Danger Zone: Snakes and Scorpions Instead of Water

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Eli Shaubi

I’d like to offer an interpretation for a well-known derasha that many of us were taught as children. After being convinced by their eldest brother Re’uven to not murder Yosef, the brothers “take [Yosef] and throw him into a pit while the pit was empty; it had no water” (Gn. 37:24). Rashi, in his commentary, cites the following derasha:

והבור רק אין בו מים: ממשמע שנאמר והבור רק איני יודע שאין בו מים? מה תִּלְמוֹד לומר אין בו מים? מים אין בו אבל נחשים ועקרבים יש בו

“And the pit was empty; it had no water”: Once it was said that “the pit was empty”, can I not know that “it had no water”? What can you learn to say [about] “it had no water”? – It had no water, but it did have snakes and scorpions.

This derasha is well-known on the elementary school level, but I’d like to try and decode what meaning the Hakhamim intended by it.

In order to properly decode Rabbinic derashoth, we must first seek out the context in which the derasha was made.  This derasha appears twice: once in BT Shabbath 22a as reported by Rav Kahana in the name of Rav Tanhum, and a second time in BT Haghigha 3a. The first time, it appears within a discussion of the laws concerning when and where the Hanukka lights should be kindled. The second time it appears within a discussion about the qorban re’iyya, one of three sacrifices brought when we come to appear before God at the Temple during the three major haggim, as well as the role of the Hakhamim in transmitting Tora to their students. This is all as an introduction to the mystical teachings that will follow in the second chapter of Haghigha, with the qorban re’iyya in the background.

Seemingly, both of these places seem to be rather odd to stick this derasha in. However, when decoded, I find the placement of this derasha to be quite on point and to send a sharp message. Nehashim and ‘aqrabbim (snakes and scorpions) are a common reference in Rabbinic literature to things can cause damages (neziqin), sometimes within the context of ‘avodha zara (Cf. Sanhedhrin 14a, 101a, Berakhoth 33a, 62a, Yevamoth 121a, and others). In the Rabbinic associative mind, this imagery is meant to trigger a message of “Danger Zone”.

This is especially relevant in our second source in Haghigha. The Rabbinic discussion of the qorban re’iyya as an individual’s method of coming to appear before God in the Temple is used as an introduction to the Hakhamim’s method of appearing before God without a Temple, which is the topic of the second chapter of Haghigha. This is a real “Danger Zone”, as evidenced by Shim’on ben ‘Azzay, Shim’on ben Zoma, and Elisha’ Aher. The Mishna cautions the Hakhamim in Mishna Haghigha about transmitting mystical knowledge (among other things) inappropriately. The student may be tempted and say, “I may as well try and go for it, and if I don’t get it, then no harm done, and at least I tried.” The Hakhamim emphatically say no! A pit without water is not just empty; it can be very dangerous, and can have disastrous consequences, possibly even leading to ‘avodha zara.

Similarly, Hanukka as a Rabbinic mitswa has a unique meaning. That meaning is encoded via the Hanukka lights as symbols. They must be lit in the proper place (not above 20 ‘ammoth), so that they can be seen by passersby, and they must be lit at the proper time, no earlier and no later. One may think that “I may as well light anyway, what’s the harm?” Again, the Hakhamim emphatically say no! Changing the place or time changes the very meaning encoded in the symbol. If it is not visible, or if it can be perceived as being used for light, then the mitswa is no longer about the viewer but about the lighter. It is no longer a symbol for our military victory over the Greeks, but a celebration of the miracle of the oil. It turns the holiday from a celebration of Judaism’s victory over Hellenism and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty over our land and Jerusalem to that of a supernatural phenomenon. Such an act, while seemingly innocuous, has significant consequences, say our Hakhamim: nehashim we’aqrabbim yesh bo, as we ultimately seek to see God’s miracles not only in supernatural phenomena.

With that in mind, may we all merit to understand the meaning of the acts we do and are commanded to do and have them penetrate our minds and souls to be better Jews and better people.

Shabbath Shalom, and Happy Hanukka!

Eli Shaubi (SBM ’11) graduated from Cornell University, studying Middle Eastern Studies and Philosophy and focusing on Medieval Sefardic Thought. He now lives in Ramat Gan and serves in the IDF. He can be reached at shaubi.eli@gmail.com.



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