Re: The Nachash [Snake]

Isaac A Zlochower (
Wed, 1 Jan 1997 17:38:35 -0800

My comments on the Nachash story (TF V2:94) were severly criticized in
TF V3:5, "Mr. Zlochower is going down a path that is not compatible
with the traditional commentaries on the Torah, and many of the points
he makes are in direct conflict with the words of Chazal (our
sages)...However, to glibly state that the Torah is not meant to be
understood literally and it is all 'symbolic' or a metaphor is not
valid...When he writes, 'The tree of knowing good and bad did not have
any knowledge giving properties. It is only named after its effect.'
We have already seen Chazal disagreed."

First, I never said nor do I at all believe that the Torah is meant to
be understood only on a symbolic level. I only gave my opinion that
the connection between the creatures known as snakes and the Nachash in
Eden is associative and symbolic, that is, we are called upon to
remember the consequences of disobeying G-D's commands whenever we see
a snake. I have always tried to find a way of understanding the words
of the Torah, including the Eden story, so that they describe real
events. I do, however, maintain that the creatures in Eden were
special creations (made after Adam was placed in the garden) that need
not have had the same characteristics as their counterparts in the
outside world, particularly, the Nachash. The Nachash is not an
ordinary snake; it was set up by G-D to test Adam and Eve, and allow
them to exercise their free will.

Second, my comments were only given as a personal opinion. If they
ring true or interesting, then one may pay attention; if not, then one
can disregard them. If, however, one criticizes my opinions publically
as being counter to the expressed view of the Sages, (Chazal), then one
must first ascertain that one is accurate. This is not an easy task,
since there are many views expressed in traditional sources. Let me
illustrate with a few citations:
"Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair (a Tannah) said, 'This tree was simply called
tree, like all other trees, before the first man ate of it. However,
after eating and transgressing G-D's decree, it becomes called, 'the
tree of knowing good and bad', because of its destiny... Why was it
called 'knowing good and bad', because through eating it, man became
aquainted with misfortune...Why, then, did G-D command that he could
eat from all the trees of the garden, but withheld one of them? So
that he should see it constantly and remember his Creator. He would be
conscious of the yoke placed on him by his Fashioner, and not become
proud." (Midrash Tadshe as cited in "Studies in Bereshit (Genesis)" by
Prof. Nechama Leibowitz, pp. 22-23)
The above is precisely the view that I expressed, even to the extent of
treating the Divine decree as "arbitrary" (or out of pedagogic motive).
I should, however, have placed quotes around the word, since we should
not presume to know the "Mind of G-D", and I certainly did not intend
to imply that the prohibition had no purpose.

I am chastised with a Talmudic citation (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 30b)
wherein Rebbe Yehuda states that the "tree" was really wheat, since a
baby first learns to call his father and mother after he has been
weaned and starts eating grain products. This is supposed to indicate
the knowledge producing property of the plant, if taken literally. But
a more reasonable interpretation is that the baby is no longer an
"appendage" of his mother. His world is now broadened to include his
father, who represents the "outside world". Similarly, the
consequences of eating the forbidden fruit is the introduction of the
outside world. The tree's identity as expressed by Rebbies Meir and
Nechemya, moreover, involve "real" trees, the grape vine and fig tree,
respectively. Neither view is contrary to what I expressed.

I must disagree with the statement made, "G-D placed humanity in this
world for one purpose and one purpose only. To do what he has
commanded and to reap the rewards that G-D wants to shower on man for
obeying." This may be a view expressed by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato in
Mesilas Yesharim, but it is not universally accepted. This presumes
that G-D's main objective in fashioning the universe is to produce well
behaved children, and to shower them with rewards. What happened to
the concept of humanity becoming a partner in creation, or that mitzvos
(commandments) were given to refine us? The above concept may be a
rationale expressed for the purpose of the Chukim (decrees), not for
all mitzvos, and not for the entire purpose of Creation. Besides,
should we really assume that we know or can know the whole purpose of
Creation; isn't that tantamount to asserting that we "understand" G-D?

I hope that this clarifies my position.
Yitzchok Zlochower