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The Talmud on the Virtues of Robots and Cats

A few days ago Engadget blogged a story originally reported in the Israeli print media that a local family was surprised to discover that their Roomba had ingested a dangerous poisonous snake (Vipera palaestinae). (Within a few days, the story was echoed by Gizmodo, Boing Boing, and Jewschool.)

Vipera palaestina

In so far as Jewish lore goes, the virtues of alert domestic household guardians in disposing of wayward lizards was recognized as early as 350-371 CE in the Babylonian Talmud. The source below, Tractate Pesaḥim, Chapter 10, p112b, provides something of a utilitarian justification for the adoption of cats in this regard:

אמר רב פפא ביתא דאית ביה שונרא לא ניעול בה איניש בלא מסני מאי טעמא משום דשונרא קטיל לחיויא ואכיל ליה ואית ביה בחיויא גרמי קטיני ואי יתיב לה גרמא דחיויא אכרעיה לא נפיק ואסתכן ליה איכא דאמרי ביתא דלית ביה שונרא לא ניעול ביה איניש בהכרא מאי טעמא דילמא מיכריך ביה חויא ולא ידע ומסתכן

Rav Papa said: A man should not enter a house in which there is a cat, without shoes. What is the reason? Because the cat may kill a snake and eat it — now the snake has little bones, and if a bone sticks into his foot it will not come out, and will endanger him. Others say: A man should not enter a house where there is no cat, in the dark [without shoes]. What is the reason? Lest a snake wind itself about him without his knowing, and he come to danger.

Given these concerns, we can only surmise that if Rav Papa were alive today, he might trust his Nehardean home and yeshiva to be free of tiny snake bones thanks to his own autonomous robotic vacuum cleaner, and unselfconsciously walk about in his socks, even in the dark, his tender soles secure. Over here at the Omphalos, we appreciate the common sense of Rav Papa’s colleagues; and we’re rather satisfied with the lap guarding capabilities of our resident felines, Dot, Ivan, and William. We do admit however that in battle with poisonous lizards, our cats would fare far more poorly than Rav Papa or his colleagues assume. If we lived in an area prone to viper attacks, a Roomba might save our cat’s lives as well as our own.

We will just need to remain vigilant. When in viper country we will wear shoes, as the Talmud recommends and wait patiently while DARPA struggles to model the feline brain. When DARPA ultimately succeeds we will upgrade the firmware of our vacuuming robots with the aggressive skills of 4th century Iraqi cats. But unapologetic sentimentalists, we will keep our warm blooded companions and enjoy their current, if temporary, dominance over their vigilant snake wrestling (and dust fighting) competitors.

About Aharon N. Varady


Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words.

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