More Discussions for this daf
1. Snakes, hair and nails 2. Karkom/Saffron 3. לירקונא תרין בשיכרא

Dov Halperin asked:

Sholom Aleicem,

First I would like to express my amazement of this Mifal Hakodesh, YH"R Shetishre Shinah Bamasei Yedeichem.

I recently (two weeks) became aware of the shema Yisroel Project. I am focused on three subjects in Halacho, however I give a Shiyur in the morning before Davening on shabbos.

We are up to Daf 110A, there is a very hard agadetah, about the Nachash and the woman, also the inyan of nails and hair. Does someone have an insight to this Agadetah or a mareh mokom? Something that a Bal Habos could understand?

I would appreciate if someone could get back to me. I am aware that it is a separate field namely Agadah or Machsoveh however with your resources you might have an explanation.

Yasher Koach and Hatzlocha

Dov Halperin

The Kollel replies:

Excuse me for taking a while to get back to you, Rabbi Halperin.

It is indeed hard to understand the message Chazal were trying to impart in this Agadah. There undoubtedly are numerous messages, each on a different level of understanding (Pshat, Drush, Remez, Sod); unfortunately, the classic commentaries have not left us their comments on the Gemara, so we must try to approach them on our own without their help. I will therefore try to approach the Agadah on my own humble level of understanding.

The Gemara discusses different ways of curing a man or woman who swallowed a snake, was bitten by a snake, or is being constricted or chased by a snake. It then discusses remedies for a woman who is being followed by a snake or who a snake has taken a liking to and has entered her womb.

The snake is used in Agados Chazal metaphorically in two ways. First, it is the avenger of the transgressor ("v'Hu Yeshufenu Akev"), ready to repay one who disregards the warnings of Chazal. It is used in this context in the part of the Agadah which discusses a person who was bitten by a snake -- as the Gemara indeed makes rather clear ("Chivya d'Rabanan").

The second, even more common, theme of the Nachash in Agadah is as the Yetzer Hara incarnate (see Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer ch. 13 and elsewhere), in particular the Yetzer Hara of temptation, especially lust and adultery (see Rashi to Bereishis 3:1). This seems to be the context in which is used in the discussion about the person who "swallowed a snake," (i.e. is overtaken by lustful desire) or is being chased by a snake or tenanted by a snake (i.e. someone with lustful desires is tempting them, or has even succeeded in enticing them).

Following this approach, it is easy to guess at the intent of much of the Gemara's advice in this Agadah. It is also understandable why, due to the sensitive nature of the subject matter, it was cloaked in metaphor (as we often find in Chazal).

Regarding the part you quoted about nails and hair, the Gemara brings an argument as to whether a woman chased by a "snake" should have relations with her husband before the snake, or should throw her hair and nails to the snake remarking "I am a Nidah!" The argument would seem to focus on how she should discourage the lustful "snake." Should she discourage him by showing her devotion to her husband, or her disinterest in physical pleasures.

This can be understood in light of the words of the Akeidas Yitzchak in last week's Parasha, Ki Sitzei. The Akeidah (Sha'ar 97) explains metaphorically the requirement to have the Yefas To'ar cut her hair and fingernails. The Yefas To'ar, he explains (as do many others who followed suit), is the Yetzer Hara. If a person wants to weaken his Yetzer Hara, he must remove himself from all worldly desires first. This is represented by the cutting of the hair which, growing from the head, represents "De'os Ra'os," erroneous attitudes toward life. The removal of the claw-like fingernails represents the cessation of one's obsession with "grabbing" more and more to fill one's material desires.

The Akeidah goes on to show that nails can be understood in such a metaphorical sense in other teachings of Chazal. For example, in Nidah 17a we are told that "One who throws away his fingernails is a Rasha; one who hides them is a Tzadik, one who burns them is a Chasid." Besides the literal meaning, the Akeidah suggests that this statement contains a metaphorical meaning as well. One who "throws" his claws in all directions, grabbing what he can, is Rasha. One who "hides" them, only exposing them to use them when necessary, is a Tzadik. And one who "burns" them, totally abstaining from worldly pleasures, is a Chasid.

(Actually, there is an argument in the Gemara as to whether the Torah requires the Yefas To'ar to grow or clip her fingernails; the Akeidah is taking the latter approach. The other approach, however, can also be interpreted along these lines. The Torah is telling a person to become inspired to do Teshuvah by considering how revolting it would be if he would grant himself all of his worldly desires, thus causing him to willingly retreats from them -- along the lines of "One who sees a Sotah being punished for her misdeeds will immediately want to make himself a Nazir and cease from drinking wine," Sotah 2a.)

When one thinks about it, the lack of bodily hair and claws are among the most prominent physical features that distinguish between man and animal. If I may add an observation, perhaps nails and hair represent, respectively, "Ta'avah" and "Ga'avah" (aka "Kavod"), physical pleasure and arrogance. The nails -- and the arms that extend them -- refer to the physical pleasures that a person tries to "grab" with his arms, as the Akeidah said. The hair, at the top of the body, represents arrogance (see Zevachim 88b, "Let the Tzitz, which is worn high up on the head, atone for haughtiness"). This might be part of the reason that Tefilin is worn specifically on the head and on the arm....

When a woman sees that she is being chased by a lustful suitor, she should show her disinterest by "throwing at him some of her nails and her," i.e. by demonstrating "Prishus," abstinence from physical pleasures and by showing humility, which brings about G-dfearingness. Announcing "I am a Nidah" is tantamount to saying that she is practicing abstinence and has no desire for him at all. This announcement is either made vocally or is more subtly understood through her actions. The would-be suitor who sees the woman acting in such a manner will understand that he is not wanted and depart.

Although I've only gone through the part of the Agadah that you mentioned specifically, I think that you will find with little effort such an approach is compatible with the rest of the Agadah as well.

I hope you find this helpful. Best wishes,