Bava Basra 97b ~ Wine and Snake Venom

In the page of Talmud we will study tomorrow, there is brief reference to uncovered wine that is left overnight.  This wine should not be drunk because "סכנה היא" – it is dangerous to do so. Shmuel ben Meir, known as the Rashbam (d. ~1158) outlines the cause of this danger: ואיכא למיחש שמא שתה הימנו נחש - "we should be concerned that a snake may have drank from the wine."  The Rashbam, usually known for his lengthy commentaries, left out the most important part of the explanation. While drinking from the water, perhaps the snake expelled some of its venom into the wine, which would then become dangerous to drink.

Don't touch that wine

The rabbis of the Talmud were very worried indeed about the health effects of water - and wine - that had been left uncovered.  This concern was codified by Maimonides, and later by Ya'akov ben Asher, the Rosh, (d. 1340) in his famous halakhic work called the Arba'ah Turim

טור יורה דעה הלכות מאכלי עובדי כוכבים סימן קטז 

דברים האסורים משום סכנה
  יש דברים שאסרום חכמים משום סכנה כגון משקין שנתגלו שיש לחוש שמא שתה מהן נחש והטיל בהן ארס אפי' אם שתו מהן אחרים ולא הוזקו אין לשתות מהן  שיש נחש שהארס צף למעלה ויש שארס שלו מפעפע עד אמצעית המשקה  ויש שהארס שלו שוקע לשולי הכלי לפיכך אפי' שתו ממנו אחרים ולא הוזקו אין לשתות מהן דשמא ארס של הנחש ששתה מהן שוקע ואלו המשקין שיש בהן משום גילוי מים יין חלב ודבש ושום כתוש 

Tur, Yoreh De'ah 116. Things that are Prohibited Because they are Dangerous

There are things that the rabbis of the Talmud prohibited because they are dangerous. For example, liquids that were left uncovered, because of the possibility that a snake drank from the water and expelled some of its poison into them. Even if others had drunk from the liquid, and not been injured, one should not drink from them.  For some snake venom floats on the surface, and some sinks to the middle and some moves to the edges of the vessel. Therefore, even if others had drunk and had suffered no harm, one should not drink from them, for perhaps the venom from the snake that had drunk the water had sunk to the bottom. The following liquids should not be drunk if they were left overnight in an uncovered vessel: water, wine, milk, honey, and crushed garlic...

The normative Code of Jewish Law, the שולחן ערוך agreed, but added an important caveat:

שולחן ערוך יורה דעה הלכות מאכלי עובדי כוכבים סימן קטז סעיף א 

משקים שנתגלו, אסרום חכמים דחיישינן שמא שתה נחש מהם והטיל בהם ארס. ועכשיו שאין נחשים מצויים בינינו, מותר

The rabbis forbade drinking from liquids that were left uncovered,. They were concerned that a snake may have drunk from them and expelled some of its poison into them. But now that snakes are not commonly encountered, this is permitted. (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De'ah 116:1)

So today it is permitted for us to drink from an uncovered pot, but only in a place that does not have a problem with poisonous snakes.  Which is not helpful. There are poisonous snakes in nearly every state in the US, resulting in about 2,000 human envenomations each year, and we have noted before that Israel has its own problem with snakes, including the Palestinian Viper.  The World Health Organization estimates that snakes kill between 20,000 and 94,000 people per year. So exactly where this leniency of the Shulchan Aruch might apply is not clear.

But is drinking snake venom indeed dangerous? Maybe not. In 2012 India Today reported that police in New Delhi had seized about half a liter of snake venom to be used "in high-end raves planned for Valentine's Day in and around the national capital." Apparently the venom, when ingested, produces a euphoric state. Who knew?


It is really hard to find any peer-reviewed scientific studies about people drinking snake venom, because, um, it's a silly thing to do.  But that doesn't mean it hasn't been done. So where could we turn to find people doing silly things? YouTube of course. (Warning. This video involves spitting. Not by the snakes.)

Want more? Ok then. Here's another one. This time it involves drinking the venom directly from spitting snake. Apparently, these kind of human interest stories are popular in India. 


If you are a diabetic and take insulin, or know someone who does, you may have wondered why the drug has to be injected. It would, after all, be much less bothersome to swallow an insulin pill than to inject insulin several times a day.  The reason is that insulin is a protein, and like all proteins, it is easily broken down by heat and, more importantly, by the acid environment in the stomach.  Our gastrointestinal tracts evolved to break down proteins into their building blocks - and they perform a wonderful job doing precisely that.

Like insulin, snake venom is a complex protein. And so, like insulin, it too is easily broken down in the very acidic environment of your stomach.  Of course, if intact venom gets into your bloodstream, it could kill you. But if you drink venom, then the intact protein never does get into your bloodstream. You don't need to be an Indian snake charmer to safely drink snake venom. You just need a working digestive system.

How snakes drink

In case you were wondering how we know how snakes drink, here is a diagrammatic view of the apparatus used to record the kinematics and water transport during drinking. The video camera was placed to the left. LED, light-emitting diode. From Cundall, D. Drinking in snakes: kinematic cycling and water transport. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 2000; 203, 2171–2185.

In case you were wondering how we know how snakes drink, here is a diagrammatic view of the apparatus used to record the kinematics and water transport during drinking. The video camera was placed to the left. LED, light-emitting diode. From Cundall, D. Drinking in snakes: kinematic cycling and water transport. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 2000; 203, 2171–2185.

The Talmud was concerned that snakes leave venom in the water from which they drank, and that a person drinking from that water would then suffer from envenomation. As we have seen, this concern has no biological basis, although theoretically, if there was an open cut or ulcer in the mouth, ingested venom could get into the bloodstream and then cause its havoc.  But there is another reason why the talmudic concern is overstated.  Snakes, you see, don't leave any venom when they drink water.  As you may have noted from watching the first video, it takes a lot to get a snake to expel its venom - like sticking a blue pen in its mouth.  Venom is a snake's most precious commodity, and it has evolved to protect that commodity. Snakes only release venom when they are in danger, or ready to strike their prey, and not otherwise. Want a great example? The venomous rattlesnake. That species has evolved a warning rattle to tell would-be predators that if they get any closer, they will be bitten. This only makes evolutionary sense if it was in the snake's best interest to do everything possible to conserve its venom.

In a fascinating article on how snakes drink published in The Journal of Experimental BiologyDavid Cundall notes that a snake's tongue does not carry or move water, and that "in many snakes, the tongue does not visibly move during drinking." That leads to the conclusion that snakes are suction drinkers. And that makes them even less likely to leave any venom behind in the water.

So let's put this all together:

  1. Snakes don't release their venom unless they are threatened or hunting. 
  2. Snakes use suction when they drink water. Their mouths are not open, which is needed when they are expelling venom.
  3. Snake venom is not dangerous when drunk.
  4. (If somehow venom did get into the water, it would be greatly diluted.)

So there is no danger if you were to drink from wine from which a venomous snake had drunk. None. None of this was known to the rabbis of the Talmud, though, for whom the advice to stay away from all things snake made for a very good public health message.

[Repost in part from Bava Kamma 115.]

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Bava Basra 84a ~ What Color is the Sun?

We are studying the tractate Bava Basrsa (The Last Gate), which is currently dealing with the circumstances under which the sale of goods may be voided.  The Mishnah (83b) ruled that if there is agreement to sell red wheat (שחמתית) and it was found to be white (לבנה), both the seller and the buyer have legal grounds to retract. The Talmud then discusses the names for these colors: what we call red and white are called "like the sun" and "like the moon." Rav Pappa (the Babylonian sage who died in 375CE) took this a step further:

בבא בתרא פד, א

שחמתית ונמצאת לבנה כו': אמר רב פפא מדקתני לבנה ש"מ האי שמשא סומקתי היא תדע  דקא סמקא צפרא ופניא והאי דלא קא חזינן כוליה יומא נהורין הוא דלא ברי

Rav Pappa said: From the fact that the Mishnah refers to one type of wheat as white, we should conclude from this that the sun is red, not white. We know that this is the case, because the sun is red in the morning and in the evening. The reason that we do not see the red color all day is because our eyesight is not strong and we cannot discern the redness of the sun.

Shmuel ben Meir, known as Rashbam (d. ~1158) explained that "our eyes are not able to discern the colors very well because in the middle of the day the light is blinding. But in the morning and the evening, when the sun is less bright, we can see the redness of the sun."

 מאור עינינו אינו ברור כל כך מתוך אור היום שמכהה עינינו אבל צפרא ופניא שהיום חשוך ניכר אדמומית החמה ורב פפא לפרש משנתנו בא אמאי מקרי שחמתית

According to Rav Pappa, the true color of the sun is red - but this true color can be seen only when the sun is at its least intense - in the evening and the morning. We have all experienced Rav Pappa's description: who cannot be moved by the sight of a blazing red sunrise or sunset? But what is the scientific explanation of these colors?

The Color of the Sun in Space, and on Earth

According to NASA experts (who really are rocket scientists, among other things), the sun emits all colors of the visible light spectrum. And when you mix all these colors together you get...white. If you were to look at the sun from high in space, (perhaps aboard the International Space Station), it would indeed appear to be a pure white.  Like this:

Courtesy of NASA.

Courtesy of NASA.

It was in the seventeenth century that Isaac Newton used a prism to split the sun's light into its constituent colors. Before then it was raindrops that did the same thing, forming a rainbow as a result.

Isaac Newton divided  a ray of sunlight with a prism in a series of experiements published in 1672.  Lego recreation is from here.

Isaac Newton divided  a ray of sunlight with a prism in a series of experiements published in 1672.  Lego recreation is from here.

The white light of the sun changes as it passes through our atmosphere, which absorbs and scatters much of the shorter wavelength blue light. (That is why the sky is blue, whatever else your dad may have told you.) However the longer wavelength red light is not absorbed, and passes pretty much unchanged.  So we see the sun as more red than blue.  This effect is especially apparent at sunrise and sunset, when in order to reach our eyes, the sunlight has to pass through more of our atmosphere. More of the shorter wavelength blue light is then absorbed, leaving even more of that longer wavelength red light. And as a result, we see those glorious red sunsets (and for those who can get up early enough, red sunrises too).

Here on Earth, the atmosphere plays a role in the color of the sun. Since shorter wavelength blue light is scattered more efficiently than longer wavelength red light, we lose some of the blue tint of the sun as sunlight passes through the atmosphere. In addition, all wavelengths of visible light passing through our atmosphere are attenuated so that the light that reaches our eyes does not immediately saturate the cone receptors. This allows the brain to perceive color from the image with a little less blue – yellow.


The Cultural determinants of the Sun's Color

On their website, the NASA scientists claim that "sometimes the display color of the Sun is culturally determined. If a kindergartener in the USA colors a picture of the Sun, they will usually make it yellow. However, a kindergartener in Japan would normally color it red!"  The rabbis of the Talmud had their own cultural explanation of the colors of the sun.  After later suggesting that the color of the sun may actually be white (because that is the color of a patch of skin with zora'at, usually identified as a kind of leprosy), the Talmud then explains the cause of the red sunrises and sunsets:  

ולמאי דסליק דעתין מעיקרא הא קא סמקא צפרא ופניא בצפרא דחלפא אבי וורדי דגן עדן בפניא דחלפא אפתחא דגיהנם

In the morning it becomes red as it passes over the site of the roses of the Garden of Eden, whose reflections give the light a red hue. In the evening the sun turns red because it passes over the entrance of Gehenna, whose fires redden the light...

Without the scientific understanding we have today, the Talmud claimed that the red color of sunrise and sunset was due to the light filtering though the red roses of the Garden of Eden, and fires of Hell.

is the Garden of Eden real or metaphorical?

It would seem that the Talmud's description of the locations of the Garden of Eden and the Gates of Hell is to be taken literally, for it is given as an explanation for physical phenomena.  But here is where things can get tricky. The famous rabbi Joseph Hayyim of Baghdad (1834–1909) wrote a work that is widely read by Sephardic Jews to this day called Ben Ish Hai. He also  published three volumes of responsa between 1901 and 1905 called Rav Pe’alim. (A fourth volume was posthumously published in 1912.) In an undated question, R. Hayyim was asked about the location of the Garden of Eden. In one tradition, the garden was located “on the other side of the world,” somewhere below the equator in the southern hemisphere. However, the questioner continued, the world has been circumnavigated, and the Garden of Eden has not been identified. Where then is it located?

In his answer, R. Hayyim digressed into the truth claims of science, and then returned to the location of the Garden of Eden. He noted that although it may be located on the Earth itself, it existed on a different spiritual plane and would therefore not be perceived by the human senses. I suppose many moderns would agree with the suggestion that the Garden of Eden is not to be found in a geographic location. But today's page of Talmud reminds us that at least in talmudic Babylon, the Garden of Eden was not just a metaphor.  It determined the very colors of the sun.


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Bava Basra 74a ~ Where Heaven and Earth Touch

While discussing the legal technicalities involved in buying a boat, the Talmud digresses with a series of fantastic stories about boats, told by Rabbah bar bar Chanah.  And then it digresses again with a series of  fantastic stories about all kinds of things, also told by Rabbah bar bar Channah. In total he told fifteen stories. Here is the last one:

בבא בתרא עד, א

אמר לי תא אחוי לך היכא דנשקי ארעא ורקיעא אהדדי שקלתא לסילתאי אתנחתא בכוותא דרקיעא אדמצלינא בעיתיה ולא אשכחיתה אמינא ליה איכא גנבי הכא אמר לי האי גלגלא דרקיעא הוא דהדר נטר עד למחר הכא ומשכחת לה

An Arab also said to me: Come, I will show you the place where the earth and the heavens touch each other. I took my basket and placed it in a window of the heavens. After I finished praying, I searched for it but did not find it. I said to him: Are there thieves here? He said to me: This is the heavenly sphere that is turning around; wait here until tomorrow and you will find it again.

What should we make of this?  We should begin by considering its context, noting that it is part of a series of fantastic fables.  These include a man who pursued a demon on horseback, antelope the size of mountains, giant frogs ("the size of sixty houses") that are eaten by even more giant birds, a fish so large it took three days to sail between its fins, and scorpions the size of donkeys. You get the idea. Given this context, perhaps the tale of a place where heaven and earth touch as a description of reality should be taken with as much seriousness as the other stories. Which is to say, not very seriously at all. 

Other Talmudic descriptions of the Cosmos

Not so fast. There are other rabbis in Talmud who address the structure of the earth and the cosmos. Rabbi Natan noted that the stars do not seem to change in their positions overhead when walking far distances.  The assumption underlying his explanation for this observation was that the earth is flat. Covering the earth was an opaque cap referred to as the rakia, which is most commonly translated as the sky or firmament. Rava, a fourth-century Babylonian sage who lived on the banks of the river Tigris, determined this cap to be 1,000 parsa in width, while Rabbi Yehudah thought that he had over-estimated this thickness. There were others who added to the picture of the sky; Resh Lakish announced that it actually was made up of seven distinct layers. Given this model, there would have to be a place where the opaque cap touched the earth, a place that Rabbah bar Bar Channah claimed to have touched.  So even allowing for a degree of talmudic fantasy, this fable was clearly built on the model that was shared by other rabbis in the Talmud.

The Flammarion Engraving

In 1872, Camille Flammarion published L'atmosphère: météorologie populaire (The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology). In the 1888 edition this engraving  appeared on page 163:


As you can see from the caption, the engraving is "A missionary of the Middle Ages tells that he had found the point where the sky and the Earth touch." The engraving appears to have been specially created for Flammarion's book. The text that precedes it reads as follows:

Whether the sky be clear or cloudy, it always seems to us to have the shape of an elliptic arch; far from having the form of a circular arch, it always seems flattened and depressed above our heads, and gradually to become farther removed toward the horizon. Our ancestors imagined that this blue vault was really what the eye would lead them to believe it to be; but, as Voltaire remarks, this is about as reasonable as if a silk-worm took his web for the limits of the universe. The Greek astronomers represented it as formed of a solid crystal substance; and so recently as Copernicus, a large number of astronomers thought it was as solid as plate-glass. The Latin poets placed the divinities of Olympus and the stately mythological court upon this vault, above the planets and the fixed stars. Previous to the knowledge that the earth was moving in space, and that space is everywhere, theologians had installed the Trinity in the empyrean, the glorified body of Jesus, that of the Virgin Mary, the angelic hierarchy, the saints, and all the heavenly host.... A naïve missionary of the Middle Ages even tells us that, in one of his voyages in search of the terrestrial paradise, he reached the horizon where the earth and the heavens met, and that he discovered a certain point where they were not joined together, and where, by stooping his shoulders, he passed under the roof of the heavens.
Flammarion engraving tattoo.jpg

Flammarion does not reference his source for the missionary of the Middle Ages who, like Rabbah bar bar Channah, claimed to have found the place were the heavens and earth meet.  Despite this, his engraving has become very popular. A version of it appears on the cover of Daniel J. Boorstin's best selling work The Discoverers, and inside William Vollmann's Uncentering the Universe. And those are just the ones I know about from my own library. You can buy a color poster of it (where it is incorrectly described as a "medieval artwork") but if you are really dedicated you could always travel to San Fransisco where a tattoo parlor will create the image on your arm. 

We know that Rabbah bar bar Channah's model of the universe is not correct, but his suggestion of a place where heaven and earth touch is both endearing and enchanting.  (It is also the perfect name for an anthology of Midrash which was published back in 1983).  With Passover approaching, you may already be thinking about your wine list for the Seder.  Perhaps you should consider a kosher-for-Pesach wine whose label shows part of the Flammarion etching, and drink to the memory of Rabbah bar bar Channah. 

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