Getting to Know the Land and Animals of Israel

APRIL 9, 2021

Source: The Algemeiner


Last July, I visited the Biblical Museum of Natural History at its new state-of-the-art site on the outskirts of Beit Shemesh. At the time, Israel was still deep in coronavirus lockdown, so I had the museum all to myself as I embarked on a private tour led by the museum’s founder and devoted director, the indefatigable Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin — who, besides being a rabbi, is also a zoologist and an authority on all living things, particularly from the perspective of traditional Judaism and Jewish history.

Rabbi Slifkin has truly put together an emporium that will educate, enthrall, enchant, and enthuse visitors of all ages. Stuffed animals can be found cheek-by-jowl with their live counterparts in a carefully choreographed journey through the biogeography of ancient and modern Israel, showcasing a range of extinct and extant animals, both native and imported. And, of course, there is a section dedicated to animals, birds, and fish that are kosher, and those which are not. There is even a kosher insect — the locust — best eaten crunchy.

For example, did you know that a nesher is not an eagle, as assumed by such rabbinic greats as the medieval Provençal luminary R. Isaac ben Abba Mari (c.1122–c.1193; author of “Sefer Ha-Itur”), as well as by his 13th century colleague R. Hezekiah ben Manoah, author of the biblical commentary “Chizkuni.” They, along with countless other French and German rabbis who agreed with this misidentification, had never laid eyes on the Middle East-based griffon vulture, “a spectacular bird with a wingspan that can measure eight feet … the most magnificent bird of prey in Israel.” Understandably, they opted to identify the nesher as a comparable bird of prey that is native to Western Europe — the eagle — even though there are no eagles in the Land of Israel.

Here’s another one: the behemoth animal mentioned in the Book of Job (40:15) is not some mythical marauding beast, but is actually a hippopotamus. Rabbi Slifkin has countless proofs, which he presents enthusiastically and convincingly, before leading visitors into his Hall of Shofars, followed by the Hall of Small Animals, and then the Serpentarium. Suddenly, I found myself holding two ferocious looking lizards with a live python around my neck. But after two weeks in isolation, I thought to myself, any company is good company.

Indeed, these aspects of Eretz Yisrael are so important that the Torah includes them for us to study and get to know. And truthfully, there is no better place to get to know them than at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, and no better teacher to inform us of them than Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin.

Read the entire piece here.

Updated: Apr. 18, 2021