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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia


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A two-winged insect, especially the common house-fly (Musca domestica). It is referred to in Ecclesiastes 10:1: "Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savor." Since a fly in food is offensive, its presence there is a ground for divorce; according to some, however, its presence is accidental, and is not the fault of the housewife (Giá¹­. 6b). In general, if a fly falls into a cup of wine and is removed, the wine is still fit to drink; fastidious people, however, do not drink it, though the vulgar even eat of a dish into which a fly has fallen (Tosef., Soá¹­ah, 5:9, Yer. 17a; Bab. Giá¹­. 90a; Num. R. 9:12; Midrash in Kohut Memorial Volume, p. 176). The Jews were censured because, while they were willing to drink wine into which a fly had fallen, they would not drink such as the king had merely touched (Meg. 13b).

The fly is extremely annoying when one is eating, and since it persistently returns even after being driven away it is the emblem of evil desires (Ber. 10b, 61a; Targ. Ecclesiastes 10:1). The Egyptian fly (Isaiah 7:18) is so dangerous that it may be killed even on the Sabbath (Shab. 121b). It is used as a symbol for the Egyptian king Shishak (Seder 'Olam R. ), and for Sennacherib (Ex. R. 30:5). lt is supposed to be the species Culex molestus (Forskal, "Descriptiones Animalium," p. 85, Copenhagen, 1775). The Mishnah (Parah 2:3) mentions a kind of gadfly (probably the Chrysops cæcutiens) against which cattle are protected by a covering; another kind, the "baḳa," the animals drive away with their tails (Shab. 77b). There were other kinds, especially the gray fly, which the Talmudic writers regarded, apparently, not as flies, but as worms (larvæ). Curtains as a protection against flies were hung over the beds (Yer. Suk. 53b; Bab. 26a; Rashi on M. Ḳ. 27a). There is a species of fly that lives only one day, while the common house-fly lives longer, although not for an entire year. This fact is the subject of a pretty legend in the Talmud (Ḥul. 58b).

The fly occasionally became such a scourge in Palestine that public prayers were ordered (Ta'an. 14a). Hence it is easy to understand that the Philistines at Ekron worshiped a special god of flies, BAAL-ZEBUB (2 Kings 1:2); but there is no reason to assume that the Aramaic word for "enmity" was derived from it (Geiger, "Urschrift," p. 53). The fly alights on gonorrheal persons and then infects healthy people (Ket. 77b); it also alights on wounds (Pesiḳ. 26b). Strange as it may seem, there were no flies in the abattoir of the sanctuary at Jerusalem (Abot 5:5; Ab. R. N. , ); Maimonides believes they were driven away by the smoke of the incense; Rashi, however, attributes their absence to the fact that the tables were of marble (see also Maḥzor Vitry, p. 538). According to another tradition, the "sons of Moses" are in a miraculous manner kept from being troubled by gnats or flies (Gaster, "The Chronicles of Jerahmeel," p. 196). The sons of Eli were blamed for leaving the juicy part of the offering to the flies (Yalḳ., Sam. 86).

The Haggadah often emphasizes the fact that the fly serves a purpose in the world (Gen. R. 10:7; Ex. R. 10:1, etc.); it is also said that a crushed fly is good for a hornet's sting (Shab. 77b). The third plague of the Egyptians, "kinnim" (Exodus 8:12), is commonly translated "lice." Modern investigation, however, favors the view of the Septuagint that the word means σκνῖφες, which Philo ("De Vita Moysis," ed. Mangey, p. 97) and Origen ("Homilia in Exodum," 4:6) interpret as a species of gnat, an insect, under the name "yittosh" or "yattush" (), often mentioned in connection with "zebub" in rabbinic sources. It is much more certain that the Biblical "'arob" (Exodus 8:17-20; Psalms 78:45) is a species of fly, though even the Tannaim disputed as to its exact meaning (Bacher, "Ag. Tan." 2:252); according to the Septuagint and Symmachus, who translate it κυνόμυια, it is the dog-fly or stinging-fly, described by travelers as a great scourge in Egypt. According to the critical view, the plague of dog-flies is merely a variant of that of the gnats.

Gnats are referred to in the simile in Matthew 23:24. A fly dipping into the sea is the symbol for the inexhaustibility of the divine doctrine (Soferim, 16:8). Titus was plagued by a gnat (Giṭ. 156b; comp. Neubauer, "Med. Jew. Chron." 1:170), and so also was the usurper Paḥda (Seder 'Olam Zuṭa), after whose removal the Jewish princes of the Exile bore a fly in their escutcheon. Abraham ibn Ezra wrote a poem on the fly (ed. Rosin, 1:99).

An earlier expression, "ḳarẓit," found in the Talmud (Giṭ. 86b), is explained as a species of fly living among stones; the word recalls "ḳereẓ" (Jeremiah 46:20), translated "gadfly" by modern scholars. The Rabbis take the expression "creeping things among birds" to mean flies (Rashi on Genesis 1:20; Targ. Yer. Leviticus 11:20; Deuteronomy 14:19), but this interpretation is contradicted by the addition of "going upon all four," since insects have at least six feet.

  • Bochart, Hierozoicon, Sive de Animalibus Scripturæ Sacræ, 3:346;
  • Rosenmüller, Handbuch der Biblischen Alterthümer, 4:418,431,434;
  • Lewysohn, Zoologie des Talmuds, §§ 426-435;
  • A. Kinzler, Biblische Naturgeschichte, 1:154-155,9th ed., 1884.
S. S.
S. Kr.

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Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Fly'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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