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Although evolutionary ideas are very old, being found in the works of Greek philosophers and echoed in the aggadah and the Midrash, the main stimulus to evolutionary thought came from the theory developed at the end of the 18th century, according to which life on earth has existed for millions of years, and not for less than 6,000, as held by the biblical tradition current in the civilized world. The theory of evolution produced a sharp reaction on the part of those intellectuals and scholars who subscribed to the assumption of the stability of the species from the six days of creation. Besides scientists who cast doubts on the validity of the theory, its chief opponents were (and still are) religious people who accept the creation story in Genesis literally. There are, however, religious thinkers who see in the principle of evolution a concept that accords with the idea of divine providence, some of them not only regarding the account of creation in Genesis as a simple explanation "in ordinary language" of the actual process of creation, but seeing in it a deeper significance. Some point to aggadic and midrashic statements which contain allusions to evolution and to the fact that life existed on earth in epochs preceding the accepted reckoning in Judaism. When discussing the Greek philosophers' views on "the eternity of the universe," a similar problem confronted Maimonides, who says (Guide, 2:25):

We do not reject the eternity of the universe because certain passages in Scripture confirm the creation; for such passages are not more numerous than those in which God is represented as a corporeal being. Nor is it impossible or difficult to find for them a suitable interpretation. We might have explained them in the same manner as we did in respect to the incorporeality of God and this might have been easier … However, we have not done so … for the eternity of the universe has not been proved and there is no need of scriptural passages to reject it … If we were to accept the eternity of the universe as taught by Plato, we should not be in opposition to the fundamental principles of our religion … The scriptural text might have been explained accordingly … But there is no necessity for this expedient, so long as the theory has not been proved. As there is no proof sufficient to convince us … we take the text of the Bible literally.

Applying this to the subject under discussion and stating it in contemporary terms, it may be said that if proofs were forthcoming for the theory of evolution (on the assumption that there exists One who directs creation), a way would be found of explaining the biblical passages accordingly.

Although Judah Halevi clearly recognized the need to accept the Scriptures literally, he nevertheless stated in his Kuzari (1:67): "If, after all, a believer in the Law finds himself compelled to admit an eternal matter and the existence of many worlds prior to this one, this would not impair his belief." In the latter part of this sentence Judah Halevi alludes to the statement of R. Abbahu (Gen. R. 3:7) that God "created worlds and destroyed them," while according to R. Judah b. Simon there was "a succession of times (days and nights) before that," that is, before the first day of creation (ibid.). To this province belong also such statements as: "'And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day' (Gen. 1:31). R. Simon b. Marta said, 'Up to this point we count according to the reckoning of the world, after it according to another reckoning'" (Gen. R. 9:16), that is, time before the final creation of the world has a different meaning from that after it, which is the reckoning that we follow. The relativity of time in the term "day" is referred to in the statement (Gen. R. 19:8) which distinguishes between the human and the divine day, the latter being a thousand years in duration, as it is said (Ps. 90:4): "For a thousand years in Thy sight are but as yesterday." Alongside these notions there are homiletical interpretations of biblical passages according to which all organisms were fully created in the six days of creation, after which no changes have occurred in them (Hul. 60a). In contrast to those who extended the period of creation, a tanna curtailed it by stating that "on the first day the entire world was created," this being the view of R. Nehemiah, who disagreed with R. Judah's opinion that "the world was created in six days" (Tanḥ. B., Gen. 7). All these sages based their views on biblical verses, which could be interpreted either way. In this connection Rabbi A.I. *Kook has remarked that "everyone knows that the creation is one of the mysteries of the Torah, and if all the statements are merely to be taken literally, what mystery is there?" (Iggerot ha-Re'iyyah (19612), no. 91). The literature of the sages is pluralistic in its world outlook, especially in the spheres of cosmology and biology. The tannaim and amoraim absorbed legends and "factual" stories, the views of Greco-Roman science, and the folklore of ancient peoples. Among these were ideas which have no basis in fact nor any support in biblical passages and are even in conflict with the creation story. There was, for example, the view about the development of living organisms from nonliving substances which, known as spontaneous generation and accepted until the 19th century, penetrated into the halakhah. There was also the "assumption that a mouse does not breed" (Sifra, Shemini, Parashah 5; Ḥul. 127a), and hence the halakhic discussion on the question of the uncleanness of "a mouse which is half flesh and half earth" (Ḥul. 9:6. As late as in 1652 Helmont, a Dutch chemist, still suggested a method of producing mice by putting rags into a heap of grain). There was similarly the prevailing view that vermin originate from perspiration or from dirt. Thus the Talmud (Shab. 107b) declared that "vermin do not breed," against which an objection was raised from the reference made to "eggs of vermin" (see Ḥul. 9:6). The salamander, too, was thought to originate from a fire which burnt continuously for several years (see Ḥag. 27a). In the belief that some organisms develop on food itself, it was permitted to eat certain foods on which maggots develop.

The folklore of various nations tells of organisms, such as *mandrakes, that are half plant and half human. There was also the belief that some birds grow on trees in the form of fruit, and R. Tam (12th century) was asked whether they require sheḥitah, to which he replied that they do (see Loew, Flora, 4 (1934), 348). The halakhah mentions an organism called אַבְנֵי הַשָּׂדֶה or אַדְנֵי הַשָּׂדֶה, whose corpse, like that of a human being, communicates uncleanness (Sifra, Shemini, ch. 6; Kil. 8:5). Explained by some as referring to the chimpanzee, it is said in the Jerusalem Talmud (Kil. 8:5, 31c) to be "a man of the mountains who lives from his navel; if the navel is severed, he does not live," the reference being to a manlike organism joined by its navel like a plant to the ground. Legends about such an organism were current among various nations (see R. Patai, Adam ve-Adamah, 1 (1942), 216ff.). Mermaids, the legendary half-human, half-fish beings, also figure in the halakhah, the unclean "living creatures that are in the waters" (Lev. 11:10) being interpreted as "including mermaids," which however, unlike a human corpse, do not communicate uncleanness when dead (Sifra, Shemini, Parashah 3). The sages who quoted these halakhot or statements were influenced by the leading scientists of the time, such as Aristotle, Galen, and others, who had confirmed these "facts" and to whom there undoubtedly applied the principle that "if someone tells you that there is wisdom among the non-Jews, believe him" (Lam. R. 2:13). As it deals with all spheres of life and with theoretical subjects, the halakhah also on occasion incorporated legendary, fictitious ideas. In the field of "science" the sages were ready to accept various views current among their contemporaries (but proved in our day to be without foundation) and did not hesitate to give expression to them even if they were contrary to their accepted views.

To this province belong halakhot relating to *mixed species (kilayim). Despite the assumption inherent in the Bible that in the six days of creation all organisms were fully formed, statements of the sages in the aggadah and the halakhah refer to the production of new species by hybridization and grafting. The Tosefta and the Jerusalem Talmud of tractate Kilayim cite many "facts" about the formation of a third species by grafting two species of flora, some systematically very remote from each other (see *Biology; it is now evident that no new species can be produced by grafting). Thus, for example, it is asserted that, by sowing together the seeds of an apple and a watermelon a third species, the *melon (called in Greek melopepon, the apple-melon), is obtained (TJ, Kil. 1:2, 27a), even as a dangerous creature called arvad is produced by mating a snake with a species of *lizard (Ḥul. 127a). Another tradition holds that after Anah the son of Zibeon had produced a *mule, which is a dangerous animal, by crossing a stallion and a sheass (יֵמִם, a hemi-onos, i.e., a half-ass; cf. Gen. 36:24), "the Holy One blessed be He appointed a ḥakhina [a poisonous snake] which He mated with a ḥardon [a species of lizard] to produce a ḥavarbar," a species of noxious animal whose bite proved fatal to Anah (TJ, Ber. 8:6, 12b). This story is mentioned in a discussion on whether mixed species originated during the six days of creation (ibid.; Tosef. Ber. 6:11). On this subject there is the view of the tanna R. Yose (Pes. 54a) that "two things God originally planned to create on the eve of the Sabbath [of the creation] but were not created until the termination of the Sabbath, and at the termination of the Sabbath the Holy One blessed be He granted Adam knowledge of a kind like the divine, whereupon he took two stones, rubbed them together, and fire issued from them [cf. the tale of Prometheus]; he also took two [heterogeneous] animals and crossed them, and from them came forth the mule." Thus R. Yose held that hybridization represents a remarkable wisdom granted to man, who is prone to produce new organisms, "like the divine creator." Another aggadah, which declares that God Himself "changes His world once every seven years," mentions various animals, one of which is replaced by the other (TJ, Shab. 1:3, 3b). The reference here may be to seven years of God, one of whose days is a thousand years (see above; although there is a statement (BK 16b) that "the male hyena (צבוע) becomes a bat after seven years," etc.).

Proofs of Evolution

The existence in prehistoric times of gigantic animals, then extinct, is alluded to in biblical verses referring to the dragon, the *leviathan, the Rahab, and others. Having perhaps found traces of the footprints of primeval animals or remains of their skeletons (footprints of prehistoric reptiles have been discovered near Jerusalem in recent times), the ancients had their imaginations stirred to describe these huge animals and explain the reasons for their extinction.

One of the crucial problems confronting the evolutionists was the question of the transition from ape to man. In the literature of the sages there are allusions to a connection between man and ape. Thus the amoraim Rav and Samuel held divergent views on the nature of the rib from which woman was created, the one holding that it was a tail (Ber. 61a). In the opinion of R. Judah: "[God] made him [i.e., man] a tail like an animal and then removed it from him for his honor" (Gen. R. 14:12). Even Adam was not the first man, for "974 generations preceded the creation of the world and they were swept away in a trice because they were evil" (Mid. Ps. to 90:13; cf. Shab. 88b). Nor was Adam anatomically perfect, since he was a hermaphrodite (Gen. R. 8:1); the fingers of his hands were joined together, and it was only from Noah onward that people were born with separated fingers (Mid. Avkir to Gen. 5:29; and similarly in Tanh. to ibid.). In the days of Enosh there took place a moral degeneration; human beings changed, and "their faces became like apes" (Gen. R. 23:6; cf. Sanh. 109b). All these statements are based on a homiletical interpretation of biblical verses, but underlying them was probably the view of the tanna or amora which he expressed in this manner. Finally there is a statement that attests to an observation and a conclusion drawn from the realm of comparative anatomy: the amora R. Samuel of Cappadocia concluded from a common feature in fishes and birds that the latter, too, were created "out of alluvial mud": this can be proved "from the fact that birds have on their legs scales like those of fishes" (Ḥul. 27b).

At the beginning of the 20th century the naturalist De Vries (1848–1935) drew attention to the fact that in some flora and fauna characteristics suddenly appear which, though not present in their progenitors, are transmitted by heredity to the progeny. These changes, known as mutations, for the most part small and fortuitous, are in the view of scholars the basis of the evolutionary processes. Through the accumulation of these mutations, organisms were separated during millions of years of evolution into strains, species, and higher systematic groups. According to Neo-Darwinism the fortuitous mutations and the operation of natural selection were responsible for evolution, whereas according to Neo-Lamarckism, development cannot be accounted for without assuming that there is something in the living substance which guides it toward development. In this sense there is a statement of the rabbis: "There is no herb which has not a guardian angel in heaven that strikes it and says, Grow!" (Gen. R. 10:6). Other scholars maintain that there are metaphysical factors that guide and direct the existence and development of the organism. This theory, known as teleology, approximates to the religious view of the Creator's providence over His creatures. Some leading evolutionists, although dissociating themselves from the teleological approach, nevertheless agreed that it was impossible to explain evolution on the basis only of known forces. Thus G.L. Stebbins, who made a study of evolution in flora, argued that evolution can be explained by mutations, hybridization, and natural selection directed by a certain force of unknown nature. Certain embryologists, too, assumed that in ontogeny – the development of the individual during the embryonic period – there is an unknown or nonrational force directing it toward its development, and in this there is a parallel between phylogeny, the development of the species, and ontogeny, the development of the individual.

However much these views fall out of fashion as molecular biology progresses and the fossil record is clarified, these assumptions have an indubitable religious significance, and in this connection mention should be made of the words of Rabbi Kook: "The theory of evolution, which is at present increasingly conquering the world, is more in harmony with the mysteries of Kabbalah than all other philosophical theories" (Orot ha-Kodesh, ii, 558). On the other hand there are many evolutionists who are not prepared to include in the scheme of creation and evolution a nonrational force and hold that these "unknown" forces, responsible for the evolutionary process, will be revealed and defined as known chemical or physical forces. There are numerous theories to explain the mechanism of evolution, but the doubts exceed the certainties. When Rabbi Kook was asked about the problem of evolution, he summed it up as follows: "Nothing in the Torah is contradicted by any knowledge in the world that emerges from research. But we must not accept hypotheses as certainties, even if there is a wide agreement about them" (Iggerot ha-Re'iyyah, no. 91).


S.B. Ulman, Madda'ei ha-Teva u-Veri' at ha-Olam (1944); M.M. Kasher, in: Sefer Yovel… Samuel K. Mirsky (1958), 256–84; idem, in: Sinai, 48 (1960), 21–33; J. Feliks, Kilei Zera'im ve-Harkavah (1967), 7–12, 112–5; idem, in: Teva va-Areẓ, 7 (1965), 330–7; O. Wolfsberg, in: L. Jung (ed.), Jewish Library, 2 (1968), 145–70.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.