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When Lions Attack
(Yes, it's another arcane post on Talmudic Zoology, following my earlier post about when wolves attack. If this is not to your tastes, please accept my apologies, and come back another time! But if you're an accomplished Talmudist, I would like to request your input, on behalf of all readers of The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom.)
How do lions hunt their prey? This has been extensively researched by contemporary zoologists studying African lions, and there is little reason to believe that it would have been any different for the Barbary or Asiatic lions that were familiar in Biblical and Talmudic times.
When a lion hunts its preferred prey – large herbivores such as cattle – it needs to first kill its prey in a safe manner so that it cannot be injured from its horns and hooves. The first stage in this process is to bring the animal down. Sometimes, the lion can do this by using its paws to drag the animal down. If the prey animal is too big for this, the lion will leap onto the victim’s flanks, using its claws to grip the victim, often using one paw to grasp its muzzle, while using its teeth to grasp the animal by its neck. This causes the animal to topple down onto the ground, and will sometimes cause it to break its neck. If the animal is still alive, the lion will kill it by biting its neck from the front, in order to clamp the trachea shut, or its muzzle, in order to seal the mouth, thereby causing asphyxiation. The lion will then usually eat its prey on the spot, but if it fears disturbance (as may well be the case when having killed cattle), it will drag its victim a considerable distance to suitable shelter.
The Talmud discusses two different types of lion attacks, one of which is considered normal and the other abnormal. The normal form of attack is rated in the legal category of shen – literally, “tooth” – which applies to damage sustained by animals eating their food in a normal way. This form of damage is normally very common, in terms of domestic cattle eating whatever produce they come across. As a result, the owners of the damaging animals are not liable if the food consumed was in a public domain – the person who left it there should have been more careful. This is a blanket exemption applied across the board to owners of all animals that cause such normal damage in the course of eating – even in the case of a pet lion eating its usual food, which could be someone else’s cow. On the other hand, if an animal causes damage in an abnormal way, this is rated in the legal category of keren – literally, “horn,” – and the owner of the animal is liable.
However, the terms that the Talmud uses to describe the different forms of lion attack are difficult to translate and understand. One type of attack is called dores, which literally usually means “trample,” while the other is called toref, which literally means “tear”:
Shmuel said: If a lion tramples and eats an animal in a public area, the owner is exempt (from full damages); if it tears and eats the animal, he liable. If it tramples and eats he is not liable – because it is the usual way for it to trample, and it is therefore equivalent to eating fruit and vegetables, which would be categorized as shen in a public area and exempt. But if it tore, this is not the normal behavior (and it is rated as keren, for which the owner is liable.) (Talmud, Bava Kama 16b)
The Talmud proceeds to query whether “tearing” is truly an abnormal way for a lion to eat, based on Scriptural verses which seem to present this as the norm, and explains that the verses are referring to particular scenarios:
Is it really the case that “tearing” is not normal behavior? Surely it is written, “The lion tears for its cubs” (Nahum 2:13)? – That is for the sake of its cubs (and not for its own food, which would be abnormal). “And strangles for its lionesses” – for the sake of its lionesses. “And fills its lair with its prey” – for the sake of stocking its lair. “And its den with prey”” – for the sake of its den. (Ibid. )
There are different opinions amongst the traditional commentaries regarding how to explain the differences in the terms “trampling” and “tearing.” Rashi and Tosafos explain “trampling” to refer to eating the prey animal while it is still alive, whereas “tearing” refers to killing it first; but in light of what is known today about lion attacks, that they always kill their prey first, this is difficult. Rabbeinu Chananel explains that “trampling” refers to a normal act of killing that involves the "venom" exuded by the claws, whereas “tearing” refers to an unusual form of attack in which the lion uses only its teeth. This can perhaps be made to work for the references to the lions trampling (which would then describe a typical attack that involves claws as well as teeth) but would be difficult to reconcile with the Gemara's description of a lion tearing for its cubs, lionesses and den.
I was wondering if it could be said that “trampling” means killing it first, as lions normally do, and “tearing” means tearing chunks off it while it is still alive? Or, “trampling” means killing and eating it immediately, while “tearing” means dismembering it and eating it later (but this may raise a problem with wolves, which are described elsewhere as “tearing” their prey)?
There are two other references in the Talmud to a lion "trampling" its prey which also need to make sense in light of whichever explanation we adopt:
Rav Acha bar Ada said in the name of Rav Yehudah: Whoever gives terumah to a kohen who is an am haaretz, is as though he gives it to a lion. Just as with a lion it is uncertain if it will trample and eat or not, so too with the kohen who is an am haaretz, it is unclear if he will eat it in a state of ritual purity or ritual impurity. (Sanhedrin 90b)
One who marries off his daughter to a boor is as though he has bound her and placed her before a lion. Just as a lion tramples and eats and has no shame, so too a boor beats his wife and cohabits without shame. (Pesachim 49b)
So, what is the best way to explain the difference between "trampling" and "tearing"? Your input is appreciated!