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The Wars of the Lord

By Rabbi Bernard Illowy (1814-1875).

The Science of the Talmudists


(The Occident, vol. XIV, reprinted in the American Jewish Advocate).

[I have included this letter because from the style and the wording thereof I feel certain that my father himself wrote it so that he might have the opportunity of saying, what he did, in reply. The cause therefor was the common practice of the so-called Reform-Rabbis, and especially of the more ignorant ones, of ridiculing the Talmud, of putting forth all sorts of preposterous statements as to the ignorance of the Talmudists in matters of science. (The Editor).]

To the Rev. Dr. Illowy.

Dear Sir:--

I have been taught to believe in the teachings of our sages, as implicitly as in those of the written laws of G-d, delivered through his faithful servant Moses. My teachers have impressed on my mind, that it is better to follow unhesitatingly in the footsteps of the Talmudists, and to travel slowly on the obscure and seemingly narrow path of the ancients, though derided by the moderns as absurd, than to hurry along with careless haste on the way of life which the present age opens to us, enlightened as it pretends to be by the dazzling glare of a false philosophy. I have been admonished never to give place in my heart to any doubts about the truth of the views of the Talmud; but I acknowledge with full sincerity, that it was rather filial love for paternal precepts, and the respect which I owe to my teachers, than real piety, which inspired me with the moral strength to struggle against all the doubts which threatened so often to overpower my mind; and when I met with any difficulty which others might in their belief, the above mentioned causes induced me to regard this only as the result of my ignorance. But, notwithstanding all the good instruction I have enjoyed, I cannot conceal from you that I have met with several hypotheses in the Talmud, which I can never acknowledge as true, since they are opposed to common sense, and facts speak loudly against their reality. I beg leave now to lay before you some of these things; and if you should succeed in convincing me of their truth and correctness, I will never more raise my voice against our sages, and will believe even any seeming absurdity I may discover in their writings, under the full persuasion that a better acquaintance with the subject will remove the difficulty which at first sight appears to exist.

First. It is states in the Yoreh Deah. ch. xlviii, par. 15, that there exists a certain bird, though its name is not mentioned, which grows on a peculiar tree, and which is suspended by its beak in embryo, and falls down when fully ripe. This chimerical bird, which grows only on trees of their own imagination, gave rise to a discussion among the casuists, whether it be allowed to any Israelite to eat of it or not.

Secondly.Another sypothesis adopted by the Talmudists is as follows: "The sages, teach, that an unclean fish, to wit: one not having fins and scales produces living young, but the clean fish lay eggs." In another passage this hypothesis is contradicted by a different authority, which admits that both clean and unclean fish lay eggs, with this difference, that in unclean fishes, the fetus is fully developed in the egg, as soon as produced, while in the eggs of the clean fish the germ is developed in the water, where, according to Rashi, the eggs will not hatch without a due degree of heat being imparted to them by the brooding of the parent fish. I need not exhibit to you any argument to prove the absurdity of both these hypotheses, as the first is contradicted by the second, and both by daily experience to the contrary.

Thirdly. The pediculus [louse] owes its existence, according to Talmud Shabbath 107b, and Tosaphot, ib., 12a, to spontaneous generation in the perspiration and moisture of man and animals although it cannot, in point of fact, be denied that like all other oviparous animals it originates from eggs.

Fourthly. Another theory is indicated in Bekorot 7b, "All the animals which have living young are mammiferous, and all that lay eggs pick up food for the young, except the bat." I am not learned enough to contradict this assumption; but I would merely ask, why no naturalist, beside the Talmudists, so far as known to me, was sufficiently well acquainted with the habits of the bat, as to know that it is oviparous and a mammal at the same time, and why did no one up to the present time discover an ovary in the bat.

I trust you will have the goodness to give me a satisfactory solution on these subjects, and confer thus a lasting favor on your obedient servant.

Hananel S.

My Dear Young Friend:--

Your letter came duly to hand, and I read it with the attention which it deserves; but I regret to state, that your expressions of regard for the opinion of our sages do by no means afford me any satisfaction; since all your efforts do not hide the mournful fact, that you belong to some extent to the self-styled enlightened class among the moderns, whose business it seems to be to demolish the sacred structure which the ancient Israelites have erected with so much care and labor, and who in making war against the Oral Law, use the Talmud only as a weapon against itself, and strive to exhibit their forefathers as ignorant dreamers and thoughtless deceivers. It will be my duty, however, as one of your teachers, to use all proper efforts to bring you back to the truth from which you have deviated, being misled by erroneous guides and their false teaching, and to show you that the mistakes you seem to discover in the Talmud are only the reflex of your own want of knowledge, just as the mirror gives back to the beholder his own image, deformed as it may be, though the surface on which he looks is pure and faultless.

But let me answer you, point by point.

First. You want to know the name of a certain bird which grows on a particular tree and gave rise to a discussion among the casuists whether an Israelite be permitted to eat it according to the law, and of which you positively maintain that such a bird was growing only on trees of their own invention. -- But I would ask you first, how you can make so bold an assertion? Is it because you have never seen it? Can your mere negative gainsay the affirmative of many of the most celebrated ancient naturalists, who affirm to have seen a bird precisely of this nature, as mentioned above? They called it the Barnacle Goose, and placed its native region in some remote parts of the north of Europe. Muenster, Saxo Grammaticus, Scaliger, and others have asserted that the trees which bore these wonderful fruits resembled willows, which produced at the extremity of the branches small balls, containing the embryo of a duck suspended by its bill, which, when ripe, fell into the sea, and flew away. Bishop Leslie, Torquemada, and Olaus Magnus, all attest the truth of the monstrous generation of the Barnacle Goose, wherefore it was called "tree goose." Now, I have merely to observe, that, when the casuists speak of a bird growing on a tree, it by no means proves that they had adopted the opinion then generally prevalent, that Barnacle geese actually grew on trees; for it was not a subject for them to investigate. The question for them to decide was, whether an Israelite might lawfully eat the goose, which, by common consent, in those days, was the product of a tree. Some held it was prohibited; others, again, as Mordecai and Rabbenu Tam, had undoubtedly seen and examined the bird, without caring how it was produced, and decided it to belong to those which may lawfully be eaten. Their investigation of the specimens before them, satisfied them, their marks indicated their being permitted; according to Yoreh Deah, ch. IXXXII, "that it is necessary to examine first an unknown bird by the tokens, before it is allowed to eat it." This was all they needed to do, without troubling themselves about the disputes of the naturalists, as regards the origin of the Barnacle Goose; wherefore they gave no opinion on this point.

To your second objection, I would reply, that you would have done better to ask for the simple meaning of the passage you quote, than endeavor to give it a signification which it does not possess. In order to make the subject clear, let me exhibit to you first the mode of the reproduction of fishes. Fishes are divided into two classes. Rays, sharks, and others produce large eggs protected by a strong shell; these we call oviparous. Blennius, silures, and others bring forth living young, and are called viviparous. The first class is again subdivided into two classes; some fishes require fecundation before they lay eggs, while a great many lay their roes in the water, agglutinated by a kind of mucilage, which envelops and attaches them to stones or aquatic plants, and they are then fecundated by the fluid or milt of the male, which passes over them. This now, I which to show you, stands in perfect coincidence with the statement of the Talmud, and there is consequently no contradiction whatever in both its hypotheses. In the first instance, where the Talmud asserts that the unclean fish bring forth live young, while the clean lay eggs, it does not intend to give us a lesson in natural history; but it merely teaches us that all viviparous fishes are unclean, and they are accordingly forbidden to us as food, whereas all the clean fishes are of an oviparous nature. But, in order to guard us against the assumption that all of the latter class are permitted to us, there is offered to us the second hypothesis, which teaches that this class, too, contains some unclean species, discernible by the difference, that the unclean fishes of this class required fecundation,m whereby the eggs are developed within, before they are laid; while the clean ones lay their eggs in the water, where they are fecundated by the male passing over them. But, as regards the remark ascribed to Rashi, in Bekorot, cited by you, I venture to assert that this is based on a mistake, and is perhaps an addition made by some person unacquainted with the subject.

In answer to your third query, I will state that it is not to be denied that the pediculus is multiplied by eggs; but the eggs is nevertheless not the origin of the existence of this race; and I must refer you to the famous Cuvier, who wrote about these insects as follows: "Their generations are numerous and succeed each other with great rapidity. Some particular causes, unknown to us, favor their first existence, which is exemplified by the pedicular malady, or phtirosis, in man, and even in our infancy." -- Probably these unknown causes induced the Talmud to presume that the insect originates from the moisture of men and animals.

In reply to your fourth question, I will say that, as serpents sometimes are oviparous, at others viviparous, there may be a species of עטלף which is mammiferous, while another is oviparous.

Affectionately yours,

B. Illowy.