It is not unusual to see Rabbi Natan Slifkin with a python around his neck or standing next to a taxidermied lion.
Slifkin has loved animals his whole life and has just realized his dream of opening up a museum showcasing the animals of the Bible.
The Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh opened on February 23 is filled with animals, both live and taxidermied.
Meant to be an interactive experience, the Rabbi and his team of guides encourage visitors to get up close.
“In the zoo, a lion could be sleeping, and you may not be able to see it,” Natan said in an recent interview, stressing at his museum you can touch and even hold the animals.
The museum also helps bring the Bible alive in a new way. “Everything at the museum is related to Tanakh,” he said. “One of the goals of the museum is to put people back in touch with biblical Israel.”
By encouraging visitors to interact with the animals – many which are not around in Israel anymore – he hopes that people will be able to explore the animals that meant most to ancient Israel.
“Every culture has its animals,” he said. “For the Native American, it was the buffalo, for the Australians, it was the kangaroo. For Israel, it was the lion, bear, leopard and crocodile.”
He also stressed that understanding the culture of animals helps better understand Tanakh.
“You look at Tanakh and you see many animal references. That’s what they drew upon when they wanted to convey ideas,” the Rabbi explained.
Slifkin’s collection is vast and includes an elephant tusk, lizards, birds, and an entire wall of shofarim.
One animal that is noticeable absent, however is the wild boar.
While boars are mentioned in the Bible, Slifkin chose not to include them so that the most Orthodox of visitors would feel comfortable exploring the shared animal heritage he says is common to all Jews.