Photo Credit: Courtesy the Biblical Museum of Natural History
The Duck-billed platypus.

Ever since I was a young child I have been fascinated by the animal kingdom, especially its more exotic members. When people asked me what I wanted to do when I grow up, I always replied I wanted to have a zoo. The response would be laughter; having a zoo is no job for a nice Jewish boy. Then I decided to become a rabbi, which was met with even greater disapproval; being a rabbi, I was told, is certainly no job for a nice Jewish boy.

But then I started to look into what the Torah says about the animal kingdom. To my delight, I discovered a wealth of fascinating material, and for the next twenty years I studied, wrote, and taught about it. In addition to rabbinic ordination, I completed a Ph.D. in Jewish history, with a dissertation on “Rabbinic Encounters with Zoology in the 19th Century.”

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Yet as intriguing as this material is, there is still nothing comparable to actually encountering a real live exotic animal. And so three years ago I opened the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh, featuring an extraordinary array of both inanimate and live exhibits. (So much for those who laughed at my childhood dream!)

I have been fortunate to encounter many exotic creatures besides those at the museum. During lecture tours worldwide, and as part of filming videos for the museum, I have been blessed with the opportunity to meet many extraordinary examples of God’s creations. I’ve waded with whales, flown eagles to my hand, wrestled alligators, tickled tarantulas, and played with leopards.

But the single most extraordinary creature I have ever been privileged to meet is the duck-billed platypus.

On a recent trip to Australia, I made arrangements to meet and film a number of unusual animals, including koalas and wombats. But the animal I was most excited to meet was the platypus. There are no platypuses outside of Australia, not even in the world’s best zoos. They are extremely difficult to maintain in captivity; even within Australia, only six facilities house them. And of these, only one, Healesville Sanctuary, has a tame specimen with which it is possible to interact. And even this individual can only be encountered by six people per week, with the slots being booked ahead for months in advance. Only as a result of my position as director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History was I able to secure a few minutes to meet and film this unique creature.

I arrived at Healesville, located near the Yarra Valley in Victoria, on a freezing cold morning. But I was fired up with excitement as I anticipated meeting a creature which, when it was first discovered in the nineteenth century and preserved specimens sent back to England, was thought to be a hoax.

How could a furry animal with four legs have a beak and webbed claws like those of a duck? Surely some practical joker of a taxidermist must have stitched together a chimera of different animals! But no, it was real. And the early naturalists were amazed before they found out something even more extraordinary – that this mammal lays eggs!

Such a creature was a paradox, and was given the name Ornithorhynchus paradoxicus – the “paradoxical bird-snout.”

* * * * *

Healesville Sanctuary has been successfully keeping platypuses for longer than anyone else. At the height of World War II, when Winston Churchill was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, he charged Australia with a top-secret mission: to bring him a live platypus for morale-boosting and diplomatic reasons. At Healesville, a platypus was trained over several months to make the adjustment to sea travel, and it was finally sent aboard a ship, together with a dedicated platypus keeper. When the ship was four days out of Liverpool, they spotted a German U-boat, and dropped depth charges to neutralize the threat. Alas, the explosives shocked the platypus to death. Churchill had it stuffed, and it remained on his desk until the end of the war.

At the entrance to Healesville, one of the staff came to meet me carrying a blanket for wrapping and restraining the platypus. Male platypuses have venomous spurs on their back legs – if I were to be impaled in the arm with them, I would be hospitalized for several days and lose the use of my arm for six months. In the wild, platypuses use these spurs for fighting with other males. My visit occurred during the height of platypus breeding season, which meant the platypus, a male, would be in a feisty mood. The blanket would prevent us from being impaled.

We arrived at the platypus enclosure. One of the keepers carefully grabbed it, wrapped it in the blanket, and brought it out to me. It peered around alertly with its shining eyes and dabbled its bill in the air. I was entranced. Here, right in front of me, was the creature that was thought to be a hoax; that had mystified all the world’s zoologists; that is widely believed to be one of the most extraordinary marvels of nature.

Without a second’s thought I pronounced the blessing the Talmud prescribes for seeing wondrous creatures, Baruch meshaneh habriyot – “Blessed is the one Who makes extraordinary creatures.”

I felt its fur; it was incredibly dense and plush. It dabbled its bill on my hand; I was amazed at how soft it was, entirely unlike a bird’s beak. Not only was this animal extraordinary, it was cute. Platypuses are not long – only about eighteen inches in length, including the broad tail. It had a Donald Duck-like expression on its face, with the curvature of the bill giving it a permanent smile. And it was incredibly active and inquisitive.

* * * * *

Platypuses are not, of course, mentioned in the Torah or any rabbinic writings. Like all Australian creatures, they are beyond the world of biblical and Talmudic zoology. Still, their extraordinary nature has made them fodder for many a theological discussion.

In the 19th century, several rabbinic scholars published books about natural history. The very first Jewish reference to platypuses was in the book Toldot Ha-Aretz by Yosef Schoenhak. He provided a brief description of the platypus, giving it the Hebrew name baal chartum, “the beaked one,” based on its German name schnabeltier.

Some saw the platypus as being relevant to a zoological discussion in the Talmud (Bechorot 7b). The Talmud states that “everything that bears live young, nurses them, and everything that lays eggs, gathers food for its young, except for the bat, which, even though it lays eggs, nurses its young.” This statement was at odds with zoological knowledge about bats, which showed they do not lay eggs, and had led to some consternation.

Shalom Yaakov Abramowitsch (later to become better known as Mendele Mocher Sefarim), in his work on natural history, claims the sages were simply “catering to popular beliefs.” Abramowitsch concludes by mentioning that “surely even in our day” there is a debate about whether the duck-billed platypus lays eggs, by which he seems to mean that it is reasonable for there to be uncertainty about whether aberrant mammals lay eggs.

The 19-century scholar and rabbi Ludwig (Yehudi Leib) Lewysohn, in his review of Abramowitsch’s work, says he was delighted by Abramowitsch’s comment regarding the platypus, and notes that he wrote the very same in his unpublished supplementary notes to his own book Die Zoologie des Talmuds, for the sake of le-hitnatzlut divrei Chazal – rescuing/accounting for the words of the sages.

Rabbi Slifkin meeting the duck-billed platypus.

Lewysohn obliquely refers us to the end of his chapter on geese that were said to grow from trees, where he explains that many fallacious beliefs from antiquity developed for understandable reasons, such as misunderstood natural phenomena or false reports. He apparently implies that the platypus demonstrates it is not unthinkable for mammals to lay eggs, and thus while the sages were not correct in describing bats as laying eggs, it was not a ridiculous error.

Today, there are some who are deeply uncomfortable with the rationalist approach of Rambam, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, and others – i.e., that the sages of the Talmud were not infallible in their statements about the natural world. They take the platypus even further in trying to “save” this passage of the Talmud about egg-laying bats by claiming that the sages were actually referring not to the bat but to the platypus.

Alas, it is quite difficult to argue that the sages could have deduced the existence of the Australian platypus; and it is even more unreasonable to posit that they would have referred to the platypus with the exact Hebrew name that was always used for the bat, thereby misleading every student of the Talmud for the last 1,500 years into thinking that they were referring to the bat.

* * * * *

While the platypus was stirring discussion among rabbinic scholars, it was presenting theological problems for a young, devoutly Christian naturalist by the name of Charles Darwin, who had not yet hit upon his theory of evolution.

In 1836, Darwin was in the middle of his voyage in Australia when he came across several platypuses. He wrote in his diary that the bizarre wildlife of Australia in general, and this “most extraordinary animal” in particular, so different from everything in the rest of the world, had given him cause for theological concern: “An unbeliever in everything beyond his own reason might exclaim: Surely two distinct Creators must have been [at] work; their object however has been the same & certainly the end in each case is complete.”

Darwin continued, however, to explain how his concerns had been assuaged when he noticed a familiar-looking insect:

“Whilst thus thinking, I observed the conical pitfall of a Lion-Ant: – A fly fell in & immediately disappeared; then came a large but unwary Ant; his struggles to escape being very violent, the little jets of sand described by Kirby were promptly directed against him. His fate however was better than that of the poor fly’s: – Without a doubt this predacious Larva belongs to the same genus, but to a different species from the European one. – Now what would the Disbeliever say to this? Would any two workmen ever hit on so beautiful, so simple & yet so artificial a contrivance? It cannot be thought so. – The one hand has surely worked throughout the universe.”

Darwin saw that the Australian ant, notwithstanding minor differences from the European variety, was clearly of the same design. He deduced that the same Creator operated in Australia as in Europe. The platypus must, as all the other animals, be the handiwork of the same Creator.

Years later Darwin concluded that evolution would account for how platypuses could share a common ancestor with other animals. The platypus’s beak was not that of a bird, and its eggs bore more similarity to the eggs of reptiles than birds. The early mammals had evolved from reptiles, and platypuses had branched off at an early stage. (While evolution is thought of by many as standing in conflict with religion, it is not only compatible but even theologically congruent; as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote just a few years after Darwin published his ideas, evolution, if proven true, would demonstrate God’s “creative wisdom.”

* * * * *

The platypus stands as a good symbol for science as a whole. Ancient pagan societies believed the universe was a chaotic mess of competing deities and forces. Judaism introduced the radical innovation of monotheism – that all the disparate elements of the natural world are the result of a single God. Evolution likewise shows that all the disparate members of the animal kingdom, even those as aberrant as the platypus, can all be traced to a single source.

Our busy platypus has played other roles, too, in theological discussions. The late acclaimed natural history writer Stephen Jay Gould had virtually no connection to his Jewish heritage. In the many volumes of his collected essays, there is only one instance where he cites a verse from Scripture in transliterated Hebrew, and that is with regard to the platypus.

Gould’s discussion of the platypus (Bully for Brontosaurus, W. W. Norton, 1991) is a rejoinder to the frequent claim that the platypus is a primitive creature due to its laying eggs and possessing a cloaca like reptiles. This, argues Gould, is a mistake, based on the obsolete notion that life is a like a chain or ladder, on which creatures are arranged from primitive to more advanced species. Wisdom is an etz chaim to those who support it, says Gould – Torah is compared to a tree of life, and this is also a suitable metaphor for life itself. The pattern of living creatures is an etz chaim, a branching tree of life. Placental mammals parted ways from egg-laying platypuses a long time ago, but that didn’t mean that platypuses were left on the bottom rung of a ladder of life. Instead, they branched out in a different direction.

Platypuses developed an incredibly sophisticated sense organ that is not found in any other creature. Their bill houses forty thousand electroreceptors, which they use to locate their food. Platypuses feed in the rivers at night, eating small aquatic crustaceans. Like every creature, these crustaceans produce a minute electrical field as they move their limbs. The platypus’s electro­receptors enable it to detect these tiny variations in the electrical field. It is an unparalleled sensory organ.

Platypuses are not primitive. Rather, they combine certain very ancient characteristics – laying eggs, a single cloaca – with some very advanced characteristics such as electroreceptors and venomous spurs. Indeed, returning to the etz chaim metaphor, the platypus is a worthy metaphor for Judaism itself. The fact that Judaism separated itself from the rest of the world many millennia ago does not mean it is primitive. On the contrary; it has progressed over thousands of years. It delicately and harmoniously combines ancient traits with advanced accomplishments.

The platypus, with its happy expression and venomous spurs, with its bill and four legs, with its furry body and its reptilian eggs, with its ancient reproductive system and its advanced sensory technology, is a truly paradoxical animal. It has been the subject of theological consternation and comfort. This little animal has occupied the attention of politicians, naturalists, and rabbis. Baruch meshaneh habriyot!

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Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin is director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh. He was ordained at Ohr Somayach Institutions, where he taught Talmud and contemporary Judaism. He has a master’s degree in Judaic Studies from the Lander Institute in Jerusalem and a doctorate in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Rabbi Slifkin's website is www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org and he also runs a popular blog at www.rationalistjudaism.com.