Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Can a Serpent Cause Death?
Dr. Ronen Ahituv
Kineret College and College of the Western Galilee
In Mishnah Rosh ha-Shanah (3.8) we read:
Then, whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed (Ex. 17:11). How could Moses’ hands determine victory or defeat in war?! Rather, it is to indicate that as long as the Israelites cast their eyes upwards, making their hearts subservient to their Father in heaven, they would prevail. And if they did not, they would succumb. Likewise, it is said: Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard. And if anyone who is bitten looks at is, he shall recover (Num. 21:8). How could it be that a serpent causes death or gives life? Rather, when the Israelites looked upwards and made their hearts subservient to their Father in Heaven, they would be healed; and if not, they would perish.
This homily incorporates four rhetorical questions, all of which are answered the same way. Two questions deal with the power in Moses’ hands to have an impact on the war against Amalek. Can uplifted hands bring victory? Lowered, can they bring defeat? With reference to that event it is written in the Torah, “Then, whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed.”
The next two questions have to do with the power of serpents to cause death or give life, as we read in the weekly portion: “The Lord sent seraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died … and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover” (Num. 21:6-8). Can a serpent cause death? Can it give life? Note that the “serpent that causes death” refers to the seraph serpents, and the “serpent that brings life” refers to the copper serpent. In using the expression “likewise,” the Mishnah draws an analogy between the questions concerning Moses’ hands and the questions concerning the serpents.
Now, of the four questions, three are understandable to us today. Indeed, it is hard for us to understand how Moses’ hands could make a war be successful or make it fail, and likewise how a copper snake could heal a person who looks at it; but one question remains puzzling, for a snake indeed is perceived as capable of causing death; so how does the Mishnah conclude that death was caused by the fact that the Israelites did not make themselves subservient to their Father in Heaven?
The answer to this puzzle lies in the Sages’ theory regarding the nature of snake bites. Such a bite, whose visible physical signs are minute and negligible, is likely to cause the death of the person bitten, and the connection between the bite and the person’s death was no more understood by the Sages than the connection between Moses’ hands and the outcome of the battle. The Sages, like the peoples around them, explained snake bites as a supernatural phenomenon.
Even in the Bible one finds the idea that a snake bite is a sort of magic, wrought by the snake through its tongue. Thus we are to understand the verses, “They sharpen their tongues like serpents” (Ps. 140:4), “The tongue of the viper kills him” (Job 20:16), “If the snake bites because no spell was uttered” (Eccles. 10:11). Also the word “diviner” (Heb. menahesh), which refers to a sort of sorcery and is linguistically close to the Hebrew for snake ( nahash), indicates a connection between snakes and sorcery.
The Sages, too, were amazed at the power of snakes and asked (Jer. Pe’ah 1.1): “How is it that it bites one limb and all limbs feel it?” Their answers fall into two categories:
One attitude is that a snake bite is an act of sorcery. That follows from the remarks in the Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 5.1: “What does a havarbar (=striped lizard; a play on hover = sorcerer) do? When it bites a person, if the person reaches the water first, the havarbar dies; but if the havarbar reaches the water first, the person dies.” According to this belief, water counteracts the sorcery in the reptile’s bite, just as it counteracts other types of sorcery (cf. Sanhedrin 67b).
Alternatively the snake is presented in many homilies as an angel of death, sent by the Holy One, blessed be He, to punish people for their sins, especially for sins of the mouth. The verse, “If the snake bites because no spell was uttered,” is interpreted by the Jerusalem Talmud ( Pe’ah, loc. sit.): “Had I not been told by Heaven to bite, I would not have bitten.” The supernatural power of the snake is compared to the power of the person who speaks slanderously: “The person who speaks slanderously says something here, and kills someone in Rome; he speaks in Rome, and kills in Syria.”
A dispute over the source of the snake’s power underlies the story in the gemara ( Berakhot 33a) about Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, who had killed a snake (called arod):
He took it on his shoulder and brought it to the bet midrash. He said to them: Observe, my sons, that it is not the arod that causes death, rather sin that causes death. At that moment they said: Woe to the man struck by an arod, and woe to the arod stricken at by Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa.
Rabbi Hanina was trying to convince the pupils at the bet midrash that a snake will not kill a person unless he has sinned; thus, the snake dying was none other than the “natural” result of the fact that Rabbi Hanina had no sins. The pupils, however, did not agree with him, and preferred to interpret the snake’s having been killed as reflecting the magic powers of Rabbi Hanina, which in their eyes were similar to the magic power of the snake itself.
Be that as it may, in this week’s reading the serpents come on the scene clearly as agents of the Omnipresent (Num. 21:5-6):
… and the people spoke against G-d and Moses, “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.” The Lord sent seraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died.
It is clear here that the seraph serpents are none other than divine agents of destruction (cf. Is. 6:2), and cause death for none other than the evil words which the people sinfully uttered. In this instance we can easily understand the statement in the homily that, as Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa said, it is not the snake, rather the sin, that causes death.