This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Going to the Ants*

News Item:

1998-9. DreamWorks' "Antz" and Disney-Pixar's "A Bug's Life," two animated features about the insect world, are among the most popular films and video releases of the year.

"Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise." Such was the exhortation of the wise King Solomon in the biblical book of Proverbs.

To judge from the shelves of the video shops, many of us have been following his advice, and have developed a sublime fascination with the personal lives of talking animated insects. The complex social structures of ants, gnats and beetles have fired up our imaginations, as we strive to visualize in human-like terms the workings of those miniature communities.

According to Jewish legend, Solomon himself mastered the ability of communicating with the beasts, to the extent that he appointed a special prince--appropriately, a lion-- to oversee the animal kingdom.

A medieval Hebrew work, evidently translated from an Arabic original, relates how one day, while travelling about on his flying carpet, Solomon overheard an ant calling to its fellows to hide themselves lest they be trampled by the Israelite armies. The king landed and angrily ordered that the impudent speaker be brought before him. The bug in question, who was in reality none other than the queen of the ants, explained that she had made her announcement out of fear that her subjects, in their eagerness to catch a peek at Solomon's hosts, be distracted from their more important duty of praising the Creator.

Impressed by her diplomacy, King Solomon asked the ant queen to answer a question for him. However, she refused to do so until he consented to pick her up in his hand and raise her to the level of his head. Only after he had done so was he allowed to pose the question "Is there anyone else in the world as great as I?"

The impertinent insect answered simply "Yes. I am."

When called upon to explain herself, she reminded him who it was that was carrying whom. The proud king flew into a rage until the clever ant succeeded in humbling him with reminders of his frail mortality.

Notwithstanding his alleged encounter with the Ant queen, Solomon had praised the ants in Proverbs for conducting their complex society in spite of their "having no guide, overseer, or ruler."

It was told of the second-century Rabbi Simeon ben Halafta, who had a reputation for seeking empirical verification of such claims, that he devised an experiment to examine the political regimes of ant-dom. According to the Talmud, Rabbi Simeon visited an ant-hole on a hot mid-summer day, when no self-respecting ant would show its face. He spread a cloak over the area, making it appear that it was night time. When the first ant emerged from the nest, Rabbi Simeon tagged it for subsequent identification. Mr. Ant then returned to the nest to report to his fellows that it was safe to venture outside since it was now shady. When the ants started coming up en masse, the rabbi removed the cloak, exposing them all to intolerable sunlight. So angry where they at the hapless scout that they fell upon him forthwith and lynched him.

From this instance of uncontrolled mob justice, Rabbi Simeon wished to deduce that ants do not have any ruler, confirming the statement in the Book of Proverbs. Other rabbis however found this proof less than convincing, since the evidence could be explained according to alternative hypotheses: perhaps, some suggested, the king might have been present in the mob; or there might have been a standing royal protocol for dealing with such cases; alternatively, the incident might have occurred during a temporary interregnum.

Some of the rabbis claimed intimate familiarity with the personal conversations of insects. Thus, Rav Pappa once cited a popular adage about how Mrs. Gnat held a grudge against her spouse for seven years, after he had taken a juicy bite from one of the plump citizens of Mahoza who had just come out from bathing--but had not invited her to the feast!

This domestic tragedy (which lends new meaning to the expression "seven-year itch") was also cited as evidence in a rabbinic scientific dispute, since it appeared to contradict the generally held hypothesis that a gnat's life-span is only one day. The proof was ultimately rejected by the sages, since the story might have been speaking in "gnat years."

All in all, these Talmudic vignettes about the inner workings of the insect kingdom are both instructive and entertaining. I hope that some of my enterprising readers, who are assuredly no sluggards, will appreciate their potential, and turn them into animated movies before Disney or DreamWorks beat them to the box office.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Ask Now of the Days that Are PastAsk Now of the Days that Are Past


University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressMay 27 1999, p. 10.

  • Bibliography:

    • Ginzberg, L. and B. Cohen (1968). The Legends of the Jews. Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society of America.
    • Jellinek, A. (1967). Ma'aseh bi-Shelomoh ha-Melekh. Beit ha-Midrash. A. Jellinek. Jerusalem, Wahrmann. 2: 86-7.