Thursday, May 12, 2011

A controversial Hebrew essay on the age of man; also, dinosaurs and mammoths in 19th century Hebrew literature.

Here's an interesting article that created a bit of a storm when it first appeared in 1865 in Avraham Uri Kovner's book Cheker Davar. Titled ?כמה שני מציאות האדם על פני האדמה, or, How Many Years Has Man Existed on Earth?, the essay explained the point of view of modern science and obviously concluded that the answer to the question is considerably more than 5625 years.

(See the end for the entire essay, which is based extensively on Schleiden. To give a picture of the state of education of the time, Kovner felt compelled to explain paranthetically what "geology" means. There's also a section on the Mississippi Delta.)

Here is the man himself:

At the time Kovner (1841-1909) was regarded as a sort of literary pain in the neck in Haskalah circles, writing severely critical and disrespectful things about some of its heroes. Furthermore, the moderate Maskilim were religious and Kovner was not. In his early twenties he had already had a failed marriage, Kovner found himself and became an outsider in many ways. Eventually he ran into very big trouble by forging his boss's signature on a check from the bank in which he worked and was sentenced to jail for four years, during which time he initiated a correspondence with Dostoevsky. Eventually he converted to Christianity when he married a young Russian girl whom, I suppose, was not going to go to our side. So it is clear that the progression from science to bank robbery to apostasy is established.

To give an illustration of how unusual his view was at the time, simply accepting the science of geology, consider by contrast the way in which Chaim Selig Slonimsky introduced dinosaurs to the readers of Hazefirah in 1878 - תמונת מין עקרב מעופף אשר נתקשה לאבן מימי המבול, "A picture of a winged scorpionesque creature, which hardened to stone in the Flood."

As you can see, without much fanfare Slonimski declared that dinosaur fossils are from the time of the flood.

In another issue an article on dinosaurs was called השרידים מדור המבול, or The Remains from the Period of the Flood. This one included pictures like the following:

Incidentally I am well aware of Jeffrey C. Blutinger's very good article "Creatures from Before the Flood: Reconciling Science and Genesis in the Pages of a 19th-Century Hebrew Newspaper" (Jewish Social Studies n.s. 16.2 Winter 2010). This just goes to illustrate the you-snooze-you-lose principle, since I had these articles and images on my hard drive before his article appeared (although perhaps not before he was writing it) so it could have been my scoop! In any case, his article is a must-read for the context of these pieces in Hatzefirah and the scientific consensus of the period. Also be sure to read it to find out about how Slonimsky dealt with Darwin (rejection) and how to explain "cave men" if all humans are really the sons of Adam and Eve.

Detail of the biggest mammoth no one ever saw:

Incidentally, while R. Jacob Lipschutz's famous essay, published in 1845, mentioned mammoths and their apparent great age - see an excerpt

less well known is Shadal's comment building upon the discovery of mammoths. He apparently felt that such discoveries portend the possible finding of fossilized giant humans. To give Dan Klein's skilled translation:
The existence of a few giants of abnormally tall men cannot be denied: Moses mentions Og; [Joshua's] spies mention Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai; in Samuel we find Goliath and others. Besides the testimony of the Bible, we now see bones of elephants and other [ancient] animals in the bowels of the earth, and scholars say that the animals to which these bones belonged were as large as elephants. It may well be that besides those animals that have been discovered up to now, some human beings as large as "elephants," from our point of view, will be found as well.

Speaking of elephants, here is a curiosity from 1841. The book is called Toledot Ha-aretz and the author is Joseph Schönhak. It is a natural history book in the light of Torah. It contains letters of blessing from R. Jacob Zvi Meklenburg, Slonimsky's father-in-law Abraham Stern, and approbations from four rabbis.

As you can see, the author explains that the Hebrew word for elephant, pil, is also the name for this animal in Arabic and Aramaic. However, in Ethiopic it is called "habah" and it from this that Hebrew derives its word for the elephant's ivory tusk, shenhav. (He means to say that it's a composite of the Hebrew word shen, tooth, and the cognate term hab, which means ivory in a related language; however, in an Amharic dictionary I found that it says that tole or nage is the word for elephant). This is in accordance with what is written in I Kings 10:22 and II Chronicles 9:21, that Solomon imported shenhabim, ivory, from Ophir. (This is a strange mistake. It says that he imported gold from Ophir, but ivory from Tarshish.) The Targum translates shenhabim as "an elephant's tooth." Here is a powerful proof that the land of Ophir is not in America (עמעריק"א) as many believe, because there are no elephants to be found there; elephants are only in eastern lands.

Ironically, mammoths were discovered in America, as R. Lipschutz's pointed out only 4 years later - in Baltimore, in 1807. Of course that isn't relevant to Kings Solomon's time when, presumably, there were no elephants in America. Of course the Bible said that the ivory came from Tarshish . . .

Here is the complete essay "How Many Years Has Man Existed on Earth?" by Avraham Uri Kovner:


  1. I once heard of from an UNreliable source close to 8 years ago that in the Zohar it speaks about "large reptiles" that once roamed the earth...You never know what you might find and where you might find things and sometimes these sort of statements turn out true or least a person might figure out where the mistake was made when a possible source is indeed found...

    If you have anything else (especially earlier) on Dinosaurs please post it!

  2. There's a book in Hebrew called "The Scientific God" by Judah Reinharz and Yaacov Shavit. It describes the "popular science" genre in 19th century Eastern Europe, and how many of the authors, who were religious, dealt with the religion/science issue. Check it out:

  3. Great post.
    It pains me greatly to say this, but although you are a good guy you are doomed to languish in purgatory forever. You may be saved however, by excepting the Torah view of the age of the earth, and publicizing your acceptance on this very blog.
    (maybe you should start moderating comments:)).

  4. Which is most likely true?
    A. The previous comment was serious.
    B. The previous comment was good-naturedly sarcastic.
    C. The previous comment was bad-naturedly sarcastic.
    -- Phil

  5. Thanks for the shout-out, S.

    Some years ago on a rainy day during Chol Hamoed Pesach, my family went to the Museum of Natural History instead of the usual Bronx Zoo. So did all the Chassidim. In one room there was a life-size diorama of a pair of hominids, perhaps "Lucy" and her mate. Two chassidishe kinder were peering at the exhibit. One said to the other, pointing to each of the hominids, "Dus iz Udum, un dus iz Chavah."

  6. Slight misprint: my translation reads, "The existence of a few giants OR abnormally tall men..."

  7. Dan, it wasnt Lucy. Lucy is right here in our own Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

    [Agav, nice translation of Shadal's "kimidaseinu" as "as they appear to us'"]

  8. Thanks for the post S.! My specialty in graduate school was the history of geology/paleontology. I always loved dinosaurs as a kid & the struggle to reconcile paleontology w/ Torah was a major issue when I became observant. I did my MA on a major Christian geologist, Edward Hitchcock. See I'd love to talk with you privately. Email KT & remember to count omer, Ariel Segal

  9. Re "habah" (not) meaning"elephant" in Ethiopic — interestingly, dictionaries of ancient "Egyptian* give the word for "elephant" as "habu" or "abu" or "yebu" ... Does this survive in "Medinet Habu" which is the Arabic name for Elephntine Island in Egypt?

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