Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Schedule change

So as not to clash with the memorial at Beth Sholom for the Mumbai victims, my lecture at Young Israel of Woodmere tomorrow night has been moved to 9pm. I will also be selling my books at the lecture, at a steep discount for the set.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Nothing To Do With Animals

It's nothing to do with animals, but here is an essay that I wrote recently which is related to this week's Torah portion - specifically, Yitzchak telling his wife Rivkah to pretend to be his sister. This was a strategy that we saw Avraham use twice, but how is it morally acceptable to engineer such a deceit for personal gain with no regard for the wife's fate? Read this essay for an answer (Microsoft Word document).

Thursday, November 27, 2008

What Happened Here?

Answer: A rabbit was taken by an owl.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Wonders of the Animal Kingdom #3: The Pygmy Seahorse

The pygmy seahorse is tiny, no larger than 2.4 cm. This species is known to occur only on gorgonian corals of the genus Muricella, and has evolved to resemble its host. The tubercles and truncated snout of this species match the color and shape of the polyps of the host gorgonian, while its body matches the gorgonian stem. The camouflage is so effective that the original specimens were discovered only after their host coral had been collected and placed in an aquarium!
More pictures here. Check out the incredible video below:

The Pygmy Seahorse! - video powered by Metacafe

(Hat tip: Fred Edmond)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Coming Lecture Tour

Here is the schedule so far for my forthcoming lecture tour in New York:

Wednesday December 3, 8.05pm at YU, Weissburg Commons:
"The Decline and Rebirth of Rationalist Judaism"

Thursday December 4, 8:00pm at Young Israel of Woodmere:
"The Making of a Ban"

Shabbos December 5/6, at Congregation Ohav Tzedek, Manhattan:
Topics including cosmology, evolution, as well as the above topics.

Sunday December 7th (tentative):
Torah Tour of the Bronx Zoo. $30 adults, $25 children. By reservation only.

I am still free for Sunday afternoon/ evening, and probably for Thursday morning/afternoon; please contact me if you would like to arrange a presentation for your school/ community. "Contacting me" means writing to me at, not leaving a comment!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Look Into My Eyes...

Can you guess what creature this is? It's something that many people find repulsive... but with some effort, it is possible to learn to appreciate the beauty and wonder of them. More astonishing pictures can be found here. (Note: one reader said that the link included a banner with un-tzniusdik women, although that didn't show up on my computer.)

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Heron: A Decidedly Non-Kosher Bird

The heron is listed in the Torah as a non-kosher bird. Now, while we may not know the ultimate reasons behind the dietary laws, many have pointed out that predatory animals are, on the whole, non-kosher. (In fact, predatory birds are by definition non-kosher.) If you ever wondered why the graceful heron appears on this list, the following picture dramatically shows why.

For the full series of incredible photos, click here.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Jumping Elephant Returns

In a few days, Daf Yomi reaches Kiddushin 26b, and the famous Case of the Jumping Elephant. Those who missed my essay on this topic from two years ago can download it by clicking here (2.5 meg PDF file). This is a slightly updated edition. I'm always amazed at how many questions I still receive on this topic, and at how many of them would be answered if people who claim to have read my essay would actually read it carefully!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Great Escapes #2

Question: What's worse than having your pet snake escape?

Answer: Having your wife find it before you do.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Great Escapes

A few weeks ago, as I was going to bed, I heard a strange noise from downstairs: flollop-flollop-flollop. Going downstairs, I traced the noise to the bathroom. I entered to find a chinchilla paddling around in the toilet. This was not entirely unexpected; I had just captured one of my young chinchillas from my outside aviary, in order to sell it. I had placed it in my study in a cage which was old and somewhat broken, so its escape did not come as a complete surprise. I pulled the chinchilla out of the toilet, placed it back in the cage, patched up the cage, and all was well.

After selling this chinchilla, I captured two more from my aviary and placed them in a new cage in my study. Last night, in the middle of the night, my wife woke me to say that there was another strange sound from downstairs. This time, listening carefully, I realized that it wasn't the chinchillas; it was a child's voice saying "Hello Saba!" But my kids were sleeping in their beds. I went downstairs to my study to find my computer playing a video of my kids saying "Hello Saba!" The culprit was sitting on the keyboard, pressing the keys with his feet: an escaped chinchilla.

The fact that it pressed a combination of keys which resulted in playing a video is not only extraordinary; it was also extremely fortuitous. Had it not done so, I would not have been woken to recapture it, and it would have done a lot more damage (as it was, it chewed part-way through one of my books!). Thank God for a technologically advanced rodent! (Strangely, though, this rodent only used the keyboard, not the mouse.)

The story doesn't end there. This morning, I received an e-mail from the menahel of the yeshivah where I teach. He asked me why I had sent him an email full of gibberish. Yep... the chinchilla had sent him an email. It looked like gibberish to me too, but perhaps it was chinchillaspeak for "Help, get me out of this house!"

Anyway, I still have two chinchilla kits left for sale, so if you want to buy some of the adorable little Houdinis, be in touch!

Giant Spider - not for the squeamish

When I was in Kenya many years ago, I saw a huge orb-web spider, of the Nephila genus. It was the size of my hand, and its web was about eight feet across, with silk so strong that I could pluck it like a guitar string. Now one has been photographed catching a bird in its web! Click here for the full story. Several zoos, such as the National Zoo in Washington DC, have these spiders on webs that are not in cages - they are really incredible.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Travel to Africa in 2009!

I am putting together a luxury kosher safari in the first two weeks of July 2009. It's very expensive, but very worthwhile if you can afford it! We'll be going to South Africa, Zambia, and Botswana, and it will be the experience of a lifetime! Click here for more details.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Exotic Shofars

Just a reminder that I have an illustrated essay on the halachos of exotic Shofars which is available as free download here (460 Kb PDF file). This is the second edition, revised and expanded, from September 2007.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Note to Commentors

The "Comments" link for each post is intended for comments related to the topic of the post. If you have a question for me, please email me at Also, please include your full name. Call me prudish, or British, but I find it highly inappropriate when people write to me with their questions and don't even bother signing their name! Thank you!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Filming at Dolphin Reef

I just returned from a TV shoot in the south of Israel. A Canadian company is making a 90 minute documentary for Vision TV Canada and Animal Planet, entitled Beasts of the Bible. The focus of the program is on mythical animals, especially as viewed in Jewish tradition. How they got to me, I don't know...
The first shoot was yesterday, at Dolphin Reef in Eilat, for the segment about mermaids (if you want to know about the Jewish connection between dolphins and mermaids, you'll have to read Sacred Monsters). I've been on television before, but only in studio interviews; this was very different and much more difficult. While wearing a hideously uncomfortable wetsuit in the 42 degree Celsius weather, we had to do about twenty different takes, mainly because airplanes kept flying low overhead at exactly the worst moments. But the dolphins were terrific!

In this picture, you can see me in my wetsuit, along with Tuli the sound man, the extra who plays Moses (the guy holding the reflector; more about him another time), and Liron the dolphin trainer, along with the dolphins.

Weird Animals: The Blobfish

From Wonders

Gotta love this guy. It's too weird for words. Here's what Wikipedia has to say about it (while Wikipedia often can't be considered reliable, it's useful for obscure topics with which the only person who would write about it would be an expert):

The blobfish (Psychrolutes marcidus) is a fish that inhabits the deep waters off the coasts of Australia and Tasmania. Due to the inaccessibility of its habitat, it is rarely seen by humans.
Blobfish are found at depths where the pressure is several dozens of times higher than at sea level, which would likely make gas bladders inefficient. To remain buoyant, the flesh of the blobfish is primarily a gelatinous mass with a density slightly less than water; this allows the fish to float above the sea floor without expending energy on swimming. The relative lack of muscle is not a disadvantage as it primarily swallows edible matter that floats by in front of it. It is often caught by bottom trawling with nets.

Right now, I am in Eilat on a television shoot. More about that when I return and can upload photos and video!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

NorthWest Trek

Sorry for the slow pace of posts... I find it difficult to post regularly, especially when I'm on the road! I just spent a few days in Seattle, running a program for Congregation Ezra B'Sarroth. While I was there, I took the opportunity to visit NorthWest Trek. It's a fabulous place, essentially similar to the San Diego Wild Animal Park but focusing on native North West wildlife. The carnivores/predators are in spacious, beautifully scenic enclosures around which one walks on a path. These exhibits include bear, wolves, foxes, eagles, wolverines, etc. Then there is a 50 minute tram ride around the larger reserves, which contain bison, elk, moose, deer, bighorn sheep and mountain goats. Check out this picture of a bison which was walking alongside the tram!

If you're ever in the northwestern US, I highly recommend a visit to North West Trek!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Rare Books on Sale in Woodmere

A warehouse check turned up some books that were thought to be no longer available: The Science of Torah, Mysterious Creatures and The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax. Although the first two titles have now been republished in vastly improved versions (The Challenge of Creation and Sacred Monsters), the original titles may still be of interest to those who collect original banned books - complete with haskamos! I have the remaining stock with me in Woodmere, where I will be for the next few days - if you want to come over and purchase these titles, or any of my other books, please write to me at to arrange a time.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

This Shabbat in Lawrence

Here are the details of the program taking place iy"h this Shabbat of August 9 at Beth Sholom in Lawrence, NY.

Shabbat morning (about 10:45am): "The Animal Kingdom in Jewish Thought"
Shabbat afternoon at 5 PM: "The Making of a Controversy"

The program is sponsored by Mina & Mayer Penstein in memory of his father Abraham Penstein a"h.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Wonders of the Animal Kingdom #2: The Rosy-Lipped Batfish

Baruch meshaneh habriyos, or Baruch shekachah lo be'olamo?

Classic Zoo Sign

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Lion Bites Rabbi

Another video clip from my visit to Lion Park in South Africa. Thank goodness for my Timberland jacket!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Cheetah Encounter

Here is a video clip of my encounter last Thursday with Masai, a full-grown male cheetah, at Lion Park in South Africa. Listen to his purr! He started to lick my hand and it felt like sandpaper; the manager warned me not to let him lick it for too long, as he would take the skin right off my hand!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

BREAKING: Leopard Kills Croc!

This just in:
"The astonishing spectacle of a leopard savaging a crocodile has been captured for the first time on camera. A series of incredible pictures taken at a South African game reserve document the first known time that a leopard has taken on and defeated one of the fearsome reptiles."
The full story and a sequence of amazing pictures is here.
This brings new depth to the Sages' presentation of the leopard as the embodiment of brazenness!

(Hat tip: Ari M.)

Back from Africa!

I returned from Africa, safe and sound and with thousands of photos! Sorry for the absence of postings. I hope to catch up with notes from my trip, as well as info on forthcoming programs taking place this August in the U.S.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Safari Gallery

I'm so behind with posts, that I decided to just post my whole gallery of my best pictures from the Sabi safari. You can see the Picasa album here. This has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Elephant Encounter

There are few things as awe-inspiring as encountering a wild African elephant. We saw elephants on several occasions, and each time it was breathtaking. You have to be very careful, as if they get too nervous, they will charge, with deadly results. The first signs of such a danger are the elephant flaring its ears and tossing its head, which is the signal for you to make a speedy getaway. The elephant in this picture was a juvenile, who made a threat display. But he was just displaying teenage braggadocio and it wasn't a problem. Later, I will post pictures of the matriarch (female leader of the herd) who made a serious threat.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Cape Town Gallery

I've uploaded a lot of pictures from my visit to Cape Town. You can see them in a Picasa Web Album

Leopard in the camp!

(I'm a little behind with posts, but I hope to catch up!)
Still disappointed from the morning's leopard encounter when I didn't have a battery in my D-SLR, I made double-sure that I had everything before heading out from the camp for our afternoon game drive. Of course, there's no guarantee of sightings; sometimes you can go for three hours and not see anything. But as our land-rover went out of the gate, a leopard shot across the road and into the camp! There's a rule in the camp that at night, you are not allowed to walk to your cabin without a ranger escorting you, and now we knew why!
Quickly we turned the car around and headed back into the camp. Meanwhile, another land-rover was coming out, and they managed to head off the leopard. It came out of the camp and slinked into the dense bushes. We went off-road and crashed around in the undergrowth for a while, catching glimpses of it here and there. Finally, we ended up very close to it, and I managed to take this terrific picture of it. It came out really well, and more than made up for the morning's disappointment!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

I love my cabin

Sure, it's got a gigantic bedroom, an even bigger bathroom, a personalized weather forecast by my bed each day, and internet. But the greatest thing about my cabin at Sabi Sabi game lodge is that there is a four-foot monitor lizard living under the patio. I first noticed a long scaly tail disappearing around the corner as I came into the cabin on my first day, and after some careful ambushing I managed to snap this picture. The monitor is called koach in the Torah, probably after its great size and power, but what impressed me most about this reptile was its beautiful coloration.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

A Drive at Dawn in the Bushveldt

The next morning, we were woken at 5:30 am for the morning game drive. It was FREEZING. We were given blankets and hot water bottles, but we still shivered. The temperature range here is astonishing - from zero degrees at night to 35 during the day!
After extensive tracking, we came across our quarry: a male leopard.
To my intense frustration, I realized that I had left the battery for my D-SLR camera back in the lodge! Luckily I had a point-and-shoot with me as backup, and the picture came out fairly well.
Leopards are not as large as lions or tigers. The Israeli subspecies weighs up to about eighty pounds, the African around two hundred. Yet, fiercely brazen, they take on prey many times their own size. In the words of the curator of the Hai-Bar nature reserve of the Negev, Bill Clark: “They don’t have the speed of a cheetah, nor can they claim the brute force of a lion. Instead, they rely on their wits. They’re smart, and, pound for pound, they’re the scrappiest of the big cats... No other predator confronts its victims with such rampaging fury.”
And thus we find the Mishnah telling us:
"Be as bold as a leopard to do the will of your Father in Heaven" (Pirkei Avos)
I have a fair amount of material on leopards in my book Seasons of Life, and I have much more in my forthcoming Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom; hopefully it will see the light of day within a year or two. Meanwhile, here's an important lesson that I learned this morning: Always make sure that you have a battery in your camera!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

In the jungle, the mighty jungle...

We arrived at Sabi Sands airstrip - just a strip of dirt in the bushveldt, with a cabin containing bathrooms, and a fleet of jeeps waiting to take us to the lodge. After a quick meeting at the lodge, we set out on our first game drive, as the sun sank beneath the horizon. It was not long before we came across a magnificent sight: a pride of lions, including adult females and young males. They were just lying down, licking themselves, occasionally walking around a little. Some walked right around the jeep; I could have reached out and touched them, had I been incredibly stupid. While I have been on safari before, this was my first sighting of lions. It was truly remarkable, and it was even more amazing that they were so oblivious to our presence.

Off to the Safari!

We finished up in Cape Town with dinner at the local restaurant, with the (Jewish) leader of the opposition in the South African government as our guest speaker. Then, early Monday morning, it was off to the safari! We first flew by commercial airline to Johannesburg, then we changed to three small chartered aircraft to fly direct to the private game reserve of Sabi Sabi. These were 18-seater propeller airplanes; not the smallest I've ever been in (I once piloted a two-seater airplane) but still much smaller than the usual airliner! I was pretty sure that I could hear the hamsters spinning the wheels to keep the propellers turning.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Edge of the World

After the hearts and penguins, we traveled to the tip of Cape Point. Here we ascended via the "Flying Dutchman" Fernicular - a cross between a train and a cable car. It is pulled up a very steep track via cable, with both horizontal and vertical angle changing. Upon emerging at the top, there are steps to climb to the lighthouse. From here, you are standing right on the south-western tip of Africa, with the Atlantic on your left and the Pacific on your right. The view of the ocean all around is incredible. A sign-post shows the distance to various important places in the world, including New York, London and Jerusalem!

The Penguins of Boulder Beach

We ate lunch in Simon's Town, a picturesque seaside village and naval dock. Just a short distance from this was Boulder Beach, which was originally for people but was taken over by penguins. These are African Jackass penguins, which do not need the cold conditions of Antarctic penguins. There were a few hundred scattered in various places around the beach, both adults and young, and they were every bit as adorable as you might expect!
There's a traditional idea in Judaism that the difference between animals, as purely physical creatures, and humans, as beings that combine the physical and the spiritual, is reflected in posture. Animals walk on all fours, facing the ground, symbolizing their physicality, whereas humans stand erect, reaching towards the heavens, symbolizing the way in which we combine the physical and the spiritual.
But what about penguins? They stand up like people, which is precisely what makes them so adorable. Do they undermine this idea?
The answer is, absolutely not. But you'll have to read Man And Beast to find out why... unless you can figure out the answer on your own!

The Heart of Cape Town

Cape Town has a beautiful climate – warm and sunny. But not in July. July is the winter in South Africa, and Cape Town can get hit hard. And on this Sunday morning, it was pouring with rain.
This ruined our plans to ascend Table Mountain. Instead, we visited a place that far exceeded our expectations – the Heart of Cape Town Museum. This museum commemorates the world’s first ever heart transplant, performed in South Africa by Dr. Cris Barnaard. We began with looking at the experimental heart transplants performed on dogs. Bizarrely, one related experiment including the successful transplantation of a dog’s head onto the neck of another dog, resulting in a healthy two-headed dog!
We learned about the moving story of the first transplant recipient and donor, the medical challenges involved, the extraordinary drive of Dr. Barnaard, the fame and glory resulting from his success, and the resultant catastrophe when American doctors attempted to copy his success but failed again and again. We also saw the original heart from Dr. Barnaard's first transplant itself, preserved in perspex. It was much more interesting than we expected, and I recommend it for anyone stuck in Cape Town on a rainy morning!
(Of particular Torah interest is that the heart was traditionally thought to be the seat of our emotions, but we now accept that our emotions reside in the brain, and the heart is merely a physical blood-pumping organ.)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Shabbos in Cape Town

On Friday, I met up with my group, American Friends of Shaarei Tzedek, about sixty people altogether. We are staying at the Camps Bay Hotel, situated on the seafront. On Friday night, we davenned at the local shul, and then we were joined by a special guest for dinner: F. W. De Klerk, former President of South Africa, ender of Apartheid, and joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela. He was very interesting, as was his wife, who protested that people were talking during the singing of Shalom Aleichem!
De Klerk spoke about how his former support of apartheid was not due to his being evil, but rather his vision was identical with what much of the world wants for Israel today: two states for two peoples. However, because the whites were not willing to give up enough land, and the blacks were not happy with the situation, it ended up being very cruel to the blacks and he realized that the plan was not working.
Lots more to write, especially about all the stuff we did today, but no time right now. Tomorrow we are flying to Johannesburg and then transferring to a light aircraft to Sabi Sands reserve; I hope to be able to write on the first plane and upload while changing planes!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Jews and Ostriches

Jews and ostriches... what comes to mind?

Well, there's discussion in the Torah of ostriches - in Vayikra they are listed as being non-kosher, and they are mentioned in the book of Iyov and other places as being cruel.

Then there is the old custom in some parts of the world to hang ostrich eggs in shuls. This is due to the ancient belief that ostriches incubate their eggs by staring at them, emitting energy from their eyes. Accordingly, ostrich eggs were hung in shuls to remind people of the power of kavanah.

But here in South Africa, there's a different connection between ostriches and Jews. At the turn of the twentieth century, ostrich feathers were all the rage in women's fashions. A town called Oudtshoorn in South Africa emerged as the ostrich farming capital of the world, and it was a business that was dominated by Jews. The Jews of Oudtshoorn were very religious, and the town became such a center of Torah that it became known as "the Jerusalem of Africa."

Ostrich feathers have long since fallen out of fashion, and the Jewish community of Oudtshoorn now numbers only fourteen families, all religious. The book pictured above is a commemoration of the remarkable days of the ostrich Jerusalem in Africa.

(Thanks to the Jewish Museum of Cape Town for permission to take this picture.)

Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Bird in the Hand

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. So rather than spend all my time here searching for wild animals - where there is never a guarantee of success - I am also looking for unique opportunities to meet captive animals.

One such opportunity came today at Spier Eagle Encounters. Unfortunately the weather was appalling, so there were no shows. But I was able to put on a falconer's glove and hold two magnificent birds of prey: a Wahlberg's eagle and a huge Verreaux's eagle. The latter was less accustomed to being held, and had to be kept hooded so as to ensure that it would remain calm. I was amazed at how heavy it was - about twelve pounds. I could feel the strength of its talons even through the very heavy glove; without the glove, it would have pierced my flesh to the bone without even trying. Large eagles are so powerful that in some parts of the world, people train them to hunt wolves. An eagle can plunge out of the sky with such force that it can smash into the back of a wolf's skull and kill it. While I have handled numerous birds of prey in the past, this was my first encounter with eagles, and it was awe-inspiring.

On my way out of Spier, I saw a slave bell, which is a relic of the old South Africa. This large bell, mounted about twenty feet up in the air, would be rung to sound the alarm in the event that slaves escaped! How times have changed.

The Only Store Of Its Kind!

On the way back from our shark expedition, I noticed a store with the odd name of "Baboon Matters." The name alone was intriguing, but even more fascinating was the billboard outside, which advertised is as "The World's Only Baboon Store!" I had to go in.

No, they didn't sell baboons. But they did sell every possible baboon-related artefact, and for a good reason.

Baboon Matters is not just a store; it is an organization run by people who are trying to solve the southern peninsula's Big Baboon Problem. The cape of South Africa is no longer the rough jungle that it used to be, where hippo and crocodile roamed. It is now quite heavily populated, although leopards still roam. But a serious problem is created by baboons. About two hundred and fifty of these large, powerful primates live in this region, and they don't believe in fearing man. They will readily break into houses to wreak havoc and steal food. You don't want to mess with a baboon; they are immensely powerful, with teeth scarcely inferior to those of a leopard. Conflicts between people and baboons can cause serious injuries on both sides. (Many people in this region have put bars on the windows and keep their doors locked, although for those who came from Johannesberg this can be annoying - it's exactly what they came to get away from!)

This is where Baboon Matters comes in. They encourage the villages to take appropriate precautions to keep the baboons away, but even more importantly, they have trained a large number of Baboon Monitors - locals who monitor the activities of the baboons. Aside from being a valuable means of employment in poverty-stricken South Africa, this is a huge help to solving the Big Baboon Problem. The Baboon Monitors are expert trackers who follow the baboons and encourage them to stay away from villages.

Of course, this huge project struggles for funding, and that's where the store comes in. You can buy baboon toys, baboon T-shirts, etc., etc. There are also some interesting artefacts on display, such as the preserved baboon fetus in jar. All in all, Baboon Matters is a wonderful and unique effort to help both people and animals.

Sporting with Leviathan

Two hours before sunrise this morning, I headed out to the Marina for a very special boat trip: an expedition to watch great white sharks predating on seals. But the weather forecast was grim: temperatures were dropping, the wind was building up, and rain was forecast along with sixteen-foot waves. We met on the dock with Rob, the captain (whose previous clients for these expeditions include Peter Benchley, author of Jaws) and the marine biologists who were going along, to discuss our options in light of the steadily worsening weather. It was clear that cage-diving with the sharks would be out of the question; as Rob put it, it would be like being inside a clothes-washing machine. But could we go out at all? We decided to risk it, and we could head back if conditions became too rough.

I was slightly alarmed by the fact that the boat was only about sixteen feet long. Some of the great white sharks in these parts grow bigger than that. I had watched a video of a small shark jumping out onto a large boat; if a big shark tried that with our boat, it would neatly sink us. Rob assured me that we would be very unlucky for that to happen, which didn't seem to answer my concern.

We loaded our gear onto the boat and headed out into the darkness. It was freezing; I was shivering despite wearing three jackets, gloves and a scarf. The waves were large, tossing the boat around as we surged out to sea. Would we get to observe our quarry?

At this point, I should probably explain what all this was about. The great white shark, of Jaws fame, is the largest carnivorous fish in the sea. They are rarely seen, but near Seal Island, in the Cape of Good Hope, they are not only reliably spotted, but are even seen engaging in a certain extroardinary behavior. They swim below seals, then launch themselves upwards to attack, with a force that sometimes takes them fully clear of the water. Rob's partner Chris was the first to observe this behavior some years ago, and they created a stunning National Geographic video special, entitled Air Sharks.

After about forty minutes, as the sun came up, we reached Seal Island. It was small, no more than a few hundred yards long, but the number of fur seals living on it was extraordinary; as I later discovered, there are eighty-four thousand of them living there. Many were sitting on the rocky island, surrounded by penguins and other seabirds, while others bobbed around in the surrounding waves. But in order to eat, they had to go fishing, and this meant venturing beyond the safety of the island to deeper water. The sharks knew this, which is why they came to these parts. Unlike other fish, great white sharks are warm-blooded, and they have to consume several seals a day in order to fuel their huge bodies.

We circled the island, watching the water intently. It was not long before someone yelled, "Predation, three o' clock!" We looked and saw a flurry of commotion in the water, but it was hard to make out details. A seal's flipper, a shark's tail, and lots of splashing. Then silence, as the birds flew down to feast upon the remnants. Shortly afterwards we witnessed another predation. We did not get a clear look this time either, but we did see the shocking sight of a fountain of foamy blood, some three feet high, spurting out of the sea as the shark hit its prey.

On our next sighting, a little later, we saw a little more. This time the seal, desperately seeking to escape its pursuer, leapt out of the water as it swam, porpoise-style. It was followed by the huge triangular dorsal fin of the shark, slicing through the water. This was over quickly, with little commotion; perhaps the shark had downed it in a single gulp.

A long time passed with no further sightings; then we saw the ultimate sight. A huge shark exploded out of the water. It was right there, straight out of Jaws: dark back, white belly, vast gaping mouth, and soulless black eyes. It landed back in the ocean with a tremendous splash, as another seal lost its life.

This was to be the last sighting of the morning, despite our trying to attract the sharks by pulling a dummy seal behind the boat. The weather was getting worse, and the sharks, thought to be sensitive to pressure changes, were probably going deep. Rob decided that it would be best to head back. I heartily agreed; in fact I was beginning to feel considerably nauseous at this point. As a precaution, I gulped down a motion-sickness pill, and promptly threw up my breakfast over the side of the boat.

Unfortunately, aside from the nausea, this had the effect of making my body-temperature plummet. In the already-freezing conditions, this made me shiver violently, feeling appallingly sick. Yet there was nothing to be done; I just had to tough it out all the way back. Finally we reached the hilly coast. "Not a moment too soon," I croaked as we approached the dock, and then as we pulled in, I leaned over the side and lost last night's dinner.

But it was worth it for the experience. Yesterday I had Esa einai el he-harim brought to life; today it was a verse from Barchi Nafshi, which we recited today for Rosh Chodesh. As part of celebrating the grandeur of creation, it comments upon the ocean: "This is the ocean, great and broad... where boats travel, and this Leviathan that You have formed, to sport in it."
And what a sport it is!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

"I lift my eyes up to the mountains..."

On the Aron HaKodesh at the shul here in Cape Town, it says, "Esa einay el ha-harim... I lift my eyes up to the mountains, where shall my help come from?" This famous verse, followed by "My help comes from God, Creator of Heavens on Earth" can be found in many shuls. However what makes it unique here is that over the Aron is a large window, through which one sees the gigantic mass of Table Mountain looming over the shul. Now that's what I call bringing a passuk to life!

First Impressions

Just as I suspected, there are lots of differences between Mombasa, Kenya and Cape Town, South Africa:

Mombasa, Kenya: Appallingly bad and bumpy roads.
Cape Town, South Africa: Highways with three lanes in each direction.

Mombasa, Kenya: Greeted by black Africans in native dress singing tribal songs.
Cape Town, South Africa: Greeted by white Africans saying shalom aleichem.

Mombasa, Kenya: The only form of contact with outside world is international phone calls, which almost never work.
Cape Town, South Africa: Aside from the phone, there is high-speed internet in the airport and at the home where I am staying until I join my group.

Mombasa, Kenya: Upon arrival, served exotic fruit juices.
Cape Town, South Africa: Upon arrival, served tea with milk at 4pm prompt.

Mombasa, Kenya: I have to keep the door to my room closed, because monkeys tend to come in and steal things.
Cape Town, South Africa: I don't have to keep the door to my room closed, because the family dog is exceptionally well-trained.

(From this point on, things can only get more exotic!)

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Return to Africa!

I'm writing this from Ben-Gurion airport, as I await to board my flight to Africa. It's been ten years since I was last (and first) there, and this trip will be very different. Last time I went to Kenya; this time, I am traveling to South Africa, Zambia and Botswana. Last time, I went on safari as a participant; this time, I am ZooRabbi-in-residence for a large group, American Friends of Shaarei Tzedek. It's really extraordinary; as a kid, growing up in England, I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would actually ever visit Africa, and now I am going for the second time!
You can read my photo-journal from my Kenya safari here. I would like to be able to post a photo/video journal while I am on this trip, but from what I hear, getting online is not going to be easy, and certainly not a high-speed connection. But we'll see what we can do!
I'll be starting off in Cape Town, where I had made arrangements to go cage-diving with great white sharks on Thursday. Unfortunately, the forecast is for a raging gale with sixteen-foot waves (it's midwinter there), so this plan will probably have to be shelved. But if the weather picks up on Sunday, maybe I'll be able to do it then. (Insert joke here about how some people want to see me be thrown to the sharks.)
In my bag is something quite remarkable: a sefer Torah less than six inches tall! We'll be needing it when we're out in the bushveldt. I also had an interesting halachic question - should I be saying Morid HaTal, or Mashiv Ha-Ruach? After all, it is the winter there. My posek ruled that I should continue saying Morid HaTal, and said that even for native South Africans it's not clear that they should say Mashiv HaRuach.
So, I don't know when I'll next be posting, but it should be interesting!

Monday, June 30, 2008

New York Tour

I'm traveling to NY in August, and my schedule is open on Tuesday August 5th and Wednesday the 6th. If anyone knows of a camp that would be interested in Zoo Torah multimedia presentations, or a shul that would be interested in an evening lecture, please put us in touch! I am also open to doing a Torah Tour of the Bronx Zoo on the 5th, if a sufficient number of people request it (weekdays tend to be difficult).

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Wonders of the Animal Kingdom #1: The Long-Eared Jerboa

Very little is known about this rodent from Mongolia. Like all jerboas, it has huge hindlegs for jumping, but it is distinguished from other jerboa species by its enormous ears. Check out the video to see it in action.

Perek Shirah - Rediscovered!

The book Nature's Song on Perek Shirah has been out of print for some time. Funds are currently being raised for its republication, but in the meanwhile it is unavailable in stores. However a recent warehouse clean-out unexpectedly turned up a small quantity of books. You can order it online at the ZooTorah website here.

About Perek Shirah:

Perek Shirah, literally "A Chapter Of Song," is an ancient text that is at least a thousand years old; some ancient commentaries even attribute its authorship to King David! It takes the form of a list of eighty-four elements of the natural world, including elements of the sky and of the earth, plants, birds, animals, and insects, attaching a verse from the Bible to each. The concept behind Perek Shirah is that everything in the natural world teaches us a lesson in philosophy or ethics, and the verse gives a clue as to what that lesson is. The result is the "song" of the natural world, the tapestry of lessons for life that the natural world is telling us. Perek Shirah, a work of tremendous historic value, is itself extremely mysterious and cryptic. However, various commentaries have been written on it over the last five hundred years, which give an insight into what the verse is telling us to learn from the creature.

Thus, for example, Perek Shirah states that "The lion is saying, 'God shall go out as a mighty man, he shall arouse zeal, he shall cry, even roar; he shall prevail over his enemies (Isaiah 42:13)." The lion teaches us of the importance of might and power. This does not mean physical strength; true power is power over oneself. All big cats are aggressive predators and therefore cannot get along even with each other; it is only the lion that is able to somehow control its aggression and live in groups. The lion teaches us of the greatest power, that of self-control.

Nature's Song is the first English explanation of Perek Shirah. It makes use of rare ancient commentaries on Perek Shirah , as well as contemporary insights from the fields of meteorology, zoology and so on. The result is a Biblical encyclopedia of the natural world, synthesizing the ancient with the modern, that enables one to perceive new depths of insight into the natural world that surrounds us.

Guess the Animal #1

Can you guess the identity of this animal, which I photographed at the Sacramento Zoo? Clue: It is famously mentioned in one of the commentaries on the Mishnah. (Note: It is not a sheitel.)

Friday, June 27, 2008


Welcome to the Zoo Torah blog! I'll be posting insights about Judaism's relationship with the animal kingdom and the natural sciences, as well as news updates about books and lectures, travel notes, and whatever else crosses my mind! I hope that this blog will educate, inform and entertain.
Comments in the spirit of the Zoo Torah enterprise are welcome! (Sorry for the comment moderation policy, but due to the controversy over my work there are all kinds of people out there who, given a chance, would take over and spoil this blog. Fortunately for the cause of free speech, there are plenty of other forums on the Internet for them.)