Friday, April 01, 2005

Shemini #1: The Stork and the Bat: Birds of a Feather?

An interesting non-kosher animal mentioned in this week's parsha is the עֲטַלֵּף, the bat. Rav Shamshon ben Rephael Hirsch classifies this amongst other quadriliteral roots that etymologically break down into the letter ע + a triliteral root describing some basic feature.

Thus, for example, the Akrav עקרב, scorpion (mentioned by the way recently on the Rif blog), is ע + קרב, war, because of its viciousness. טלף means hoof or claw, so עֲטַלֵּף is a clawed flying creature, the bat.

It may seem strange to us that the bat is classified amongst birds, such as the stork and the heron. In Vayikra 11:

יג וְאֶת-אֵלֶּה תְּשַׁקְּצוּ מִן-הָעוֹף, לֹא יֵאָכְלוּ שֶׁקֶץ הֵם: אֶת-הַנֶּשֶׁר, וְאֶת-הַפֶּרֶס, וְאֵת, הָעָזְנִיָּה. 13 And these ye shall have in detestation among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are a detestable thing: the great vulture, and the bearded vulture, and the ospray;
יד וְאֶת-הַדָּאָה--וְאֶת-הָאַיָּה, לְמִינָהּ. 14 and the kite, and the falcon after its kinds;
טו אֵת כָּל-עֹרֵב, לְמִינוֹ. 15 every raven after its kinds;
טז וְאֵת בַּת הַיַּעֲנָה, וְאֶת-הַתַּחְמָס וְאֶת-הַשָּׁחַף; וְאֶת-הַנֵּץ, לְמִינֵהוּ. 16 and the ostrich, and the night-hawk, and the sea-mew, and the hawk after its kinds;
יז וְאֶת-הַכּוֹס וְאֶת-הַשָּׁלָךְ, וְאֶת-הַיַּנְשׁוּף. 17 and the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl;
יח וְאֶת-הַתִּנְשֶׁמֶת וְאֶת-הַקָּאָת, וְאֶת-הָרָחָם. 18 and the horned owl, and the pelican, and the carrion-vulture;
יט וְאֵת, הַחֲסִידָה, הָאֲנָפָה, לְמִינָהּ; וְאֶת-הַדּוּכִיפַת, וְאֶת-הָעֲטַלֵּף. 19 and the stork, and the heron after its kinds, and the hoopoe, and the bat.
To which one might have two (incorrect, IMHO) responses. The first is that the translation of עֲטַלֵּף as bat is suspect. The second is that God, and Moshe, do not know their zoology, such that they thing the bat is a bird!

The first thing to note is that all these things are described as עוף.

What is עוף?

The English translation gives fowl, which to us means birds, and the bat is not a bird. However, עוף simply means flying creature, or just flying, when used as a bird.

Consider Bereishit 1:20:
כ וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים--יִשְׁרְצוּ הַמַּיִם, שֶׁרֶץ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה; וְעוֹף יְעוֹפֵף עַל-הָאָרֶץ, עַל-פְּנֵי רְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמָיִם. 20 And God said: 'Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let fowl fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.'
A better translation would be: Let flying creatures fly. We see יְעוֹפֵף means fly, so עוֹף are creatures that fly.

Now, a bat flies just as much as a stork flies.

We would still have a problem - even if עוף means flying creatures, why would the Torah list is here, amongst types of birds. A better grouping would be with rodents and other swarming creatures, with the mouse. After all, the scientific classification lists the bat amongst other rodents. Does God not know modern zoology?

I think the question makes certain unfounded assumptions, amongst them that the scientific classification is the only correct classification.

This touches slightly on a philisophical dispute between the Nominalists and the Realists. Realists believe that names, that is abstracts, have an existence outside of the things they describe, whereas Nominalists consider these classifications just names that are used to describe the underlying reality, and only have existence in our imaginations.

Classifications are really arbitrary. Depending upon what you are interested in, you may classify things differently.

Naturalists are interested in studying the biology and behaviors of animals, and classify the animals based on certain shared features. They choose the more important features, and break them into kingdoms, families, etc., all the way down to species.

A farmer, or hunter, might classify animals differently, based on where they are found, or how well they go with red wine.

There is an underlying reality, but the classification is a convenient system for categorizing things into groups based on your specific interests.

The classification system used in Biblical times is not the same as the one the naturalists use today, but it is an equally valid system. It seems to divide up animals based on their habitat (water, land, air) and their method of motion (creeping, swarming, flying, etc.).

In the classification system used in the Bible, it is perfectly acceptable, and in fact correct, to list the bat amongst other flying creatures.

The same thing goes for Yonah and the whale. It is not clear that the large daga that swallowed him was in fact a whale, but if it was, then people object that it is called a daga, a fish, and the whale is a mammal, not a fish. Does God not know that the whale is not a fish?!

You have got to be kidding me.

The modern classification system indeed says that the whale is not a fish but a mammal, but that does not mean that it could not be classified as a fish in the Biblical classification system, which is what is being used. After all, Dibra Torah KiLeshon BeNei Adam, the Torah speaks in the language of humans, and no doubt in ancient times it was categorized as a fish. It swims in the water, looks like a fish, etcetera. Who is to say it is not a fish?

One final example, from this web site, which talks of the classification of fruit:
Forget everything you think you think you know about fruit! Much of it is incorrect. Many things we call vegetables are fruits. Many things we call berries are not berries at all. Nuts and grains are fruits as well, but not all the things we call nuts are true nuts!

The scientific definition of a fruit is any structure that develops from a fertilized ovary and contains seeds of the plant. All fruits come from the ovaries of a flower. Therefore, many things that we consider to be “vegetables” are actually fruits . For example tomatoes, cucumbers, beans (green beans as well as all other beans), peas, peppers, corn, eggplant and squash are all fruits.
I do not think that much of what people think they know about fruit is incorrect. Rather, there are two classification systems at play.

One is the scientific one, in which corn, tomatoes, beans, and peppers are fruit.

The other one is the (informal because it is not "scientific") culinary classification, in which sweet things that can be eaten raw are called fruits, and things which are not sweet when raw and things which must be cooked to be eaten are considered vegetables.

Both the culinary classification and the scientific classification break things into sets of "fruits" and "vegetables." The culinary "fruit" and the scientific "fruit" are homonyms and homographs (pronounced and written the same) but they refer to different sets of items. (As another example, the word "variable" means entirely different things in computer science and in statistics.) The sets overlap to a great degree (because they are trying to classify the same items), but they are not identical.

So, I do not think that one classification is wrong.

No comments:


Blog Widget by LinkWithin