Letter to Tradition
To the Editor:
In Rabbi J. David Bleich’s “Survey of Recent Halachic Literature: Piscatorial Parasites” (Tradition 44:1, Spring 2011) he presents a lengthy and erudite discussion of a variety of halachic positions regarding whether fish infested with anisakis worms is permissible to be eaten. Much to my surprise, however, he did not discuss the position of Rav Herzog and Rav Glasner to such topics which is, to my mind, by far the most salient and cogent. Furthermore, as I shall endeavor to demonstrate, this assists with confronting the Gemara in a way that is more accurate from a historical perspective.
Rabbi Bleich observes that the Gemara’s reason for permitting worms that are found in the flesh of the fish “certainly appears to reflect reliance upon a notion of spontaneous generation. Whether that statement is to be understood literally and, if so, whether rejection of that concept by modern science has any bearing upon Halakhah, or whether the Gemara’s statement should be understood as expressing a concept that is compatible with contemporary scientific theory are intriguing questions. Resolution of those questions is, however, irrelevant to the points that have been made herein.” I beg to differ; I would argue that resolving these questions is extremely relevant.
There is certainly no reason to think that the Gemara’s statement is not intended literally. And spontaneous generation was an absolutely normative belief in antiquity. The Gemara discusses several other such cases, including the spontaneous generation of mice from dirt, that of salamanders from fire, and that of lice (where the Gemara specifically rules out the possibility that there could be any such thing as lice eggs). Before modern times, nobody ever claimed that the Gemara in these cases was referring to anything other than spontaneous generation. An honest reading of all these topics in the Gemara results in the clear conclusion that the Gemara is referring to a belief in spontaneous generation, which has since been discredited.
Rabbi Bleich spells out his objection to such an interpretation of the Gemara as follows: “…If the notion of spontaneous generation is rejected and the various theories advanced to reconcile the apparently contradictory talmudic statements with contemporary science are rejected, the resulting conclusion that, contra unequivocal dicta and precedents spanning more than two millennia, all worms and piscatorial parasites found in the flesh of fish are forbidden is compelled. To date, no rabbinic scholar has espoused such a conclusion with regard to piscatorial parasites.” Yet surely even if R. Bleich were correct that this would result in two millennia of error, this is simply an appeal to consequences; it would not mean that this reading of the Gemara is not historically correct. The claim that no rabbinic scholar has espoused such a conclusion with regard to piscatorial parasites is likewise not a reason why this reading of the Gemara is not historically correct. It is also misleading; as Rabbi Bleich acknowledges in a footnote, R. Isaac Lampronti did indeed posit such an approach in the case of lice (where he argues that the Gemara’s permission to kill lice on Shabbos is based on an erroneous belief and should not be maintained), and there is no reason to think that he would not posit the same approach here. This approach was also taken by Rabbi Yosef Kappach (commentary to the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shabbat 11:4).
In any case, there is another approach that Rabbi Bleich does not mention, which both acknowledges that the Gemara is recording an erroneous belief regarding spontaneous generation, and yet avoids concluding that Jews were sinning for two millennia. It is the approach of Rav Herzog (Heichal Yitzchak, Orach Chaim 29) and Rav Moshe Shmuel Glasner (Dor Revi'i, Chullin, introduction), as stated with regard to the case of lice. They acknowledge that the Gemara is relying upon an erroneous belief in spontaneous generation to permit killing lice on Shabbos, but they maintain that the halachah remains valid, due to the authority of Chazal. In my book Sacred Monsters I explained at length why this position is both cogent and important. As Rabbi Shlomo Fischer explains, based upon Kesef Mishnah to Hilchot Mamrim 2:1, we follow all Chazal’s rulings not because they are necessarily infallible, but because of a nationwide acceptance of their authority (Derashos Beis Yishai 15).
In Rabbi Bleich’s concluding observations, he lists several approaches for dealing with confrontations between the Sages and modern science. Conspicuously absent from this list is the possibility that the Sages were simply mistaken—despite the fact that scores of Rishonim and Acharonim were of the view that the Sages were not infallible in such matters. Instead, Rabbi Bleich presents an explanation according to which the blanket license given in the Gemara (and Shulchan Aruch), that worms found in the flesh of the fish are permitted without qualification, does not actually apply in an overwhelming number of cases. Furthermore, if the Gemara is not permitting anisakis parasites, then what exactly is it permitting? Some say that it is permitting species that actually do spontaneously generate in the fish—but we know that no such species ever existed. Others say that it is permitting parasites that were ingested from outside of the fish but which were too small at that time to be halachically significant—yet this is anachronistic, hardly seems to be the meaning of the Gemara or the Rishonim, and is an obvious apologetic being performed in order to attempt to avoid a conflict with science.
Ironically, although many avoid saying that Chazal erred in science in order to uphold their authority, it can have precisely the opposite effect. Aside from sounding unconvincing, there is a potential for drastic halachic consequences. For example, it could be argued that the Sages only permitted the consumption of honey on the premise that it is only nectar and does not contain anything created by the bee; but now that we see that bees inject enzymes into it, then it must be that the Sages were referring to a different kind of bee honey, and our honey should be prohibited! And so on. We should be extremely wary of diverging from Chazal's rulings based on science, even under the guise of upholding their authority.
Surely in a scholarly discussion, we should never avoid adopting a historically accurate understanding of the Gemara, such as that taken by R. Isaac Lampronti. And with the approach of Rav Herzog and Rav Glasner, we can avoid the unappealing consequences.
Ramat Bet Shemesh