Mysterious Creatures

Intriguing Torah Enigmas of Natural and Unnatural History
Rabbi Natan Slifkin

Republished as: Sacred Monsters.

General Information

This book explores conflicts between the Talmud and science in the context of Torah mysteries of zoology. The Talmud and Midrash discuss a wide range of bizarre creatures, including mermaids, unicorns, griffins, dragons, sea-serpents and phoenixes, as well as strange biological concepts such as spontaneous generation. Mysterious Creatures discusses these cases in detail and brings a range of different approaches for understanding them. It is an essential book for any student or educator who has ever struggled with conflicts between the Talmud and science. Strikingly designed, and including extraordinary photographs and illustrations, this is a truly stimulating work.

"...The scholarly insights into modern scientific thought, and the discussions of different religious authorities in different ages, testify to the phenomenal painstaking academic research of the author."
—The Jewish Tribune (UK)

"References in Chazal to curious zoological phenomena are often more mystifying than the creatures themselves. Rabbi Slifkin's thorough scholarship, so well proven in his previous works, comes through once again. Even more important than providing answers to thorny questions surrounding the subjects of the book's title, this work helps the student plot a steady course through the sometimes churning waters of Chazal's science. How much did Chazal rely on the science of their day? When did they - and when did they not - mean to be taken literally? Rabbi Slifkin provides answers consistent with the spirit of our mesorah. By doing so, the profundity of the Torah of our Sages shines with even greater brilliance."
—Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein Author, Maharal: Be'er HaGolah (Artscroll)

Click here to download the rabbinic approbation from Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky

Hardcover/ 232 pages/ Retail Price $29.95/ Published 2003 by Targum Press/ Distributed by Yashar Books.

This book is now out of print. A revised and expanded edition has been published under the title Sacred Monsters.


Contents and Sample Chapter ↑ Back to top


Reviews ↑ Back to top

Review by Daniel M. Perez

Mysterious Creatures: Intriguing Torah Enigmas of Natural and Unnatural History

Throughout the Torah (though especially in the Book of Job) and rabbinic literature, there are various mentions of fantastic creatures of legend: phoenixes, mermaids, sea monsters and dragons. How do these mythological monsters fit into the Torah? Into our world? What can we learn from them?

Rabbi Slifkin is in top shape in this book, as he ponders these mysterious creatures using scientific methodology and Torah knowledge. What we get is a fascinating tour of obscure rabbinic knowledge, coupled with interesting elucidations on the Torah, and through research into the history of each of the creatures discussed. Rabbi Slifkin does not dismiss anything outright, earning my respect from page one.

Though the author does not believe any of the creatures to be real as presented in myth (with the notable exception of the salamander, which actually seems to have a natural ability to withstand fire, though it is not--obviously--born out of fire as ancient belief had it), he nonetheless examines the available evidence, drawing conclusions based on everything from medieval bestiaries to current scientific knowledge in order to figure out what kind of creature some of the myths are alluding to, or if they are purely symbolic in nature. Even for those which he draws a real-life parallel, Rabbi Slifkin uses to elucidate Torah knowledge, to explain why the creature was used in whatever context it was, and what we can learn from it. An exemplary intersection between religion and science, this book is a brilliant example of how science does not work against God, but rather helps humanity realize the grandeur of God.

The book is not without its faults, though to be fair, it is not that bad. The main problem I had with the book was the relative quickness with which Rabbi Slifkin reached some of his conclusions; it is not that I necessarily disagreed with the conclusion, just that I found the process of getting there too quick at times. The problem is that, in order to present a thorough and deep examination of each creature in order to reach a solid conclusion would take a book the size of Mysterious Creatures for each of the creatures studied. Still, for being the first (and only, possibly) book of its kind, Slifkin delivers a gem.

On a personal note, this book is a perfect example of why I love Judaism. Growing up as a Christian, asking too many questions was frowned upon, and asking questions about dragons and phoenixes and demons was pretty much right out! For a guy who loves fantasy, you can imagine this left me quite unsatisfied. In Judaism, questions not only need to be asked, they have to be asked. Mysterious Creatures is a book that seems to have been written for me, and is proof of the truth of the wisdom of the sages when they said to plumb the depths of Torah, for everything can be found there. I greatly recommend this book to all.


Updates and Corrections ↑ Back to top

Updates to the chapter "Of Sages and Scientists":

Additional sources have come to light supporting the sources already cited from Rav Sherira Gaon, Rambam and Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam concerning the Sages' knowledge of science:

Rambam writes:

It is one of the ancient beliefs, both among the philosophers and other people, that the motions of the spheres produced mighty and fearful sounds... This belief is also widespread in our nation. Thus our Sages describe the greatness of the sound produced by the sun in the daily circuit in its orbit. The same description could be given of all heavenly bodies. Aristotle, however, rejects this, and holds that they produce no sounds. You will find his opinion in the book The Heavens and the World (De Coelo). You must not find it strange that Aristotle differs here from the opinion of our Sages. The theory of the music of the spheres is connected with the theory of the motion of the stars in a fixed sphere, and our Sages have, in this astronomical question, abandoned their own theory in favour of the theory of others. Thus, it is distinctly stated, "The wise men of other nations have defeated the wise men of Israel." It is quite right that our Sages have abandoned their own theory: for speculative matters every one treats according to the results of his own study, and every one accepts that which appears to him established by proof.
(Guide for the Perplexed 2:8)

This approach, of stating that the Sages' knowledge of science was not Divinely inspired and was no superior to anyone else in that era, was endorsed in our generation by the late sage, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach z"l, as cited in a contemporary work:

I saw in the work Nishmas Avraham 14:4 that he brings the words of Rav Sherira Gaon and Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam (concerning the Sages' medical knowledge being no superior to that of ancient doctors), and rates this view as one of the reasons why we cannot use the medical cures brought in the Talmud; and the gaon Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach raised the point that it is appropriate to bring this view as "some say," but the main approach is with the other views. I asked Rav Shlomo Zalman who are those views that argue with Rav Sherira Gaon and Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam. He wrote to me as follows: "At the moment I do not remember if there is someone who actually argues, or even if there is anyone who is able to argue with them. But it could be that my intent was that since many have given the reason of nature having changed, and did not mention at all the aspect of improvements and increased knowledge in medical methods in our time, therefore I raised the point that it should be written as 'some say'..."
(Shemiras HaGuf VeHaNefesh p. 54)

Corrections to the chapter "Unicorns of Different Colors":

1. On p. 72, it states, "It must be said that there is a difficulty with identifying the re'em in Iyov as the oryx. It is debatable whether oryx are strong and wild enough to qualify for the description given there. Therefore, this source does seem to match the aurochs better than it does the oryx." However, the following information was recently received from Ilana Stein of Wilderness Safaris in South Africa: "I'm not sure about the Arabian oryx but the southern African oryx - the gemsbok as we call it down here - is noted for its extreme wildness. In fact, when studying game capture, the gemsbok is noted as one of the animals that is most difficult to capture - because it fights constantly against being closed up and if rubber hoses are not placed on the horns, it will ram its horns at everything and break them off easily... so Iyov's description there I think fits very well for this type of animal." However, it must also be considered that the description in Iyov of the absurdity of imagining the re'em to work on a farm supports its identification as an aurochs, which is superficially similar to an ox but untamable.

2. At the end of the chapter, a misleading impression was given that the tachash is to be identified as the giraffe. In accordance with the sources cited at the beginning of the chapter, it should have been emphasized that this is only suggested according to one of the views cited in the Talmud, that the tachash was a beautiful kosher beast with a single horn in the center of its forehead. As noted in the beginning of the chapter, other views exist concerning the identity of the tachash.

3. Regarding the keresh, it is suggested by L. Lewysohn in Die Zoologie Des Talmuds that it is the Arabian oryx. Although it possesses two horns, in earlier times it was thought to possess only one horn, as Aristotle writes. Furthermore, the etymological similarity between "oryx" and "keres" may support their being the same animal.


Reader Feedback↑ Back to top

Comments from readers will be posted here. To send a comment, write to zoorabbi@zootorah.com

Letter received July 2003:
Dear Rabbi Slifkin,

Hello. I am a yeshiva student in New York... I recently read your book Mysterious Creatures with great interest.
While studying Yoreh Deah this year, I was baffled by the Halachos of Drusah (Y.D. 57). Several times, Chazal state that the problem with Drusah is that the attacking animal has poison in its claws. This sounds as if Chazal believed that the claws of a predatory animal inject venom into their prey thus rendering it a Treifah.

This statement of Chazal presents us with quite a challenge. After all, taken at face value, this statement is clearly in conflict with modern day scientific knowledge. While a snake's bite can inject venom, our knowledge of the natural world tells us that an attacking animal's claws do not.

How are we to understand instances like this where a statement of Chazal conflicts with modern day scientific knowledge? Nearly everyone whom I discussed this issue with insisted that all we could say was - nishtaneh hateva (nature has changed). While I know that there are instances where that approach must be used, I could not believe that a more rational way to solve this problem existed.

I was so happy to have discovered your book wherein you clearly offer sources which show that other ways to deal with this matter do in fact exist, and are firmly grounded in Jewish tradition. I can not accurately describe to you how thrilled I was when you mentioned Rabbi Carmel's footnote in Michtav M'Eliyahu wherein he dealt with this very topic. Thank G-d, a rational route exists with which one can deal with scenarios where Chazal's statements are not in line with what we now know to be scientific fact.

To tell you the truth, before seeing your book, I had suggested a similar structure as Ray Dessler's in order to approach this problem. However, no one I communicated with was willing to grant that such an approach was even a valid option. After reading your book, and especially the piece from Rav Dessler, I felt a sense of vindication, as well as a sense of sadness that more people in a teaching position are not aware of the legitimacy of this approach. I find it most unfortunate that when struggling with this issue, students may often find themselves forced to fall back on nishtaneh hateva or to feel like some sort of heretic. I imagine that so many others' minds would be at ease if they only knew of this approach.

Thank you Rabbi Slifkin for publishing your book. I hope that I am but one of many whose minds your book will help put at ease...

Sincerely,
P.A.. New York

Letter received November 2003:
Dear Rabbi Slifkin,

My 10-year-old son is very bright and interested in all types of things - both this world and other-worldly. He reads science fiction and is constantly discussing and imagining all sorts of creatures. I was thrilled to buy your book about the sources for mystical creatures because it gave us the opportunity to bring sources in the Torah into his whole creative imaginings. It is so important for a boy like him to see that the things he is interested in are mentioned in the Torah and it can be relevant to him. The book is well written, well researched and beautifully illustrated. Thank you and please - if you can - write more about animals and the Torah! We are so grateful to you,

Family R.,
New York

P.S. He read the book at least three times!

Letter received 2004:
I just read Mysterious Creatures... I enjoyed every page. Being that my background had a more secular and science based thrust, the issues you raised (and dealt with) were particularly troubling to me. Your honest and intellectually consistent search for the amiso shel Torah is refreshing and badly needed in today's tumultuous times.

Rabbi Ben Geiger,
Pacific Jewish Center, California

Letter received January 27, 2004:
Hi Rabbi Slifkin,

Please allow me to introdue myself. I'm 24 and I have been religious for about 2 1/2 years or so. The thing is, I've been living with doubts for a long time. In fact, I have stopped to keep the mitvot except Shabbat and the rest of the 10 commandments. I've talked to rabbis here and gone to... seminars with nothing to show for it. ...I have a hard time trusting Chazal. And it was things regarding the sweat lice, etc. ... and if I am ever to say something... I am held up to contempt for questioning them. I have a very hard time communicated with anyone and expressing my ideas.

Anyways... a great thing happened... I found out that you wrote a book called Mysterious Creatures. So I ran that day and bought it and finished it... I was really amazed by the stuff in there. ...I'm writing this email to you to ask if you can help me find my way back to Torah. I want to thank you for writing that book.

HD,
Los Angeles

Letter received April 27, 2004:
Dear Rabbi Slifkin,

I am writing to you to say thank you. Being that I am trying to be a "Baal Tshuva," I have always had an inquisitive mind. As my Torah Learning grew, however, so did my doubts and questions... Reading two of your works, The Camel, The Hare, and The Hyrax and Mysterious Creatures, I found your research to be exhaustive, honest, and refreshing. I feel that addressing such issues head on, and taking the time to do extensive and honest research is the best and only approach to get a true answer to these questions. Seeing an Orthodox Rabbi willing to address these questions in the detailed manner which I am used to (being that I am an engineer), rather than an off-the-cuff answer, has given me new found inspiration in my relatively new Torah-Observant way of life. I cannot praise you enough for your work, as I have found it to be a major reason I have decided to continue this way of life. Thank you so much, and hatzlacha raba to you!

Sincerely,
Adir Levy
Los Angeles, CA

Letter received 17th October 2004:
Dear Rabbi Nosson Slifkin shlita,

I write to congratulate and thank you for your recent book "Mysterious Creatures", which has been a great help to me in trying to understand the occasional instances in which Chazal appear to be contradicting what we know about Nature. As a baal teshuva and a professional biologist, I would think I probably speak for many others like me who were brought up among non-Jews and schooled in the sciences, and are now finding our way back to Torah and mitzvos.

The problem is exactly as stated in your chapter on Sages and Scientists, that we sometimes get the impression that our Torah teachers are unable or afraid chas v'shalom to confront these difficulties. We are required instead to suspend our natural disbelief and trust implicitly that Chazal's knowledge of the natural world was perfect and literal. The first of these requirements is not too difficult for an honest scientist, since that is what science itself often requires of us. But the second is not so easy to believe and can probably (for us) be no stronger than a working hypothesis, albeit strengthened by the occasional cases when new research shows that they did indeed know better. I think you have summed up the various possible solutions honestly and admirably.

I can well believe that your work may not be entirely acceptable to Jews brought up in (or who have achieved) emunah shleimah. Such fortunate Jews have neither taste nor need for your approach. For those of us who are less fortunate, particularly for us professional scientists who spend our lives earnestly seeking to understand the ways of G-d in the workings of His universe, it can be quite trying to discover that we are generally despised by the Torah world to which we aspire. Honest answers to sincere questions are what we need. Your books provide those and a healing balm for the needless and harmful chasm between Torah and science.

Please feel free to show this letter to whomever you see fit. May Hashem grant you the strength and wisdom to continue your excellent work.

Yours sincerely,
Dovid L.J Freed MB, ChB, MD, CBiol, MIBiol
Manchester, UK

Letter received 28th October 2004:
Dear Rabbi Slifkin,

As a person who has studied their entire life in the daled amos shel halacha and can't tell you how much I gained from your works. When I read your book Nature's Song, it arouses my neshama with yiras shomayim the same way it does when I read the mussar works such as Shomer Emunim, which I am very attached to. Very few books inspired me in that way.

There were matters in hashkafa which had always been troubling me which I had no one to talk to about. Thanks to your sefer 'Mysterious Creatures' you brought to my attention the mekoros from Rishonim and Acharonim which explain matters in a light which was mechazak my emunas chachamim. It was specificly the approach of those Rishonim which I haven't been exposed to in yeshiva, which was helped being mechazak my emunah in a way I could accept.

With hakoras Hatov,
Eliezer Green

Letter received 10th December 2004: Dear Rabbi Slifkin,
It has been a few weeks, now, that I wanted to write this message to you. I have read three of your books ("Mysterious Creatures", the "Science of Torah", and "the Camel, the Hare and the Hyrax", respectively).

I discovered them when my Chavrusa, here at the Kollel of Geneva, Switzerland, where I live, showed me the sugya in Bekhoros 8a to prove to me that mermaids exist; I was having a very hard time to believe that "Dolfinin" can be other creatures than dolphins, but lacked any basis to argue on Rashiís and Tosafosí words. I searched the Web for discussions on the topic, and discovered your website. I acquired the 3 books I mentioned at my first passage in a bookstore with English books.

I found myself enjoying them immensely. Apart from the fact that they are very well written, and that you are obviously extremely proficient in both the Torah and the Science worlds, I value above all your open-mindedness in dealing with these issues.

Too often, unfortunately, I feel that the authors dealing with the vast topic of the relationship of Torah and Science try to avoid, more or less astutely, the questions they are not comfortable with. He is a rare theologian (or, for that matter, scientist) the one who will admit that his personal theory does not solve all problems. You never beg the question and are the first to admit when an issue remains open for discussion at the end of your analysis.

I wanted to thank you for providing us with such masterpieces.

Best regards,
Emmanuel Bloch, Switzerland