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Of Mice and Men

Remember the cartoon 鈥淭om and Jerry?鈥 The basic plot was the clever and agile mouse who always outsmarted the larger, but dumber, cat. You might be reminded of the two adversaries while reading our daf:

鈥淎 certain man borrowed a cat from another [to hunt and kill mice for him.] The mice banded together against it and killed it.鈥 (Bava Metzia 97a)

Can we be friends?

Gennaro Visciano from Torre del Greco (NA), Italy, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Leaving aside the likelihood of this scenario and the Gemara鈥檚 question of whether this is a normal work-related casualty for the cat, let鈥檚 take a look at mice. What do our sources say about them?

In the Torah, a mouse is counted among the seven unclean crawling creatures (砖诪讜谞讛 砖专爪讬诐). Not only is it forbidden to eat the mouse, even touching one will make a person tamei, defiled. The prophet Isaiah alludes to this idea when he talks about the people who are such sinners that they eat the most non-kosher foods possible: pig and mouse:

鈥. . .eating the flesh of the swine, the reptile, and the mouse, shall one and all come to an end鈥攄eclares God鈥 (Isaiah 66:17)

The mouse is also portrayed, albeit obliquely, as a carrier of disease and/or a destroyer in a story in the book of Samuel. The Philistines are stricken with plagues because they have taken the Ark of the Covenant. When they decide to return it, 聽they send it back accompanied by five golden mice. Some commentaries suggest that this is because the Ark caused them unpleasant boils in sensitive parts of the body and maybe this sickness was carried by mice. A different interesting suggestion, brought in the Daat Mikra commentary, is that the mice ate the crops and thus showed the power of God against the Philistine god Dagon, the god of grain.

Mice have lived alongside people for millennia. Archaeologists know that if they find mouse bones, this is a sign of permanent settlement. Mouse carcasses have also been found in shipwrecks and we know that mice traveled on ships and thereby arrived at new habitations.

Mice in a general sense can be divided into house mice and field mice. In a house, mice will eat the stores of wheat that have been gathered to provide food for the coming year. In the field they will attack the crops before they have even been gathered. Field mice can multiply enormously and cause huge damage. The Yerushalmi puts it well:

鈥渢hese evil rats, if they see plenty of produce, they call their friends and eat with them;鈥 (Yerushalmi Bava Metzia 3:5)

The rabbis recognized the destructive potential of mice and allowed people to trap them even on the intermediate days of a festival (Mishnah Moed Katan 1:4). But the clever and adaptable mice could often escape the traps, find food and hide it. To prevent this, people would store their food high up, sometimes improvising by placing it on a scale which was hung from the rafters (Betzah 28a). Even so, the mice would eat food and even fall into liquids, rendering them inedible:

鈥渁 certain mouse that fell into a barrel of beer. Rav deemed that barrel of beer forbidden.鈥 (Avoda Zara 68b)

Cute but destructive

Polarqueen, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

Mice, like other rodents, have teeth that continue to grow throughout their lives, They must whittle them down and often the food they eat is not hard enough to do so. Then they will turn to eating harder things: paper, fabric, wood. This is the reason that is given for why people might not want to hold on to a document as it will have to be protected from mice:

鈥淩abbi Yehuda said: It is found that this debtor must now guard his receipt against mice,鈥 (Bava Batra 170b)

The Gemara in Horayot (13a) addresses this phenomenon of mice eating even non-edible items. Rabbi Eliezer explains that mice are hunted by everyone because they have a strong evil inclination to eat anything, even the handle of a hoe. A fascinating (and tragic) example of this is mentioned by Rabbi David Oppenheim, a publisher in Prague in the 17th century, He published one of the few surviving manuscripts of the Rashbam鈥檚 commentary on the Torah but he lamented that much of it had been gnawed on by 鈥渆vil mice鈥 and could not be reconstructed!

Damage caused by mice to a manuscript

LBM1948, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

As they did with everything else in their world, the rabbis observed mice and learned lessons from them. One of the famous rabbinic statements regarding mice is about the mouse and the hole. Mice take the food they find and hide it away, often in a hole, so that they will have food for their families and for later. The rabbis debate: is the mouse the thief or is the hole the thief?

鈥淚t is not the mouse that steals, but the hole that steals.鈥 (Kiddushin 56b)

The question is about enabling sinful behavior 鈥 if there was no hole, the mouse could not hide his food and therefore would not steal it. Similarly, if no one will buy stolen goods from a thief, (perhaps) he would not steal them. Creating an opportunity for sin might lead to more sin.

Mouse burrow

James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster, CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons

Mice not only hide their booty, they hoard it, and sometimes it is not eaten, or else they take things that they cannot use. The rabbis take this image of the hoarding mouse and use it to describe a miser:

鈥淭here was a certain man whom people called: A mouse that lies on dinars,鈥 (Sanhedrin 29b)

The lessons and sayings about mice all seem logical, based on the mouse鈥檚 behavior. But one belief about mice is puzzling to me, namely that eating mice or food that a mouse ate from will cause forgetfulness. The Gemara in Horayot uses this idea in a fabulous way, to explain why dogs recognize their owners but cats do not:

鈥淭he students of Rabbi Elazar asked: For what reason does a dog recognize its master, while a cat does not recognize its master? Rabbi Elazar said to them: If one who eats from that which a mouse eats, causes him to forget, who eats the mouse itself, all the more so鈥 (Horayot 13a)

Mice are a wonderful example of how even the humblest of creatures provided the rabbis with life lessons.

Many of the sources and ideas here have been taken from articles written by Dr. Moshe Raanan, an expert in natural history and rabbinic sources.

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at https://www.shuliemishkintours.com/virtual-tours
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