The piranha is the most ferocious fresh water fish in the world. Known for its sharp teeth and voracious appetite for meat, the piranha will attack any living creature that enters the waters they inhabit, and often eat their own kind. The piranha lives in the rivers of the South American jungles and can be found in nearly every country in South America.

The piranha has a thin body that may be silvery blue, green, brown, or black. It has a large head and a single row of triangle-shaped, razor-sharp teeth in both jaws. It is able to detect blood in the water using the same sensory system as the shark. There are thirty to sixty different species of the piranha, ranging in sizes from five and a half to eighteen inches long.

Despite the carnivorous nature of the piranha, this creature is actually an omnivore. An omnivore will eat almost anything that it can find – either other animals or plants. The piranha usually selects victims smaller than itself, such as fish, snails, insects, and aquatic plants, though itwill occasionally eat large mammals and birds that fall into the water. Even attacks on animals as huge as a horse have been documented.

The red-bellied piranha is the most widespread species of the piranha and is the one most responsible for giving the fish its terrifying reputation. Red-bellied piranhas swim in big schools and will attack large fish and any large animal that is in the water. When they attack, a wild feeding frenzy ensues, as hundreds of piranhas converge and pounce on their victim. Theyuse their sharp teeth to chop their prey into tiny pieces.
Red-bellied piranhas are also cannibals and will attack and eat other piranhas when other meat sources are scarce.

The female piranha lays an average of 5,000 eggs at a time. Due to the fact that the male piranha and the female piranha guard the nest so effectively, over ninety percent of the eggs survive, hatching after just a few days. The average lifespan of the piranha is twenty to twenty-five years in the wild.

A-Hunting We Will Go…

When hunting for prey, the piranha will use one of two tactics: either it will hide and wait to ambush its prey, or it will aggressively chase after its prey. Adults hunt in groups called shoals, which consist of twenty to thirty fish and are led by one or two dominant fish. They usually seek young, ill, or injured victims to prey upon. When food is scarce, however, the group will even attack a large, strong, and healthy adult animal.

The dominant fish of the group finds an animal in the water to attack, and then the other fish in the group join in. Piranhas do not kill their prey before eating it. They use their razor-sharp teeth to tear off pieces of flesh, eating their victim alive.

The President and the Piranha

Although most species of the piranha are
not meat eaters, all piranhas are nevertheless thought of as ferocious man-eaters. Believe it or not, the origin of their reputation as vicious creatures was started by former U.S. president, Theodore Roosevelt.

While visiting Brazil in 1913, President Theodore Roosevelt went on a hunting expedition through the Amazon rainforest. Standing on the bank of the Amazon River, he witnessed a group of piranhas attack a cow with horrifying ferocity. It was a shocking scene: frenzied piranhas, the water foaming with blood, and, within a few minutes, the cow’s skeleton floating to the surface of the water. Roosevelt was appalled, and he wrote about his harrowing experience in his 1914 book, Through the Brazilian Wilderness. The following is an excerpt from his book, in which hediscusses the piranhas:

They are the most ferocious fish in the world. Even the most formidable fish, the sharks or the barracudas, usually attack things smaller than themselves. But the piranhas habitually attack things much larger than themselves. They will snap a finger off a hand incautiously trailed in the water; they mutilate swimmers –
in every river town in Paraguay, there are men who have been thus mutilated; they will rend and devour alive any wounded man or beast; for blood in the water excites them to madness. They will tear wounded wild fowl to pieces; and bite off the tails of big fish as they grow exhausted when fighting after being hooked.

The Rest of the Story…

It turns out, however, that the Brazilians were playing a practical joke on the President. True, President Roosevelt did witness a cow being torn apart by a school of piranhas – but he was totally unaware of the events that preceded his gruesome discovery.

The Brazilians were excited about the President’s visit to their country, and they were aware that he had a passion for adventure. In order to impress him, the fishermen blocked off a portion of the river with nets. For days they caught piranhas and dumped them into the river and starved them. The Brazilians told President Roosevelt about these vicious little fish that inhabited their waters and warned him not to go into the Amazon River, or he would risk being attacked and eaten by the piranhas. Naturally, this piqued the President’s curiosity, and when he went to investigate, the Brazilians secretly pushed a sick and bleeding cow into the river that was now teeming with starving piranhas. The rest, as they say, is history.

Torah Talk

Do fish have to keep the mitzvot and follow halachah? If someone owns a piranha, for example, and it gobbles up a person, is the piranha subject to the death penalty for transgressing the commandment of “thou shall not kill”?

The mishnah in Bava Kamma (4:5) states: If an oxfatally gores a person, the fine levied to the owner depends on the ox’s history. If it was a habitual offender, then the owner must pay the fine; if not, he is exempt. In either case, however, the ox must be put to death.

Although the Torah refers to an “ox” when discussing these halachot, the Chinuch(mitzvah 52) assures us that these laws hold true for other animals as well. When discussing this halachah, the Rambam (hilchot nizkei mamon10:2) writes, “It is the same whether it is an ox, or any other animal or bird; if it kills a person, it is subject to the death penalty.”

Since the Rambam omitted “fish,” the implication is that fish are exempt from this punishment. Why should the halachah differ when it comes to the aquatic class?

At this point, it isworthwhile to contemplate the underlying idea behind the halachah to kill a murderous animal. The Kli Chemdah (Parshat Yitro, sec. 6) refers us to the Gemara (Shabbat 146a) which describes the wonderful impact of the revelation at Har Sinai upon
its participants.

As a result of the original sin of Adam, all living creatures became infused with a type of spiritual impurity known as zuhama. The revelation at Har Sinai had a purifying effect on the Jewish people who were present, cleansing them of their zuhama. TheChiddushei Ha’Ran(Shabbat 108a) explains that this purification process was not limited to the Jewish people; anyone else standing near Har Sinai at the time benefited as well. Thus, the land animals and birds that were standing in proximity to Har Sinai also merited to be cleansed of their spiritual pollution. Fish, on the other hand, were not by Har Sinai.

The Kli Chemdah asserts that in light of the above Gemarot, the idea that animals are accountable for their actions is much more palatable. After all, the animals did participate in the revelation at Har Sinai to a certain extent, and they were spiritually affected by it. They were charged with a limited responsibility: namely, don’t kill the humans. With this, the Kli Chemdahconcludes, we can understand the exemption of fish from the death penalty. Since fish were absent from Har Sinai, they were never charged with the responsibility to avoid human casualty. Therefore, insofar as the death penalty is concerned, the piranha is “off the hook.”