Chullin 134b ~ The Right. Always to the Right

חולין קלד, ב

ת"ר (דברים יח, ג) הזרוע זה זרוע ימין אתה אומר זה זרוע ימין או אינו אלא זרוע שמאל ת"ל הזרוע

The rabbis taught in a baraita: The verse states with regard to the gifts of the priesthood: “That they shall give to the priest the foreleg…” (Deuteronomy 18:3)…is this the right foreleg, or is it only the left foreleg? The verse states: “The foreleg.” The definite article indicates that the verse is referring to the right foreleg.

מאי תלמודא? כדאמר רבאהירך’ - המיומנת שבירך. הכא נמי הזרוע - המיומן שבזרוע

But how is it understood from the definite article that the verse is referring to the right foreleg? It is derived like that which Rava said with regard to the verse: [“Therefore the children of Israel do not eat the sciatic nerve which is upon the hollow of the thigh”(Genesis 32:33). The definite article indicates that this is referring to the most important thigh. Here too, the definite article in the term “the foreleg” indicates that the verse is referring to the most important foreleg, i.e., the right foreleg.

But why did the rabbis derive that “the most important” thigh is the right one? Why not the left one?

Let’s take a trip into the worlds of comparative religion, chirality, astronomy, and neuroscience to find out.

Homer Simpson Lefty Store.jpeg

The importance of the right side in Judaism

In the Talmud and in normative Jewish practice, the preference to favor the right over the left is everywhere. Here are just a few. (How many more can you think of?)

  • When walking up the ramp to the top of the Altar in the Temple, the Cohen must make a right turn at the top. Following that, every turn he makes must be a right turn. (זבחים נד,ב)

  • Actually, the entire service in the Temple in Jerusalem must be performed with the right hand. (ביאת המקדש 5:18 )

  • Rav Ashi rules that Tefillin must placed it on the left arm, because it is weaker than the right and the action of placing them should be performed with the stronger right hand (מנחות לז, א).

  • The Talmud teaches that a right-handed person who writes with her left hand on Shabbat has not violated the prohibition against writing. It doesn't count. Maimonides (הלכות שבת 11:14) agrees:

הַכּוֹתֵב בִּשְׂמֹאלוֹ אוֹ לְאַחַר יָדוֹ בְּרַגְלוֹ בְּפִיו וּבְמַרְפֵּקוֹ פָּטוּר

  • According to Rava, walking should start with the right leg, and not the left (יומא יא, ב)

  • The rite of חליצה must be performed with the right leg and a right shoe (יבמות קד, א).

  • The mezuzah can only be placed on the right side of the door (רמבם הל׳ מזוזה 6:12).

  • The best student of a rabbi should walk on the rabbi's right side, relegating the second best to the left (יומא לז, א).

  • After observing his teacher Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Akiva taught that the left hand should be used after using the bathroom, out of respect to the right hand (ברכות סב,ב). When challenged as to why Rabbi Akiva was impertinent enough to report on which hand his teacher wiped himself he replied תורה היא וללמוד אני צריך - "this too is Torah, and I must study it".

לֵ֤ב חָכָם֙ לִֽימִינ֔וֹ וְלֵ֥ב כְּסִ֖יל לִשְׂמֹאלֽוֹ׃

A wise man’s mind tends toward the right hand, a fool’s toward the left.

— Kohelet 10:2

It's not Just Judaism

  1. Islam

The importance of all things right handed is found in other religions. For example, when Muslims perform any of the following, it is mustahabb [مستحبّ‎, - "recommended"] to start on the right or use the right hand.

  • putting on one's garment and pants and shoes

  • entering the mosque, using the siwaak [ a kind of toothpick]

  • putting on kohl [an ancient blue eye cosmetic]

  • clipping the nails

  • trimming the mustache

  • combing the hair plucking the armpit hair

  • shaving the head

  • saying salaam at the end of prayer

  • washing the limbs when purifying oneself

  • exiting the toilet, eating and drinking

  • shaking hands

  • touching the Black Stone [ٱلْحَجَرُ ٱلْأَسْوَد‎, al-Ḥajaru al-Aswad, a rock set into the eastern corner of the Kaaba, the ancient building located in the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Legend has it that the rock dates back to Adam and Eve.]

  • Conversely, the Bukhari Sharif , one of the six major hadith collections of Sunni Islam rules along the lines of Rabbi Akiva:

"... when you urinate, do not touch your penis with your right hand. And when you cleanse yourself after defecation, do not use your right hand."

The right hand of the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) was for his purification and food, and his left hand was for using the toilet and anything that was dirty...
— Sunan Abi Dawood (33)

2. Christianity

3. Hinduism

  • Offerings, such as flowers or garlands, are carried with both hands on the right side of the body.

  • "Pointing with the forefinger of the right hand or shaking the forefinger in emphasis while talking is never done. This is because the right hand possesses a powerful, aggressive pranic force, and an energy that moves the forces of the world."

  • Vāmācāra ( वामाचार, meaning "left-handed attainment" in Sanskrit) describes the "Left-Hand Path" or "Left-path" It is used to describe a particular mode of worship that is heterodox to standard Vedic teachings.

  • In Benares, the holiest of the seven sacred cities and sitting on the Ganges, "pilgrims circumambulate with their right hands towards the center, as Krishna is alleged to have done at the sacred mountain."

Well, you get the point.  Judaism, along with all the major religions (and some you've never heard of) emphasize the dominance of the right hand in all things holy. Or mundane.

The Ngaga of southern Borneo believe everything in the after-world is reversed, “sweet” becoming “bitter”, “straight” becoming “crooked”, and “right” becoming “left”. Likewise the Toraja of Celebes (Sulawesi) believed the dead do everything backwards, even pronouncing words backwards... the dead therefore use their left hand...
— I. C. Mcmanus. Right Hand, Left Hand: The Origins of Asymmetry in Brains, Bodies, Atoms and Cultures. Phoenix 2003, p27.

 and It's not just religions

There are lots of things that have chirality - meaning they have a mirror image but cannot be mapped onto that mirror image by rotations and translations. They exist in left or right-handed versions. Let's start with in easy example. Um, your hands. Although your right hand mirrors your left, your right hand cannot (comfortably) fit into a handed-glove.

From  here .

From here.

Here's another example. Bend your fingers and extend your thumb as in the figure. You've made two mirror images that cannot be mapped onto each other. (Go on. Give it a try. See what I mean?) That's chirality.

If we extend this to molecules, they are left or right-handed, meaning they are mirror images but they cannot be superimposed on each other. These are isomers. Like this:

From  here .

From here.

And here is where things start to get really weird. Nearly everything in the universe - from chemicals and medications to fundamental particles and even galaxies themselves have a right-handed or left-handed preference. No, really. 

Let's start with the essential building blocks of life: amino acids and sugars. Almost all amino acids (not you, glycine) used by life on earth (but not necessarily elsewhere in the universe) are left-handed.  Right-handed amino acids exist of course. They're just not utilized by any life form on earth. Any.  If you sit in a lab and cook up an amino acid from its ingredients, you will make an equal amount of the left and right handed variates. That's just good old chemistry at work. But life on earth can only use half the mixture: the L form. Some bacteria can actually convert right-handed amino acids into the left-handed version, but they can’t use the right-handed ones as is.

Like amino acids, sugars also come in two isomers, but those that are used by life forms on earth are the right-handed variety. All the enzymes that living things use to manipulate amino acids and sugars only work on left-handed amino acids and right-handed sugars. They simply can't use the opposites. Why did life turn out this way? Truth is, nobody knows.  

Medications also exhibit chirality. For example, propranolol is commonly used to help control high blood pressure. Some of you reading this may be taking it. The left form (L-propranolol) is the one that helps. The right form (known as D-propranolol) is inactive. (The Latin for left and right is laevus and dexter, respectively.)

Quinine is an antimalarial drug. It has an isomer called quinidine, and quinidine has no anti-malarial action. But it's a great drug to reduce arrhythmias of the heart. One compound, with two isomers, each with their own remarkable and very different healing properties.

Now consider muons, a fundamental particle in our universe. It is kind of like an electron, but about 200 times heavier. Muons have an average life-expectancy of 2.2 microseconds (so don't expect any kind of long-term relationship) after which time they decay into an electron, a neutrino, and an antineutrino. The direction that the electron will come out depends on the direction in which the muon spins. Now you would expect there to be equal amounts of electrons that are ejected spinning one way or another. But there aren't.  What happens is that 99.9% of muons decay in a right-handed fashion.

And while we are on the subject of decaying muons, let's talk about those neutrinos, which are a weird fundamental particle with the smallest mass of any known thing. They too, have a preference for the right or left. All neutrinos are left handed, while all anti-neutrinos (whatever that means) are right handed.

Left and right handed galaxies. From  here .

Left and right handed galaxies. From here.

Ready for more? Statistically speaking our universe should contain an equal amount of left and right handed galaxies (as noted in how they spin). But this should not occur. In an analysis of over 2,600 nearby spiral galaxies and a later analysis of 15,000 more, Michael Longo demonstrated that that left-handed spirals are more common in the northern hemisphere, above the northern galactic pole. And although the signal is less strong, right-handed spirals appear more frequently in the south.

It's good to be a leftie

About 10-13% of humans are left-handed. (Captive chimpanzees are more left-handed than us, with an approximate 2:1 ratio of righties to lefties. In us it's more like 8:1) But aside from the problem of not finding scissors that work for you, being a leftie gives you some pretty good advantages.

...not only left-handers are over-represented in confrontational sports, but the closer the physical interaction of the opponents such as in boxing, fencing, judo, or karate, the greater the prevalence of left-handers. In basketball, football, handball, table tennis, tennis, and volleyball, for instance, competitors stand some distance apart and do not confront directly. But even in these sports, there are more than the expected number of left-handers...
— Grouios G. et al. Do left-handed competitors have an innate superiority in sports? Perception and Motor Skills, 2000:90;1273-1282

At the undergraduate level they are more likely to take part in a whole range of events, from judo and fencing and soccer and volleyball. But when it comes to non-confrontational sports like cycle racing, running or swimming, the proportion of left handers fall back to that of the general population. Lefties make up about 10% of the population, but 23% of all Wimbledon tennis champions were lefties.

There is a lot more evidence that lefties have many advantages over (us) righties. In a complicated test of spatial skills which you can read about here, 47 lefties demonstrated faster and more accurate spatial skills than the 50 righties, along with strong executive control and mental flexibility. And in this study of 100 lefties and 100 righties, the left-handed demonstrated greater creativity than the right-handed on all 4 scales of the Torrance test which examines creative thinking.

Obama writes with his left hand.jpg

And lefties appear to be smarter that righties.  In a study of some 300 gifted children, left (-or mixed-handedness) occurred more frequently in those who were mathematically or verbally precocious (for our readers in the US, this meant an SAT-M score of more than 700 and an SAT-L score of more than 630). Of the last 15 US presidents, seven (about 47%) have been left-handed.  That's almost 1 in 2! Oh, and compared with righties, college-educated left-handers in the US earn 10-15% more.

Leonardo da Vinci was a lefty, as were Michelangelo, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein.

Despite these, and many other advantages, our cultures have stigmatized those who are left-handed. We all know that the word sinister (meaning something harmful or evil is going to happen) comes from the Latin sinister meaning left.  But there are more examples of anti-left associations in other languages too. Adroit, meaning clever or skillful comes from the French word for right droite, meaning dextrous. In German, linkisch means awkward, and it comes from the German links, meaning left. And so it goes on.

Back to the Jewish Bible

Left-handed people are mentioned only three times in Tanach, and all come from the tribe of Benjamin:

  • There were the 700 men from the tribe of Benjamin who could use a sling with deadly accuracy (שופתים 20:16):

מִכֹּ֣ל ׀ הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֗ה שְׁבַ֤ע מֵאוֹת֙ אִ֣ישׁ בָּח֔וּר אִטֵּ֖ר יַד־יְמִינ֑וֹ כָּל־זֶ֗ה קֹלֵ֧עַ בָּאֶ֛בֶן אֶל־הַֽשַּׂעֲרָ֖ה וְלֹ֥א יַחֲטִֽא׃

  • There were the ambidextrous men who came to fight for King David at Ziklag, who were from the tribe of Benjamin (דברי הימים א, 12:2)

נֹ֣שְׁקֵי קֶ֗שֶׁת מַיְמִינִ֤ים וּמַשְׂמִאלִים֙ בָּֽאֲבָנִ֔ים וּבַחִצִּ֖ים בַּקָּ֑שֶׁת מֵאֲחֵ֥י שָׁא֖וּל מִבִּנְיָמִֽן׃

  • And perhaps most famously there was the left-handed Ehud ( אֶת־אֵה֤וּד בֶּן־גֵּרָא֙ בֶּן־הַיְמִינִ֔י אִ֥ישׁ אִטֵּ֖ר יַד־יְמִינ֑וֹ) who assassinated the Moabite king Eglon (שופתים 3:12-30). Because Ehud was left-handed he hid his dagger on his right side. In this way he got past the body search outside the throne room, where the guards looked for a weapon on the left. As for the rest, well, read on:

  • וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח אֵהוּד֙ אֶת־יַ֣ד שְׂמֹאל֔וֹ וַיִּקַּח֙ אֶת־הַחֶ֔רֶב מֵעַ֖ל יֶ֣רֶךְ יְמִינ֑וֹ וַיִּתְקָעֶ֖הָ בְּבִטְנֽוֹ׃ וַיָּבֹ֨א גַֽם־הַנִּצָּ֜ב אַחַ֣ר הַלַּ֗הַב וַיִּסְגֹּ֤ר הַחֵ֙לֶב֙ בְּעַ֣ד הַלַּ֔הַב כִּ֣י לֹ֥א שָׁלַ֛ף הַחֶ֖רֶב מִבִּטְנ֑וֹ וַיֵּצֵ֖א הַֽפַּרְשְׁדֹֽנָה׃

    Reaching with his left hand, Ehud drew the dagger from his right side and drove it into [Eglon’s] belly. The fat closed over the blade and the hilt went in after the blade—for he did not pull the dagger out of his belly—and the filth came out.

All of this is really strange because of course the name of this tribe  - Benjamin - literally means "the son of the right" בן ימין.  

Back to Chhulin

Today's daf yomi page of Talmud has a very short instruction. Give to the priests the most choice of meat cuts: those from the right leg of the animal. But this phrase reveals a profound truth about who we are as humans, and of the very stuff from which we are made.  In culture after culture, in religions after religion, and in the very structure of our universe, there are left or right-handed preferences and predilections, many of which we simply cannot currently explain. Our religious and cultural preferences for the right likely stems from the simple fact that left-handedness is eight times less common. Unfortunately, a suspicion of the other, of those who are not like the majority, is a common trait that in one way or another we all share. But it needn't be so. The other, those in the minority, teach us and enrich our lives. Heck, they are often even smarter and quicker than the majority.  We are all better off with them.

[An oldie but a goodie originally posted here.]

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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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Chullin 121b ~ Shechita, Pain and and Modern Sensibilities

Mayer Kirshenblatt.  The Illegal Slaughter . From Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett,  They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust . University of California Press. n.d. p114

Mayer Kirshenblatt. The Illegal Slaughter. From Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust. University of California Press. n.d. p114

חולין קכא,ב

הרוצה שיאכל מבהמה קודם שתצא נפשה חותך כזית בשר מבית שחיטתה ומולחו יפה יפה ומדיחו יפה יפה וממתין לה עד שתצא נפשה ואוכלו אחד עובד כוכבים ואחד ישראל מותרין בו

One who wishes to eat from the meat of a slaughtered animal before its soul departs may cut an olive-bulk of meat from the area of its slaughter, the neck, and salt it very well and rinse it very well [in water to remove the salt and blood,] and then wait until the animal’s soul departs, and then eat it. Both a gentile and a Jew are permitted to eat it [because the prohibition against eating a limb from a living animal is not applicable in such a case].

מסייע ליה לרב אידי בר אבין דאמר רב אידי בר אבין א"ר יצחק בר אשיין הרוצה שיבריא חותך כזית בשר מבית שחיטה ומולחו יפה יפה ומדיחו יפה יפה וממתין לה עד שתצא נפשה אחד עובד כוכבים ואחד ישראל מותרים בו

This teaching supports the opinion of Rav Idi bar Avin, as Rav Idi bar Avin said that Rav Yitzḥak bar Ashyan said: One who wants to be healthy should cut an olive-bulk of meat from the area of the slaughter, and salt it very well and rinse it very well, and then wait until the animal’s soul departs, and then both a gentile and a Jew are permitted to eat it.

Today we learn about a very strange (and disturbing) talmudic folk tradition. If you want to stay healthy, cut some meat from the throat of an animal that had been slaughtered by the usual method of shechita - but do so before the animal has died. Since there is a very strong prohibition against eating meat taken from a living animal, the Talmud goes out of its way to note that it does not apply in this case. The folk remedy apparently demanded that the meat be taken before the animal is dead - and so waiting would defeat the whole purpose.

Now this sounds pretty cruel. But since the Talmud brought it to our attention (and permitted or even encouraged it) we must take a detailed look into the question of how our modern sensibilities and our modern science might approach the complicated question of the relationship between animal suffering and shechita.

The new Belgian requirement for animal stunning


As of January 1st, 2019 Belgian authorities have essentially banned both the Muslim and Jewish methods of ritually slaughtering animals. In case you missed it, here is part of The New York Times report from Jan 5th:

Laws across Europe and European Union regulations require that animals be rendered insensible to pain before slaughter, to make the process more humane. For larger animals, stunning before slaughter usually means using a “captive bolt” device that fires a metal rod into the brain; for poultry it usually means an electric shock. Animals can also be knocked out with gas.

But slaughter by Muslim halal and Jewish kosher rules requires that an animal be in perfect health — which religious authorities say rules out stunning it first — and be killed with a single cut to the neck that severs critical blood vessels. The animal loses consciousness in seconds, and advocates say it may cause less suffering than other methods, not more…

“The government asked for our advice on the ban, we responded negatively, but the advice wasn’t taken,” said Saatci Bayram, a leader of the Muslim community. “This ban is presented as a revelation by animal rights activists, but the debate on animal welfare in Islam has been going on for 1,500 years. Our way of ritual slaughtering is painless…”

The idea for the ban was first proposed by Ben Weyts, a right-wing Flemish nationalist and the minister in the Flanders government who is responsible for animal welfare. Mr. Weyts was heavily criticized in 2014 for attending the 90th birthday of Bob Maes, who had collaborated with the Nazi occupation of Belgium in World War II and later became a far-right politician.

Animal rights groups applauded the legislation. When it was approved by the Flemish Parliament in June 2017, Mr. Weyts hailed the vote on Twitter, writing: “Proud animal minister. Proud to be Flemish…”

Rabbi Schmahl [a senior rabbi in Antwerp] cited another Belgian law that was recently enacted, to regulate home schooling — a common practice in his community — as an example of a pattern of laws in Europe making it increasingly difficult for observant Jews to live according to their traditions.

“It definitely brings to mind similar situations before the Second World War, when these laws were introduced in Germany,” he said.

It’s all there. A claim that shechita is less humane than slaughter by captive bolt; allegations that it’s all a plot by anti-semites (in the real sense of the word - targeting both Jews and Muslims); counter-claims that shechita is more humane than other methods and finally a throwback to the Holocaust (proving, once again, the accuracy of Godwin’s law). Two days later a New York Times editorial appeared: When Animal Welfare and Religious Practice Collide:

It should be obvious to any reader…that there is bound to be impassioned debate on the issue. And indeed animal-rights advocates and religious leaders have squared off on social media and the internet, citing volumes of scriptural injunctions and scientific studies…

The debate, moreover, is hardly new. Regulations across the European Union require stunning an animal before slaughter, a practice that generally means either firing a bolt into its brain or an electric shock…

The pretexts of some politicians does not mean all those who insist on stunning have dubious motives. Animal-rights activists have long campaigned, justifiably and successfully, for the humane treatment of animals destined for the table. Many earnestly believe that slashing the neck of a conscious animal causes more suffering than stunning the animal first…

Whether that’s so should be a matter of continuing study by the meat and poultry industries, animal scientists, veterinarians and governments. There is no question that the animals we raise for food should be exposed to the least suffering possible, just as there is no question that killing a healthy creature has enormous potential for cruelty.

But those who really care about the welfare of animals should be wary of making common cause with right-wing nationalists whose hostile intent is to make life more difficult for religious minorities. A real conversation on balancing animal rights and religious freedoms can take place only if it is free of hidden bigotry.

What we Used to believe about Animals and pain

They eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing...
— Nicolas Malebranche. Oevres completes. ed G. Rodis Lewis. Paris, J/ Vrin 1970. II. 394.

Just a few hundred years ago, any discussion about animals feeling pain would have been dismissed as nonsense. It was Rene Descartes (the one who gave us “I think therefore I am”) who opined that animals were automatons. Any signs that they were experiencing pain was, he believed, a reflex, and did not represent the suffering of a conscious animal. Vivisection, in which live animals were used in scientific experimentation, was standard practice in early modern Europe. Here is an example, written by Willam Harvey (d. 1657), the man who is credited with discovering the circulation of the blood:

If one performed Galen’s experiment and incised the trachea of a still living dog, forcibly filling its lungs with air by means of bellows, and ligated them strongly in the distended position, one would find, on rapidly opening the chest, a great deal of air in the lungs…

In his book Bad Medicine, the historian David Wootton added this:

In the 1970s the Royal Society made a film for schools that reproduced Harvey’s vivisections. I have met two people who were shown it at school; both told me that they could not bear to watch it all, and that some of their co-students fainted.

As we have seen previously, animals were regularly put on trial in talmudic times through to the middle ages. It’s a paradox that on the one hand we once thought of animals of being culpable for crimes, while on the other we believed them incapable of thought or experiencing pain. We know a lot more today. Animals feel pain. About this there is fortunately no more debate. But there is a question about how an animal that is slaughtered feels pain, and how that pain may be reduced.

Shechita and Pain

It has been a foundational belief by those who defend it in modern times that shechita is a painless and humane method of slaughter. “It is a popular myth that Shechita is a painful method of slaughter. In fact, there is ample scientific evidence to the contrary” said Henry Grunwald (OBE QC!) Chairman of Shechita UK. “The Shechita process requires the rapid uninterrupted severance of major vital organs and vessels which produces, inter alia, instant drop in blood pressure in the brain…and [the] irreversible cessation of consciousness and sensibility to pain… producing a painless and effective stun and instant insensibility – followed without delay by immediate death.” In the US, the Orthodox Union claimed that “shechita is more humane than the common non-kosher form of shooting the animal in the head with a captive bolt…The Humane Slaughter Act, passed into law after objective research by the United States government, declares shechita to be humane. For Torah observant Jews, it cannot be any other way.”

Shechita itself, the act of animal killing, is designed to minimise animal pain. The animal must be killed by a single cut with an instrument of surgical sharpness, and in the absence of anything that might impede its smooth and swift motion. The cut achieves three things: it stuns, kills and exsanguinates in a single act. We believe that this is the most humane, or a most humane method of animal slaughter.
— Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addressing a debate on shechita in Britain's House of Lords, January 16, 2014.

But as we make our way through the tractate Chullin, there is no mention of the pain of the procedure. And with very few exceptions that we will come to, it was not until modern times that anyone made the claim that we slaughter animals using shechita because it is as close to being painless as possible. We do it because that’s been a part of Jewish tradition.

Shechita and the EEG

In 1994, Temple Grandin, the great champion of humane slaughter observed that cattle did not yank away their necks during shechita. “All of them stood still during the cut and did not appear to feel it” she wrote, though she also noted that “whether or not ritual slaughter conforms to the requirements of euthanasia is a controversial question.” Since then others have looked into the question of brain activity as a marker of pain during shechita.

In 2009 a group of veterinarians in New Zealand hooked up fourteen Angus steers to an EEG, which measures the electrical activity in the brain. They were lightly anesthetized (the cows, not the veterinarians) and then slaughtered with an incision across the neck, “severing all tissues ventral to the vertebral column including the major blood vessels supplying and draining the head.” During the 30 seconds following this incision, the EEG showed significant changes leaving the scientists to conclude that “…there is a period following slaughter where ventral­ neck incision represents a noxious stimulus.” In a slightly different study on calves, the group concluded that the EEG responses were primarily due to noxious stimulation and not mainly as a result of loss of blood flow through the brain.

Ari Zivotofsky (he of the exotic kosher banquet) claimed that these experiments had “…zero relevance to shechita because the conditions used did not mimic shechita in terms of the knife’s size, sharpness, and smoothness.” He continues:

It is possible that cutting a cow’s neck with a short, blunt, non-smooth knife is indeed painful, while a shechita cut may be significantly less so or even totally devoid of pain. Does the animal feel no pain? Might it even be a pleasurable feeling, e.g., are endorphins released? I don’t know. But many people who have gotten a paper cut or who have been cut by a scalpel can attest to the fact that while the cut is taking place it is essentially not sensed and it is only later that the pain kicks in. And in the case of shechita, the animal will be senseless by that point.

It would be hard to believe that the sensation of having your neck sliced open would be similar to that of getting a paper cut - and harder still to think that it might even be pleasurable. But here is a suggestion: do the experiment (though not on your friends) and let us know.

But don’t take my word for it. Temple Grandin herself wrote that “there is a need to do research with EEG measurements when the special…kosher knife is used by a trained person.”

In fact brain activity has been compared between shechita and captive bolt stunning, and the results did not bode well for shechita. Here is one study published in 1988 in the Veterinary Record:

Captive bolt stunning followed by sticking one minute later resulted in immediate and irreversible loss of evoked responses after the stun. Spontaneous cortical activity was lost before sticking in three animals, and in an average of 10 seconds after sticking in the remaining five animals. The duration of brain function after shechita was very variable, and particularly contrasted with captive bolt stunning with respect to the effects on evoked responses. These were lost between 20 and 126 seconds (means of 77 seconds for somatosensory and 55 seconds for visual evoked responses) and spontaneous activity was lost between 19 and 113 seconds (mean 75 seconds) after slaughter.

The authors did add a note of caution: “…evoked responses do not rep­resent a conscious awareness of the stimulus but are produced by neural activity at a rudimentary level which precedes con­scious awareness.” But even so, these findings must raise the concern that the animals had a degree of brain activity for far longer after shechita compared to captive bolt use. And back to Grandin again: “Penetrating captive bolt, when it is applied correctly, will induce instant insensibility and unconsciousness, because visually evoked potentials are eliminated from the brain.” So there it is again: instant versus not-so-instant.

Shechita and the time to loss of CONSCIOUSNESS

Frequency distribution of the cattle according to time to collapse following halal slaughter without stunning. From Gregory al. Time to collapse following slaughter without stunning in cattle.   Meat Science   2010: 85; 66–69.

Frequency distribution of the cattle according to time to collapse following halal slaughter without stunning. From Gregory al. Time to collapse following slaughter without stunning in cattle. Meat Science 2010: 85; 66–69.

While it is often claimed by those who support shechita that it causes an immediate loss of consciousness (see above, Henry Grunwald the OBE QC), this is not to be the case. Grandin, who collected data from five kosher plants in different countries noted a huge variation: from as little as eight seconds to as long as a full two minutes. (Average times were somewhere between 15 and 35 seconds.) As we have seen, when properly applied, a captive bolt captive bolt provides an instant loss of consciousness.

One 2009 study studied the time to collapse following slaughter without stunning in cattle following halal slaughter (which is not the same as shechita, but it’s not much different either). It reported that 14% of the cattle collapsed and subsequently raised themselves to stand on all four feet before collapsing again. There was a twenty second interval, on average, between the first and final collapses. “This brief recovery in behaviour,” the authors point out,” has not been noted before because cattle are usually restrained during the main part of the bleeding period following slaughter without stunning.”

You are not helping

One thing that certainly does not help the case for shechita are wild claims like the one below. It comes from a book called TNT Torah Novel Thoughts, authored by “Anonymous(and brought to my attention by an astute Talmudology reader). The claim is so bizarre that it is reproduced here in the original:


If the claim that “kosher animals were created with nerves ending at their shoulders, thus circumventing any feeling of pain” sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. Does Anonymous believe that there are no cutaneous nociceptive nerve endings in cattle above the neck? If so, has he (or she) ever patted the neck of a cow or a horse? The cranial nerves in cattle, “have in general the same superficial origin as in the horse” wrote Septimus Sisson in his classic Textbook of Veterinary Anatomy (p. 717). There are some minor differences of course; the oculomotor nerve is slightly larger in the horse, and the superior buccal nerve crosses the masseter much lower in cattle than in the horse. But none of these comes anywhere near to the claim made by Anonymous. You could check this by reading Veterinary Neuroanatomy and Clinical Neurology (4th Edition). Then, if you have time, you could review Comparative Anatomy of the Horse, Ox, and Dog: The Vertebral Column and Peripheral Nerves, or its companion Comparative Anatomy of the Horse, Ox, and Dog:The Brain and Associated Vessels. You will find that it is the similarities between the species that is remarkable.

Schematic illustration of the autonomous and cutaneous distribution of nerves pertaining to the head of the (A) dog, (B) horse, and (C) ox .   O  = ophthalmic nerve;  Mx  = maxillary nerve ( *  = also within the maxillary distribution of the horse);  Mn  = mandibular nerve. From Levine J, et al.     Comparative Anatomy of the Horse, Ox, and Dog:The Brain and Associated Vessels   .

Schematic illustration of the autonomous and cutaneous distribution of nerves pertaining to the head of the (A) dog, (B) horse, and (C) ox. O = ophthalmic nerve; Mx = maxillary nerve (* = also within the maxillary distribution of the horse); Mn = mandibular nerve. From Levine J, et al. Comparative Anatomy of the Horse, Ox, and Dog:The Brain and Associated Vessels.

And what about the claim that there is a “physiological difference between the blood flow of non-kosher animals and kosher ones” (and that this information “could only be Divine")? Well, this too is wildly inaccurate. Of course there are some differences between species. For example, in horses, the Circle of Willis at the base of the brain is supplied by the internal carotid and basilar arteries. In cattle, the blood supply to the circle is via the internal carotid, maxillary, occipital, and vertebral arteries. And so, in cattle “the cerebrum receives a mixture of blood from all sources.” But there is no important physiologic difference in the blood flow of a horse and a cow.

The Talmud itself notes this. In the next tractate, Bechorot (10b) we read of a donkey that was killed because its owner wished to practice the technique of shechita on it (ששחטו להתלמד בו). Clearly then, the equine and bovine species are as good as identical in terms of their anatomy as it relates to ritual slaughter.

Commonly heard refrains about Shechita, and what to do about them

  1. Those who oppose shechita are anti-Semitic

Do not respond to criticism of shechita with an ad hominem attack that the critic is an anti-semite. Stop worrying about the motives of those who question whether shechita is more or less humane than other methods of slaughter (like this Star-K website did).  Yes, some people who do so are decidedly anti-semitic, but many who defend shechita are pro-semitic, and they are not disqualified from the debate.  Discuss the science, not the motives of people. Fight any anti-Semitism rigorously, but separately.

2. There is scientific data showing that shechita is humane

This is true, but much of this data is unreliable or was produced using equipment that we have now improved. For example, In 2004 an S.D. Rosen published Physiological insights into Shechita in The Veterinary Record. Among other things, Rosen cited a 1976 book published by Feldheim together with the “Gur Aryeh Institute for Advanced Jewish Scholarship” titled Shechita, Religious, Historical and Scientific Scholarship. And in this book (stay with me) the cited scientific literature included (and contained graphs from) a 1963 paper (Levinger, Shechita and animal psychology), and a 1929 paper (Stahlstedt, Some attempts to obtain, by means of physiological experiments, an objective basis for an opinion as to cruelty alleged to be attendant on the Jewish ritual method of slaughtering cattle). That’s not nearly good enough. (I tried, but could not obtain a copy of this book published nineteen years ago, which perhaps contains the kind of modern data that is needed. Does anyone have a copy?)

3. “Of course” shechita is humane

Don’t claim that shechita “has been established over centuries to be the most humane form of animal slaughter” without the scientific data to support this claim. (For another example see the Rabbinical Assembly here.) There has been very little published research on the methods of shechita. (There appears to be more research about halal). If shechita is as humane as say, the captive bolt, (as measured by EEG tracings or evoked potentials,) then a head to head (sorry) study should be performed to compare the two.   This would be a very good use of the resources available to the major kashrut organizations in the US, the UK, Israel, and beyond.

Much discussion on ritual slaughter discusses humaneness, with accusations that Shechita is inhumane. Such language, with respect, is unconstructive. True humane slaughter requires the complete elimination of pain and distress, which is unachievable. Defining humaneness in terms of risk management is more realistic: recognising slaughter’s inherent unpleasantness, and the universal need for strategies to minimise suffering… Unless the state outlaws all slaughter, its object is avoidance, not elimination, of pain and suffering.
— Understanding freedom of religion in a religious industry: kosher slaughter (shechita) and animal welfare. Joel Silver. Victoria University of Wellington Law Review 2011; 42; 671-704.

3. Shechita cannot be banned because it would violate our rights to religious freedom

The argument that shechita cannot be questioned or banned because it impinges on our religious freedom is not a strong one. In the modern and (somewhat) enlightened societies in which most of us live, we place limits on the freedoms to practice religion. In the US and many others countries, for example, the wishes of a Jehovah’s Witness parent who refuses permission for a life-saving blood-transfusion for their child have been consistently overruled. The rights to perform female circumcision are also curtailed – even if they are claimed to be part of a religious system. If a religion practices that which is considered immoral or unethical, then these practices should be regulated or abolished. True, this may place some religious practices like shechita or circumcision in a precarious position, but that this the price that, on average, may be worth paying. Think about this.

4. The whole purpose of shechita is a quick and painless death

This suggestion is not found anywhere in the Talmud. The word for suffering - צער - appears only a single time in the entire tractate of Chullin. (It is in the context of a suggestion to cut the hooves of a donkey to prevent them from kicking someone. So actually there is no mention of suffering in connection with the rules of shechita.) The word for kindness - חסד - does not appear at all. And neither of these words appears anywhere in the laws of shechita found in the Shulchan Aruch - The Code of Jewish Law.

But there is a far more problematic example that challenges any claim that animals must be shechted because this - and only this - can reduce suffering. It concerns the Ben Pakua, (lit, “the offspring that has broken through”) which is a viable calf found in utero after the shechita of its mother. Such an animal may be slaughtered and eaten without shechita. Let me repeat that. A viable calf found in utero may be eaten without shechita. In fact according Rabbi Shimon ben Shezuri, even if that calf grew up to be five years old, “its mother’s shechita purifies it” and it may therefore be killed and eaten without shechita.

Practically speaking though, it is not allowed to eat a Ben pakua without shechita. If you thought that the reason is that because shechita is so humane, and so it is the only way a Jew may eat meat, you are wrong. The Talmud and later sources have no such concerns. The reason it must be slaughtered with shechita is to prevent confusion. The farmer might mix up (דלמא אתי' לאחלופי בשאר בהמות) the Ben pakua with a non Ben pakua animal; the latter would then killed without shechita when in fact shechita was needed. That’s the reason we require a Ben pakua to be eaten only after shechita. But to our point, there is absolutely no mention of the need for shechita out of any concern for the pain or suffering of the animal. None.

But this does not imply that animal suffering was ignored. Among the earliest suggestions that shechita was practiced to minimize pain can be found in the Sefer Hachinuch (The Book of Education). It was written anonymously sometime in the thirteenth century but not published until 1523, and was attributed to R. Aharon Halevi of Barcelona.

שהרחיקה ממנו התורה דם כל בשר מה שידעתי. ואומר גם כן על צד הפשט כי מצות השחיטה היא מאותו הטעם, לפי שידוע כי מן הצואר יצא דם הגוף יותר מבשאר מקומות הגוף, ולכן נצטוינו לשחטו משם טרם שנאכלהו, כי משם יצא כל דמו ולא נאכל הנפש עם הבשר

ועוד נאמר בטעם השחיטה מן הצואר ובסכין בדוק, כדי שלא נצער בעלי החיים יותר מדאי, כי התורה התירן לאדם למעלתו ליזון מהם ולכל צרכיו, לא לצערן חינם, וכבר דברו חכמים הרבה באיסור צער בעלי חיים ... אם הוא אסור דאוריתא, והעלו לפי הדומה שאסור מדאוריתא.

The Torah forbids any blood from being eaten, and the command to perform shechita is based on the very same reasoning. We know that blood can leave the body through [an incision in] the neck quicker than it can from any other place. We were therefore commanded to shecht an animal’s neck before eating it, because it is from there that all of its blood will leave, and so we will not eat its soul [a reference to blood] with the meat...
Another reason that we must perform shechita at the neck with an approved knife is so not to be too cruel to the animals. For the Torah gave us permission to gain nourishment from them but this does not allow us to cause pain to them for no reason...And the rabbis have stated that the prohibition against animal cruelty comes from the Torah itself.
— Sefer HaChinuch Commandment 451. ספר החינוך מצוה תנא

By any measure, this sentiment was far, far ahead of its time; recall what Descartes was thinking and Harvey was doing in the sixteenth century. But you will find that simply declaring that the reason for shechita is that it is “the most humane method of slaughter” is not really supported in classical Jewish texts until much later (if at all).

As but one example, consider the important commentary on the Shulchan Aruch called Pri Megadim by Joseph ben Meir Teonim (1727-1792). According to the Bar Ilan Project, the work has become “one of the primary explanations to this code of Jewish Law. There are super-commentaries on it, as well as abbreviated versions…Nowadays, the Pri Megadim is published at the end of each volume of the Shulkhan Aruch in almost every edition, and in some modern editions can be found on the very folio of the code.” And what does the Pri Megadim have to say about suggesting that the entire reason for shechita is to reduce cruelty? He says this, right in his introduction to the Laws of Shechita:

A reason given for this mitzvah [of shechita]…is because of the [prohibition against consuming] blood…and in addition because of the laws preventing cruelty to animals… and the reason that it is forbidden to use a damaged knife blade because of the issue of cruelty to animals.

However, everyone else has already written that one should not give reasons for any of the mitzvot. And even though in a few books the reasons are suggested, they should be paid no attention, as I will explain later…

טעם מצוה זו הביא האליהו רבא בשם ספר החינוך דרוב דם יוצא מצוואר כדי שיצא הדם ועוד משום צער בעלי חיים ומוכיח מכאן דצער בעלי חיים דאורייתא עיין בספר החינוך סימן ת”מ וכן בסכין פגום אסור משום צער בעלי חיים יעויין שם
אמנם כבר כתבו כולם שאין ליתן טעם על שום מצוה וכן חמש הלכות שחיטה אף שבקצת ספרים נמצאין טעמים עליהן אין להשגיח עליהם ובמקומו אבאר כ”א בעזה”י
— פרי מגדים יורה דעה פתיחות פתיחה להלכות שחיטה

There are of course hundreds of other references to shechita and cruelty in the works of those who rule on Jewish law from the sixteenth century to contemporary times. (I’ve found at least 300 of them, but have not yet had the time to review them. It would be a great topic for a PhD.) But these are all ex post facto. And if that doesn’t convince you, you might want to read our three-part series on the folly of trying to reconcile Jewish Law with contemporary science.

5. Captive bolt use is worse than shechita because it goes wrong so often

Don’t compare the best of shechita (quick and painless) with the worst of captive bolt use (incompetent and unreliable). In her Recommended Captive Bolt Stunning Techniques for Cattle Temple Grandin suggested as an industry standard that 95% or more of the animals are rendered insensible with one shot whether penetrating or not. Under US Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations (9 CFR Ch. III, 313.15) “captive bolts shall be of such size and design that, when properly positioned and activated, immediate unconsciousness is produced.” When Gradin studied the efficacy of penetrating captive bolt stunning of cattle, she found that among steers and heifers, 0.16% had signs of returning to sensibility, and 1.2% of bulls and cows did. “Return-to-sensibility problems” she wrote, “were attributed to storage of stunner cartridges in damp locations, poor maintenance of firing pins, inexperience of the stunner operator, misfiring of the stunner because of a dirty trigger, and stunning of cattle with thick, heavy skulls.” In a study of addressing the complications during shechita and halal slaughter without stunning in cattle, the authors estimated that 10% or more cattle develop complications during the bleeding period during normal halal and shechita slaughter. If this figure is accurate, the shechita organizations must address and improve their regulations. And if it is not, these same bodies should publish the evidence that shechita has fewer complications than captive bolt use.

6. If shechita is banned I would never be able to eat meat

That’s true. But so what? Slavery (or some form of it) is regulated in the Torah, and its rules and regulations are discussed in the Talmud. But we don’t own slaves, and find the thought morally repugnant. There are no Jews complaining that the thirteenth amendment to the US Constitution banning slavery was unfair, because hey, the Talmud says we can have slaves.  Some things must be given up when the failure to do so is morally untenable.

7. Even if procedures like stunning or the captive bolt are shown to be more humane, we could never adopt them because of the laws of shechita.

Well, not so fast. Of course there are segments of the orthodox Jewish population that would never adopt these practices, because, well, the science is wrong and suspect and anyway of course shechita is humane see above). But there are large segments of the orthodox Jewish world who agree that Judaism has nothing to fear from evolving and adapting to new situations.

For centuries the traditional way of slaughtering cattle was known as casting, in which the animal was inverted onto their back before the shechita. (That’s why the drawing of the cow at the top of this piece is lying on its back.) But it is without doubt cruel and stressful to the animal. At least that’s what Temple Grandin thinks. “Cattle resist inversion she wrote, “and twist their necks in an attempt to right their heads.”

Around 1927 the Weinberg Casting Pen was developed (“by Mr. J.W. Weinberg an orthodox Jew and and a tailor by trade”). It was a padded stall that rotated mechanically and so did away with traditional methods of casting. The device was reviewed in Britain by the Veterinary Journal of that year. It noted that “the Shechita Board claim that their form of killing is humane, but the casting, i.e., getting the animal into the correct position for its throat to be cut, is not free from criticism.” And then this:

…the outstanding merit of the pen is that vigorous and restless animals which under existing methods might have to undergo long minutes of suffering and terror, often attended by severe injuries, are by its use cast and brought into the required position for the cut with the same rapidity and freedom from pain as the quiet ones. Even the greatest of the cruelties any of the present methods of casting would thus be brought to an end by the adoption of the mechanically working pen.

From Temple Grandin and Joe Regenstein,  here .

From Temple Grandin and Joe Regenstein, here.

And so it was. The Weinberg pen became widely used and with it a traditional and cruel practice was ended. (Admittedly casting was not a requirement for shechita itself, but a way to prepare for it). But things did not stop there. The Weinberg pen still involved turning large cattle upside down, which remained far from desirable. A new pen, approved by the American Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals allowed shechita to be performed with the animal standing in its normal position. “Very little pressure was applied to the animals by the rear pusher gate in the ASPCA pen” we learn from experts in animal welfare. “Head holders were equipped with pressure limiting devices. The animals were handled gently and calmly. It is impossible to observe reactions to the incision in an agitated or excited animal. Blood on the equipment did not appear to upset the cattle. They voluntarily entered the box when the rear gate was opened. Some cattle licked the blood.”

When the device was rolled out in 1964, The New York Times reported that “Rabbi Israel Kiavan, executive-Vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, a prominent Orthodox group, hailed the Society's announcement as dramatic break through preparing animals for slaughter." But although this addressed the preparation of the animal and not the shechita itself, this new position could impede the action of the shochet who now had to cut against gravity. So it was in fact a practice that might impair kosher slaughter. In an undated responsa Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that shechita of a large animal was permitted (אבל כשיקשרו ראש הבהמה למעלה סובר אני שיש להתיר אף לכתחלה ) when the animal was in an upright position. Again, this innovation addressed the pre-shechita set up, but it shows how traditional shechita methods were greatly improved upon, with a little help from some clever engineers, and then approved by rabbinic authorities.

Another example of the way shechita laws may be open to improvements, while receiving the imprimatur of even Orthodox Judaism is that of using inhaled anesthetics prior to shechita. Again, it was Rabbi Moshe Feinstein who was asked whether this procedure was permitted. Yes, he opined, although he thought it was a measure imposed “by those who hate Israel.”

אם יש מקום להתיר להוליך הבהמות לתוך תא שבתוכו געז /גז/ כ"ב אדר תש"כ. מע"כ ידידי הרב הגאון המפורסם כש"ת מוהר"ר יוסף מרדכי בוימעל שליט"א

הנה בדבר שרוצים מהמדינה להנהיג להוליך הבהמות לתוך תא שבתוכו מזרימים געז ומשהין אותן שם זמן קצר עד שמשפיע על מרכז העצבים ומתבטלים מזה חושיה והרגשותיה למשך זמן קצר וכשיעבור הזמן הדרא לבריאותה לכל חושיה והרגשותיה כמתחלה דהוא כמתעוררת מן השינה, אם הוא אמת ברור שלא נתקלקל בזה כלום מדברים המטריפים איני רואה בזה שום איסור שודאי אם ירדימו אותה כמו שמרדימים חולים קודם שעושין הרופאים להם אפעריישאן שאין מרגישים כלום בחתיכת בשרם לא היה שום חשש בהשחיטה וכדכתב כן גם כתר"ה דלא נמצא שהבהמה צריכה להיות ערה בשעת השחיטה

ואין לומר דיש אולי לחוש שמא לא אמדו יפה והיה שם געז במדה שתמות אבל שמ"מ תחיה זמן קצר שהיא מסוכנת, דודאי לענין המדת חסידות שאין בזה איסור יש לסמוך על האומדנא דהבקיאין ועל מה שחוששין להפסדם דהיתה מדה מועטת שאם יעבור זמן קצר תחזור לאיתנה כמקדם. ולכן כשיהיה פירכוס אחר שחיטה מותרת אף להמדת חסידות

אבל מ"מ צריך להשתדל בכל האפשר לבטל גזירה זו ששונאי ישראל רוצים להנהיג והשי"ת יעזרנו. ידידו מוקירו, משה פיינשטיין

Looking back, looking forward

After the 1933 Nazi ban on shechita without pre-stunning, the great posek R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg made a huge effort to convince his rabbinical colleagues that it could be permitted. As carefully documented in Marc Shapiro’s book, “almost every rabbi who responded to Weinberg opposed any change in the traditional method of shechita, under all circumstances…the pressure against change was so great that those who initially agreed with Weinberg later retracted their opinions when confronted with the weight of opposing rabbinic authority.”

Changes around the edges of the methods of shechita have certainly been accepted by the Orthodox community, but they need to do more. Produce the evidence that traditional shechita is not less humane than other forms of slaughter, or be prepared for further demands from those not only concerned with the right to religious freedom, but with animal welfare too.

From   Legal Restrictions on Religious Slaughter in Europe   ,  Law Library of Congress March 2018.

From Legal Restrictions on Religious Slaughter in Europe, Law Library of Congress March 2018.

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