Are there examples in chazal of the sages discussing the phenomena of micro-evolution (or macro), i.e. adaptive changes in creatures.

6 Answers 6


There's a story in the Talmud - Shabbat 31a - about a guy who tried (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to win a bet by provoking Hillel to anger. He posed three questions about phenotypic variations in certain human populations:

  1. מפני מה ראשיהן של בבליים סגלגלות א"ל בני שאלה גדולה שאלת מפני שאין להם חיות פקחות

    [He asked,] "What is the reason that the Babylonians heads are wide?" He said to him, "My son, you are asking a great question. It is because they do not have intelligent midwives."

  2. מפני מה עיניהן של תרמודיין תרוטות אמר לו בני שאלה גדולה שאלת מפני שדרין בין החולות

    [He asked,] "What is the reason that the Ethiopians' eyes are bleary?" He said to him, "My son, a big question you have asked. It is because the live surrounded by sand."

  3. מפני מה רגליהם של אפרקיים רחבות א"ל בני שאלה גדולה שאלת מפני שדרין בין בצעי המים

    [He asked,] "What is the reason that the Africans have wide feet?" He said to him, "My son, a big question you have asked. It is because the live between the bays."

(Talmud text and translations are from Sefaria.)

The first response seems to be pretty clearly a matter of physical conditions during (the very first moments of) individuals' lifetimes, and therefore not a matter of hereditary evolution.

Rashi (s.v. "שדרים בין החולות") offers two explanations for each of the other two answers, and in each case, one explanation appears to be in terms of environmental effects on individuals, while another - the one preferred by Rashi - appears to be more like the adaptation of the population to the environment, possibly in a hereditary manner:

  • 2-Environmental: Ethiopians' eyes are bleary because the wind blows the surrounding sand into them.

  • 2-Adaptation: Read "תרוטות" to mean "round," rather than "bleary." "Because they live surrounded by sand, the place1 changed them, such that the crack of their eyes is not as long as ours, letting the sand in."

    1: Or possibly, "the Omnipresent"

  • 3-Environmental: Because they live between they bays, Africans go barefoot, so their feet end up wider than those of people who constrict their feet with shoes.

  • 3-Adaptation: "Similarly [to the adaptation explanation of the eyes answer], the Africans' feet are wide so that they don't sink into the bays."

(Paraphrases and, where indicated by quotation marks, translations are mine.)

It sounds to me that Rashi's preferred explanations of Hillel's second and third answers clearly express physical adaptation of the respective populations to their environments. Neither Hillel or Rashi say anything about possible mechanisms for this adaptation, such as Darwinian natural selection, Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics, simple acquisition of the same adaptive characteristics by all individuals during their lifetimes, or instantaneous mutation via open miracle. In addition, if I recall correctly, not everyone agrees that Hillel's answers were serious analyses of the natural phenomena rather than allegorical lessons or non-serious dismissals. So, this is not a slam-dunk, but according to Rashi's preferred explanations, I think we can fairly say that Hillel may have been describing instances of micro-evolution.

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    If you know commentaries that would substantiate my "not everyone agrees that Hillel's answers were serious analyses ...," I'd appreciate your editing them in.
    – Isaac Moses
    Jun 17, 2015 at 15:11
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    Agreed that at one level, they're playing "ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer" ... but I like the possibility that he's trying to get Hillel mad with racial slurs, and Hillel responds with a biology lesson.
    – Shalom
    Jun 17, 2015 at 18:05
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    have heard that Hillel was just toying back to this guy at his own game. youtube.com/watch?v=RDBhfdqRE3w great audio
    – ray
    Jun 17, 2015 at 21:37
  • DID you read RASHI? "ואף כאן אני אומר כן ומפני שדרים בין החולות שינה אותם המקום שלא יהא סדק של עיניהם ארוך כשלנו " - Rashi clearly states what I wrote in my answer - the merciful G-d created them in such a way that they will not suffer from big opened eyes.
    – Al Berko
    Jan 27, 2018 at 16:43
  • @AlBerko, what does אותם mean in that context? Individuals or the population? What is the timescale over which the place changed them? An instant, a lifetime, generations, or longer? Even assuming Rashi presents the lone definitive explanation of the gemara, I see this explanation as at least as likely supporting my interpretation as conflicting with it.
    – Isaac Moses
    Jan 28, 2018 at 0:49

This one is imaginative, but someone told this to me years ago and it does seem somewhat compelling.

The gemara in Berachos 61b records a famous parable said by Rabi Akiva where he compares a Jew without Torah to a fish being taken out of the water. The story has a fox who was trying to trick the fish. The fox argued:

He said to them: Do you wish to come up onto dry land, and we will reside together just as my ancestors resided with your ancestors? 

These words seem to say that the ancestors of the fox lived with the ancestors of the fish.

Perhaps he is even implying his ancestors lived in the water with the fish, and that it is possible for the fish to now come live on the land. There is much that can be read into this. Of course it would be interesting to note that the fox was trying to trick the fish, and is refuted by the fish, but at the same time we have no reason to say this actual line is assumed false, just inapplicable at that point in time. In fact, if it was a blatant lie, it would have been detrimental to his argument. There is definitely room to delve into this.


Shulchan Aruch introduces the laws of cross-breeding/cross-grafting species by saying that "two plants or animals may appear to be different, but are actually the same species but grew differently because of conditions or locations."

  • do you think it means he held of darwinian common ancestry? it surely does not fit the plain meaning of genesis "of its kind..."
    – ray
    Jun 17, 2015 at 11:23

Bamidbar Rabba 9:34 has a story with Rabi Akiva who explained to a black king that his child was white not because his queen had been unfaithful, but because she had been focusing on white images while they were together. Rabi Akiva explained that this was the phenomenon behind Yaakov's treatment of Lavan's sheep in Bereishis 30.

According to this Chazzal, we now have a pasuk in the Torah discussing this!

There is another similar Chazzal that discusses exterior visual influences and the effect on the outcome of the child's appearance. But the idea is not of Jewish origin.

See Gittin 58a where the Romans would have beautiful pictures so as to influence the appearance of the child. After the Churban they would tie the beautiful children of Bnei Yisroel to their bed for this purpose. The appropriate passuk from Devarim 28 quoted there concerning this treatment reads גם כל חלי וכל מכה אשר לא כתוב בספר התורה הזאת.

  • Hmm. It never occurred to me to associate the notion of maternal impression with microevolution.
    – Fred
    Jun 17, 2015 at 21:06
  • Living in one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the world, I've noticed how quickly any given minority has children that look more and more 'American' than their parents. So to me this is a davar pashut.
    – user6591
    Jun 17, 2015 at 22:21
  • Related to your most recent comment: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/432
    – Fred
    Jun 17, 2015 at 22:44
  • Interesting. Ty.
    – user6591
    Jun 17, 2015 at 23:11
  • @user6591, I have seen such a difference take place in an immigrant himself. A lot can change without congenital difference.
    – Isaac Moses
    Jun 17, 2015 at 23:30

found this

the Zohar (3:10a) quotes an even earlier book by Rav Hamuna Saba of the 2nd temple era

"The Entire earth and those around it, spin round in a circle like a ball, both that at the bottom of the ball and those at the top. All G-d's [human] creatures, wherever they live on the different parts of the ball, look different because the air is different in each place, but they stand erect as all other human beings. Therefore, there are places in the world where, when some have light, others have darkness; when some have day, others have night. There is a place in the world where day is long and night is but a short time (arctic regions)... And this secret has been passed on by the men of wisdom - the wisdom of Torah"

seems clear given all men descended from Adam


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    Keep reading till you get to the part where Rashbi tells him he's wrong and the earth is not round rather it has multiple layers like an onion and he goes on a sea voyage, falls down into the middle of the earth, meets the humans who are not descended from Adam and goes back and cries for ever doubting the words of his Rebbi.
    – user6591
    Jun 26, 2015 at 12:09
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    Also note that nothing in the Zohar should be assumed to have been intended to be taken literally.
    – Double AA
    Jun 26, 2015 at 14:03
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    @user6591, it says no such thing. The "layers like an onion" is talking about the rekiim, and is in the name of R' Yehuda. (Rashbi isn't mentioned there at all.) Doesn't say that R' Nehorai fell into the middle of the earth, but that "he went down in known paths in the heart of the sea and came out from under the sea to a certain settlement." Also doesn't say that the people there weren't descended from Adam, just that "they were all small, and were praying, but he didn't know what they were saying." About the only thing right in your comment is the last sentence, and even that is misapplied.
    – Shamiach
    Jun 26, 2015 at 16:41
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    וּמִנְּהוֹן בְּא'. וְחֵיזוּ דְּאִלֵּין לָאו כְּאִלֵּין. וַחֲבֵרֵינוּ יוֹשְׁבֵי הַדָּרוֹם רָאוּ בְּסִפְרֵי הַקַּדְמוֹנִים וּבְסִפְרוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם, שֶׁכָּךְ מְחֻלָּקִים כָּל הָאֲרָצוֹת הַלָּלוּ, שֶׁכֻּלָּם נִמְצָאִים לְמַטָּה כְּמוֹ אוֹתָם הָרְקִיעִים שֶׁלְּמַעְלָה, אֵלּוּ עַל אֵלּוּ וְאֵלּוּ עַל אֵלּוּ, וּבֵין כָּל אֶרֶץ וְאֶרֶץ רָקִיעַ מַפְרִיד בֵּין זֶה לָזֶה, וְלָכֵן כָּל הָאֲרָצוֹת מְפֹרָשׁוֹת בְּשֵׁמוֹת, וּבֵינֵיהֶן גַּן עֵדֶן וְגֵיהִנֹּם, וְיֵשׁ בֵּינֵיהֶן בְּרִיּוֹת מְשֻׁנּוֹת אֵלּוּ מֵאֵלּוּ, כְּמוֹ שֶׁלְּמַעְלָה, מֵהֶן בִּשְׁתֵּי פָנִים וּמֵהֶן בְּאַרְבַּע
    – user6591
    Jun 26, 2015 at 16:46
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    @user6591 and then it goes on to say that Rav Hamnuna "explained it further" - so his statement isn't contradicting the previous one but clarifying it. And R' Nehorai's upset at not believing what the chachamim say doesn't mean that he's sorry for following R' Hamnuna rather than R' Yehuda, but that he ever doubted R' Hamnuna's statement in the first place. All told, your understanding of the Zohar leaves a lot to be desired.
    – Shamiach
    Jun 26, 2015 at 20:18

In my opinion, the sages' opinion says the exact opposite of evolution, i.g they firmly believed, that G-d created different landscapes and made the people of those countries fit their surroundings.

Read Rashi on Shabbos 31a carefully :

"ואף כאן אני אומר כן ומפני שדרים בין החולות שינה אותם המקום שלא יהא סדק של עיניהם ארוך כשלנו ""

מקום by Rashi refers to G-d, not place. That proves exactly that: G-d being merciful and knowledgeable and caring, had foreseen those people's needs and created them differently (or altered them if you wish) to fit those conditions.

This is consistent with a general outlook that G-d created all animals and plants and weather conditions and landscapes to fit each other. The fact of evolution would suggest, that G-d created creatures unfit for their environment.

The very attempt to interpret the sages "in favor of evolution" lies in our mental bias of projecting our knowledge on other people.

  • That Gemara has already been discussed here as a proof that Chazal discussed evolution. If you don’t want to follow Rashi that’s fine, but at least put in the effort to find a different Rishon to rally behind if you’re going to do that.
    – DonielF
    Jan 25, 2018 at 17:10
  • @DonielF Exactly the opposite, but don't rush to judge me. The idea of Evolution did not exist in that times, and the only explanation for physical differences between species and human nations was G-d's wisdom, that created them in a perfect match to their surroundings. My interpretation of the discussion you cited is exactly opposite of yours, as you project your current knowledge to your interpretation. It proves, that the sages simply rejected that gentile by nothing as he could not grasp the idea of G-d's wisdom.
    – Al Berko
    Jan 26, 2018 at 11:57
  • @DonielF BTW, this is very common to American Haredis that are far more flexible and ready for compromise that we, Israelis. Try to say this idea of the Sages supporting the evolution in Hebron or Ponivetz, or Gur, and see the reaction.
    – Al Berko
    Jan 26, 2018 at 12:06
  • So at least try to explain Rashi to fit your own projection of your own interpretation, and then you’re free to attack me about doing the same. (Before you explain further in the comments, I mean that you should edit it into the answer.)
    – DonielF
    Jan 26, 2018 at 15:56
  • @DonielF Sorry, are you serious? Rashi reads explicitly "ואף כאן אני אומר כן ומפני שדרים בין החולות שינה אותם המקום שלא יהא סדק של עיניהם ארוך כשלנו " - the merciful G-d created them in such a way they will not suffer from sand like us to fit their surroundings.
    – Al Berko
    Jan 27, 2018 at 16:47

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