Fat, Tails and Intellectual Limits

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by R. Gil Student

In successfully defending rabbinic Judaism to a Karaite, R. Avraham Ibn Ezra makes an astonishing claim that actually undermines his entire argument. However, properly understood, his point is profound and still relevant nearly a thousand years later.

I. Fat and Tails

Karaites believe that the Torah forbids eating an animal’s tail. Their source is Lev. 3:9, in which the tail (alyah) is called fat (cheilev, which is distinct from shuman, permissible fat). Lev. 7:25 forbids eating fat, even punishing it with excision (kareis). Since the tail is considered fat, it too is forbidden.

However, the rabbinic tradition permits eating the tail. R. Sa’adia Gaon (Tafsir, 3:9) renders the verse regarding the tail as referring to two items–fat and the tail. By distinguishing between the two, he defuses the Karaite proof. However, his translation is grammatically questionable, as Ibn Ezra (ad loc.) points out.

Ibn Ezra (Lev. 7:25) tells how a Karaite confronted him about the lenient rabbinic position on eating the tail. Ibn Ezra responded by pointing out that the verse forbidding fat only refers to sacrifices. Outside the context of sacrificies, the Torah actually permits eating fat, and even moreso the tail! The Karaite was overwhelmed and conceded that he cannot rely on his own biblical interpretations and must instead follow the rabbinic traditions.

II. Undermining Tradition

Ramban (Lev. 3:9, 7:25) points out the absurdity of Ibn Ezra’s argument. Ramban follows the halakhic midrashim in identifying fat in the back of the tail as forbidden, rather than equating the tail with fat. He also reads Lev. 7:25 as forbidding the fat of animals that can be sacrificed, i.e. those species that are allowed on the altar, and not just those specific animals that are sacrificed. This is the position of rabbinic tradition. By arguing that the fat of animals slaughtered for non-sacrificial purposes is permitted, Ibn Ezra deviated from the very tradition of which he was trying to convince the Karaite!

Commentators throughout the years have struggled to understand the Ibn Ezra. R. Ya’akov Tzvi Mecklenburg, in his Ha-Kesav Ve-Ha-Kabbalah (Lev. 7:25), suggests that Ibn Ezra must have had a mistaken disciple who inserted this in his distinguished mentor’s commentary. [1]See also Torah Shelemah, Lev. 7 n. 170. R. Yosef Shaul Nathanson (Divrei Shaul, Lev. 7:25) proposes that Ibn Ezra was arguing le-shitaso, according to the Karaite methodology. He was saying to the Karaite that if you are only going to accept the straightforward meaning of the text, then you are still wrong.

III. Intellectual Limits

I see R. Nathanson’s explanation as an argument about the limitations of human understanding. The Karaite was arguing that biblical interpretation requires only text and human logic. We must apply our reasoning, without any tradition, to best understand the Torah. Ibn Ezra argued that human reason has its limits. Sometimes we lack the evidence to reach a conclusion. Other times, we can make mistakes or reach any of a number of possible conclusions, meaning no conclusive resolution. If we limit our tools to the evidence before us and our own understanding, we may be missing the complete picture. Rather, we must use tradition to decipher the otherwise ambiguous and often obscure text.

I later found that R. David Tzvi Hoffmann (Lev. 3:17) understands Ibn Ezra similarly. He points to another of Ibn Ezra’s anti-Karaite polemics as proof. The Karaites famously understand Ex. 35:3 as meaning that we may not have any fire in our homes on Shabbos, not just that we may not kindle fires. Therefore, they extinguish all flames before Shabbos. Ibn Ezra (ad loc.) writes about a debate he had with a Karaite. He argues that the verse only forbids fires on the “day” of Shabbos, and the biblical day begins with the morning. On this last point, Ibn Ezra adduces many proofs. If so, Karaites should permit fires on the evening of Shabbos.

Ibn Ezra could not have meant that he believes that the biblical day begins with the morning. In another work, he writes about this view that: “God should avenge the Sabbath from one who believes this disturbing interpretation. The tongue of one who reads it aloud should cleave to his palate. Also the arm of the scribe who writes this commentary to Scripture should wither and his right eye weaken” (The Sabbath Epistle, tr. Mordechai S. Goodman, p. 4). Rather, Ibn Ezra must have been arguing about the limits of independent understanding of the Bible. As Ibn Ezra wrote (Ex. 35:3): “I only mentioned this because an understanding person can interpret Scripture in many ways. Therefore, regarding all commandments, we need a tradition and Oral Torah.”


1See also Torah Shelemah, Lev. 7 n. 170.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. Which fits in nicely with fat tailed distributions in statistics (without an oral tradition there’s a high risk that your interpretation is way off the mark) 🙂

  2. An alyah is not a normal tail. An alyah is a flap of fat that runs the width of the a. European sheep have normal tails. Since they are better to raise for wool, nowadays they dominate the population in the Middle East too.

    Amutat P’til Tekhelet make and sell murex dyed wool strings in the belief that murex dyed wool is tekheiles. They make a point of using wool from sheep that have an alyah (in English: “fat tailed sheep”), in order to make sure it’s really wool lehalakhah, and therefore the result really tekheiles. It would be a pity if they finally identified the chilazon and its dye, but didn’t produce tekheiles because you were using the wrong sub-species for the wool!

    There is a third kind of sheep, aside from European and fat-tailed, the fat-rumped sheep, which keeps its fat deposit a little higher up. Many European translations mistake the alya for the rump of these sheep, since fat-rumped sheep exist in Europe. E.g. the KJV of Vayiqra 7:3 or 8:25.

    This may change how you would translate the Ramban, rather than speaking of “the back of the tail”.

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