Friday, August 26, 2011

Do Ants have a King? Is it Permissible to Ask?

It's been almost two months since I shut down this blog. The reason for the shutdown is still in place: Having been appointed as Israel's State Archivist and a high-ish civil servant, I can't write a political blog. (Nor, to be honest, do I have the time). Interestingly, however, since the shutdown there's a steady stream of a few hundred daily visitors to this dormant blog; apparently, if one believes the visitor stats, some of the posts are useful even long after they were written. Which poses a problem since truly dormant blogs eventually get deleted by the owners of the servers on which they reside (Google, in this case). So by way of staving off that fate, I will ocasionally post here, never on political matters, and only rarely - just enough to keep the appearence of a live blog.

Here's a nice Daf Yomi story from Hulin 56b, which we passed earlier this week. It is written, in Proverbs chapter 6 verses 6-8:
Go to the ant, you sluggard;
   consider its ways and be wise!
7 It has no commander,
   no overseer or ruler,
8 yet it stores its provisions in summer
   and gathers its food at harvest.

Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta asked himself if this was really so, and decided to test it. On a hot summer day he found an anthill, and used his cloak to cast shade over it, since ants (so the story) like shade and dislike the hot sun. Soon an ant came out and saw the shade. Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta marked the ant so he could recognize it. The ant went back into the anthill and annonced that there was shade outside, and soon enough other ants began swarming out. Rabbi Shimon then removed the shading cloak; When the new ants saw there was in fact no shade, they killed the first ant; from this Rabbi Shimon infered that they indeed have no king, since if they had one they would have required his permission before killing the errant ant.

The Gemarah then tells of a discussion between a number of Amoraim, scholars of a latter generation, who aren't sure Rabbi Shimon's research reslts were vaild. Isn't it possible, for example, that the ants had standing permission from the king to kill individual ants who lie to the community? Or perhaps the king was one of the ants that came out and felt tricked, and he authorized the killing on the spot? Or perhaps it just so happened that the experiment fell on a transitional moment between kings, as is told in the book of Judges (17, 6) In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes. Rashi (11th century) and Tosafot (12-13 century) debate how it's possible that Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta didn't take King Solomon's word (King Solomon being traditionally regarded as the author of Proverbs); they also wonder how the Amoraim ask so many questions: after all, King Solomon must have known what he was talking about, no? This discussion continued at least until recent centuries, when some rabbis resolved it by pointing out that King Solomon himself said we should go and observe the ants, back in the original verse.

If you've never visited this blog before, and now, as I said, it's dormant, see my reading recommendations here.