Return of the Mexican Rabbit Zealot
Here is a letter that I sent to ArtScroll last week:
Sometimes, there are additions to a work which detract from it. It is disappointing to see that a certain note was added to the latest edition of the ArtScroll Talmud. (As you may recall, 16 years ago you hired me as zoological consultant for Chullin.) The problematic addition in the latest edition is a note to Chullin 59a, regarding the identity of the shafan, which reads as follows:
"[For a wide-ranging discussion of this topic, and a strong defense of the traditional view that the shafan is the rabbit and not the hyrax, see The Identity of the Shafan, by Dr. Isaac Bettech.]"
I have long been familiar with Dr. Isaac Betech of Mexico, who was one of the zealots involved in engineering the notorious controversy over my works. Dr. Betech is single-minded in his religious obsession that the shafan must not be the hyrax (because in order to contrive his own particular forced explanation of how the Torah's four animals with one kosher sign are the only such animals on the planet, he wants the shafan to be the rabbit). In order to attain this objective, he engages in the most ludicrous pretzel-twists of intellectual dishonesty, which I and others have documented at length (and links are provided below).
To call his discussion of the topic "far-ranging," therefore, is a little misleading. He tries to overwhelm the reader by writing about a wide range of animals and sources, but what he describes as "Torah and scientific research" is entirely directed towards a predetermined goal. And amazingly, in a book that professes to be the definitive and comprehensive study of this topic with "more than 1000 bibliographical Torah and scientific sources," he fails to cite the only dedicated work on this topic that had ever been published - because it was written by me!
But far more problematic is the description of Betech as attempting to defend the "traditional" view. The view that the shafan is the rabbit is not the "traditional" view; it's the medieval European view, because they didn't have hyraxes in Europe. They broke from the original tradition of people from the Geonic era, who lived in the region of Israel, and were familiar with the hyrax. To describe the identification of the shafan with the rabbit as being the "traditional" view is akin to speaking of the "traditional" view that the tzvi is the deer (which Rashi points out to be a mistaken European innovation), that the nesher is the eagle, or that the olive is the size of seven olives. These are medieval European Ashkenazi views that were innovations, not traditions from Jewish communities in other parts of the world or from antiquity.
(Amusingly, Betech tries to make the reverse argument. In his summary at http://www.tovnet.org/files/ShafanHyraxEnglish%205779.pdf, he writes that since the Spanish Rishonim identified the shafan as a local animal, and there are no hyraxes in Europe, therefore the shafan cannot be the hyrax! He can't countenance the fact that it was precisely because the hyrax was not a local animal that Europeans transposed its identification to the local rabbits!)
You can ask anyone in the field of Biblical natural history (such as Dr. Zohar Amar and Dr. Moshe Raanan), and they will all tell you that it's clear beyond any doubt that the shafan is the hyrax, and cannot possibly be the rabbit. The reason is the very clear passuk in Barchi Nafshi:
הָרִים הַגְּבֹהִים לַיְּעֵלִים סְלָעִים מַחְסֶה לַשְׁפַנִּים: תהילים קד:יח
"The high hills are for the ya'elim, the rocks are a refuge for the shefanim."
The pasuk tells us two things about shefanim: that they hide in rocks, and that they are associated with ya'elim. Ya'elim are ibex, the mountain goats of the Judean hills that are especially prominent in Ein Gedi, which is named after them (and in Shmuel I 24, it states that David was hiding among the ya'elim in Ein Gedi). If you go to Ein Gedi, you see ibex climbing the hills, and you can also see small furry animals hiding among the rocks, exactly as the pasuk describes - hyraxes.
Isaac Betech would have you believe that the author of this passuk, who groups his reference to the ibex with a description of animals that hide in the rocks, was not speaking about the animal that hides in the rocks right next to the ibex! Instead, he claims, David HaMelech was speaking about the rabbit of Spain - an animal that never lived anywhere near the Land of Israel and was thus completely unfamiliar to David HaMelech and to his audience, and which moreover does not hide under rocks but rather in burrows! It's simply ludicrous.
(The hyrax also matches the description in Shemini of an animal that brings up food via its throat, which it does in small quantities, as I have observed and filmed on several occasions. And contrary to Betech's claim, the shafan is no more of a sheretz than is a rabbit - in fact, it is much larger, and more of a leaper.)
I understand that you were probably placed under a lot of pressure - Isaac Betech is experienced at manipulating Gedolei Torah to write letters in support of his agenda, which he uses to bully people into kowtowing to his demands. Indeed, a few years ago he launched a massive campaign to prevent Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks from coming to Mexico. However, he was ultimately unsuccessful, which shows that it is possible to stand up to that kind of pressure.
For the sake of intellectual integrity, as well as retaining a good name with intelligent people, you might wish to consider removing the new note. Or perhaps you could re-write it to be more accurate:
"For a passionate defense of the medieval European view that the shafan is the European rabbit and not the hyrax of the Land of Israel, see The Identity of the Shafan, by Dr. Isaac Bettech. For a discussion of the classical definitions and the historical processes which led to many of the Torah's animals having their names later transposed to other animals, see Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin's work The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom."
Meanwhile, I am attaching the chapter on hyraxes from my encyclopedia, for your interest. The more involved discussion is in my book The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax (second edition), and I am available for any questions that you may have. You might also like to visit The Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh, where the passuk from Barchi Nafshi is illustrated in an exhibit that combines both ibex and a live colony of hyraxes. (In fact, there are numerous zoos that exhibit both species together, because of their close geographical and environmental association).
Finally, here is a list of some of my articles pointing out the absurdities in Dr. Betech's presentation, and explaining further evidence why the shafan has to be the hyrax and cannot be the rabbit:
Where are the Pandas, Penguins and Polar Bears of Psalms?
Ruach HaKodesh and Reason
The Quest for Truth: A Fascinating Case Study
From Non-Disprovable to Possible to Probable to True
The Primary Reason - Clarified
Circular Reasoning at its Best
And here are two articles by Rabbi Dr. Josh Waxman that further illustrate Betech's intellectual dishonesty:
The Problem with Dr. Betech's Book
A Review of The Enigma of the Biblical Shafan
Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin
Director, The Biblical Museum of Natural History