Post: There is a gemara which states that the atalef lays eggs, yet nurses its young. We assume that the atalef is the bat, but the bat gives birth to live young. It does not lay eggs. Which could mean that we are wrong in our definition of atalef, or that Chazal had the science wrong. I am going to argue that we are wrong in our definition of atalef.
That gemara is in Bechorot 7b:
ת"ר דג טמא משריץ דג טהור מטיל ביצים כל המוליד מניק וכל המטיל ביצים מלקט חוץ מעטלף שאף על פי שמטיל ביצים מניק
Rashi there writes:
מניק - שיש לו דדים וכל המטיל ביצים אין לו דדים ומלקט פירורים ומפרנס בניו. עטלף קלב"א שורי"ץ דומה לעכבר ויש לו כנפים:
which seems a perfectly accurate description of the bat. Plus, he uses the Old French word for bat.
Of course, this is Rashi. There is no absolute proof that Chazal were dealing with the same creature when they referred to the atalef. However, it does make supreme sense that it would be the bat, for the following reasons:
1) The atalef is a flying creature mentioned in Chumash.
2) The atelef here we find is one which nurses its young, which the bat does.
3) The gemara in Beitza daf 7a reads: כל שתשמישו בלילה נולד בלילה זו עטלף. And the implication is that the atalef is a nocturnal creature. This would also match the bat.
4) That is does X yet nurses its young is considered exceptional. And indeed, this is what contemporary scientists took note of. From example, from the 1st century CE, Pliny the Elder wrote: (Natural History, Book 10, 81): The bat is the only flying creature that bears live young and feeds them with its milk; it also carries its children in its arms as it flies.
The pattern of this statement matches the pattern found in the brayta.
Also, see Rashi there, where he writes:
עטלף - קלב"א שור"ץ בלע"ז:
Yet Rashi does not always claim that this atalef is the bat. At least I am not certain that he does. In parashat Shemini, in Vayikra 11, we have a list of non-kosher birds:
Note that Rashi uses the same definition as he uses in the gemara for an atalef, but here for a tinshames. And furthermore, he leaves atalef undefined. I would guess that he is not doing this entirely based on some masorah of the meaning of the words, but rather based on sevarah. If the same word is used by both creeping creatures and flying creatures, and by creeping creatures it means mole, then here as well it should mean a creature with poor vision. This would then be the bat.
Yet in Yeshaya we see the atalef, and Rashi defines it the same way as he defines it in the gemara. Thus, in Yeshaya 2:20:
|כ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, יַשְׁלִיךְ הָאָדָם, אֵת אֱלִילֵי כַסְפּוֹ, וְאֵת אֱלִילֵי זְהָבוֹ--אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ-לוֹ לְהִשְׁתַּחֲוֹת, לַחְפֹּר פֵּרוֹת וְלָעֲטַלֵּפִים.||20 In that day a man shall cast away his idols of silver, and his idols of gold, which they made for themselves to worship, to the moles and to the bats;|
|20. On that day, man will cast away his silver idols and his gold idols, which they made for him, [before which] to prostrate himself to moles and to bats.|
|to prostrate himself to moles: Heb. לַחְפֹּר פֵּרוֹת, idols in the likeness of moles, a species of rodents who dig in the earth, called talpes in O.F. [taupes in modern French].|
|and to bats: kalbe soric [chauvesouris in modern French]. Alternatively, this may be interpreted to mean that man will cast his idols that he made for himself, before which to prostrate himself, into pits and ditches that he finds before him when he goes to escape and hide.|
Note once again the juxtaposition of moles and bats. Also note that Rashi is possibly willing to give a different explanation, and if so, is not necessarily wedded to the idea of atalef as bat.
Could both tinshamet and atalef be bats? It is possible, that there are two species or subspecies of bat. Yet I would have expected Rashi in Shemini to make note of this on the word atalef, if so. I expect that even according to Rashi, it is an either/or proposition.
Turning back to the various gemaras about atalef, if we say, as with Rashi, that it is a bat, then we have a problem. Yes, the bat is nocturnal. Yes, it is exceptional of flying creatures (rather than egg-layers) in that it nurses its young -- since it is a mammal. But a bat does not lay eggs! And as Rabbi Slifkin writes:
The statement about bats is not aggadata, but rather part of a discussion about the natural world. No commentator has ever suggested that it is not meant as a factual statement. Nor can one solve this conflict by positing that nature has changed. Modern science asserts not only that bats do not lay eggs today, but that they have never laid eggs. The only egg-laying mammals, the duck-billed platypus and echidna, live in Australia and are physiologically unusual creatures that are on an extremely remote branch of the mammalian family tree, both geographically and physiologically. An egg-laying bat would be completely contradictory to the neat nested hierarchy of the animal kingdom.The easy conclusion is that Chazal were simply incorrect on this scientific matter. It is quite possible that they relied on scientific reports of their time for these zoological details, and many of these scientific reports were inaccurate.
Indeed, forgetting about scientific reports for a while, we do find in folk belief the idea that bats lay eggs. I can provide two examples. One is the mistaken belief that bats lay eggs in people's hair. A second one: "In County Clare, Ireland, there is a local belief that bats, like birds, lay eggs. To find a bat's egg is unlucky, as use of it can be made in malignant charms." Similarly, a Jamaican proverb, "Ole grudge mek bat lay egg". This is an alternation of "Ole grudge make pootoo lay egg." A pootoo is a screech owl (note: read on later in this post about screech owls) or night hawk, and it lays its eggs in order to satisfy an old grudge. This was a threat, because such eggs were used to practice sorcery.
Yet this assumption gives me pause. I cannot find any ancient scientific source that bats lay eggs. Indeed, to quote Pliny the Elder, from 1st century CE once again,
(Natural History, Book 10, 81): The bat is the only flying creature that bears live young and feeds them with its milk; it also carries its children in its arms as it flies.Thus, Pliny knew full well that the bat bears live young, and that it is distinct from other flying creatures in this regard. If Chazal were relying on contemporary scientific accounts, why did they not know this from Pliny. Perhaps there is some other ancient scientific source, either which is extant but which I have not seen, or else which is no longer extant, which declares that bats lay eggs, but perhaps not. This is slightly problematic. I certainly would expect Chazal to get it from contemporary science, rather than coming up with this false scientific assertion on their own.
Since it seems that Rashi identifies the atalef as a bat on the basis of sevarah, rather than tradition, we should perhaps reevaluate it.
The clues in the gemara and chumash for the identity of the atalef are:
- It flies
- It is nocturnal
- It lays eggs
- It nurses its young
Instead of searching for a bat who lays eggs, perhaps we should be searching for an owl who nurses its young.
A strix (pl. striges or strixes), occasionally corrupted to stirge, was an Ancient Roman legendary creature, usually described as a nocturnal bird of ill omen that fed on human flesh and blood, like avampire. Unlike later vampires, it was not a revenant—a risen corpse—but the product ofmetamorphosis. The name is Greek in origin and means "owl", with which bird it is usually identified (the name of the genus Strix follows this meaning).Pliny, in the Third Volume of his Natural History, writes:
Man is the only male among animals that has nipples, all the rest having mere marks only in place of them. Among female animals even, the only ones that have mammae on the breast are those which can nurture their young. No oviparous animal has mammae, and those only have milk that are viviparous ; the bat being the only winged animal that has it. As for the stories that they tell, about the screech-owl ejecting milk from its teats upon the lips of infants, I look upon it as utterly fabulous . From ancient times the name "strix," I am aware, has been employed in maledictions, but I do not think it is well ascertained what bird is really meant by that name.Wikipedia reports this as nursing its own infants, but I am not sure. On the other hand, if it has teats, it should be able to nurse its own young.
It is extremely important to note that Pliny's basis for rejecting the strix as an utterly fabulous creature is this general rule that no oviparous (laying eggs) animal has mammae (breasts / nurses), and those only have milk that are viviparous (give birth to live young). In the brayta under discussion, Chazal cite this very rule, that in general, no oviparous animal nurses. But then, it lists the atalef as an exception. It stands to reason that Chazal's exception is the same as Pliny's rejected exception.
This belief about the strix carried on for many centuries. For example, Isadore of Seville wrote the following in the 7th century:
Another kind of screech owl (strix) has its name from its strident (stridet) call. It is also called by the Greek word amma (nurse) because it loves (amando) infants and is said to offer milk to the newborn.An owl obviously lays eggs, is nocturnal, and flies. It does not matter that it does not really nurse its young. All that matters is that, according to Pliny, and apparently many accounts, the strix did nurse its young, or at least gave milk.
We are now standing on more solid ground.
Ovid, in Fasti, Book 6, has a lengthy account of strix. He writes, in part, that:
There are some greedy birds, not those that cheated
Phineus of his meal, though descended from that race:
Their heads are large, their eyes stick out, their beaks
Fit for tearing, their feathers are grey, their claws hooked.
By those who cheated Phineus of his meal, Ovid means harpies. And thus he is saying that these strix are descended from the race of harpies. (See here.) Harpies are winged bird-women. (See here.) If they are indeed a cross between humans and birds, then it is possible that these could be intended, as they might well have human breasts. In favor of this is that the brayta in Bechorot 7b goes on to discuss dolphinim, which might be, according to Rashi, mermaids. It fits well in context. On the other hand, it is difficult to believe that Chazal thought the Biblical atalef was a harpy.
So I would return to a strix.
We are then standing on much firmer ground, IMHO. How so?
If the ataleif is a bat that lays eggs, then Chazal are wrong on a scientific matter, likely because they relied on contemporary science.
If the ataleif is an owl (or strix) that nurses its young, then Chazal are still wrong on a scientific matter, likely because they relied on contemporary science.
However, we have evidence that it was an ancient scientific belief that screech owls, or at least strix, nursed their young. Which then accounts perfectly for the statement in the gemara.
Furthermore, people often are bothered that the atalef is mentioned in the list of non-kosher birds in the Torah, yet it is not a bird. I don't regard this as a problem in the first place. עוף simply means "flying creature", and the Torah need not engage in scientific classifications. However, for those who are bothered by it, they should realize that they are being bothered by a particular translation of the word atalef. But, as I argued in this post, it seems rather likely that according to Chazal, the atalef was not a bat at all!