ו׳ בטבת ה׳תשע״ג (December 19, 2012)

Shabbat 77a-b: When Smaller Creatures Strike Fear in Larger Ones

In a segue from the main discussion in the Gemara, a baraita is presented that teaches:

There are five dreads, i.e., dread that the weak cast over the mighty: The dread of the mafgia, a small creature, over the lion; the dread of the mosquito over the elephant; the dread of the gecko over the scorpion; the dread of the swallow over the eagle; the dread of the kilbit, a small fish, over a whale.

The difficulty in understanding this teaching stems from the uncertain identification of most of the creatures mentioned. It is clear that the dread of the mosquito over the elephant refers to the many small mosquitoes that sting the elephant’s trunk and the other soft areas of its body. The dread of the swallow over the eagle comes from the known fact that many small birds can successfully chase away a large bird of prey when they are numerically superior and in particular when they are protecting their young. The identity of the semamit mentioned here has not been firmly established. A long-standing tradition associates the semamit with the spider, and there are indeed species of spiders that prey on scorpions. Nowadays, the name semamit is used for a type of lizard, which might be capable of overpowering a scorpion. The dread of the kilbit over the livyatan is doubly difficult because of the uncertainty in identifying both terms. Many believe that the livyatan is a giant ocean-dwelling mammal from the Cetacea family. However, there are several smaller fish, such as sharks, that are capable of killing it, and especially its young. Some authorities believe that the livyatan referred to here is the crocodile, and the kilbit is a kind of mosquito that stings it. There is also an opinion that the mafgia, the scourge of the lion, is a tiny mosquito.

Regarding the dread of the mafgia over the lion, this may be a reference to a creature in the Far East from the Mustelidae family known as the zorilla, or striped polecat, which emits a powerful stench. Other animals are wary of any contact with it. It is not uncommon for an entire pack of lions to wait while this creature partakes of prey brought by the lions.

According to the Maharsha, this discussion teaches a moral lesson that even those who take pride in their advantages must be aware that those smaller can be sources of significant harm or benefit.

Previous
Next