Chullin 66a ~ Do Swordfish have Scales (and are they Kosher)?

A fish is only kosher if it possesses both fins and scales. What happens if the fish only grows scales when it matures, or if the scales fall off as it is being netted? This is question is discussed in today’s page of Talmud.

Rav Shlomo Machfud , Rav of  בד"צ יורה דעה  examining a swordfish for evidence of scales, Tiberias 2010.  © 2010 by David Willner for Foundation Stone. All Rights Reserved.

Rav Shlomo Machfud, Rav of בד"צ יורה דעה examining a swordfish for evidence of scales, Tiberias 2010.

© 2010 by David Willner for Foundation Stone. All Rights Reserved.

חולין סו, א

תנו רבנן אין לו עכשיו ועתיד לגדל לאחר זמן כגון הסולתנית והעפיץ הרי זה מותר יש לו עכשיו ועתיד להשיר בשעה שעולה מן הים כגון אקונס ואפונס כספתיאס ואכספטיאס ואטונס ה"ז מותר

The Sages taught: If a fish does not currently possess scales but will grow them after a period of time, such as the sultanit and afiyatz fish, it is permitted. Likewise, if it has scales now but will shed them when it is caught and rises from the sea, such as akunas and afuna, ketasfatiyas and akhsaftiyas and otanas fish, it is permitted.

The identity if these species is not certain. The Schottenstein Talmud, for example, leaves these names untranslated. But according to some, the אכספטיאס, the akhsaftiyas, is the swordfish. This is the translation found in the Soncino Talmud, and here is the helpful note from the Koren Talmud:

Chulliin 66b swordfish from Koren.png

Is it true?

Let's assume that the identification of the אכספטיאס, the akhsaftiyas as the swordfish is correct. All fish will shed some scales when they are thrashing about in a net or fighting at the end of a line. In this regard the swordfish is no different to any other fish. But at first blush, the suggestion that it would loose all its scales when pulled from the water seems rather unlikely. Thanks to modern science, we can better understand the Beraita's claim. It's not that the swordfish looses its scales when removed from the water; rather, the scales of the adult fish are buried deep in the skin, giving it the appearance of having lost its scales.  

There is some confusion about whether [swordfish] scales become smaller or are replaced by a single scale type in adults and much confusion about the disappearance of scales altogether
— Govoni, JJ. West, MA. Zivotofsky, D. Zivotofsky AZ. Bowser PR. Collette BB. Ontogeny of Squamation in Swordfish, Xiphias gladius. Copeia, 2004(2), pp. 391–396.

The swordfish and its "disappearing" scales

Dr. Ari Zivotofsky is a Senior Lecturer in Bar-Ilan's Interdisciplinary Science Program. Aside from arguing cases about the status of Jerusalem in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, he has spent considerable time and energy pondering both the kashrut of the swordfish, and the anatomy of swordfish scales. He was one of several authors who published a study in 2004 with the playful title Ontogeny of Squamation in Swordfish, Xiphias gladius. Their study noted that "scales first appear on the abdomen of larval Xiphias at 6 mm standard length. Thereafter, large scales with a single spine increase in number anteriorly and posteriorly in a row along the abdomen and ventral margin." 

An earlier paper from 1982 noted that swordfish develop two types of scales as larvae and juveniles: large, multi-spined row and rostral scales; and small single-spined scales. As the fish matures from larva to juvenile to adult, its scales persist, but become more buried in the dermis, the skin of the fish. It is not that these scales are receding. Rather, the thickness of the dermis increases. You can see this in the photomicrograph below:

Photomicrographs of the integument and scales of Xiphias gladius. (A) The integument with scale (S), epidermis (Ed), and dermis with stratum spongiosum (SSp), stratum compactum (SCm) of a 22.2 mm larvae (scale bar 63 m). (B) The integument of a 330 cm adult (scale bar 45 m). From Govoni, JJ. et al. Ontogeny of Squamation in Swordfish, Xiphias gladius.  Copeia , 2004(2), pp. 391–396.

Photomicrographs of the integument and scales of Xiphias gladius. (A) The integument with scale (S), epidermis (Ed), and dermis with stratum spongiosum (SSp), stratum compactum (SCm) of a 22.2 mm larvae (scale bar 63 m). (B) The integument of a 330 cm adult (scale bar 45 m). From Govoni, JJ. et al. Ontogeny of Squamation in Swordfish, Xiphias gladius. Copeia, 2004(2), pp. 391–396.

  Zivotofsky notes that swordfish scales continue to grow and are most certainly not resorbed: 

The confusion in the literature about the presence or absence of scales on adult Xiphias owes to the thickening of the dermis above the scale as larval and juvenile Xiphias grow. The result is that only the tips of the scale spines protrude in adults. Scales are often fractured and abraded when fish are caught and processed by the fishery. The cuticular layer of the integument is also covered with a thick layer of mucus, secreted by a network of mucous canals within the epidermis. This mucus lubricates the integument and renders scale spines less conspicuous.

And so modern biology supports the claim, found in today's daf, that when adult swordfish are caught they appear to be without scales.  

So is the swordfish Kosher?

The presence of tiny scales does not automatically give a fish a kosher status. Biological evidence of tiny or buried scales may, or may not be of consequence in Jewish law. Way back in 1968, Rabbi Moses Tendler of Yeshiva University wrote a polemic in The Jewish Observer, arguing that under no circumstances could the swordfish be considered kosher.  Among the "facts - halachic and scientific" on which he based his opinion was this: "With growth the scales disappear and the larger fish including those sold in the market have no scales." We have seen that this is not the case.  Later, he wrote that "in no place in the Talmud or the responsa literature is there any reference to a deviant: a fish that has scales as a juvenile but not as an adult." This may indeed be so. But as we have seen, the swordfish does not loose its scales. It buries them.

The kosher status of the swordfish is a complex question. It involves anatomy, biology, history, halakhic responsa and local tradition.  If you want to learn more, you can read Rabbi Tendler's 1968 article here. Avi Zivitofsky published a lengthy (53 pages!) and comprehensive history of the question in 2008. He focussed less on the scientific issues and more on the historical and halakhic ones, and you can read it here. Print them both up and enjoy reading them over Shabbat, together with a tasty fish dip. Like herring, or ketasfatiyas.   

Scales of  Xiphias gladiu s . (A) Photograph of the ventral aspect of a pre-served larvae 114 mm long (scale bar 1.5 mm). (B) Photograph of a cleared and stained biopsy of the lateral flank of a 150 mm larvae (scale bar 0.3 mm). (C) Photograph of a cleared and stained biopsy of the lateral flank of a 102 cm juvenile (scale bar 0.6 mm). From Govoni, JJ. et al. Ontogeny of Squamation in Swordfish, Xiphias gladius.  Copeia , 2004(2), pp. 391–396.

Scales of Xiphias gladius. (A) Photograph of the ventral aspect of a pre-served larvae 114 mm long (scale bar 1.5 mm). (B) Photograph of a cleared and stained biopsy of the lateral flank of a 150 mm larvae (scale bar 0.3 mm). (C) Photograph of a cleared and stained biopsy of the lateral flank of a 102 cm juvenile (scale bar 0.6 mm). From Govoni, JJ. et al. Ontogeny of Squamation in Swordfish, Xiphias gladius. Copeia, 2004(2), pp. 391–396.

[Encore post from Avodah Zarah 39a.]

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Chullin 62b ~ How do Pigeons Drink?

חולין סב,ב

כל כל העופות פוסלין מי חטאת חוץ מן היונה מפני שמוצצת

All birds disqualify the water of purification, except for the pigeon, because it sips the water from the container and none falls back in from its mouth.

Screen Shot 2019-01-27 at 10.22.42 AM.png

In a brief digression from the rules of shechita, the Talmud digresses into ornithology. If a bird sips water in which ashes of the red heifer have been placed (known as מי חטאת) the water can no longer be used. This applies to all birds except for the pigeon, because it sips the water from the container and presumably none falls back into the water from its mouth.

We are most fortunate that back in 1982 Professor G.A. Zweers from the zoological laboratory at the University of Leiden published what is surely the definitive paper on the topic, Drinking of the Pigeon (Columba Livia L.). Zweers opens his 43 page gem by noting that birds drink in many different ways. “Most of them drink like waterfowl; they walk to or through the water, move their beak open and close their beak several times, take some water, tip head and let the water run down by gravity.” However the way in which pigeons drink had for many years been a source of academic debate, and it was time to clear this up once and for all. So Zweers decided to “formulate a mechanical model for the drinking of pigeons….” and film them merrily drinking using high speed cameras. Now Talmudology readers are the lucky beneficiaries of these herculean efforts.

Screen Shot 2019-01-27 at 9.42.29 AM.png

Using a frame by frame analysis of high speed films and X-ray motion pictures, Zweers figured out that thirsty pigeons use “a double-suction or vacuum-pump model” to drink. Here is how it works:

Consummatory drinking is a series of similar movement cycles, each transporting one dose of water into the oesophagus. The swallowing movement cycle shows five phases:

1, capillary action of the beak tips;

2, lingual suction

3, pharyngeal preparation

4, pharyngeal suction;

and 5, oesophageal collection.

A double build up of an area of low air pressure occurs. As a result of the retraction of the tongue in the mouth (acting as a piston in a cylinder) low air pressure develops in the buccal cavity and water is sucked into the mouth. Secondly, a lower air pressure area develops in the pharynx as a result of a depression of its floor, so that the water in the mouth is given a momentum caudad, by which it is forced over the larynx into the oesophagus.

It’s not only pigeons who suck…

The Talmud rules that other than the pigeon any bird that drinks the waters of purification renders it unusable, because it is only the pigeon that sucks in water through its beak. All other birds drink using different mechanisms, during which time drops of water may fall back into the water, and render it unfit. But this isn’t quite the case. Some parrots like the parakeet (known in the United Kingdom and many parts of the Commonwealth as budgerigar) and the fig parrots also use a sucking mechanism to swallow, though they are native to Oceania and the islands of south-east Asia, so the rabbis of the Talmud could not have known this. The African fork-tailed drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis) sucks in water like pigeons, but then tip their heads back to swallow it. And finally, the common sandgrouse drinks using a very similar mechanism to pigeons.

To conclude: the pigeon is not the only bird that uses suction to drink, but it is certainly one of the few species that do so. We had the benefit of high-speed photography and a determined German professor, but the rabbis of the Talmud had only their daily observations to guide them, and most of the time that was good enought.

Pigeons and doves are among the few birds that can suck water while their head is down. They don’t need to look skyward to swallow.
— Bird Watchers Digest
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Chullin 57b ~ Ants, Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta, and the Scientific Method

Today we learn one of the central texts in the Talmud that discusses the relationship between experience and authority.

חולין נז, ב

…אמרו עליו על רבי שמעון בן חלפתא שעסקן בדברים היה

מאי עסקן בדברים? א"ר משרשיא דכתיב (משלי ו, ו) "לך אל נמלה עצל ראה דרכיה וחכם אשר אין לה קצין שוטר ומושל תכין בקיץ לחמה" אמר איזיל איחזי אי ודאי הוא דלית להו מלכא 

אזל בתקופת תמוז פרסיה לגלימיה אקינא דשומשמני נפק אתא חד מינייהו אתנח ביה סימנא על אמר להו נפל טולא נפקו ואתו דלייה לגלימיה נפל שמשא נפלו עליה וקטליה אמר שמע מינה לית להו מלכא דאי אית להו הרמנא דמלכא לא ליבעו 

א"ל רב אחא בריה דרבא לרב אשי ודלמא מלכא הוה בהדייהו א"נ הרמנא דמלכא הוו נקיטי אי נמי בין מלכא למלכא הוה דכתיב (שופטים יז, ו) בימים ההם אין מלך בישראל איש הישר בעיניו יעשה אלא סמוך אהימנותא דשלמה

They said about Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta that he was a researcher of various matters… The Gemara asks: From what episode did Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta earn the title: Researcher of matters? Rav Mesharshiyya said: He saw that it is written: “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise; which having no chief, overseer, or ruler, provides her bread in the summer” (Proverbs 6:6–8). Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta said: I will go and see if it is correct that they have no king.

He went in the season of Tammuz, i.e., summer. Knowing that ants avoid intense heat, he spread his cloak over an ant hole to provide shade. One of the ants came out and saw the shade. Rabbi Shimon placed a distinguishing mark on the ant. It went into the hole and said to the other ants: Shade has fallen. They all came out to work. Rabbi Shimon lifted up his cloak, and the sun fell on them. They all fell upon the first ant and killed it. He said: One may learn from their actions that they have no king; as, if they had a king, would they not need the king’s edict to execute their fellow ant?

Rav Acha, the son of Rava, said to Rav Ashi: But perhaps the king was with them at the time and gave them permission. Or perhaps they already had permission from the king to kill the ant. Or perhaps it was a time between kings, as it is written: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes”(Judges 17:6). Rather, rely on the credibility of Solomon, the author of Proverbs, that ants have no king.

The “experimenter”?

There is a great deal to unpack in this passage. First we need to understand exactly what is meant by the term used to describe Rabbi Shimon: “עסקן בדברים.” It can be translated in a few ways, each with their own subtle meanings.

Literally translated, the words mean he was involved in things. The Steinsaltz (Koren) Talmud translates the phrase as researcher of various matters, while the Schottenstein (ArtScroll) Talmud translates it as an experimenter, echoing the earlier Soncino translation an experimenter in all things. Goldschmidt's German translation (the first translation of the entire Babylonian Talmud, published 1897-1935) states “das er sich mit Dingen zu befassen pflegte” that Rabbi Shimon “used to deal with things.”

But there is more to the Schottenstein translation, which adds the following note: “Literally: one who involved himself with matters; i.e. he performed experiments to test the veracity of propositions.” Now that is quite a claim, for it suggests that 1) Rabbi Shimon sought to validate, and by definition invalidate the truth claims of the Bible and 2) that there was a scientific method as far back as Rabbi Shimon, circa 200 C.E.

Who was Shimon ben Chalafta?

We know rather little of the life of Rabbi Shimon, although he is the subject of several aggadic legends. He was extremely poor but fortunately he was also the object of divine intervention. Rabbi Shimon was saved from a nasty end involving lions by the miraculous appearance of heavenly meat (Sanhedrin 59b), and was the recipient of another heavenly gift - a gem of great wealth - which enabled to him to buy food for Passover (which goes to show that the high cost of kosher food for Passover is a long Jewish tradition).

And what about that title “the experimenter”? What else did he check out, or examine, or decipher? Alas, we will never know. This is the only place in all of Jewish literature in which he is described as
עסקן בדברים.

The origins of the experiment

The first scientific experiment, claims the historian of science David Wootton, happened on September 19, 1648. It involved measuring the height of a tube of mercury (in what we would later call a “barometer”) at various elevations in the region of Massif Central in central France. (The height of the mercury was three inches lower at the top of a 3,000 foot summit than it was back home in the garden.) It was the “first proper experiment” writes Wootton,

in that it involves a carefully designed procedure, verification (the onlookers are there to ensure this is really a reliable account), repetition, and independent replication, followed rapidly by dissemination.

Of course there had been earlier experiments - Ptolemy and Galen had carried them out, and among the most famous early experiment was the one performed by the Arab scientist Ibn al-Haytham. In the eleventh century he demonstrated (at least to his own satisfaction) that the eyes work by receiving light, rather than by emitting it. But before the scientific revolution there had been remarkably few such experiments, and certainly none like the barometer experiment. Aristotle was likely to blame, for two reasons. First, he assumed that adequate knowledge of any subject he discussed was already available, and second, “the Aristotelian tradition insisted that the highest form of knowledge was deductive, or syllogist knowledge.”

In addition, there was the status of the Bible as a source of knowledge about the world. Since it was the word of a God who did not lie, its observations were no less important than any experimental or philosophical proofs. (Elsewhere we have examined in some detail rabbinic philosophies and the scientific method, and I am told there is a great book on the relationship between science and rabbinic thought.)

In a nutshell, the scientific method involves making a prediction and then carrying out an experiment to verify - or falsify it. The great philosopher of science Karl Popper (d. 1994) took it a stage further, and introduced the concept of falsifiability. For a statement to be scientific he claimed, it must be falsifiable, that is, it must make a declaration that can be tested. And Rabbi Shimon was doing no such thing.

What was Rabbi Shimon doing?

Rabbi Shimon was certainly not carrying out an experiment in any way we use the word today. Instead he was observing nature, and noting how things seemed to work. And this is no small matter. In this respect he was like Charles Darwin who also carried out meticulous observations. On the basis of these Darwin developed a theory, which in his case was the theory of evolution, a theory that, as it turned out, is indeed falsifiable.

Neither Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta nor Rav Acha would have declared the words of Proverbs incorrect based on any of their own observations. What is more, some one-hundred and fifty years later, Rav Acha questioned Rabbi Shimon’s methodology. Why, he asked, is Rabbi Shimon so certain that his observations lead to his conclusion? Perhaps there were other explanations of what Rabbi Shimon had observed that would conclude, contra his deduction, that an ant colony actually had a king. Rav Acha makes a point that would be echoed in rabbinic texts centuries later: observations of the natural order can be explained in any number of ways; the only privileged source of knowledge is the Bible.

Now of all the branches of Natural History, Entomology is unquestionably the best fitted for thus disciplining the mind of study affords a fairer opportunity of leading the young mind to the great truths of Religion, and of impresing it with the most lively ideas of the power, wisdom, and goodness of the Creator.
— William Kerby. An Introduction to Entomology: Or Elements of the Natural History of Insects. London 1818. xvi.

And do ants have kings?

Basic ant colony life. From and Holldobler and Wilson.  The Super-Organism ;  The Beauty. Elegance and Strangeness of Insect Colonies.  Norton 2009. 138

Basic ant colony life. From and Holldobler and Wilson. The Super-Organism; The Beauty. Elegance and Strangeness of Insect Colonies. Norton 2009. 138

No. They have Queens. Who are like kings except they are not male. Although this is generally true, it is not the case for all species of ants. E.O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler won a Pulitzer Prize for their now classic 1990 work, The Ants. Holldobler is a Professor of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, and Wilson is a Harvard Professor who has been studying ants for over five decades, so together they must really knows their stuff. “In the Australian Pachycondyla sublaevis” they wrote in their beautiful book The Superorganism “there is no anatomically distinct queen. Instead the top-ranked worker mates and lays eggs… and joins those just beneath her in caring for the brood, while the workers of lower rank forage outside the nest for food.”

To summarize: Ant colonies do not have kings, and usually (but not always), they have a queen. (Though to further complicate matters more the Formica Yessenis ant of Japan can have, in Wilson’s words “millions of queens.”) And so King Solomon was not correct when he wrote “"אין לה קצין שוטר ומושל” - that ants have “no chief, overseer, or ruler” (although I guess you could re-interpret the verse to mean that they have no ruler in the sense of how we use the word today).

But Rabbi Shimon was correct about there being various castes or ranks within the nest. He described how one ant was killed by others of the same cast, and in fact this may occur for a number of reasons. For example, in a 2013 paper titled Enforcement of Reproductive Synchrony via Policing in a Clonal Ant, the authors note that “worker policing controls genetic conflicts between individuals and increases colony efficiency.” In other words, the colony will control reproductive rights by turning on, and in some cases killing, other members of the nest. And in a letter to Nature, researchers reported that if the queen is challenged by another female she chemically marks the pretender who is then punished by low-ranking females.

Seeing the Divine in the Insect

Rabbi Shimon made his observations about the social structure of ants about 1,600 years before William Kirby who in 1808 published his “Introduction to Entomology the very first general study of entomology. But like many works of science from the Victorian-era it is also a book about God. Throughout, Kirby notes the truth of Scripture and the stamp of a Divine Creator, which he insists can be recognized by studying insects. In this regard, Kirby was echoing exactly the sentiment in the Book of Proverbs cited in today’s page of Talmud. “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.”

Rabbi Shimon wasn’t the only tanna who saw the divine in the insect world. In a few pages (63a) we will read that when Rabbi Yochanan would study ant behavior, he would say a verse from Psalm 37:7 “צדקתך כהררי אל” Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains.” Why? Because, explains Rashi, God provides food for the ants, who then do not need to work hard to sustain the colony. It’s a beautiful homily, though once you read through The Ants, the suggestion that ants have it easy is fanciful.

The author of Scripture is also the author of Nature: and this visible world, by types indeed, and by symbols, declares the same truths as the Bible does by words. To make the naturalist a religious man – to turn his attention to the glory of God, that he may declare his works, and in the study of his creatures may see the loving-kindness of the Lord – may this in some measure be the fruit of my work…’
— William Kirby, Correspondence, Dec 21 1800

Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta left no halachic teachings, and the only example we have of his inquisitive mind is today’s story about his field observations of ants. But he left an indelible mark on the oral tradition, because the Mishna, upon which all later Talmudic discussions are based, ends with his wise words.

אָמַר רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן חֲלַפְתָּא, לֹא מָצָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא כְּלִי מַחֲזִיק בְּרָכָה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל אֶלָּא הַשָּׁלוֹם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים כט), ה’ עֹז לְעַמּוֹ יִתֵּן ה’ יְבָרֵךְ אֶת עַמּוֹ בַשָּׁלוֹם
Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta said: The Holy One, blessed be He, found no vessel that can [sufficiently] hold the blessing for Israel, save for peace, as the verse says, (Psalms 29:11) “God will give strength to His nation, God will bless His nation with peace.”
— Mishnah Uktzin 3:12

And let us say Amen.

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Chullin 60b ~ The Great Tu-Bishvat Eclipse of 2019

Tonight is the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat - better known as Tu-Bishvat. It is the day which traditionally marks “the new year for trees” and on which many of us will make a Tu-Bishvat seder (kind of like a Passover Seder, but without all the cleaning). As a special treat, there will also be a total lunar eclipse tonight, which will be visible from North and South America, Europe and Israel. In the following passage of Talmud that we will learn at the end of this week, there is a wonderful reminder to ponder the relationship of the sizes of the sun and the moon:

חולין ס, ב

רבי שמעון בן פזי רמי כתיב (בראשית א, טז) ויעש אלהים את שני המאורות הגדולים וכתיב את המאור הגדול ואת המאור הקטן אמרה ירח לפני הקב"ה רבש"ע אפשר לשני מלכים שישתמשו בכתר אחד אמר לה לכי ומעטי את עצמך 

אמרה לפניו רבש"ע הואיל ואמרתי לפניך דבר הגון אמעיט את עצמי אמר לה לכי ומשול ביום ובלילה אמרה ליה מאי רבותיה דשרגא בטיהרא מאי אהני אמר לה זיל לימנו בך ישראל ימים ושנים אמרה ליה יומא נמי אי אפשר דלא מנו ביה תקופותא דכתיב (בראשית א, יד) והיו לאותות ולמועדים ולימים ושנים זיל ליקרו צדיקי בשמיך (עמוס ז, ב) יעקב הקטן שמואל הקטן (שמואל א יז, יד) דוד הקטן 

חזייה דלא קא מיתבא דעתה אמר הקב"ה הביאו כפרה עלי שמיעטתי את הירח והיינו דאמר ר"ש בן לקיש מה נשתנה שעיר של ראש חדש שנאמר בו (במדבר כח, יא) לה' אמר הקב"ה שעיר זה יהא כפרה על שמיעטתי את הירח 

Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi explains: When God first created the sun and the moon, they were equally bright. Then, the moon said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, is it possible for two kings to serve with one crown? One of us must be subservient to the other. God therefore said to her, i.e., the moon: If so, go and diminish yourself.

She said before Him: Master of the Universe, since I said a correct observation before You, must I diminish myself? God said to her: As compensation, go and rule both during the day along with the sun and during the night. She said to Him: What is the greatness of shining alongside the sun? What use is a candle in the middle of the day? God said to her: Go; let the Jewish people count the days and years with you, and this will be your greatness. She said to Him: But the Jewish people will count with the sun as well, as it is impossible that they will not count seasons with it, as it is written: “And let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years” (Genesis 1:14)….

God saw that the moon was not comforted. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: Bring atonement for me, since I diminished the moon.The Gemara notes: And this is what Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish says: What is different about the goat offering of the New Moon, that it is stated with regard to it: “For the Lord” (Numbers 28:15)? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: This goat shall be an atonement for Me for having diminished the size of the moon.

God needs a monthly sacrifice because he diminished the size of the moon! Wow. That’s a theological statement that needs some unpacking. But let’s stay focussed and turn our attention to…

Why we see a lunar eclipse

Here is what will happen on the Tu-Bishvat Eclipse of Sunday night/Monday morning

Here is what will happen on the Tu-Bishvat Eclipse of Sunday night/Monday morning

A lunar eclipse occurs when the earth lies between the sun and the moon. The shadow of the earth then covers the moon, and we see a lunar eclipse. As NASA helpfully explains, during some stages of the lunar eclipse, the Moon will appear reddish. This is because the only remaining sunlight reaching the Moon at that point is from around the edges of the Earth, as seen from the Moon's surface.

When to see the eclipse

On the east coast of the US, the eclipse will begin at 9.36pm on Sunday night and reaches a maximum at 12.12am. On the west coast things will be earlier - you will see the total eclipse starting at 9.12pm. But if you live in London England, you ‘ll have to step outdoors at the ungodly hour of 4.41am on Monday morning to witness the earth cast its shadow on the moon.

What to look for in Jerusalem

In Jerusalem you will be able to see a near total lunar eclipse - (the moon will be 97% covered by the shadow of the earth) at 6:38am on Monday morning. However, this true maximum point of this eclipse cannot be easily seen in Jerusalem because the Moon is below the horizon at that time. To get a better view you will have to head to high point or find an unobstructed area with free sight to the west-northwest for the best view of the eclipse. But be quick. The moon will set barely three minutes later, at 6:41am, and the combination of a very low moon and the total eclipse phase makes the Moon so dim before it sets, that it might disappear from view some time before it sets.

We have discussed how the Talmud understands lunar and solar eclipses several times (like here and here and here). How lucky we are that the moon was commanded to diminish itself and banished to the night sky (mostly). So set your alarms, look to the skies, and pray for a cloudless night.

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