Talmud Tips

For the week ending 14 November 2020 / 27 Heshvan 5781

Eruvin 100 - 105

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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A Morality Trip to the Zoo

Rabbi Yochanan said, “Even if the Torah (which teaches us morality, integrity and positive character traits) had not been given to us, we would have been able to learn many important basic elements of proper human behavior and character traits from the behavior of animals.”

Hashem created a world possessing a vast multitude of life forms aside from humans, many of which comprise the animal kingdom. Animals not only serve to fill the world with beauty, wonder and utility, but also to help instill in mankind a variety of positive life lessons — if we observe animals in the correct way. Presumably, any animal lover or pet owner is well aware of the positivity of being near to animals. In particular, the love one has for a pet will also hopefully help one express love and care for his fellow humans as well.

Rabbi Yochanan mentions on our daf specific examples of positive character traits and behavior that may be learned from specific animals. For example, from the cat we could learn the elementary rules of cleanliness and respect for other people's sensitivities. This lesson is expressed in the fact that a cat does not relieve itself in the presence of people and also makes an effort to cover its bodily waste. Another example is the lioness, which shows us self-control.

From the ant we could learn the importance of group cohesion and respect for one another’s property. The Midrash speaks of an ant that was carrying a grain of wheat in its mouth for winter — and dropped it. Ant after ant came along to sniff the grain, and each sniffer left the grain of wheat in its place. They realized that the wheat already had an owner, and therefore left it there until the owner returned to retrieve it.

Other examples are noted as lessons we could learn from animals. These include: decency from a mule and fidelity from a dove, which mates for life. If you might ask: What causes these and other animals to behave in these particular ways? The commentaries explain that, unlike mankind, animals do not possess the moral compass or intellectual capacity for exhibiting such praiseworthy “human” forms of behavior. Rather, Hashem wanted us to learn certain behavioral patterns, and He therefore created certain animals with instincts to act in a way that communicates important positive lessons to human onlookers.

Our gemara cites a verse indicating how Hashem teaches us wisdom for living by means of the animal world. “He teaches us through the animals of the earth and makes us wiser through the birds of heaven.” (Iyov 35:11) Hashem teaches us the path of correct behavior and character traits by His instilling in animals and birds a special nature to serve as an educational path for mankind.

Elsewhere in Shas we find four reasons why Hashem created all of the animals before He created mankind (Sanhedrin 38a). In addition to those reasons, I once heard an additional reason, one that is in the theme of our discussion in this article. Rav Yisrael Yaakov Fisher, zatzal, explains that each animal possesses a special trait that mankind can learn from. There are many other examples of these positive traits besides those listed by Rabbi Yochanan in our sugya. Mankind was created only after the animals, he explains, because a person contains within him all of the good qualities of all of the animals. Our Sages taught this concept in a Midrash: “The Holy One… created the entire world, the heavens and the earth, the upper and lower worlds. Everything that He created in the world, He created within mankind.” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 31:3) When a person loses track of his unique moral role in the order of the Creation, turning to arrogance — he is reminded that all of animal life preceded him, even the lowly mosquito.

And in addition to learning positive character traits from animals, our Rabbis point out that there are other important lessons we are able to learn from the animal world. They can serve as a type of test for humanity, regarding how we treat living beings that are not our equals. Do we treat them with compassion? Do we think about their physical and emotional pain? These issues, and related ones, are discussed in detail in traditional Jewish sources. In fact, many of our mitzvahs deal with our relationship with the animal world.

  • Eruvin 100b

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