Delayed by a plague of biblical proportions

Awaiting the opening of Beit Shemesh’s Biblical Museum of Natural History.

BEIT SHEMESH’S new Biblical Museum of Natural History, the opening os which has been put on hold by COVID-19 restrictions. (photo credit: Courtesy)
BEIT SHEMESH’S new Biblical Museum of Natural History, the opening os which has been put on hold by COVID-19 restrictions.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Biblical Museum of Natural History (BMNH) director Rabbi Natan Slifkin can’t help but smile at the Creator’s sense of humor – just as the Manchester, UK-born founder of a $2m. facility that is part petting zoo, part natural history museum and part Torah education center was about to open his state-of-the-art complex, a plague of biblical proportions struck.
Pending the lifting of Health Ministry social distancing restrictions meant to curtail the spread of the novel coronavirus, Slifkin’s unique menagerie of taxidermy animals and live critters will have to wait for the ribbon cutting and crowds. Further complicating the timetable, because of the Health Ministry closure, construction workers from the West Bank have been unable to come to put the finishing touches on the 1,400 sq. m. building.
Interviewed at the all-but-finished BMNH and covered in the construction site’s dust, Slifkin begins at Genesis. Animals appear throughout the Torah, he explains, starting with the story of a snake seducing Eve to bite the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.
How many references are there to how many creatures?
“It’s hard to say exactly,” responds the author of The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom. Some of the names appear just once, and their meaning is obscure, continues Slifkin. He puts the number of animals at a highly unscientific “approximately 100.”
PETTING A taxidermy lion.PETTING A taxidermy lion.
They‘re all represented at the brand-new Beit Shemesh building, just down the highway from the newly-opened IKEA and near where Samson is believed to have been buried in Tel Tzora overlooking the Sorek Valley.
The collection in the Hall of Biblical Wildlife includes some surprising displays. For example, the behemoth mentioned in Job 40:15–24 is in fact a hippopotamus. Then there’s the king of the beasts.
“We’re happy that Samson’s lion is back in the neighborhood,” he smiles.
And yes, Slikfin is a fan of the Netflix reality series Tiger King.
“I’ve been nicknamed the Zoo Rabbi,” laughs the graduate of Jerusalem’s Ohr Somayach Yeshiva.
While the hippopotamus was hunted to extinction in Israel about 3,000 years ago, and lions were last seen in the Jordan Valley some eight centuries ago, they both represent how man killed off the Holy Land’s fauna as he altered the ecology from a verdant land of milk and honey covered with oak forests to a country of swamps and desert. Indeed, when German Templers settled in their seven colonies in the Galilee, Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem and elsewhere in the late 19th century, they imported their guns and love of hunting. The result? The last of the indigenous big mammals were wiped out.
GETTING UP close and personal with a friendly lizard.GETTING UP close and personal with a friendly lizard.
Compounding the misunderstanding of what are the no-longer present animals mentioned in the Bible, Slifkin explains that European exegetes unfamiliar with nature in the Middle East mistranslated some of the names. For example, Rashi, the French medieval commentator living in Troyes from 1040 to 1104, translated zvi (Song of Songs 2:9) as a “deer” when it is, in fact, a gazelle, says Slifkin, whose PhD dissertation was titled “Rabbinic Encounters with Zoology.”
While tzav in modern Hebrew is a turtle, the meaning of the ancient word for some non-kosher animal that the people of Israel must refrain from eating is unclear.
“These also shall be unclean unto you among the creeping things that creep upon the earth; the weasel, and the mouse, and the tortoise after his kind.” (Leviticus 11:29)
The translators of the King James Bible translated tzav as “tortoise,” but this wasn’t the case with many other translators in the past. Aramaic translations of the Bible from Hebrew rendered tzav as khardona, this being a kind of lizard. Translators into Arabic did the same as the Aramaic ones, choosing dhab – another lizard.
The Greek translation, the Septuagint, went with krokodilus, and Jerome’s Latin translation – the Vulgate – followed suit with crocodillus. Both mean large lizard.
“My personal favorite is the thorny uromastyx lizard,” smiles Slifkin, also called the Egyptian mastigure or uromastyx aegyptius.
HAVING SHOWN what animals are found in the Bible, the BMNH then moves on to animals not included. For example, the zebra from southern Africa and the lemur from Madagascar.
Then there’s the nonpareil collection of 40 shofars (horns), including kosher ones from animals like a ram and non-kosher ones from a rhinoceros. The latter animal is disqualified, as it neither has split hooves nor chews its cud, and because its horn is not hollow.
SNAKE, rattle and roll - visitors hold a three-meter-long Burmese Python. SNAKE, rattle and roll - visitors hold a three-meter-long Burmese Python.
Who would assemble such a collection?
An “eccentric collector,” responds Slifkin with a touch of British understatement.
Entering the Hall of Kosher and Non-Kosher Animals, visitors can touch all the taxidermy displays. The giraffe, the rabbi points out, is the largest kosher animal in the world.
Turning creepier albeit still kosher, Slifkin shows off a terrarium that is home to several hundred locusts.
The Hall of Small Animals also has some surprises, some attesting to man’s woeful abuse of Mother Nature. A cage is home to a coati, an illegally held exotic raccoon-like animal from South America that was abandoned by its captors in Jerusalem and brought to the BMNH by the Nature and Parks Authority staff. Similarly, the rangers brought an illegally raised falcon. Slifkin is unable to release the magnificent raptor into the wild since it is completely unafraid of humans and would be unable to survive.
But it’s in the Snake Room where even the most blasé visitor will be dazzled by Slifkin’s approach to the Bible. Wrapped in a three-meter-long live Burmese Python, the rabbi explains: “We want to give people a snake encounter. That’s why we have so many non-native snakes that are suitable for handling. And that helps us appreciate all God’s creatures should be respected.”
RABBI NATAN Slifkin with some of his menagerie.RABBI NATAN Slifkin with some of his menagerie.
Pending its grand opening in the indeterminate future, the BMNH is offering virtual tours. For more info, go to