This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Incredible Plant-Man*

"For the Tree of the Field is man..."

There exists a longstanding disagreement among the Jewish commentators about how precisely to read the words of Deuteronomy 20:19--as an assertion that "the tree of the field is essential to human life" or as a rhetorical question: "Is the tree of the field a man?!" Whichever reading we prefer, it seems clear that the Torah did not intend to literally equate human beings with trees or any other plants. Jewish literature does however contain references to a creature who is half-man and half-plant.

The Mishnah tractate Kila'im, which elaborates upon the biblical prohibitions against cross-breeding and hybridization, deals in meticulous detail with the botanical and zoological classifications of several species. In the course of its discussions it makes mention of a creature of doubtful classification, which it calls "adnei hasadeh" (probably to be translated as "men of the field"). The question discussed in that passage is whether such a creature is to be regarded as human or animal, or as a bit of both.

Commentators, traditional and modern, have been puzzled about what sort of creature could be referred to. The less imaginative authorities posit that the Mishnah is referring to some sort of ape or gorilla. The context seems to imply something more along the lines of a "missing link" --maybe a talmudic incarnation of Bigfoot.

The Palestinian Talmud offers the following enigmatic explanation of the term "`adnei hasadeh":

It is the "Man of the Mountain," and it lives from its navel. If it is cut at the navel it dies.

The standard commentators understand that the Talmud was referring to a sort of plant-man who was joined to the earth by his umbilical cord. Such beliefs were widely held in ancient and medieval times.

The medieval French commentator Rabbi Samson of Sens (12th-13th centuries) relates the following tradition.

I have heard in the name of Rabbi Meir ben Kalonymos of Speyer that it is an animal known as the Yadua. Its bones are used in magic and it has a kind of large rope that extends from a root fastened in the earth. From this it grows like a cucumber or a pumpkin, except that its face, body, arms and legs have human form. It is attached from its navel to a cord that emerges from the root, and no creature can approach within the radius of that cord lest the creature attack them. It constantly looks around and observes anyone who attempts to come within range of the cord to hunt it, so that no one may come near it. Instead, they must lure if away from the cord until it snaps, at which point it immediately dies.

This explanation was circulated in many subsequent commentaries though not all authorities were pleased with it. For one thing, the Mishnah seemed to be referring quite explicitly to an animal-man, not a plant-man. Maimonides for example, basing himself on popular books about the "wonders of the world" (the medieval equivalent of National Geographic television specials), suggests that the `adnei hasadeh were human-like creatures that were known to emit human-like but indecipherable sounds.

The belief in the existence of animals that grow from plants was widespread in earlier generations. Medieval rabbinic literature knows of a persistent dispute among rabbinic authorities over the kosher status of a "bird that grows on trees." In accordance with the prevailing view of the time, a certain species of fowl (the "barnacle goose") was believed to grow either from barnacle shells attached to wood planks, or like a fruit attached (at the beak) from the branches of trees. Leading rabbis held differing views as to whether such creatures were to be treated as meat, fruit or shellfish. Church authorities at the time were debating with equal vehemence whether the creatures were permitted during Lent. The Shulhan Arukh, by the way, rules that they are a species of fruit, and do not require shehitah.

A fascinating discussion of the Adnei hasadeh question is contained in the commentary Tiferet Israel by the nineteenth-century scholar Rabbi Israel Lifschutz which is printed in standard editions of the Mishnah. Rabbi Lifschutz cites the plant-man tradition of Rabbi Samson of Sens but is reluctant to accept it. The problem is not, he emphasizes, because such a being is unknown to naturalists, "for there are found beneath the earth the bones of many creatures that are now extinct, such as the mammoth and others, which may have been killed off because they were too dangerous." Rabbi Lifschutz refers in several places in his commentary to the latest discoveries of paleontology and archaeology and argues that such revelations confirm the midrashic tradition which speaks of God creating and destroying many worlds before finally settling on our own.

Lifschutz's rejection of the plant-man tradition stems from another difficulty: Such a being, he argues, would violate the economic logic of nature. God does not endow his creatures with superfluous limbs or organs. If the plant-man draws all its nourishment from the soil, then it should not be born with mouth, arms or legs. In any case, says the Tiferet Israel, the passage in the Palestinian Talmud that is understood to refer to a plant-man need not necessarily be construed that way.

Rabbi Lifschutz presents his own alternative identification: The reference, he says, is to the orangutan. In size and shape, the orangutan bears a strong resemblance to a human, and can be trained to hew wood and draw water, to wear clothing and to sit at a table and eat with cutlery. (One gets the impression that the rabbi may have seen some performing in a circus.) And though in our time, he continues, they are found only in the jungles of central Africa, it is entirely conceivable that in talmudic times they also inhabited the cedar forests of Lebanon and Israel.

As in other places in his commentary, the Tiferet Israel presents a dazzling combination of traditional Jewish scholarship and lively fascination with the scientific wonders of the world around him.

By the way, Rashi, the foremost Jewish commentators, makes a brief allusion to the Adnei hasadeh in his commentary to Job (5:23), where the phrase "avnei hasadeh" ("stones of the field") appears. Rashi claims that the expression is identical to the Mishnah's "adnei hasadeh" and refers to a "kind of human," as distinct from actual beasts of the field mentioned separately in the verse.

Louis Ginzberg, the distinguished twentieth-century authority on rabbinic literature, understood that Rashi was referring to werewolfs. Belief in werewolfs, vampires and other assorted monsters was common among the Jews of medieval Germany (as it was among their Christian neighbours) and several case studies may be culled from works such as the twelfth-century Sefer Hasidim (the Book of the Pious).


This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers


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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1]
First Publication: Jewish Free Press, Feb. 3 1994.

Bibliography:

  • L. Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, Philadelphia 1967.
  • Daniel Sperber, "Varia Midrashica," Revue des Etudes Juives 131 (1972).