Monday, July 29, 2013

Is Rav Saadia Gaon’s “wabar” the rabbit?

Dear Readers:

This week we read Parashat Ree where the issue of the shafan is again mentioned.
As you probably know, after the publication of the book “The Enigma of the Biblical Shafan” many blogspots and comments have been published in the Jewish blogosphere.
Now I would like to concentrate only in a specific point.

In the book we have tried to demonstrate that the rabbit is compatible with all the descriptions of the shafan that have been published in the Jewish classic literature, including Ibn Janach and Rishonim.
Rav Saadia Gaon expressed his identification of the shafan very shortly. In our book this issue was elaborated on chapter 5 (d).

In the short Arabic explanation to the Pentateuch (Leviticus 11:5) attributed to Rav Saadia Gaon, who lived over one thousand years ago, [1] we find the word shafan translated to a three (وبر[2] or five (الوبر[3] letter Arabic word, which can be transliterated to “wabar (literally meaning “hair, wool or fur”) or “al-wabar” (“the hair, the wool or the fur”). [4] [5] [6]
This word (وبر) is also the modern common name in certain Arabic countries to describe the hyrax (Procavia capensis).
It is thus understandable that in the last 150 years, some Torah commentators and some researchers have claimed this source as evidence that Rav Saadia Gaon considered the hyrax, and not the rabbit, the Biblical shafan.
However, the results of our extensive research show that there is no conclusive evidence that this necessarily was Rav Saadia’s opinion, for the four reasons explained in the book.

After the book went to press, I found B"H the description of the “wabar” in Tafseer Ibn Katheer (Damascus, Syria 1301-1373) on Surah 103:1 where Ibn Katheer wrote the following two paragraphs:

"O wabar, o wabar! You are only two ears and a chest, and the rest of you is digging and burrowing...''

"And the wabar is a small animal that resembles a cat, and the largest thing on it is its ears and its torso, while the rest of it is ugly." [7]

I think we could use this medieval source -whose description of wabar (“big ears” and "digging and burrowing") seems to match with the rabbit and not with the hyrax- as evidence that when Rav Saadia Gaon translated shafan as "al-wabar" perhaps he was speaking about the rabbit and not the hyrax.

As you remember the source of Ibn Janach -elaborated elsewhere- indicates the same.

Kol Tuv!

[1] Born in Egypt in 882; at the age of about thirty he moved to Israel and Syria, until 921, when he returned to Babylonia, where he remained until his death in 942 CE.  accessed 28/jul/13 accessed on 28/jul/13
[2] ערוך השלם, ד"ר חנוך יהודה קאהוט, חלק רביעי דף נ"ט ערך טפז, בהערה.
[3] פירוש רבינו סעדיה גאון ע"י יוסף קאפח מוסד הרב קוק, ירושלים, תשנ"ד על ויקרא י"א ה' ע' ק"כ
accessed on 16/jul/06
[5]  accessed
on 16/jul/06
[6] Stevenson Thomas B. "Domestication" of hyrax (Procavia capensis), in Yemen. J. EthnobioI. Summer 1990;10(1):23-32.
[7] See Tafsir Ibn Kathir Juz' 30 (part 30): An-Nabaa 1 to An-NAS 6, 2nd edition, London 2009. By Muhammad Saed Abdul-Rahman. Page 221

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Were there Rabbits in Biblical Israel?

(Click here, for a revised version of this post; an earlier version appeared in Dialogue Fall 5774, No. 4)

Could the shafan be the rabbit?

R. Slifkin's answer is no. He concedes that many rishonim understood the shafan to be the rabbit, but summarily dismisses their position. He claims that, as Europeans, the rishonim were unaware of the fauna of the Middle East. On his blog R. Slifkin has written that:

The original study was by Tchernov [2000], who notes that the hare is "the only endemic species of lagomorph known from the Middle East since the Middle Pleistocene".
Lagomorphs include hares, rabbits and pikas. So the study by Tchernov claims that hare remains have been found in the Middle East, but not the remains of rabbits.  On the other hand, R. Slifkin claims that early authorities such as Rav Saadia Gaon (who lived in the Middle East) and Ibn Janach (about 100 years later) identified the shafan as the hyrax.
Traditional sources for identifying the shafan as the the hyrax include Rav Saadia Gaon (882-924CE), Ibn Janach and Tevuos Ha-Aretz. [N. Slifkin, The Camel, the Hare and the Hyrax, p88, 2011, 2nd edition]
R. Slifkin thus concludes that the shafan is the hyrax. Even though the hyrax does not regurgitate its food, the Torah calls it ma'aleh geira because its chewing motion superficially resembles that of ruminants, even though the chewing action is not needed for nutrition. 

This weakened criterion poses a problem as it would apply to other animals not mentioned in the Torah's exhaustive list (e.g. the kangaroo). As a consequence, R. Slifkin is forced to assert that the Torah's list is limited to just those animals in the general region surrounding the land of Israel. This contradicts Chazal's exegesis of the applicable verses in the Torah in which the Almighty (the "Ruler of His World") uniquely identifies the four types possessing a single sign of purity (according to one opinion in the Talmud, there is a 5th species called shesuah).

What is the shafan according to Rav Saadia and Ibn Janach?

Dr. Betech's recent book (here) has raised important challenges to R. Slifkin's thesis. First, R. Slifkin erred when he wrote that Ibn Janach identified the shafan as the hyrax.  This is what Ibn Janach actually wrote:
"And the shafan". It is the wabr, an animal the size of a cat, which is found [only] a little in the East, but is abundant among us. Nevertheless the masses do not know it by that name, but by the name conilio, a Spanish name (for rabbit). [Ibn Janach, Sefer Hashorashim, translated from the Arabic]
R. Slifkin's error is significant. Ibn Janach unambiguously identifies the shafan (Arabic: wabr) as a rabbit. R. Slifkin's response is that Ibn Janach (living in Spain) did not know of the hyrax, but he did know of the rabbit, and that some people called the rabbit by the term wabr, and so he assumed that this was the meaning of R. Saadia's term.

Now, it is possible that the term wabr was used for both the hyrax and the rabbit. But, we also note that Ibn Janach was a Torah authority, a grammarian, and an expert in Arabic.  He lived soon after the times of Rav Saadia Gaon. Was he unaware of the fauna of the Middle East? Apparently not. He writes that the wabr (rabbit) is abundant where he lived (in  Spain) but scarce in the East (where Rav Saadia lived). This matches the rabbit very well, but rules out the hyrax, which is hardly found in Spain. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Truth in Advertising: What is the Yesh Atid Agenda for Educational Reform?

By, Rabbi Eliezer Breitowitz, Rosh HaYeshiva, Darchei Torah
(Posted by Rabbi Korobkin, BAYT, 5 July, 2013, pdf version)

The recent visit of Chaver Knesset Rabbi Dov Lipman to Toronto raised a myriad of questions. To many, however, all of these can be reduced to a single question: The positions of Yesh Atid seem so reasonable and so progressive; why is the Chareidi community so blind to its own self-interest? The Chareidi community, rather than vilifying party leader Yair Lapid, should instead embrace him as the leader who will bring the Chareidim to enlightenment, prosperity, and full participation in Israeli society.

This question presumes that the Yesh Atid platform has been correctly presented and that Chaver Knesset Lipman's statements accurately represent the Yesh Atid platform. But is this the case?

The Identity Of The Israeli People Is At Stake

Wednesday, May 08, 2013
By Rabbi Moshe Boylan
Yated Neeman 
"The Identity Of The Israeli People Is At Stake” - Understanding The Current Situation In Eretz Yisroel

An Interview with Rav Moshe Meiselman
Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Toras Moshe, Yerushalayim

The chareidi community is currently grappling with the plans of the recently elected Israeli government, particularly the efforts to draft bnei hayeshivos into the Israeli army.

As rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Toras Moshe in Yerushalayim, Rav Moshe Meiselman is directly affected by the situation. His insight and perspective can help us understand the root causes of the current reality and the mindset we must have in standing strong against the proposed legislation of the government coalition.