The Weasel, The Snail, And The Bird
(The following essay was published yesterday on the mailing list and website of The Biblical Museum of Natural History)
The return of the Jewish People to their historic homeland to establish a sovereign state, after millennia of persecution, is the greatest miracle since Biblical times. Still, some people are understandably hesitant to ascribe religious significance to it, much less to see it as the first flowering of the final redemption. The State of Israel, for all its achievements, is not a paragon of perfection. And many of the people involved in creating it were hostile to traditional Judaism. How could such people be part of a redemption of religious significance?
Biblical natural history has the answer! It’s all about a weasel, a snail, and a bird.
The Bible states that the Tabernacle, first dwelling place of the Divine Presence, was covered with “the hides of techashim.” What are techashim? The definitive answer is lost in the mists of history, but a number of suggestions were proposed by the Sages (see our book Sacred Monsters for extensive discussion). The Jerusalem Talmud cites a view that it is the galaktinon, which is identified as a type of weasel with beautiful fur. Yet a weasel is a non-kosher animal (and a sheretz, a creeping creature that transmits ritual impurity when dead). How could such a creature have been used in the construction of the holy Tabernacle? Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Israel, gives a rationale:
“How could the holy Tabernacle be constructed from an impure animal? What purpose would this serve? …The Tabernacle in particular contained the beauty of the entire universal order, and the Divine purpose of elevating all of creation. The Tabernacle of the desert was not a matter of individual morality for a certain time, but encompassed the expanse of all times and all things. It was therefore possible that its outermost covering was made from an impure animal. The tachash, with its many hues and colors, represented the ultimate value of the many forces in the world, in all their variations. Its inclusion in the Tabernacle, albeit in its outermost layer, enabled the expression of the intellectual recognition of God’s essential unity, that nothing exists outside of Him, and that all was created in His Glory.” (Ein Eyah vol. III, pp. 105-7)
Another example is the tekhelet, the sky-blue dye that was used in the Tabernacle and the garments of the priest. This dye is extracted from the Murex trunculus, a type of snail that you can see at the museum. Yet a snail is also a non-kosher creature. Here, too, we see the idea of the Tabernacle showing how all of creation, even non-kosher gastropods, can be united in expressing the glory of God.
In a similar vein, let us now turn to birds. One of the non-kosher birds listed in the Bible, and on display at the museum, is called the racham. The Talmud identifies this bird as the sherakrak, which is the roller (onomatopoeically named sherakrak in various languages after the calls that it makes). The roller is a passage migrant that arrives in the Land of Israel at the beginning of the fall. This bird is beautiful, a striking sky-blue in color (in fact it is the color of tekhelet!). And yet its hooked bill betrays its predatory nature, which may be why it is rated as a non-kosher bird.
Still, notwithstanding its non-kosher nature, the Talmud ascribes immense positive symbolism to this bird. It states that the Biblical name of racham, “mercy,” is given to this bird because its arrival in the Land of Israel is a sign of the impending mercy of the rains. And the Talmud further records a tradition that if the roller sits on the ground and emits the sherakrak sound, it is a sign of the impending final redemption.
Rabbi Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal (1885-1945) observed the relevance of this to the Zionist movement. The roller is not a kosher bird, and yet it can be the herald of the final redemption! Likewise, people who are disconnected or even hostile to religion can be part of the redemptive process. This is in line with Rav Kook’s observation about the tachash.
“How manifold are Your works, O God!” (Psalms 104:24). The natural world contains an astonishing variety of creatures. Some are of consistently positive religious symbolism, such as the dove. Others, such as the lion, are of a more complex symbolic significance. And even the creatures that epitomize impurity – the non-kosher weasels and predatory birds and slimy snails – are part of the Tabernacle, the Temple and the Divine plan of history and redemption. Every creature and every person can play a role in this process.