Mrs. Frisby and the Prophetic Rats (Pesachim 9b)

We are continuing to make our way through Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, but now that the school day has been extended again, finding the time to read has proven more of a challenge. There is hardly any time with only the big kids home, and it’s nearly impossible to read to all five. There was one afternoon when I managed to keep the little kids occupied for long enough to read an entire chapter: Yitzvi was sitting in his high chair eating a challah roll with cheese, and Shalvi had retreated to the bathroom to sit on the toilet with a stack of books piled on the stool at her feet. With both little kids occupied and the big kids at the counter drinking hot chocolate, I could accede to their request to continue on with Mrs. Frisby.

As I reminded the kids, we were in the middle of the long flashback section where Mrs. Frisby learns of the rats’ connection to her late husband Jonathan. Mrs. Frisby has gone to the rats as per the owl’s advice, and their leader Nicodemus has welcomed her into his office, which is lined with books. A rat with an office? And bookshelves? Mrs. Frisby learns from Nicodemus that he and his comrades are not just any rats – they have escaped from NIMH—the National Institute of Mental Health—where they had been conscripted into participating in an experiment on learning and intelligence. They were placed in cages and injected with a serum that made them exponentially smarter. Mrs. Frisby’s husband Jonathan, a white mouse, was part of a similar experiment in an adjacent room, and he escaped alongside the rats.

I wondered how much time we’d have to read. Shalvi was content behind the closed door of the bathroom — she finishes her business long before she finishes her books but doesn’t get up until the last page is turned. Yitzvi was banging his feet impatiently against the legs of his high chair, turning his roll into crumbs. I flipped ahead to see how long the chapter was. I wanted the rats to escape from NIMH before the little kids needed to be released from their respective captivities.

I started reading. The lab workers began showing the rats a photograph of a rat on an illuminated screen, along with an image of a half circle and two straight lines, as a recorded voice repeated “are, are, are.” Then they saw a triangle with legs, and heard “aiee.” Finally they saw a cross and heard “tea.” I looked at the kids. I had showed them the words in the book so they would see how they were spelled. “Are, aiee, tea – what is that?” “Rat!” they exclaimed in unison – the rats were learning how to read, as my kids had not long ago. Eventually the rats would learn to decipher the line printed on the bottom of their cages—“To release door, pull knob forward and slide right”—and from then it was only a matter of time before they all escaped through the air ducts into the world outside NIMH, and eventually made their home in a hole behind Farmer Fitzgibbon’s rosebush, where Mrs. Frisby had met them.

“Do you understand?” I asked the kids, wanting to make sure the message of the chapter was clear. “The rats were able to escape only because they could read. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to read – it sets you free.” They could learn this lesson from Charlotte and her web; they could learn it from Frederick Douglass. Already they were figuring it out on their own. “When you know how to read, you’re never stuck and you’re never alone,” I told them. “So long as you have something to read, you can always escape wherever it is that you are—a boring class, an endless rainy afternoon at home—and take yourself somewhere else. You can go to a chocolate factory. To Oz. To the little house in the big woods. Knowing how to read is your ticket to freedom.”

The kids were tired of my sermonizing. The girls wanted me to keep reading, but Matan was still thinking about the experiment at NIMH. “Really, Ima?” he asked. “Is there an injection you can give to a rat to make it smart? Can a rat really learn how to read?” As I was about to answer him, I saw out of the corner of my eye that Yitzvi, whom I’d released from his high chair, was still clutching the rest of his challah roll, and had now left a trail of crumbs everywhere he’d crawled. “Can it, Ima? Can a rat learn how to read?” Matan asked me again, and without even thinking, I responded with a line from the Talmud: “Is Hulda a prophetess?”

The line comes up in the opening chapter of tractate Pesachim, which is about the commandment to rid the house of leaven before Passover. To what lengths does a Jew need to go to ensure that the home is entirely free of leaven? The Mishnah (9a) teaches that “we do not need to be concerned that a rat may have dragged a crumb from one home to another, or from one place to another – if so, the matter would have no end.” Yes, it is possible that after cleaning the house thoroughly, a rat might come in dragging a breadcrumb. However, the rabbis of the Mishnah reassure us that we do not need to go to such lengths when it comes to our Passover cleaning, because if so, we would never finish looking for crumbs.

But other rabbis are not prepared to leave it at that. “Who says we don’t have to worry that a rat dragged crumbs?” the Talmudic sages ask (9b). The answer, they explain, depends on the timing. Passover begins on the eve of the fourteenth of the Hebrew month of Nisan. By that point, Jewish homes are free of leaven; but on the thirteenth of Nisan, there is still bread in abundance. The Talmudic sage Abaye explains that if a rat were to find bread on the thirteenth of Nisan, it would not bother to conceal it, because there is bread everywhere for the taking. But if it finds it on the fourteenth, when there is no other leaven around, it will conceal it, and we need to be concerned that perhaps it dragged the crumb off to its hiding spot. The other sages respond with disparaging exasperation: “Is a rat a prophetess?” Can a rat know that it is Passover and therefore there will be no fresh bread baked that evening? Surely Abaye cannot be serious!

Except that the other rabbis are not really serious either, because they’re making a joke of it all – or at least a pun. The Hebrew word used in the Talmud for “rat” is Hulda, which is also the name of a biblical prophetess described in the book of II Kings. Is a Hulda a prophetess, Abaye? In fact yes, if you are in the world of the Bible. And can rats really learn to read, Matan? Well, yes, if you are in the world of Mrs. Frisby.

In the world of Mrs. Frisby, the white mouse Jonathan follows the rats to freedom. In the Talmud, too, a mouse follows on the heels of the rats. On the next page (10b) the rabbis explain that if a white mouse comes with a bread roll, and then a person comes into the house and sees crumbs, it is necessary to search for the source of those crumbs, because mice don’t usually make crumbs; presumably the crumbs are coming from elsewhere, and that source needs to be identified. In contrast, the rabbis go on to explain, if a baby comes in with a bread roll and then a person finds crumbs, there is no need to search for the source of those crumbs because babies always make a mess, and we can assume all the crumbs came from that bread roll.

I think about whether I can explain this Talmudic passage to the kids, who are now all clamoring for me to read on. But there is a trail of challah crumbs snaking around the kitchen counter, and as I reach for the broom, I hear a voice from the bathroom: “Ima, I’m ready!” The rats have escaped their cages at NIMH and the Israelites have escaped from Egyptian bondage, but at that very moment I can’t say that I feel free.

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