Monday, June 16, 2008

Rabbis Can Make Mistakes

...Or, The Rabbis Were Not Infallible

Many readers will realize that this post presents no new idea and should not challenge anything we believe. I wish this post were not necessary, but it seems we must constantly remind ourselves of the basics of the halachik process and the dangers of hero-worship.

And so, the Talmud (Chulin 57a) discusses defects and injuries that render an animal (in this case, bird) טרפה, and unfit for consumption.

During the discussion, Chizkiyah (the Amorah, not the king) posits that birds do not have lungs. The rabbis immediately say, but we see empirically that birds do, indeed, have lungs! (Interesting fact: bird's lungs are circulatory as opposed to the "bellows" lungs mammals have. Air is not brought in, stored, and expelled tidally, but continues through a maze of para-bronchi that allow the air to travel in one direction from the moment it is brought in, until expelled. Of course, there are animals without any lungs at all, like the lungless salamander.)

After clarifying that this, ideed is what Chizkiyah meant, and could not be reconciled reasonably with the facts, Rabbi Yose concludes that Chizkiyah was not knowledgeable about avian anatomy.

The important point here is that the rabbis challenge Chizkiyah not from study, verses, or masorah, but from anatomical evidence. The conclusion of Rabbi Yose is that Chizkiyah lacks secular knowledge, and this renders him incapable of ruling on avian defects and injuries.