Thursday, December 16, 2010

Wildlife of Ramat Bet Shemesh

Ramat Bet Shemesh, where I live, is home to many immigrants from the US who are often terrified at reports of wildlife entering the city from the adjacent hills at night. Fear not! The only dangerous intruders are of the two-legged variety.

If you see any of the local fauna making a visit, count yourself lucky to have such a special experience! There are foxes, jackals, hedgehogs and mongooses that come in frequently, and I once came across a (dead) striped hyena just outside Ramat Bet Shemesh. All these animals are entirely harmless (unless rabid) and are usually terrified of people. Snakes and scorpions can be deadly, but they make every effort to avoid people. Lizards are entirely harmless, and easy to identify - slow moving lizards with bulging eyes are chameleons, and the pale lizards barking and scampering on the walls at night are geckos.

There are also the four deer situated on the traffic circle outside Beis Tefilah, affectionately named Prancer, Dancer, Dasher and Rudolph by the locals. In fact, these are not reindeer, and nor are they the Israeli deer (Mesopotamian fallow deer); rather, they are European red deer, similar to the American elk. I don't know why they are in Ramat Bet Shemesh.

The most exotic wildlife can be found in the Pinat Chai in my garden. People are welcome to peer in by climbing on the wall along the steps connecting Nachal Shimshon to Nachal Raziel. Look out for Billy Bob and Mary Jane, my two huge iguanas, generously sponsored for the benefit of the community by Paul Shaviv of Toronto and other people (please let me know if you'd like to be named). There's more wildlife and wonders inside my house, but for that, you'll have to reserve the Zoo Torah Family Experience - $100 for one hour for groups of up to twelve people.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

New Iguana!

Thanks to the generosity of two readers, I was finally able to get a mate for my iguana! At nearly four feet in length, he is almost (but not quite) full grown. Next time you are in Ramat Bet Shemesh, walk past my garden and take a look!

Thursday, September 16, 2010


(Extracted from my book Man & Beast)

On the days preceding Yom Kippur, some have a custom to designate a chicken as a scapegoat for their own sins. They recite a statement designating it as such while passing it around their head, and the bird is then slaughtered. Many have the custom of then giving the chicken to the poor. (Some have the custom to use money for the procedure instead.)

Two of the early authorities, Rashba[1] and Ramban,[2] strongly protest against this custom, considering it to fall under the prohibition of “following the ways of the Emorites.” The Shulchan Aruch likewise disapproves of this custom.[3] However, Rabbi Moshe Isserliss, in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch, notes that since this is an ancient custom that has widespread support, one should not dissuade people from it.

But what of the aspect of causing suffering to the birds? There is no real reason why it should be any different to any case of slaughtering a chicken to eat. Passing a bird around one’s head can certainly be done in a way that does not cause undue distress, although unfortunately inexperienced people may not know how to handle it in such a way.

The bigger problem lies in how the entire process is commonly facilitated nowadays. In pre-war Europe, a person would simply take a chicken from his yard, or from the local farmer. Today, the chickens are packed en masse into crates and shipped to city centers where they wait for people to take their turn in performing the kapparos process. This commonly results in the birds being kept in horrifically cramped conditions without food, water or shade.

While it is permitted to cause suffering to animals for material or spiritual benefit, the suffering in this case is quite needless. It would seem that causing needless suffering to animals is a Biblical prohibition that far outweighs the value of a custom. Furthermore, it would seem to fundamentally negate much of the significance of the kapparos ritual. The Tur states that after slaughtering the chicken, there is a custom to throw its innards on the roof for birds to eat. Taz[4] and Aruch haShulchan[5] state that the reason for this is to show compassion for other creatures and thereby to earn Divine compassion.[6] On the eve of the Day of Judgment, when there is a special need to earn Divine mercy, it is surely counterproductive to inflict needless suffering upon creatures.

Fortunately, in recent years, people have gradually become sensitive to this issue, and positive steps are slowly being taken to rectify this situation.


[1] Shailos U’Teshuvos HaRashba 1:395.

[2] Cited in Orchos Chaim, hilchos erev yom hakipurim 1.

[3] Orach Chaim 605:1. Several other objections to this custom are given in other works, such as that the great volume of birds being slaughtered under rushed conditions is likely to lead in disqualifications in the slaughtering process.

[4] Orach Chaim 605:4.

[5] Orach Chaim 605:4.

[6] Others say that it is because the chicken may have benefited from stolen foods and therefore we must limit our benefit from it.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Incredible Axolotl

Here is a photo of my latest and weirdest pet: A GFP leucistic axolotl. Behind all that jargon is a fascinating story. The axolotl is a larval form of a certain salamander. Just like frogs have larval forms of tadpoles, and butterflies have larval forms of caterpillars, salamanders have larval forms which are aquatic creatures with feathery gills, a finned tail, and no eyelids. But axolotls are unique in that they are able to breed while in larval form; in fact, under normal conditions, they never metamorphose into adults.

This particular axolotl is a leucistic variety, which means that it is a mutation that lacks pigment (wild colored axolotls are dark in color). But there's something even more unusual about it. It is from a variety that has been genetically combined with GFP, a Fluorescent Green Protein from a jellyfish, which makes it glow bright green under ultraviolet light, as you can see in this picture.

Why were axolotls genetically modified in this way? It wasn't for the shtick of it. Instead, it relates to yet another amazing aspect of them. My axolotl had one his legs eaten by his tankmate. But within a few days, he had grown a new one that looked indistinguishable from the others. Axolotls were modified with the GFP protein in order that parts of GFP axolotls can be transplanted onto other axolotls and researchers can use ultraviolet light to track cellular generation - read this article for the full story.

Amazing! That's why I love the animal kingdom - there always something incredible to discover.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Now That's a Turtle

Too bad it's beyond my budget.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Television Special!

I am thrilled to announce that "Beasts of the Bible," the documentary that I was involved with making last year, is finally going to air! "Beasts of the Bible" investigates fabulous creatures that appear in the Bible and related texts, interviewing a range of different experts, filming in numerous international locations, and using state-of-the-art CGI to bring these creatures to life! It will appear in the U.S. on Animal Planet, on Thursday, April 1st, from 8pm-10pm. The Canadian premiere is on VisionTV, Wednesday March 31st at 9 p.m. For more details, a photo gallery and a trailer, check out Over the next few days, I will be posting some pictures and video clips from behind the scenes. I have not yet seen the final documentary myself, which means that I don't know how many of my sequences will be appearing, nor can I vouch for the accuracy of anything else that appears in it. But it will certainly be a highly educational and entertaining show! Don't miss it!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Best Bus Ever

Friday, January 22, 2010

New York Lecture Tour

Here are details for my forthcoming lecture tour. I will be adding events to it as I finalize them. If you would like to arrange a presentation in your school/ community, please email me.

Sunday February 7th:

Morning, 10am – 1pm
The Torah Tour of the Bronx Zoo
Price: Adults $20, children $15 (does not include admission)
For registration (required), email
Download flyer here

Sunday afternoon at Washington Heights Congregation (The “Bridge Shul”), 815 West 179th Street:
2.30 pm
Sacred Monsters: Mysterious & Mythical Creatures of Torah, Midrash and Talmud
4.00 pm
Rationalist Judaism: The Unknown, Endangered, Dangerous, & Life-saving Approach to Torah
Entrance Donation: $10 for one lecture, $15 for both
Download flyer here