Bechorot 24a ~ Can a sheep suckle a pig?

בכורות כד, א

? יולדת מרחמת או אינה מרחמת

Might an animal that has given birth show mercy and suckle the young of another species?

Cow feeding sheep.jpg

On tomorrow’s daf we continue the vigorous argument between the rabbis and Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel over the following question: is it possible for a female of one species to adopt and nurse the young of an entirely different species? The rabbis (in the majority) believed that such a phenomena was entirely possible, while the great Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel believed that this does not occur. The rabbis were correct.

Animals as human wet-nurses

Let’s start with us. Unless you are lactose-intolerant, you probably are nourished from the milk of another species several times a day. But putting milk in our coffee is just the most recent manifestation of our being nursed by another species. There are myths and fables in many cultures in which a human infant is nursed by animals. In Rome, it was Romulus and Remus who were suckled by a wolf; this legend dates back to at least 350 BCE. In Greek mythology, Telephus the son of Hercules was (in most versions) suckled by a deer, but on the Telephos frieze from the first half of the second century BCE he is depicted suckling from a lioness. Another Greek myth tells of Zeus being suckled by a goat Amalthea.

The infant Telephos at the lioness’ breast, detail from the Telephos frieze. From  here .

The infant Telephos at the lioness’ breast, detail from the Telephos frieze. From here.

The Capitoline Wolf -    La Lupa Capitolina  . 11-12th century. The figures of Romulus and Remus were added in the 15th century.

The Capitoline Wolf - La Lupa Capitolina. 11-12th century. The figures of Romulus and Remus were added in the 15th century.

In his 1976 essay “The Role of Animals in Infant Feeding,” Samuel Radbill noted that these common myths of a great leader being suckled by an animal owe their popularity to the belief that “mental, emotional and physical characteristics, as well as disease, can be transmitted through milk…” He continues:

The Persian Cyrus, raised by Cyno, a bitch, was thought to derive his name from the dog. Heiro of Syracuse was fed sweet food by the apes; Semiramus was fostered by birds. Midas was nourished by ants that put food into his mouth. Habia, king of the Tartessians, and Telphus, son of Hercules and Pelias in the greek myth were both suckled by deer. Paris and Orion by bears’ Aegisthus, by a goat; Rursus Sabdrocotto of India by a lio; Gordius of Lydia , by birds. Recently delivered mares refreshed the infants Croesus, Xerxes and Lysimachus. These extraordinary foster parents were portentous omens of future greatness.

To this list we might add our very own Moses, raised for future greatness in the house of Pharaoh himself. Except, of course, that the Torah made sure to distance Moses from any suggestion that he was suckled by an animal or an Egyptian wet nurse. Instead, Moses was suckled by his own mother, and in a Midrash the rabbis describe why:

לְפִי שֶׁהֶחֱזִירַתּוּ לְמשֶׁה עַל כָּל הַמִּצְרִיּוֹת לְהָנִיק אוֹתוֹ וּפָסַל אֶת כֻּלָּן, וְלָמָּה פְסָלָן, אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא הַפֶּה שֶׁעָתִיד לְדַבֵּר עִמִּי יִינַק דָּבָר טָמֵא

Moses passed before all the wet nurses in Egypt, and rejected them all. And why did he reject them? The Holy One, Blessed be He said “should the mouth that will in the future speak to me suckle from that which is impure?”
— Shemot Rabba 1:25

Goats have been used as wet nurses for human infants for centuries. In her cultural history of milk, historian Deborah Valenze notes that during the syphilis plagues of the 1500s, “mothers bypassed infected wet nurses by employing goats. Similarly, eighteenth century abandoned children…received animal milk at the udder.” in 1900, a reference to animal wet nurses (in this case pigs) even made its way into the Philadelphia Medical Journal. Here it is in the original:

More examples of Interspecies feeding

Beware of believing what you see on the Internet. But if these images are real, they are examples of interspecies feeding: dogs nursing kittens and fawns, cats nursing rabbits, zebra nursing goats, chickens brooding on puppies and pigs nursing tiger cubs (that one from the Sri Rancho Tiger Zoo in Sri Lanka). But perhaps the most moving (and authenticated) story of interspecies care is that of the Kenyan lion that adopted a baby antelope. Six times. Take the time to watch the story here.

From  here .

From here.

Tarzan, Raised by Apes

On this page of Talmud the rabbis stated that nursing females will suckle the young from another species, and they are certainly correct. Perhaps the best description of why this should be so is found in Tarzan of the Apes, the famous 1912 novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. In the story, John Clayton II is one year old when he is snatched from his crib by Kala, an ape whose own infant had just died. As Kala took John

…she dropped the dead body of her own into the empty cradle; for the wail of the living had answered the call of universal motherhood within her wild breast which the dead could not still…Then hunger closed the gap between them and the son of an English lord and an English lady nursed at the breasts of Kala, the great ape.

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Bechorot 16a ~ A Flat Earth, The Eye, and the Sky

“Map of the Square and Stationary Earth. By Prof. Orlando Ferguson, Hot Springs, South Dakota. Four Hundred Passages in the Bible that Condemns the Globe Theory, or the Flying Earth, and None Sustain It.  This Map is the Bible Map of the World. Copyright by Orlando Ferguson, 1893.”

“Map of the Square and Stationary Earth. By Prof. Orlando Ferguson, Hot Springs, South Dakota.
Four Hundred Passages in the Bible that Condemns the Globe Theory, or the Flying Earth, and None Sustain It.
This Map is the Bible Map of the World. Copyright by Orlando Ferguson, 1893.”

בכורות טז, א

A film over the eye - בדוקין שבעין

An animal brought to the Temple in Jerusalem as a sacrifice must be free of physical deformities or blemishes. One of these is a film over the cornea or, according to some, over the eyelid. The word duk (דק), which in modern Hebrew means thin, is translated as either a cataract (Soncino and Schottenstein) or “a veiled or withered spot” (Jastrow).

Rashi and the Meaning of דֹּק

To better understand the etymology of the word, Rashi draws our attention to the verse in Isaiah (40:22 ) הַנּוֹטֶה כַדֹּק שָׁמַיִם וַיִּמְתָּחֵם כָּאֹהֶל לָשָׁבֶת “Who spread out the skies like a film [כַדֹּק], stretched them out like a tent to dwell in.” He notes that in the French of his day the the word for דֹּק is “teile” or toile, (טייל׳א or טולא) meaning a canvas or fabric. So the Talmud is describing a film over the eye, and this is certainly a reasonable way to describe a cataract, which is a cloudiness of the lens in the eye. In a cow it would look like this:

A cow with a cataract.

A cow with a cataract.


Rashi’s second explanation and a map of the world

Rashi then gives an alternative meaning for the word: a blemish on the eyelids. He continues

ל"א דוקין שיש לו מום בעפעפים ולהכי קרי לעפעפים דוק על העין כרקיע דהכי אמרינן בספרי אגודות העין דומה לעולם קטן העפעפים כנגד הרקיע והתחתון כנגד הארץ והלבן שמקיף את העין כנגד ים אוקיינוס שסובב את העולם והשחור שבו שהוא עגול דומה לגלגל חמה

We read about this in homiletic stories: The eye is a mini representation of the world. The upper eyelid represent the rakia (the vault over the sky that contains the stars) and the lower lid represents the earth. The white of the eye [the conjunctiva] represents the ocean that encircles the world, and the dark part which is circular [the pupil] represents the orbit of the sun.

Rashi seems to suggest that since the upper eyelid is described as representing the skies, which are stretched out like a canvas, working backwards the word דֹּק could mean the eyelid. The aggadic (homiletic) parable to which Rashi is referring is from Derech Eretz Zuta, a minor tractate of the Talmud (and not part of the daily one-page a day cycle). Here it is, from the end of the ninth chapter:

אבא איסי בן יוחנן משום שמואל הקטן אומר: העולם הזה דומה לגלגל עינו של אדם. לבן שבו זה אוקיינוס שמקיף את כל העולם שחור שבו זה העולם קומט שבשחור זה ירושלים פרצוף שבקומט זה בית המקדש, שיבנה במהרה בימינו ובימי כל ישראל אמן

The world can be compared to the eyes of a person. The whites of the eyes are the ocean that encircles the entire world. The dark part (? the ring around the iris) is the world, the iris [lit. the folded part of the pupil] is Jerusalem, and the pupil [lit image in the iris] is the Temple, may it be rebuilt speedily and in our days and the days of all of Israel, Amen.

Two maps of the world

So we have two ways in which eye might echo a map of the world. And although it is not entirely clear what the terms קומט שבשחור and פרצוף שבקומט mean, the maps look something like this:

Rashi’s description of the Aggada

Rashi’s description of the Aggada

Description by Shmuel Hakatan as found in Derech Eretz Zuta

Description by Shmuel Hakatan as found in Derech Eretz Zuta

Both of these “eye maps” capture elements of talmudic geography. In the talmudic mind, the Earth was a flat disc covered by an opaque sky known as the rakia. Exactly how the sun moved was the topic of a famous dispute between the “wise men of Israel” and the “wise Gentiles.” Here it is:

פסחים צד,ב

חכמי ישראל אומרים ביום חמה מהלכת למטה מן הרקיע ובלילה למעלה מן הרקיע וחכמי אומות העולם אומרים ביום חמה מהלכת למטה מן הרקיע ובלילה למטה מן הקרקע אמר רבי ונראין דבריהן מדברינו שביום מעינות צוננין ובלילה רותחין

The wise men of Israel say that during the day the Sun travels under the rakia, and at night it travels above the rakia. And Gentile wise men say: during the day the Sun travels under the rakia and at night under the Earth. Rabbi [Yehudah Hanasi] said: their view is more logical than ours for during the day springs are cold and at night they are warm.

The two options are shown below. In both, the earth is a flat disc surrounded by water. They really do match nicely with the eyeballs image.

From Judah Landa.  Torah and Science . Ktav. Hoboken NJ. 1991.p66

From Judah Landa. Torah and Science. Ktav. Hoboken NJ. 1991.p66

Earliest map of the world, from 6th century BCE. It shows the world as a disc, surrounded by a ring of water called the "Bitter River.”. From the Collection of the British Museum  #92687 .

Earliest map of the world, from 6th century BCE. It shows the world as a disc, surrounded by a ring of water called the "Bitter River.”. From the Collection of the British Museum #92687.

We have discussed the sun’s orbit around the earth back in February 2017. There is no doubt that the rabbis of the Talmud actually believed the world was actually a disk surrounded by an ocean. It was not a metaphor, even though describing the world as being reflected in the anatomy of the eye certainly is. (To read more about talmudic astronomy and the path of the sun around the flat earth, see here.) The rabbis of the Talmud were following a long held belief that the world is flat, which we can trace all the way back to the earliest known map, found in Babylon and made in the 6th century BCE. It shows a flat, disk like earth surrounded by waters. And that is the picture most people had, because, well, that’s what it looks like to us. But that changed when the great Greek mathematician and astronomer Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth, a figure that was within about 10% of its true value.

Jerusalem-Centric Maps


Before Copernicus, the earth was thought to be the physical center of the universe. All the planets in our solar system and all the stars beyond it were thought to orbit in perfect circles around us. And at the very center of the geocentric universe, was Jerusalem. You can see this beautifully demonstrated in the famous clover leaf map of the world by Heinrich Bunting (1545-1606). The original map now happily rests in Bunting’s bull’s-eye; it is part of the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.

Writing in the 16th century, the Maharsha, R. Shmuel Eidels (1555 – 1631) suggested that since the Earth is a sphere, Israel and Jerusalem can be seen as if they were its center.

מהרש"א חידושי אגדות מסכת קידושין דף סט עמוד א

 שהעולם הוא כתפוח ומקום בהמ"ק הוא מרכז עולם וכן א"י ולכך אמרו בא"י כיון דהוא מקום הממוצע אוירו מזוג

The world is round like an apple, and the Temple is at its center. So too is the Land of Israel, which is why it has a moderate climate

In fact Bunting’s clover leaf map and the Maharsha’s suggestion can now be combined with Google-era technology. It’s just one more way to help keep Jerusalem in our hearts and prayers.

Orthographic T&O  map with Jerusalem at the center of the Earth.

Orthographic T&O map with Jerusalem at the center of the Earth.

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Bechorot 8a ~ Rashi on Mermaids

While analysing the rules regarding the treatment of a firstborn donkey, the Talmud is sidetracked into a discussion of the breeding techniques of various animals.

בכורות ח, א

הדולפנין פרין ורבין כבני אדם מאי דולפנין אמר רב יהודה בני ימא

Dolphins reproduce like people. The Gemara asks: What are dolphins? Rav Yehuda says: They are creatures that are called sons of the sea.

And what exactly are those “sons of the sea”? Here is the explanation of the great French commentator Rashi (1040-1105):

דגים יש בים שחציין צורת אדם וחציין צורת דג ובלע"ז שריינ"א

There are certain fish in the ocean; half of the body has a human form, and half has the form of a fish. In French it is called a sereine.

Mermaids in early Greek and Rabbinic Literature

Today in French the word sirène means a mermaid, just as it did in the time of Rashi. And Sirenia is the scientific name for an order of aquatic herbivorous mammals such the manatee, which have a sort-of-human- form (if you don’t look too closely). But Rashi lived about five hundred years after the redaction of the Talmud, and so his explanation might not be exactly what R. Yehuda had in mind. However, the Sifra, the halakhic midrash (legal exegesis) on Leviticus, also mentions a sea creature called the sirene. And the Sifra was composed sometime before 350 CE, about 700 years before Rashi lived. The Sifra notes that when the Torah lists the aquatic animals that cannot be eaten (Lev. 11:10) it includes the seranit (הסרנית).

ספרא שמיני, ג:ז

'חיה' – זו חית הים; 'הנפש' – להביא את הסרנית‏. יכול תהיה מטמא באהל כדברי ר' חנינא? תלמוד לומר (במדבר יט, יד): זאת

In Greek literature, the sirens, were dangerous sea creatures whose sensuous voice would lure sailors to their deaths. These stories appear Homer’s in the epic poem the Odyssey, composed around 800 BCE, which is to say, around 500 years before the composition of the Sifra. The point is, the legend of the mermaid has been around was around long, long before Rashi described them in his commentary. And it continued for many centuries after.

A manatee, or a mermaid?

A manatee, or a mermaid?

Christopher Columbus saw mermaids

Christopher Columbus (yes, the one who “discovered” America) saw mermaids. Three of them. In an entry in his diary dated January 9th 1493 he wrote he had sighted three mermaids “which rose well out of the sea; but they are not so beautiful as they are painted, though to some extent they have the form of a human face.” These were most likely dugong, which has a fusiform body with no dorsal fin or hind limbs, and flippers in place of arms.

Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song:
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid’s music.
— William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream Act II, scene 1.

More Modern sightings of Mermaids

Mermaid sightings continued. In 1881 there were reports of of them in the Susquehanna River in York, Pennsylvania. Actually, there were five sightings, though all made by the same fisherman, a Mr. Henry Loucks, on what was, apparently, a slow news day:

Newspaper report Mermaids1881.jpg

He says it comes to the surface, looks about it, then gradually sinks down leaving its hair floating on top of the water for a moment or so and finally disappears.  It has the face of a woman and beautiful glossy black hair, but as it only shows itself down to the shoulders, he cannot tell what the other end is like.

He says he could shoot it but is afraid he might be arrested and tried for murder, and it would bring him into trouble.  On being asked if it had a comb or looking glass with it.  “It might have had, but he didn’t see it” and supposes it has a cave somewhere in the bottom of the river under the deep water.

Mr. Henry Loucks, the fisherman above alluded to, is well known in town, and he is considered as reliable as any fisherman on the river.  We are in hopes that the mermaid may be captured alive, if possible, or dead, if it cannot be had any other way, and guarantee him a safe delivery out of his troubles if he shoots it.

mermaids in the writings of the Chida, and in P.T. Barnum’s Museum

Chaim Yosef Dovid Azulai, known as the Chidah (1724-1806) was a rabbi, kabbalist, prolific scholar and major fundraiser for the Jewish settlement on Jerusalem. In his encyclopedic Midbar Kademut he described the same siren we read in Rashi on today’s page of Talmud, but with some additional flourishes.

דג יש בים שקורין סירינ"ה מחציו ולמעלה כדמות אשה בתולה ומחציו ולמטה כתבנית דג ומקום משכנה בסלעים ומקומות מסוכנים בים ומדי עבור איזה ספינה תתחיל לשורר ולזמר בקול נעים הרבה עד כי תפיל חבלי שינה על כל אנשי האניה, ואחר כך נכנסת לתוכה והורגת ואוכלת יושביה

The top part of the body is that of a virgin, the bottom that of a fish. It lives among rocks in dangerous places, and when a ship passses it begins to sings with a beautiful voice, until the sailors are overtaken with sleep. After that it climbs on board, and kills and eats everyone…

The Feejee Mermaid

Among the many weird creatures that P.T. Barnum displayed in his famous museum in 1842, one of the most well known was the Feejee (or Fiji )Mermaid, which was, in fact the body of a young monkey sewn onto the trunk of a fish. It was apparently purchased from some Japanese sailors (for $6,000!) and later brought to America, but it quickly dropped out of sight. There were rumors that it had been lost in one of the three fires that gutted Barnum’s collections over the years, but a creature in Harvard’s Peabody Museum may actually be the one from P.T Barnum’s collection.

One of the earliest depictions of the specimen that was to become the Feejee Mermaid, in the collections of the British Library (Asia, Pacific & Africa P/T 2937). Courtesy and copyright,The British Library Board. From  Mermaids Uncovered .  Journal of Museum Ethnography , no. 27 (2014), pp. 98-116

One of the earliest depictions of the specimen that was to become the Feejee Mermaid, in the collections of the British Library (Asia, Pacific & Africa P/T 2937). Courtesy and copyright,The British Library Board. From Mermaids Uncovered. Journal of Museum Ethnography, no. 27 (2014), pp. 98-116

Rav Yehuda, Rashi, and the Chida didn’t make up the legend of the mermaid. It existed for many centuries before they recorded it, and judging by this report in Haaretz, sightings of mermaids are likely to be with us for many centuries to come.

Is a Mermaid Living Under the Sea in Northern Israel?

Some residents of Kiryat Yam are convinced the city is home to a mermaid, and the town’s local council is offering $1 million to anyone who can prove the aquatic damsel exists.

Over recent months, dozens of people in the Haifa suburb have reported seeing a creature that resembles a young girl leaping out of the water and doing aerial tricks across the waves before disappearing to her home under the sea.

The story has caused quite a splash in Kiryat Yam, with dozens of onlookers flocking to the town’s beach at sunset, cameras in tow, to catch a glimpse of the mermaid and hopefully, the million dollar photo.
—, December 8, 2009
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Bechorot 7a ~ Pig x Sheep

In today's page of Talmud there is a debate regarding the crossbreeding of different species, and the possibility that a non-kosher animal (say, a pig) could fertilize a kosher animal (like a sheep):

בכורות ז, א

והאמר ר' יהושע בן לוי לעולם אין מתעברת לא טמאה מן הטהור ולא טהורה מן הטמא ולא גסה מן הדקה ולא דקה מן הגסה ולא בהמה מן חיה ולא חיה מן בהמה חוץ מר' אליעזר ומחלוקתו שהיו אומרים חיה מתעברת מבהמה

...R. Yehoshua ben Levi said: A non-kosher female can never conceive from a kosher male, nor a kosher female from a non-kosher male, nor a large animal from a small animal, nor a small animal from a large animal, nor a domesticated animal from a non-domesticated animal, nor a non-domesticated animal from a domesticated animal, except for R. Eliezer and his disputant [in Chulin 79b], who claimed that a non-domesticated animal can conceive from a domesticated animal...(Bechorot 7a)

Here is the Talmud in Bava Kama that records that view of “R. Eliezer and his disputant.

בבא קמא עז, ב – עח, א

ואמר רבא זה בנה אב כל מקום שנאמר שה אינו אלא להוציא את הכלאים ...אמר לך ר"א כי איתמר דרבא לטמא שנולד מן הטהור ועיבורו מן הטמא...וטהורה מטמאה מי מיעברא אין דקיי"ל דאיעבר מקלוט 

Rava said this establishes a model and teaches that wherever the term שה [seh] is stated in the Bible, it is meant to exclude a hybrid... R. Eliezer would say to you  - when did Rava state his model?  With respect to a non-kosher animal that was born from a kosher mother and a non-kosher father...But can a kosher animal conceive from a non-kosher animal? Yes, for it has been established that this case refers to a kosher animal that was conceived from a [kosher mutant animal that was] born with uncloven hooves. (Bava Kamma 77b-78a)

A pig in sheep's clothing? Nope. Just a pig.

A pig in sheep's clothing? Nope. Just a pig.

Here the Talmud claims that a non-kosher animal (say, a pig) could not fertilize a kosher animal (like a sheep). If an animal appears to have the features of a sheep-pig cross-breed, it is, in fact, the offspring of a kosher animal that is breed with another kosher animal but which looks non-kosher because of a mutation that causes it to have non-cloven hooves. Here is that case:

k= kosher; m= mutant, born with non-cloven hooves

k= kosher; m= mutant, born with non-cloven hooves

Which leads to the question of the day: Can a kosher animal indeed successfully breed with a non-kosher animal? Let's take a look.

When a pig loves a sheep

Pigs have been known to act, well, like pigs, and copulate with sheep. But could this lead to a baby peep, or ship, or whatever you'd like to call it? There are pictures that suggest this may be so, but in actual fact this pig with wool is the rare Hungarian Mangalitza pig, and has no sheep ancestry.  

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Foster Dwight Coburn, a farmer who also served as the secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture published Swine in America; a text-book for Breeder, Feeder and Student, and on page 63 he made the following observation: 

There exists in some sections of Old Mexico a type of “hog” represented as the product of crossing a ram with a sow, and the term “Cuino” has been applied to this rather violent combination. The ram used as a sire to produce the Cuino is kept with the hogs from the time he is weaned. A resident of Mexico has given the following description of the Cuino: “The sow used to produce the Cuino belongs to any race, but as a rule to the Razor-Back family, which is the more numerous. There is never any difficulty with her accepting the ram when breeding time comes. The progeny is a pig—unmistakably a pig—with the form and all the characteristics of the pig, but he is entirely different from his dam if she is a Razor-Back. He is round-ribbed and blocky, his short legs cannot take him far from his sty, and his snout is too short to root with. His head is not unlike that of the Berkshire. His body is covered with long, thick, curly hair, not soft enough to be called wool, but which nevertheless he takes from his sire. His color is black, white-black, and white-brown and white. He is a good grazer and is mostly fed on grass with one or two ears of corn a day, and on these he fattens quickly. The Cuino reproduces itself, and is often crossed a second and third time with a ram. Be it what it may, the Cuino is the most popular breed of hogs in the state of Oaxaca, and became so on account of their propensity to fatten on little food.”

It may have been the most popular pig breed in Oxaca, but it was still rather an oddity in the US; newspapers found them interesting, as evidenced by two reports, from 1902 and 1908 about sheep-pig hybrids.  

The Minneapolis Journal , September 24, 1902, from  here .

The Minneapolis Journal, September 24, 1902, from here.

Los Angeles Herald . October 3, 1908, from  here .

Los Angeles Herald. October 3, 1908, from here.

Species and interbreeding

Despite these reports, it would seem that the rule suggested by R. Yehoshua ben Levi is correct. Different species cannot successfully interbreed, because, well, because that's the definition of a species, as the Oxford English Dictionary makes clear:

A group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding. The species is the principal natural taxonomic unit, ranking below a genus and denoted by a Latin binomial, e.g., Homo sapiens.

So although it is a tautology, you get the idea: a species by definition can only breed with other members of its own species. If a pig and a sheep could breed and have offspring, they'd be members of the same species. But they are not. Pigs belong to genus Sus, and the species Scrofa, whereas sheep belong to the genus Ovis and the species Aries. Pigs have 38 chromosomes, and sheep have 54.  So they cannot cross-breed.  (Lions and tigers both have 38 chromosomes, so they can cross breed, and produce a liger.)

But it's not as simple as that.  Even if you don't have the same number of chromosomes, you can still sometimes breed outside your species. Horses have 64 chromosomes and donkeys have 62. Yet they can cross breed, resulting in a mule (if mom was a horse) or a hinny (if mum was a donkey), although these are nearly always sterile. Horses belong to the genus Equus and the species ferus, and donkeys belong to the same genus but to a different species, africanus.  Yet they can interbreed.  Which raises the question: should a horse and a donkey be re-classified as belonging to the same species? But that would be odd, because they look so different and act in very different ways.

These kinds of questions  are perplexing, and have challenged the world of biology since the time of Carl Linnaeus (d. 1778) who gave the world a way of categorizing and naming all living things called binomial nomenclature. Briefly it goes like this: the grey wolf belongs to the genus Canis and the species lupus.  Dogs belong to the same genus, Canis, and are a subspecies of wolves, so their scientific name is Canis lupus familiaris (which I suppose makes it a trinomial nomenclature).  We belong to the genus Homo and the species sapiens, whereas chimpanzees belong to a different genus and species, Pan troglodytes. Anyway just what gets a creature into one species class or another is a really challenging question, one that is still being played out in the scientific literature. There's even a 320 page book from the University of California Press in which the author "provides a new perspective on the relationship between philosophical and biological approaches" to the concept of a species. For now, though, R. Yehoshua ben Levi's generalization found in Bechorot is pretty close to the Linnaean taxonomy we use today.  We can also conclude that the general rule of the Talmud from today's daf, that a kosher animal could not successfully breed with a non-kosher one, is a pretty good rule of thumb.

Every living thing loves its like,
and every person his own sort.
All creatures flock together with their kind.
— Ecclesiasticus, 13:15.


[Repost from Bava Kama 77.]

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