Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Zoo Rabbi, Rabbi Slifkin has a New Blog!!


I don't usually put any mention, specifically, about any blog--but this is a very special blog run by an amazing scholar, rabbi, human being.

The "Zoo Rabbi," Rabbi Slifkin, now has a blog up at:

He writes about the animal kingdom and its relationship to the Torah and Jewish tradition. There is probably no one more apt to discuss this nexus than Rabbi Slifkin. He has dared combine real science and Torah scholarship, as our great sages have done in the past (See Maimonidies!!), but the superstitious backward black-coated hoard has seen him as a threat to their weirdo view of Torah, and have tried to ban his books.

Like a true gentleman and the great rabbi that he is, he has continued to work diligently at what he does best and has ignored them.

Here is an example of his wonderful work:

Killer Quails

The Torah tells us that after the quails arrived, God smote the Jewish

"The meat was still between their teeth, not yet finished, and the anger of
God was kindled amongst the people, and God smote the people with a very
great blow. And he called that place by the name of 'The Graves of Craving,'
for there they buried the people that craved." (Numbers 11:33-34)

We are told that God struck the people with "a very great blow" - but what was the nature of this blow? Was it bolts of lightning sent down from above? It could indeed have been a miracle. But as we saw in the previous essay, Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya explain that the sending of the quail was not a miraculous event. Perhaps the same holds true for the killing of the people that resulted from their demand for quail.

According to Ibn Ezra and Rabbeinu Bechaya, God inflicted "dever" - pestilence (an epidemic disease). Their source for this information is unclear. But Abarbanel, along with many of those who have studied the natural history of the Torah, gives a different explanation - that the people died due to the known toxicity that sometimes exists with quail.

There is a highly mysterious and unique illness that sometimes occurs after eating quail. It is not known to exist with any other bird, and it is therefore named coturnism, after the Latin name for the common quail, coturnix. Coturnism is a severe type of rhabdomyolysis, which involves violent muscle pain, paralysis (including respiratory paralysis), and renal failure, occasionally resulting in death.

It has long been accepted that coturnism results from poisonous seeds that quails eat,[1] although the identity of these seeds has widely disputed.

Rambam describes the connection between the consumption of quail and human disease, writing that "many people who indulge greatly in eating quail develop cramps in the muscles because of the hellebore, which is the nourishment of the quail."

Many connected the illness to hemlock seeds, but this was disproved by recent research. In the words of Professor Laurence Grivetti, probably the greatest expert on this malady: "Despite several numerous accounts from Classical Greece and Rome, Medieval Jewish and Muslim writers, and 20th century scientists, who sought to explain the intoxications, coturnism continues to qualify as one of the longest unexplained diseases in medical history."[2]

Could it be that the "great blow" with which God struck the Jewish People when they consumed quail was coturnism, as Abarbanel writes? There do seem to be several disparities between the between the plague described in the Torah and known cases of coturnism.

One difficulty often raised is that coturnism begins to take effect one to ten hours after consumption of the meat, with the known fatalities only occurring after several days. The Torah's account, on the other hand, states that "the meat was still between their teeth, not yet finished," when God struck down the people. The Talmud notes that this means that at least some of the people died immediately:

"It states, 'The meat was still between their teeth [when they were stuck down] - and it also writes, '[they shall eat meat] until a month of days' - how can this be? The average ones died immediately, while the wicked ones suffered progressively until a month of days." (Talmud, Yoma 75b)

However, Seforno explains that the Torah is using a metaphor, much like the earlier statement of God that He would provide meat for the people until "it would be coming out of their nose." The phrase "the meat was still between their teeth," says Seforno, simply means that they were still in the month of consuming it, and were not yet tired of it. Likewise, the phrase "not yet finished" does not mean that they had not yet finished swallowing the meat (as most commentaries explain it), but rather that the month of quail supplies was not yet over.

A more serious difficulty with positing coturnism as being "the great blow" is that of the hundreds of known cases of coturnism, only a handful were fatal, and these only in the case of elderly and frail people. The plague described in Scripture, on the other hand, killed "the fattest of them, and struck down the young men of Israel" (Psalms 78:31). Still, research indicates that coturnism is more severe when the victims were exerting themselves before eating, leading some to suggest that the exertions by the
greediest people to collect as many quails as possible would have led to more severe cases of coturnism.[3]

A third difficulty is that coturnism is a curiously limited phenomenon. With quails flying on the western migratory route, it only occurs with birds caught along the northern (spring) migration, while with quails flying on the eastern migratory route, it only occurs with birds caught along the southern (autumnal) migration. The quails in the Torah account, however, do not fit into either of these categories. They were traveling on the spring migration, since the Torah describes the event as occurring in the month of Iyyar, and it was in the eastern route, which passes over the Sinai and
Negev deserts. These birds should therefore not have been poisonous. The only solution to this difficulty would be if the quails somehow changed from their known behavior and ate the poison-causing seeds at a different time of year. As Professor Grivetti writes, "How and why migratory quail become toxic at different seasons of the year at discontinuous geographical regions of the Old World remains poorly understood."[4]


[1] Aristotle, On Plants, 820:6-7; Pliny, Natural History, 10:23.
[2] For more information about coturnism, see Kennedy, B.W. and L.E.
Grivetti, 1980. Toxic quail: a cultural-ecological investigation of
coturnism. Ecology of Food Nutrition 9: 15-42; Grivetti, L.E. 1982.
Coturnism: Poisoning by European Migratory Quail. pp. 51-58 in Adverse
Effects of Foods. Edited by E.F. Patrice Jelliffe and D.B. Jelliffe. New
York, New York: Plenum; Lewis, D.C., E.,S. Metallinos-Katsaras, and L.E.
Grivetti. 1987. Coturnism: Human Poisoning by European Migratory Quail.
Journal of Cultural Geography. 7:51-65; J.S. Papanikolaou, S.P. Dourakis,
V.C. Papadimitropoulos, E. Tzemanakis, N. Kittou, S.J. Hadziyannis Acute
rhabdomyolysis following quail consumption, Annals of Saudi Medicine, Vol
21, Nos 3-4, 2001, pp. 219-220; Aparicio R, Onate JM, Arizcun A, Alvarez T,
Alba A, Cuende JI, Miro M., Epidemic rhabdomyolysis due to the eating of
quail. A clinical, epidemiological and experimental study Med Clin (Barc).
1999 Feb 6;112(4):143-6.
[3] GW Rutecki, AJ Ognibene, JD Geib, Rhabdomyolysis in antiquity: From
ancient descriptions to scientific explanations, Pharos Spring 1998; 61 (2):
[4] L. Grivetti, Reading 14: Toxic Grouse,

(c) Copyright by Rabbi Natan Slifkin 2008, All rights
reserved. This essay may be further distributed free of charge, provided
that the header and footer information is preserved intact.

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