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Acharon Shel Pesach 5779 - Mermaids and the Messiah

05/02/2019 11:39:09 AM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

This week as we were studying the daf yomi, we came across a text so shocking that when I first saw it my jaw dropped so much that it nearly hit my shtender.

We are studying tractate Bechoros and the text says:

“The dulfanin (dolphins) reproduce like humans.  What are dolphins? Rav Yehuda said: The benei yama (the people of the sea)” (8a).

This is the version of the text of the Talmud as we have it today.  And it makes sense.  Dolphins like humans, and in sharp contrast to most other animals, copulate face to face.  Also dolphins do not lay eggs.   And also, like humans, dolphins engage in copulation even when there is no possibility of conception. (See Natan Slifkin, Sacred Monsters, 98.) 

Yet, Rashi and Tosafot, replace this version of the Talmud with an alternative text, which they argue is the correct reading.

Rashi writes that the correct text is:

“Dophins reproduce from humans; if a person cohabits with them, they conceive from him.” 

Rashi then comments: “There are sea creatures which are half man and half fish, and they are known as sereine” (s.v. benei yama).

Jaw meet shtender.  Rashi, a great sage, whose piety and brilliance towers over all of us and guides us every single day of our lives, intentionally modifies our existing text of the Talmud and argues for the existence of creatures that today we refer to as mermaids or mermen.  

We now roll our eyes at the very possibility of such creatures existing.  But yet, our holy sage, Rashi, says with certainty that they do indeed exist.

The Artscroll Schottenstein edition of the Talmud writes, “Rashi clearly refers to mermen…whose existence was widely accepted in the ancient and medieval world and indeed until recent centuries….  As understood by Rashi, then, the Baraisa teaches that humans and mermen can interbreed ” (Bechoros, 8a, footnote 2). 

When I first came across this text I was in such shock that I called up some of my teachers who are experts in the Talmud and asked them how they understood the text.  One of them explained to me that they absolutely believe this Rashi.  Another one said that this creature must have once existed and now no longer exists; i.e. if the Talmud and Rashi refer to it, then they must have seen something to support their claim.

The difficulty with this latter answer is that even if we can apologetically argue that they must have seen a creature that looked like a mermaid, i.e., a sea creature that from afar resembled a human in some ways (like manatees or dugongs), there still is the fact that Rashi says that these creatures can reproduce with humans.  This is something that we know today is still an impossibility.

I recognize why my teachers are saying this because I too believe there is great spiritual value in praising our holy ancestors and not speaking disrespectfully about them.  But I also believe it is essential not to blindly accept their words even when they fly in the face of clear and irrefutable science.  Denying logic and science is not a pious oath because it can sometimes be extremely dangerous.  We are seeing the effects of such an approach today as a small minority of the ultra-Orthodox world has chosen not to vaccinate because of a mistrust of clear and irrefutable science and as a result it has caused measles to spread and children to get sick.

I therefore prefer the approach of someone who I consider my rebbe in these matters (though we have never met), Rabbi Natan Slifkin.  Slifkin discusses this Rashi at length and demonstrates that Rashi was not alone in his mistaken belief in the existence of mermen and in their ability to reproduce with humans.  Great rabbinic scholars of recent years, like the 18th century, Vilna Gaon, also refer to mermen (page 89).  So too, Christopher Columbus refers to the fact that he witnessed three mermaids swimming in the sea.  Indeed, on the basis of available science, this was the widespread and accepted scientific belief for much of our history until recent times.  Slifkin writes, “[T]he medieval belief in mermaids is not something to look down upon.  Based upon the reports that abounded, and what was known about natural history at the time, it is only to be expected” (Slifkin, 101).

In writing about the existence of mermaids, Rashi was merely basing himself off the best available knowledge of his time.  
Imagine if we can even be so fortunate that anything we write today will still be studied and looked at 1000 years from now. So let’s cut Rashi some slack here.  Rashi was born in 1040 and he wrote volumes upon volumes of brilliant teachings.  Some of the things—a very, very small minority--he wrote now strike us as off.  

There will be plenty of things, which I now believe with certainty to be absolutely true, that years from now will strike our descendants as absolutely ridiculous and absurd! The ridiculous thing is not that Rashi and many other medieval rabbis believed in mermaids but that we might have the audacity to believe that we also don’t hold our own ideas ands scientific facts, which our own descendants will not also consider equally ridiculous.  We just don’t yet know–and in our lifetimes we may never know--what those ideas are.

There is a deep spiritual message in the fact that Rashi teaches that mermaids exist. 

The deeper teaching is that today—in the present moment--we can be so certain of our own ideas but when measured against the arc of history, before too long, some of our most certain ideas will not only be discredited but also ridiculed.

This fundamental message relates to the central teaching of acharon shel pesach, the final day of the holiday of Pesach.  

The eighth day of Pesach has long been associated with a day to think about the mashiach—the arrival of the messiah.  

Our reading for the Haftorah comes from the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, and it is an eschatological passage focusing on the coming redemption and a new world order.

Od hayom be nov yaamod.  Ve-gar zeev im keves. And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them (11:6). 

In light of the 8th day’s focus on the mashiach, the founder of chassidus, the Baal Shem Tov, instituted a special festive meal—called a mashiach feast--to be eaten on the afternoon of the last day of Peach. The first day of Pesach focuses on the past redemption, the exodus from Egypt, but as Pesach ends we focus on our dreams and hopes for a future redemption.   The eighth day of Pesach is our movement as a community from the redemption of Moses to the ultimate communal redemption.

Chabad chassidus elevated this mashiach meal and gave it even more prominence.  The fifth rebbe taught his chasidim to drink four cups of wine at this meal, just like we do at our Seder on the first days.

In my own family we also celebrate this meal by eating gebrokts on the eighth day and praying for the future messiah.

But let’s be real.

Messianism and talk of messianism scares a lot of people, including me.  

All of my life I have admired a great deal of Chabad’s platform, but even as a young boy I remember being concerned about Chabad’s hyper focus on messianism.

In his book, The Rebbe, Joseph Telushkin tells a story that encapsulates this feeling of uneasiness.  The Rebbe once visited Chabad’s Camp Gan Israel in the Catskills.  A few days later, Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik visited his son who was a camper there.  He asked his son, what did the Rebbe speak about?  His son said that he spoke about belief in the imminent arrival of the mashiach.  Rabbi Soloveitchik said, “But all Jews believe that.”  His son replied, “But he really means it” (The Rebbe, 434).  

We get queasy when we hear talk of the mashiach, because messianism often is associated with zealotry.  Messianic movements are sometimes extremely dangerous.  They are also often very impatient and have the word—“now” –associated with their slogans.  When their immediate dreams are not realized the consequences for the followers of that movement are sometimes devastating.

Messianism is often a movement in which its devotees are certain of the correctness of their position.  The deep certainty in their beliefs leads to a passion and energy and desire to change the world.  Only people with such great certainty in their beliefs can willingly make enormous sacrifices and dedicate themselves with such fervor to their cause.

And yet, at its core, the reality of messianism in Jewish thought is that it actually represents something entirely different.

Messianism in Jewish thought should not be associated or defined by the certainty of one’s beliefs, but just the opposite, by uncertainty!

Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars, lays out a systematic code of laws regarding the mashiach.

What jumps out at me from his code is the uncertainty associated with the arrival of the messiah.  

Here are three examples:

Rambam writes:

1) “R. Akiva, one of the wisest sages of the Mishnah…said that Bar Kochba was the King Messiah.  He and all the sages his generation thought that he was the King Messiah until he was killed….  Since he was killed they then understood that he was not the one” (11:3).   

We see from here that even the great, R. Akiva, was wrong in his messianic beliefs and predictions.  If he could be wrong then of course we can also be wrong and we should not be certain in our beliefs.

2) Regarding the verse from our Haftorah which discusses a wolf living with a lamb, Rambam writes that these verses are not meant to be understood literally and are parables.  “In the days of the King Messiah everyone will understand these parables and to what these matters were compared and to what was hinted” (12:1).

The upshot of this statement from Maimonides is that today we cannot understand what these parables are.  Meaning we cannot claim to know what the Messiah will look like or anything about the messianic period.

3) Rambam writes explicitly: “Ve-khol elu hadevarim ve-kayotzei bahen lo yeidah adam eikh yehiyu ad sheyehiyu, and regarding ALL of these matters no one how it will be until it will be” (12:2).  This strikes me as Rambam arguing that the only certainty we can have about the messianic period is that our knowledge of what will come to be is uncertain.

Thus, at the core of our messianic faith is the principle of uncertainty.  Many religions profess a set of core beliefs that one must maintain with certainty.  But our core messianic belief is shrouded with uncertainty.

What if we took that uncertainty and said that “messianic uncertainty” itself is our core belief.

No one has elevated the central concept of messianism in contemporary Judaism as much as Chabad, especially before the Rebbe’s death.

But the Rebbe himself once told the following story regarding the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad chassidus.  The Alter Rebbe was asked if the mashiach would be a chasid or a non-chasid.  The Alter Rebbe responded that the mashiach would not be a chasid.  Because if the mashiach was a chasid then only the chasidim would accept him, but if it was a non-chasid then also the non-chasidim would accept him (cited in Telushkin, 433).

I interpret this story to mean that the Alter Rebbe is saying that the mashiach can only come if we each imagine that the mashiach will not look like we ourselves look.  We all think that we are living our life in the correct manner.  But the mashiach can only come if we recognize that there is a possibility that the way the other person lives is equally correct or, even more correct.

Can you imagine if everyone in the world believed that the mashiach could look like someone else?  If we all believed that then the mashiach would surely be here.

The essence of the mashiach then is the belief that we cannot be certain that we are correct and that we must leave space for the opinion of others.  Mashiach means that we will have a kingdom of peace.  And a kingdom of peace will only arrive when we remove certainty from our theological creeds.

R. Akiva was certain that Bar Kochba was the mashiach.  But of course he was wrong.  R. Akiva’s students died during the period of the Omer because they did not treat each other with respect (lo nahagu kavod zeh lazeh).  Where does that arrogant behavior come from?  From a lack of uncertainty about one’s own theological beliefs.  

So maybe mermaids do exist?  I don’t really believe that.  But I do believe that some theological truths that I am certain about today—as certain that mermaids don’t exist—will one day be ridiculed.  And the more we allow such uncertainty into our lives and into our world, the more likely we are to undo the sin of R. Akiva’s students.

Sun, May 31 2020 8 Sivan 5780