The Biblical Museum of Natural History: Bigger, Better, and Not To Be Missed

The picture says it all. Last time I was at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, the take-away photo was of a bunch of my family members all holding a single, huge python. This time, as you can see, I got upgraded to two snakes, in a more intense encounter.

And that’s the story. The museum is now in its new digs, many times larger than the old. It gained in space, in breadth of the exhibits, and in the length of time it will hold the visitor spellbound. It is just off the main road (38), which means that you don’t have to enter Beit Shemesh at all. It is really under a half hour from Yerushalayim. (It is also about three minutes from the new IKEA – which in Israel is so much more than a place for DIY furniture – so you can combine objectives in one trip.)

Most of our readers are not yet within driving distance of the Museum, but they can take part through an assortment of online tours in real time. Think of it as a Zoom call to a specialized zoo.

That specialty, for those who don’t know what the Museum is all about, is the animals mentioned in Tanach. It is an incredible learning experience. It is not just that Tanach comes alive through the up-close encounter with its non-human characters. From beginning to end, you absorb information and insights about these animals. Which animals populated Israel in the times of Tanach? Why are some still there today, and others have moved on? Why have different animals moved in? How did different communities far from Israel try to identify the animals in Tanach – and often arrive at different results? What roles did they play in so many areas of Torah she-b’al-peh/the Oral Law and halacha? What do these animals tell us about the wisdom of our Creater? While always entertaining and fast-moving, it is essentially an exercise in Torah learning.

The Museum employs many guides, to cater to the language needs of the audience, including English and Yiddish. (The interactions with the greatest social impact may be the Dati Leumi presenters in front of Chassidic listeners, who absorb Torah from a member of a different “camp” with which they ordinarily have little or no contact. Likewise, charedi guides presenting material to secular visitors can only lead to good things.)

My favorite presenter is my good friend Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin, whose interest in, and love for, animals animates the Museum. He’s my favorite not just because he put it together, but because his dry British wit comes through at every opportunity. (Yeah, it is also good to spend time with him without fighting like cats and dogs – as we ordinarily do – about Rationalist Judaism. He will be quick to say that cats and dogs really don’t fight, and he might win that one. What is important to know is that if you are not particularly a fan of that POV, you have nothing to fear from a visit. Natan has sanitized the presentations, so that there is no trace of any of the controversy about his earlier books, neither explicitly nor subliminally. It is hashkafically safe for all “camps.” Just a great learning experience, equally engaging for children and the adults they bring along.)

All that is missing right now is the crowds. Because of corona restrictions, visits are limited. When things return to normal, this museum will be deluged with visitors, Jewish and non-Jewish. In the meantime, the animals are taking it in stride. At least most of them. My favorite giant python had wound himself around a piece of wood, and could not be pried away from it. May have been holding out for a raise in salary.

If you are not in Israel, try one of the online experiences. If you are, take advantage of a great opportunity to take the kids to something they will love and will leave them with a bit of enlightenment. No social distancing required. At least from the animals. (From people, it is strictly enforced.

To figure out how you can take part in all this, visit the website at

[Disclaimer: The author serves as a member of the board of the Museum without compensation. But, ya gotta come clean these days.]

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9 Responses

  1. dr. bill says:

    Rabbi, Letting a python wrap around you proves that you are not much of a rationalist. 🙂

  2. Shades of Gray says:

    “The interactions with the greatest social impact may be the Dati Leumi presenters in front of Chassidic listeners”

    R. Slifkin wrote a post about this, “Some Of My Best Visitors Are Chassidim”, in December 2015, excerpted below:

    All the guides agree that, as much as everyone loves the museum, there is no other group which appreciates everything as much as the chassidim.

    Chassidim are so utterly fascinated by absolutely everything in the museum! Even something as simply as a baby tortoise is a source of endless delight. They want to blow every single shofar in our vast collection. They stare mesmerized into the faces of the taxidermied animals. They want to touch and hold every single egg and skull and hoof. They are thrilled to touch all of our live animals – not only the super-exotic ones, but even common species. And as for the snakes, symbol of evil in the Torah – they can’t get enough of them!

    The reason for this is very simple – Israeli chassidim have never seen anything like this before… They’ve never seen National Geographic (unlike the litvishe charedim, who have seen mehadrin versions of National Geographic documentaries on DVDs)….

    These are people with whom I have so little in common… and yet we can have a really enjoyable conversation about animals and Torah. During one tour for a local cheder, the rebbe noticed me standing at the back. He figured out that I’m the person who created the museum, and he came over to talk to me. He said, “If you made this place, you must have a really interesting life-story! Perhaps you’d like to share it with our talmidim?” I smiled and politely declined, as I murmured to myself, “Let’s not go there!”

  3. Bob Miller says:

    It would be a real coup if they caught and caged the original snake. Evidence suggests it’s still up and about.

    • dr. bill says:

      Bob, that would be great. Perhaps the snake can shed some light on the controversy over what the “apple” really was.

      • Bob Miller says:

        Would you trust the answer?

      • dr. bill says:

        bob, after some thouht, I would not. I am not at the madraigah of Shlomo or even Bilaam who could converse with animals. It is hard enough for me to converse with a number of humans who are krummer than a pretzel. 🙂

  4. Raymond says:

    This is perhaps only tangentially related, but I am currently reading an absolutely fascinating and very short book on the ideas of Rav Kook. Going into all that would definitely be off topic, but I bring it up because the book talks briefly about the tremendous commitment that the Torah itself makes to environmentalism. This is a subject that I have rarely encountered in any Torah Book. In fact, i can think of only one other instance, a book by Rabbi Aryeh Carmel written many years ago called Masterplan. I have also heard that Israel is the only country on Earth that typically has a net positive growth in its numbers of trees from year to year. Now I wonder if that is more than a coincidence. Well, in any case, I am not in any way advocating some kind of radical environmentalism here. I simply love parks, national or otherwise, and have long thought that there can simply never be enough trees in our world. There is nothing bad about trees, and everything good about them, so it is gratifying to know that such a sentiment may have a solid basis in our Torah.

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