Shabbat Bereishit 5779
Can a Snake Really Talk
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5774
One of my favorite scenes in the first Harry Potter movie is Dudley’s birthday trip to the zoo where Harry first learns that he can talk to snakes. He has a conversation with the snake and it appears that this snake can read as well. It is Harry’s first magical moment and Dudley ends up behind the glass in the snake tank.
It is cute and amusing but it clearly belongs in the world of movies and fantasy. That has never happened to me in the zoo.
Yet we open the chumash and in the third chapter we read
בראשית פרק ג
א) והנחש היה ערום מכל חית השדה אשר עשה יקוק אלהים ויאמר אל האשה אף כי אמר אלהים לא תאכלו מכל עץ הגן
1. Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, Has God said, you shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
And then to make matters worse, woman talks back to the snake!
The author is not JK Rowling, it is God. What are we supposed to do with these psukim? How are we to approach them?
It is always comforting for me to know that we are not the first ones to ask these questions and attempt to answer them.
The Eben Ezra maintains that God gave snakes the ability to communicate. He notes that others, principally Rav Saddia Gaon, maintain that it was actually an angel speaking on their behalf because snakes do not speak!
Some reject that explanation because it does not explain the snakes punishment.
Eben Ezra also notes that some believe that the snake is actually Satan talking to the woman, tempting her to sin. He rejects this as well because in his words “did they not see the end of the parsha?” How would this Satan, crawl and eat dirt and why should snakes be punished if this was not the snake but Satan.
And so he prefers to read the text literally – God initially gave snakes semi human qualities.
Obviously rav Saadia Gaon disagreed and was ok with this being an angelic voice that was not the snakes.
Radak, adopts a similar approach to Rav Saadia. He writes that most likely this was very much like Bilaam’s donkey speaking. Snakes were snakes, but God performed a miracle for this particular snake. Why it does not say “and God opened the mouth of the snake” like it does by Bilaam’s donkey is a question that he can live with.
He also hedges his bets by constantly stating that this is very confusing in the nigleh, in the world of what is revealed, but contains great meaning in the nistar, the hidden world, the world of secrets.
I want to share one more opinion.
Seforno accepts the approach that Eben Ezra vehemently objects to. He simply explains that the snake is the Satan which is also the evil inclination.
In other words this story is an analogy, an allegory. The snake did not walk and the snake did not talk.
Sforno then quotes a Midrash that Samael, who is the angel of Esav is riding on the back of the snake and seems to imply if I understood if correctly that the evil inclination appeared to woman as a snake.
What really happened?
I don’t know but as we begin the Torah anew, it is inspiring to engage with the Torah, read it, question and think about it and then see how the commentators throughout the ages have engaged with the very same questions.