The Gemara in Sanhedrin 91 relates that a certain heretic challenged Rebbi Ami regarding Techiyas ha'Mesim, saying that it is not possible for a decomposed body, which turns into earth, to rise again as a living body. One of Rebbi Ami's proofs for Techiyas ha'Mesim was the fact that "there is a rodent that lives in the valley that today is half-flesh and half-earth, and tomorrow it becomes completely flesh."
We find this creature mentioned elsewhere in the Gemara in a different context. The Mishnah in Chulin (126b) mentions a mouse "which is half-flesh and half-earth; one who touches the flesh part is Tamei, and one who touches the earth part is Tahor."
Is there any evidence today to support the existence of rodents that are formed from the earth? (The following discussion is culled primarily from the research of Rabbi Nosson Slifkin (www.zootorah.com), which will be published in his forthcoming book, "Mysterious Creatures," Targum Press, summer 2003.)
- The RAMBAM seems to confirm the existence of such a creature. In Perush ha'Mishnayos (Chulin, ibid.) he writes, "This is a well-known matter; there is no end to the number of people who have told me that they have seen it. Such a thing is indeed astonishing, and I have no explanation for it."
The TIFERES YISRAEL (Bo'az, Chulin 9:6) also defends the existence of such a creature. He writes, "I have heard heretics mocking with regard to the creature that is discussed here and in Sanhedrin 91a, and denying it, saying that there is no such thing at all. Therefore, I have seen fit to mention here that which I found written in a Western European work compiled by a scholar renowned among the scholars of the world. His name is Link, and the book is titled 'Auervelt.' In volume I, page 327, he writes that such a creature was found in Egypt in the district of Thebes, and in the Egyptian language that rodent is called 'dipus jaculus;' and in German it is called 'springmaus.' Its forequarters -- head, chest, and hands -- are perfectly formed, but its hindquarters are still embedded in the earth, until after several days when it fully changes to flesh. And I say, 'How great are Your works, Hashem!'"
- However, Professor S. Z. Leiman has raised doubts about the accuracy of the Tiferes Yisrael's understanding of Link's words (in his article entitled, "Rav Yisrael Lipshutz and the Mouse that is Half Flesh and Half Earth," printed in Chazon Nachum, New York, Yeshiva University 1998). Link cites Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian, who reports that the Egyptians maintain that life first began in Egypt, and as proof of this they note that mice are generated in vast numbers from the soil of their land. Diodorus himself testifies, "Indeed, even in our day during the inundations of Egypt, the generation of forms of animal life can clearly be seen taking place in the pools which remain the longest, for, whenever the river begun to recede and the sun has thoroughly dried the surface of the slime, living animals, they say, take shape, some of them fully formed, but some only half so and still actually united with the very earth."
Link then adds a footnote to Diodorus' account. He writes, "The springmaus (dipus jaculus), which dwells in Upper Egypt and is characterized by very short forelegs, looks as though it is a creature that is not yet fully developed."
This "springmaus" is the jerboa. The jerboa belongs to a family of tiny to large rodents that have very small forelegs (which they hold against their bodies) and long back legs for jumping and dig burrows in which they sleep. One of the three small subfamilies is known as Dipodinae and it includes the genus Jaculus. This is the dipus jaculus mentioned by Link.
It is clear that Link himself, who lived in the nineteenth century and was very familiar with the jerboa, did not believe that it or any other animal grows from the ground. Rather, he is saying that this creature may be the source of the Egyptian myth. Because the jerboa's forelegs are not visible while it is jumping, it appears to be a two-legged mouse (which is why it is called "dipus," or "two legs"). One who observes it sitting on the ground or jumping in the air, it appears that the two hind-legs are actually the forelegs, and the rear part of the mouse has not yet been formed.
- To what, then, were the Tana'im referring when they discussed a mouse that was partially formed from dirt? See our Insights to the Daf, for a full discussion of this subject