Ashes and Beer
In Shaar HaBushah (Chapter on Shame), the Orchos Tzaddikim seems to opine that animals have no intelligence, writing in no uncertain terms, “The sages said that intellect (sechel) is shame and that shame is intellect because it says of Adam and Chava after they ate of the Tree of Knowledge, ‘The eyes of them both opened [and they knew they were unclothed]’ (Bereishis 2:25). Indeed, all living creatures besides man have no shame since they have no intellect… The proof is that never will you see a shameful person who has no knowledge (daas), or a knowledgeable person who has no shame.”
Rabbeinu Meyuchos says much the same, writing in his Chumash commentary that the very word “beheimah — animal” indicates a lack of acumen. “What is the meaning of the word beheimah?” he asks. “Boh mah (what is in it)? No cunning and no alacrity of the mind!”
So far, the evidence weighs in against animal intelligence.
Of course, there are sometimes exceptions to the rule. The Yalkut Shimoni (Shemos 35 remez 411) writes that, during the building of the Mishkan, not only people, but even animals, were endowed with the special wisdom required to build the Mishkan. “Do not say that only Betzalel [was filled with a spirit of wisdom],” the Medrash states. “Rather, the Holy One gave understanding and wisdom to all involved in the work of the Mishkan, as it says, ‘All the wise of heart made, etc.’ Do not think this applies only to people, because even animals and beasts [were given wisdom]…” Of course, this temporary endowment of wisdom does not contradict the opinion that animals are devoid of intellect. More challenging to this opinion are sources in Chazal that describe animals behaving with a high degree of initiative and intelligence.
For example, while discussing an owner’s obligations to pay when his bull burns down a haystack, the Gemara (Bava Kama 35) discusses an instance in which the bull burns a haystack not randomly, but for a specific purpose.
“‘How do we find a bull [doing such a thing]?’ asks Rav Avya. ‘In this case we are dealing with a clever bull that had an infected bite on its back and wanted to burn [the haystack] in order to roll in its ashes….’
“‘Is there indeed such a thing?’ [the Gemara asks].
“‘Yes,’ [Rav Avya answers], ‘because a certain bull belonging to Rav Papa had aching teeth. It went inside, removed the cover of a keg, drank beer, and was cured.’”
In this Gemara we see two cases of animal intelligence, one — a bull that had the initiative to supply itself with hot ashes by torching a haystack, and the second — a bull that understood the therapeutic benefits of alcohol.
Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (chapter 21) describes an even more startling display of animal intelligence that occurred soon after Kayin killed Hevel.
“The dog that used to guard Hevel’s flock was guarding his body from the beasts of the field and from the birds of the heavens,” the Medrash relates. “At the same time, Adam and his wife sat and wept and mourned over him, not knowing what to do with Hevel as they were not accustomed to internment. Along came a crow whose companion had died. He took it, dug in the earth, and interred it in front of them.
“Adam said, ‘I will do as the crow did.’
Immediately, he took Hevel’s corpse, dug in the earth, and interred him.”
How does the crow’s compassionate deed square with the opinions that animals have no intelligence?
Perhaps they are referring to a more spiritual type of intellect that evokes emotions like shame and embarrassment. Regarding technical intelligence, they may agree that man is not unique.
The Gift of Gab
The distinction between the physical and the spiritual is indeed utilized to answer yet another question. Onkelos translates the verse, “Vayehi ha’Adam le’nefesh chayah,’ as saying that the neshamah became a “speaking spirit” inside Adam, intimating that speech is unique to man.
Yet soon afterwards, we find the snake talking to Chava. What is going on?
The Ibn Ezra offers a variety of answers to this contradiction.
“Some say,” he writes, “that the woman understood and knew the language of animals… Others say that he was the Satan… Rav Saadya Gaon says that, since it is clear to us that only man has speech and intelligence, we must say that the snake and [Bilam’s] donkey did not speak. Rather, an angel spoke on their behalf… I think that what happened is according to its simple meaning. The snake could speak and walked erect; He who placed intelligence in man, placed it in him….”
Altogether, the Ibn Ezra cites four explanations of how the snake spoke. First, the snake spoke “the language of animals,” second, the snake was not an animal but the Satan, third, an angel spoke on its behalf, and fourth, the snake was an exception to the rule.
This fourth answer is supported by two earlier sources. The Teshuvas HaGeonim states, “Perhaps only the snake was cunning [among all the animals], and perhaps the whole snake species was like this at the time of Creation,” and the Medrash Raba (Devarim 5:9) writes, “The fi rst snake spoke like a person.”
Like the Ibn Ezra, they seem to say that, although speech is the prerogative of man, the snake was an exception to the rule. However, the plot thickens when we note that not only the snake, but also other animals, spoke during the course of history.
To begin with, there is the well-known Medrash (Targum Sheni to Esther 1:3) which, based on I Melachim 5:13, describes King Shlomo understanding the languages of birds and animals.
The well-known answer to this contradiction is that there are two types of speech. Animal speech is limited to physical things, while human speech deals with abstract matters of the soul.
However, this distinction does not seem to cover all the bases. Besides the sophisticated riposte of Bilam’s donkey to his master and the opinion that the snake’s sophisticated dialogue was in “animal talk,” Chazal (Sanhedrin 108b) also report convoluted discourses between Noach and the birds he sent out to scout the drying earth:
“The crow gave an irrefutable reply to Noach, saying to him, ‘Your Master hates me, and you hate me. Your Master hates me [because He chose] seven from the pure and two from the impure, and you hate me because you are sparing the species of seven and sending off the species of two – if the minister of cold or the minister of heat strikes me, will the world not be missing one creature?’”
“The dove said to Hashem after it returned to the teivah with an olive branch in its mouth: ‘Master of the world! May my food be bitter as the olive and through Your hand, rather than sweet as honey and through the hands of fl esh and blood.’” Indeed, so profound is this concept that it sometimes takes people a lifetime to value its import.
The Medrash (Shemos Raba 23:14) reports yet another sophisticated dialogue, this time between the Egyptians and their horses during the splitting of the sea:
“The Egyptian said to his horse, ‘Yesterday I was pulling you in order to give you water and you did not come after me; now you are coming to sink me in the sea?’ The horse replied to the Egyptian [based on the verse], ‘Rama ba’yam. See what is in the sea! I see the Rumo shel Olam (the exalted One of the world) in the sea.’”
Other animals that uttered profundities were the cows that brought back the captured Aron from the Plishtim about whom the Tanchuma (Vayakhel ch. 7) says, “‘The cows sang (vayisharna) on the road.’ What is the meaning of, ‘The cows sang on the road?’ They opened their mouths and said shirah (a spiritual song of praise).”
We thus have five instances of intelligent animal talk: 1) Bilam’s donkey, 2) the snake in Gan Eden, 3) the crow and dove of the flood, 4) the horses in the Yam Suf and 5) the cows that brought back the Aron. How does this square with the rule that only people are given abstract speech? There are at least two approaches to answering this question. The Yad Rama explains that the incident of the crow speaking to Noach was not regular speech, but a type of sign language, while the Chida cites the Ritva as saying that the incident of the cows’ song of praise was a special miracle created during the last twilight of Creation together with the mouth of Bilam’s donkey.
We can sum up as follows: Although animals possess intelligence and speech, their thoughts and utterances are limited to physical matters and never pierce the realm of the abstract. Animal speech has the further distinction that it is more akin to sign language. Any exceptions to these rules were miracles. It follows that animals’ inferiority in intellect and speech is closely related to their lesser spiritual status.
No Free Lunch
Seforim explain that despite the inferior spirituality of animals, indeed because of it, animals are sometimes more sensitive to spiritual phenomena than humans. A well known example of this is Chazal’s statement (Bava Kama 60b), “When dogs howl, the angel of death has come to town; when they laugh, Eliyahu has come to town.” To this, the Be’er HaGolah of the Maharal explains:
“Know that man is superior to all the lower creatures and is closest to the spiritual level than any other creature so that even He, blessed be He, speaks with him. Nonetheless, in a case where spiritual beings are not sent to actually speak to a person [such as when Eliyahu is passing through town and not directly speaking to anyone] we do not claim that a human is more sensitive to spiritual beings than other creatures. On the contrary, in such a case, animals are superior.” Perhaps this phenomenon is symbolic of the fundamental difference between animals and man. Unlike animals that achieve their potential automatically by eating corn and grass, a person only reaches his spiritual potential through unstinting hard work.
(Sources: Rav Yechiel Michel Stern, Otzar HaYedi’os)