Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Shabbat 110 – Snakes!

The Talmud’s rabbis have remedies for many ailments and situations, as we have already seen. The major concern in today’s page is how to deal with snakes. Their remedy for snakebite is, well, creative: get the embryo of a white donkey, tear it open, and sit on it! And there is the terrible tale of an officer in Pumbedita, one of the major centers of Jewish learning – after he was bitten by a snake, all 13 white donkeys in Pumbedita were torn open, but were found to be trayfa [unclean] and inappropriate, and the 14th was eaten by a lion before they could use it. And at that point one speculates that he was bitten by a snake derabanan [of the rabbis – i.e. cosmic punishment], if the cure was make so impossible – what are the odds?

Of course, all of this is after one is bitten – the rabbis also offer advice on how to avoid any contact from a snake at all. If the snake winds itself around you, you should go into water, put a basket over the snake’s head, force it into the basket and then throw both into the water and “ascend and make off,” or run like the dickens. And if a snake “smells him” (which we know today they do by their tongue), he should try to break the scent by being carried by a companion, or jumping a ditch, or crossing a river. He can also try to ditch it by running to a sandy place, which the Talmud’s commentary claims is impossible for them to follow – I’m not so sure if that one is true by real experience. And finally, if the snake still follows him, at night he can mount his bed on four barrels with one cat tied to each leg to be safe!

All of these have some common sense behind them, but we are instantly reminded of the psychological/mythical baggage behind snake imagery – many see snakes as phallic symbols, and reading this Talmud page does nothing to dispel that impression. If a woman is seen by a snake and is not certain whether it is focused on her, how can she test it? Why, remove her clothes and see if the snake winds around them? And how to throw the interested snake off the trail? Some suggest having sex with her husband in front of it, but others say that will only “strengthen its instincts” and suggest she throw some of her hair and nails at him saying “I am menstrually impure.” Obviously, the rabbis here were concerned that the snake wanted to have sex with the woman – but they also assumed it obeyed the taboos of niddah [menstrual impurity]! They even have a treatment in case a snake makes it all the way in involving spreading one’s legs and attracting it out with appetizing smells before grabbing it with tongs and throwing it on a fire lest it do so again.

Did Freud or Jung read the Talmud to create their theory of phallic symbolism? I doubt it. But it is fascinating to see such concerns here – was it psychological? Did the (male) rabbis “envy” the snake? Why else would it be assumed that snakes desire humans sexually?

Rabbi Adam Chalom