They Give Me the Creeps

Prawns, shrimp, lobster and crab; as a long-time underwater diving enthusiast, I’ve seen them all in their natural habitat and they give me the shudders.  Even while wearing rubber gloves I’ve never liked handling them.  From once living in Africa, I remember the huge Goliath beetle—not at all fondly.  I know children who keep large hairy tarantula spiders as pets and enjoy grossing out their parents’ guests.  Count me in that latter group.  If cicadas ever invade my neighborhood, I’d probably emigrate.  I don’t care for bugs.

Psychiatrists claim to be able to treat something they call entomophobia, the fear of bugs, but none actually understand it.  There are numerous theories; I know most of them.  Some of these attempted explanations are insightful while others are fanciful.  But whatever explains it, I am not the only person disturbed by creepy-crawlies. It’s actually most of us.

Perhaps some of the near universal revulsion of creepy-crawlies might stem from the Bible’s explicit denunciation of bugs as food.  Bear with me as I walk you through more verses on this topic than you might have expected.  And they are all from the same single chapter in Leviticus.

But anything in the seas or in the streams that has no fins and scales, all the crawling things of the water…are an abomination for you.
(Leviticus 11:10)

These shall be tameh for you…things that swarm and crawl on the earth…
(Leviticus 11:29)

All things that swarm and crawl upon the earth are an abomination; they shall not be eaten.
(Leviticus 11:41)

You shall not eat anything that swarms upon the earth or that crawls…or anything that has many legs; for they are an abomination.
(Leviticus 11:42)

For I the Lord who elevated you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy
(Leviticus 11:45)

I must draw your attention to two Hebrew words.  One is SheReTZ which best translates as both swarm and crawl and appears repeatedly in the above verses.  The second word is Ma’ALeH meaning elevated and appears uniquely in the final verse I quoted.

Almost always, God speaks of having ‘taken you out of the land of Egypt’ as in the opening of the Ten Commandments:  I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. (Exodus 20:2)  Why only in Leviticus 11:45 do we find God saying elevated you from the Land of Egypt?

To understand that unusual usage we need to return to SHeReTZ, that word that connotes loathsome creepy-crawlies.  It is used only one time in connection with the Israelites. 

And the Israelites were fruitful and they swarmed and crawled; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.
(Exodus 1:7)

The King James translation treats that word SHeReTZ somewhat poetically if inaccurately and redundantly:

And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.

Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that much of verse 7 in Exodus 1 speaks of quantity, describing how rapidly the Hebrew population increased. However, the word SHeReTZ in that verse is not about quantity but about quality.  It lets us know that while their numbers increased, they also drifted from the ways of their fathers and their behavior deteriorated.

Today, in ‘polite company’ it has been made unacceptable to blame the victim in any way.  Yet, in many circumstances it is easy to see that the victim is largely to blame for his predicament.  It is manifestly absurd to insist that the victim is NEVER complicit in his own misfortune.  Thus it was that, at least to some extent, the anti-Israelite policies imposed by the Egyptians in the verses following Exodus 1:7 were influenced by Israelite conduct. Hebrew misbehavior made the Egyptians shudder in revulsion just as so many do when confronted by creepy-crawly bugs.  That is why the word SHeReTZ is used in describing the demographic changes occurring to Israel in Egypt. 

This is why God, at the conclusion of his prohibition of all creepy-crawlies as food, refers to Himself as having elevated Israel out of Egypt rather than merely as having taken them out.  He compassionately focused on what they were doing right rather than judging them on what they were doing wrong. In order to take them out from Egypt, he elevated them above the “creepy” level to which they had sadly fallen.

30 thoughts on “They Give Me the Creeps”

  1. Ashkenazim such as you and I don’t have the tradition of which jointed hopping beasts are kosher. However, Jews from Yemen do and in fact eat them (there were swarms in Israel in the 50s and it was related that some Jews went out with nets and had little bbqs /braai).

    I think we all understand aversion. But aversion can lead to Azus panim. I have a Hindu friend raised in India for whom the idea, not religious just the idea, of eating beef is as repubnant as the idea of eating horse or dog into most Americans although we know there are places where civilized people eat them.
    Granted this is only Midrash, not halakhah, but we are speaking about aversions and personal ickies, so – Sifra K’doshim, 9:12
    R Elazar b Azariah says a person should not say I dno’t want to wear sh’atnez, I don’t want to eat pork, ,,, In fact, he should say I do want it, but ny Father in Heaven has ruled against it.

    And I can’t find the source now, but I rememer learning that one should not say pork is dusgusting as everything created by Hashem is wonderful. “al kol motzah pi-Hashem”.
    And the people who are NOT BOUND by mitzvot may eat these things and it does not make them disgusting nor their habits disgusting, nor in any way displeasing to Hashem.

    Gelatin made of calves hooves is Kosher and was a traditional dish for many Ashkenazi jews. liver, including fattened goose and duck liver was also eatne and made by Jews in Alsace and Hungary. There ar emany foods that others would find repulsive. So what?

    If I have the honor to see a Jew whose family had lived in Yemen enjoying arbeh for which he has a tradition – I’m not sure what the halakhah is on whether I can join him. I’d ask a Rav who would do the research – certainly not an answer given on one foot. Because – if I don’t eat kitniyyot but am at the home of a Jew who is serving rice for pesach, I may not refuse on religious grounds. Or maybe, it’s that he has the tradition of eating arbeh, I don’t But that may be only that I don’t have the expertise to determine which are kisher and which are not.

    I hope to see beauty in all of creation, even in Goliath beetles, and tarantulas, and hissing Madagascar cockroaches (Heaven help me).

    We all have aversions. But do we need to justify them as holy? I hope not.

  2. Teacher you might be the only one equipped and capable of elevating modern humanistic judaism and jews…. which is as low as and unfortunately as prevalent a judaism as there is today.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thank you for your vote of confidence Bob,
      But I know it is quite beyond human endeavor.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Right Phil,
      Certain grasshoppers or crickets–exactly what they are is today uncertain. Why God made exceptions in those cases, He sadly neglected to share with me–so far!

  3. This thought tool reminds me of something that I noticed in the Disney animated movie, “The Little Mermaid” (circa 1990 or so?) . There is a scene in it where the villainness, Ursula the Sea Witch, is pressuring the little mermaid to give up her beautiful voice for the ability to walk and live on land (and therefore be with her beloved human prince). In a very raucous cartoon song-and-swimming-dance-number, the villainess gets the heroine to sign her voice away in the evil contract. And there is a scene where it shows the villainess’ other victims, who have also sold their (whatever item of value) away.
    AND THEY HAVE ALL BEEN REDUCED TO SQUISHY, PLANKTON-ALGAE LOOKING CREATURES, living in misery in the bottom of her lair. So I remember being disturbed about that back in 1990, thinking how whenever anyone “sells out”, or declines in morality, calling, achievement, etc., they become spiritually reduced to a gooey, plankton-like critter, instead of the beautiful, wondrously made, obedient son or daughter to God, made in and exhibiting a measure of His Image. It really “bugged” me (ha ha) even 30 years ago. So it sounds just like the Israelites who swarmed and crawled – an insight into their own moral standing and obedience to the God of their fathers.

    And I am totally with you on that one, Rabbi Lapin, spiders especially give me that “primal horror”, blech! My sister heard a rain forest-expert-entomologist speak, and he said how spiders basically have no respect for their prey. Their size increases their gall; i.e., the bigger they get, they’ll just eat whatever they can stuff in their disgusting mouths. In other words, the little spider in the corner web is likely just wishing for the day to come that he would be big enough to eat YOU. No respect for mankind, which is a trait always linked to evil spirits as well. (Contrast with Balaam’s donkey, who when her tongue was loosed, showed that she revered and respected the order of her human master being over her. She didn’t say, “get off me you pagan sorcerer or I’ll bite the fool out of you, and then let the angel kill you afterwards.” But spiders have a different bent. One time maybe I can tell you about the very large spider who stalked me over a period of days. (I finally had to squash it, and I honestly try to avoid killing anything, even hideous spiders. Who have it in for you.)

    Thank you for a great thought tool as always!!!!!!!!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      A fascinating letter from you, Celesta,
      and a pleasure to read. Great observation about Disney.

  4. This was interesting from the standpoint of “swarming”. I had difficulty finding a 1Lev7 version that used the word as you had. It took me to other sites that discussed bugs and their horizontal dragging/movement, and mentioned Joseph’s ascension. I’m being general, and would love for you to elaborate on these points.
    Thank you

  5. Just wondering why John the Baptist (Matthew 3:4) ate locusts and wild honey? Wouldn’t locusts have been unclean?

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Carla–
      In that same long Leviticus chapter, certain locusts are explicitly permitted though their exact genus is today no longer known.

  6. Rabbi Lapin, I totally agree with you on bugs and insects. I have been looking for many years in the Bible about how to keep ourselves clear from these creepy crawlers. I feel that Adam and Eve did not have to contend with insects and bugs. Does anent Jewish wisdom have anything to teach us how to keep clear of these things?
    Thank You and have a wonderful day.

  7. Dear Rabbi,

    I love to read your messages and several times have actually attempted to buy your books but they are unfortunately not available for sales in Germany. I think it is a shame though because as a Hebrew who has just gotten to know about his Hebrew heritage, it is very important for me to learn as fast and as much as possble more about my people, their history, language and culture. Thank you very much.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Tim–
      Good to hear from you. Please know that much of our material is available at our store on this site in digital form for instant download in any country. Also Kindle is a good resource for you. Let us know if that helps

  8. Whoa! This is just so profound. So would Passover (Pesach) then be considered a celebration of God’s elevating Israel. I love the concept of that. It means great hope of the entire world being elevated.

  9. Thanks Rabbi Lapin for this information which made me (a Christian) wonder – squids have fins near the top of their heads but octopus don’t. Are either of these prohibited to Jews who keep Kosher (re: But anything in the seas or in the streams that has no fins and scales, all the crawling things of the water…are an abomination for you.
    (Leviticus 11:10)? Perhaps this explains why people generally have revulsion toward the idea of eating insects.
    I don’t quite understand why God would use SHeReTZ with regard to the Israelites in Exodus. How were they misbehaving because God liberated them (gave them Exodus) so one would think they were worthy of His grace and doesn’t the Bible want people to be fruitful? Thank you and God bless.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Lisa–
      Squid, octopus, eels, mussels, oysters, sharks, and all else without real scales are all prohibited and have never been tasted by Susan or me. The whole point is that they were behaving repulsively and thus merited the term SHeReTZ in Exodus 1. God delivered them from Egypt not because their behavior demanded it but out of His kindness and compassion for them. They themselves certainly did not deserve it and were not inherently worthy of deliverance. It was an act of Chessed. Loving kindness. Their problem in Egypt was not being fruitful which in it self is desirable as you say. It was their conduct.

  10. Interesting thoughts Rabbi. I was a lot less perturbed by insects as a boy than I am now, particularly spiders.

    During my combat duty in Iraq we encountered “camel spiders,” one of the most fearsome-looking (but relatively harmless) arthropods in the Middle East. Honestly thought I was dealing with those “face hugger” creatures from the movie “Aliens.”

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Paul
      You paint a fearsome picture! I fear that military service, as admirable as it is, can get a man used to a whole lot more than insects.

  11. Can you comment on an Israeli medical technology company called In-Mode(INMD)?
    It makes very sophisticated technology to assist surgeons perform feats that would have been unthinkable until recently. It is a recent IPO. Its revenue and earnings have been terrific. I thought that you might know something about it. It has been an excellent performer in the market

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Stuart–
      No. I really can’t.
      I could research it just as you can but why would I recommend a stock? If it ascends in value, I don’t share in your good fortune, and if it plummets, I get blamed for my bad recommendation. A professional financial advisor or stock broker is a different story. I do teach general investing principles but never specific recommendations. Bad idea. For me.
      I wish you great investing success.

  12. I always enjoy your insights that you’re able to articulate because of your understanding of the Hebrew language. Your Christian friend Bob and your devoted student.

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