifically with regard to spontaneous generation, Rav Yitzchak Lampronti, Rav Hirsch, Rav Herzog, and Rav Dessler). Not to mention the fact that it was clearly true.
Meanwhile, there are always those who claim that the Gemara isn't actually saying that lice spontaneously generate. I remember Rabbi Moshe Meiselman literally (and I mean "literally" literally) screaming at me that on Yom Kippur, I will have to beg forgiveness for having accused Chazal of believing such a thing. When I pointed out that this is clearly how Rashi and other Rishonim interpret the Gemara, he responded that that was irrelevant. So here's an extract from the chapter on lice in my book Sacred Monsters, which you can buy directly from me online or at bookstores, which addresses this claim:
Some have attempted to defend the notion of the scientific infallibility of the Talmud, or at least the applicability of this ruling, by reinterpreting this statement about lice. A popular argument is that the Sages actually meant only that the eggs of lice are halachically insignificant due to their small size, not that they do not exist. Similarly, some claim that the life-force of a louse is not halachically classified as an animal life-force (just as a plant is alive and yet is not classified in a halachah as a living creature). An alternate claim that is advanced is that since the eggs or larvae require this particular environment in which to develop, it can be said that they are generated from there.
However, there are numerous problems with such explanations, notwithstanding their obvious appeal. First, there is no independent evidence for these explanations; they are presented simply on the grounds that there could not be a scientific error in the Talmud. Yet, as we discussed in the introduction to this work, most authorities understand that the Sages of the Talmud did make a scientific error in believing that the sun passes behind the sky at night. And since the Sages spoke of a mouse that grows from dirt, they clearly did believe in spontaneous generation. Thus there is no reason to accept that they could not have believed that lice generate this way, which was the common belief in their era.
Second, the words of the Talmud say nothing about the eggs being halachically insignificant, or about the life-force of lice not being like that of other animals. It simply states that they do not reproduce sexually. While it is not impossible that this could be a shorthand reference for something else, the burden of proof is certainly upon those who would make such a claim. Especially since, in Talmudic times, the entire world believed that lice spontaneously generate, it is highly unreasonable to state that when the Sages spoke of lice as not reproducing sexually, they intended a different meaning entirely.
Third, such explanations are inconsistent with the views of the traditional Talmudic commentators. Rambam, Rashba, Ran, Tosafos and others all state that lice spontaneously generate from sweat or dust. True, it is not impossible that they misunderstood the nature of the Talmud’s ruling—indeed, we posited similarly in the case of mermaids. Yet in the case of mermaids, there was compelling textual evidence that the Talmud was referring to dolphins instead; here, no such evidence exists. Furthermore, those who posit that the Talmudic statement about lice must be scientifically correct are usually the same people who are reluctant to posit that the traditional commentators all erred in their understanding of the Talmud.
The final objection to such reinterpretations of the Talmud’s statement is that there is a straightforward refutation from the continuation of the Talmud:
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).
If the Sages were not denying the existence of lice eggs, why do they reject the simple meaning of the statement that speaks about God sustaining the eggs of lice, and resort to difficult explanations instead? Let them simply state that although lice do hatch from eggs, these are too small to be halachically significant! It therefore seems that they did not consider this possibility. (I am aware that some claim that the Talmud means that since the eggs are halachically insignificant, they cannot be the subject of the statement about lice eggs. However such a reading is highly contrived, lacks any evidence, and is certainly not how the Rishonim and Acharonim understood the Talmud.)
Eight years later, how do things look? Has the Daas Torah of the Charedi Gedolim triumphed? Or have people calmed down, and are matters back to the way they were before the controversial ban, when views such as those expressed in my book were tolerated? If you attend a Daf Yomi shiur, perhaps you could post a comment and let us know what was said. And I would also like to point out that I have a Hebrew translation of Sacred Monsters ready to be published, if someone would like to help sponsor it!