Sanhedrin 91 ~ Spontaneous Generation

A dead Deer

Two weeks ago when walking to shul on the morning of Rosh Hashanah I came across the carcass of a deer that had been killed by a car.  Its ribs had already been picked clean by vultures (yes, we have vultures here in Maryland) and there was a mass of maggots covering the rear of the carcass. And by a mass I mean that it was not possible to see anything other than this swarm. The deer had been killed just a short time ago.  The maggots appeared to have generated spontaneously.

The spontaneous generation of the half-mouse

In today's page of Talmud, we read about the mysterious mud mouse, a creature that is half flesh and half mud, that also appeared spontaneously.

סנהדרין צא, א

צא לבקעה וראה עכבר שהיום חציו בשר וחציו אדמה למחר השריץ ונעשה כלו בשר

Consider the mouse which today is half flesh and half earth, and tomorrow it has become a creeping thing made entirely of flesh.  

Elsewhere, Rashi provides us with a detailed explanation about the creature that seems to raise more questions than answers:

רשי, חולין קכו, ב

 יש מין עכבר שאינו פרה ורבה  אלא מעצמו נוצר מאדמה כאשפה המשרצת תולעים 

There is a species of mouse that does not reproduce sexually but is spontaneously generated from the earth, just as maggots appear at a garbage site.

Apparently, Rashi and the rabbis of the Talmud believed in spontaneous generation. Here is the opening of the Wiki article on the subject:

Spontaneous generation or anomalous generation is an obsolete body of thought on the ordinary formation of living organisms without descent from similar organisms. Typically, the idea was that certain forms such as fleas could arise from inanimate matter such as dust, or that maggots could arise from dead flesh.

Everyone Believed it

How could our esteemed rabbis believe in spontaneous generation? The answer is that everyone believed it, from the time of Aristotle until Louis Pasteur. Here is Aristotle (d. 322 BCE):

So with animals, some spring from parent animals according to their kind, whilst others grow spontaneously and not from kindred stock; and of these instances of spontaneous generation some come from putrefying earth or vegetable matter. [History of Animals 539a, 18-26.]

Aristotle’s theory of spontaneous generation was as influential as his other teachings in philosophy and natural history; it was accepted with reverence, not only among his contemporaries but well into modern times
— Jan Bondeson. The Feejee Mermaid and other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History. Cornell University Press 1999. p194

Spontaneous generation was an accepted theory throughout the middle ages and was found in the writings of Arab naturalists, such as Averroes. Sir Francis Bacon, (d.1626) the English "philosopher, statesman, scientist, jurist, orator, and author" accepted the theory. And so did Willam Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood,  - at least under certain circumstances.  And why not believe is spontaneous generation? Before the invention of the microscope, it certainly explained how worms, fleas and insects could appear out of no-where.

Pasteur's Experiments

Then came the microscope. Using one, in October 1676, Leeuwenhoek reported finding tiny micro-organisms in lake water. Now perhaps there was another explanation for how things were created, although not much progress was made for a couple of hundred more years.  It was Louis Pasteur (d.1895) who finally disproved the theory of spontaneous generation with some elegant experiments. He boiled a meat broth in a flask like this, with its neck pointed downwards.

Sanhedrin 91. Spntaneous Generation.jpeg

Boiling sterilized the mixture, and with the neck pointing down, no organisms could contaminate the broth. As a result, there was no growth of bacteria or could inside the flask. He did the same using a flask with a neck that was upturned. This allowed the broth to become contaminated with organisms in the outside air, and the mixture soon became cloudy. Spontaneous generation had been disproven.

Where did those maggots come from?

After Rosh Hashanah ended I looked into the question of how those maggots could have appeared so quickly on the flesh of the dead deer. It turns out that the blowfly eggs are laid within minutes and hatch in a matter of hours.  They did not appear spontaneously after all.

The history of science reminds us how to read the Talmud. Spontaneous generation was the way everyone assumed that some things were created. Whether you were a rabbi in the Talmud, a Greek philosopher, or an English scientist. 

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Sanhedrin 87a ~ How High is Jerusalem?

Picture of a mountain.jpeg

סנהדרין פז, א 

ועלית מלמד שבית המקדש גבוה מא"י וא"י גבוה מכל הארצות אל המקום בשלמא בית המקדש גבוה מא"י דכתיב ועלית אלא א"י גבוה מכל הארצות מנא ליה דכתיב לכן הנה ימים באים נאם ה' (לא יאמר) חי ה' אשר העלה את בני ישראל מארץ מצרים כי אם חי ה' אשר העלה ואשר הביא את זרע בית ישראל מארץ צפונה ומכל הארצות אשר הדחתים שם וישבו על אדמתם

"And you shall go up" [Deut 17:8] This teaches that the Holy Temple is higher than all other places in Israel...And from where do we now that Israel is higher than all other lands? From the verses [Jeremiah 23: 7-8] "Therefore, behold the days come, saith the Lord, that they shall no more say, The Lord liveth, which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt,' But the Lord liveth, which brought up and which led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all the countries whither I have driven them; and they shall dwell in their own land."

This passage is unequivocal in its meaning: Jerusalem - that is, the Temple Mount -  is the highest place in Israel, and Israel itself is the highest place on earth. Now you don't need me to tell you that this is not a true statement. But I will anyway. It's not true. When I lived in Efrat it would often snow there while in Jerusalem, a mere twenty minutes away, there would be no snow. Why? Because Efrat is at a higher elevation than is Jerusalem. And if you have looked out from the Bet Midrash of the Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus you will look down on the Temple Mount some three hundred feet below.

Google To the Rescue

Here are some other places, randomly chosen that are physically higher than Jerusalem.

Location Elevation (feet)
Jerusalem 2,424
Mount of Olives 2,710
Hebron 3,051
Efrat 3,150
Ben Nevis (UK) 4,413
Denver, Colorado 5,280
Johannesburg, South Africa 5,751
Mount Everest 29,029

Maharsha to the Rescue?

The Maharsha, R. Shmuel Eidels (1555 – 1631) in his commentary to Kiddushin 69a  suggests that since the Earth is a sphere, Israel and Jerusalem can be seen as if they were its "center."

מהרש"א חידושי אגדות מסכת קידושין דף סט עמוד א

 שהעולם הוא כתפוח ומקום בהמ"ק הוא מרכז עולם וכן א"י ולכך אמרו בא"י כיון דהוא מקום הממוצע אוירו מזוג ומחכים ויותר מקום המקדש שע"כ היו שם בלשכת הגזית חכמי סנהדרין וק"ל

Perhaps the Maharsha means that the spherical earth spins on its axis and that is the highest point, just like you might see a model of the earth on a bookshelf that spins on an axis with the North Pole at the top. But that cannot be, because the axis of the rotation of the Earth does not pass through Israel. It passes through the North Pole.  

No No. It is all metaphorical

Because the Talmud's claim is measurably incorrect, several commentators suggest a metaphorical explanation: Jerusalem is, spiritually speaking, the highest point on Earth.  Tomorrow, Jews in Israel celebrate the completion of the reading of the Torah, and start to read it again from the beginning. Perhaps it is those kind of celebrations that give Israel and its capital a shot at the claim of being most spiritually elevated.  Perhaps. 

חג שמח from Talmudology.  


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Sanhedrin 78a ~ Where Do Snakes Store Their Venom?

In the Mishnah on 76b of Sanhedrin (which we learned two days ago) we read the following:

שיסה בו את הכלב שיסה בו את הנחש פטור השיך בו את הנחש רבי יהודה מחייב וחכמים פוטרין

In the case of one who incited a dog or a snake against a person, and the dog or the snake bit that person, Rabbi Yehuda rules that the he is liable to the death penalty, and the Sages rule that he is not liable.

In today's page of Talmud explains the basis of the legal dispute between Rabbi Yehuda and the Sages:

סנהדרין עח, א

לדברי ר' יהודה ארס נחש בין שיניו הוא עומד לפיכך מכיש בסייף ונחש פטור לדברי חכמים ארס נחש מעצמו הוא מקיא לפיכך נחש בסקילה והמכיש פטור

According to Rabbi Yehuda, the poison of a snake is between its fangs, therefore the perpetrator is liable to execution by the sword [which is the usual punishment for a convicted murderer], and the snake itself  is exempt from the death penalty. But according to the Sages a snake ejects its venom of its own volition [and only after its fangs have pierced the victim's skin]. Therefore the snake is liable to the death penalty by stoning and the perpetrator is not liable to the death penalty.

A western diamondback rattlesnake. From here.

A western diamondback rattlesnake. From here.

The essence of the dispute between the Rabbi Yehuda and the Sages is whether venom is always found on a snake's fangs, or whether it is produced by volition.  If it is the latter, at the moment the snake pierced the skin of the victim, there was no venom on its fangs. So it could not kill, and the lethal blow was not caused by the snake handler. This is made explicit by Rashi:

A snake ejects its venom of its own volition. When the person caused the snake to bite its victim, it did not at that moment have the ability to kill. The person was merely allowing [the bite to occur], even though he knows [that very soon after the bite] the snake will expel its venom. In this case death does not occur as a result of the direct actions of the person.

The Koren Talmud has this helpful note in its sidebar:

From the Koren Talmud Sanhedrin vol II, p 197.

From the Koren Talmud Sanhedrin vol II, p 197.

The Soncino Talmud offers a similar explanation:

On R. Judah's view, the fangs themselves are poisonous. Consequently, the snake does nothing, the murder being committed by the person. But the Sages maintain that even when its fangs are embedded in the flesh, they are not poisonous, unless it voluntarily emits poison. Consequently the murder is committed by the snake, not the man. 

Leaving aside the question of what a snake does instinctually and what it does voluntarily, does a venomous snake have fangs that are always poisonous per Rabbi Yehuda, or not, as is the opinion of the Sages ?

Homicide by snake bite - a real case

This really happens. A 2012 paper published in Medicine, Science and the Law describes how a contract killer used a poisonous snake to murder an elderly couple by way of a direct snake bite.

On the fateful day, both the victims were kidnapped along with their driver. The couple was forcefully asked to sit in the car and their driver was told to sit in another four-wheeler. The kidnapper took them to a distant confined area. On the way, the snake charmer, who was sitting by the side of the kidnapper in the front seat of the car, took out a poisonous snake from a box and made it bite the couple. The couple collapsed immediately. After that, the kidnapper threatened the couple’s driver and told him to take the couple to the hospital saying that a snake had bitten them. The driver took the couple to the private hospital where they were declared dead. The couple died within one hour of the snake bite. An in-depth probe revealed that the eldest son of the elderly couple had plotted their murder over a property dispute, had hired the contract killer and had also arranged the snake charmer to have his parents killed. [Ambade, V.N. et al. Homicide by direct snake bite: a case of contract killing. Med Sci Law 2012; 52: 40–43]

So these kind of things do happen.  The rulings of Rabbi Yehudah and the Sages are based on some anatomic assumptions Can biology help to determine which is correct? Why yes. It can.  

We believe this to be the first case reported where a snake was directly used for the murder of two victims through a contract killer.
— Ambade, V.N. et al. Homicide by direct snake bite: a case of contract killing. Med Sci Law 2012; 52: 40–43

Snake Fangs and Snake Venom

Snakes deliver their venom in one of two ways. The first and most common way is via a grooved fang usually at the back of the mouth. Venom slides down the groove and into flesh of the victim. A minority of venomous snakes use a different approach. These have long hollow fangs in the front of their mouths like hypodermic needles, through which venom flows. These fangs are hinged and are folded back into the roof of the mouth when not in use. 

Regardless of which kinds of fangs a snake has, its venom is produced in special glands. The precise anatomical details may vary from species to species, but they all have the same basic structure: there is a main venom gland which leads into a smaller accessory venom gland and then into the base of the fangs.

When the snake strikes, muscles around the main venom gland contact, forcing a bolus of venom through the ducts, down the fangs, and into the prey.
— The Handbook of Venoms and Toxins of Reptiles,  ed. Stephen P. Mackessy. CRC Press 2010.
Viperid venom gland. When the snake strikes, muscles around the main venom gland contact, forcing a bolus of venom through the ducts, down the fangs, and into the prey.  From The Handbook of Venoms and Toxins of Reptiles,  ed. Stephen P. Mackessy. CRC Press 2010. p71.  

Viperid venom gland. When the snake strikes, muscles around the main venom gland contact, forcing a bolus of venom through the ducts, down the fangs, and into the prey.  From The Handbook of Venoms and Toxins of Reptiles,  ed. Stephen P. Mackessy. CRC Press 2010. p71.  

Dry snake bites

Not all bites from a venomous snake leads to poisoning.  These non-venomous bites are called dry bites, and may occur in 20-60% of all bites.  I know this because of this helpful paper published just this year by B. Sadananda Naik, a physician from Karnataka in south west India: “Dry bite” in venomous snakes: A review. In India, about 46,000 people are killed each year from snakebites, so he should know of which he speaks. The incidence of a dry bite varies by the species of snake and the circumstances under which they bite. For example, bites from pit vipers (found in the US) may be dry 25% of the time, whereas bites from the Sri Lankan saw scaled viper are dry less than 10% of the time (and you never know when that bit of information might be useful).   

Summary of the major publications on snake bites showing the frequency of  a dry bite. From Sadananda Naik, B. "Dry bite” in venomous snakes: A review. Toxicon 133, (2017): 63e67

Summary of the major publications on snake bites showing the frequency of  a dry bite. From Sadananda Naik, B. "Dry bite” in venomous snakes: A review. Toxicon 133, (2017): 63e67

It is not possible to pin point the exact reasons for the occurrence of this phenomenon known as ‘dry bite’. However, there are many possible explanations for the absence of envenomation in the victim.
— Sadananda Naik, B. "Dry bite” in venomous snakes: A review. Toxicon 133, (2017): 63e67

Dr. Naik also has this to say, which directly addresses the dispute between the Sages and Rabbi Yehuda:

The delivery of venom by the striking snake is completely voluntary; all the venomous snakes have the ability to bite without injecting the venom through their fangs. Hence, the snakes could vary the amount of venom injected while striking a prey which is to be eaten or when it bites in defence or when irritated.

The Sages were Right

In the dispute between Rabbi Yehuda and the Sages we rule, as usual, with the majority opinion. This is codified in Maimonides' Mishnah Torah ( הלכות נזקי ממון פרק י):

אם שיסה בו נחש, ואפילו השיכו בו, והרגו--הנחש נסקל:  שסם הנחש שהמית, מעצמו הוא מקיאו; לפיכך זה האדם שהשיך בו הנחש, פטור ממיתת בית דין

If a person set a snake against another, if the snake bit and killed, it is executed by stoning, because the venom which caused the death is expelled voluntarily. As a consequence the person who set the snake against another is not executed by the court.

The majority opinion of the Sages is the biologically correct one, and Rabbi Yehuda was, anatomically speaking, mistaken. Snakes do indeed vary the amount of venom they release, and sometimes they don't release any at all. Which is good news if you are a snake charmer who has just been accused of murder.

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