Chullin 127

Chullin 127a (Part II)~ Spontaneous Generation

Gas Gas mouse.jpg

חולין קכז,א

עכבר שחציו בשר וחציו אדמה שאין פרה ורבה

There is a mouse that is hard made from flesh and half from dirt, and does not procreate

The spontaneous generation of the half-mouse

Deep into several pages about ritual impurity, the Talmud mentions in passing this strange creature, which has come to be called the mud-mouse. And what exactly is this strange creature? Here is the explanation of Rashi:

אין פרה ורבה - כלומר שלא היה מפריה ורביה של עכבר לפי שנוצר מאליו  

It does not procreate: This means it does not sexually reproduce, but instead it spontaneously appears.

And here is Rashi from 127b:

 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.

The mud-mouse is also mentioned in Sanhedrin (91):


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.  

Clearly, 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 the esteemed rabbis of the Talmud believed in this crazy idea of spontaneous generation? The answer is simple. Everyone believed it. Everyone, 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

The great Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE-17/18 CE) is best known for his work Metamorphosis. It’s a bit of a long read (almost 12,000 lines contained in 15 books), and in it he mentions spontaneous generation three times. Actually, given its length, he probably mentions everything at least three times. Here is an example, from Metamorphosis I, 416-437.

So, when the seven-mouthed Nile retreats from the drowned fields and returns to its former bed, and the fresh mud boils in the sun, farmers find many creatures as they turn the lumps of earth. Amongst them they see some just spawned, on the edge of life, some with incomplete bodies and number of limbs, and often in the same matter one part is alive and the other is raw earth. In fact when heat and moisture are mixed they conceive, and from these two things the whole of life originates. And though fire and water fight each other, heat and moisture create everything, and this discordant union is suitable for growth. So when the earth muddied from the recent flood glowed again heated by the deep heaven-sent light of the sun she produced innumerable species, partly remaking previous forms, partly creating new monsters.

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, bees and other insects could appear out of nowhere.

Well, not quite everyone

In his commentary to the Mishnah on today’s page of Talmud, Maimonides has this to say:

והויות העכבר בלבד מן האדמה עד שימצא קצתו בשר וקצתו עפר וטיט והוא ענין מפורסם מאד אין מספר לרוב המגידין לי שראו זה אע"פ שמציאות בעל חיים כזה דבר מתמיה ולא נודעת בו טענה בשום פנים

The case of the mouse which uniquely grows from the earth so that it is half-flesh and half dust and mud is very well known. There is no end to the countless numbers of those who have told me that they have seen it, even though the existence of this creature is astonishing, and there is no known explanation for it.

Maimonides did not reject the idea that the mouse grows directly from the earth, but he seems very sceptical of the idea. Still, it was a widely accepted explanation for centuries before, and centuries after Maimonides. For example, let’s consider…

Jan Baptista van Helmont and the recipe to grow a mud-mouse

Jan Baptista van Helmont (1580-1644) knew a thing or two about science. Although still deeply embedded in alchemy, his many observations led the way to the scientific revolution. He was the first to suggest that the stomach contained somethings to aid in digestion (what we call today enzymes and acids). And according to the Science History Institute, “he discovered that chemical reactions could produce substances that were neither solids nor liquids and coined the term gas to describe them.” “I call this spirit,” he wrote, “hitherto unknown, by the new name of gas…"(Hunc spiritum, incognitum hactenus, nero heroine Gas voco). This laid the groundwork for Robert Boyle’s later research on gases.

Spontaneous generation also occupied Van Helmont’s scientific worldview. Like everyone else, he believed in it, because it explained observations like fleas appearing around rotting meat or mice appearing in a farmer’s barn of grain. He was so certain of the reality of spontaneous generation that he provided a recipe to grow mice de novo.

If a dirty shirt is stuffed into the mouth of a vessel containing wheat, within a few days, say 21, the ferment produced by the shirt, modified by the smell of the grain, transforms the wheat itself, encased its husk into mice.

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.

The Rabbi who tried to get it right, but got it wrong

Israel Lipschutz of Danzig (1782-1860) wrote a very important two-part commentary on the Mishnah called Tiferet Yisrael. (Oh, before we go any further, there is an error in the english Wiki page about R. Lipschutz. He was not, as is claimed there, the author of “Shevilei de'Rakiya, an introduction to the principles of Rabbinical astronomy.” Two books of that title on rabbinic astronomy were indeed written: one by Elijah Hokheim (Prague: Emmanuel Diesbach, 1784) and another by Judah Ze’ev Riswasch (Warsaw: Efraim Boymritter, 1896). You can find more on these two works here. But none by our R. Lipschutz. Can someone get into Wiki and edit that page?)

Anyway, in his commentary of the Mishnah R. Lipschutz got very excited about this whole mouse thing:

ואני שמעתי אפיקורסים מלגלגין על בריה זו שנזכרת כאן ובסנהדרין [דצ"א א']. ומכחישים ואומרים שאינה במציאות כלל לכן ראיתי להזכיר כאן מה שמ"כ בספר אשכנזי שחיבר חכם אחד מפורסם בחכמי האומות. ושמו. לינק. בספרו הנקרא אורוועלט חלק א' עמוד 327. שנמצא בריה כזאת בארץ מצרים במחוז טחעבאיס. ונקראת העכבר ההיא בלשון מצרים דיפוס יאקולוס . ובל"א שפרינגמויז. אשר החלק שלפניה ראש וחזה וידיה מתוארים יפה. ואחוריה עדיין מגולמים ברגבי ארץ. עד אחר איזה ימים תתהפך כולה לבשר. ואומר מה רבו מעשיך ה

I have heard heretics mocking the existence of this creature, mentioned here and in the Talmud Sanhedrin. They deny its existence and claim it is not in any way real. So I have found it appropriate to mention here what is published in a German book written by one of the wisest and most well-known of any nationality, named Link. In his book Urwelt (Part I p327) he states that such a creature was indeed found in the district of Thebais in Egypt. In Egyptian this mouse is called Dipus Jaculus, and in German it is called the spring-mouse. Its head, chest and front paws are well-formed, but its rear is still unformed and is just bits of earth. But after a few days, the mouse becomes made entirely of flesh. And I said “Lord, how great are your works!” (Ps.104:24)

So according to R. Lipschutz all the scoffers were wrong, and as proof he cites his contemporary, the well respected naturalist Johan Heinrich Link (1738–1783), whose Die Urwelt und das Altertum, erläutert durch die Naturkunde (Prehistoric times and antiquity, explained by natural history) was first published in Berlin between 1820 and 1822. Great. A mid-19th century rabbi and scholar quoting a German naturalist in support of a statement made by the rabbis of the Talmud. Science and Judaism at their best! Well no. Not so fast.

In a paper devoted to this topic, Dr. Sid Leiman noted that the passage cited by R. Lipschutz only appeared in the first edition of Link’s book, and was removed from later ones. But more importantly, R. Lipschutz misread the context of the passage he was citing. Rather than attesting to the reality of the mud-mouse, Link was quoting from a passage in the book Bibliotheca historica by Diodorus Siculas, a Greek historian of the first century. It was Diodorus who was describing what his contemporaries believed. But what about that reference to the Latin and German names for the mouse? Diodorus wrote in Greek and could not not have thought that Dipus Jaculus (Latin) is an Egyptian phrase. Let’s have Prof. Leiman explain:

What happened is that Link added a footnote to the Diodorus passage, in an attempt to account for the belief in the existence of this strange creature in antiquity. Link’s note reads (in translation): “The Springmaus (Dipus Jaculus), which dwells in Upper Egypt and is characterized by very short forelegs, doubtless could lead one to conclude that it is a not yet fully developed creature.” Link was suggesting that the very existence of the Springmaus, or jerboa, a small, leaping kangaroo-like rodent found to this day in the arid parts of North Africa, and characterized by long hindfeet and short forelegs, may have misled the ancients into thinking that the different parts of the body of some mice fully matured at different times…The upshot of this was that Lipschutz was persuaded, quite mistakenly, that the mouse described by the rabbis as being half flesh and half earth was alive and well in nineteenth-century Egypt, as attested by no less a scholar than Professor Link!

Wrong, but for the right reasons

The rabbis of the Talmud were not fools for believing in spontaneous generation. They would have been fools had they not. If was an explanation for many natural phenomena and was believed by heroes of the scientific revolution, along with everyone else, until Pasteur proved them all wrong.

And what about our Rabbi Lipschutz? Let’s give the last word on him to Prof. Sid Leiman.

One would like to think that Rabbi Israel Lipschutz, whose seminal work is everywhere characterized by intellectual honesty, would have retracted his garbled reading of Link if only the error had been brought to his attention.

If only indeed.

[Expanded spontaneously from an original post here].

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Chullin 127a (Part I) ~ The Fireproof Salamander

In tomorrow’s page of Talmud, Chullin 127, there is a fascinating discussion about two creatures, the salamander and the mud-mouse. One of them certainly exists, the other never did, and the Talmud discusses the strange way in which each is created; one by fire, the second by spontaneous generation. So let’s get a head start, and talk about the salamander today. More on the mud-mouse tomorrow.

חולין קכז, א

ת"ר (ויקרא יא, כט) הצב למינהו להביא הערוד וכן הנפילים וסלמנדרא

With regard to the topic of the eight creeping animals mentioned in the Torah, the Sages taught in a baraita: The verse: “The great lizard after its kinds” (Leviticus 11:29) includes in the category of creeping animals the arvad, a type of snake, and also the creeping animals called nefilim and salamander [salamandera].

וכשהיה ר"ע מגיע לפסוק זה אומר (תהלים קד, כד) מה רבו מעשיך ה

Apropos the salamander, which was thought to generate from fire, the baraita continues: When Rabbi Akiva would reach this verse in Leviticus, he would exclaim: “How great are Your works, O Lord…(Psalms 104:2)”

יש לך בריות גדלות באור ויש לך בריות גדלות באויר שבאור אילמלי עולות לאויר מיד מתות שבאויר אילמלי יורדות לאור מיד מתות מה רבו מעשיך ה'

Similarly, you have creatures that grow in the fire and you have creatures that grow in the air. If those in the fire would ascend to the air they would immediately die. If those in the air would descend to the fire they would immediately die. Therefore, “how great are Your works, O Lord.”

Rashi helpfully explains that the “creatures that grow in fire" refers to salamanders (יש לך בריות גדלות באור - סלמנדרא). And this is not the only place where the Talmud discusses the fire-born salamander. Here are a couple of others.

A salamander unharmed in the fire. From Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 126r, c 1350. From  here .

A salamander unharmed in the fire. From Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 126r, c 1350. From here.

סנהדרין סג, ב 

אף חזקיה מלך יהודה ביקש אביו לעשות לו כן אלא שסכתו אמו סלמנדרא 

During a discussion of idol worship in the tractate Sanhedrin, the Talmud notes that some cult practices demanded that parents sacrifice their children by burning them alive. “Even the father of Hezekiah the king of Judea wanted to sacrifice him in this way, but his mother saved him by covering him with the blood of the salamander.” Rashi gives this explanation:

The salamander is a small creature that emerges from a furnace which has been burning for seven consecutive years. Fire cannot burn someone who has smeared himself with the blood of the salamander.

From where did Rashi get the idea that the salamander emerges from a fire that has been burning for seven years?  Perhaps from the Midrash Tanchumah, where it burns not seven years but seven days.

מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת וישב סימן ג

 בריות הגדלות באור ואין גדלות באויר ואיזו זו סלמנדרא כיצד הזגגין העושין את הזכוכית כשהן מסיקין את הכבשן שבעה ימים ושבעה לילות רצופין מכובד האור יוצא משם בריה הדומה לעכביש (ס"א לעכבר) והבריות קורין אותה סלמנדרא אדם סך ידו מדמה או אחד

  למה? על שתחילת בריאתה מן האור מאיבריו אין האור שולטת באותו מקום 

There are creatures that thrive in fire and not in air, like the salamander. How is it created? When glassmakers leave a furnace continuously alight for seven days and seven nights, out of the fire there emerges a creature that resembles a spider (or a mouse). That creature is called the salamander. If you cover your arm or any limb with its blood, it that place will become impervious to fire. Why is does the salamander have this ability? Because it was created from fire.

Elsewhere in the Talmud the fire-proof properties of the salamander are used as a homiletic device:

 חגיגה  כז , א

תלמידי חכמים אין אור של גיהנם שולטת בהן, קל וחומר מסלמנדרא; ומה סלמנדרא שתולדת אש היא - הסך מדמה אין אור שולטת בו, תלמידי חכמים, שכל גופן אש, דכתיב הלוא כה דברי כאש נאם ה' - על אחת כמה וכמה 

The fires of hell do not burn Torah scholars, and this is learned a fortiori. Consider the salamander which is created from fire and its blood protects from fire. How much more so is a Torah scholar protected, for his entire body is fire, as it is written "for my words are not as fire, says God" (Jeremiah 23:29).

This is all rather strange. Where does this legend come from, and does science have anything to say about fireproof salamander? Read on.

[The salamander] has no digestive organs, and gets no food but from the fire, in which it constantly renews its scaly skin.
— Leonardo da Vinci, Book XX: Humorous Writings, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, edited by Jean Paul Richter, 1880

Identifying the Talmudic Salamander

There is in fact a European species of salamander called the Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra) which has bright markings that serve to warn predators that it is poisonous (and that they should therefore leave it alone).  But this cannot be the salamander referred to in the Talmud, because it is found in central and southern Europe, and not in the Middle East where the Talmud was written. The talmudic salamander is the Near Eastern Fire Salamander, found in Israel, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Here is a picture of one, taken on Mt. Carmel near Haifa. 

The Near Eastern Fire Salamander, (S alamandra infraimmaculata)

The Near Eastern Fire Salamander, (Salamandra infraimmaculata)

The salamander is an amphibian that can grow up to thirteen inches in length and feeds on insects and larva. According to Dr Michael Warburg from the Technion, they can live for up to twenty years. He knows this because he visited the same pond on the top of Mt. Carmel for twenty-five years (!) and published a paper titled "Longevity in Salamandra infraimmaculata from Israel with a partial review of life expectancy in urodeles." And what was the name of the journal in which it was published I hear you ask. Good question.  It was Salamandra. Of course it was.

Salamanders live near ponds and streams, though they spend most of their adult lives out of the water.  They can exude a toxin when threatened, which can cause skin irritation but not much more. Since they do not have lungs they breath through their skin, which must be kept moist. And Dr. Warburg, the Technion salamander specialist, informs us that they lay their eggs in water. Not in furnaces. So from where did the rabbis of the Talmud get the ideas that they were fireproof creatures, born from the within flames? They got it from the surrounding cultures which had similar stories about the origins of the salamander.

The FIREPROOF Salamander in other cultures

According to the explorer Marco Polo (d.1324) the name of the creature comes from the Persian words Sam meaning "fire," and Andar and meaning "within."  The Roman historian Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE)  wrote that the salamander was "so intensely cold as to extinguish fire by its contact, in the same way as ice does" which demonstrates that the fireproof salamander story goes back to long before the talmudic period. The legend is also found in the writings of Saint Isidore of Seville (560-636 AD) who lived around the time that the Talmud was redacted.

The Salamander is so called because it is strong against fire....It fights against fires and alone among living things, extinguishes them. For it lives in the midst of flames without pain and without being consumed and not only is not burned, but it puts the fire out.
— An Encyclopedist of the Dark Ages; Isidore of Seville, by Ernest Brehaut, Columbia University 1912, p228
Farenheit 451 -Fireman's hat.jpg

The legend is also found some unusual contemporary places. In Ray Bradbury's dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, books are banned and firemen don't have the job of putting out fires. Instead, they are tasked with burning any books that are found. Do you recall the name of their firetrucks? That's right - they were called Salamanders. The firemen also had an official symbol, which was, naturally, a salamander.

We know that an idea has deeply embedded itself in popular culture when it appears in The Simpsons. And in an episode called See Homer Run, Homer takes a job as The Safety Salamander, teaching school children about fire safety. And what does Homer need to wear for the job?  A salamander suit. Of course.  

From  See Homer Run , in  The Simpsons  Season 17 Episode 6.

From See Homer Run, in The Simpsons Season 17 Episode 6.

But that's fiction. Take a look at the logo of the International Association of Heat and Frost Workers below. It is a salamander over a fire, happily insulating some pipes.

Logo of the  International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers.  It's a salamander over a fire, and insulating some pipes.

Logo of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers. It's a salamander over a fire, and insulating some pipes.

Evidence to the contrary

So the talmudic legend of the fire-proof salamander is a Jewish version of a legend found in contemporary Roman and Christian lore - a legend that still reverberates today. But although the Roman Pliny recounted the myth, he was also skeptical of it. There are numerous references on the internet which tell of Pliny throwing a salamander onto a fire, to see what would happen.  The salamander died.  But I cannot find a primary source for this story (please let me know if you find one), so let's go with Pliny's observations from his work Natural History:

As to what the magicians say, that it is proof against fire, being, as they tell us, the only animal that has the property of extinguishing fire, if it had been true, it would have been made trial of at Rome long before this. Sextius says that the salamander, preserved in honey and taken with the food, after removing the intestines, head, and feet, acts as an aphrodisiac: he denies also that it has the property of extinguishing fire.

We will leave the aphrodisiac properties of the salamander for another time, and focus instead on Pliny's observation that a simple test will confirm or falsify the legend. All you need are a couple of salamanders and a fire...which is also not an experiment too many of us would have the heart to do. But the Christian scholar, Pierius (d ~309) did.  In his work, cited by the British polymath Sir Thomas Browne Pierius wrote 

Whereas it is commonly said that a Salamander extinguisheth the fire, we have found by experience, that it is so far from quenching hot coals, that it dieth immediately therein.

And that should settle the matter. Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin did not throw a salamander into a fire, but he did accidentally leave one rather too close to a heat lamp, which is, I suppose, the next best thing. "I myself once found a fire salamander which I kept in a vivarium" he wrote in his fascinating book Sacred Monsters, "and when I accidentally left a heater too close to its cage, the salamander did not so much escape unscathed, as shrivel up into a withered corpse!"

A Fireproof Newt? SORTA

Rabbi Dr. Slifkin also references a report from a 1997 edition of Herpetological Review (All Amphibians, all of the time!) from a Mark Stromberg at the Hastings Natural History Reservation in California (part of UC Berkeley). He reported seeing the California Newt (Taricha Torosa) moving over the unburned litter in front of a controlled fire that had been burning for at least three hours. Then comes this:

Each newt walked directly into the flame front and did not pause while walking through the burning leaves. The slime covering their bodies foamed up, resembling an egg meringue. Within 20-30 s they were through the flames and on the cool, black ashes of the litter. Upon close examination, the now crusty white coating easily wiped off their wet bodies. I did not observe any skin blisters and the skin color looked normal. The newts were returned to the forest litter and they continued to walk downhill. They did not stop or curl up but walked normally, proceeding at near-record newt speed. As they walked through patches of un- burned grass, the leaves and litter removed almost all of the thin, white crust. They walked under a rotting log in dense litter and I did not follow them further. Fires are frequent in central, coastal California where T. torosa is common. Foaming of the skin secretions would dissipate heat and may be a mechanism used by this species to escape wildland fires.

(I tracked down the original. You can read it here, p82-84.)

This report is fascinating, but hardly proves that salamanders are fireproof.  At best, newts may have the ability to delay the brief harmful effects of a forest fire (which would certainly make evolutionary sense).  

An Explanation

Dr Warburg, the salamander guy from the Technion, noted in his paper that the salamander only spends about 1.25% of its adult life-time in ponds. The rest of the time it lives in rotting logs and leaf litters. This might explain the origin of the legend. When our ancestors, be they Jewish, Roman, or Christian would gather logs and kindling to light a fire, they might inadvertently sweep up a salamander or two with them. When these leaves and logs were set alight, the salamanders would scuttle out of the fire as quickly as they could, and ta-da, it looks like they were born from the flames. Perhaps that is how this whole salamander fire thing started.

The legend of the fireproof salamander is almost 2,000 years old, and certainly predates the Mishnah and Talmud.  It's a great story to tell around a campfire at night. Just don't be surprised if you see a salamander emerging, unscathed, from the ashes.

[Repost from Sanhedrin 91.]

Next time, on Talmudology: spontaneous generation and the mud-mouse

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