Parshat Tazria: Learning from the Animals

Judaism teaches that there is much to be learned from the animal kingdom. Aside from the ethical treatment of animals, as explained by mitzvot such as tza’ar baalei chaim, Judaism recognizes there are characteristics and traits that can be observed in the animal kingdom that can inform and inspire how humans relate to others, to themselves, and even to G-d.

The gemara, Eruvin 100b, discusses proper conduct regarding marital relations. In a beraita, Rav Yitzchak bar Avodimi explains that that which was referred to as curses in the previous beraita are really positive qualities. He praises a woman who sits while urinating, praising such behavior as modest.  Rav Chiya asks what we learn from the verse, “Malfenu b’behemot ha’aretz,” “He teaches us from the animals of the land and from the birds of the Heavens, He makes us wise,” (Job 11:35). The gemara answers, “Amar Rabbi Yochanan: ilmalei lo nittenah torah haynu lemeidin tzeni’ut mechatul, vegezel minemalah, va’arayot miyonah, derech eretz mitarnegol, shemefayes ve’achar kach biv’al uma mefayes lah. Amar Rav Yehudah, amar rav, hachi ka’amar lah zevinana lich ziga dematu lich ad karich levatter hachi amar lah lishamtesei (shunra lishamtei) l’charbaltei dehahu tarnegola i it leyah velo zevinana lich.”

As is often the case, this discussion evolved from the “stream-of-consciousness” flow of the Gemara’s dialogue, notes Rav Adin Steinsaltz. It opened with Rami bar Aba quoting Rav Asi as forbidding people from walking on grass on Shabbat, based on the passage in Mishlei 19:2, “and he who hastens with his feet, sins.” (The conclusion of the Gemara is that this is permissible, since we rule like Rabbi Shimon that something done unintentionally on Shabbat is permitted.) In the continuation of the Gemara, Rami bar Aba again quotes Rav Asi, who interprets this passage metaphorically, as a reference to sexual relations between husband and wife. According to this reading, the passage teaches that a person cannot force his wife to engage “in a mitzvah” against her will. The Gemara’s reference to sexual relations as a mitzvah indicates both the attitude of the Gemara that relations within the framework of marriage is a positive act, and yet it is forbidden for the husband to force his wife to participate, even if his intention is for a mitzvah.

From this, the Gemara launches into a discussion of appropriate relationships between husbands and wives in sexual matters, including the admonition to learn from the natural behaviors of the animal kingdom how to conduct oneself in such matters. From the rooster we learn the importance of mating rituals and how thoughtful, generous and loving words and acts should lead up to intimacy. On a different level, the case of doves is instructive because we find animals that are monogamous. Once the male and female join up, they are loyal to one-another to the extent that should one of them disappear, the other will not choose another partner for the duration of that season.

G-d puts instincts in animals from which we can learn. Modesty can be learned from the mule, which urinates while sitting. Rabbi Yochanan adds, had the Torah not been given [to man], we would have had to learn tzeniut (modesty) from cats (Rabbeinu Chananel  explains the modesty of cats in that they have relations in covert places, whereas Rashi explains they eliminate in covert places and cover their excrement). From ants, one learns not to steal, as the ant does not enter others’ holes to steal. Also, if an ant carried a piece of wheat, other ants can smell this, and they will not take it. From doves, one learns loyalty and fidelity (distancing from adultery and arayot), as the dove has relations only with its mate. From roosters, one learns proper manners, as the rooster spreads its wings before marital relations and then nods and bows its head toward the hen afterwards (the rooster appeases a hen before relations, “Ume’Of ha’Shamayim Yechakmenu,” by spreading its wings, as if] it says ‘I will buy a dress that reaches your feet’; After relations, [it bends down its head, as if] it says ‘my crest should be removed if I have the money and don’t buy it for you.’)

Parshat Tazria’s laws about purity and impurity among people (childbirth and tza’arat, leprosy) even follow the Torah’s laws about animals in Shemini, further demonstrating how the Torah values lessons from animals for human existence. Rashi explains this order by quoting Rav Simlai (Vayikra Rabbah 14:1), “Just as in creation Man followed the animals, so his ‘Torah’ follows that of the animals.” The gemara, Sanhedrin 38a, provides four answers as to why the creation of the animals preceded the creation of humankind (the beraita says that humankind was created on Erev Shabbat (at the end of creation) lest heretics be able to say that man was a partner in creation, but also that if a person gets haughty or arrogant, we will tell him that mosquitoes were created before him; the order of creation is intended to instill humility in people by emphasizing that even the lowest forms of animal life preceded humans and will likely surpass humans. (Also, it was so man should immediately guard the Mitzvah of Shabbat, and so that he should find everything (already created and) ready for him to eat). A fifth reason is suggested by Rav Yisrael Yaakov Fisher (late av beit din of the Eidah haChareidit) in Sefer Even Yisrael on Tazria. He explains, like the gemara in Eruvin, that each animal possesses a special middah; we could learn other examples from G-d’s creatures, in addition to those cited by Rav Yochanan. Man was created after the animals, says Rav Fisher, because man contains within him all of the good qualities of all of the animals. Chazal expressed this  in a Midrash (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 31:3): “The Holy One, blessed be He, whose great Name will be blessed forever and ever, created the entire world, the Heavens and the earth, the upper and lower worlds. Everything that the Holy One, blessed be He, created in the world, He created within Man.” When man loses sight of his status and his proper role in the created order of things and turns to arrogance, according to the gemara, such a person is reminded of the fact that animal life came before him, even the lowly mosquitoes.

A further insight into the role animals play in informing our lives is seen in the sacrificial order for after childbirth given in Tazria: “Uvimlot yemey tahorah leven o levat tavi keves ben-shnato le’olah uven-yonah o-tor lechatat el-petach ohel-mo’ed el-hakohen;” when a woman’s purification period  for a son or a daughter is complete, she shall bring to the priest, to the Communion Tent entrance, a yearling sheep for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtle dove for a sin offering. (Leviticus 12:6)

The Baal haTurim (Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, 1270-1340), explains that normally the tor or ben-yonah are brought in pairs. However, in this case, we only bring one. The tor [turtle dove] has a unique quality in that they mate for life. If its partner is taken away from it or killed, it will not seek out another mate, but will seemingly mourn – as it were – for the first mate for the rest of its life. Consequently, rather than cause the break-up of a pair of turtle doves by taking one of a pair for a bird offering, the Torah advises us to that it is preferable to seek out a ben-yonah (whose mate will presumably be able to find another mate if its first mate is offered as a sacrifice). We must try to avoid causing the dove this pain and if at all possible, bring a pigeon. (His answer rests on the observation made by Rabbi Yochanan in Eruvin 100b that the dove embodies fidelity and loyalty). Rav Simcha Zissel Broide notes that from the dove, we can clearly see the Torah’s emphasis on loyalty and fidelity; because the tor has the wonderful trait of loyalty to its mate, it is rewarded by the Torah, urging us to seek the ben yonah instead for our sacrifice.

Similarly, the Ramban in Vayikra notes that the Torah singled out torim as an appropriate species for sacrifices, precisely because of their loyalty each other. These two types of birds, torim and bnei yonah, are more easily caught than others. The Torah chose animals that feed at the crib, and that do not require we take weapons to get them. The Torah chose grown up turtledoves because they abstain from pairing with strangers, and attach themselves only to their mates, and once they lose their companions they never associate with another. So too, does Israel cleave to their G-d, and never attach themselves to another god. Pigeons, however, are very jealous and as a result of their jealousy they part from their previous mates and take on another. G‑d chose them only when they are young before mating begins, for as long as the pigeon is young it is attached with greater love to the nest where it is reared than other birds. The sages say that if one touches the nest of all other birds to take the young ones or the eggs, they leave it and never nest there again, but the pigeon never abandons it under any circumstances. So too Israel will never exchange their Creator and His Torah. Therefore, according to the Ramban, torim and bnei Yonah are the bird species used in the Temple because they share the quality of loyalty with the Jewish people.

In conclusion, the Torah looks towards the animal kingdom in order to teach us the behaviors and lessons that we often wouldn’t otherwise be mindful of. The dove‘s loyalty and fidelity serves to remind us of the loyal, intimate bonds between the Jewish People and the Ribbono Shel Olam.



About the Author
Daniel Sayani is a student of traditional Jewish texts, with an eye towards their contemporary applications. He has been widely published on issues of religion, ethics, and their geopolitical dimensions, and he is excited about entering the next phase of his academic and professional life.
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