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Pamphlet 2 - The Shafan and the Arnevet

Leviticus 11:2-7

These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals: any animal that has true hooves, with clefts through the hooves, and that chews the cud — such you may eay. The following, however, of those that either chew the cud or have true hooves, you shall not eat: the camel — although it chews the cud, it has no true hooves: it is unclean for you; the shafan — although it chews the cud, it has not true hooves: it is unclean for you; the arnevet — although it chews the cud, it has not true hooves: it is unclean for you; and the swine — although it has true hooves, with hooves cleft through, it does not chew the cud: it is unclean for you.

In the above passage, the Torah lists two criteria for a kosher animal — cleft hooves and chewing the cud. The Torah further says that the camel, shafan, and arnevet chew their cud but do not have cleft hooves and the swine has cleft hooves but does not chew its cud. Initially, this seems very simple and straightforward. However, when we try to identify the shafan and arnevet we find a problem.

Chewing the cud is a process by which food is partially digested in a ruminant's first stomach (rumen) where it is made into soft round balls. These balls — the cud — are ruminated back to the mouth where they are more thoroughly chewed. The food is then sent to the second stomach (reticulum) where it is further broken down and fermented. The food then goes to the third stomach (omasum) where the juices are squeezed out. The remains are passed to the fourth stomach where the digestion is completed. This process takes place in most ruminants.

A Cow's Four Stomachs (from here)

However, scholars have identified the shafan as the hyrax and the arnevet as the hare. Neither of these animals are ruminants and, therefore, neither of them chew their cud. Two of the animals that the Torah specifies as chewing their cud do not! How can the Torah, the direct word of G-d, be scientifically incorrect?

Hare = Arnevet (from here)

Hyrax = Shafan (from here)


The question posed has three assumptions:

   1. The Torah says that the shafan and the arnevet chew their cud.
   2. The shafan is a hyrax and the arnevet is a hare.
   3. The hyrax and the hare do not chew their cud.

One possible answer to this problem is to call assumption 2 into question. Perhaps the identification of the shafan as the hyrax and the arnevet as the hare is incorrect. After all, there are many biblical animals and plants whose identification is uncertain, as documented by Professor Yehuda Feliks in his Hachai Vehatzomeach Batorah. For example, the nesher is commonly identified as an eagle but is really, according to Professor Feliks, a vulture. Some time in history confusion arose over the identity of the nesher and an incorrect consensus arose that it is an eagle. Similarly, Rashi in Chullin 59b sv veharei suggests that the tzvi, which is usually identified as the deer, is really a different animal that he calls a steinbuck. Perhaps similar confusion arose regarding shafan and arnevet.

According to this theory, the shafan and arnevet chew their cud but the animals that have historically been considered the shafan and arnevet, perhaps as far back as the time of the Talmud, do not. Exactly what the identity of the shafan and arnevet remains unclear (R' Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary on Lev. 11:5).


Another possible answer is to accept the identification of shafan and arnevet as hyrax and hare but to question assumption 3. The hyrax and the hare move their jaws as if they are masticating food that has been ruminated. Since this passage is a list of rules for people to identify kosher and non-kosher animals, the Torah described the shafan and arnevet as exhibiting the outward signs of chewing the cud. To all observers, these two animals appear to be ruminating and this passage is a directive to observers. Thus, the Torah tells people that while they might see the shafan and arnevet apparently chewing their cud these animals are nonetheless non-kosher (R' David Tzvi Hoffman and R' Joseph H. Hertz in their commentaries to Lev. 11:5).

Some find these two explanations compelling and we included these answers for their benefit. However, we believe that the following is the true explanation of the entire issue.

Linguistic Approach

We believe that the first assumption mentioned above— that the Torah states that the shafan and arnevet chew their cud — is incorrect. In the passage we quoted at the beginning of this essay, the phrase translated as "chews the cud" appears six times. However, the last of those six times is very different in the original Hebrew and that is very informative.

In the first five times, the phrase is always a variant of ma'aleh gerah. Ma'aleh means to raise but gerah is much more elusive. Ma'aleh gerah is used to describe the animals that do whatever it refers to but when mentioning the swine the Torah does not say that the swine does not ma'aleh gerah.  Rather, it says gerah lo yigar. The connection between gerah and yigar seems clear but their definition is not.

The grammarians and commentators are not in agreement regarding the translation of gerah and yigar. Radak in his Sefer Hashorashim (sv GRH) says that he would have included our phrase in that section of words related to conflict but thought that it was more connected to garon — neck. He therefore included it in the root GRR. Similarly, Ibn Ezra relates the phrase to garon. According to these authorities, ma'aleh gerah means "ruminating food through the neck". Similarly, gerah lo yigar means "does not regurgitate food through the neck". Gerah is linguistically connected to the neck.

Onkelos, however, translates gerah and yigar as pishra — dissolving. Thus, ma'aleh gerah means "raising that which is dissolved" and gerah lo yigar means "does not further dissolve that which has been dissolved". Rashi cites Onkelos along with the following from R' Menachem ben Saruk.

The early grammarian R' Menachem ben Saruk connects the phrase ma'aleh gerah with the phrase in 2 Samuel 14:14 uchemayim hanigarim. The latter phrase refers to water being drawn. Evidently, R' Menachem ben Saruk understands the word gerah as meaning something that is pulled in. Similarly, R' Yonah Ibn Janach in his Sefer Hashorashim (sv GRH) translated gerah as meshichah — dragging. They would presumably translate the phrase ma'aleh gerah as "raising something that is drawn into the mouth" and gerah lo yigar as "does not draw that which is drawn".

Modern scholars follow along these latter two lines. The Daat Mikra commentary says that gerah is from the root GRR, meaning dragging. Similarly, the JPS commentary also connects it to dragging. The Anchor Bible Commentary (a scholarly Christian work) cites the view that gerah is related to neck (Ibn Ezra and Radak) but rejects it in favor of dragging. S. L. Gordon in his Shalag commentary also derives gerah from the root GRR but in the sense of grinding, similar to Onkelos. To him, ma'aleh gerah means "raising ground food" and gerah lo yigar means "does not grind that which is already ground".

We therefore see three linguistic explanations of the phrases ma'aleh gerah and (the opposite of) gerah lo yigar.

   1. "regurgitates through the neck"
   2. "dissolves food"
   3. "draws/pulls food"

However, we still have to ask why the Torah used the phrase ma'aleh gerah five times and then, regarding the swine, switched to the phrase gerah lo yigar. Why the inconsistent terminology? Ma'aleh is a clear reference to raising the food while yigar could mean regurgitating/dissolving/drawing the food without raising it. Which description is the most accurate and why are there two different descriptions?

What the Torah is doing by changing terminology in this context is equating ma'aleh gerah with the opposite of gerah lo yigar. The last reference is an extention of the definition of ma'aleh gerah. In other words, the change in phrases is to teach us that ma'aleh gerah means any kind of process, even if it is not raising food. However, since the overwhelming majority of kosher animals chew their cud in the traditional form that includes raising the food through the neck the Torah uses the phrase ma'aleh gerah. In order to teach us that, while this is the norm, it is not the only way that kosher animals redigest their food, the Torah changed the terminology at the last case to gerah lo yigar. Even redigesting without raising through the neck is acceptable.

The Facts

With this in mind, we can evaluate what zoologists tell us about the hyrax and hare. Zoologists explain that the hyrax has an extra protrusion in its colon that contributes certain enzymes that are necessary for the breakdown of cellulose. Richard McBee has even suggested that the hyrax actually has a fermentation chamber for the digestion of grass by microorganisms. Thus, food is initially digested in the intestine and then further digested due to the hyrax's unique biology. See the excellent article by Professor Leonard Brand on this topic.

The hare excretes two types of feces. The first is waste, like most animals excrete, but the second type is made of soft balls that the hare eats and re-chews. This re-digestion of the food, called refection, is similar to ruminating but is done externally.

Re-digestion by Hyraxs and Hares (from Sichat Chullin p. 410)

With our definitions of the biblical terms we can evaluate these two processes and see if they qualify under the Torah's criteria. The first definition of "regurgitating through the neck" certainly excludes both the hyrax and the hare from being classified as ma'aleh gerah. Indeed, it contradicts our explanation of why the Torah changed its terms from ma'aleh gerah to gerah lo yigar and leaves the question once again unanswered.

However, the other two definitions — "dissolving food" and "drawing/pulling food" — seem to include the biological processes of the hyrax and the hare. The hyrax dissolves the food twice and draws it from one intestine to the next for this procedure. Similarly, the hare dissolves the food by chewing its feces and draws it into its mouth in order to chew it.

What we have seen is that the Torah's definition of ma'aleh gerah is extended to include (the opposite of) gerah lo yigar. Based on most of the lingustic definitions of these phrases, the hare is considered to be ma'aleh gerah and the hyrax is (the opposite of) gerah lo yigar.

However, when the commentators define the term ma'aleh gerah and not its linguistic derivation they clearly refer to chewing the cud. Even if our explanation is consistent with the linguistics, how can we contradict the great commentators who specify chewing the cud?

We can offer three answers. The first is that the commentators were only explaining ma'aleh gerah and not the extended definition of (the opposite of) gerah lo yigar. This is admittedly difficult.

Alternatively, we can suggest that the exact definition of ma'aleh gerah was lost over time and the commentators offered a correct but overly specific definition. Ma'aleh gerah does refer to chewing the cud but it also refers to other processes.

Finally, perhaps the commentators were speaking of the majority of animals. Overwhelmingly, most kosher animals fulfill ma'aleh gerah by chewing their cud. The commentators, therefore, gave this as the approximate definition rather than being confusingly hyper-specific.

Is this the final word on this subject? We do not think so. We have offered three possible solutions to this problem, the last one scientifically up-to-date and linguistically precise. However, complicated issues such as this lend themselves to multiple interpretations and we welcome any new viewpoints on the subject. What we have tried to show is that the questions raised regarding the shafan and arnevet can be answered and therefore do not prove that the Torah was mistaken regarding scientific facts.

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Contributor(s): Gil Student
Last revised: 3/11/02
© Aishdas 2002