Gender determination

Arachin 4b ~ The Tumtum, the Androgyne, and the Fluidity of Gender

ערכין ד,ב

זכר - ולא טומטום ואנדרוגינוס

“A male” - and not a tumtum or androgyne.

In addition to male and female, the Talmud describes two other gender categories: tumtum and androgynous. The tumtum is a person whose genitalia are somehow hidden or covered, so that it is not known if they are male or female. In contrast, the genitalia of the androgyne (an ancient Greek word formed from ἀνδρός  andros - “man” and γυνή gune, - “woman”) are in plain sight. It just isn’t clear whether they are male or female organs. The two are mentioned on at least twenty-three pages of the Babylonian Talmud, and in no fewer than nine halachot in the Jerusalem Talmud, so let’s figure out what, from a medical perspective, they are.

The Tumtum

There is no ambiguity about the gender of a tumtum. We just need to get a glimpse of the genitals. (The eleventh century dictionary known as the Aruch connects the word tumtum with the word atum (אטום), meaning sealed.) The problem is that the genitals are covered by what is usually described as skin. Once this cover is surgically opened, the gender will be revealed. In fact according to Rav Ammi (Yevamot 64a), both Abraham and Sarah were each a tumtum. Yes, you read that correctly. Each had genitalia that were hidden. Rav Ammi suggests this as an explanation as to why the couple were infertile for so many years. Once the covering had been removed the couple could then procreate as normal, and along came Isaac.

אמר רבי אמי אברהם ושרה טומטמין היו שנאמר (ישעיהו נא, א) הביטו אל צור חוצבתם ואל מקבת בור נוקרתם וכתיב (ישעיהו נא, ב) הביטו אל אברהם אביכם ואל שרה תחוללכם

Rabbi Ami said: Abraham and Sarah were originally tumtumin, as it is stated: “Look to the rock from where you were hewn, and to the hole of the pit from where you were dug” (Isaiah 51:1), and it is written in the next verse: “Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you” (Isaiah 51:2),

רשי:

חוצבתם - נעשה לו זכרות: “Hewn”: He was made into a male

נוקרתם - נעשה לה נקבות : “From where you were dug” which made here a female

Urologists have yet to identify this syndrome.

Screen Shot 2019-06-17 at 2.31.21 PM.png

The Androgyne

In 1797 the physician James Parsons, published a book which he dedicated to the Royal Society of London, of which he was a Fellow: “ A Mechanical and Critical Inquiry into the Nature of Hermaphrodites.” Parsons noted that the Romans “had laws made against their Androgyni [which were] remarkably severe; for whensoever a child was reputed one of these, his sentence was to be shut up in a chest alive, and thrown into the sea…

Parsons was not only well-read in Roman law; he cited the fourth chapter of the Mishnah in Bikkurim, which contains a list of the ways in which the androgne sometimes resembles a man, and sometimes a woman:

ביכורים פרק ד

כֵּיצַד שָׁוֶה לַאֲנָשִׁים: מְטַמֵּא בְּלֹבֶן כַּאֲנָשִׁים, וְזוֹקֵק לְיִבּוּם כַּאֲנָשִׁים, וּמִתְעַטֵּף וּמִסְתַּפֵּר כַּאֲנָשִׁים, וְנוֹשֵׂא אֲבָל לֹא נִשָּׂא כַּאֲנָשִׁים, וְחַיָּב בְּכָל מִצְוֹת הָאֲמוּרוֹת בַּתּוֹרָה כַּאֲנָשִׁים:

In what ways is the andogyne like men?…He dresses like men; He can take a wife but not be taken as a wife, like men. [When he is born] his mother counts the blood of purification, like men; He may not be secluded with women, like men. He is not maintained with the daughters, like men…And he must perform all the commandments of the Torah, like men.

כֵּיצַד שָׁוֶה לַנָּשִׁים: מְטַמֵּא בְּאֹדֶם כַּנָּשִׁים, וְאֵינוֹ מִתְיַחֵד עִם הָאֲנָשִׁים כַּנָּשִׁים, וְאֵינוֹ עוֹבֵר עַל "בַּל תַּקִּיף" וְלֹא עַל "בַּל תַּשְׁחִית" וְלֹא עַל "בַּל תְּטַמֵּא לַמֵּתִים" כַּנָּשִׁים, וּפָסוּל מִן הָעֵדוּת כַּנָּשִׁים, וְאֵינוֹ נִבְעַל בַּעֲבֵירָה כַּנָּשִׁים, וְנִפְסַל מִן הַכְּהֻנָּה כַּנָּשִׁים:

And in what ways is he like women?… he must not be secluded with men, like women; And he doesn’t make his brother’s wife liable for yibbum (levirate marriage); And he does not share [in the inheritance] with the sons, like women; And he cannot eat most holy sacrifices, like women…. he is disqualified from being a witness, like women…

The Androgyne & Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia

Ambiguous genitalia in neonates. From  here .

Ambiguous genitalia in neonates. From here.

One of the most common causes of androgyny is congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), caused by a mutation in the CYP21 gene. The adrenal glands, which sits atop the kidneys, are where the action takes place. They produce androgens, which are then converted into the potent sex hormone testosterone. In most (95%) cases of CAH, there is a deficiency of the enzyme 21-hydroxylase. As a result, the adrenal glands produce excessive amounts of the virilizing hormone androgen. (It also causes severe salt wasting, which can be very dangerous, but we are not getting into that now. And there are different severities of the syndrome, but you’ve got a limited attention span, so we will keep it simple.) This excessive androgen production does very little in (XY) males; their genitalia look normal. But in genetic (XX) baby girls the androgens affect the external genitalia and they may become ambiguous: the clitoris becomes enlarged, sometimes to the degree that it resembles a penis. In very severe cases the baby girl has what appears to be an empty scrotum, and may be raised as a boy, all the while being an XX girl with CAH.

Today all newborns are screened for 21-hydroxylase. The deficiency can be treated with hormone replacement, and the genital ambiguity may be corrected, although this latter intervention has, over the last decades, become very controversial.

Anecdotally, in the Western world most [intersex] babies were raised as female because the genitalia were easier to reconstruct... clinical experience suggests that cultural factors are very influential. This may be no bad thing as there is no ‘right’ medical answer and the child will have to grow up in the community into which it is born.
— Woodhouse, C.R.J. Intersex Surgery in the Adult. BJU International 2004. 93 (3): 57-65

The androgyne and the hermaphrodite

The Soncino Talmud identifies the androgyne as a hermaphrodite, that is, a person with both male and female genitalia. So does Goldschmidt’s German translation (“der zwitter”). Cases of true hermaphroditism are extremely rare, and there are only a few scattered case reports in the medical literature. (You can read one reported from Sheba Hospital in Tel Aviv here.) Rather than there being two sets, in these cases the genitalia are ambiguous, and although they have both ovarian and testicular tissue the scrotum does not always contain testes.

Alice Dreger, formerly a Professor of Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Northwestern University, (it’s complicated) wrote a terrific (and controversial) book that tackles some of the issues facing intersex people - those who were once called hermaphrodites. In the past, when faced these difficult cases of intersex or ambiguous genders, clinicians focused on what she calls a “gonadal division.” (Since biopsies and genetic sequencing were not available to the rabbis of the Talmud, they, like clinicians, focused on this gonadal division, for what else could they do?) But, she notes,

a system that emphasizes gonadal anatomy above all else suffers from two major deficits. First, it is scientifically questionable, because it relies on the anatomy of the gonads (functioning or not) more than any other considerations. Second, it provides little clinical help, often confusing and harming the patient, and sometimes also the physician.

Instead, she advocates for a description based on etiology and the patient’s needs. “Such an approach would have the salutary effects of improving patient and physician understanding and reducing the biases that are inherent in the use of the current language of 'hermaphroditism'.”

True hermaphrodites: defined as presenting at least one ovary and at least one testis, or at least one ovotestis...The scientific understanding of sexual development has progressed tremendously in the last 125 years, but the existing taxonomy does not reflect that progress. Scientists and clinicians now recognize that the structure of the gonads does not correlate simply with genotype, phenotype, physiology, diagnosis, or gender identity. The anatomy of testicular tissue in women with androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) is quite similar to the anatomy of testicular tissue in non- intersex males, yet their physiologies, phenotypes and gender identities differ markedly.
— Dreger, A, et al. Changing the Nomenclature/Taxonomy for Intersex. Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology & Metabolism 2005. 18, 729-733

The many Shades of Gender

We are used to think that when an egg carrying an X chromosome meets a sperm carrying an X or Y chromosome, one of two things will happen: a genetic female (46XX) or a genetic male (46XY) with genitalia to match. But in fact it is way more complicated than that. We know that there are at least 14 genes involved in the process of sexual differentiation, and many more will likely be discovered. A mutation or malfunction of any of these has a dramatic effect on the process of gender differentiation. For example if there is a defect in the enzymes involved in producing testosterone, there may be ambiguous external genitalia; deficiency of the enzyme 5α-reductase results in variable degrees of under-masculinized external genitalia and genital ambiguity; individuals with partial androgen insensitivity syndrome may also have ambiguous genitalia, and there is no consensus regarding an optimal sex of rearing them; and newborns with congenital adrenal hyperplasia, may have male appearing genitalia while all the time being 46XX.

We have previously noted the strange effects of yet gene discovered in the 1980s. This sex-determining gene on a tiny bit of the male Y chromosome is called 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.)

And then there is the small community in the Dominican Republic where there have been a number of cases in which little girls grow a penis and turn into little boys. These observations were first reported to the scientific community in 1974, and are caused by a deficiency of the steroid 5α-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 gender identity is very complicated. James Parsons, that physician who wrote the book on hermaphrodites in 1797 tackled some of the difficult questions that were addressed in Mishnah Bikkurim: can a hermaphrodite get married? (yes, but to which gender varies by case); can they be a witness? (only if the “predominating sex” is male); can they be ordained as a minister? (no); The rabbis were puzzled as to the “true” gender of the androgyne, and so classified them as sometimes male, and sometimes female. It was the best they could do at the time, and Parsons, writing 1,500 years later did the same. Thanks to modern medicine we have learned why these intersex cases occur, but as a society we have still a long way to go to help make their lives easier.

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.

Clown_fish_in_the_Andaman_Coral_Reef.jpg

Fish

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.

Birds

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.

cardinal-pair-sideways-bonnie-t-barry-285.jpg
Split sex Cardinal.jpg

Humans

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

Avodah Zarah 17b ~ What Gender is that Bee?

From  here .

From here.

Rabbi Elazar ben Perata was in trouble. When the  Romans heard him being called him by the title "Rabbi" they arrested him.Teaching Torah was banned, and to be identified as a Rabbi, a teacher of Torah, invoked the death penalty. To save his life, Rabbi Elazar denied the charge. Instead, he claimed, he was simply a teacher (rabban) of weavers.  So the Roman authorities tested him on his knowledge of weaving:

עבודה זרה יז, ב

 אייתו ליה תרי קיבורי אמרו ליה הי דשתיא והי דערבא איתרחיש ליה ניסא אתיא זיבוריתא אותיבא על דשתיא ואתאי זיבורא ויתיב על דערבא אמר להו האי דשתיא והאי דערבא

They brought him two coils of wool and said to him: Which is the warp, and which is the woof?  A miracle occurred, as a female bee came and sat on the warp, and a male bee came and sat on the woof. Rabbi Elazar ben Perata said to them: This is the warp, and that is woof.

Rabbi Elazar understood the message the two bees were sending. The male was sitting on the woof, which is threaded into the warp. The female bee was on the warp, which is fixed in the loom and receives the woof. 

What is going on here?  Is it in fact the case that male and female bees are distinguishable? It turns out that they are. Sort of.

Queens, Drones, and Workers

A hive contains three kinds of bees. First, there are thousands of worker bees. These are the ones that you see flying around collecting nectar from flowers, or annoying you in the Sukkah.  All worker bees are female. The hive also has one Queen, whose sole task is to lay eggs.  Obviously, the queen is female. She stays in the hive and is attended to by special worker bees who become nurse bees.  And then there are the male drone bees, whose only job is to mate with a virgin queen. They leave the hive and fly to drone congregation areas, where, in midair, they mate (or attempt to mate) with a virgin queen.  Then they fall to the ground and die.

Comparison of worker, drone and queen.jpg

 The male drones are about twice the size of the female worker bees.  According to a helpful article (Differences in drone and worker physiology in honeybees) published in 2005, the weight of an emerging worker is 70-100mg.  In contrast, the weight of an emerging drone is around 260mg - over two-and-a-half times heavier. Drones also have bigger eyes and rounded, more stocky bodies. 

Drone bees are the hapless males within a colony. They seemingly have little or no purpose within the colony: they take no part in hive building or maintenance; they don’t defend the colony (drones do not possess a sting); they don’t gather food or nurture the larvae.
— Barnsley Beekeepers Association

A typical hive contains one queen, about 60,000 worker bees, and a few hundred drones.  You are likely to have seen hundreds of worker bees over the years.  You are, however, far less likely to have seen a drone.  In fact, you may never have seen one. But they are out there.

Rashi vs. Tosafot

warp and woof II.jpg

According to Rashi, Rabbi Elazar was able to distinguish between a smaller female worker (זיבוריתא) and a larger male drone (זיבורא). The worker sat on the warp, and the drone sat on the woof. Since the woof is inserted into the warp, Rav Elazar deduced that the woof was indicated by the male drone. Because there is indeed a difference in size and gross morphology between the workers and the drones, it is entirely possible that Rav Elazar could identify each. Assuming that he had great eyesight and was an experienced apiarist.

Drone Bee Phallus. From  here .

Drone Bee Phallus. From here.

Tosafot disagrees.  There is no way, claims Tosafot, that Rabbi Elazar's eyesight was that good. Now not knowing anything about bees, you might agree. After all, the penis of a drone bee is very, very small. But as we have seen, to determine the gender of a bee you don't have to get that close.  You just have know what you're looking for in terms of the body size and morphology.   

 

Tosafot therefore suggests that the Talmudic words זיבוריתא and זיבורא do not refer to a female and a male of the same species. Instead, the words refer to two different species, which Rabbi Elazar could identify from a distance. The species זיבוריתא, written in a female form, was sitting on the warp. The species זיבורא, written in a male form, was sitting on the woof, since the woof goes into the warp.

There are thousands of species of bees and their larger cousins, the hornets.  It is entirely possible that Rabbi Elazar noted that the two insects on the loom were two different species called by two similar but distinct names. Tosafot is incorrect to claim that the gender of a bee cannot be determined from a distance.  But the alternative theory is also scientifically plausible.

We have already learned that honey has some amazing medicinal properties.  Today we learn that bees too, can save a life.  So next time you are bothered by bees, act kindly. After all, they saved Rabbi Elazar's life.

 

 

NEXT TIME ON TALMUDOLOGY:  MATERNAL IMPRINTING

Print Friendly and PDF