1) THE HALF-MOUSE
OPINIONS: The Gemara relates that a certain heretic challenged Rebbi Ami about the possibility of Techiyas ha'Mesim. He argued that it is not possible for a decomposed body, which turns into earth, to rise again as a living body. One of Rebbi Ami's proofs for Techiyas ha'Mesim was the fact that there is a rodent that lives in the valley "that today is half-flesh and half-earth, and tomorrow it becomes completely flesh."
This creature is mentioned elsewhere in the Gemara in a different context. The Mishnah in Chulin (126b) mentions a mouse "which is half-flesh and half-earth; one who touches the flesh part is Tamei, and one who touches the earth part is Tahor."
According to modern scientific knowledge of the biological world, all living things come about through propagation and regeneration. However, in the times of the Chachamim, it was accepted common knowledge that many creatures are formed from inanimate objects. The Gemara in Shabbos (107b) permits killing on Shabbos a louse that is produced from sweat spontaneously (see TOSFOS to Shabbos 12a). The SHULCHAN ARUCH (YD 84:15) prohibits eating birds that grow on trees because of the Isur of Sheretz. It was also commonly believed that flies are produced from rotting meat. (It was only towards the end of the seventeenth century (CE) that experiments by Francesco Redi and Louis Pasteur proved that substances that were protected from the air did not produce insects.) The reason why Rebbi Ami proves his point from the rodent is that the rodent arises not from a living organism, but from dirt, like the dead who will come to life.
Is there any evidence today to support the existence of rodents that are formed from the earth?
(a) The RAMBAM seems to confirm the existence of such a creature. In Perush ha'Mishnayos (Chulin, ibid.) he writes, "This is a well-known matter; there is no end to the number of people who have told me that they have seen it. Such a thing is indeed astonishing, and I have no explanation for it."
The TIFERES YISRAEL (Bo'az, Chulin 9:6) also defends the existence of such a creature. He writes, "I have heard heretics mocking with regard to the creature that is discussed here and in Sanhedrin 91a, and denying it, saying that there is no such thing at all. Therefore, I have seen fit to mention here that which I found written in a Western European work compiled by a scholar renowned among the scholars of the world. His name is Link, and the book is titled 'Auervelt.' In volume I, page 327, he writes that such a creature was found in Egypt in the district of Thebes, and in the Egyptian language that rodent is called 'dipus jaculus;' and in German it is called 'springmaus.' Its forequarters -- head, chest, and hands -- are perfectly formed, but its hindquarters are still embedded in the earth, until after several days when it fully changes to flesh. And I say, 'How great are Your works, Hash-m!'"
(The "springmaus" is the jerboa. The jerboa belongs to a family of rodents that have very small forelegs (which they hold against their bodies) and long back legs for jumping and digging burrows in which they sleep. This is the dipus jaculus mentioned by Link.)
(b) Rav Aryeh Carmell suggests that the creature referred to is simply a mole. A dead mole, with clods of earth attached to its body, would appear to have grown from the ground. Alternatively, as it emerges from the earth, people could mistakenly believe that it is growing from the earth. (However, the people in the time of the Gemara seem to have been familiar with moles and burrowing creatures, and thus people would not have been mistaken about the nature of such a creature; see Moed Katan 6b.)
Similarly, perhaps the Gemara refers to the existence of certain species of small amphibians and rodents that burrow in the mud and entomb themselves in a cocoon of solidified mud during the dry season. Entombed, the creatures' bodily functions nearly cease and they remain entirely motionless until the first rain, at which point they shed their cocoon. A creature photographed in such a state unquestionably appears as a clod of earth, and while leaving its cocoon it certainly looks as though it is half-earth and half-creature. One such animal is the burrowing frog, which lives in arid regions and deserts. At the start of a long dry spell, when the pools from the last rainstorms are in the last stages of evaporation, the frog buries itself up to twelve inches deep in the mud. There it settles into a state of suspended animation, with its breathing and heartbeat slowing to a rate just sufficient to keep it alive. After about two weeks, the outer layers of the frog's skin detach and bond into a membrane that is fully waterproof, apart from two tiny tubes to the frog's nostrils. The frog can survive in this state amidst desert drought for many years. Then, when the rainfall finally comes and turns the sand into mud, the frog breaks out if its bag and emerges upon the surface, appearing to have grown from the mud.
If this is indeed the case, such a creature is the prime proof for Techiyas ha'Mesim. It first entered a state of suspended animation that can be likened to death -- in fact, it might even be considered inanimate, according to Halachah, while in that state -- and then it was "revived" and "returned to life." Even if the Chachamim were aware of the true circumstances surrounding this creature, they would have cited it as a proof for Techiyas ha'Mesim, and discussed its status regarding Tum'ah and Taharah. (M. KORNFELD)
(c) RAV SAMSON RAPHAEL HIRSCH has an enlightening approach to the subject of how to understand statements like these in the Gemara in light of modern science. In his essay entitled, "Trusting the Torah's Sages" (a letter written in 1876 to Rav Pinchas M. E. Wechsler, published in 1976 in the Jerusalem journal Hama'ayan, Chapter 4), Rav Hirsch explains that the Chachamim were simply giving a ruling for a case that was presented to them. They did not take it upon themselves to verify whether or not such creatures existed.
The same is true with regard to the proof to Techiyas ha'Mesim that the Gemara here cites. The fact that the people who lived at the times of the Amora'im had no trouble accepting the fact that an animal can form from a clod of earth, served as a perfect way for the Amora'im to prove to their contemporaries that Techiyas ha'Mesim is not a stretch of the imagination.
2) THE VICTORIES OF GEVIHA BEN PESISA
QUESTION: The Gemara relates how Geviha ben Pesisa refuted the claims of the three nations that made demands from the Jewish people. The Bnei Afrikiya claimed that they were entitled to Eretz Yisrael, and Geviha refuted their claim. The Bnei Mitzrayim claimed that the Jewish people owed them money, and Geviha refuted their claim. The Bnei Yishmael demanded an equal portion of Eretz Yisrael, and Geviha refuted their claim.
The Gemara states that the Jewish people celebrated these victories on the twenty-fourth of Nisan, implying that all three claims came on the same day, one after the other. Indeed, this is this way these disputes are recorded in Megilas Ta'anis and in the Midrash (Bereishis Rabah 61). This is likely the reason why the VILNA GA'ON omits the words, "Pa'am Achas" ("another time"), from the narrative.
According to this Girsa, the wording implies that the Mitzrim came only after the Africans were refuted, and the Yishmaelim came only after the Mitzrim were refuted. Why did they not all come together at the same time?
ANSWER: The IYUN YAKOV explains that the Mitzrim did not submit their claim immediately because they knew that a loan cannot be collected from the heir of the borrower unless he inherited land from his father. The Mitzrim thought that the Jews had no land at the time of Yetzi'as Mitzrayim. Now that the Mitzrim saw that the Jews won the dispute against the Africans by showing that Kena'an was their slave and therefore they owned all of Eretz Kena'an from the time of Shem, the Mitzrim realized that the debt could be collected from that land! According to this explanation, the Mitzrim -- like the other two nations -- were making a claim for Eretz Yisrael.
The Bnei Yishmael did not submit their claim until they saw that the Mitzrim lost their case. They originally thought that they had no claim to Eretz Yisrael because Eretz Yisrael was given to Avraham Avinu's descendants only in return for "payment" -- his descendants had to serve as slaves and suffer affliction in a foreign land for four hundred years in order to receive the land. However, when they saw that the Jewish people received other compensation for their service in Mitzrayim (they were allowed to keep all of the money that they took), the Yishmaelim claimed that the right of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael is no stronger than their own right to it. Geviha refuted their claim by showing that their right to Eretz Yisrael was forfeited at the time that Avraham Avinu sent them away and gave them other gifts.
3) WHEN DOES THE YETZER HA'RA ENTER A PERSON?
QUESTION: Antoninus taught Rebbi that a person receives a Yetzer ha'Ra only upon exiting his mother's womb. His proof was that if a child has a Yetzer ha'Ra in the womb, he would kick his way out of the womb. Rebbi cited a verse to support this view.
How can this be reconciled with what RASHI writes in Parshas Toldos (Bereishis 25:22)? Rashi writes that when Rivka was pregnant with Yakov and Esav, she felt Yakov kicking to get out when she passed a Beis Midrash, and she felt Esav kicking to get out when she passed a house of idol-worship. Similarly, the Tanchuma (Parshas Ki Setzei) states that Esav, in his viciousness, destroyed his mother's womb as he exited. This implies that even before a child is born, he has a Yetzer ha'Ra!
A similar incident is recorded in the Gemara in Yoma (82b-83a), which tells about a pregnant woman who had a strong craving for food on Yom Kippur. Her craving could not be quelled, and so they fed her. The baby grew up to be a Rasha. The Chachamim said of him, "Zoru Resha'im me'Rachem" -- "The wicked are estranged from the womb" (Tehilim 58:4). This also implies that a person has a Yetzer ha'Ra even in the womb.
(a) The BE'ER SHEVA explains that since a child learns Torah in the womb, as the Gemara in Nidah (30a) teaches, it is evident that he has a Yetzer Tov. If he has a Yetzer Tov at that time, then he certainly should have a Yetzer ha'Ra as well. What, then, does the Gemara here mean?
The Gemara here means that there are two levels of activity of the Yetzer Tov and the Yetzer ha'Ra. At the first level, the Yetzer ha'Ra actively causes a person to do evil deeds. At the second level, the Yetzer ha'Ra causes a person to have evil thoughts. In the womb, the Yetzer Tov and Yetzer ha'Ra cause a person only to have good thoughts or evil thoughts. When the person exits the womb, he acquires the additional level of the Yetzer ha'Ra, which entices him to do evil deeds.
The MARGOLIYOS HA'YAM points out that the PISKEI TOSFOS in Nedarim (#62) does not seem to accept this approach. He infers from the Gemara in Nidah that in the womb a child has a Yetzer Tov, but when he is born the Yetzer ha'Ra comes and banishes the Yetzer Tov until the person matures and becomes wise, at which time the Yetzer Tov returns.
(b) The MAHARAL in GUR ARYEH (Bereishis 8:21, 25:22; see also 6:6) explains that sometimes a child does evil not because his Yetzer ha'Ra drives him to do it, but because that is his natural tendency. This is not related to the persuasion of the Yetzer ha'Ra. (A possible source for this might be the Gemara in Shabbos 156a, which discusses how children born at certain times have tendencies towards evil. See the Gemara there (156b), where the mother of Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak was told, before her child was born, that her child would have the qualities of a thief. He was saved from this destiny only because he kept his head covered at all times.)
Yakov and Esav in the womb of their mother, and the Rasha mentioned in Yoma, were following their natural tendencies and were not being driven by the Yetzer ha'Ra.
(c) The SEFER CHASIDIM (#1137) and RAV YAKOV EMDEN here explain that there are certain Resha'im Gemurim, absolutely wicked people, whose Neshamos come from a source of Tum'ah such that even the Neshamah is blemished. Rav Yakov Emden adds that these are not real Neshamos, since a real Neshamah has its source in the Kedushah and Taharah of Hash-m. The Sefer Chasidim explains that these are the 974 generations of souls that were uprooted from being created, as the Gemara mentions in Chagigah (end of 13b), from which the most brazen people of each generation derive.
Such Neshamos have evil tendencies even in the mother's womb. (According to the Tanchuma mentioned above, Esav did, in fact, "kick his way out" of his mother's womb, tearing his way out violently.) Antoninus' proof that a child does not have a Yetzer ha'Ra in the womb is from the majority of people, who do not tear their way out of the womb.