SNAKE (Heb. נָחָשׁ, naḥash), a generic name for various species of snake, poisonous and harmless. Both in the Bible and generally in rabbinical literature it is mentioned with ignominy as harmful. It already appears at the dawn of history in the Bible as the enemy of man, enticing Eve. Its punishment was that it would have to crawl upon its belly and lick the earth, and enmity would prevail between it and man: "they shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise their heel" (Gen. 3: 13–15). Slander and speaking evil is compared to the venom of the snake (cf. Ps. 140:4), and it has even been suggested that the Hebrew term for this, lashon ha-ra, is an abbreviation of leshon ha-naḥash ha-ra ("the tongue of the evil snake"). Simeon b. Yohiai stated: "Even with the best of snakes, crush its head" (TJ, Kid. 4:11, 66c). It is permitted to slay "the snake of Israel," apparently the viper common in inhabited localities, even on the Sabbath (Shab. 121b). On the other hand, it was recognized that in the ordinary way even the poisonous snake does not attack man unless it is afraid of being attacked. Hence the directive that the recital of the Amidah may not be interrupted "even if a snake is coiled around one's heel" (Ber. 5:1). According to the Jerusalem Talmud, however (Ber. 9a), one may defend oneself against it even when praying, if it appears about to bite. Despite the hatred in general toward snakes, their value in destroying mice was recognized. Some even raised "house snakes" for this purpose (Gen. R. 19:10; this is the "house snake" referred to in TJ, Ter. 8:7, 46a). Only a few of the species of snakes in Israel are poisonous. Eighteen species of nonpoisonous snakes are to be found, seven whose poison kills small creatures only, and seven which are dangerous to man. In addition to the comprehensive term naḥash there is mentioned the saraf which appears to be the general name for poisonous snakes whose poison, so to speak, soref ("burns") the body. Four individual snakes are mentioned in the Bible: צֶפַע or צִפְעוֹני (ẓefa or ẓifoni), אֶפְﬠֶה (efeh), שְׁפִיפוֹן (shefifon), and פֶּטֶן (peten), all of which are poisonous. The ẓefa-ẓifoni is identified with the Palestine viper, Vipera palaestinae, recognizable by the two dark brown wavy stripes extending along the length of the light brown skin. This is the only poisonous snake dwelling in the inhabited regions of Israel. The Bible notes that the ẓifoni "excretes" its poison while the snake "bites" (Prov. 23:32), i.e., the latter bites with all its teeth while the poisonous snake only pricks with the anterior teeth, thus excreting the poison, The genus Viper is also found in northern countries, while other poisonous snakes dwell in hot regions. The Israeli viper is unique in that it lays eggs, while the other species are viviparous. Isaiah (59:5) already notes that the ẓifoni lays eggs and whoever eats them is liable to die from the bite of the serpents breaking out of them. A closely related species, black in color, Atractaspis eingadensis, is found in En-Gedi and its vicinity. Efeh is mentioned in the Bible as a dangerous desert snake (Isa. 30:6). According to the Midrash, this is the ekhes (Mekh. Va-Yassa, 1), apparently a snake of the genus Echis being meant, two species of which are found in the desert areas of Israel. It can be recognized by the white bands breadthways upon its light brown body. It makes a noise by the rubbing of its scales that sounds like a cry and this may be the origin of its name (פעה; "to cry"). Its poison is very dangerous though it very rarely does harm as it is not found near inhabited places. Shefifon is identified by the Septuagint with Cerastes, a genus of poisonous snakes of which the species Pseudocerastes fieldi, recognizable by glands like protrusions above its eyes, is found in the Negev. It digs into the sand, only its "horns" protruding.   The birds, taking them to be worms, peck at them, whereupon the snake strikes, killing them. This apparently is referred to in the verse: "Dan shall be … a shefifon in the path, that biteth the horse's heels" (Gen. 49:17). Its name appears to be connected with the rustling made by its scales. Peten has been identified with the Egyptian cobra, Naja haje. It is not found in Israel though there are indications that solitary specimens may exist in the southern Negev and in Sinai. It is the most dangerous snake of the region. Even outward contact with it can be dangerous (cf. Job 20:14–16). The peten was used by charmers, as is the Indian cobra today, and it is noted that it does not always obey charmers (Ps. 58:5–7). The words (Ps. 58:7), "Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth," may be a reference to the fact that the charmers used to extract the poisonous teeth of the peten. The black peten, Walterinnesia aegyptia, is found in the Judean desert. It is a dangerous poisonous snake in appearance similar to the nonpoisonous black snake. Rabbinical literature mentions poisonous snakes called havarvar, arvad, and akhnai, whose identity has not been established. -BIBLIOGRAPHY: Lewysohn, Zool, 234ff.; F.S. Bodenheimer, Animal and Man in Bible Lands (1960), 200; A. Barash and J.H. Hoofien, Zoḥalim (19612); J. Feliks, The Animal World of the Bible (1962), 102ff. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Feliks, Ha-Ẓome'aḥ, 250, 262. (Jehuda Feliks)

Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.

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