You are on page 1of 10

Salamandra and the Flames of Hell

The Midrash Tanchuma records1 that there are some creatures which are native to the air and
there some creatures which are native to the fire. Those creatures which are native to the fire
die when exposed to the air. An example of such a creature is the Salamandra2, for when a
glassblower ignites his furnace for seven consecutive days and nights this mouse-like creature3
emerges from the fire4. This creature is known as a Salamandra. When one is smeared with the
blood of a Salamandra or is concealed by its limbs, one can become resistant to fire. Based on
this, the Talmud5 presents an a fortiori logical argument6 to prove that the fires of Gehinnom
(Hell) cannot affect a Torah Scholar. The Talmud reasons that just in regard to a Salamandra,
who is born from fire, if one anoints oneself with its blood, one is rendered immune to the
effects of fire, so too a Torah Scholar, who is entirely comprised of firefor the Torah itself is
considered to be fire7for sure a Torah Scholar immune to the burn of fire8.
Rashi in Tractate Chagigah9 explains that a Salamandra is a creature born from a fire burnt
continually for seven years in one place10. Rashi in Sanhedrin11 also writes that it is a small
creature which emerges from an oven whose fire had been burning for seven consecutive
1

Midrash Tanchuma, VaYeishev 3


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
VChomer.
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 Talmuds comparison between
the Salamandras resistance to fire and a Torah Scholars resistance to the flames of hell. There he writes that just
as one can only extract a Salamandras blood for use of fire-proofing while the Salamandra is immersed in a fire,
so too a Torah Scholars 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 Kooks 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
2

years, and with whose blood can one become immune to the burn of fire. However, elsewhere,
in Tractate Chullin12, Rashi explains that a Salamandra is formed from burning myrtle wood
through witchcraft13. In this, some Rabbis note14 there is seemingly a contradiction between
the words of Rashi, for in two instances he writes that a Salamandra is formed from a sevenyear old fire, while in another he writes that it is formed through burning myrtle wood and
witchcraft15. Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762-1839) reconciles16 the stance of Rashi based on these
two passages: 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. Furthermore, in order to insure their survival outside of
their native habitat, those involved in witchcraft provide the summoned Salamandra with a
fiery environment by burning myrtle wood for seven years. Myrtle wood burned for so long
reaches the epitome of fire and in it mimics the Salamandras 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 is mentioned in the writings of
Rabbeinu Gershon ben Shlomo Catalan (son-in-law of Nachmanides, father of Gersonides) who
writes17 that the Salamandra is found in a mountain made up entirely of burning sulfur, known
as Balkin18. The mountain burns day and night, and from it the Salamandra is formed. Rabbeinu
12

Chullin 127a
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 Hillmans 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
Shaar 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
13

Gershon also mentions that Salamandra is a known poison19, 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 Zohar20 asserts that clothing made from the skin
of Salamandra can only21 be cleaned in fire, for the fire will burn all the grime which clings to it,
but the actual garment will remain unscathed22,23.
The Talmud relates24 that King Ahaz wanted to offer his son Hezekiah as a burnt sacrifice to
Molech25, but Hezekiahs mother smeared him with Salamandra blood and he survived the fire.
Elsewhere, the Talmud relates26 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 prophecy27. Rabbi Chanoch Zundel of Bialystock (d. 1867)
answers28, in the name of the author of Ramat Shmuel, that since a Salamandra is engendered
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 mountains 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 (12501305), 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 ones 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 Talmuds 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 Rashis assumption that Hezekiah was Ahazs 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 Sterns Yalkut HaGershoni, Aggados HaShas to Chagigah 27a (Sighet,

by fire, then just as fire can not become ritually impure29, 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) concludes30 that there are two types of Salamandra31.
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 impure32. In explaining so, Rashi is attempting to answer the Ramat Shmuels 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.

1922), Kisvei Kehillos Yaakov HaChadash (Siyum to Chagigah) by the Steipler Gaon, Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky
(18991985), 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:
http://books.google.co.il/books?id=D6LXAAAAMAAJ&q=%D7%A1%D7%9C%D7%9E%D7%A0%D7%93%D7%A8%D7
%99%D7%90&dq=%D7%A1%D7%9C%D7%9E%D7%A0%D7%93%D7%A8%D7%99%D7%90&hl=en&ei=JHacTcqVN8j
g4waupbCVBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=9&ved=0CE0Q6AEwCA ]
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.

The Talmud33 presents another a fortiori argument, in the name of Rish 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 Hell34. 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
fire35. One can possibly answer this question based on the words of Rabbi Binyamin Mussafia
(1606-1675) who wrote36 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 Salamandras 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 Torah37. Rabbi Shlomo Tzvi Shick explains38 this is because had
33

Chagigah 27a
Chasam Sofer (Chullin 127a) highlights out a tidbit of Mussar in comparing these two passages in the Talmud:
The Torah Scholars immunity to the flames of hell is derived from the Salamandras ability to withstand fire. This
is a natural resistance. However, the Jewish sinners resistance to the inferno of hell is derived from the altars
ability to endure the fires burning upon it. The altars ability to do so is not natural, rather it is miraculous. This
illustrates the difference between a Torah Scholars immunity to Hell and the Jewish sinners immunity; the Torah
Scholars immunity is natural, whilst the Jewish sinners 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 Talmuds 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 Salamandras ritual impurity, Tosafos was actually hinting to his
question and answer. However, Rabbi Nathanson rejects the young mans 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 mans
answer based on the words of the Ramat Shmuel mentioned above that a Salamandra is not ritually impure.
However, according to Rabbi Walldenbergs interpration, the words of the Ramat Shmuel are not grounds to reject
the young mans 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 DRabbi 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 Abrahams 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 Abrahams ten tests.
34

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 Abrahams survival, one can easily dismiss HaShems
role in this great miracle39. To avoid such denial of divine intervention, the story was excluded
from the Written Torah. The Midrash relates40 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 Shicks
explanation coupled with the words of Rabbi Binyamin Mussafia , one can explain that Nimrods
court thought that perhaps Abraham would coat himself with the blood of Salamandra in order
to surive 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 defends41 the
Talmuds argument by explaining that the altar could not have possibly been protected from
fire through Salamandras blood because the blood of Salamandra can only protect living
beings from being burnt. Therefore, since the altar was an inanimate object, the Salamandras
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 Salamandras blood
from the fact that the Sages knew before the destruction of the Second Holy Temple that its
conflagration was imminent42 , yet they did not seek to protect the Temples building by
daubing it with Salamandras blood. This was because the Salamandras 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 sinners43.
38

Hagahos Toldos Esther to Rabbeinu Yitzchok Izak Tyrnaus 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 Salamandras 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

However, Rabbi Walldenberg casts doubt upon the idea presented by Rabbi Yosef Chaim of
Baghdad based on a story related by Rabbi Yehuda HaChossid44. He recounts45 a tale in which a
certain Christian claimed to have found the cloak of their false god Jesus. He proved the cloaks
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 saviors 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 Salamandras 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 Salamandras blood can
indeed protect even non-living items, such as clothing, from the effects of a fire46.
Although Rabbi Walldenberg does not cite this source, there is, ostensibly another source from
which it is evident that Salamandras 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) asks47 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, clothingwhich 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.

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 (ULDan 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.

Verifying the Salamandra Story


In addition to the many sources in Jewish writings who discuss the Salamandra, many nonJewish sources also attest to the creatures existence. Aristotle (384 BC- 322 BC), a famous
Greek philosopher, writes48:
"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, writes49:
"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 wrote50:"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 diary51:
"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

The History of Animals, Book 5, Part 19, Translated by D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson
Natural History, Book 10, Chapter 67
The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, Complete, 1236, translated by Jean Paul Richter
The Travels of Marco Polo, Book 1, Chapter 42, translated by Henry Yule

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 Polos 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) writes52 that a Salamandra is a type of tzav (turtle)
and is referred to when the Torah writes53 the turtle, according to their species. His source is
the Talmud54 and Toras Kohanim55 which expound according to their species (mentioned in
regard to the tzav) to include the Salamandra as a type of impure insect. Indeed, the Midrash56
tells that when HaShem showed Moses all the impure insects, He even showed him a
Salamandra which emerged from fire. However, Tosafos57 mention that the Sefer HaAruch,
written by Rabbeinu Nosson ben Yechiel of Rome (1035-1106), writes58 that Targum Yonason to
Leviticus 11:29 translates achbar (mouse) as Salamandra59. This position is supported by the
Midrash Tanchuma (cited in the beginning) that the Salamandra is a mouse-like creature. Rabbi

52

To Leviticus 11:2
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.
53

Aryeh Leib Ginzburg of Metz (1695-1785) already mentioned60 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
impure61. Interestingly, Rabbi Shalom Moskowitz of Shatz (1878-1958) testifies62 to having seen
a Salamandra in a British Aquarium and was surprised to see that it is a fish/crustacean.

60

Turei Even to Chagigah 27a


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; Shearis Yaakov 35, London, 1957; Daas Shalom to Chagigah 27a,
Monsey, 1994
61