Rabbi Nathan Slifkin fell in love with animals when he was 3 years old.
It is a passion he hasn’t outgrown.
“I used to endlessly read books about animals and have all kinds of exotic pets,” he said in a recent phone conversation from his home in Beit Shemesh, Israel.
Those pets included hamsters, gerbils, rabbits, guinea pigs, frogs, newts, salamanders, parrots — and more.
“My mother indulged me,” Rabbi Slifkin said. “She let me have everything except snakes and tarantulas. So I used to keep my snakes and tarantulas hidden away in the closet.”
Zookeeper didn’t seem a likely profession for a nice Orthodox Jewish boy growing up in Manchester, England. When Nathan was 10, his next door neighbor offered a suggestion: “When you grow up, you could write a book about animals in the Torah.”
At 40, Rabbi Slifkin has grown up. And he has just published the first volume in “The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom.” He will be in Teaneck and Bergenfield this week, celebrating the book’s publication.
But at least as satisfying for his inner 10 year old, he also has become a zookeeper. Last fall he opened the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh.
“The museum and the encyclopedia complement each other,” Rabbi Slifkin said. “The museum presents the animals in the flesh. The encyclopedia presents them in the written word, in a lot more detail.”
In the encyclopedia, he aims to include every animal mentioned in the Bible, and a few mentioned only in the Talmud. He discusses natural history (did you know leopards were common in Israel through the 19th century, and still were found in the Galilee in the 1960s?); the identification of which species the Tanach refers to; and all the discussions of the animal in the Talmud, midrash, and other traditional Jewish sources.
The text reflects his scholarly interests. When he studied for the rabbinate and became interested in Jewish education, “I looked into what the Torah had to say about animals, and saw a wealth of information.” Color pictures, though, guarantee that even his 3-year-old self would have enjoyed the encyclopedia.
The first volume — he expects three in all — focuses on wild animals: Lions and leopards and bears, and also gazelles and ibexes and monkeys and hippopotamuses. There are 26 animals in all.
Wait a second. Hippopotamuses — in the Bible?
“These were animals who lived in Israel. Crocodiles and hippos and cheetahs — you used to see them in Israel. Now you can only see them in Africa,” he said. (Rabbi Slifkin leads an annual trip to Africa to see the animals.)
Israel, he noted, “had Asian, African, and European animals, such as gazelles, hippos, and bears.”
You will not find live lions at Rabbi Slifkin’s museum, which combines live exhibits and taxidermy. He used to give tours at the Jerusalem zoo, “but I wanted something that would be more focused and hands-on and interactive.”
There is a stuffed lion. Elephants are represented by tusks. “The Bible says King Solomon received elephant tusks as gifts. They’re huge.” The live animals — about 30 different species — are smaller.
They include chameleons, geckos, birds, and hyraxes.
“Hyraxes are cousins of elephants that look like rabbits,” he said. That’s being charitable; some would say: that look like extremely unpleasant and disgruntled groundhogs.
Psalms 104:18 says: “The high hills are for the ibex; the rocks are a hiding place for the hyrax.” In the museum, there is a stuffed ibex mounted above a cage containing live hyraxes.
“They’re mentioned several times in the Tanach. Every native Israeli knows what it is,” Rabbi Slifkin said.
American Jews who have some elementary-school knowledge of Hebrew, though, will be misled by the verse. The Hebrew for hyrax is “shafan” — which is modern Hebrew, and in childhood songs, means rabbit.
“A lot of the identities of animals in the Bible got lost as a result of exile,” Rabbi Slifkin explained. “The animals of the Torah are of the Land of Israel. When Jews moved to Europe, they lost track. ‘Tzvi’ is really a gazelle. In Europe, they transferred the name to the deer. The Gemara says the horns of a ‘tzvi’ are not branched. The horns of deer are branched. Rashi explained that what he — living in France — called a tzvi is not really a tzvi. Similarly, a nesher is a vulture. In Europe, they switched the name to eagle.
“Likewise, they switched shafan to rabbit. That’s why a lot of Israelis use shafan for rabbit, and shafan sela — rock shafan — for the hyrax.”
The museum collection began in his house, recreating the well-known Jewish folktale. “My wife complained that our house was too small, so I brought in a stuffed cheetah and ibex and a hyena. And then I took them out and now the house is so big,” he said.
“We still have a few things at home: turtles and birds.”
“Being in Beit Shemesh, we cater to a very diverse population,” he said. “We have chasidic schools who come whose students can’t speak Hebrew, and need Yiddish speaking tour guides. We have Orthodox and secular people come.”
Unlike a typical zoo or museum, where visitors can wander at will, visits to the Biblical Museum are conducted by guides. Visitors have to make reservations in advance to ensure a guide who speaks their language (English, Hebrew, and Yiddish) will be available.
Rabbi Slifkin frequently leads the 90-minute English-language tours.
“It’s a lot of fun and extremely educational. We pull out a nine foot python and wrap it around peoples necks,” he said.
Is there a python in the Tanach?
It turns out the museum isn’t strict about which species it exhibits.
“There are several different snakes mentioned in the Tanach, but not actually pythons,” Rabbi Slifkin said. “We take the general category mentioned in the Torah, we don’t necessarily have the same species. The Torah mentions a gecko. Israeli geckos don’t do so well in captivity, so we have a different species.”
Rabbi Slifkin is proud to be presenting “a new dimension of Judaism. Judaism doesn’t only deal with the kitchen and the shul, but also cheetahs and crocodiles.”
But the museum does not address the topic that put Rabbi Slifkin in the center of an international firestorm a decade ago: evolution.
At the time, Rabbi Slifkin considered himself charedi. He had published four books with a charedi publisher. In one, he discussed evolution — and used Orthodox sources to defend the idea that the world is more than 6,000 years old. He had Orthodox rabbis who approved of his writing.
And then he received faxes from leading charedi rabbis in Israel and the United States, demanding he renounce his book. He refused, and wall posters went up in his neighborhood, accusing him of being a heretic. The rabbis leading the opposition to his work refused to speak to him or hear his side; most were incapable of reading his books, which were published in English.
Bookstores pulled his books. His publisher dropped him. He lost a teaching job.
In the end, the books were republished by a different Orthodox publisher 10 years ago,” he said. “I was in a very different state of life.
“I thought since I was essentially not saying anything new, just saying the views of renowned Torah authorities, nobody could say anything.
“I learned that there are radically different world views in Judaism. The rationalist worldview of Maimonides and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch are not accepted in large parts of the charedi world. In some parts they refuse to believe that respected rabbis could have said that, so they assume their rationalist statements are forgeries. Others admit that they said it, but that it is forbidden to teach it today,” he said.
Rabbi Slifkin is calm about it.
“Different strokes for different folks,” he said.
He doesn’t discuss these topics in the encyclopedia or the museum.
“I don’t want to get into a topic that’s going to alienate some people. It’s not relevant. I’m dealing with the animal world of the Torah, and dinosaurs are not part of the animal world of the Torah.
So how does he reconcile science with the Torah’s account of a six-day-long creation?
“Oof. On one foot? It’s a very complicated topic. That’s why I have a whole book on it.
“Very briefly, I follow the approach of Rabbi Hirsch,” the 19th century German Orthodox rabbi. Writing when the theory of evolution was new, Rabbi Hirsch “said that if it were proven true, it gives evidence of the creative wisdom of God, that God could create the laws of nature that developed the initial building blocks of matter into what we see today.
“In the same way that we daven about the weather but it doesn’t preclude the science of meteorology, and we daven to God to heal the sick but we have the science of medicine, it goes in the same way with the development of life.
“Hashem works through the laws of nature.”
Who What Where
Shabbat, August 1: Rabbi Nathan Slifkin will speak at the Bais Medrash of Bergenfield in the morning and afternoon. The synagogue is at 371 S. Prospect Ave., Bergenfield.
Sunday, August 2: Congregation Beth Aaron will host Rabbi Slifkin and his multimedia program, “The Animal Kingdom in Jewish Thought.” 10 a.m. 950 Queen Anne Road.
To reserve a tour at the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh, go to biblicalnaturalhistory.org. The museum is near the entrance of Beit Shemesh, about half an hour from Jerusalem, and ten minutes from the Sorek Stalactite Cave Nature Reserve.