After discussing the damage that might come from an ox, the Mishnah turns to more exotic pets:
“The wolf; the lion; the bear; the leopard; the bardelas, and the snake. These are always forewarned (מועד). Rabbi Elazar says: When these animals are domesticated they are not considered forewarned. But the snake is always forewarned.” (Bava Kamma 15b)
According to Rabbi Elazar there is no such thing as a “safe” snake, a snake will always want to cause harm. In modern Israel we can identify thirty-eight varieties of snakes, only eight of them poisonous. Some live in the desert but others are attracted to areas of human habitation. Presumably many of these species existed in ancient times as well. What is the Jewish relationship with snakes?
A snake appears almost immediately on the stage of Biblical history. The infamous snake that tempts Eve and Adam is seen as the cause of the fractious relationship between people and snakes:
“I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your offspring and hers;
They shall strike at your head,
And you shall strike at their heel.” (Bereshit 3:15)
The rabbis go even further and see the snake as a personification of the evil inclination and of slander. But if we continue reading Tanakh, the snake does have some positive attributes. When Moses wants to show God’s power before Pharaoh, he throws down his staff and it becomes a snake. This is because the cobra was symbolic of the powerful goddess Wadjet and appeared on the crowns of Egyptian royalty. Moses’ snake is meant to rival and best the snake of the Pharaohs.
Wadjet depicted in a mortuary temple
I, Rémih, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons
Later, in the desert, the snake becomes a symbol of healing. When the people sin and are attacked by snakes, Moses makes a copper snake and puts it on a raised stick (Bamidbar 21). This stops the plague of snakes and later this image becomes the symbol of healing and medicine. The Greek god Aesclepius, god of healing, was also represented by this image of the snake and staff.
Aesclepius with a snake
original file by Michael F. Mehnert, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Despite this slightly positive PR, snakes are usually seen as negative and dangerous, both in Tanakh and later. They can sneak up on people, even in their homes, and attack them, as the prophet Amos so evocatively describes:
“Or, upon making it indoors,
Were to lean their hand on the wall
And get bitten by a snake!” (Amos 5:19)
The rabbis take this idea even further and see snakes as divinely sent assassins, dispatched by God to punish villains, as in this story in Bereshit Rabba:
“Rabbi Yanai was sitting and expounding at the entrance to his city. He saw a serpent slithering and approaching. When he chased it away from one side, it returned at the other side, and when he chased it away from that side, it returned from the other side. He said: This one is on his way to perform a mission. Thereafter, a sound was heard in the city: So-and-so son of so-and-so was bitten by a serpent and died.” (Bereshit Rabba 10:7)
Even if a snake was not sent specifically to kill you, you still had to be wary of it, even indirectly. A well-known halacha is that one should not leave water uncovered, because a snake might drink from it and leave its poison inside:
“Three kinds of liquids are forbidden if they were left uncovered: water, wine and milk, but all other drinks are permitted. How long do they remain uncovered for them to become prohibited? The time it takes the snake to creep out from a place near by and drink.” (Mishnah Terumot 8:4)
Professor Safrai sees the fear of snakes in the water as not only a physical fear but also a psychological or even mystical one. Later commentators say that this rule does not apply anymore since they had less contact in their countries with snakes but it appears in many places in the Gemara.
If snakes are so frightening and dangerous, why would you ever keep a snake in your home? One reason is because its venom or its skin were considered therapeutic in certain situations:
“One who traps a snake on Shabbat, if he deals with it so that it will not bite him and in doing so traps it, he is exempt. However, if he traps it for medicinal purposes, he is liable.” (Shabbat 107a)
Besides medicine, people also kept snakes, like the other animals mentioned in the Mishnah, for entertainment purposes – there were snake charmers, circus bears and lions for gladiator fights.
Paris75000, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
But these animals were unusual. Probably much more common were people who kept non-poisonous snakes around as exterminators. As Professor Abraham Shemesh points out in this interesting article(https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-the-royal-asiatic-society/article/household-snake-detection-and-eradication-of-pests-in-the-home-by-means-of-snakes-as-reflected-in-talmudic-sources/5ECC8121B626E6BCB162961652D8E765), rodents were everywhere in ancient homes. There were many cracks in the walls, as well as open windows, people left food around and mice and rates were a constant problem. Cats could eat these rodents but so could snakes and they did not need much care. They could live unobtrusively in a house, deal with the rat problem and you only had to worry if they drank from your water. He brings an interesting Gemara that differentiates between a “house snake” and a “mountain snake:”
“ ‘When the Eternal likes the conduct of a person, even his enemy will make peace with him.’ (Prov. 16:6): Rebbi Meïr says, that is the dog. Rebbi Joshua ben Levi says, that is the snake. . . A person made ground garlic in his house. There came a mountain snake and ate from it but the house snake observed it. When the people from the house came to eat from it, it [the house snake] started to throw dust down on them. When they did not pay attention, it threw itself on it.” (Yerushalmi Terumot 8:3)
In this rather odd story, the “good” domesticated snake saves the people of his house from eating the presumably poisoned garlic touched by the “bad” wild snake. Professor Shemesh adds that it is difficult to know how many people really kept household snakes in ancient times but he brings a fascinating description from the nineteenth century scholar Ermete Pierotti about snakes living as pets in Arab houses in the Land of Israel.
Today the most dangerous snake in Israel is the Tzefa Yisraeli, the Palestinian viper. It lives in close proximity to people, attracted to their food and water. Despite its venom, it is a protected species and was even voted the national snake of Israel a few years ago. Keep away from it, even though it is a celebrity!
Eran Finkle עברית: ערן פינקל, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons