Friday, December 16, 2011

Salamandra and the Flames of Hell

Salamandra and the Flames of Hell

The Midrash Tanchuma records[1] that there are some creatures which are native to air and some creatures which are native to fire. Those creatures which are native to fire die when exposed to the air. An example of such a creature is the Salamandra:[2]  when a glassblower ignites his furnace for seven consecutive days and nights this mouse-like creature[3] emerges from the fire[4]. When smeared with the blood of a Salamandra or concealed by its limbs, one becomes resistant to fire. Based on this, the Talmud[5] presents an a fortiori logical argument[6] to prove that the fires of Gehinnom (Hell) cannot affect a Torah Scholar. The Talmud reasons that just as one who anoints oneself with the blood of a Salamandra, who is born from fire, is rendered immune to the effects of fire, so too a Torah Scholar, who is entirely comprised of fire—for the Torah itself is considered to be fire[7]—is certainly immune to fire’s burn[8].

Rashi in Tractate Chagigah[9] explains that a Salamandra is a creature born from a fire which has burnt continuously in one place for seven years[10]. Rashi also writes in Sanhedrin[11] that it is a small creature which emerges from an oven whose fire has been burning for seven consecutive years, and with whose blood can one become immune to the burn of fire. However, in Tractate Chullin[12] Rashi explains that a Salamandra is formed from burning myrtle wood using witchcraft[13]. Some Rabbis note[14] that Rashi seems to contradict himself, for in two instances he writes that a Salamandra is formed from a seven-year old fire, while in another he writes that it is created by burning myrtle wood and witchcraft[15]. Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762-1839) reconciles[16] Rashi’s stance. He explains that really the Salamandra is created from fire at “the well-known mountains of fire”, but since the Salamandra cannot survive outside of their natural habitat, witchcraft is required to summon them from “the mountains of fire.” Furthermore, in order to insure the summoned Salamandra’s survival outside of their native habitat, those involved in witchcraft provide the summoned Salamandra with the suitably fiery environment of myrtle wood that has burnt for seven years. Myrtle wood that has burned for so long reaches the epitome of fire and mimics the Salamandra’s fiery native habitat. Thus, Rabbi Sofer concludes that both passages of Rashi do not contradict each other, rather they complement each other.

The “well-known mountains of fire” to which Rabbi Sofer refers are mentioned in the writings of Rabbeinu Gershon ben Shlomo Catalan (son-in-law of Nachmanides, father of Gersonides) who writes[17] that the Salamandra is found in a mountain made up entirely of burning sulfur, known as Balkin[18]. The mountain burns day and night, and from it the Salamandra is formed. Rabbeinu Gershon also mentions that Salamandra is a known poison[19], but that its skin has some healing properties. He further writes that clothing made from its skin cannot be burnt, so when it is dirtied, it can be cleaned in fire. Similarly, the Zohar[20] asserts that clothing made from the skin of Salamandra can only[21] be cleaned in fire, for the fire will burn all the grime which clings to it, but the actual garment will remain unscathed[22],[23].

The Talmud relates[24] that King Ahaz wanted to offer his son Hezekiah as a burnt sacrifice to Molech[25], but Hezekiah’s mother smeared him with Salamandra blood and he survived the fire. Elsewhere, the Talmud relates[26] that later, as king, Hezekiah saw through divine prophecy that he was destined to sire an evil son. One can ask how Hezekiah could receive prophecy, if he was smeared with the blood of Salamandra, an impure insect, which rendered him impure and purity is required to receive prophecy[27]. Rabbi Chanoch Zundel of Bialystock (d. 1867) answers[28], in the name of the author of Ramat Shmuel, that since a Salamandra is engendered by fire, then just as fire cannot become ritually impure[29], so too a Salamandra, which issues from it, is not ritually impure. However, this idea stands in contrast to the words of the Talmud in Chullin (cited above) that a Salamandra is one of the eight ritually impure insects. Based on this question and on the abovementioned contradiction between the passages of Rashi, Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Walldenberg (1915-2006) concludes[30] that there are two types of Salamandra[31]. The first type of Salamandra is created naturally from a fire which burns for seven years. This type of Salamandra does not exude ritual impurity upon its death because it is created from fire, and fire is considered pure. The second type of Salamandra is created from burning Myrtle wood through witchcraft. This type of Salamandra is indeed ritually impure. Therefore, explains, Rabbi Walldenberg, one can answer that Hezekiah was coated in the blood of the first type of Salamandra because it is not ritually impure.

According to this Rabbi Walldenberg resolves the seeming contradiction in the passages of Rashi (mentioned above) concerning the origins of the Salamandra. In Tractate Chullin, when the Talmud mentioned that Salamandra is an impure insect, Rashi explained that a Salamandra is created through witchery. This is because only the type of Salamandra which is created through witchcraft is indeed ritually impure. However, in Tractate Sanhedrin when explaining the Salamandra whose blood was smeared upon Hezekiah, Rashi explains that a Salamandra is created from a fire that burns for seven years. This is because only such a Salamandra is not ritually impure[32]. In explaining so, Rashi is attempting to answer the Ramat Shmuel’s question. Also, in Tractate Chagigah, Rashi explained that the Salamandra emerges from a fire which burns for seven years. This is because there the Talmud is using the Salamandra as a source for teaching that a Torah Scholar is immune to the fires of hell. Since it is not befitting to compare a Torah Scholar to something created through witchcraft, Rashi specifically explained there that a Salamandra is created from a seven-year old fire.

The Talmud[33] presents another a fortiori argument, in the name of Raish Lakish, to prove that the flames of Hell cannot even affect Jewish sinners. He reasons that this is derived from the Altar in the Holy Temple, for the Altar was mainly of wood and had only a thin coating of gold, yet the altar did not char due to the fire burning upon it. So too, a Jewish who is mainly a sinner, but is nonetheless filled with numerous good deeds as a pomegranate is filled with seeds, cannot be affected by the flames of Hell[34]. However, one can question the logic of this argument because perhaps one can claim that the altar was not protected from fire by its thin gold coating; rather, it was coated in the blood of a Salamandra which rendered it resistant to fire[35]. One can possibly answer this question based on the words of Rabbi Binyamin Mussafia (1606-1675) who wrote[36] that indeed the Salamandra, due to its dampness and cold-blooded reptilian nature, is resistant to fire, but is not completely immune to it. Therefore, he writes that a Salamandra would not burn unless it is inside a fire for a long time. Accordingly, one can answer that coating the altar with Salamandra’s blood would not have helped protect it from the constant fires which burned upon it, long-term. Therefore it would have been impossible to claim that the altar was protected by a coating of Salamandra blood instead of its thin golden coating.

The story of Abraham surviving the fiery furnace was only recorded in Midrashic sources, but was omitted from the Written Torah[37]. Rabbi Shlomo Tzvi Shick explains[38] this is because had the story been included in the Written Torah, one could have argued that Abraham did not really give up his life by jumping into the fiery furnace only to be miraculously saved; rather, he covered himself with Salamandra blood and jumped into the furnace and survived. By arguing that the blood of the Salamandra insured Abraham’s survival, one can easily dismiss HaShem’s role in this great miracle[39]. To avoid such denial of divine intervention, the story was excluded from the Written Torah. The Midrash relates[40] that Abraham was jailed in the fiery furnace for three days and nights. One can ask why he was specifically locked up for three days and nights, if should the fire not affect him in the first moment of his entrance into the furnace, forcing him to stay longer would surely accomplish nothing more. However, according to Rabbi Shick’s explanation coupled with the words of Rabbi Binyamin Mussafia, one can explain that Nimrod’s court thought that perhaps Abraham would coat himself with the blood of Salamandra in order to survive the ordeal. However, if immersed in a powerful fire for three days, he would still get burnt because the Salamandra blood can only resist fire, but immunize against it. Thus, to circumvent this possibility of survival, Abraham was sentenced to be thrown in the furnace for three days, to insure his death. However, due to divine intervention, he was saved from the flames and continued to spread monotheism to the civilized world.

Another answer is offered by Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (1832-1909), who defends[41] the Talmud’s argument by explaining that the altar could not have possibly been protected from fire through Salamandra’s blood because the blood of Salamandra can only protect living beings from being burnt. Therefore, since the altar was an inanimate object, the Salamandra’s fire-resistant powers could not shield it from its own fires. Rabbi Yosef Chaim proves his assertion that non-living items cannot be protected from fire through the Salamandra’s blood from the fact that the Sages knew before the destruction of the Second Holy Temple that its conflagration was imminent[42] , yet they did not seek to protect the Temple’s building by daubing it with Salamandra’s blood. This was because the Salamandra’s blood only helps to protect living creatures from fire, but not non-living entities. Therefore, one must explain that altar was not singed by the flames which burned atop it because of its thin gold coating. From here, the Talmud derives the abovementioned lesson about Jewish sinners[43].
However, Rabbi Walldenberg casts doubt upon the idea presented by Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad based on a story related by Rabbi Yehuda HaChossid[44]. He recounts[45] a tale in which a certain Christian claimed to have found the cloak of their false god Jesus. He proved the cloak’s godliness by showing that the cloak was not burnt when thrown into a fire. The priests of the town then forced all the Jews to acknowledge the holiness of their “savior’s” cloak. One Jewish scholar asked of them to hand him the cloak and he will show them what will be of it. When they handed him the cloak, he took strong vinegar and soap and cleaned the cloak while they watched. When he finished, he threw the cloak into the fire and it was completely burnt. They asked him why he thought to thoroughly clean the garment. He responded that he realized that it was coated in Salamandra’s blood which rendered it resistant to fire. However, he explained, that once the blood was vigorously scrubbed off, the cloak would be vulnerable to the flames like any other article of clothing. With this, the Jewish scholar disproved the divinity of the cloak. From this story, Rabbi Walldenberg notes, it is evident that the Salamandra’s blood can indeed protect even non-living items, such as clothing, from the effects of a fire[46].

Although Rabbi Walldenberg does not cite this source, there is, ostensibly another source from which it is evident that Salamandra’s blood can protect even inanimate items. Moses saw a bush which was burning, but remained unaffected by the fire, for the fire did not consume the bush. After seeing this awesome sight, he decided to move closer to see whether indeed such an occurrence can happen. Rabbi Yitzchok Karo (1458-1535) asks[47] if even from afar Moses had already seen that indeed the bush was ablaze yet the fire did not burn it, for what purpose did Moses approach the burning bush. Rabbi Karo explains that Moses wondered whether this occurrence was supernatural, a result of a special miraculous phenomenon, or was the bush not being burnt simply because it had been covered in the blood of the Salamandra, which rendered it immune to the effects of the fire. For this reason, Moses approached the burning bush so that he may satisfy his curiosity and discern whether or not the bush was coated with Salamandra blood. From here one sees that even an inanimate object, such as a bush, can be protected through the blood of Salamandra. However, one can nonetheless argue that flora, although inanimate, can hardly be considered non-living because plants grow and do contain life in them. However, clothing—which even if made from animal fur/skin or even flax/cotton—has been completely detached from any life form and cannot be considered living, just as the wood and stone from which the Holy Temple and altar were built cannot be considered living.

Verifying the Salamandra Story

In addition to the many sources in Jewish writings who discuss the Salamandra, many non-Jewish sources also attest to the creatures’ existence. Aristotle (384 BC- 322 BC), a famous Greek philosopher, writes[48]:

"In Cyprus, in places where copper-ore is smelted, with heaps of the ore piled on day after day, an animal is engendered in the fire, somewhat larger than a blue bottle fly, furnished with wings, which can hop or crawl through the fire. And the grubs and these latter animals perish when you keep the one away from the fire... Now the Salamandra is a clear case in point, to show us that animals do actually exist that fire cannot destroy; for this creature, so the story goes, not only walks through the fire but puts it out in doing so."

Pliny the Elder (23-79), a later Greek philosopher and scientist, writes[49]:

 "As for example:  the Salamandra made in fashion of a Lizard, marked with spots like to stars, never comes abroad and sheweth it selfe but in great showers; for in faire weather he is not seene. He is of so cold a complexion, that if hee do but touch the fire, hee wil quench it as presently, as if yce were put into it. The Salamandra casteth up at the mouth a certaine venomous matter like unto milke, let it but once touch any bare part of a man or womans bodie, all the haire will fall off: and the part so touched will change the colour of the skin to the white morphew."

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), the famous Italian scientist from the Renaissance Period, also mentions the Salamandra in his writings. He wrote[50]:"THE SALAMANDER. This has no digestive organs, and gets no food but from the fire, in which it constantly renews its scaly skin. The Salamandraander, which renews its scaly skin in the fire,--for virtue." However, an earlier source, Marco Polo (1254-1324), the famous European explorer who traveled to the Near East and Far East rejected accounts of the existence of such a creature. He wrote in his diary[51]:

"And you must know that in the same mountain there is a vein of the substance from which Salamandraander is made. For the real truth is that the Salamandraander is no beast, as they allege in our part of the world, but is a substance found in the earth; and I will tell you about it. Everybody must be aware that it can be no animal's nature to live in fire, seeing that every animal is composed of all the four elements. Now I, Marco Polo, had a Turkish acquaintance of the name of Zurficar, and he was a very clever fellow. And this Turk related to Messer Marco Polo how he had lived three years in that region on behalf of the Great Kaan, in order to procure those Salamandraanders for him. He said that the way they got them was by digging in that mountain till they found a certain vein. The substance of this vein was then taken and crushed, and when so treated it divides as it were into fibres of wool, which they set forth to dry. When dry, these fibres were pounded in a great copper mortar, and then washed, so as to remove all the earth and to leave only the fibres like fibres of wool. These were then spun, and made into napkins. When first made these napkins are not very white, but by putting them into the fire for a while they come out as white as snow. And so again whenever they become dirty they are bleached by being put in the fire. Now this, and nought else, is the truth about the Salamandraander, and the people of the country all say the same. Any other account of the matter is fabulous nonsense. And I may add that they have at Rome a napkin of this stuff, which the Grand Kaan sent to the Pope to make a wrapper for the Holy Sudarium of Jesus Christ. We will now quit this subject, and I will proceed with my account of the countries lying in the direction between north-east and east."

Contemporary science, for the most part, tends to assume like Marco Polo’s assertion that the
Salamandra is simply a myth. For a more extensive treatment of this topic in light of contemporary research and analysis, see Sacred Monsters (Chapter 13, “The Secret of the Salamandraander”) by Natan Slifkin (2007). Slifkin maintains that the intent of Rabbi Binyamin Mussafia (mentioned above) was to say that the rabbinic tradition regarding Salamandra is in error, for the Salamandra is not really immune to the effects of fire, it simply can withstand its effects for a while.

Rabbeinu Bachaya ben Asher (1260-1340) writes[52] that a Salamandra is a type of tzav (turtle) and is referred to when the Torah writes[53] “the turtle, according to their species”. His source is the Talmud[54] and Toras Kohanim[55] which expound “according to their species” (mentioned in regard to the tzav) to include the Salamandra as a type of impure insect. Indeed, the Midrash[56] tells that when HaShem showed Moses all the impure insects, He even showed him a Salamandra which emerged from fire. However, Tosafos[57] mention that the Sefer HaAruch, written by Rabbeinu Nosson ben Yechiel of Rome (1035-1106), writes[58] that Targum Yonason to Leviticus 11:29 translates “achbar” (mouse) as Salamandra[59]. This position is supported by the Midrash Tanchuma (cited in the beginning) that the Salamandra is a mouse-like creature. Rabbi Aryeh Leib Ginzburg of Metz (1695-1785) already mentioned[60] this inconsistency between the Talmud and the Midrash whether a Salamandra is a type of tzav or a type of akhbar. It has been suggested that this inconsistency reflects the two types of Salamandra as mentioned earlier. Whilst one can argue that the Midrash about Moses is referring to the impure type of Salamandra while the Midrash Tanchuma refers to the ritually pure type of Salamdanra, the commentaries obviously take a different approach. That is, both Rabbeinu Bachaya who classifies a Salamandra as a type of turtle and Rabbeinu Nosson who characterizes a Salamandra as a type of mouse are both referring to the type of Salamandra which is ritually impure[61]. Interestingly, Rabbi Shalom Moskowitz of Shatz (1878-1958) testifies[62] to having seen a Salamandra in a British Aquarium and was surprised to see that it is a fish/crustacean.

[1] Midrash Tanchuma, VaYeishev §3
[2] See Rabbeinu Bachaya (Leviticus 11:2) who compares this to a fish in the sea, who upon exiting the water dies upon exposure to air.
[3] Some editions of Midrash Tanchuma read “spider-like creature”.
[4] Rabbi Eliezer of Worms (Pirush Rokeach to Haggadah Shel Pesach, Kiddush) writes that HaShem made creations which in turn can create other elements. As an example, he writes that HaShem created fire from which Salamandra is made. Many other medieval authorities also mention that the Salamandra is created from elemental fire including the Siddur ascribed to the Raavan (Genuzos, vol. 3, pg. 54, Rabbi Moshe Hirschler, Jerusalem, 1991) and Rabbi Yehoshua ibn Shoeb (Drashos Ibn Shoeb, Parshas Behar-Bechukosai). However, see Sefer HaBris by Rabbi Eliyahu Pinchas of Vilna (a contemporary of the Vilna Gaon) who writes (Vol. 1, Maamar 14, Chapter. 8) that the existence of the Salamandra proves the concept of spontaneous generation, i.e. ex nihilo, from nothing as opposed to from the fire.
[5] Chagigah 27a
[6] This is one of the thirteen hermeneutical methods of expounding on the Torah. It is known in Hebrew as a Kal V’Chomer.
[7] See Jeremiah 23:29, Deuteronomy 33:2; 4:24 and Obadiah 1:18 which refer to the Words of Hashem and the Torah as fire.
[8] See Maharsha (to Chagigah 27a) who explains that this refers even to a Torah Scholar who became a sinner. However, Rabbi Yosef of Trani (response Maharit, vol. 1, §100) elaborates on the Talmud’s comparison between the Salamandra’s resistance to fire and a Torah Scholar’s resistance to the flames of hell. There he writes that just as one can only extract a Salamandra’s blood for use of fire-proofing while the Salamandra is immersed in a fire, so too a Torah Scholar’s immunity from the fires of hell are only when the Torah Scholar is immersed completely in the “tent” of his studies.
[9] Chagigah 27a
[10] Although Rashi writes seven years, the Midrash Tanchuma cited in the beginning maintains that a Salamandra only takes seven days to develop. Interestingly, in one print, Rabbeinu Bachaya in Kad HaQemach, s.v. Pesach (1) (Lemberg, 1892) writes that it takes seven days to create a Salamandra; but in other editions, Rabbeinu Bachaya reads seven years (see Kad HaQemach ibid. included in Mossad HaRav Kook’s Writings of Rabbeinu Bachaya by Rabbi Chaim Dov Chavel, pg. 310). In his commentary to the Pentateuch (to Leviticus 11:2), Rabbeinu Bachaya writes seven years.
[11] Sanhedrin 63b
[12] Chullin 127a
[13] Rabbi Shmuel Yitzchok Hillman (1868-1953), Dayan of London, asks (Ohr HaYashar to Chullin 127a) why the appearances of Salamandras are not heard of nowadays if the fires in metalsmiths surely burn for seven years. Based on this passage of Rashi, Rabbi Hillman answers that these fires are not sustained by Myrtle wood and witchcraft is not used. This matter requires further examination in light of the other passages of Rashi which seem to contradict this passage of Rashi. On the surface it seems as if Rabbi Hillman’s question is based on a syllogistic fallacy because he assumes that since Rashi writes that a Salamandra arises from a seven-year old fire, then every seven-year old fire should be producing fires. However, in reality, Rashi only meant to explain that a seven-year old fire is the source of the Salamandra, but in no way does Rashi ever seem to imply that every seven-year old fire should produce a Salamandra.
[14] See Gilyon HaShas (Chagigah 27a) by Rabbi Akiva Eiger (1761-1838) and Hagahos Mahartz Chayos (Chullin 127a) by Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes (1805-1855) who mention this discrepancy.
[15] Rabbi Yosef Rozin (1858-1936) answers (response Tzfnas Paneach, §234, Warsaw ed.) that anything which is to be considered of  farfetched origin can be referred to as having been created through witchcraft, even though it was actually created through natural means.
[16] Chasam Sofer to Chullin 127a
[17] Sha’ar HaShomayim, Maamar 4, pg. 31 (Warsaw, 1875)
[18] This is seemingly a reference to the Balkan Mountains range in Southeastern Europe. Alternatively, one can conjecture that the word “Balkin” can be read “Vulcan” which refers to the Roman God of Fire. The word “Volcano” likely evolved from his name and a volcano can reasonably be referred to as a mountain of fire. In fact, many volcanoes exist in Italy and its surrounding areas, including Sicily. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), an early Christian theologian, actually mentions the Salamandra in conjunction with firey mountains in Sicily. He writes (The City of God, Book 11, Chapter 4, translated by Marcus Duds):
"If, therefore, the Salamander lives in fire, as naturalists have recorded, and if certain famous mountains of Sicily have been continually on fire from the remotest antiquity until now, and yet remain entire, these are sufficiently convincing examples that everything which burns is not consumed.  As the soul too, is a proof that not everything which can suffer pain can also die, why then do they yet demand that we produce real examples to prove that it is not incredible that the bodies of men condemned to everlasting punishment may retain their soul in the fire, may burn without being consumed, and may suffer without perishing?"
Ostensibly, these fiery mountains refer to the volcanoes of Italy. One the other hand, Rabbi Avrohom Kramer (1749-1808), son of the Vilna Gaon, quotes the words of Rabbeinu Gershon, but mentions the mountain’s name as “Bilka” not “Balkin” (see Kovetz Yeshurun, Vol. 5, pg. 101, Jerusalem, 1999).
[19] Pliny the Elder (23-79), a famous Greek philosopher, also mentions (Natural History, Book 11, Chapter 53) the poisonous properties of the Salamandra.
[20] Exodus 210b
[21] It is unclear why this is a reason that the garment can only be cleaned in a fire, it only explains why the garment can be cleaned in a fire.
[22] Rabbi Chanoch Zundel also writes (Anaf Yosef to Chagigah 27a) in the name of Rabbi Moshe de-Leon (1250-1305), revealer of the Zohar, in HaNefesh HaChochma that clothing made from the wool of Salamandra can only be cleaned while inside a fire. His words are quoted in full in a footnote to Toras HaMincha, vol. 2, pg. 423 (written by Rabbeinu Yaakov ben Chananel Silki, a student of the Rashba; published in Safed, 1991).
[23] Rabbeinu Gershon also writes that ibn Sinai also mentions the Salamandra. ibn Sinai (or ibn Sina) is known in the Western World as Avicenna. In his work “Treatise of the Birds” he writes, “Like a Salamandraander, be in the middle of fire so no harm can upon tomorrow.” This is a clear reference to the Salamandra and is probably that of which Rabbeinu Gershon is speaking.
[24] Sanhedrin 63b
[25] See Leviticus 20:2 and Deuteronomy 18:10 which proscribe the Molech idolatry whereby one passes one’s son through a fire. It is documented (Kings 2 16:3) that King Ahaz had sinned with the idol of Molech by offering his son. Since nowhere else is another child of Ahaz mentioned, this must refer to Hezekiah. Rashi (to Sanhedrin 63b) explains that this is the Talmud’s source in explaining that Hezekiah was offered to Molech. However see Margolios Yam (Sanhedrin 63b, §19) by Rabbi Reuven Margolis (Mossad HaRav Kook, Jerusalem, 1977) who questions Rashi’s assumption that Hezekiah was Ahaz’s only son. Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Walldenberg (cited below) also discusses this point. Interestingly, Rabbi Yoseph Karo (Kesef Mishnah, Avoda Zara 6:3), Rabbi Menachem Meiri (Bais HaBechira to Sanhedrin 64a) and Chiddushei HaRan (Sanhedrin 64b) write that Hezekiah was not offered to  Molech, but rather to another sort of idolatry, who was worshipped similarly.
[26] Brachos 10a
[27] He assumes that purity is required in order to receive prophecy.  One can question the assumption that purity is required in order to receive divine prophecy because Rashi (to Numbers 12:4) explains that HaShem appeared suddenly to Aaron and Miriam while they were still impure from having engaged in marital relations with their spouses and they were screaming “water, water”. This implies that prophecy is possible even when in a state of ritual impurity.
[28] Anaf Yosef to Chullin 127a. Rabbi Yaakov Culi (d. 1732) in Yalkut Meam Loez (Kings 2 16:3) also brings this question and answer. See also Rabbi Gershon Stern’s Yalkut HaGershoni, Aggados HaShas to Chagigah 27a (Sighet, 1922), Kisvei Kehillos Yaakov HaChadash (Siyum to Chagigah) by the Steipler Gaon, Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky (1899–1985), and Pardes Yosef (Leviticus 11:29) who discuss whether one is allowed to eat a Salamandra.
[29] See Sanhedrin 39a where fire is used to purify from ritual impurity just as the waters of a Mikvah are used to purify from ritual impurity.
[30] Responsa Tzitz Eliezer Vol. 17, §34
[31] Rabbi Yitzchok Goyta in Sdeh Yitzchok, Vol. 3, Chagigah 27a (Vienna, 1851) arrives to the same conclusion, but does not elaborate as much on it.
In keeping with the Talmudic analogy, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchok HaKohen Kook (1865-1935), Chief Rabbi of Palestine, writes that just as there are two types of Salamandra, there are also two types of Torah Scholars: One type of Salamandra is created through seven years of burning fire. This is analgous to a Torah Scholar who "burned" for many years through hard work and toil to become a Torah Scholar. The other type of Salamandra is created through witchcraft and trickery. This represents one who passes himself off as a Torah Scholar through deceit and sleight of hand. [SOURCE: ]
[32] Nachmanides (Ramban to Leviticus 18:21) writes that the Salamandra whose blood was smeared on Hezekiah was created miraculously by HaShem for this specific purpose.
[33] Chagigah 27a
[34] Chasam Sofer (Chullin 127a) highlights out a tidbit of Mussar in comparing these two passages in the Talmud: The Torah Scholar’s immunity to the flames of hell is derived from the Salamandra’s ability to withstand fire. This is a natural resistance. However, the Jewish sinner’s resistance to the inferno of hell is derived from the altar’s ability to endure the fires burning upon it. The altar’s ability to do so is not natural, rather it is miraculous. This illustrates the difference between a Torah Scholar’s immunity to Hell and the Jewish sinner’s immunity; the Torah Scholar’s immunity is natural, whilst the Jewish sinner’s immunity requires special divine intervention to create a miracle contrary to the rules of nature.
[35] Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson (1808-1875) in Divrei Shaul (to Chagigah 27a) relates that a young man once asked him this question and answered that since a Salamandra is an impure animal, then its blood is ritually impure and therefore was not smeared on the altar, for it would defile the altar. To explain the Talmud’s reference to Salamandra, Tosafos (Chagigah 27a) quoted the words of the Aruch. As mentioned below, the Aruch understood that Salamandra is a type of mouse and is one of the eight insects specified by the Torah as being ritually impure. The young man explained that by alluding to the Salamandra’s ritual impurity, Tosafos was actually hinting to his question and answer. However, Rabbi Nathanson rejects the young man’s answer because, as he proves, the altar cannot become ritually impure, therefore the blood of the Salamandra would not defile it. Consequently, it is still likely to say that the altar was coated in the blood of Salamandra, and the question returns. Rabbi Menachem Yehuda Guznik in Nachomas Jehuda, Hadarn to Tractate Chagigah (New York City, 1935) rejects the young man’s answer based on the words of the Ramat Shmuel mentioned above that a Salamandra is not ritually impure. However, according to Rabbi Walldenberg’s interpration, the words of the Ramat Shmuel are not grounds to reject the young man’s answer.
[36] Mussaf HaAruch to Sefer HaAruch, s.v. Salamandra
[37] The Mishnah (Avos 5:3) tells that Abraham passed ten tests which proved his loyalty to HaShem. Many commentaries (including Rashi there, Bartenura there, and Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer Chp. 26) explain that amongst the ten tests was the fact that Abraham was thrown by Nimrod into a fiery furnace. However, Maimonides, in his commentary to the Mishnah (Avos 5:3) omits this story as one of Abraham’s ten tests. To defend Maimonides’ stance, Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249-1310) writes (Beis HaBechira to Avos 5:3) that since this story is not mentioned explicitly in the Written Torah, rather it is only alluded to in the Written Torah and elaborated upon in the Oral Torah, Maimonides felt that this story cannot be included in the enumeration of Abraham’s ten tests.
[38] Hagahos Toldos Esther to Rabbeinu Yitzchok Izak Tyrnau’s Sefer HaMinhagim, Laws of Rosh HaShannah, §60 (Munkatch, 1880), see there for a discussion on the etymology of the Hebrew/Greek word Salamandra.
[39] Similarly, the miracles performed by HaShem during King Ahasuerus’ own lifetime whereby Hannania, Michael, and Azariah were saved from a fiery furnace, did not deter the king from antagonizing the Jews. Rabbi Chanoch Zundel explains (Anaf Yosef to Esther Rabbah §7:13) this was because Ahasuerus assumed that they saved themselves through the use of a Salamandra’s blood, not that they were saved through divine intervention.
[40] Sefer HaYashar (quoted in Seder HaDoros, Year 1998)
[41] Ben Yehoyada to Chagigah 27a
[42] See Yoma 39b, Gittin 56b
[43] Rabbi Yosef Chaim also answers that there is a difference between a physical fire and a spiritual fire. When the Talmud wrote that a Torah Scholar is immune to the effects of the fires of Hell, the Talmud only meant to say that a Torah Scholar is protected from a spiritual fire, but not from a physical fire. This explains why if a Torah Scholar would insert a body part into a physical fire, he would indeed get burnt. The converse, explains Rabbi Yosef Chaim, is also true. That is, the blood of a Salamandra only has the ability to protect from physical fires, but not from spiritual fires. Therefore, since the fire upon the altar which consumed the ritual sacrifices was not only a physical fire, but contained elements of a spiritual fire as well, the blood of the Salamandra could not protect the altar from being burnt. Therefore, it must have been the thin gold coating which protected the altar, and if such a coating can protect the mainly wooden alter, then for sure the good deeds of the sinners can protect them from the fires of hell. See Ohr HaChamah (Chagigah 27a) by Rabbi Zundel Kroizer who asks how one can equate a spiritual fire with a physical one. He also asks how it is possible that a Salamandra, which is the “offspring” of fire, can be stronger than its parent element, the fire itself.
[44] Rabbi Nissim Dayan (U’L’Dan Amar, Chagigah §13) also asks this same question according to Rabbi Yosef Chaim.
[45] Sefer Chassidim §1014
[46] Instead, Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Walldenberg explains that the altar could not have been coated in the blood of a Salamandra because such a coating would have been a halachik barrier between the altar and the offerings burnt upon it. This barrier would have invalidated all the sacrificial offerings.
[47] Toldos Yitzchok to Exodus 3:3 (he was an uncle of Rabbi Yosef Karo author of the Shulchan Aruch). See also Pardes Yosef (Exodus 3:3) who mentions this source.
[48] The History of Animals, Book 5, Part  19, Translated by D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson
[49] Natural History, Book 10, Chapter 67
[50] The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, Complete, § 1236, translated by Jean Paul Richter
[51] The Travels of Marco Polo, Book 1, Chapter 42, translated by Henry Yule
[52] To Leviticus 11:2
[53] Leviticus 11:29
[54] Chullin 127a
[55] To Leviticus 11:29
[56] Shemos Rabbah §15:27
[57] Chagigah 27a
[58] s.v. Salamandra
[59] See Maharsha (Chagigah 27a) who asks that Targum Yonasaon (Leviticus 11:30) translates “tinshames” as Salamandra (see also Otzar Blum on Maharsha ad loc.), but not “achbar” as Salamandra. Indeed, contemporary editions of Targum Yonsason do not translate “achbar” as Salamandra, but do translate “tinshames” (mole) as Salamandra. See Rabbi Yosef Chaim Dovid Azuli (1724-1807) in Shem HaGedolim (s.v. Targum) and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher (1895-1983) in Torah Shleima (Leviticus 11:29 §105) who discuss based on this how in many instances earlier sources refer to Targum Yerushalmi as Targum Yonason. According to them, when the Aruch referred to Targum Yonasaon, he meant what is now called Targum Yerushalmi.
[60] Turei Even to Chagigah 27a
[61] Targum Yonason (above) who classified Salamandra as a type of mole was also doing so in discussing the impure type of Salamandra.
[62] Ohr Ganuz, Vol 2, pg. 140, London, 1996; She’aris Yaakov §35, London, 1957; Da’as Shalom to Chagigah 27a, Monsey, 1994. Rabbi Moskowitz was a grandfather of the late Rabbi Moshe Halberstam (1932-2006), a dayan of the Eidah Chareidis in Jerusalem.

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