Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Batman and the Torah

On May 1st, 1939, the cartoon character, Batman appeared for the first time in Detective Comics, #27. As such, May 1st is known the world over as “Batman Day.”

If you Google “bat” and “Judaism” you will find references to a Jewish girl’s rite of passage – bat mitzvah – and Jewish baseball players. But if you read on, there’s a lot of information about the “bat,” the creepy flying mammal.

One of the non-kosher animals described in the Torah is known in Hebrew as the atalef. The Talmud (Bechorot 7b – which was studied exactly one week ago as part of the worldwide Daf Yomi program) quotes a rabbinic statement which states: “the sages taught that a non-kosher fish spawns its offspring, while a kosher fish lays eggs. Any animal that gives birth to its offspring nurses them, and any animal that lays eggs gathers food and feeds it to its young. This applies to all animals except for an atalef, as it lays eggs, and it nurses its young.Rashi describes the atalef as a creature with teats. “All egg-laying creatures do not possess teats, but gather crumbs with which to sustain one’s offspring.” Rashi then defines the atalef as “kalbe soric,” a bat in Old French. He then concludes that it is “similar to a mouse with wings.” Add to this another Talmudic reference (Beitzah 7a) which describes the atalef as a nocturnal creature.

Since bats give birth to their young and they do not lay eggs, this poses a challenge to identifying bats as atalef. There are various opinions regarding the identity of the species that the Bible identifies as the Biblical atalef. Rashi (Leviticus 11:18) calls the tinshemet, another species of bird, as the kalbe soric, which seems to be a synonym to atalef, even though the atalef is mentioned in the very next verse. While there is no absolutely clear line linking the atalef with the bat, in modern Hebrew, a bat is known as an atalef.

A rabbi who claims that no one loves Batman more than he does, wrote a book, “Wisdom from the Batcave,” which devotes 18 chapters identifying Jewish values learned from the caped crusader. In an interview, the rabbi, Cary Friedman, sees Batman as the hero who responded to, and triumphed over, a childhood tragedy by creating “a life of meaning and heroism through his tireless, relentless efforts to spare others the pain and loss he had experienced firsthand.” Rabbi Friedman identifies this heroism with his own mother, who lost so much during her childhood in the Holocaust, but survived and built a family imbued with the Torah values of compassion, justice and Jewish survival. Happy Batman Day!

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