This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Siren's Song*

The sages of the Talmud rarely displayed an academic interest in science, unless it related directly to matters of religious law or Biblical interpretation. For example, some bizarre instances of genetic mutation are discussed by the rabbis only by virtue of their effects on the dietary laws or the sanctification of the firstborn.

I don't know whether such topics are more appropriate to a zoology textbook or to the National Enquirer, but the Talmud does embark on earnest discussions concerning the halakhic status of creatures who give birth to offspring of a different species, such as sheep begetting goats or cows begetting camels: Should they have the status of the mother of the species that they resemble?

It is in this connection that the rabbis digressed to some rudimentary classifications of various species, with a view to facilitating their recognition. The classifications are based on the ways in which the creatures mate, give birth and nourish their young.

The Talmud's zoological inventory includes a reference to dolphins, which it correctly describes as mammals, in that "they procreate by mating like humans."

Thanks to our modern dolphinariums and Public Television, any schoolchild can now be expected to have intimate familiarity with the habits of dolphins and other sea mammals. This, however, was not universally true in earlier times. The Babylonian sage Rav Judah felt obligated to explain the unusual word "dolphin" by noting that they are b'nai yama: "children of the sea."

It would appear that this explanation was not sufficient for all the subsequent commentators, and medieval exegetical literature supplied some surprising identifications of this mysterious "dolphin" creature.

A particularly noteworthy interpretation took root among European rabbinic scholars. The commentary compiled in eleventh-century Mayence by the disciples of the celebrated Rabbenu Gershom, elucidated that Rav Judah's "child of the sea" was more precisely a "man of the sea." A generation later, Rashi amplified this notion, writing that "there exist sea creatures that are half human and half fishlike in their form." For those who might have difficulty imagining such beings, Rashi provided the French translation: "sirène."

Reprinted from the Calgary Jewish Free Press

Now any aficionado of ancient literature will immediately realize that the Sirens of Greek mythology, sea nymphs whose seductive voices presented fatal dangers to ancient seafarers like Odysseus, Jason and Aeneas, were not mermaids, but rather human-bird hybrids. Nevertheless, it is clear that Rashi believed that the Talmud was referring to mermaids, a species whose existence was not questioned by medieval authorities.

As if that were not enough, Rashi introduces yet another bizarre wrinkle into our increasingly complex account of the dolphin-mermaid: Where most texts of the Talmud passage speak of the dolphins breeding "like humans," Rashi's version had it that they mated with humans and produced offspring!

Although Rashi claimed to know the word "Siren" from the French, he might have been aware that it makes an appearance in an ancient Hebrew midrashic compilation known as the Sifra. Commenting on the passage in Leviticus 11:10 that defines the kosher and non kosher sea creatures, concluding with the words ""and of any living being which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you," the author of the Sifra comments that the ostensibly superfluous expression "being" comes to include the Sirens within the scope of the Biblical prohibition.

In his commentary to the Sifra, the twelfth-century Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquières (the Ravad) identifies the Hebrew term with the French expression adduced by Rashi, and provides a more extensive description: "The upper half of her body has the form of a woman, and she sings like a human"

This last-mentioned detail was not mentioned in any of the Hebrew sources that were available to the Ravad, and it attests to his independent knowledge of their role in the Odyssey, where their song lured passing sailors onto the deadly rocks, a fate that would have brought disaster upon Odysseus and his crew had he not taken the precaution of plugging his men's ears and having himself bound to the ship's mast.

It would appear that these pious scholars were not above occasionally setting aside their talmudic tomes in order to enjoy some more fanciful fare about heroic voyages and legendary creatures that was so attractive to their contemporaries. Indeed, so enticing are those tales that we can readily appreciate how difficult it was for Rashi and the Ravad to resist the Sirens' song.

This article and many others are now included in the book

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University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressAugust 26 1999, p. 10.

  • Bibliography:

    • Feliks, Yehuda. Kil'e zeraim ve-harkavah : masekhet Kilayim : Mishnah, Tosefta ve-Yerushalmi le-perakim I-II : berur ha-sugiyot ve-rikan ha-botani-haklai be-livyat 188 temunot ve-sirtutim. Vol. 2. Tel Aviv: Devir, 1967.
    • Ginzberg, Louis. Al halakhah ve-agadah : mehkar u-masah. Tel-Aviv: Devir, 1960.
    • Ginzberg, Louis, and Boaz Cohen. The Legends of the Jews. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1968.
    • Kohut, Alexander, and Nathan ben Jehiel. Plenus aruch, Targum - Talmudico - Midrasch, verbale et reale lexicon. Vienna,: Brög, 1878.
    • Twersky, Isadore. Rabad of Posquières, a Twelfth-Century Talmudist, Harvard Semitic series, v. 18. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962.