Sukkot and Myrmecology in the Talmud

Most of our formicid-loving Jewish readers will know that we are amidst the Jewish holiday of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles). Tonight will be the sixth night of the seven-day holiday.

The intermediate days between the first and last days of Sukkot (as well as Passover) are called Chol HaMoed. This is important, because it turns out that the Talmud is concerned with myrmecological endeavors during Chol HaMoed! As explained in this article, Moed Katan 6b (here) not only states that you are allowed to “destroy ant holes” during this period, but even explains in surprising detail how to go about wreaking such distraction:

and one may destroy ant holes so that the ants will cause no damage. How does one destroy ant holes? Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: One brings soil from this ant hole and places it in that ant hole, and since the ants from the two nests are not familiar with each other, they strangle each other.

But the advice doesn’t end there! Observe:

Rav Yeimar bar Shelamya said in the name of Abaye: And this advice works only in certain circumstances: When the ant holes are located on two opposite sides of a river, when there is no bridge connecting the two sides, when there is not even a plank bridge over the water, and when there is not even a rope stretched taut across the river. If there is any connection whatsoever between the two sides of the river, the ants from the two nests are likely to recognize each other and not fight.

Two rabbinic scholars debating finer points in the Talmud. Image: Alex Wild

It is perhaps unsettling that ants appear here in the Talmud only to better advise humans on how they might better destroy the homes of our social insect friends. However, the expressed knowledge of ant social behavior is nevertheless impressive, so one cannot be too upset at this manner of inclusion in the religious text.