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.

Print Friendly and PDF

Chullin 113b~ Gender Fluidity, Male Lactation and Mordechai

Baby mil bottle.jpeg

[Editor’s note: Today is the Jewish Festival of Purim, on which there is a tradition to create and recite Purim Torah. (These spoofs are usually very clever and witty, and may require a deep knowledge of rabbinic texts. Like this anonymous one from Eddie Reichman.) But this post is not Purim Torah, although it may read as such if you have drunk a little too much alcohol. And drinking too much alcohol is definitely a Purim tradition. So drink up and read on…and I swear I am not making this stuff up.]

Milk Producing Male Goats of The Talmud (MPMGOTT)

In the one-page-a-day of Talmud (Daf Yomi) cycle we are currently learning about the prohibition of cooking meat and milk together. There are several teachings that are derived from the three places in the Torah where we read “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (לא תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִיח בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ) Here is one of them, attributed to Shmuel that we read yesterday:

חולין קיג, ב

בחלב אמו” ולא בחלב זכר

“…In its mother’s milk” indicates that one is not liable for cooking meat in the milk of a male goat

A male goat that grows udders and produces milk? Here is how the great exegete Rashi (1040-1105) explains the Talmud:

ולא בחלב זכר - שהיה לו חלב מועט מן הדדים כגון אם נשתנה והיו לו דדים

“And not in the milk of a male goat”: This means that there was a small amount of milk from the udder. For example if the male goat changed and grew udders.

To understand what on earth is going on here, we need to take a detour into the strange world of biologic gender fluidity. So strap in and here we go.



In their helpful 2003 paper Group Sex, Sex Change, and Parasitic Males: Sexual Strategies Among the Fishes and Their Neurobiological Correlates (published, obviously, in the Annual Review of Sex Research) the authors note that there is “tremendous sexual diversity exhibited by fishes” Consider for example the clownfish, also known as the anemonefish. They are sequential hermaphrodites, and first develop into males. These colorful fish thrive unharmed in the poisonous tentacles of the sea anemone, and while several fish may live within the same anemone, there is only one pair that mate. Should the dominant egg-laying female die, one of the largest males steps up does what needs to be done. He changes into a female. This male-to-female change is called protandry. Other fish, like the sea wrasse, are all born female, and as the need arises change into a male. This trick is carried out in at least 500 species of fish, and is called protogyny.


The male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is a bright red color with a black mask over its beak and eyes. The female is a drab olive color, with a grey mask. In 2008 the ornithological world was rocked when a bird was sighted that was half-red and half-olive. Meaning it was half-male and half-female. The bird, sighted in the Black Hawk Forest Nature Preserve in northwestern Illinois, “was perched in a cockspur hawthorn tree.” Its right side was male, and its left, female. The cardinal evaded capture so it was not possible to analyze its genetic makeup. To be clear, this was not a bird that changed sex; it was one that appeared to be both sexes.

Split sex Cardinal.jpg


We all should have been taught in school that our gender is determined by which sex chromosomes we receive. If we get two female chromosomes -XX- (one from mom and one from dad) we are female, and if we get one X from mom and a Y from dad -XY- we are male. But like all things, it’s a little more complicated than that. In the 1980s, British researchers discovered the sex-determining gene on a tiny bit of the male Y chromosome and named it the sry gene. That gene tells the body to develop into a male or female appearing body. Sometimes the sry gene sneaks off of the Y gene and makes its way into the DNA of an XX female. As a result, she will develop male anatomy while genetically remaining an XX female. (Please read that sentence again, just to be sure you have understood it.) And sometimes the sry gene on an XY genetic male can mutate and not work. In that case, the genetic male appears to have the organs of a female, which is what occurs in Swyer syndrome. (You can hear more about the amazing sex-changing effects of sry in this fascinating podcast.)

Ready for more? In a small community in the Dominican Republic there have been a number of cases in which little girls grow a penis and turn into little boys. (Again, please re-read that sentence.) These observations were first reported to the scientific community in 1974, and are caused by a deficiency of the steroid 5a-Reductase. Here is how the BBC explained what is going on when they reported about it in 2015.

When you are conceived you normally have a pair of X chromosomes if you are to become a girl and a set of XY chromosomes if you are destined to be male. For the first weeks of life in womb you are neither…Then, around eight weeks after conception, the sex hormones kick in. If you're genetically male the Y chromosome instructs your gonads to become testicles and sends testosterone to a structure called the tubercle, where it is converted into a more potent hormone called dihydro-testosterone. This in turn transforms the tubercle into a penis. If you're female and you don't make dihydro-testosterone then your tubercle becomes a clitoris…the reason [some genetic males] don't have male genitalia when they are born is because they are deficient in an enzyme called 5-alpha-reductase, which normally converts testosterone into dihydro-testosterone.

So the boys, despite having an XY chromosome, appear female when they are born. At puberty, like other boys, they get a second surge of testosterone. This time the body does respond and they sprout muscles, testes and a penis.

So there you have it. Little girls, brought up as little girls, turn into boys, who develop male genitalia, and live as men. You see, they were never really girls in the XX sense. They were XY boys whose lack of sex hormones caused them to look like girls. Which brings us to yesterday’s page of Talmud and the strange case of…

That male goat that produced milk

We have seen that there is great deal of natural gender fluidity in the animal world (and if for no other reason, this should make us more sensitive and understanding of those people who want to change their birth gender). But what about that milk-producing male goat? Well according to the website dedicated to “Goat Milk Stuff,” as bizarre as it seems, “there have even been bucks that have been known to give milk (yes, all bucks have teats, and no, a milking buck is not normal).” This was not a case of a male-to-female transformation. It was a case of male lactation.

Writing in the 13th century in his classic commentary on the Talmud called Bet Habechirah, Menachem ben Solomon Meiri, known as the Meiri(1249–1306) wrote that he had seen examples of male milk-producing goats:

בית הבחירה. מכון התלמוד הישראלי השלם.ירושלים, תשל׳ד 432

בית הבחירה. מכון התלמוד הישראלי השלם.ירושלים, תשל׳ד 432

There are a few male [goats] in whom the works of creation are slightly changed and whose nipples become larger such that they produce a little milk. And we have seen them with our own eyes...
— Meiri, Bet Habechirah Chullin, 432

So too, did Khalifa al Nuaimi, a shepherd in the United Arab Emirates: Here is the 2009 report from The National, a newspaper in the United Arab Emirates.

As one of his prized male goats trotted up for some feed, he noticed the animal had seemingly developed a large udder. While he could not quite believe his eyes, the luckless creature proceeded to produce milk on demand, much like his female companions in the pen.

The local farmer made the discovery four days ago at his goat pen in Masakin, a suburb of Al Ain, the government news agency, WAM, reported yesterday. The animal's male organs are said to have been pushed back by the udder, described as "big and bulky". Mr al Nuaimi got a half-litre of good-quality milk from the goat. Dr Martin Wyness, of the British Veterinary Centre in Abu Dhabi, said it was unusual but not unheard of for male mammals to produce milk. "It's absolutely possible," he said.

what may be happening

The structure of the cells involved in producing milk in the male goat has been studied using immunofluorescence and electron microscopy techniques. It turns out they are smaller but higher in number than those found in normal males, which suggests that the anterior pituitary gland, which controls their function is probably acting in a weird way.

Another explanation of the milk-producing male goats of the Talmud (MPMGOTT) is that it is linked to estrogen-like compounds in the plants upon which they were feeding.

“It is now known that more than 50 plant species contain estrogen mimics known as phytoestrogens. Although the mechanisms are not completely understood, several plant secondary metabolites…can mimic the effects of steroidal estrogens. These non-steroidal compounds have similar overall structures or active sites as natural steroidal estrogen and can compete for binding sites on estrogen receptor proteins. Thus, plant compounds can have effects similar to endogenous estrogens”

This comes from an intriguing 2008 paper, Male lactation: why, why not and is it care? published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. It points out that there are other mammalian species in which the male has been known to lactate, including sheep, rats, free-ranging Dayak fruit bats in Malaysia and the masked flying fox bats of Papua New Guinea. Male lactation was also recorded “in World War II prisoner of war camps when malnourished detainees were later liberated and provided with adequate nutrition. During the period of limited food supply, the prisoners suffered liver, testicular and pituitary atrophy” which messed things up. Once fully nourished, the lactation quickly ended.

But whatever the cause, Shmuel was neither drunk nor hallucinating when, in yesterday’s page of Talmud, he claimed that male goats can produce milk. Because sometimes they do.

mordechai lactating on demand

Male lactation. It’s not just for goats and bats. Human males might do it too. Here is a story told in the Talmud (Shabbat 53b) and knowing what we now do, perhaps it not as fanciful as it might seem.

שבת נג,ב

מעשה באחד שמתה אשתו והניחה בן לינק ולא היה לו שכר מניקה ליתן ונעשה לו נס ונפתחו לו דדין כשני דדי אשה והניק את בנו

There was an incident where a man’s wife died, and she left him a son to nurse, and he did not have money to pay for a wet-nurse. And a miracle was performed on his behalf, and he developed breasts like the two breasts of a woman, and he nursed his son.

That’s a pretty impressive miracle, although it may seem a little less miraculous now that we understand so much about the role of the anterior pituitary gland. This father is not identified in the Talmud, but another lactating male is. And his name was Mordechai, the hero of the Purim story we read today. In the Book of Esther (2:7) we read וַיְהִ֨י אֹמֵ֜ן אֶת־הֲדַסָּ֗ה - that Mordechai “raised” or “sustained” Esther. Let’s pickup the story in Beresheet Rabbah (30:8), compiled between 300 and 500 CE.

מָרְדְּכַי זָן וּפִרְנֵס, אָמַר רַבִּי יוּדָן פַּעַם אַחַת חִזֵּר עַל כָּל הַמֵּנִיקוֹת וְלֹא מָצָא לְאֶסְתֵּר לְאַלְתָּר מֵינִיקָה, וְהָיָה מֵינִיקָהּ הוּא, רַבִּי בֶּרֶכְיָה וְרַבִּי אַבָּהוּ בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר בָּא לוֹ חָלָב וְהָיָה מֵינִיקָהּ. כַּד דָּרַשׁ רַבִּי אַבָּהוּ בְּצִבּוּרָא גָּחוֹךְ צִבּוּרָא לְקָלֵיהּ,

But did Mordecai really feed and sustain Esther? R. Yudan said: On one occasion he went round to all the wet nurses but could not find one for Esther, so he himself suckled her. R. Berekiah and R. Abbahu said in the name of R. Eleazar: Milk came to him and he suckled her [and he never even tried to find a wet nurse]. When R. Abbahu taught this publicly, the congregation laughed

They laughed. Of course they did. It sounded like Purim Torah. But what a happy coincidence it is that we learned the passage of the lactating male goat one day before we read the Megillah, the Book of Esther, from where the rabbis describe Mordechai as doing the same thing. Now that’s some real Purim Torah.

happy purim from Talmudology

Print Friendly and PDF

Gittin 89a ~ Breastfeeding in Public

גיטין פט,א 

אכלה בשוק, גירגרה בשוק, הניקה בשוק – בכולן רבי מאיר אומר תצא

If a married woman ate in the street, or walked with her head held high in the street, or nursed in the street - in all these cases Rabbi Meir said that she must leave her husband.

In the penultimate page of Gittin, the Talmud discusses immodest behavior. Rabbi Meir declared that three displays are so immodest that  any wife who expressed them should also be suspected of adultery. One of these behaviors is "nursing in the street." As a consequence, if a wife were to breastfeed in public, she cannot stay with her husband because of the possibility (- or is it the probability? -) that she had also committed adultery. 

Let's clear one thing up right away. Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah rejects the position of Rabbi Meir, as does the definitive Shulchan Aruch  (אבן העזר ו, טז) :

רמב"ם הלכות איסורי ביאה פרק יז הלכה כא 

יצא קול על הבתולה שהיא בעולה אין חוששין לה ותנשא לכהן גדול, יצא עליה קול שהיא שפחה אין חוששין לה ותנשא אפילו לכהן, יצא לה שם מזנה בעיר אין חוששין לה, ואפילו הוציאה בעלה משום שעברה על דת יהודית או בעדי דבר מכוער ומת קודם שיתן לה גט הרי זו מותרת לכהן שאין אוסרין אשה מאלו אלא בעדות ברורה או בהודאת פיה

...if a husband divorced his wife because she transgressed Jewish practice or because she did a repulsive thing - and he died before he was able to give her the Get (Bill of Divorce), she is permitted to marry a Cohen [who is normally forbidden to marry a divorcee]. For we do not forbid a woman to her husband for any of these reasons unless there is clear evidence, or she admits to it herself (Mishneh Torah Hil. Issurei Biah 17:21).

As we have noted many times, societal definitions of immodest behavior change over time and between locations, and are continuing to evolve. Perhaps no better example of this evolution are attitudes towards breastfeeding in a public space. Rabbi Meir's attitude, while it may appear extreme, was in fact one that prevailed until recently in many cultures - especially our own. (That is why Pope Francis made headlines two years ago when he encouraged mothers in the Sistine Chapel to nurse their children.)

Public Breastfeeding laws

1.  THE US

In a 2013 review of  breastfeeding laws in the US, researchers at Harvard noted that the majority of states have legislation permitting women to breastfeed in any location and exempting breastfeeding from indecency laws.  However, less than half the states require employers to provide break time accommodations, prohibit employment discrimination based on breastfeeding or offer breastfeeding women exemption from jury duty.

The first breastfeeding law was passed in New York in 1984 with legislation exempting breastfeeding from public indecency offences. In 1993, Florida and North Carolina enacted laws to permit women to breastfeed in any public or private location. In 1994, Iowa passed the first legislation to excuse or postpone jury duty for breastfeeding women... Minnesota passed a law that required employers to provide break time and a private space for mothers to express milk.
— Nguyen, TT. Hawkins, SS. Current state of US breastfeeding laws. Maternal & Child Nutrition 2013. 9: 350-358.

Currently, women who breastfeed are exempt from public indecency laws in 29 states in the US. Fewer states - only nineteen  -  have laws encouraging or requiring provisions for break time and private accommodations where an employee can express milk or breast-feed. But 15 of these 19 states do not require breast-feeding provisions if doing so "would unduly disrupt operations". These laws not only make the lives of breastfeeding mothers (and their children) much easier; evidence suggests that state laws that support breast feeding are associated with increased  breastfeeding rates - and the health benefits that follow.

Nguyen, TT. Hawkins, SS. Current state of US breastfeeding laws.   Maternal & Child Nutrition   2013. 9: 350-358.

Nguyen, TT. Hawkins, SS. Current state of US breastfeeding laws. Maternal & Child Nutrition 2013. 9: 350-358.

2.  THE UK

In the United Kingdom, breastfeeding in public was addressed in the Equality Act of 2010. Under this legislation, treating a woman unfavorably because she is breastfeeding is sex discrimination and against the law.  The Act protects nursing mothers in public places such as parks, sports and leisure facilities, and when using public transport.  They are also protected in stores, restaurants, hotels movie theatres (known as "cinemas" there), and gas stations. In Scotland it is a criminal offense to try to prevent a woman from feeding a child under two in any place in which the public has access and in which the child is entitled to be. Anyone who tries to do so can be prosecuted under the Equality Act.


A 2007 survey of pediatricians, family physicians, and gynecologists in Israel concluded that physicians had a positive disposition towards breastfeeding but that their knowledge about it was somewhat low. The authors noted that "it is highly important to increase physicians’ awareness of breastfeeding women’s needs," though they did not address the issue of nursing in public. A 2004 report from the Kenesset (עידוד הנקה בישראל) noted that only 32% of Jewish mothers were breastfeeding their infants a six months, (compared with 50% of Arab mothers,) but the report did not address nursing in public. In 2013 a bill came before the Kenesset to protect women who nursed in public spaces. The bill has not yet become law, but its supporters hope that it will be resubmitted in the current Kenesset.   

Breastfeeding in Public - One Rabbi's Responsum

Rabbi Brad Artson of the Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles has written a thoughtful תשובה (responsum) on the question of breast feeding in public. "When it was possible to avoid baring the breast," he wrote, reviewing several talmudic passages, "it seems to be the preferred approach of the rabbis. Forced stripping [which was part of the Sotah ritual] was a sign of humiliation. And, finally, the rabbis dispute whether or not such an act as public breast-feeding is a sufficient cause for divorce (ultimately deciding that it is not)." He concluded his twelve page responsum  (which was approved 14 to 3) with these words: 

Reading the sources in the light of these considerations, I understand halakhah to permit public breast-feeding, including in a Beit Midrash or synagogue sanctuary during a worship service, so long as it is done in a modest, subtle, and dignified fashion. (This requirement would be met, for example, by using a cloth or towel to cover breast and baby, by the maternity shirts specially made for this purpose, or by nursing in the rear of the room.) It is also preferable that Jewish institutions provide places where mothers who prefer to nurse in private may do so.
Many synagogue arks are emblazoned with the words דע לפני מי אתה עומד , know before Whom you stand. In Torah study and in prayer, we are in the presence of the One whose salvation is intimated through human nursing:

לְמַעַן תִּינְקוּ וּשְֹבַעְתֶּם מִשֹּׁד תַּנְחֻמֶיהָ לְמַעַן תָּמֹצּוּ וְהִתְעַנַּגְתֶּם מִזִּיז כְּבוֹדָהּת
"That you may suck, and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolations; that you may drink deeply, and be delighted with the abundance of her glory.”

Jewish institutions, in particular, have an obligation to welcome, facilitate, and support nursing mothers and their babies.

These are words that Jews of any and all denominations should get behind.

An amendment no. 6 and printed in the Congressional Record to establish that no funds may be used to enforce any prohibition on women breastfeeding their children in Federal buildings or on Federal property.
— Bill Summary & Status 106th Congress (1999 - 2000) House Ammendment 295.
Former airwoman Tara Ruby photographed active duty soldiers at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, September 2015.

Former airwoman Tara Ruby photographed active duty soldiers at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, September 2015.


Print Friendly and PDF