Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The hyrax, practicing caecotrophy

A solid candidate for the Biblical shafan is the hyrax.

This is based on linguistic evidence (comparison to Arabic tafan and what the al-wabr was in the time and place of Saadia Gaon), zooarchaeological evidence (what areas rabbit, hares, and hyraxes were found in ancient times), and analysis of pesukim in which the shafan is mentioned.

The difficulty is that the shafan is not a ruminant, while the Torah states it is a maaleh geira. There are several answers to this, such as:

1. It makes constant chewing motions such that ancient peoples believed it was a ruminant (and dibra Torah kilshon benei adam).

2. It has a multi-chambered stomach, which could cause it to be classified in the class of maaleh geira. (Or cause ancient people to believe it was a ruminant...)

3. Rabbi Natan Slifkin has video in which it seems to practice merycism, that is, the bringing up food in the throat back to the mouth for rechewing (that is, while not scientific rumination, it is literally maaleh its geira).

4. Here I offer a fourth reason it might be considered maaleh geira. Some animals, such as rabbits, practice caecotrophy, and this is the justification for considering the rabbit and hare to be maaleh geira (and thus the shafan and / or arnevet). To define the term:

  • "Caecotrophy" is a kind of coprophagy. "Caecotrophy" specifically refers to the ingestion of caecal feces for nutritional purposes. "Coprophagy" refers to the ingestion of feces for any reason, including mental illness.

Meanwhile, as some in Mexico object:
"The hyrax cannot be the shafan or the arnebet, because even the proponents of identifying the hyrax as the shafan acknowledge that there is no evidence that the hyrax practices rumination, caecotrophy, or even merycism; thus, the hyrax is not "maaleh gerah"."
However, it turns out that every hyrax eats hyrax feces at one point in its life, when it is still a baby, for what might easily be considered nutritional purposes. It does not engage in auto-caecotrophy (eating its own feces), but it eats the feces of other hyraxes. That is, as this Wired article notes:
2. They have multi-chambered stomachs. Although they are not ruminants, hyraxes have three-chambered stomachs filled with symbiotic bacteria that help break down the plants they eat. Baby hyraxes are not born with the bacteria they will need to digest plant matter, so to obtain it they eat the poop of adult hyraxes.
Whether this is technically considered caecotrophy rather than caecophagy, I can see people debating. But it is surely noteworthy that it engages in this behavior, giving us a reason #4.


Joe in Australia said...

"Maaleh gerah" does seem to mean regurgitation, which is part of the process of rumination. The problem with interpreting it to refer to any characteristic other than rumination is that for all these characteristics there are other animals that do the same thing. This is only a problem if you believe the Torah identifies all animals that have a single sign of Kashrut, but that belief is very common.

Anonymous said...

Isnt this suggestion discussed at length in the Dialogue journal volume 2?

A chazir also eats is feces but is not maaleh gera

joshwaxman said...

I don't know. I didn't read the dialogue journal. A quick search revealed that pigs will eat their own feces only if given no other food, instead of starving to death, as a last resort. (Let me know if otherwise)

Conversely every single hyrax eats hyrax feces, as part of its nutritional development.

Anonymous said...

It's a pretty big stretch that eating feces only early in life makes the animal categorically maaleh gera. Besides the fact that it is bizarre to refer to ruminants and feces eating using the same term maaleh Gera when to an observer their behavior is so radically different.

Sometimes a good question is better than a dochek answer... By the way I generally love your blog and agree with many things you discuss..... I hope to see you again soon in town.


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