Sunday, August 28, 2011

Last of the hyrax

Slifkin writes "we should not be viewing the Torah as some sort of ultimate scientific text reflecting perfect Divine knowledge of the physical universe". It is an imperfect flawed document and thus although the hyrax does not practice classical rumination, caecotrophy, and possibly not even merycism, Slifkin writes that nevertheless the hyrax is the shafan because: “Rumination-style movement of the mouth of the animal in a way which would lead the people who were living in the times of Matan Torah to believe that the animal is a true ruminant (brings up the cud) would be enough for that animal to be considered Maaleh Gerah”.

Slifkin’s approach is puzzling. As I stated earlier, he is asserting a metaphysical falsehood. G-d is the transcendent Creator of the universe. In the context of the four types of animals that have only one sign of kashrut, the Talmud describes G-d as the שליט בעולמו the Ruler of His world, the One Who knows the animals that He Created and Who has codified His Divine Wisdom for us in the Torah. The Ramban talks about the wisdom of King Solomon to whom “G-d had given wisdom and knowledge, derived it all from the Torah, and from it studied until he knew the secret of all things created” (see Ramban’s introduction to the Chumash).

In this context, it would not be surprising that the Torah might be talking about rabbits, whether they were native to the land of Israel or not. In fact the Torah and the Tanach do refer to animals apparently not native to the land of Israel (such as the elephant, giraffe, monkey and peacock). What is surprising is that Slifkin, as a believing Jew, finds all this difficult, given that the Rishonim and Rav Hirsch describe shafan as a rabbit, and given that the Targum uses a word for shafan whose root meaning is a hopping/dancing rabbit-like species. Now to Slifkin’s latest blog aptly titled Last of the hyrax (August 28, 2011). He writes:

Jonathan/Yoel Ostroff is a follower of Rav Shlomo Miller from Toronto, and a passionate advocate of the idea that the universe was created 5771 years ago.
Slifkin might well want to look at his kesuva for the date of the world at the time of his marriage. So what is the intention of his above remark? How does it add to the shafan discussion? Yes, I have looked into modern dating dating methods and have found them to be based on many untested suppositions and inconsistent with each other (readers may want to look into some older debates on Avodah). Slifkin believes in a 13.7 billion year “big bang” universe. Perhaps he is not aware of how many unsubstantiated assumptions that commits him to. See here for six of them. Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg, a believer in big bang cosmology writes:
“Nevertheless, there is one great uncertainty that hangs like a dark cloud over the standard model. Underlying all the calculations described in this chapter is the Cosmological Principle, the assumption that the universe is homogenous and isotropic. (By homogenous we mean that the universe looks the same to any observer who is carried along by the general expansion of the universe, wherever that observer may be located; by “isotropic” we mean that the universe looks the same in all directions to such an observer.) … However, we have no
evidence that the Cosmological Principle was valid at earlier times.
[WEINBERG, S., The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe, Basic Books, New York, 1993. page 119-120.]


I would be happy to debate big bang cosmology with Slifkin. So here is an open challenge! Natan -- would you like to debate big bang cosmology? There are now more problems than I identified in my earlier article and this would make a good test of your “rationalist” pressuppositions. If you do not wish to debate your embrace of big bang cosmology then kindly refrain from entering the dating game!
So yes, I take our mesora seriously and we are in the year 5771 according to Maimonides and our baalei mesora (see here). Slifkin writes:

He is also known to to readers of this blog as someone with bizarre debating tactics who consistently distorts my views regarding both the science and theology of evolution.
See the post “R. Slifkin and mental illness” here for more on his debating style (also here). Slifkin continues:
He has now entered the hyrax fray, with a post for which the commenting feature appears to be currently disabled. As a result, I am responding to his comments here.
So far as I can tell comments are enabled and Slifkin is free to comment as always. Slifkin continues:

1. The fact that Alexander Kohut, Marcus Jastrow and other such scholars of language explained the shafan to be the rabbit is irrelevant. It is knowledge of animals, not Aramaic, which is relevant here. The European Rishonim and many later European scholars were entirely unfamiliar with the hyrax. So of course they would translate shafan and its Aramaic translation of tafza into an animal that they knew of - they could not and would not translate it with a word that would have no meaning for them or their readers! This is just as they mistakenly thought that the tzvi was a hirsch (deer) - in spite of the Gemara which says that its horns are not branched. (Is Ostroff going to argue that the tzvi is in fact the deer?) In fact, what Ostroff - significantly - does not mention is that Jastrow presents the alternative translation of "coney" - itself a term which was sometimes used for rabbits and sometimes for hyraxes - and he may well have meant the latter, in light of his presenting it as an alternative to rabbit.
The Targum Onkelos and Targum Yonasan ben Uziel translate shafan as טפזא. Now what does that mean? For that we go to experts in Aramaic such as Jastrow and Kohut who say it is a rabbit (Jastrow) or hopping animal similar to the hare (Kohut). How does Slifkin know that Kohut, for example, who was in contact with German scholarship, did not know of the hyrax? Can Slifkin produce an Aramaic expert in the Targum who translates טפזא as hyrax?

2. Having personally owned both rabbits and hyraxes, and having spent many hours observing them in captivity and in the wild, I can attest that the hyrax is much more of a tafza/ jumper than the rabbit! Rabbits rarely jump in the wild; hyraxes do it all the time, in order to get from rock to rock, and they are much better at it than rabbits. The hyrax is also much LESS of a sheretz than the rabbit.

Hyraxes used to play in the veld near where I grew up (a flat grass area with very few rocks). I do not recall them having the characteristic hopping action of rabbits, although they are good at jumping from rock to rock. Their normal gait is waddle/creep as I recall it.
Aruch HaShalem refers to the fact that the טפזא has unequal legs. Their large hind legs may be what gives the rabbit their characteristic hopping motion. The link here describe hyraxes as having "short legs" (as I recall it too), and perhaps it is more a sheretz than a chaya, and hence not even a candidate for shafan. Dr Betech has referred me to "The behavior guide to African mammals: including hoofed mammals, carnivores", Richard Estes, 1992, page 252 which describes hyraxes as “moving in a creeping walk”.

Slifkin is free to bring sources that support his observations.
The rabbit fits all the criteria of the Talmud and meforshim. The hyrax does not. Here are six problems with identifying the shafan as the hyrax.
It seems to me that Slifkin’s post is aptly named  “Last of the hyrax”.

3. Ostroff cites the the example of monkeys and peacocks, mentioned in Tenach, as examples of Tenach speaking about non-local animals. But these were brought as royal gifts, and are highlighted as such. What evidence is there that rabbits were brought? Furthermore, the pesukim in Tehillim and Mishlei specifically describe the shafan in its natural habitat. Is it possible that David was told about that, or knew it by ruach hakodesh? Sure, it's possible. But is it remotely reasonable, in comparison to saying that he was talking about a local animal with which everyone was familiar and was known in other dialects by the same name? Only if one is an extremely irrational person. When David speaks about the aryeh roaring, is it possible that he is actually speaking about a Tyrannosaurus rex, which he knew about via ruach hakodesh? Sure. (And if the aryeh is really the T-Rex, perhaps you can resolve the Gemara which gives a gestation period for the aryeh that is different from that known with lions!) But is it remotely reasonable to say this?
4. Ostroff writes that "The Radak and Malbim explain that Borchi Nafshi is talking about the whole of creation as is obvious from even a supeficial reading of the psalm." But what does that even mean? Yes, it makes mention of the sun, which shines over the whole world. But does it talk about octopi or supernova or quarks? If so, I must have missed that passuk! Barchi Nafshi is speaking about the entirety of creation - from the perspective of its author!
The lion as T-rex example is just silly! To be more serious, how does Slifkin know that King David was not familiar with the rabbit? Perhaps some were brought to Eretz Yisroel as in the days of Shlomo when monkeys and peacocks were brought from Tarshish (possibly Cathage, North Africa). Why is it not relevant to know that animals were brought to Eretz Yisroel from faraway places? If monkeys and peacocks could arrive from Tarshish, why could rabbits not come from Tarshish or Spain?. Perhaps King David was told about these animals by others who had seen them. Or perhaps he and King Solomon (see Ramban above) knew through ruach hakodesh. The Radak and Malbim explain that Borchi Nafshi is talking about the whole of creation as is obvious from even a superficial reading of the psalm. I don't know how Slifkin knows for a fact  that this psalm is limited to phenomena in Eretz Yisroel?
And yes, the Borchi Nashi reviews parts of the meta-natural creation of the world in six days as also described in the Torah. This is not something that any human observed. And this psalm does address the entirety of creation (see Radak and Malbim).

5. Ostroff writes that "As you say, of course, He knows about the rabbits in Spain and elsewhere. So what is so difficult about Him writing about them in His Torah of Truth?" Because nobody would have had a clue what He was talking about. That's why He doesn't say the halachos of electricity or donor IVF (which would have been EXTREMELY useful), or describe anything else with which the ancient Jews were not familiar. Is there a single counterexample? And there is also the matter of Tehillim and Mishlei.
6. Ostroff makes the following incredible statement: "Your position is based on just too many suppositions."
That is too funny!

My position is based on translating shafan as the animal which is called by a similar name in local languages, which matches the descriptions given in the pesukim better than any other animal, which was very familiar to the Jewish People, and which is identified as such by those (such as Saadiah) who actually lived in the region, as well as by virtually every other researcher of this topic (without an anti-rationalist perspective).
Dr. Betech has researched Rav Saadiah use of the word "wabar" (meaning "hair or wool"). A few observations. 1. Rav Saadia's did not describe any specific characteristic of the animal that would force us to recognize its identity; he just called used the word "wabar", meaning hairy. Although this word is the modern common name in certain Arabic countries to name the hyrax, nevertheless we have not seen any proof (yet) that this was his intended meaning one thousand years ago. This is opposed to the case of Jastrow and Kohut who were experts in the Aramaic language of the Targum and who added additional qualities not found in the hyrax. 2. There is the possibility that Rav Saadia Gaon z"l was referring to the rabbit, which is no less hairy than the hyrax, and has wool no less valuable than the hyrax. 3. Ibn Ezra questions the reliability of Rab Saadia Gaon’s translations of the animals mentioned in the Torah.
אבן עזרא בראשית ב' י"ב
...רק שתרגם החוילה כפי צרכו, כי אין לו קבלה. וכן עשה במשפחות, ובמדינות ובחיות ובעופות ובאבנים. אולי בחלום ראם. וכבר טעה במקצתם כאשר אפרש במקומו. א"כ לא נשען על חלומותיו, אולי עשה כן לכבוד השם, בעבור שתרגם התורה בלשון ישמעאל ובכתיבתם, שלא יאמרו כי יש בתורה מצות לא ידענום.
Ostroff's position is based on the idea that David and Shlomo were speaking about a South African animal (the European rabbits don't hide in rocks) which they happened to know about via a hypothetical and inexplicable import, or by ruach hakodesh (even though there is no precedent for ruach hakodesh being used in this way), and then mentioned its behavior in its natural habitat to their readers/listeners even though none of them had seen one, and even though there is no other such case of the natural habits of foreign animals anywhere in Tenach - and they did so with a name that just so happens to be used by other peoples in the area to refer to a local animal that matches the description in the pesukim, and which lives together with the ibex that are mentioned in the same passuk! Furthermore, it means describing an unfamiliar animal in place of a familiar one which would be much more meaningful for them to tell the Jewish People about! If you want the nation to ponder God's wisdom as manifest in animals that hide in the rocks, why neglect describing the local animal which does that, in favor of describing a Southern African animal that none of them have ever seen - especially when in every other case that you mention animals, you describe familiar ones? (Honestly, does anyone think that ancient Jews in Israel saying Tehillim would have said "Hey, this is interesting, it's talking about a South African rock rabbit!") And Ostroff's alleged reasons for doing this are flimsy in the extreme - based EXCLUSIVELY on European translations by people who lacked knowledge of animals of Israel!
It is especially ironic that Ostroff claims to be "open to all reasonable possibilities"!
I know, I really shouldn't waste my time with Ostroff. Still, this topic is very dear to me, so I couldn't resist
Slifkin’s remarks are puzzling.
  • Dismiss experts in Targum translation without bringing opposing experts who demur.
  • Ask us to trust to his observations on the characteristic hyrax gait over that of the rabbit without sources to back his claim and in opposition to sources that appear to indicate that the hyrax is a sheretz rather than a chayah, i.e. that it has short legs and creeps.
  • Assume that our mesora (Targum, Rishonim, Rav Hirsch) is wrong.
  • Assume that there were never rabbits in the Middle East, or that they were never imported or at least described, even though they existed in Spain, North Africa etc.
  • Assume that the psalm Borchi Nafshi is limited to phenomena in the land of Israel (contra Radak and Malbim) and was not written with ruach hakodeh.
  • Assume that Hashem did not write about rabbits, even though the Talmud with respect to our very discussion calls Hashem שליט בעולמו the Ruler of our World, the one who knows all the animal that He created.
Puzzling indeed. If that is what “rational Judaism” is then count me out.
Now there is much more to say on this whole topic and Slifkin would not be wasting his time following up on the issues that we raised. Otherwise he will have to wait for Dr. Betech to publish his manuscript (still in the research stage at this point), and that might take some time. The best is yet to come, but the wait will be worth it.


  1. This "rabbi" natan slifkin sounds more and more like an atheist. Putting secular presuppositions and naturalistic (syn. atheistic) conclusions above the written and oral tradition and the ancient, more Torah consistent rabbis and sages betrays the fact that his allegiances are no longer with revelation. In other posts, he makes the modern observations of the "laws" of nature above the power of HaShem, the all-powerful where he must have worked as those with godless preconceptions, our scientists, those who gain sustenance from the sour milk of this anti-torah society, dictate. It is sad and disappointing when a Jew, even worse a rabbi talks like this.heist. Putting secular presuppositions and naturalistic (syn. atheistic) conclusions above the written and oral tradition and the ancient, more Torah consistent rabbis and sages betrays the fact that his allegiances are no longer with revelation. In other posts, he makes the modern observations of the "laws" of nature above the power of HaShem, the all-powerful where he must have worked as those with godless preconceptions, our scientists, those who gain sustenance from the sour milk of this anti-torah society, dictate. It is sad and disappointing when a Jew, even worse a rabbi talks like this.

  2. Rabbi, when time permits in the future, I would also like to discuss radiometric dating and big bang cosmology if that is okay. But that is very far off as our previous discussion is not nearly finished.

  3. Avi Bitterman,

    Rabbi, when time permits in the future, I would also like to discuss radiometric dating and big bang cosmology if that is okay. But that is very far off as our previous discussion is not nearly finished.

    Hi Avi,

    This post was not written by me. You have to take a look at the initials at the end of every post. There are for main contributors to this Blog. Dr. Jonathan (Yoel) Ostroff, Dr. Isaac Betech, Rabbi Zvi Lampel and myself. This blog entry was written by Dr. Ostroff who happens also to be our resident expert in BBC and radiometric dating but I will gladly discuss these subjects with you whenever you are ready.

  4. Hello Dr. Ostroff,

    I know this is about the Hyrax, but you mentioned the Big Bang, so I thought I'd ask this question here. Can you recommend any books that will teach one the mathematical equations that relate to the Big Bang theory? [I know the math won't be simple].

    Thanks and be well,


  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Moshe, if you are looking for a technical and mathematical book relating to Big Bang Cosmology, here are two:

    If not these books, you can get other books on the subject from Fritzsch and Weinberg but the books written by Fritzsch and Weinberg are aimed at the general public and do not assume a high degree of mathematical background.

    By contrast, the books I have linked you to are more rigorous and technical, and written for advanced undergraduates and graduate students. They assume a fair knowledge of university level mathematics.

    Hope this helps

  7. And for a more up to date book with a rigorous mathematical audience in mind see this book.

    You should also at the very least have mastered classical mechanics in Physics in addition to the aforementioned math or this might be a difficult read.

  8. If you don't have the money to buy the books I think I still might have them somewhere in my dorm room if you want to borrow them.

  9. Hello Avi,

    Thanks Avi for the recommendations. I have noted them down. First, though, I would like a mathematics text book (or series of text books) that will teach me the mathematics that underlines the physics. I took Calculus and Statistics in College and some descent geometry classes in high school, but that was years ago and probably not on an advanced enough level. So what I need is a) a refresher on the basics and b) something to bring me to the next level(s).

    Any recommendations?



  10. KhanAcademy teaches every math course free on youtube. From basic math to calculus to linear algebra to differentials.

  11. Yeah, I know about KhanAcademy - I just don't love his presentation. Do you know of any other online, video math resources besides him?

    At the same time, I would like some real-world, paper filled text books also - any suggestions?

  12. KhanAcademy is the best I know of. I have never came across a better math teacher in my life. I have a technical book that takes you from calculus to linear algebra to differentials...but someone is borrowing it right now and I unfortunately didn't remember the name. I will try to get back to you.

  13. Thanks - perhaps I'll check KhanAcademy again (although I'm still interested in the name of that book if you come across it).

  14. I have heard very good things about KhanAcademy. My 12 year old son has a playmate who is something of a prodigy. He has acquired an astounding amount of Math knowledge just from that website.