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Rashi and the Raptors
When Gedolim reject Rashi as definitively wrong
In the previous post, Rashi’s Giants, I discussed those who disputed Rashi’s approach to pshat and literalist approach to Midrash. But what about disputing Rashi’s statements about the natural world? Rashi believed in the existence of mermaids (as discussed in my book Sacred Monsters). Can we say that he was mistaken?
For those who follow the many Rishonim and Acharonim who say that even Chazal's statements about the natural world were sometimes incorrect, this would all the more so be true for statements by Rashi. And even some of those who insist on the infallibility of Chazal, such as Rav Aharon Feldman, do not extend that to the Rishonim. Still, many rabbis would be very reluctant to ever explicitly say that Rashi was incorrect, and if they were ever forced to say something about it, they would do so with great hesitancy and very tentatively.
Contrast this with no less an authority than Chasam Sofer. He is explicit about dismissing Rashi in cases where Rashi’s lack of scientific knowledge is apparent:
“What are the meanings of the anatomical terms mentioned in this Mishna? After I researched medical books and medical writers as well as scholars and surgical texts, I have concluded that we cannot deny the fact that reality is not as described by Rashi, Tosafos and the drawings of the Maharam of Lublin…. Therefore, I did not bother at all with the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafos in this matter since it is impossible to match them with true reality. You should know this.” (Chasam Sofer to Nidah 18a)
Note that Chasam Sofer is not dismissing Rashi on the grounds that he, Chasam Sofer, is a great rabbinic authority of the stature to disagree with him. Rather, he is doing so on the grounds that modern science shows that Rashi was simply incorrect.
There is another case where prominent Rishonim and Acharonim emphatically declared that Rashi was mistaken regarding certain anatomical facts. And it has halachic ramifications that are potentially extremely significant - especially for me personally. The topic is a little technical, but it’s worth the effort!
First, some background. The Torah lists two dozen types of birds that may not be eaten. Chazal, aware that it was difficult for people to identify these non-kosher birds, simplified things by giving physical characteristics via which to distinguish kosher from non-kosher birds:
The signs of domestic and wild animals were stated in the Torah, and the signs for birds were not stated. However, the Sages stated: Every predatory bird is non-kosher; every bird that has an extra toe, a crop, and a peelable gizzard is kosher. (Mishnah, Chullin 59a)
There are a lot of technicalities here which I will not go into now (and the term “predatory” is a convenient rather than precise translation). But I do want to mention that the peelable gizzard (known as the pupik in Yiddish) is not just coincidentally related to a bird being kosher, but rather is fundamental to it. Birds have no teeth and no way of chewing their food, and they therefore process their food only in their stomach. Insect- and seed-eating birds have heavily muscled gizzards for grinding up their food in order to digest it. The muscular outer layer can easily be peeled away from the interior sac that contains the food. But the meat and fish that is eaten by predatory (i.e. non-kosher) does not need to be physically ground up and can be digested chemically. Accordingly, their gizzard does not have an outer muscular layer to be peeled away. Thus, a “peelable gizzard” is inherently related to a bird not being a predator and being kosher.
Now, Rashi’s view is that there are four separate characteristics being presented in the Mishnah. According to Rashi, in order for a bird to be kosher, it must possess all three positive signs (an extra toe, a crop, and a peelable gizzard), and it must also be known to be non-predatory. That is because, in Rashi's understanding of a later Gemara, most of the non-kosher birds in the Torah's list actually possess the three positive signs; the reason why they are not kosher is that they are nevertheless predatory. Rashi’s view is adopted by the Rosh.
Enter Ramban. He writes that while we cannot be certain of the identities of all the non-kosher birds in the Torah’s list, we certainly know that raptors such as hawks, falcons, owls, and kites are included. And Ramban decided to perform a practical investigation, capturing these birds and dissecting them. And what he found is that, contrary to Rashi, they do not possess the three positive signs, and is some cases do not have more than one. Raptors, for example, don’t have pupiks. (Which is something that we can likewise see today; and, as noted above, we can understand exactly why a raptor would lack a peelable gizzard.)
Ramban then issues a powerful statement: “Since it is impossible to deny that which we can see with our own eyes, we are forced to adopt the approach of Rav Moshe bar Yosef.” The latter explains that the 24 birds listed in the Torah as being non-kosher do not possess the three characteristics; and the Mishnah means that birds which do possess these three characteristics are by definition non-predatory. Rav Moshe bar Yosef’s explanation is also adopted by Rambam, Rashba, Ran, Ritva, and Rif.
Now, this difference in how to understand the Mishnah has a very significant practical ramifiation. According to Rashi, the three positive characteristics alone are insufficient to determine that a bird is kosher - we must also be certain that the bird is non-predatory. But it is difficult to ever be certain that a bird is non-predatory - all we can say is that we have not yet seen it to be predatory. Accordingly, we require a tradition that the bird is kosher in order to be able to eat it, so that we can be certain that it is non-predatory. (Effectively, then, Chazal’s list of signs is useless.)
According to Rav Moshe bar Yosef, on the other hand, the presence of the three positive characteristics alone is sufficient. This is all that the Mishnah requires, and it demonstrates that the bird is ipso facto non-predatory.
Now, Rashi’s view was adopted by both Shulchan Aruch (though with some flexibility) and Rema. However, as noted, Rav Moshe bar Yosef’s view is actually the one with majority support among the Rishonim. Accordingly, Kreisi u’Pleisi and others say that Rashi’s view was only ever adopted as a stringency and is not the ikkar din (which I have also heard from Rav Schachter).
R. Yosef Shaul Nathanson goes further. He notes that in a solely halachic dispute, one can never definitevely state that one side is wrong. But, he says, this is different; it’s a dispute which can be empirically resolved. And Rashi’s view has been empirically proven to be wrong. (This is all said in the context of explaining why we eat birds that lack a mesorah - such as turkey.)
To be sure, there are still valid reasons (relating to a general halachic or socio-religious approach) to adopt Rashi’s view for halachic purposes, even if only as a stringency. (Note that Rav Schachter, who is explicit about the ikkar din being in accordance with Rav Moshe bar Yosef that no mesorah is required, does not eat turkey!) But it’s interesting to note that there were prominent rabbinic authorities, from giants among the Rishonim such as Ramban, to more recent (and “frum”) authorities such as Chasam Sofer and R. Yosef Shaul Nathanson, who state clearly and unequivocally that empirical investigation shows Rashi to have been mistaken, and accordingly simply reject his approach entirely.
If you’re interested in the laws of kashrut and their exotic applications, sign up for our Feast of Exotic Curiosities this erev Sukkot! See www.BiblicalFeast.org to register. Space is running out, so book soon!
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