Friday, April 20, 2012

Can rabbits switch genders?

Thanks to Josh at ParshaBlog for pointing out this great Ibn Ezra

הגמל והשפן והארנבת והחזיר -

בעבור שיש לכל אחד הסימן האחד ודרך לשון הקדש להזכיר הזכר מכל מין כי הנקבה בכלל הזכר היא.


והזכיר ארנבת -

יש אומרים:

לפי שלא ימצא הזכר מהם.


ויש אומרים:

שהזכר ישוב נקבה והפך הדבר והראשון קרוב אלי.



In this passage, Ibn Ezra is attempting to explain why Leviticus 11:7 uses the male form to describe the camel and the hyrax, but the feminine form for rabbit =[ארנבת]

His first answer is ambiguous. Does he mean that males are hard to find, or that some say [=
יש אומרים] that male rabbits do not exist? The second answer is downright strange: "The male (rabbit) turns into the female and vice versa."

Has the teva changed? Maybe. But it seems more likely that Ibn Ezra is relying on someone else's mistake.

In his time (and ours, too, apparently!) there was a prevailing notion that rabbits possessed the ability to change their gender. According to this site, the notion came about because young rabbits often have ambiguous genitalia. Sexing mistakes were common, but rather than entertain the possibility of their own fallibility, people invented a myth.

Strange as it seems to us and our modern epistemology, this is how the myth was born:

Rabbi breeder: Here you go! One baby female rabbit.
Buyer: Thanks

-- 6 weeks later -

Buyer: Hey!! You sold me a male rabbit!
Rabbit Breeder: Well, I'll be... I'm an expert rabbit breeder. I don't make mistakes. Must be that rabbit switched genders!!
Buyer: Makes perfect sense! Thanks!

So, here's what we learn from this: (1) Sages relied on the science of their own time; and (2) That science was often wrong due, in part, to the unreliable epistemology of the pre-modern world. Now, let me ask you this: If we can say with certainty that rabbits don't switch gender, despite the Ibn Ezra's tentative endorsement of the theory, why can't we dismiss similar statements of other sages once we've demonstrated that they were wrong?

Search for more information about epistemology at 4torah.com

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