Monday, September 07, 2009

Was the Bar Yochni an Ostrich?

When Rabbi Slifkin visited Kew Gardens Hills last, I purchased a copy of his Sacred Monsters. This post is not a review -- those take too long -- but it is a very good read, and I would encourage others to check it out.

Of course, being the radical that I am, and having a somewhat different methodology, I would approach some of the sources he brings in a slightly different manner. Here is one such example. He discusses the possible identification of the Bar Yochni as the ostrich, since the pesukim in Iyov appear to be speaking of an ostrich, and a Rashi in Menachot, and a gemara in Bechorot, equates the two. There are reasons he brings to doubt it, such as a gemara that talks of it bringing its eggs up, which the ostrich does not do; but also a gemara which discusses the face of the Bar Yochni as something much larger than a tefach -- while the face of an ostrich is about a tefach -- maybe a bit larger, but not much.

From my perspective, not all Talmudic sources should be weighted equally. I'll consider three sources in this post.

The first, a gemara in Bechorot:
בכורות דף נז, ב גמרא
פעם אחת נפלה ביצת בר יוכני וטבעה ששים כרכים ושברה שלש מאות ארזים
ומי שדיא ליה והא כתיב (איוב לט) כנף רננים נעלסה
אמר רב אשי ההוא מוזרתא הואי:
This quite clearly comes from the Tannaim and Amoraim. The first statement I believe is stated by Rabbi Yishmael ben Satriel, a Tanna, while the clarification comes from Rav Ashi, an Amora. The question which prompts the statement might have been filled in by the setama de-gemara, and perhaps not -- but regardless, we have named Tannaim and Amoraim for a good portion of it.

In contrast, consider the gemara in Yoma 80a:
דף פ, א גמרא
טומאת אוכלין כביצה מנלן
א"ר אבהו א"ר אלעזר דאמר קרא (ויקרא יא) מכל האוכל אשר יאכל
אוכל הבא מחמת אוכל ואיזה זה ביצת תרנגולת
ואימא גדי מחוסר שחיטה
ואימא בן פקועה טעון קריעה
ואימא ביצת בר יוכני
תפסת מרובה לא תפסת תפסת מועט תפסת
ואימא ביעתא דציפורתא דזוטר טובאץ...ש
Here again, the Bar Yochni appears as a bird with an exceptionally large egg. But while Rabbi Abahu, a named Amora, makes the initial statement, the question and answer is anonymous and in Aramaic, and of the style of the setama. And furthermore, as I argue in the general case, you can almost always find what is stated by the setama stated elsewhere, in another context, attributed to a named Amora, which means that the setama, while creative, will rely on existing Talmudic material and will apply it to new contexts. Here, I would posit, the anonymous setama is taking the gemara in Bechorot as evidence for the existence of this large egg of the Bar Yuchni and applying it to his systematic analysis of the Amoraic-level gemara.

The third reference to the Bar Yochni can be found in Sukkah 5a-b:
סוכה דף ה, א גמרא
רב הונא אמר מהכא (ויקרא טז) על פני הכפורת קדמה ואין פנים פחות מטפח
ואימא כאפי
סוכה דף ה, ב גמרא
דבר יוכני
תפשת מרובה לא תפשת תפשת מועט תפשת
ואימא כאפי דציפרתא דזוטר טובא
Once again, while Rav Huna, a named Amora, makes a statement, the give and take is anonymous, in Aramaic, and in the style of the setama di-gemara. Indeed, they are the same questions as we find in the gemara in Yoma.

I would posit that the setamaist never saw a bar yochni. He is relying entirely on the account in Bechorot. The gemara in Bechorot described the Bar Yochni as a bird with an extraordinarily-sized egg. The setama in Yoma used this to ask a question and provide an answer. And the setama in Sukkah saw this precedent and asked a similar question, just based on the face of the Bar Yochni rather than its egg. While the gemara in Bechorot does not describe the size of the Bar Yochni's face, it stands to reason that with such an exceptionally large egg, capable or drowning 60 towns, it is a large bird in general and therefore has an exceptionally large face.

Therefore, the application of the setama in Sukkah should not be used to define features of the actual Bar Yochni bird, and it should then not discount the ostrich as a candidate, even though the ostrich has a face indeed the size of a tefach.

Even an ostrich is not this exceptional size, that its egg can drown 60 cities. Should we conclude that the Bar Yochni in general is an allegory, and that they did not intend any actual bird? Well, the number 60 in terms of 60 towns is what Maharatz Chayos would call a guzma, and perhaps these "magic numbers" indeed should convey to us that it is intended as allegory. But I am not at all positive that the Bar Yochni was a fictional bird. Let us reexamine the context in the gemara in Bechorot:
העיד רבי ישמעאל בן סתריאל מערקת לבינה לפני רבי במקומנו מפשיטין את המתה ומלבישין את החי
אמר רבי נתגלה טעמא של משנתינו
חזירין שבמקומנו יש להם ששים רבוא קלפים בבית המסס שלו
פעם אחת נפל ארז אחד שבמקומנו ועברו שש עשרה קרונות על חודו אחת
פעם אחת נפלה ביצת בר יוכני וטבעה ששים כרכים ושברה שלש מאות ארזים
ומי שדיא ליה והא כתיב (איוב לט) כנף רננים נעלסה
אמר רב אשי ההוא מוזרתא הואי:
Thus, this Rabbi Yishmael is talking about the strange and excessively large dimensions in Arkat Levena. And so he speaks about arazim, cedars, of exceptionally large size such that one fell and sixteen wagons were able to pass over it. This does not mean that cedars are metaphorical, and don't exist. It means that the particular cedars in Arkat Levena were this size.

It reminds me of a joke about Texas:
There once was a blind man who decided to visit Texas. When he arrived on the plane, he felt the seats and said, "Wow, these seats are big!" The person next to him answered, "Everything is big in Texas."

When he finally arrived in Texas, he decided to visit a bar. Upon arriving in the bar, he ordered a beer and got a mug placed between his hands. He exclaimed, "Wow these mugs are big!" The bartender replied, "Everything is big in Texas."

After a couple of beers, the blind man asked the bartender where the bathroom was located. The bartender replied, "Second door to the right." The blind man headed for the bathroom, but accidentally tripped over and skipped the second door. Instead, he entered the third door, which lead to the swimming pool and fell into the pool by accident.

Scared to death, the blind man started shouting, "Don't flush, don't flush!"
Perhaps there is a metaphorical explanation, or perhaps things were large and this is mere exaggeration. Either way, this does not mean that there were no cedars elsewhere, which were real. Just like there are indeed airplane seats, mugs, and toilets outside of Texas.

The cedar is a big tree, so it makes sense that the typical Bar Yochani is a big bird, and a real one -- just not typically, or really, as big as described in Bechorot. The egg, outside of Arkat Levena and Texas, might be big -- for example the size of an ostrich egg -- but not typically so big as to drown 60 towns. If so, the Bar Yochni can be a real creature; perhaps an ostrich, or perhaps an entirely separate bird.

While Rabbi Slifkin notes that the Musaf HaAruch notes that it is a metaphorical, rather than actual bird, I see that Jastrow's entry on the bar Yochani (page 568) says that it is a fabulous bird; but in square brackets, he writes [Koh. Ar. Compl. s.v. בר, vol. II pg. 176 refers to Varaghna (Bactrian) ostrich.]

This Persian etymology for בר יוכני makes sense to me, gh is more or less a kh sound, and that it refers to a large bird such as the ostrich is compelling -- even aside from the other basis of declaring it an ostrich, based on Talmudic linkages to the bird in Iyov, which is likely an ostrich. See here for other fantastic features of Varaghna birds, though not at all necessarily the same one.

There is one major problem with declaring the Bar Yochani the ostrich. The gemara in Menachot 66b describes a feature which seems not to match the ostrich. And this is the bird linked to the Bar Yochani. Thus, in Menachot:
ואומר (משלי ז) נתעל"סה באהבים נשא ונתן ונעלה ונשמח ונתחטא באהבים
ואומר (איוב לט) כנף רננים נע"לסה נושא עולה ונתחטא
Rashi there equates it with the Bar Yochni, and also explains the gemara (correctly) to mean that נע"לסה is an acronym for "it carries it (=the egg), ascends, and descends (placing it down in the nest). Yet an ostrich does not do this!

I would guess that Rashi's basis for associating this with the Bar Yochni is that in the gemara in Bechorot, prior to Rav Ashi's elaboration, the gemara cites this pasuk, with the impled question of why the egg would drop and shatter in this way, which is why Rav Ashi explains that it was an unfertilized egg.

We could say that where the gemara posed this question, it was merely the setama filling in the shakla vetarya to help it flow better -- indeed, this occurs often -- such that this was never Rav Ashi's question. I wonder if one could fill in a different cause, such as making it not a hard egg containing a baby Bar Yochni, but one which would shatter over a large area, and also explaining וטבעה. But if we do, we not only cut away the "problematic" behavior for an ostrich, but the very connection to the ostrich in the first place. Aside from the having of large eggs -- and the exaggeration would be perhaps greater for Texas and Arkat Levana if the Bar Yochani were generally a small bird -- the connection to the ostrich is via the verses in Iyov, which Rabbi Slifkin demonstrates are quite descriptive of the ostrich. Cut out the question, and we cut out Iyov, and we have almost no basis for claiming the Bar Yochni is an ostrich! Well, not really -- we still have the etymology relating it to the Varghna ostrich.

But it does make sense, based on the egg size, that we are referring to an ostrich. And it seems that this was the assumption in our gemara in Bechorot as well. For otherwise, why pose this question, and relate it to the gemara in Iyov? And it works out nicely based on etymology. What then, are we to do with this "difficult" feature of the Bar Yochni / kenaf rananim?

I would merely be forced into the position that not all zoological knowledge put forth in the gemara is entirely accurate. Either we can reinterpret the gemara in Menachot (and perhaps also Bechorot) about the animal's behavior, or else we could say that it was based on faulty contemporary knowledge. This is what I say about certain aggadot regarding techelet. There is sufficient and convincing evidence, based on archaeological evidence as well as some gemaras, that murex trunculus was indeed the techelet of Chazal. But a brayta about how often the chilazon surfaced may be based on faulty contemporary Greek accounts of how often the chilazon frequented the shores. And it is overly pious to insist that therefore we have not identified the chilazon, for we would never find a creature that truly matches it. Just as we would not say that the gemara, and Tosafot, were not talking about elephants because they refer to an elephant jumping. And just as we would not say that our bovines are not the same as the bovines of Chazal because Chazal's bovines were constructed in a way that a needle could get to the liver in a normal way after being consumed. And that ancient accounts of lions were not of lions, because they claimed that lions were stillborn, and only came to life after three days.

We are faced with a derasha from a pasuk, perhaps one that accords with contemporary zoological beliefs in the time of Chazal; but that does not mean that Chazal made a careful study of the nesting habits of ostriches.

And so, to conclude, I believe that an ostrich is a solid candidate for the Bar Yochani, and that it was believed to be a real bird; though the gemara in Bechorot might have involved Chazal's true beliefs, in which case it would have been intended literally (for our beliefs, and sense of plausibility, is not the same as Chazal's); or allegorically; or else as an exaggeration.


Jack Hanna said...

Great post!

But the picture is an emu, not an ostrich!

A Pusheter Yid said...

In Texas they MAKE things big; in Arakat Levena things are NATURALLY big. Maybe they planted different species of cedar and radish, but birds could migrate from one to place to another. It has mythical touch.
Also, seems likes בת היענה is NOT an ostrich, but my childhood rabbis said it was.
If Bar Yochni is so large, why would the call it 'bar', a diminutive prefix? Unless Bar here means wild.

joshwaxman said...

thanks. and oops! i still like the picture, though. it has that comical touch.

good point about migration. though there is the idea of the lion and deer of Bei Ilai, which *maybe* don't migrate. also, perhaps the Bar in this case doesn't mean wild or a dimunitive prefix, but is the "Var" of "Varaghna".

kol tuv,


Blog Widget by LinkWithin