Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility Skip to content

Ship of the Desert

If you had to choose the animal most associated with Israel and the Middle East, it would probably be the camel. In fact, a tech and innovation website about Israeli discoveries actually calls itself nocamels.com because, in their words: 鈥the continued perception among many across the world [is] that Israel is little more than a barren desert populated by camels.鈥 The famous picture of a Beduin on a camel holding a cell phone is a similar attempt to alter, if not completely shatter that image. What does the Gemara tell us about the camel?

Rabbinic literature mentions camels frequently. We have the legal issue of what if an overloaded camel passes too close to a store with a lit lamp and sets his burden on fire, who pays the damages? We also have the intriguing question in Masechet Sukkah of if a sukkah built on top of a camel鈥檚 back is kosher for use? This is less crazy than it sounds, if you have to travel throughout Sukkot, you may consider this a viable option. In case you were wondering, it is a kosher sukkah but you have to get on the camel before the holy day begins.

On our daf (Bava Kamma 55a), amidst a conversation about which animals are actually different species and subject to the laws of Kilayim (mixing species), we hear about two varieties of camels: the Persian camel and the Arabian camel. They are probably both variations on the most common camel in the world, the dromedary, a one-humped camel.聽 Dromedaries make up 94% of the camels that exist today, the much more rare Bactrian camel has two humps. It is possible that the Gemara means the two-humped Bactrian when it refers to the Persian camel.

Laliv g-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Bible tells us that the camel, despite the fact that it chews its cud, is not a kosher animal because it does not have split hooves. Camels were certainly used as beasts of burden, both in Bible stories and in later Jewish history. The most famous story about camels is that of Rebecca, who was willing to give water to Eliezer鈥檚 camels despite this being a daunting task. Later a camel carried her to her new home, as the wife of Isaac.

The question of when camels were domesticated and how that relates to the Biblical stories about them is an interesting one. Although the first evidence we have of domesticated camels in Israel is from about three thousand years ago, in the days of King Solomon, there were already domesticated camels in other parts of the ancient Near East about a millennium earlier, around the time of the Patriarchs. Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman (in this article https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/yes-virginia-the-patriarchs-really-did-ride-on-camels/) shows how the Torah emphasizes that camels came from places outside of the Land of Israel. Abraham received his camels as a gift from the Pharaoh of Egypt (Bereshit 12:16). He sent them with his servant to Haran when he was looking for a bride for his son, the camels being a great way to show his power and status (Bereshit 24:10). Other camel stories, like that of Joseph and the Ishmaelites,聽 also state that the origin of the camel was from outside the Land.聽聽

Today Beduin are much more involved than Jews in camel raising, riding and everything connected to them. (A notable exception are the camels at Genesis Land, a Jewish farm right outside Jerusalem). Camels are known as the ship of the desert because they have adapted to be able to withstand very harsh, hot and dry conditions. Camels can travel for ten days without water if necessary, their hump stores fatty tissues for use in emergencies, and their bodies can adapt to drastic temperature changes. All this, plus their strength, explains why for millennia camels were the animal of choice for long desert treks.

The Beduin use everything from the camel. They ride it and use it to carry burdens, drink its milk and use its hair for tents and curtains. Once it is dead, they eat its meat. They have special names for the female 鈥 naaka 鈥 and the young male 鈥 becher 鈥 that have entered the Hebrew language. Today more modern Beduin take the Western world鈥檚 fascination with camels and use it for tourism, by making 鈥渁uthentic鈥 camping sites that feature camels and camel聽 riding. A different sort of venture is selling camel milk, touted as having health benefits ranging from helping diabetics to curing autism. The nutrients in camel milk are off limits to religious Jews however since just as the camel is not kosher, so too its milk is not kosher.聽

The rabbis sometimes mention the speed of a camel, calling it a gamla parcha, a flying camel. For example, we have a question of how a get could have been written in Sura by a man who was known on that day to have been in Nehardea (about one hundred kilometers away). The Gemara concludes that it is possible because:

鈥減erhaps he went by a flying camel鈥 (Yevamot 116a)

A relief of a running camel from ancient Nineveh camel聽

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

Before we dismiss this story as fanciful, it is worthwhile to understand the phenomenon of the racing camel. Dr. Moshe Raanan explains that certain camels from Oman and Sudan are bred for racing and they are skinnier, with long thin legs. They can travel up to sixty-five kilometers an hour, making the travel between Nehardea and Sura eminently possible in one day. Dr. Raanan brings evidence from the twelfth-century traveler Petahiah of Regensburg that he has seen these speedy dromedaries himself. Today camel-racing is a sport of the ultra-rich in the Gulf states and there are actually robotic jockeys to replace the child jockeys who used to be the riders.

Alex Sergeev (www.asergeev.com), CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

An even more unusual explanation of the 鈥渇lying camel鈥 is brought by Dr, Raanan in the name of Netanel Mills. He explains that the Arabic word for ostrich is 鈥渂ird camel鈥 and its Latin name also includes the root camel (Struthio camelus). Ostriches are the fastest birds on land and they can run up to seventy miles an hour. There are ostrich races as well, where the jockey is tied on to the ostrich. Perhaps the flying camel is actually an ostrich?

But back to camels. The English word camel actually comes from the Hebrew gamal 讙诪诇. The most famous gamal in Israel was not an animal but a mountain. Josephus tells us about a city that was well fortified against its enemies, and held out against the Romans for weeks in the Great Revolt. It is in the Golan and is situated on a mountain that is shaped like a camel鈥檚 hump, and therefore it is called Gamla. After the Six-Day War, during a survey of the Golan, archaeologist Shmaryahu Guttman noticed a strange shaped mountain that sounded like it fit Josephus鈥 description. After looking around and finding coins and weapons, he concluded that it was indeed Gamla, the Second Temple period town!

Gamla

EdoM, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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
Scroll To Top