Do rabbits chew their cud?

by Jonathan Sarfati

The book of Leviticus contains a number of food laws that the ancient Israelites were to obey. Modern medicine has shown that many of them had very good health benefits for people in that time and place. As the Law of Moses was our tutor to lead people to Christ (Galatians 3:24), many of the individual commands are no longer applicable after Christ’s death for our sins and His bodily resurrection from the dead. In particular, the Lord Jesus and His Apostles declared that all foods are now ‘clean’ (Mark 7:18–19, Acts 10:10–15, Colossians 2:16).

Some of the food laws have been attacked by sceptics as ‘proof’ that the Bible makes mistakes, meaning it could not be God’s written word. For example, Leviticus 11:3–6 says:

  1. ‘Whatever divides the hoof, and is cloven-footed, chewing the cud, among the animals, that you shall eat.

  2. ‘Only, you shall not eat these of them that chew the cud, or of them that divide the hoof: the camel, for he chews the cud but does not divide the hoof; he is unclean to you.

  3. ‘And the rock badger, because he chews the cud, but does not divide the hoof; he is unclean to you.

  4. ‘And the hare, because he chews the cud but does not divide the hoof; he is unclean to you.’

We showed a photo of the camel’s hoof in Creation 19(4):29, 1997, proving that the Leviticus 11:4 assertion was right that the camel did not completely ‘divide the hoof’, despite what some sceptics claim. Other sceptics have claimed that the Coney (Hebrew shaphan, = hyrax, rock badger) and hare (Hebrew ’arnebeth = rabbit) don’t chew the cud.

In modern English, animals that ‘chew the cud’ are called ruminants. They hardly chew their food when first eaten, but swallow it into a special stomach where the food is partially digested. Then it is regurgitated, chewed again, and swallowed into a different stomach. Animals which do this include cows, sheep and goats, and they all have four stomachs. Coneys and rabbits are not ruminants in this modern sense.

However, the Hebrew phrase for ‘chew the cud’ simply means ‘raising up what has been swallowed’. Coneys and rabbits go through such similar motions to ruminants that Linnaeus, the father of modern classification (and a creationist), at first classified them as ruminants. Also, rabbits and hares practise refection, which is essentially the same principle as rumination, and does indeed ‘raise up what has been swallowed’. The food goes right through the rabbit and is passed out as a special type of dropping. These are re-eaten, and can now nourish the rabbit as they have already been partly digested.

It is not an error of Scripture that ‘chewing the cud’ now has a more restrictive meaning than it did in Moses’ day. Indeed, rabbits and hares dochew the cud’ in an even more specific sense. Once again, the Bible is right and the sceptics are wrong.

God, through Moses, was giving instructions that any Israelite could follow. It is inconceivable that someone familiar with Middle-Eastern animal life would make an easily corrected mistake about rabbits, and also inconceivable that the Israelites would have accepted a book as Scripture if it were contrary to observation, which it is not.


After my article (above) was published in Creation magazine, I came across an article on the Internet with more detail than was possible in a family magazine. This article vindicates what I claimed, and backs it up with detailed lexical analysis. The relevant section is below:

13. Rabbits do not chew their cud

LEV 11:6 And the hare, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.

[An obscure bibliosceptic called Meritt claims:]

Gerah, the term which appears in the MT means (chewed) cud, and also perhaps grain, or berry (also a 20th of a sheckel, but I think that we can agree that that is irrelevant here). It does not mean dung, and there is a perfectly adequate Hebrew word for that, which could have been used. Furthermore, the phrase translated ‘chew the cud’ in the KJV is more exactly ‘bring up the cud’. Rabbits do not bring up anything; they let it go all the way through, then eat it again. The description given in Leviticus is inaccurate, and that’s that. Rabbits do eat their own dung; they do not bring anything up and chew on it.

[Response by J.P. Holding:]

‘MT’ is the Masoretic text, which is a late Hebrew transmission of the OT.

Meritt is apparently quite proud of himself here, having gone—for the one and only time—to the original Hebrew for answers. (Guess translation issues are important after all.) Too bad he didn’t dig a little further.

Two issues are at hand: the definition of ‘cud’ and that of ‘chewing’. Let’s take a close look at the Hebrew version of both. Cuds first, chewies afterwards.

First, gerah (or gehrah) is indeed the word used here, and—this is important—it is used nowhere in the Old Testament besides these verses in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. We have only this context to help us decide what it means in terms of the Mosaic law.

Second, the process rabbits go through is called refection, and it is not just ‘dung’ that the rabbits are eating, which is probably why the Hebrew word for ‘dung’ was not used here. Indeed, contrary to Meritt’s assertion, that the word gehrah also means 1/20th of a shekel actually gives us a hint here! 1/20th of a shekel is of little worth, but it does have worth. Where the word for ‘dung’ is used in the Bible, it implies something defiled, unclean, or useless. But in lapine terms, ‘dung’ is not useless: It contains pellets of partially digested food, which rabbits chew on (along with the waste material—UGH!) in order to give their stomachs another go at getting the nutrients out. (It’s an efficient way of getting more vitamins and nutrients, we’re told, but I think I’ll stick with my Flintstones chewables, thank you very much.) The pellets have some minute value, much as 1/20th of a shekel has some value.

Contrast this with what cows and some other animals do, rumination, which is what we moderns call ‘chewing the cud’. They regurgitate partially digested food in little clumps called cuds, and chew it a little more after while mixing it with saliva. (This also, presumably, helps them get the most out of their food, but I’m not trying it.)

So, let’s see … partially digested food. Partially digested food. Seems to be a common element here. Could it be that the Hebrew word simply refers to any partially digested food? Could it be that the process is not the issue, just the object?

Our other key word provides us with some hints. Meritt is partially correct when he says that the phrase translated ‘chew the cud’ in the KJV is more exactly ‘bring up the cud’. (The full phrase is ‘maketh the cud to come up’.) By leaving it at that, he apparently wishes for us to believe that ‘bring up’ means, in an exclusive sense, regurgitation. Whoooooa, horsey. Back up. Let’s check those hooves for Hebrew words! The word here is ‘alah, and it is found in some grammatical form on literally (well, almost literally) every page of the OT! This is because it is a word that encompasses many concepts other than ‘bring up’. It also can mean ascend up, carry up, cast up, fetch up, get up, recover, restore, take up, and much more. It is a catch-all verb form describing the moving of something to another place. (‘maketh the gehrah to ‘alah’)

Now in the verses in question, ‘alah is used as a participle. Let’s look at the other verses where it is used this way (NIV only implies some of these phrases; where in parentheses, the phrase is in the original, sometimes in the KJV):

  • Josh. 24:17 It was the Lord our God himself who brought us and our fathers up out of Egypt. …

  • Isaiah 8:7 … therefore the Lord is about to bring (up) the burnt offering

  • Nahum 3:3 Charging cavalry, flashing swords (lifted up), and glittering spears!

  • Isaiah 8:7 … therefore the Lord is about to bring (up) against them the mighty floodwaters of the River

  • 2 Chron. 24:14 When they had finished, they brought (up) the rest of the money

  • Ps. 135:7 He makes clouds rise (up) from the ends of the earth

  • 2 Sam. 6:15 …while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets. (Similar quote, 1 Chr. 15:28)

OUCH! That last one would hurt if the word meant regurgitation. No wonder people were shouting …

So what have we learned? The Hebrew word is question is NOT specific to the process of regurgitation; it is a phrase of general movement. And related to the specific issue at hand, the rabbit is an animal that does ‘maketh’ the previously digested material to ‘come up’ out of the body (though in a different way than a ruminant does—as Meritt says, with rabbits, it comes all the way through; but again, the word is not specific for regurgitation!) and does thereafter does chew ‘predigested material’! The mistake is in our applying of the scientific terms of rumination to something that does not require it