Myrmecology: The Study of Ants
Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta was known as an “askan devarim” (one who is involved in the study of things).
This Sage is given a special title in a beraita on our daf due to his efforts to study things in the natural world. In particular, we are taught about an experiment he conducted regarding whether a colony of ants has a ruling leader, such as a king.
King Solomon states in the Book of Proverbs (6:6-8): “Go to the ant, you lazy one; see her ways and become wise, for she has no chief, overseer, or ruler; yet she prepares her bread in the summer; she gathers her food in the harvest.” This indicates that ants do not have any ruler or king in their social structure.
Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta set up a method to see this for himself. It was known that ants love being in the shade and hate being in the sun. On a sunny summer dayhe spread a garment above an ant hole for shade. One ant emerged from the hole, saw shade, and Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta marked him for future identification. This ant went back into its hole and reported to the other ants that it was shady outside. However, when the entire colony came out, thinking it was shady, the Rabbi removed the shade-providing garment and there was only sunlight. The other ants were furious at the first messenger-ant that they were sure had deceived them, and they immediately killed him.
Due to this behavior, Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta concluded that ants have no king, since if they had one, the first ant would have been brought to the king for justice instead of being “lynched” by the horde. Rav Acha the son of Rava posed to Rav Ashi a number of challenges to this proof. Perhaps the king was present when the multitude emerged from the ant hole and he ordered the execution. Or perhaps there was a standing order to execute all such deceivers. Or perhaps this happened after the death of the king, and until a new king was appointed the rule of anarchy prevailed. (He hints to the existence and nature of anarchy based on the verse in Judges 17:7: "In those days there was no king in Israel, and every man did what was proper in his eyes.”)
What needs clarification is Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta’s goalin conducting this experiment. Rashi seems to say that he did not want to rely on King Solomon’s teaching about ants without evidence. Tosefot appears to question this explanation based on another case (Bava Batra 75a), where a student of Rabbi Yochanan scoffed at a seemingly impossible teaching he heard from Rabbi Yochanan, describing the future gates of Jerusalem. Later, when the student saw this vision for himself and confirmed Rabbi Yochanan’s teaching, he was soundly rebuked: “Empty one! If you hadn’t seen it for yourself you wouldn’t have believed what I taught. You are guilty of disrespect for the Sages!”
Therefore, says Tosefot, Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta did not doubt King Solomon’s teaching. Rather, he wanted to clarify for himself and for others as to how King Solomon knew this fact. Was it through Divine inspiration or was it known from empirical evidence? He concluded that it could be derived from study of the natural world. The challenging Sage, however, seems to say that this conclusion is not “airtight,” and that King Solomon could state that ants have no king only because he knew this due to Divine inspiration.
The Maharsha suggests that the explanation of Tosefot is difficult to accept. King Solomon certainly knew that what he wrote and said was based on “Ruach Hakodesh” — Divine inspiration. The experiment conducted by Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta was in no way similar to the case of the incredulous student of Rabbi Yochanan. The Maharsha cites the Chovot Halevavot, who writes that, in matters dependent on faith, there is also an obligation to investigate their nature if possible, although they are certainly to be fully believed and accepted without a doubt due to an unbroken, faithful transmission of the Torah from the time it was given to us at Mount Sinai. This was Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta’s goal, and also perhaps explains Rashi’s commentary on the purpose of Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta’s efforts. Clearly, there was not an iota of doubt about the eternal truth of any aspect of the Torah.
· Chullin 57b