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The Primary Reason - Clarified
I'd like to continue my critique of Isaac Betech's book on the shafan, which is of no contribution to Biblical zoology, and of no interest as such, but is fascinating as a case-study in irrational thought.
In the first post, I discussed the fraudulence of presenting his book as a search for truth rather than as a mission to contrive arguments that will support certain religious beliefs. I also noted his fallacy in presenting the views of Spanish Rishonim, that the shafan is the European rabbit, as evidence for identifying the Biblical shafan as the rabbit (and this comment, I exposed his false claim that he was doing nothing of the sort). In the second post, I noted that Betech has a habit of arguing that something cannot be conclusively disproved, and then smoothly changing that to mean that it is likely, probable, and ultimately that it is true. I also pointed out that his denial that Rav Saadiah Gaon explained the shafan to be the hyrax has no serious basis. Dr. Betech failed to respond to all these criticisms, despite his claim that he would respond to difficulties raised with his book, and that he would concede when shown to be in error.
In this post, I will concentrate on Betech's negation of the primary argument against his claim that the shafan is the rabbit, and the reason why every single academic scholar of Biblical zoology understands the shafan to be the hyrax rather than the rabbit.
The reason is very simple: Rabbits didn't live in Biblical Israel.
Betech mentions, and attempts to deal with, this objection in his book, yet he fundamentally misrepresents the nature of the objection. But first, let me explain why some of his proposed solutions are wrong.
Betech argues that Scripture mentions several animals that were not native to Biblical Israel, such as elephants, giraffes and whales. However, whales were indeed native to the Israeli coast, elephants are mentioned with regard to their ivory that was imported as a royal tribute, and giraffes are (a) not clearly mentioned in the Torah, and (b) were also imported as royal tributes.
Betech also argues that the Torah, in listing non-kosher birds, mentions the peres and azniyah, which live in distant islands, citing Rambam. However, the fact that Rambam describes them as living on distant islands does not mean that they actually live on distant islands! In fact, Biblical zoologists identify them as local species. Furthermore, as we shall see, it is anyway irrelevant, because the evidence that the shafan lived in Biblical Israel has nothing to do with it being mentioned in the laws of kashrus, as we shall explain.
Betech also argues that David HaMelech and Shlomo HaMelech could have known about the rabbit via ruach hakodesh. But first of all, since when does ruach ha-kodesh equate to describing the characteristics of unfamiliar animals in remote places? Rabbi Sedley and myself made many requests of Dr. Betech to provide sources to that effect, but he was unable to do so; he merely gave lists of references which, upon investigation, proved to say nothing of the sort. Second, Rashi is also said by many to have been written with ruach hakodesh, and yet no Rishon, and few Acharonim, believed this to mean that he possessed knowledge about the natural world beyond that which was known in his time and place. Rashi himself certainly didn't think so! Third, if we look at the rest of Nach in general and Barchi Nafshi in particular, nowhere do we see that the Kings and Prophets mentioned fauna or flora that was unknown in Biblical Israel. There is no mention of polar bears, pandas, penguins, pangolins, puffins, or platypuses. In fact, all of the descriptions of the natural world in Tenach perfectly match the perspective of people in Biblical Israel - including various inaccuracies, such as describing dew descending from heavens, the earth standing still, the sky as being a solid firmament, and the kidneys housing the mind.
But in any case, the nature of the argument that the shafan had to live in Biblical Israel has nothing to do with saying that David and Shlomo could not have known about it otherwise, as we shall later explain.
Betech also attempts to solve this problem by claiming that rabbits did indeed live in Biblical Israel. Unfortunately, zoologists and zooarcheologists universally say otherwise. So, Betech argues that perhaps they are all wrong, giving a host of technical explanations. I will leave it to the reader to decide who has more credibility here: zoologists and zooarcheologists, who are specialists, and who have no horse in this race, or Betech, who is a non-specialist, and who has given explicit religious reasons for wanting to believe that rabbits did indeed live in Biblical Israel.
Betech also argues that rabbits are native to Egypt. However, as I pointed out previously, he is wrong. He argues that they are referred to in Egypt as "native rabbits." That is true, but it only means that they they are native in the same sense that I am native to England. Rabbits were introduced to Egypt from Spain at some indeterminate point. If Betech wants to argue that this happened in Biblical times, he has to provide evidence. But in any case, even if rabbits were living in Egypt in Biblical times, it is irrelevant, for reasons that shall now be explained.
As I mentioned earlier, Betech fundamentally misrepresents the nature of the problem. The objection is not that the Author of the Chumash could never have known about the rabbit (which Betech answers by saying that God knows everything). Nor is it that David HaMelech and Shlomo HaMelech could never have heard about it (which could perhaps be answered by saying that they had ruach hakodesh, or that they heard of it from travelers, or had it imported to eat, or that it lived in Egypt). Rather, the reason why the shafan must have lived in Biblical Israel is that David and Shlomo, with a goal not to describe a specific animal, but rather to describe an animal that fulfills a certain role, describe the shafan. And that role is clearly one of an animal that lives in Israel, and is perfectly fulfilled by the hyrax.
Let us examine the two references to the shafan in Nach. First is the verse in Barchi Nafshi:
"The high hills are for the ibex, the rocks are a hiding place for the shafanim." (Psalms 104:18)
This verse has two separate proofs that the shafan is the hyrax and not the rabbit. First is that every single one of the verses in Barchi Nafshi describing the natural world has a single theme; if there are two parts to the verse, they are tightly connected. Since the verse about the shafan begins by describing how the ibex live in the high hills, the animals in the second part must have some sort of connection to the ibex in the high hills. Since hyrax live in the exact same places as ibex, such as Ein Gedi, this would make sense (see the video at the end of this post). But there is no connection between rabbits and ibex.
Second is that it is not David HaMelech's goal to speak about the shafan, per se (as it is the goal in the laws of kashrus). Rather, the goal of Barchi Nafshi is to describe the wonders of all creation. Yet instead of it presenting a list of examples like that which you might see in a contemporary book on the wonders of nature, it limits itself to examples that would have been familiar to a person in Biblical Israel. When David is singing about the trees, he doesn't mention the giant redwoods and sequoias of California; instead, he mentions the much less impressive cedars of Lebanon. When he wants to describe the wonderful fit between terrain and animal, and describes the hills being terrain for ibex, and the rocks being a hiding place for another animal, obviously he is taking about something that hides under the rocks right here, amongst the ibex that he just mentioned. It is absurd to posit that he would instead pick an example from an animal that lives in a remote region.
Let us now turn to the second reference to the shafan, in Mishlei:
"There are four in the land that are small, but are exceedingly wise… The shefanim are not a strong people, but they place their home in the rock." (Proverbs 30:24, 26)
King Shlomo speaks about animals that are "small, yet ingenious." If I was speaking on that topic, I'd mention the bombardier beetle, the basilisk, the pistol shrimp, or some similar extraordinary marvel. Shlomo, on the other hand, speaks about the ant, the locust, and the lizard - presumably, because he and his readers knew about such animals, whereas they did not know about bombardier beetles, basilisks and pistol shrimps. He also wants to refer to an animal that is weak, but manages to evade predators by hiding amongst rocks. Obviously, then, he would refer to the animal that lives right in his area and does exactly that! Doesn't that make infinitely more sense than positing that Shlomo ignores the animal that lives in his area and does exactly that, and instead mentions a much less familiar animal that lives far away? Not to mention the fact that rabbits vastly prefer to hide in burrows rather than rocks (unless he's talking about the genus of rock-rabbits that he mentions in his book, but disingenuously fails to mention that they only live in southern Africa)?
I raised these points here before Betech's book went to press, but he ignored them. And I presume that the rabbis who wrote endorsements for his book are entirely unaware of these problems. But these are the reasons why every academic scholar of Biblical zoology rejects as absurd the notion that the shafan is the rabbit. And likewise, any rational person that is aware of these points.