Mishnah Berurah Tiferet

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By: Tuvia Cohen

In the olden days, men who went to war were protected by heavy, cumbersome suits of armor. A knight’s chief target during a conflict was the head of his foe, so special care was taken to protect the head with a helmet. All closed helmets had slits so that the wearer could see and breathe. Dressed in this fashion, the knight’s own mother would not even have recognized him, and he himself could not tell if he was fighting friend or foe! Dressed like a human tank, the virtually immobile warrior made an easy target for enemy marksmen.

No longer. The modern soldier is professional, well-trained and motivated, equipped with a frightening array of sophisticated weaponry. On his head he wears a combat helmet, with outstanding ballistic protection, designed with recesses for a radio headset. His jacket incorporates quick-release buckles and easy-to-operate pouches. In addition, he’s issued layered body protection in the form of a camouflaged fleece jacket, and a fully waterproof outer jacket. And don’t forget the boots! His combat boots provide a high level of comfort, remaining durable and perfectly waterproof, with laces that don’t tear.

Being that they’re so perfectly dressed, army commanders hardly want their soldiers to fight with peashooters. Therefore, they come equipped with the very latest that technology can produce in mortars and rifles, machine guns and arid armored vehicles. The modern soldier enters the army in civilian clothing, and marches off to war fully dressed, equipped to perform his tasks as part of a highly professional, well-trained fighting force. Citizens of his country expect nothing less.

The Cheetah

Well-designed weaponry and equipment is commonplace in the natural world. Take the cheetah as an example. When it comes to chasing prey, there is nothing that can beat the cheetah. With its slim, streamlined body, small head, long legs, and supple spine, it is superbly shaped for swift bursts of speed. The cheetah’s capacity to accelerate is simply astonishing. Like an arrow from a bow, it shoots forward from a standing position, sprinting at 45 mph in 2.5 seconds – nearly as fast as a Formula 1 racing car, and faster than most sports cars. At full speed, the cheetah can reach 64 mph, faster than any other land animal on earth.

The secret of the cheetah’s amazing speed lies in the flexing and extending of its supple spine, allowing it to greatly increase the length of its stride. Because its spine arches to an astonishing extent, its hind legs can reach a long way forwards. With its spine extended, the cheetah increases the forward reach of its front legs and adds pressure to the backward thrust of its hind legs. This spinal flexing gives the cheetah a stride of about 23 feet – enough to make the difference between success and failure in a chase.

The big cat’s tremendous acceleration is augmented by the grip of its claws. Its claws cannot be fully retracted, and act like the spikes on a sprinter’s shoes. It would seem impossible for the cheetah to keep its eye on its target as it bounds through the air. (Try fixing your glare on an object while jumping up and down!) But, like a gun on a modern battle tank, which holds its aim however rough the ride, the cheetah can keep its head steady because of the great flexibility of its shoulders. That and the narrow strip of concentrated light-sensitive cells fitted across the retina of each eye, enable it to clearly distinguish its intended prey from background details.

Wanting to do something will not make it happen. Men have enviously observed birds flying through the air for a long time, wishing that they too could defy the laws of gravity with such grace and aplomb. Alas, the chaps who have stood on high places with artificial wings strapped to their bodies, and jumped, furiously flapping their arms, have not survived to write autobiographies. Just as wanting to be a bird will not give you aerodynamic abilities, an ardent desire to capture prey will neither produce non-retractable claws nor design a supple spine. These things do not happen by themselves, and they do not happen slowly. The proper equipment has to be there when it is needed, just as in wartime.

The Bolas Spider

Travel now from the East African plains to the eastern Australian outback. There you will see the famous bolas spider catching courting moths by spinning a slender silken thread with a sticky ball on the end – rather like the bolas used by gauchos, the cowboys of the South American pampas. The spider flavors the sticky ball with a chemical cocktail that smells like a female moth. The trap set, the spider suspends itself by a silken trapeze with the bolas dangling from one leg, and settles down to wait.

Drawn by the scent, male moths come close enough for the spider to sense the beat of their wings. That’s when the spider whirls its deadly lure. The moths are caught fast on the sticky little ball, and hauled in to be eaten. Why does the moth not simply fly off, breaking the silken thread? It has no chance. The strand of spider silk, 250 times finer than a human hair, is twice as strong as steel. Indeed, the U.S. Air Force is exploring how the qualities of spider silk might be applied to bulletproof vests. Indeed, there is much to learn from the humble spider.    

But from whom did the bolas spider learn? Who were the Rebbes that taught it how to produce steel thread from its own body? And then who told the spider what female moths smell like? Did the spiders conduct a survey among the moth population, clipboards under their many legs, jotting down the vital information? And how do you manufacture an aroma? If you, human readers, enjoy the scent of oranges, and wished to resemble an orange, at least in aroma, how would you set about smelling like an orange without going to live in Jaffa? These mysterious abilities are what make the bolas spider so remarkable.

The Velvet Worm

You do not have to be as fast as the cheetah to subdue your prey. Being as slow as a worm is also acceptable – given the right weaponry. The velvet worm, which operates in the forests of Central America, has many pairs of legs running the length of its body. One pair of legs culminates to form jaws with hard claws on the end, and another pair forms a gun that shoots glue. Although the worm moves slowly, this can be advantageous, because its stealthy gait allows it to approach its next meal unnoticed. Once supper (such as an unsuspecting cricket) is in sight, the velvet worm shoots out a 20-inch stream of glue. The struggling victim soon finds itself in a sticky situation. If it continues to squirm, its captor stills it with more squirts of glue. The glue hardens as it makes contact with the air, forming a sturdy rope.

With its specially designed claw-like jaw, the worm then pierces a little hole in the insect and injects a lethal dose of saliva, before predigesting it. Glue is also used by tropical spitting spiders to capture their insect prey. They shoot out sticky streams from their jaws in a vigorous zigzag pattern that quickly inhibits the victim’s movements. It is an action too fast for the human eye to follow – the spider simply seems to shake its head and its prey is immobilized instantly. The glue is produced in special glands in very small amounts, and so far, no one has succeeded in discovering its chemical composition.

Which is a shame, for such a discovery could earn a fortune! The army would give anything to provide its soldiers with the means to shake their heads and glue up their opponents! Why not ask velvet worms, intelligent creatures that they are, how they do it? Here’s the simple answer: In the same way that a human will never succeed in adapting his nose to become a mortar launcher, or his right arm to become an automatic machine gun, the humble worm has never had the capability to adapt anything to its highly complex and sophisticated chemical discharger. Where does it all come from? A Higher Intelligence, of course.

Tuvia Cohen is a humorist, scientist, and an accomplished author. His books include, ‘Our Amazing World’ and ‘Our Wondrous World’, published by Artscroll / Mesorah Publications.