Tuesday, May 15, 2012

From The Mailbag: The Fins-and-Scales Proof

A reader named David sent me the following email:

Dear Wolf,

I wanted to sincerely tell you how much I appreciate your website, a good example of the way the Internet can be used for the good.

I also wanted to ask you about a particular point that you make in your "Torah proof" section.

I appreciate the work done, and I should say that I came to pretty much the same conclusions about those "proofs".

Except for the animal signs; you write that it doesn't stand as a valid proof of the veracity of the Torah, because Chazal could have guessed it right.

What you don't seem to see is that the argument is so strong because if their statements had been shown incorrect in the future, the entire credibility of Chazal – the belief in their inspired way of reading the Bible, and thus Judaism itself, would have crumbled.

Moreover, these assertions were unnecessary, they seem to have been made only to prove the validity of torah shebeal peh ; and, seriously, what were the chances that no one would ever find something in the water that has scales but doesn’t have fins ?

I may be wrong somewhere, but I don’t see it.

Kol Tuv,


David was following up on a post of mine regarding one of the proofs to the divinity of the Torah.  The proof that David is referring to goes something like this:

The Torah mentions that in order for a fish to be kosher, it must have fins and scales.  The Mishna in Niddah goes on to point out that all fish that have scales also have fins.  The halachic inference from this is that if you find a fish that has scales but no fins, it is kosher, because all fish that have scales have fins.  Thus, if you find a part of a fish with scales but no fins attached, you may eat it since it definitely had fins at some point (which may have been removed by a predator or some other agent).

The proof* then continues in a similar vein to the four-animals proof:  How could Chazal have made such a statement?  Were they ichthyologists who knew every species of fish on the planet?  Since they made this statement, and it has proven to be true to this day**, surely the information must have come from a Divine source (from He who knows all the species of fish on the planet).

I addressed this proof by stating that making accurate statements are not proof of divinity.  The Mishna's author could have simply extrapolated from the sample of fish species that they had at hand and created the general rule that all fish that have scales also have fins.  Anyone can do this... including you and I.

For example, I'm going to state right now that all stars (except collapsed, dead stars) perform nuclear fusion at their cores.  And now let's suppose that 10,000 years from now, someone digs this statement up and, lo and behold, the rule still holds true -- every star that was ever found was powered by nuclear fusion.  Now, let me state up front that I am not an astronomer.  There's no way I could have known that all the stars that are out there.  Does the fact that I made such an accurate statement make me divine?  Does it mean that my wonderfully accurate statement was of divine origin?  The answer, obviously, is no.  I simply extrapolated a general rule based on the sample of stars that we currently know about -- something that could have just as easily happened with regard to the Mishna in Niddah and fishes.

This brings us to the point of David's letter.  He counters this by stating as follows:

What you don't seem to see is that the argument is so strong because if their statements had been shown incorrect in the future, the entire credibility of Chazal – the belief in their inspired way of reading the Bible, and thus Judaism itself, would have crumbled.

But here David is making assumptions that are not in evidence.  He's assuming that the author of the Mishna  was concerned that their statement might have been disproven in the future.  However, there are several other possibilities.  Perhaps the author of the Mishna simply thought they were right and that they didn't entertain the possibility that they were wrong (as I did in my statement about the stars)?  Perhaps he never considered the possibility that, even if he was in error, that it would cause Judaism itself to crumble (I don't think it would, but that's another post for another time).  Perhaps they were simply trying to offer advice to people regarding kosher fish and didn't give any thought whatsoever to the broader implications of such a statement.  In short, David is begging-the-question.  He's starting with the assumption that the statement is of Divine origin and that the author of the Mishna was, in fact, making a proof to the divinity of the Torah.

The Wolf

*Technically speaking, this proof cannot be used to prove the divinity of the Torah, but rather the divinity of this one particular statement of the Mishna.  But let's leave that aside for now.

** Well, not really, but, for the sake of argument, let's say that it is 100% true today.


Anonymous said...

check this posting http://somehowfrum.blogspot.com/2011/04/emunah-and-proofs.html

zach said...

Eh, if he insists on this as a proof then to be intellectually honest & consistent he would also have to agree that a similar assertion regarding the Pig/Camel/Hyrax/Hare would indicate that the Torah is NOT of divine origin.

David said...

Dear Wolf,
You write that the Gemara's statements about animals weren't supposed to prove anything.
But that's a mistake!
The Gemara clearly states that its knowledge of animals is a proof of the divine origin of the Torah :
"Was Moses a hunter or an archer? This is to answer those who say that the Torah isn’t from heaven." (Chulin 60b)

Read this: http://www.aish.com/jl/b/bb/104491254.html

BrooklynWolf said...


Ah, I was led on a wild fish chase. The letter writer (is that you?) focused on fish, and so I answered accordingly. The four animals topic (from which your objection is drawn) is a different (albeit related) "proof."

I am on a bus now and cannot properly look into it at the moment. Nonetheless, I will address the issue.

The Wolf

Mahral Man said...

See the Maharal on Chidushei Aggados on Chulin 60B where he clearly states that this is not a proof.

Also, It is quite possible that the Shafan and Arneves are not Hare/Hyrax, as the Torah says clearly that S and A chew the cud and the H/H don't. They don't even have hooves, let alone split ones!

Michael Sedley said...

No idea about fish, but there are serious problems with the "4 animals proof".

Forget the Arnevet and Shfan, what about Lamas and Alpacas - they chew their cud but have no split feet. And to claim that they are a sub-species of Camel is a bit far-fetched.

Aish for example make the claim that if we ever discovered another animal that had only one sign, this would dis-prove the Divine origin of the Torah.
So the existence of the Lama means that the "4 animals proof" is in fact a disproof of the Divine origin of the Torah (Written Torah, not Oral).

Fortunately, the entire 4 animal proof is based on a number of false premises (e.g. that the Torah was giving a complete list, not just examples of animals that would have been familiar to the reader), so it can't be used to prove anything.

S. said...

I assume he eats swordfish and sturgeon then?

There was and is fierce halachic debate about what exactly are scales. In practice this rule is not useful, if you can't use it to make actual inferences about what you may eat.

BrooklynWolf said...


I read the Aish article you pointed to in your previous comment. Sadly, that article is an even worse example of assuming the antecedent. It also has a bit of the fallacy of the excluded middle thrown in as well.

The whole proof boils down to this: there are two possibilities: (a) God wrote it or (b) humans wrote it.

If humans wrote it, they would never have dared to write it that way as they would have been afraid of being disproven at some point in the future, hence God must have written it.

However, what if it was written by a person who didn't care or didn't consider the possibility of a disproving statement species coming along later? That's certainly possible.

The "proof" assumes that a human writer would have been so concerned about future error. There's certainly no indication of that in the text itself. Once you realize that, you can easily posit a human writer who didn't care or consider that any other species might even exist.

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

Also, Chazal have already been proven wrong on numerous other scientific issues- and Judaism continues to march on.

Anonymous said...

Important points are made in the comments. I just want to add my experience.

I spent ten months at aish ten years ago and was shocked at the Discovery seminar (which they showed me after maybe six months.)

I instinctively felt this was trouble – that there was something fishy (excuse the pun) about these proofs. And they had more than a few proofs. All of them proved weak, incomplete, one sided, cherry picking the Talmud, etc. But because they were the frum guys, at the time we assumed they really knew things.

I know there are fishes with scales but no fins (some kind of eel I saw a pic of once.) but it is rare. Probably in the middle east where Chazal lived it was unheard of.

Chazal knew the science of their time, they clearly ventured into the world for answers to scientific questions. Their zoology and ichthyology are both reflective of this situation. Much of it proves wrong.

The four animals proof actually fails badly. Ideas about treatments for disease fail too (and I suppose this is acknowledged -- who uses them today?)

So – yes. Kiruv proofs are destructive. I believe every one of them fails. But the important point is that all of them are simply beneath Judaism to begin with. What a mess.


ItcheSrulik said...

Michael, read up on taxonomy. Apparently zoologists don't think so. Either way, the 4-animal proof is irrelevant for other reasons.

Wolf, you say that you "don't think" Judaism would crumble if a Mishnah were proven wrong on some scientific fact. In fact, you are demonstrably correct. Any number of pieces of talmudic science have been proven wrong and we still keep halakha. Peoples' favorite one to talk about is spontaneous generation.

BTW, I came across something you posted on chabad talk the other day. I was looking for the number of letters in tanach. Your link to the chart came up on the second page of google. The chart itself did not.

Fishy said...

Um, you know that there's an entire book on this, right? "The Camel The Hare And The Hyrax" by Rabbi Slifkin.

Anonymous said...

As others pointed out, there are many assertions made in the Talmud that have been empirically disproven. Some scientific (e.g. astronomical observations), some medical (e.g. child born in 8th month will die, a treife will die in 12 months, refuos), and some physiological (e.g. human anatomy that is clearly Greek).

The common refrain to such a discrepancy is "nishtaneh hatevah", i.e. nature has changed from the time of Chazal until now. Chazal are fully hedged, as we say. They have limited downside risk and unlimited upside potential.

David said...

Dear Wolf,

I wrote:
"The Gemara clearly states that its knowledge of animals is a proof of the divine origin of the Torah”

You answered:
"However, what if it was written by a person who didn't care or didn't consider the possibility of a disproving statement species coming along later? That's certainly possible. The "proof" assumes that a human writer would have been so concerned about future error. There's certainly no indication of that in the text itself."

I don't understand your answer.
- About fish, the Mishnah (Nida 6:9) says: "Every creature that has scales, will also have fins. But there are those which have fins, but do not have scales."
And the Gemara adds (Nida 51b): "If so, then why did not God write "scales" and there would be no need to mention "fins?" Rebbe Abbahu replied (and it was also taught at the school of Rebbe Yishmael): "In order to magnify the Torah and make it glorious." (Isaiah 42:21)

Imagine the consequences if a fish had been found later on, that had scales but no fins! Rebbe Abbahu's tradition would've made no sense! Not to mention the Mishnah!

How can you say that the writers didn't necessarily mean to be precise in this matter?

On the contrary, this passage shows that these rabbis were absolutely certain never to be disproven, that there would be no exception to this rule – putting at risk their whole belief system, i.e. the authenticity of their tradition, since they clearly rely on it to establish a law of nature, on the subject of something as important as kosher laws (this law of nature has halakhic consequences, for example if one finds a piece of fish with scales and no fins, it’s kosher.)

- The same goes for mammals. The Gemara in Chulin 59a is clear: "The Ruler of the universe knows that only the camel chews its cud yet is unclean." And as for the pig, it is the only split-hoofed animal that doesn’t chew its cud.

The Gemara’s knowledge of animals (it was published about 500 CE) seems to constitute a proof “beyond a reasonable doubt”, – or at least a very strong indication – of the authenticity of the Oral Torah.

David said...

Allow me to add some elements to my previous post:

-1- about the fins/scales proof:

After all my researches, I haven't found a single animal contradicting the Gemara's assertion.
The Monopterus cuchia - one of the only claimed counterexample - has a dorsal fin.*
And the Stincus marinus, despite his name, is not an aquatic animal.**

Check out this webpage, it summarizes very well how this knowledge of sea animals constitutes a proof of Torah min haShamayim: http://slifkinchallenge.blogspot.com/2011/12/of-kiruv-kvetches-and-straightforward.html

I even found out that Tosefot (Chulin 66b) say so explicitly!

שיש לו קשקשת יש לו סנפיר. וא"ת מנין היה להם זה לחכמים

-2- about the split hooves/chew cud proof:

There too, after all my researches, I came to the conclusion that:
the only animal that does not chew its cud and has split hooves is the pig (and the warthog and the like)
and the only animal that does not have split hooves and chews its cud is the camel (and the llama and the like.)

The Shafan and the Arnevet were probably already extinct at the time of the Mishnah, which would explain why the Tanna of the school of R. Ishmael only mentionned the camel in his teaching (in Chullin 59, it would only have been logical to include the Shafan and the Arnevet in the teaching, since the pasuk also writes about them 'כי מעלה גרה הוא'.)
This resolves all the questions about hare and hyrax.

And the proof is strong, since it is only based upon the camel, not the Shafan and the Arnevet.
Indeed, these statements of the Gemara are - to this day - true:

"The Ruler of the universe knows that there is no other beast that parts the hoof and is unclean except the swine."
"The Ruler of the universe knows that there is no other beast that chews the cud and is unclean except the camel."

Anonymous said...

Dear Wolf, it appears you said...as i followed the double astrix, that the fish thing isn't 100% true...which fish aren't in line with it?

David said...

Btw, I forgot the asterisks in my previous post: