Why Did God Create Mosquitos? A Jewish Perspective

October 20, 2020
Photo by Krisana Antharith / EyeEm/Getty Images

I’m plagued by a perpetual problem at home: My mosquitos don’t listen to me.

I asked them not to bite the tender flesh beneath my arm, but they did. I asked them not to bite my neck, explaining how hard it is to restrain oneself from desperate scratching during a Zoom meeting. But they bit me, anyway. One managed to bite my ankle through my jeans and my thick socks, and I’ll admit I was a little impressed by its can-do attitude.

I requested that instead of biting my legs, the mosquitos would consider flying into the comforting blue light of the powerful bug zapper I’d placed next to my foot. Instead, some of them bypassed the zapper and attacked my calves. There was only one thing to do: I asked the smarter mosquitos to help me write a one-star Amazon review of the product.

One mosquito flew past me during a recent Shabbat, a day when Jews are not permitted to trap or kill living things unless it’s to save a life. As one mother to another (only female mosquitos bite because they require blood to produce eggs), I pleaded with her to not buzz near my family or me until Sunday, when I could once again weaponize my house slippers.

As one mother to another (only female mosquitos bite because they require blood to produce eggs), I pleaded with her to not buzz near my family or me until Sunday, when I could once again weaponize my house slippers.

It’s an awful thing when no one listens to you. So I decided to take matters into my own hands: I ate a head of garlic in one day; not a clove, but a whole head. I drank cupfuls of diluted apple cider vinegar and sprayed myself from head to toe with pungent essential oils and mosquito repellant. And then I went to bed. The mosquitos started behaving, but I couldn’t find my husband for a few days.

Recently, a technician from the Greater Los Angeles County Vector Control District visited our neighborhood and informed us that a combination of insufferable heatwaves and not enough street cleaning (due to more lenient parking restrictions due to COVID-19) have resulted in a major spike in mosquito infestations. All over Los Angeles, people are being terrorized by a particularly smaller variety of the loathsome insect.

Last week in his kindergarten class, my son began learning about the creation of the world as part of Parashat Bereshit. When he saw me on the floor, practically gnawing at my legs, he asked, “Mama, why did Hashem have to create mosquitos?”

I toyed with a few responses:

“Because Mama has done bad things, and this is her comeuppance.”

“Because Mama was supposed to get COVID-19, but God was in a good mood and afflicted her with something more merciful.”

I didn’t know what to say. And when I googled the question, I mostly found answers on Christian websites. In an article for the Institute for Creation Research, research associate Brian Thomas wrote, “The first mosquitos God made didn’t seek to suck blood. Nor did He make their piercing-sucking mouthparts to transmit deadly diseases like yellow fever or malaria.” Thomas continued, “So, something happened to turn those originally ‘very good’ insects into the flying mini-vampires that terrorize us today.”

That something, according to Thomas, was Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden, which resulted in God telling Eve, “I shall surely increase your sorrow and your pregnancy; in pain you shall bear children” (Genesis 3:16). Many interpret this as a euphemism for general physical pain. Thomas believes “the creation is under the curse of sin, and so are mosquitos.”

I find this explanation about sin painfully simplistic. Are mosquito bites an extension of birth pangs? Come to think of it, are root canals, stubbed toes, and accidentally biting one’s tongue all a result of a woman who wanted a taste of exotic fruit (and powerful knowledge)? I couldn’t possibly explain all this to my four-year-old. I’m not even sure I believe it. So I kept digging.

“Mosquitos bite because that’s the way Hashem created them,” Rabbi Mendel Cunin of Chabad of Larchmont told me. He said that the Lubavitcher Rebbe believed mosquito bites taught people a valuable lesson: metaphorically “scratching” something now (such as repeatedly indulging in inappropriate behavior) may feel good in the short term, but ultimately causes much more pain and hardship.

“Mosquitos bite because that’s the way Hashem created them.” — Rabbi Mendel Cunin

The sages teach that King David once asked God why He created mosquitos and spiders. Perhaps he got his answer when he was hiding from King Saul in a cave, and God sent a spider to spin a huge web at the cave’s opening so that Saul’s soldiers would believe no one had entered the cave for a long time. In another instance, the sages teach that God sent a mosquito to bite Saul’s general, Abner, so that David could run away to safety.

The Talmud offers an even deeper answer for mosquitos. In explaining why God created animals before humans, the Talmud suggests that should man ever become arrogant, he should be told that “even a mosquito preceded you” (Sanhedrin 38a).

Rabbi Cunin also said the Messianic era will be a time of peace between man and beast — a time when no animals will be a threat to humans. Does that mean no more mosquito bites? For that reason alone, I hope to be around when Moshiach arrives.

To the non-believer, what purpose can such a blood-sucking creature possibly serve? One can ask the same question about fleas and tax collectors. In her 1986 television debut on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” comedian Ellen DeGeneres famously pretended to call God and ask about fleas. “No, I didn’t realize how many were employed by the flea collar industry,” she said while pretending to hold a phone. “Not to mention sprays.” Ellen got her answer, but the mosquito conundrum remains.

As it turns out, mosquitos help pollinate plants and flowers. They’re also part of the food chain that feeds other insects and fish. Their larvae play such an important role in aquatic ecology that if they were to go extinct, the animals that feed on them, including game fish and raptorial birds, would suffer.

But what about the suffering of humans? According to the World Health Organization, in 2018, nearly half of the world’s population was at risk of contracting malaria — a dangerous disease transmitted by mosquito bites. According to UNICEF, every 30 seconds, a child dies of malaria. That’s 3,000 children dying each day. Over 1 million people die from malaria each year — mostly children under age five — with 90% of cases in Sub-Saharan Africa. There’s a reason why philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has called mosquitos “the deadliest animal in the world.”

There’s a reason why philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has called mosquitos “the deadliest animal in the world.”

In southern California in particular, Culex mosquitos pose the risk of the West Nile disease, which arrived here in 2003. In December 2018, Barbara Yaroslavsky, longtime community leader and wife of former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, died of complications during treatment for West Nile. “Every one of those little insects is like a missile flying toward you,” her husband told The Los Angeles Times. “And you have no idea which one carries the atom bomb.”

I knew Barbara. She was a tour-de-force of activism and leadership, and it’s still difficult to imagine that a tiny, infected insect brought down her and thousands of others. To put it plainly, it’s not fair.

I asked Rabbi Yitzhok Adlerstein, co-founder of Cross-Currents, an online journal of Orthodox Jewish thought, about the Jewish response to why mosquitos exist. He went beyond the simplistic Garden of Eden explanation and reminded me that my narrower inquiry fits into a much bigger question: Why would a good God allow for evil?

“We can ask the same question about a hurricane, which is basically wind, at an extreme,” he said. “Our question with a lot of natural phenomena, whether hurricanes or mosquitos, are that they’re important, but sometimes, they get out of hand.”

Adlerstein continued, “Why couldn’t these things have been more tightly designed? The answer is that it’s really part of man’s responsibility. Even the natural laws that He (God) built into creation have enough wiggle room that, depending on man’s response and whether we’re closer to building a more perfect world, can be altered. Yes, these phenomena are extreme, but our job is to move the goalposts at the ends a little closer to the middle.”

After six months of lockdown, I couldn’t wait to enjoy the outdoors with a few family members during a recent outing. As it turned out, I didn’t need a mask, social distancing signs, or even park rangers to keep others away from me. In fearful anticipation of mosquito bites, we’d all resorted to so much garlic, vinegar, and bug repellant that we managed to be alone, together.

But I’ve learned something from these horrible creatures (the mosquitos, not my relatives): In life, give more than you take. This lesson underscored all of Rabbi Cunin’s reflections.

If a mosquito took some of my blood and made me feel very itchy and uncomfortable but at least left me with an antidote of some kind, that’d be one thing. But mosquitos only know how to take. Whether in insects or people, I find that most repellant of all. So the mosquitos can keep on biting. But I’m remembering Rabbi Adlerstein’s words and trying to do my part to take on “man’s responsibility,” and that includes giving as joyfully and selflessly as I can.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker and activist.

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