Tag Archives: Biology

What Was the Forbidden Fruit?

This week we begin a new cycle of Torah readings with Beresheet, undoubtedly the most mysterious parasha of the Torah. We read of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and how they were forbidden from consuming the fruit of the Etz HaDa’at Tov v’Ra, “Tree of Knowledge of God and Evil”. What was this tree? What was its fruit? And why were Adam and Eve barred from eating of it?

In Western artwork, the Forbidden Fruit is usually depicted as an apple. This has no origin in Jewish thought, and instead comes from the interplay of the nearly identical Latin words mălum¸“evil” (as in the English “malevolent”), and mālum, “apple” (also the root of English “melon”). Having said that, Jewish texts do describe the Garden of Eden as having the smell of an apple orchard (see Rashi on Genesis 27:27). Maybe this is why the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was associated with an apple tree—and why the Latin words for “evil” and “apple” are so similar!

In the Talmud, the Sages give three possibilities for the identity of the Forbidden Fruit (Sanhedrin 70a, Berakhot 40a). The first is that it was grapes. Apparently, Adam and Eve became drunk from wine, and this led to their sin. The Sages here admonish Noah for having planted a vineyard after the Flood (Genesis 9:20), for he should’ve known from Adam and Eve that this was a bad idea! The second opinion is that the Tree of Knowledge was a variety of wheat. This is based on the relatedness of the words chitah (חטה), “wheat”, and chet (חטא), “sin”. The third opinion is that it was a fig tree, since we read how Adam and Eve covered themselves up with fig leaves right after consuming the fruit (Genesis 3:7). Rabbi Nehemiah holds that, in poetic fashion, just as they sinned with the fig, they were covered up with the fig.

Of course, all three of these possibilities are problematic. Neither grape nor wheat is a “tree” in the traditional sense. And it is hard to imagine that the common fig would have once been the Forbidden Fruit. Conversely, the fig is generally portrayed in very positive terms in the Tanakh (see, for example, Deuteronomy 8:7 and Micah 4:4).

The simplest explanation is that the Tree of Knowledge was a completely unique tree, unlike any other in the world. Perhaps the Sages were trying to describe some of the qualities of the Fruit, and that it had elements of wheat, grape, and fig. Wheat can be turned into flour and made into bread, whose ability to rise is seen as a metaphor for an inflated ego (hence the deeper reason of removing chametz during Pesach). Grape can be turned into wine, the most common way for people to go under the influence and be drawn to sin. Figs are often associated with sexuality in mythology. Maybe the Forbidden Fruit symbolized pride, debauchery, lust—wheat, grape, fig. Interestingly, the initials of these three species in Hebrew can spell da’at (דעת), the Tree of “Knowledge”: Another name for wheat, or grain, in the Tanakh is dagan (דגן); grapes are ‘anavim (ענבים); and fig is te’enah (תאנה).

Blessing Bread and Returning to Eden

The Midrash expands on the Talmudic passage above (Beresheet Rabbah 15:7). It gives a further reason for why the Forbidden Fruit might be wheat. On the surface, the Midrash brings an old figure of speech that a person who lacks knowledge would be described as having never eaten bread. The deeper implication of this Midrash is that, unlike everything else, bread is a quintessentially human food. Animals also eat fruits, vegetables, meat, and milk, but only humans eat bread. Processing hard wheat into edible bread requires divine knowledge. This is symbolic of the divine knowledge found within the Tree of Knowledge.

Bread represents something very powerful: man’s ability to manipulate his environment for his own benefit. Animals do not have this ability; they are victims of whatever nature throws at them. Man alone is able to change nature. This could be as simple as baking bread, or as complex as seeding the clouds to make rain and manipulate the weather. The Tree of Knowledge represents this divine ability, and maybe this is why the Torah says that once man consumes of it, they will be like gods (Genesis 3:22).

Intriguingly, the Midrash goes on to a discussion of the hamotzi blessing recited on bread. Reading between the lines, the Midrash reveals that reciting hamotzi might very well be, from a Kabbalistic perspective, fulfilling a cosmic tikkun for the sin of Eden. God cursed the land following Adam and Eve’s sin, and when we recite birkat hamazon after eating a meal, we bless the good land that God gave us. This serves to “sweeten” (or reverse, or temper) that curse of Eden.

The Etrog as Forbidden Fruit

The same Midrash above also speaks at length about the possibility that the Fruit was a grape or fig. It adds that it could have been a fruit called berat sheva or a different variety called berat ali, the identities of which are no longer clear. Some comment that these are types of figs. Interestingly, Rabbi Abba of Acco says the Fruit was an etrog, the special citron we use on the holiday of Sukkot. He proves it by pointing out how the Torah states Eve saw the Tree of Knowledge was “good for food” (Genesis 3:6), as if the tree itself, and not just its fruit, was edible. Rabbi Abba says that, apparently, no wood is edible except for that of the etrog tree, so the Tree of Knowledge must have been an etrog!

The mitzvah of taking an etrog comes from the Torah’s statement that we should take a pri etz hadar, the fruit of a “precious”, “unique”, or “enduring” tree (Leviticus 23:40). For the Sages, only the etrog fit that description. The same description works for the Tree of Knowledge—certainly a one-of-a-kind and “enduring” species. We can take another mystical plunge into the Midrash and extract that the mitzvah of acquiring an etrog and performing netilat lulav on Sukkot is a spiritual rectification, or tikkun, for the primordial sin of Eden. It has been pointed out that we shake the lulav and etrog a total of 18 times (three times in each of the six directions), with 18 being the gematria of chai (חי), “life”. When Adam and Eve consumed the Forbidden Fruit, they brought death into the world. In turn, we take the etrog and bring life into the world. Fittingly, at no point in the holiday do we actually consume the etrog!

A Tree of Unification

The Midrash cited above concludes by saying all of the opinions are inaccurate, and that the Tree of Knowledge was, of course, its very own species. God “did not, and will not, reveal to man” the identity of this tree. Others hold that it wasn’t a tree at all, and the whole narrative is an allegory. The Tree of Knowledge is symbolic for something else.

The most popular explanation is that the Tree is symbolic of sexual union. The Arizal explains that da’at means sexual intimacy, which is why the Torah describes the union of husband and wife as “knowledge” (as in Genesis 4:1, 4:17, or 4:25). He states that sexual arousal begins in the mind, as does the process of generating seed, hence the relationship to “knowledge” (see Sha’ar HaPesukim on Beresheet). Indeed, today we know from a scientific perspective that the hormones governing the reproductive system and the production of sex cells emerge from the hypothalamus and pituitary in the brain.

From this perspective, Adam and Eve’s “fruitful” encounter is a metaphor for sexual intimacy. This seems to be the plain meaning of the text, which says how Adam and Eve recognized that they were naked, and goes on to state how they produced children. In his Creation Legends of the Ancient Near East (pg. 134), S.G.F Brandon (1907-1971) suggests that this is precisely why the central “punishment” of consuming the Forbidden Fruit was bringing death into the world. Until then, Adam and Eve were alone on a finite planet. Once they learned to procreate, Earth would get more and more populated until there would be no resources left. Death is, therefore, the most natural and fitting consequence. People must die to make way for new people, or else the world would quickly be at its limits. At the same time, when God says consuming the Fruit would make man godly, it means that it would give man the divine ability to create more humans!

Why Must Evil Exist?

If we read the Torah literally, what does it mean that Fruit was of a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? The simplest explanation is that Adam and Eve did not originally have a concept of good or bad. While Eden was entirely good, and full of every possible delight and pleasure, Adam and Eve had no way of appreciating it, for they had never known any suffering. All of us today appreciate pleasure because we have experienced pain. For Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden was just bland.

In a strange kind of way, the world needs evil to exist, at least for a temporary period of time. God wanted a world that was entirely good and pleasurable, but paradoxically, such a world first needs to go through a period of evil and pain. Only afterwards can we truly appreciate the good, and fully revel in the delights of Eden. This is why God tells us that “I form light and create darkness, make peace and create evil, I am Hashem, who makes all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7) We therefore find ourselves in this temporary phase of (unfortunately) very great aches and challenges. In the grand scheme of things, these millennia are just a blip in the cosmic passage of time. Soon enough, this difficult—though necessary—phase will be over, and we shall return to a true Garden of Eden.

Future Utopia (Credit: Kitbash3d.com)

 

Why is Honey Kosher if it Comes From Non-Kosher Insects?

At the start of this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, the Torah reminds us that God gave us the land of Israel, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut. 26:9). When the Torah says honey, it likely does not mean honey from bees, but rather “honey” from fruit trees, particularly date honey and fig honey. This is illustrated by a well-known story from the Talmud (Ketubot 111b):

Rami ben Ezekiel once paid a visit to Bnei Brak where he saw goats grazing under fig trees while honey was flowing from the figs, and milk ran from them, and these mingled with each other. “This is indeed,” he remarked, “[a land] flowing with milk and honey.”

If the Torah does not speak of bee honey, while clearly stating that bees are not kosher for consumption, why is bee honey kosher? This is especially problematic in light of the Mishnaic principle that “whatever goes forth from the unclean is unclean, and whatever goes forth from the clean is clean”.

Yet, from other places in Scripture we see that bee honey is absolutely kosher. For example, we read in Judges 14:5-9 about Samson’s famous brawl with a lion on his way to Timnah. Samson killed the lion and later, on his way back home, saw that bees had strangely built a nest inside the lion carcass, at which point Samson took some of their honey and ate it, and even brought some to his parents.

Amazingly, in 2010 archaeologists discovered the earliest known beekeeping and honey-making apparatus in the world, dating back three thousand years—in Israel! Bee honey was clearly as popular among ancient Israelites as it is among modern-day Jews. How is it kosher?

Excretions of Flying Insects

The Talmud (Bechorot 7b) comments on the above Mishnah and discusses the nature of bee honey:

“Whatever goes forth from the unclean is unclean, and whatever goes forth from the clean is clean”… an objection was raised: Why did [the Sages] say that honey from bees is permitted? Because the bees store it up in their bodies but do not drain it from their bodies… The Divine Law expressly permitted honey, for it was taught: R. Jacob says, “Yet these may you eat of all the winged swarming things…” [Leviticus 11:21] This you may eat, but you are forbidden to eat an unclean winged swarming thing. But is not an unclean winged swarming thing expressly mentioned in the Scripture [as forbidden]? Rather we must explain [thus]: An unclean flying thing that swarms you must not eat, but you may eat what an unclean flying thing casts forth from its body. And what is this? This is bees’ honey.

This passage follows a long discussion which analyzes different excretions of non-kosher animals; whether they are thick or thin, and whether they come out like they came in, or if the animal had processed the substance in its body and transformed it. The Talmud suggests that bees take up the nectar and collect it in their sacs, but do not actually digest and “excrete” it. This is true, as we know that nectar is collected into a special sac, the “honey stomach”, where it is mixed with enzymes and transformed into honey, before being regurgitated into the honeycomb. (More specifically, the bees actually regurgitate the pre-honey substance into the mouths of other bees, multiple times, before the substance is put into the comb, then exposed to air currents from the bees’ beating wings in order to evaporate out the water and produce that final, thick and sweet product.)

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that one who eats honey is not just consuming flower nectar, but also ingesting compounds from the bee itself. The Talmud knows this, which is probably why it goes on to prove that honey is still kosher by creatively interpreting the Torah’s verses. It concludes that while flying insects themselves are not kosher to eat (except several species of locust, as explicitly stated in the Torah), the excretions of such flying insects are kosher. Interestingly, this relates to another special flying insect, whose excretions have been identified with none other than manna!

Manna from Heaven or Manna from Lice?

Manna mealybug anatomy, from the Israel Journal of Entomology Vol XXX, pg. 20

The Sinai Peninsula is home to a species of lice called Trabutina mannipara. This lice infests the Tamarisk trees that grow in the Sinai, sucking the tree’s sap, and in turn, excreting a white, honey-like substance. This edible substance is very sweet, and also very light and flakey, which means that it doesn’t last long before the sun dries it all up. Sounds familiar?

The Torah tells us that the Israelites consumed sweet, white manna in the wilderness, which was like frost and had to be harvested in the morning just as the dew ascended (Exodus 16:14, Numbers 11:7-8). Not surprisingly, the Trabutina mannipara lice has been nicknamed the “manna mealybug”, and its excretions are called mann by the Sinai Bedouins who still harvest and eat it.

Based on the Talmudic principle of the excretions of flying insects being permissible for consumption, the lice manna, like bee honey, is kosher. In fact, the Talmud (Berakhot 57b) overtly connects the two substances, stating that “honey is one-sixtieth of manna”.

Tamarisk tree in the desert

Of course, the Torah states that manna was miraculously sent from Heaven, and the Talmud (Chagigah 12b) notes precisely where in the Heavens it was “ground up”. Besides, only about 500 pounds of “Sinai manna” is produced annually by the lice—not nearly enough to feed an entire nation of people subsisting off of manna almost exclusively.

Still, the existence of Sinai manna is no coincidence. A well-known Jewish dictum is that all things in the material world are only a reflection of spiritual entities above. Perhaps the lice manna is that physical counterpart of the Israelites’ Heavenly manna.

Honey, too, must have a spiritual counterpart. Rabbi Avraham Schorr points out that the gematria of dvash (דבש), “honey”, is 306, equal to the difference between guf (גוף), “body”, and neshamah (נשמה), “soul”. Honey is symbolic of that spiritual substance that “glues” the soul to the body. In just two weeks’ time, we will be dipping various foods in honey during the Rosh Hashanah meal, in part symbolizing our hope to be inscribed in the Book of Life, thus keeping the soul glued to its body for one more sweet new year.

A Mystical Look at Pregnancy and Abortion

Tazria begins by stating that a woman who gives birth to a son is spiritually impure for seven days, and requires another 33 days of purification afterwards. If she gives birth to a female, the impurity lasts fourteen days, followed by 66 days of purification.

The Zohar (III, 43b) comments on this section by first reminding us that each soul has male and female halves, and when the soul enters this world, it splits and enters two different bodies, male and female. If the two soulmates merit it, they will find each other and reunite. We are then told that the female part of the soul is larger and more powerful, which is why a woman who gives birth to a female needs double the purification time.

The Zohar explains why the Torah prescribes these specific time periods: 7 and 33 days for boys; 14 and 66 days for girls. It states that at birth, the soul first enters the body and is in complete disarray. For the first seven days, the unsettled soul “roams the body to find its place”. On the eighth day, the soul is finally getting comfortable in its new home. This is one reason why circumcision is done on the eighth day, once the soul is no longer distressed. The soul then needs an additional 33 days to acclimatize to its new environment until it has completely settled into the body. For the greater female souls, the time periods are doubled.

Note how these time periods are referring to the soul of the newborn, yet it is the mother that is described as being “impure”. This is because the mother carried the child, and its soul was housed within her temporarily. (Perhaps this extra soul is responsible for the well-known “pregnancy glow”.) Once the baby is born, its soul leaves the mother’s shelter and is now independent in the baby’s body. (And that pregnancy glow is gone!) The sudden loss of spiritual energy is difficult on the mother as well, and she requires forty (or eighty) days to get back to herself.

A major question arises here: if the soul only enters the newborn at birth, why is abortion forbidden? Religious groups of various faiths have argued for centuries on when exactly the soul enters the body, and many have taken the stance that a fetus already carries a soul, making abortion indistinguishable from murder. What do Jewish texts say?

Abortion and Gestation in the Talmud

In one passage, the Talmud includes abortion under the category of murder. However, it also famously states that if the mother’s life is at risk—at any point in the pregnancy—the fetus must be removed, “limb by limb” if necessary. In such cases, the fetus is seen as a rodef, a “pursuer”, referring to the Torah law that if one is “pursuing” another to kill them, it is permitted to kill the pursuer first. The Talmud concludes that a fetus can be aborted at any point until its head has emerged. Once the head has emerged, the newborn is considered completely alive, and in cases of life-risk, it is no longer clear who the “pursuer” is. The Sages suggest that the soul fully enters the newborn only at birth, and it is only then that the newborn is a complete person.

Three-month old fetus (Courtesy: BabyCentre)

Elsewhere in the Talmud (Niddah 8b), we are told that the fetus already resembles a person at the three-month mark. We now know that it is precisely around this point that the developing baby has the features of a human (and is no longer called an “embryo”, but a “fetus”). The Talmud adds (Berakhot 60a) that until this three-month mark, a person should pray every day that there shouldn’t be a miscarriage. After three months, a person should pray that the fetus will not be stillborn, and after six months, a person should pray that the mother has an easy delivery. We are told that one should pray for the baby’s desired gender only before the 40-day mark. This, too, shows incredible wisdom on the part of our Sages. Today we know scientifically that the sex organs begin their development around day 42. The ancient rabbis knew that after day 40, gender development is already in progress, and there is no point praying for something different.

In a related passage, we are told that until day 40, the fetus is insignificant and more lifeless than living (Yevamot 69b). Today we know that the neural tube which will make the brain forms around day 40, and this is when the first neurons start signalling. Scientifically speaking, there could be no talk of any kind of consciousness or brain activity before day 40.

Because of this, most rabbinic authorities are far more lenient when it comes to abortions before the 40th day of pregnancy. Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (1863-1940), who was widely recognized as the greatest posek of his generation, even suggested that abortions before the 40th day are not Biblically prohibited (Achiezer, III, 65:14). Nevertheless, even before the 40th day there is a potential to produce a living human being, and life is valued above all else, which is why abortions are still forbidden except for cases of absolute necessity.

By the 20-week mark (midway through pregnancy), fetuses are seen rolling around, sucking their thumbs, and responding to the prodding of the ultrasound. There is no doubt that the fetus is alive and aware at this point, and any abortion other than a life risk is hardly distinguishable from murder.

Soul Infusion

The fact that the fetus is aware by the 20-week mark (if not sooner) suggests that it does indeed have some level of soul. Yet, earlier we saw sources seemingly propose that the soul does not enter until birth. How do we reconcile these apparent contradictions?

To answer this question it is important to keep in mind that the soul is not one uniform entity. Rather, the soul is composed of multiple layers, each made up of countless sparks. The lowest level of soul is called nefesh, the basic life essence. Above that is the ruach, “spirit”, an animating force that, among other things, gives a person their drives and inclinations. Then comes the neshamah, a higher level of consciousness and the part that gives one their unique traits and qualities. Further still is the chayah, the aura that emanates from the body, followed by the loftiest level, the yechidah, which may be described as a spiritual umbilical cord between each soul and its Creator.

The Arizal taught that ever-higher levels of soul are accessed gradually over the course of one’s life. At birth, a person has only a complete nefesh. As they grow, they are infused with ruach, which becomes fully accessible at bar or bat mitzvah age. At this point one starts to tap into their neshamah, which is wholly available only at age 20. (For this reason, the Torah considers an adult one who is over 20 years of age. Only those over 20 were counted in the census and allowed to join the military. Our Sages state that although one may be judged for their crimes before age 20 here on Earth, only those sins accrued after age 20 are judged in Heaven. Meanwhile, the Midrash notes that Adam and Eve were created as 20 year olds.) The Arizal taught that most people never end up accessing their entire neshamah, and only the most refined individuals ever unlock their chayah and yechidah.

Based on this model, we see that right from conception the developing embryo is steadily infused with nefesh, the basic life force. By day 40, there is enough nefesh for the embryo to be considered alive. In fact, it is said that this is why the gematria of אם, “mother”, is 41, since a woman becomes a mother on the 41st day of pregnancy.

Once its entire nefesh has been infused, the baby is ready to be born. At birth, it begins to receive its next soul level, the ruach. A careful look at the Zohar passage with which we started reveals that this is precisely what the Zohar meant, as it explicitly mentions the ruach entering at birth, requiring forty days to fully settle in. Therefore, a developing fetus does indeed have a soul, which is why abortion is so highly discouraged—reserved only for true medical cases—and why it has been compared to murder.

Solving a Scientific Mystery

The above also answers a mystery that has been perplexing biologists for decades: what is it that drives an embryo to grow? Why do the cells multiply, and how do they know to differentiate? Each cell is exactly the same, with the exact same set of DNA, yet one clump of cells knows to form the eyes while another knows to form the liver, and so on. Scientists have still not been able to figure out how the embryo “knows” what to do. (For that matter, we can’t figure out how any cell really “knows” what to do.)

The Kabbalists have an answer: it is the steady infusion of soul that drives a mass of undifferentiated cells to do what it needs to. It is the soul that gives the instructions for how the DNA is to be transcribed and translated in each cell, and how the cells are to interact with one another. As the soul grows, so too does the body. It is therefore not surprising that around the age when most people’s bodies stop growing, their souls tend to stop “growing” as well.

This should remind us that our education does not end with formal schooling, nor does maturing stop with the end of puberty. The process of growth and refinement, both physical and spiritual, must continue throughout life. This is the key to true self-fulfillment and happiness.

Jacob’s Sheep: Genetics and Epigenetics in the Torah

geneticsThis week’s parasha is Vayetze, where we read of Jacob’s arrival in Charan and the details of his twenty-year sojourn there. During this time, Jacob married (twice), had a dozen children, and toiled for his cruel father-in-law Laban. Laban recognized that he had been blessed exceedingly on account of Jacob’s presence, and offered him a new wage for his labour. By this point, Jacob knew not to trust the sly Laban, and asked simply for ownership of all the speckled and spotted sheep. Since these imperfect-looking sheep were few in number, Laban readily agreed. It appears that both Laban and Jacob were well aware of the basic principles of genetics. Today, we know that sheep have 17 or so different colour alleles, and white colour is the dominant one.

For those who have forgotten high school biology: An allele is a variation of a gene. So, for example, all humans have a gene for eye colour, but have different alleles that code for the varying colours: some have alleles for blue eyes, while others have brown eyes, etc. Each person has two alleles for every gene – one from their mother, and one from their father. Certain alleles are “dominant”, while others are “recessive”. Dominant alleles are far more likely to be expressed. In humans, brown eye colour is dominant to blue eye colour, which is why some 55% of people have brown eyes, while only about 8% have blue eyes.

Basic "Punnet squares" showing the probabilities of eye colour for the children of fully brown-eyed and blue-eyed parents, and a brown-eyed parent who carries a blue allele.

Basic “Punnet squares” showing the probabilities of eye colour for the children of fully brown-eyed and blue-eyed parents, and a brown-eyed parent who carries a blue allele. (Courtesy: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

White is the dominant allele for sheep colour, so Laban assumed he was getting a terrific deal from Jacob, who was apparently ignorant of sheep genetics. In reality, Jacob knew sheep genetics quite well, and had something else up his sleeve. He only offered Laban this deal because he knew the greedy Laban would readily agree to it. So, how would Jacob outwit his father-in-law?

A Brief Introduction to Epigenetics

Jacob was evidently a far more knowledgeable geneticist than Laban, as he was aware of a concept that has only come to light in recent decades, called epigenetics. Epigenetics refers to various layers of heritability and genetic effects which are above, or outside of (hence the Greek prefix epi), the actual genetic code. In 2008, scientists defined an epigenetic trait as “stably heritable phenotype resulting from changes in a chromosome without alterations in the DNA sequence.” In simple terms: the chromosome that contains the genes is altered in some way without affecting the DNA sequence (the genetic code) itself. That alteration is heritable, too, and passed down from one generation to the next.

A number of epigenetic mechanisms have been discovered. The most common are methylations and acetylations, where small molecules are attached or removed from the DNA strand, causing it to coil either more tightly or less tightly. When the DNA coils more tightly, the gene is rendered inaccessible, and cannot be expressed. If uncoiled, the gene is exposed, and can be translated into the protein it codes for, thus expressing the trait.

Coiling of DNA and gene expression. (Courtesy: National Institutes of Health)

Coiling of DNA and gene expression. (Courtesy: National Institutes of Health)

While epigenetics is quite complicated, its implications are tremendous. What it means in practical terms is that even though a person has a certain gene, that gene does not necessarily have to be expressed, as it can be silenced through epigenetic mechanisms. For example, a person who has a gene that predisposes them to cancer, God forbid, could potentially have that gene suppressed, thus eliminating their increased cancer risk. (Though they don’t work in this precise fashion, epigenetic cancer drugs are now available.) This also applies to people who might be genetically predisposed to obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or theoretically, any trait at all. A person who has both brown and blue alleles does not necessarily have to have brown eyes (which is what we would expect based on principles of classical, or Mendelian, genetics). The brown eye allele can be silenced, allowing the blue allele to be expressed fully.

The same is true for Jacob’s sheep. While the alleles for speckled and spotted sheep are recessive, the dominant white allele can be suppressed, resulting in more speckled and spotted sheep. In the Torah, we read how Jacob took tree branches and stripped away some of their bark to expose the inner white layers so that their pattern resembled that of the speckled and spotted sheep. He then placed these branches in front of the white sheep that were mating, and this resulted in the white sheep producing more speckled and spotted offspring. In this way, Jacob was quickly able to multiply the number of irregular-looking sheep in the flocks, increasing his own wealth, and leaving Laban in utter surprise.

What does science have to say about this? Is it really possible for the white sheep to produce speckled and spotted offspring just by looking at speckled and spotted tree branches? Which factors actually affect epigenetics?

The Epigenetics Revolution

In northern Sweden lies a small, isolated town called Överkalix. This town kept detailed historical records, including births, illnesses, and deaths, as well as harvests and food prices. Researchers started poring over this data and noted a number of emerging patterns. Surprisingly, those who grew up in times of relative abundance tended to live shorter and sicker lives, while those who grew up in times of relative famine were healthier and lived longer! Even more shocking was that these traits passed on to their children and grandchildren. The grandsons of those who grew up in times of abundance lived roughly six years less than grandsons of those who grew up in times of famine!

The Överkalix study opened the door to much more research on the subject, and today we know that not only does food impact our epigenetics, but so does smoking, alcohol, exercise, and just about every lifestyle choice we make. Moreover, recent studies find that not only do our actions impact our epigenetics, but even our thoughts do! In 2013, scientists discovered that meditation affects epigenetic mechanisms and results in, among other things, less inflammation in the body, better stress responses, and faster mental processes.

TIME Magazine Feature on Epigenetics

TIME Magazine Feature on Epigenetics

Epigenetics has brought about a revolution in biology, and a new realization that we are not slaves to our genome. We are very much in control of how our genes operate, and seemingly every choice we make affects our health and wellbeing, as well as the health and wellbeing of our children and grandchildren, since these epigenetic patterns are heritable. This is one of the most enlightening and liberating scientific findings, putting each person in the driver’s seat of their biological fate. It should also motivate us to make healthy lifestyle choices because, even if we might not care so much about our own health, the health of our offspring is directly impacted by our choices.

The Return of Jacob’s Sheep

If meditation plays a role in how our genes are expressed, there is no reason why other mental processes cannot do the same. By visually exposing his sheep to speckled and spotted images, Jacob may very well have triggered an epigenetic change resulting in suppression of white alleles. Neurologists have long known that there is essentially no difference in brain patterns when a person is literally seeing something versus when they are simply visualizing the same thing. If mental visualizations like meditation can affect the epigenome, then why not actual visual displays? Armed with this knowledge, Jacob outwitted his father-in-law and became an exceedingly wealthy man.

Of course, one cannot deny God’s role in the process, as Jacob himself explained to his wives (Genesis 31:7-9):

…your father mocked me and changed my wages ten times, but God did not permit him to harm me. If he would say, “Speckled ones shall be your wages,” all the animals would bear speckled ones, and if he would say, “Ringed ones shall be your wages,” all the animals would bear ringed ones. Thus, God separated your father’s livestock and gave it to me…

Changing one’s epigenetics is not so simple! As with everything else, a little help from Above is always needed. Jacob put in his effort by exposing the animals to stimulating sights, and God took care of the rest.

Jacob's sheep are unique not only in their colour, but also in that the rams have extra horns.

Jacob’s sheep are unique not only in their colour, but also in that the rams have extra horns.

Interestingly, this week saw the arrival of 119 “Jacob’s sheep” to Israel. This ancient breed of sheep originated in the Middle East approximately 5000 years ago. They were extirpated from the land of Israel long ago, but thankfully some survived and were brought across North Africa to Europe and finally America. The rare speckled and spotted sheep are in the Holy Land once more, perhaps a sign of the forthcoming return of all of Jacob’s children to their ancestral home.

Monkeys, Circumcision, and God’s Covenant

This week’s Torah reading is Lech Lecha, which begins the narrative of Abraham, the first of the forefathers of the Jewish people. In the past, we have written about what it was that made Abraham so special, and why he merited to become the primary forefather of God’s chosen people. It is at the end of this week’s reading that God makes an eternal covenant with Abraham and his descendants:

Abraham Journeying to the Land of Canaan, by Gustav Doré

Abraham Journeying to the Land of Canaan, by Gustav Doré

“And I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and between your descendants after you, throughout their generations, an everlasting covenant… And this is My covenant which you shall observe, between Me and you, and between your descendants after you, that every male be circumcised… at the age of eight days every male shall be circumcised throughout the generations…” (Genesis 17:7-12)

God makes a pact with Abraham that reads something like this: Abraham and his descendants take upon themselves the task of observing God’s commandments in order to repair a once-perfect world, and to spread knowledge of Godliness, righteousness, and morality; to be a “light unto the nations”. In return, God promises Abraham constant blessing and protection, as well as the rights to the beautiful, holy land of Israel.

As a sign of this eternal covenant, God requests that Abraham and all of his heirs be circumcised. The reasons for this are numerous and carry a profound meaning. One of these reasons is to serve as a constant reminder to men – who are naturally very prone to sexual immorality and licentiousness – the true purpose of sexual intimacy and reproduction. A deeper reason is that originally, God had created man without the foreskin. As a result of Adam’s consumption of the Fruit, and the subsequent exile from Eden, the foreskin grew out as a mark of imperfection. As always, the physical world is only a reflection of the spiritual, and just as man’s spiritual composition was tainted, so too was man’s physical composition.

Indeed, from a biological perspective, the foreskin serves no significant purpose. Although many hypotheses have been proposed for why it may exist, none have been corroborated. Moreover, it is well-known that circumcision reduces the risk and transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. (Despite the objections of many in recent years who claim that circumcision does not reduce risk of STDs, recent studies do in fact show a clear advantage. Click here to read more.)

Finally, it is interesting to note that the animal world is devoid of foreskins. (Many animals do have a ‘penile sheath’ which is often mistaken for a foreskin.) However, there is one family of mammals that do exhibit a foreskin quite similar to that of humans: primates.

Ape, Humans, and Opposable Thumbs

Although the religious community and the scientific community are frequently at odds with one another when it comes to evolution, both sides agree on one thing: humans and apes share a very special bond. From a scientific perspective, humans and apes share over 95% of our genes, as well as a very recent common ancestor. It is important to note that this does not mean, as many wrongly believe, that “humans came from monkeys”. Humans did not come from monkeys, nor any other apes that exist in the world today. What science suggests is that humans and apes descended from a common ancestor. (So, apes would be more like our biological cousins, and not our “grandparents” as many wrongly assume).

What may surprise a lot of people is that traditional Jewish holy texts say something similar. Judaism divides all created things into four categories: domem, inanimate matter; tzameach, plant life; chai, animal life; and medaber, speaking beings. Humans alone are in the category of medaber, while all animals are in that of chai. The apes, however, are an exception, as they are considered neither chai, nor medaber, but something in between! (A discussion of this can be found in Sha’ar HaMitzvot, on parashat Ekev.)

The Opposable Thumb: essential for fine dexterity, grasping, and making tools.

The Opposable Thumb: essential for fine dexterity, grasping, and making tools.

The great apes are unique in that they, too, are very intelligent, can make tools, and even have opposable thumbs. The opposable thumb is a defining feature, and often said to distinguish humans and apes from the rest of the animal world. Incredibly, nearly 500 years ago the Arizal wrote of the opposable thumb’s spiritual significance, and described it as an appendage that stems from, and symbolizes, the sefirah of Binah, literally “understanding” and intelligence (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Ch. 36).

So, both Torah and science agree that apes are unique and human-like. What exactly is their spiritual significance?

Stop Monkeying Around

Although apes are very similar to humans from a physical standpoint, when it comes to spirituality we inhabit totally opposite spheres. Though apes can communicate, humans alone possess verbal language. Although they can also make rudimentary tools, humans alone have the ability to create, construct, and build civilizations. Whereas apes are known for their sexual promiscuity and polyamorous relationships, humans are meant to be monogamous and loving. Whereas apes are wild, instinctual, and prone to petty violence, humans are meant to be cultured, restrained, and peaceful. In short, apes symbolize the worst of what it means to be human. Those humans that are promiscuous, violent, and animalistic essentially fall to the level of an ape.

In an intriguing passage, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 109a) tells us what happened to those people that built the Tower of Babel. Those that built it with the intention of dwelling in the Heavens were scattered around the Earth. Those that built it simply for idolatrous purposes had their language confounded. Finally, those that built it in order to wage war, to gain more power and material gain, were turned into apes – an appropriate measure-for-measure punishment.

It is therefore not surprising that of all animals, only apes and humans share the trait of foreskin. Apes represent the very spiritual imperfection that humans aim to repair. And of course, while apes are powerless to do anything about it, humans alone have the ability to remove their foreskins. Humans have the power to repair their imperfections, to restore their divine image, and to return to a perfect state of Eden, as God had originally intended.