“Be a honeybee, not a spider”
In the old country there was a very poor, Jewish wagon driver. He worked day and night yet he could never save a penny. He could no longer bear coming home to his wife without any money, so he went to the Rebbe for help. The Rebbe’s advise was: “Become a maguid” (A maguid went from town to town urging Jews to repent and strive harder in the ways of the Torah). “Rebbe!” said the shocked wagon driver, “how could I possible be a maguid, I have never spoken in public and I do not know anything!” The Rebbe told him: “Resemble the honeybee and not the spider. The spider grabs and grabs and keeps everything for itself; the honeybee collects and gives everything away”. The wagon driver followed the Rebbe’s advise, and in his work listened to what wise people said, then he gave it out as a maguid. Eventually he was successful and could feed his family and educate his children in the Torah ways.
The Torah portion of Shemini include the laws for distinguishing between kosher and non-kosher animals. The honeybee is not kosher, so Jews cannot eat it, but honey is (1). This is a very special situation because, usually, “that which comes from a non-kosher animal is itself not kosher” (2). Thus, in most cases, a product from a kosher animal is also kosher (the milk of a cow) whereas a product from a non-kosher animal is not (milk from a pig). In the case of the spider, which the wagon driver was advised not to resemble, neither the animal nor the spider silk used to build the spider web are kosher.
Why is honey, made by a non-kosher insect, kosher whereas spider silk is not? The answer, of course, is that Jewish law codified by our sages many centuries ago, dictates that observant Jews can eat honey but not honeybees, spiders or spider silk. What is remarkable is that the nature of honey production by the honeybee and spider silk by the spider, which have only been understood in detail in the last century, is fully consistent with Jewish law.
Honeybees make honey by foraging nectar from flowers (itself kosher like any plant product) and storing it in their bodies in a special stomach, called the honey sac. Bees have a second stomach in which they digest the food that they consume. If a bee gets hungry while flying, it transfers some nectar from the honey sac to its stomach and uses the nectar as food. When the honey sac is full, the bee returns to the hive and bee workers take away the nectar with their tongues and pass it around, letting some of the water in the nectar evaporate in the process, and then the nectar is deposited in a hive cell, where it is stored. We thus see that the nectar never becomes part of the bee’s metabolism.
Spider silk, on the other hand, is a complex mixture of proteins made by the spider. Proteins are encoded by the DNA of each organism and are very specific to each species. For example, the major protein in spider silk is called sericin and has attracted a great deal of attention in the last few years. Spider silk is a remarkable material that can stretch 4-6 times its length without breaking, and has a huge potential for the manufacturing of many products. In contrast to silk worms, however, spiders cannot be farmed because they eat each other when grown in the same environment. Recently the gene for sericin has been cloned and transferred to goats with the goal of getting the goat to make sericin together with its milk (Of course such genetically engineered goat milk containing significant amounts of sericin would no longer be kosher).
The building blocks of proteins are chemicals called amino-acids. If an animal eats a protein that originates from another animal or a plant, it disassembles those proteins into its amino-acid components and then it makes its own, specific proteins. We learn from Jewish law that a kosher fish that eats non-kosher food remains kosher, whereas a non-kosher fish that eats kosher food remains non-kosher. We can thus infer that the specific proteins of kosher and non-kosher animals might play a role in the physical manifestation of the spiritual properties that make an animal kosher or non-kosher
The scientific understanding of protein synthesis and the fine details of honey making were not available when our sages determined that honey is kosher, they did with Ruach Hakodesh, divine inspiration. The realization that scientific knowledge about honey and spider silk making is fully consistent with Jewish law provides us with a refined understanding of the wisdom of our sages. Moreover, understanding of the scientific basis of Jewish law can give us a better insight of its guiding principles.
(1) Maimonides Hilchot ma’chalot asurot 3:3. Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 81:8
(2) Mishnah Bechorot 1:2
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