Did you ever hear the one about the chicken called Mike who can help answer a difficult problem in the Talmud?
It begins with fish. The Torah tells us that for a fish to be kosher, it must possess both fins and scales. The Talmud notes that every fish that has scales also has fins. (The Talmud asks the obvious question – if so, why does the Torah need to tell us the requirement of fins? Unfortunately the answer to this question is too complex for this essay.) Thus, if one sees a piece of fish that has scales, one can be sure that the fish also possessed fins and one may eat it.
But in the seventeenth century, a problem arose. Rabbi Yom Tov Lippmann Heller wrote that he had been presented with a creature called Stincus marinus that possessed scales but lacked fins. But the Talmud stated that every fish which possesses scales also has fins!
The Stincus caused an uproar. Various solutions were proposed, such as that it must have had fins at some point in its life, that it wasn’t classified as a fish, that it was a hybrid creature produced after the Talmud’s rule was created, and so on. All of these solutions involved their own difficulties and were rejected by others.
Rabbi Yonasan Eybeschitz and Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (in HaKesav VeHaKabbalah), however, proposed a simple explanation. But it proved quite hard for many people to digest. So let’s turn to Mike for some help (and I would like to express my appreciation to my wife for thinking of this!).
The Talmud discusses the concept that some actions will undoubtedly result in certain effects. To give a modern example, it is forbidden to run hot water from the faucet on Shabbos, because this will necessarily result in more water entering the boiler and being heated. There are cases where, without exception, actions will have certain consequences.
We would describe such cases as a “foregone conclusion” or a “dead certainty.” But the Talmud uses a different metaphor – that of cutting off the head of a living creature. It is inevitable that the creature will die. So, when the Talmud wishes to convey the idea of a certain action being absolutely certain to have a certain effect, it describes it with the rhetorical question Pesik Raisha Velo Yamus – “Can you cut off its head without it dying?!”
Well, the answer is actually yes. Mike, born in Colorado in 1945, grew up as just your ordinary, average, everyday chicken. But when his owner chopped off his head with an ax one night, Mike did something extraordinary. He didn’t die.
This isn’t an urban legend. You can read about Mike, and see pictures, at http://www.miketheheadlesschicken.org. Mike’s owner fed him by dropping food into his neck, and Mike grew from 2 ½ to nearly 8 lbs and lived for another eighteen months.
But what about the Talmudic principle? Isn’t it a dead certainty that when you cut off a creature’s head, it dies? Yes it is – 99.99% of the time. Mike is the paradigmatic exception that proves the rule. If there were a significant minority of such cases, Mike wouldn’t have his own website, a mention in the Guinness Book of Records, and an annual festival in his home town. But there isn’t a significant minority – just an exceedingly rare exception. The very principle that certain things are absolute is itself not absolute.
This is the explanation that Rabbi Eybeschutz gives for the Talmud’s rule that all fish possessing scales also have fins: “It seems that this is with the majority of fish. For with everything – and especially with the nature of creatures – it always follows the majority. With all creatures there are many things that are exceptions from the usual nature, as the naturalists have attested regarding the nature of animals. But the Torah and mitzvos all implement the principle of following the majority, and the majority of those that possess a scale, have a fin.” There are 20,000 species of fishes, and the singular exception of the Stincus marinus is not a problem.
As it turns out, the Stincus marinus was not a problem for an entirely different reason; it is not actually an aquatic creature at all, but rather a sand-dwelling skink. And even before this was known, there were those who rejected Rabbi Eybeschutz’s explanation. But they did so for various reasons that were specific to this case; they did not disagree with the basic concept that seemingly absolute statements in the Talmud can have minor exceptions.
What’s the moral of the story? That we should be exceedingly careful in analyzing the Talmud. Living two thousand years after it was written, we approach it with a host of presumptions that may not be accurate. When the Talmud says “Everything,” it might not mean what “everything” means in English today. Sometimes, dead certainties don’t die.
Incidentally, one of the distinguished rabbis who was most vocal in opposing my books as heresy, was asked his opinion about this essay, and stated that my analysis was entirely kosher. He considered it a given that psik raisha does not mean 100% of the time.
Back to main page