By Orit Arfa/JNS.org
At the recent official opening of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh, Israel, Rabbi Natan Slifkin—also known as the “Zoo Rabbi”—unveiled a huge skull, asking Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul and leading local rabbis to guess which animal the skull belongs to.
Slifkin gave some clues. It was mentioned in the Book of Job as a “behema.” It lives in swamps and eats grass.
“For a long time, nobody knew how to identify it, so instead of translating it, it was just translated as ‘behemoth,’” explained Slifkin, the museum’s founder, on Feb. 23. “That is how the word ‘behemoth’ entered the English language, to refer to a monstrous animal. But we can identify it.”
The answer: a hippopotamus, an animal indigenous to the land of Israel.
“They were on the coast as far north as Zichron Yaakov, and one of our guides here has a hippo tusk that he found in the Kinneret,” Slifkin said.
The hippopotamus is just one example of an animal people associate more with African safaris than the land of Israel. During biblical times, the land was covered in dense forests, providing cover to a slew of creatures that these days Jews see only in zoos, the National Geographic channel, and Disney movies.
One of the goals of the new museum is to bring Jews back in touch with biblical wildlife, a subject ignored by the people of Israel as they were exiled from the land, evolving into the so-called “people of the book”—only to return to the land as “people of the start-up.” But the land of Israel, located at the nexus of Europe, Asia, and Africa, actually occupies a very special place from a zoogeographic perspective, according to Slifkin.
“It’s our connection to historical Israel,” Slifkin told JNS.org in his British accent, wearing one of his signature animal-themed ties. The rabbi made aliyah with his family 20 years ago from Manchester, England, to emerge as one of the foremost experts on biblical zoology. His other lifelong “pet project”—“The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom”—will be launched in time for Passover.
“Every nation, every culture, has animals that are part of that culture—animals that appear in its cultural texts and traditions,” said Slifkin. “For the Native Americans, it’s the buffalo and wolf. For the Aboriginals of Australia, it’s the kangaroo and emu. … The people of Israel have lions, leopards, bears, vultures, crocodiles, and hippos. These are not animals from the shtetls of Europe.”
But the animals that figure prominently in the Torah have largely been exiled or killed off, mostly due to deforestation and Roman-era hunting. The last bear in Israel was seen in Nahal Ammud, in the Galilee region, in 1917. Crocodiles lived in a place called “Nahal Taninim” (Crocodile Creek) until the early 20th century. Today, exactly four leopards walk the Negev desert.
Slifkin plans to put as many biblical animals as possible on interactive display at the museum, whether as live creatures in cages or taxidermy mounts. The taxidermied lion named “Simba” serves as the centerpiece, since the lion figures most prominently in biblical tales and allegories, with “Ethics of the Fathers” (Pirkei Avot) teaching, “Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven.” Samson is recorded to have encountered lions a few miles from the new museum.
The bird section makes for an interactive discussion on kosher fowl. Animal skulls are used to demonstrate how kosher animals chew their cud. The reptile section seeks to identify which reptiles make up the eight sheratzim (crawling animals) that the Book of Leviticus mentions as imparting impurity upon their death. When guiding a tour, Slifkin lets children pet and hold the friendly reptiles, including the pythons.
Slifkin, a religious Zionist, has been a controversial figure within the haredi community, which banned his books reconciling modern science—such as the theory of evolution—with Torah. But he intends for the museum to serve as a form of “animal therapy” for Jewish unity, and the first real tourist attraction in the largely religious city that the museum calls home.
“Beit Shemesh is a rapidly growing city with already 100,000 people, and we’re going to double in the next few years,” Slifkin said. “So, it’s short on cultural attractions. But it’s a unique institution. It’s biblical national history. It’s something that has tremendous appeal, but is little understood. And we see how people appreciate it when they come here and absolutely love it. No matter which stream they come from, whether it’s hasidic, dati (religious), secular, Jewish, and non-Jewish. Everyone just loves it.”
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