Sunday, November 20, 2011

Those backwards camels

In Bechorot 8a:
הכל משמשין פנים כנגד עורף חוץ משלשה שמשמשין פנים כנגד פנים ואלו הן דג ואדם ונחש ומ"ש הני תלתא כי אתא רב דימי אמרי במערבא הואיל ודיברה עמהם שכינה תנא גמל אחור כנגד אחור:
Or, in English (referring to the Point by Point Summary)
(k) In all species, the male faces the back of the female during mating, with three exceptions, in which both face each other - people, fish and snakes.
(l) Question: Why are these different?
(m) Answer: Hash-m spoke with [at least one of] each of them (the Nachash in Gan Eden, the fish that swallowed Yonah).
(n) (Beraisa): Camels mate facing away from each other.
In a recent post, Rabbi Slifkin referred to this last statement as one which is scientifically incorrect. Thus,
the statement that camels copulate back-to-back (which probably stems from the fact that, at all times other than during copulation, the camel's member is directed posteriorally)
While this indeed seems like a good possibility, I see two difficulties:

  1. Surely they encountered camels on a daily basis there. This is a brayta, but I would guess that they had in Eretz Yisrael and in Bavel camels. And people owned camels, and would occasionally spot them mating. And so, someone should have said 'Nope, camels do not mate in this manner.'
  2. For any scientific statement, but particularly for those which are incorrect, I would prefer if we could trace it to a statement by a Greek scientist / naturalist. We have seen this to be the case for many such examples (such as, for example, that the atalef, a nocturnal flying creature, lays eggs and nurses its young, which finds a match in a statement cited and rejected by Pliny the Elder regarding the strix).
It turns out that Pliny the Elder does make a statement that camels (and lions, lynxes, elephants and rhinoceroses) mate back-to-back. And for these others, I would guess (though I have not researched it) that their members are not generally directed posteriorally

However, scholars have researched Pliny's statement, and this is what they have come up with. In A medieval book of beasts: the second-family bestiary, by Willene B. Clark:


Thus, Pliny wrote that camels, lions, lynxes, elephants and rhinoceroses mate aversus, meaning 'at the rear', meaning in the normal stance of four-legged mammals hat people in an agricultural society would have seen often, and the word was somehow changed later to adversus, meaning 'back to back'.

Now, what should we do with the gemara in Bechoros? It seems to me that there are two possibilities.
  1. We can assume that the scribal error in Pliny had already taken hold by the time the brayta was recorded, and so the faithfully rendered statement in the gemara is just a repetition of that, such that it is indeed erroneous.
  2. We can try to work Pliny's original meaning into the wording of the gemara.
Let us try possibility #2. Well, גמל אחור כנגד אחור seems difficult to bear this meaning. But maybe we can kvetch it. Or we can make an emendation of the text to be גמל כנגד אחור, stripping out the first instance of the word אחור. Of course, if we do this, then it matches פנים כנגד עורף of the earlier statement in the gemara, with just a variation in word choice by different authors of statement.

We would also need to make sense of the reference to camels in this gemara in Bava Basra 93a, as to why this verb in particular is used by camels, when it is true for so many other animals as well.

But here is the rather effective disproof, assuming our girsa is correct. If we look to Bereishit Rabba on parashat Bereishit, in parasha 20, siman 3, we find:

הכל משמשין פנים כנגד עורף, חוץ מב' שמשמשין אחור כנגד אחור. 
גמל וכלב. 

וחוץ משלושה שמשמשין פנים כנגד פנים, מפני שהשכינה דברה עמהם, ואלו הן: 
אדם,
נחש,
ודג.

אדם, 
שנאמר: ולאדם אמר כי שמעת לקול אשתך. 
נחש, ויאמר ה' אלהים אל הנחש. 
דג,
 (יונה ב) ויאמר ה' לדג ויקא את יונה: 
This is from the aggadic material of the Amoraim of Eretz Yisrael, and they clearly designate the camel and dog as exceptions to the general rule of הכל משמשין פנים כנגד עורף.

Again, I have never seen dogs mating, but this does seem to be the case for dogs. Thus:
The male dog usually swings a leg over the female dog's back so that both dogs would stand end to end.
That would seem to force us back to position #1, that they were citing Pliny -- at least, Bereishit Rabba was -- but with the error in translation already encoded. Note the use of the term "usually". Thus, there are times when the male dog will not do this. If so, perhaps the exception of camel and dog are optional, which makes it much more difficult to falsify with a single observation. And then, that feature which Rabbi Slifkin mentioned, that "at all times other than during copulation, the camel's member is directed posteriorally", can come into play to help maintain this encoded error.

7 comments:

Natan Slifkin said...

Excellent, as always. I linked to it in my post.

Anonymous said...

As usual R Slifkin asks a simple question about cats and dogs which artscroll has already answered, but is unwilling to write their answer on his blog.

Anonymous said...

meir says
since you are unlikely to put an answer from artscroll on your blog I have put it on Josh's blog.
Next time before you ask 'silly' questions you should check there.

No, you didn't put it on R. Josh's blog. You just wrote a comment there saying that Artscroll answers it, and you further claimed that I am "unwilling" to post their answer on my blog, without a shred of evidence. And why on earth would you not actually post what Artscroll says, either on R. Josh's blog or on mine?

You're now banned from this blog. For being dishonest, and for acting like an idiot.

(After I saw your comment, I went to a nearby Beis HaMidrash to check the Artscroll. It's a completely lame alleged diyuk in Rashi which does not remotely fit into the Gemara.)


The reason is, is because you are supposed to do that not me.
Before posting you ought to check there. And anyway explain why, what is wrong with their pshat.

joshwaxman said...

meir:

While I know from our previous discussions that you are a big fan of Artscroll (and Mesivta), not everyone automatically goes to an Artscroll. And not everyone will find the peshat in Artscroll compelling in any way.

What if we take the gemara, for dogs at least, to be about the development of the fetus, that it is fully formed at that point, thus accounting for the discrepancy for dogs? (And that it is not just Rashi stressing this point to show how it matches up consistently with his explanation of 21 days for a chicken egg.) You then would need to explain similarly for all the other animals in the list. And would the gentile philosopher (elsewhere) have somehow determined that the form of the snake was finished at 7 years, rather than it being the full gestational period? And how does this help for elephants, where the period is given as 3 years, when their true gestational period is 22 months?

kol tuv,
josh

Anonymous said...

~Thanks
I dont know all the answers but as you write I am a big fan, and consider that one should first of all read what others say before giving one's own opinion especially if it is detrimental. Although it seems in this case it is the artscroll's own opinion, usually they quote from others.

joshwaxman said...

Except that many do not consider "Artscroll" to be one of the shitos one should learn. It is not like it is a Rishon or Acharon. It is **often** used as a crutch by those who cannot learn a Rashi or a Tosafot. Do you learn Soncino on every page as well?

And also, that many consider the sorts of explanations offered in Artscroll to be (often) apologetics, and not worthy of serious consideration.

especially if it is detrimental
It is only detrimental in your opinion.

kol tuv,
josh

Anonymous said...

Mazel tov to R Slifkin. He has at last taken my advice and started using artscroll. He has now learned how to understand a rashi, and one hopes that with time he will soon again be re-entering the fold he has left. This proves my point which I repeat constantly that today one cannot learn a gemoro without it. I am sure the only reason he left it was because of his mis-understanding of gemoro.

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