Sanhedrin 78a ~ Where Do Snakes Store Their Venom?

In the Mishnah on 76b of Sanhedrin (which we learned two days ago) we read the following:

שיסה בו את הכלב שיסה בו את הנחש פטור השיך בו את הנחש רבי יהודה מחייב וחכמים פוטרין

In the case of one who incited a dog or a snake against a person, and the dog or the snake bit that person, Rabbi Yehuda rules that the he is liable to the death penalty, and the Sages rule that he is not liable.

In today's page of Talmud explains the basis of the legal dispute between Rabbi Yehuda and the Sages:

סנהדרין עח, א

לדברי ר' יהודה ארס נחש בין שיניו הוא עומד לפיכך מכיש בסייף ונחש פטור לדברי חכמים ארס נחש מעצמו הוא מקיא לפיכך נחש בסקילה והמכיש פטור

According to Rabbi Yehuda, the poison of a snake is between its fangs, therefore the perpetrator is liable to execution by the sword [which is the usual punishment for a convicted murderer], and the snake itself  is exempt from the death penalty. But according to the Sages a snake ejects its venom of its own volition [and only after its fangs have pierced the victim's skin]. Therefore the snake is liable to the death penalty by stoning and the perpetrator is not liable to the death penalty.

A western diamondback rattlesnake. From here.

A western diamondback rattlesnake. From here.

The essence of the dispute between the Rabbi Yehuda and the Sages is whether venom is always found on a snake's fangs, or whether it is produced by volition.  If it is the latter, at the moment the snake pierced the skin of the victim, there was no venom on its fangs. So it could not kill, and the lethal blow was not caused by the snake handler. This is made explicit by Rashi:

A snake ejects its venom of its own volition. When the person caused the snake to bite its victim, it did not at that moment have the ability to kill. The person was merely allowing [the bite to occur], even though he knows [that very soon after the bite] the snake will expel its venom. In this case death does not occur as a result of the direct actions of the person.

The Koren Talmud has this helpful note in its sidebar:

From the Koren Talmud Sanhedrin vol II, p 197.

From the Koren Talmud Sanhedrin vol II, p 197.

The Soncino Talmud offers a similar explanation:

On R. Judah's view, the fangs themselves are poisonous. Consequently, the snake does nothing, the murder being committed by the person. But the Sages maintain that even when its fangs are embedded in the flesh, they are not poisonous, unless it voluntarily emits poison. Consequently the murder is committed by the snake, not the man. 

Leaving aside the question of what a snake does instinctually and what it does voluntarily, does a venomous snake have fangs that are always poisonous per Rabbi Yehuda, or not, as is the opinion of the Sages ?

Homicide by snake bite - a real case

This really happens. A 2012 paper published in Medicine, Science and the Law describes how a contract killer used a poisonous snake to murder an elderly couple by way of a direct snake bite.

On the fateful day, both the victims were kidnapped along with their driver. The couple was forcefully asked to sit in the car and their driver was told to sit in another four-wheeler. The kidnapper took them to a distant confined area. On the way, the snake charmer, who was sitting by the side of the kidnapper in the front seat of the car, took out a poisonous snake from a box and made it bite the couple. The couple collapsed immediately. After that, the kidnapper threatened the couple’s driver and told him to take the couple to the hospital saying that a snake had bitten them. The driver took the couple to the private hospital where they were declared dead. The couple died within one hour of the snake bite. An in-depth probe revealed that the eldest son of the elderly couple had plotted their murder over a property dispute, had hired the contract killer and had also arranged the snake charmer to have his parents killed. [Ambade, V.N. et al. Homicide by direct snake bite: a case of contract killing. Med Sci Law 2012; 52: 40–43]

So these kind of things do happen.  The rulings of Rabbi Yehudah and the Sages are based on some anatomic assumptions Can biology help to determine which is correct? Why yes. It can.  

We believe this to be the first case reported where a snake was directly used for the murder of two victims through a contract killer.
— Ambade, V.N. et al. Homicide by direct snake bite: a case of contract killing. Med Sci Law 2012; 52: 40–43

Snake Fangs and Snake Venom

Snakes deliver their venom in one of two ways. The first and most common way is via a grooved fang usually at the back of the mouth. Venom slides down the groove and into flesh of the victim. A minority of venomous snakes use a different approach. These have long hollow fangs in the front of their mouths like hypodermic needles, through which venom flows. These fangs are hinged and are folded back into the roof of the mouth when not in use. 

Regardless of which kinds of fangs a snake has, its venom is produced in special glands. The precise anatomical details may vary from species to species, but they all have the same basic structure: there is a main venom gland which leads into a smaller accessory venom gland and then into the base of the fangs.

When the snake strikes, muscles around the main venom gland contact, forcing a bolus of venom through the ducts, down the fangs, and into the prey.
— The Handbook of Venoms and Toxins of Reptiles,  ed. Stephen P. Mackessy. CRC Press 2010.
Viperid venom gland. When the snake strikes, muscles around the main venom gland contact, forcing a bolus of venom through the ducts, down the fangs, and into the prey.  From The Handbook of Venoms and Toxins of Reptiles,  ed. Stephen P. Mackessy. CRC Press 2010. p71.  

Viperid venom gland. When the snake strikes, muscles around the main venom gland contact, forcing a bolus of venom through the ducts, down the fangs, and into the prey.  From The Handbook of Venoms and Toxins of Reptiles,  ed. Stephen P. Mackessy. CRC Press 2010. p71.  

Dry snake bites

Not all bites from a venomous snake leads to poisoning.  These non-venomous bites are called dry bites, and may occur in 20-60% of all bites.  I know this because of this helpful paper published just this year by B. Sadananda Naik, a physician from Karnataka in south west India: “Dry bite” in venomous snakes: A review. In India, about 46,000 people are killed each year from snakebites, so he should know of which he speaks. The incidence of a dry bite varies by the species of snake and the circumstances under which they bite. For example, bites from pit vipers (found in the US) may be dry 25% of the time, whereas bites from the Sri Lankan saw scaled viper are dry less than 10% of the time (and you never know when that bit of information might be useful).   

Summary of the major publications on snake bites showing the frequency of  a dry bite. From Sadananda Naik, B. "Dry bite” in venomous snakes: A review. Toxicon 133, (2017): 63e67

Summary of the major publications on snake bites showing the frequency of  a dry bite. From Sadananda Naik, B. "Dry bite” in venomous snakes: A review. Toxicon 133, (2017): 63e67

It is not possible to pin point the exact reasons for the occurrence of this phenomenon known as ‘dry bite’. However, there are many possible explanations for the absence of envenomation in the victim.
— Sadananda Naik, B. "Dry bite” in venomous snakes: A review. Toxicon 133, (2017): 63e67

Dr. Naik also has this to say, which directly addresses the dispute between the Sages and Rabbi Yehuda:

The delivery of venom by the striking snake is completely voluntary; all the venomous snakes have the ability to bite without injecting the venom through their fangs. Hence, the snakes could vary the amount of venom injected while striking a prey which is to be eaten or when it bites in defence or when irritated.

The Sages were Right

In the dispute between Rabbi Yehuda and the Sages we rule, as usual, with the majority opinion. This is codified in Maimonides' Mishnah Torah ( הלכות נזקי ממון פרק י):

אם שיסה בו נחש, ואפילו השיכו בו, והרגו--הנחש נסקל:  שסם הנחש שהמית, מעצמו הוא מקיאו; לפיכך זה האדם שהשיך בו הנחש, פטור ממיתת בית דין

If a person set a snake against another, if the snake bit and killed, it is executed by stoning, because the venom which caused the death is expelled voluntarily. As a consequence the person who set the snake against another is not executed by the court.

The majority opinion of the Sages is the biologically correct one, and Rabbi Yehuda was, anatomically speaking, mistaken. Snakes do indeed vary the amount of venom they release, and sometimes they don't release any at all. Which is good news if you are a snake charmer who has just been accused of murder.

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Sanhedrin 69b ~ The Youngest Mother in the World

In the daily cycle of Talmud study, we are currently learning Sanhedrin, a tractate that discusses all things judicial including capital punishment. In three days from now - Shabbat Shuvah (the Shabbat of Repentance) - we will read a bizarre and disquieting passage. In it, the Talmud discusses a tangential issue (as it so often does) and considers the earliest age at which a boy or a girl could conceive a child. After establishing that a boy as young as eight could father a child, the Talmud entertains the possibility that a girl as young as six years of age could give birth to a child.

סנהדרין סט, ב

Batsheva gave birth when aged six - ובת שבע אולידא בשית

Don't try this at home

Today we are going to do something that goes against a fundamental belief I have about Aggadah - (rabbinic stories and legends): that they should never be taken literally.   Instead, we are going to take this Aggadah literally. It suggests that perhaps (and it is only raised as a possibility) Batsheva, the woman who married King David and was the mother of King Solomon, was only six years old when she gave birth to her first child. Is this suggestion in any way scientifically possible? You might be surprised.

The Youngest Mother in the World

 In May 1939 the French medical journal La Presse Medicale published a report from Lima about a little girl who had given birth to a baby at the age of only five years and seven months. Let me say that again. She had given birth to a baby when she was five years and seven months old.  Putting aside the monstrous child abuse that is at the heart of this story (if that is even possible to do), let's focus on the pregnancy itself.

Report from La Presse Medicale, May 31, 1939. The complete original is here.

Report from La Presse Medicale, May 31, 1939. The complete original is here.

The little girl in the picture is Lina Medina, then five months pregnant. She lived in Peru, and her parents had brought her to a hospital fearing she had a tumor in her abdomen.  Instead she was found to be pregnant, and six weeks later she gave birth by cesarian section to a healthy baby boy. She named her son Gerardo, after the chief physician Dr. Gerardo Lozada at the hospital where she was diagnosed. Her father was briefly arrested for child abuse but was later released. No charges were ever brought against her abuser, who Lina did not identify.  Lina later married and had a second son in 1972.

The New York Times, November 15, 1939.p9.

The New York Times, November 15, 1939.p9.

How do we know the story is true?

On November 15, 1939, The New York Times reported that the story had been authenticated by Dr S.L. Christian, the assistant surgeon general of the US Public Health Service. Christian had travelled to Peru, and while there he examined Lina.  There is also a case report from Dr Edmundo Escomel on the pathology of one of Lina's ovaries that had been removed at the time of her cesarian section. (For those of you who are French speaking pathologists, you can read it here.) The report notes that Lina had the ovaries of a fully mature woman, and that she likely had a pituitary disorder that caused her precocious fertility.   The story of Lina Medina has been authenticated by the fact-checking website Snopes, and there is a Wiki page about her (though having a Wiki page is not really proof of anything.)

Finally, there is a paper from a team at Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem, published in Fertility and Sterility in 2009. The paper (titled At what age can human oocytes be obtained?) addresses the methods to remove and preserve eggs and sperm from young patients undergoing chemotherapy. "Increasing numbers of young cancer survivors" they wrote, "are experiencing infertility related to their past cancer treatment. Having children thus becomes an important issue for young cancer patients." One option to preserve fertility is to retrieve and preserve oocytes, which are the precursors to the ovum, the mature egg. The authors (who cite the pathology report on Lina Medina's ovary) report the successful removal of oocytes in girls ages 5, 8 and 10.  This report from Hadassah is of the youngest age for ovarian oocyte retrieval, and demonstrates that even in girls who show no signs of menarche (the onset of menstruation), it is possible to find oocytes that can mature into eggs.

From Revel A. et al. At what age can human oocytes be obtained? Fertility and Sterility 2009; 92 (2):458-463.

From Revel A. et al. At what age can human oocytes be obtained? Fertility and Sterility 2009; 92 (2):458-463.

Back to Batsheva

It would appear that it is indeed possible for Batsheva, barely be out of kindergarten, to have given birth to her first child when she was only six years old.  Today, her abuser would be arrested and locked up for a very long time. How fortunate are we not to have to take this talmudic story literally, even if it is, regrettably, entirely plausible.

The first group…accept the teachings of the sages in their simple literal sense and do not think that these teachings contain any hidden meaning at all. They believe that all sorts of impossible things must be... They understand the teachings of the sages only in their literal sense, in spite of the fact that some of their teachings when taken literally, seem so fantastic and irrational that if one were to repeat them literally, even to the uneducated, let alone sophisticated scholars, their amazement would prompt them to ask how anyone in the world could believe such things true, much less edifying. The members of this group are poor in knowledge. One can only regret their folly. Their very effort to honor and to exalt the sages in accordance with their own meager understanding actually humiliates them. As God lives, this group destroys the glory of the Torah of God and say the opposite of what it intended.
— Maimonides, Introduction to Perek Chelek, Chapter Ten of Mishnah Sanhedrin.

next time on Talmudology: Where does a snake keep its venom?

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Sanhedrin 63b ~ The Fireproof Salamander

A salamander unharmed in the fire. From Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 126r, c 1350.  From here.

A salamander unharmed in the fire. From Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 126r, c 1350.  From here.

סנהדרין סג, ב 

אף חזקיה מלך יהודה ביקש אביו לעשות לו כן אלא שסכתו אמו סלמנדרא 

During a discussion of idol worship, today's page of Talmud notes that some cult practices demanded that parents sacrifice their children by burning them alive. “Even the father of Hezekiah the king of Judea wanted to sacrifice him in this way, but his mother saved him by covering him with the blood of the salamander.” Rashi gives this explanation:

The salamander is a small creature that emerges from a furnace which has been burning for seven consecutive years.  Fire cannot burn someone who has smeared himself with the blood of the salamander.  

From where did Rashi get the idea that the salamander emerges from a fire that has been burning for seven years?  Perhaps from the Midrash Tanchumah, where it burns not seven years but seven days.

מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת וישב סימן ג

 בריות הגדלות באור ואין גדלות באויר ואיזו זו סלמנדרא כיצד הזגגין העושין את הזכוכית כשהן מסיקין את הכבשן שבעה ימים ושבעה לילות רצופין מכובד האור יוצא משם בריה הדומה לעכביש (ס"א לעכבר) והבריות קורין אותה סלמנדרא אדם סך ידו מדמה או אחד

  למה? על שתחילת בריאתה מן האור מאיבריו אין האור שולטת באותו מקום 

There are creatures that thrive in fire and not in air, like the salamander. How is it created? When glassmakers leave a furnace continuously alight for seven days and seven nights, out of the fire there emerges a creature that resembles a spider (or a mouse). That creature is called the salamander. If you cover your arm or any limb with its blood, it  that place will become impervious to fire. Why is does the salamander have this ability? Because it was created from fire. 

Elsewhere in the Talmud the fire-proof properties of the salamander are used as a homiletic device:

 חגיגה  כז , א

תלמידי חכמים אין אור של גיהנם שולטת בהן, קל וחומר מסלמנדרא; ומה סלמנדרא שתולדת אש היא - הסך מדמה אין אור שולטת בו, תלמידי חכמים, שכל גופן אש, דכתיב הלוא כה דברי כאש נאם ה' - על אחת כמה וכמה 

The fires of hell do not burn Torah scholars, and this is learned a fortiori. Consider the salamander which is created from fire and its blood protects from fire. How much more so is a Torah scholar protected, for his entire body is fire, as it is written "for my words are not as fire, says God" (Jeremiah 23:29). 

This is all rather strange. Where does this legend come from, and does science have anything to say about fireproof salamander? Read on.

[The salamander] has no digestive organs, and gets no food but from the fire, in which it constantly renews its scaly skin.
— Leonardo da Vinci, Book XX: Humorous Writings, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, edited by Jean Paul Richter, 1880

Identifying the Talmudic Salamander

There is in fact a European species of salamander called the Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra) which has bright markings that serve to warn predators that it is poisonous (and that they should therefore leave it alone).  But this cannot be the salamander referred to in the Talmud, because it is found in central and southern Europe, and not in the Middle East where the Talmud was written. The talmudic salamander is the Near Eastern Fire Salamander, found in Israel, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Here is a picture of one, taken on Mt. Carmel near Haifa. 

The Near Eastern Fire Salamander, (Salamandra infraimmaculata)

The Near Eastern Fire Salamander, (Salamandra infraimmaculata)

The salamander is an amphibian that can grow up to thirteen inches in length and feeds on insects and larva. According to Dr Michael Warburg from the Technion, they can live for up to twenty years. He knows this because he visited the same pond on the top of Mt. Carmel for twenty-five years (!) and published a paper titled "Longevity in Salamandra infraimmaculata from Israel with a partial review of life expectancy in urodeles." And what was the name of the journal in which it was published I hear you ask. Good question.  It was Salamandra. Of course it was.

Salamanders live near ponds and streams, though they spend most of their adult lives out of the water.  They can exude a toxin when threatened, which can cause skin irritation but not much more. Since they do not have lungs they breath through their skin, which must be kept moist. And Dr. Warburg, the Technion salamander specialist, informs us that they lay their eggs in water. Not in furnaces. So from where did the rabbis of the Talmud get the ideas that they were fireproof creatures, born from the within flames? They got it from the surrounding cultures which had similar stories about the origins of the salamander.

The FIREPROOF Salamander in other cultures

According to the explorer Marco Polo (d.1324) the name of the creature comes from the Persian words Sam meaning "fire," and Andar and meaning "within."  The Roman historian Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE)  wrote that the salamander was "so intensely cold as to extinguish fire by its contact, in the same way as ice does" which demonstrates that the fireproof salamander story goes back to long before the talmudic period. The legend is also found in the writings of Saint Isidore of Seville (560-636 AD) who lived around the time that the Talmud was redacted.

The Salamander is so called because it is strong against fire....It fights against fires and alone among living things, extinguishes them. For it lives in the midst of flames without pain and without being consumed and not only is not burned, but it puts the fire out.
— An Encyclopedist of the Dark Ages; Isidore of Seville, by Ernest Brehaut, Columbia University 1912, p228
Farenheit 451 -Fireman's hat.jpg

The legend is also found some unusual contemporary places. In Ray Bradbury's dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, books are banned and firemen don't have the job of putting out fires. Instead, they are tasked with burning any books that are found. Do you recall the name of their firetrucks? That's right - they were called Salamanders. The firemen also had an official symbol, which was a salamander.

We know an idea has deeply embedded itself in popular culture when it appears in The Simpsons. And in an episode called See Homer Run, Homer takes a job as The Safety Salamander, teaching schoolchildren about fire safety. And what does Homer need to wear for the job?  A salamander suit. Of course.  

From See Homer Run, in The Simpsons Season 17 Episode 6.

From See Homer Run, in The Simpsons Season 17 Episode 6.

But that's fiction. Take a look at the logo of the International Association of Heat and Frost Workers below. It is a salamander over a fire, and insulating some pipes. And that is a fact.

Logo of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers. It's a salamander over a fire, and insulating some pipes.  

Logo of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers. It's a salamander over a fire, and insulating some pipes.  

Evidence to the contrary

So the talmudic legend of the fire-proof salamander is a Jewish version of a legend found in contemporary Roman and Christian lore - a legend that still reverberates today. But although the Roman Pliny recounted the myth, he was also skeptical of it. There are numerous references on the internet which tell of Pliny throwing a salamander onto a fire, to see what would happen.  The salamander died.  But I cannot find a primary source for this story (please let me know if you find one), so let's go with Pliny's observations from his work Natural History:

As to what the magicians say, that it is proof against fire, being, as they tell us, the only animal that has the property of extinguishing fire, if it had been true, it would have been made trial of at Rome long before this. Sextius says that the salamander, preserved in honey and taken with the food, after removing the intestines, head, and feet, acts as an aphrodisiac: he denies also that it has the property of extinguishing fire.

We will leave the aphrodisiac properties of the salamander for another time, and focus instead on Pliny's observation that a simple test will confirm or falsify the legend. All you need are a couple of salamanders and a fire...which is also not an experiment too many of us would have the heart to do. But the Christian scholar, Pierius (d ~309) did.  In his work, cited by the British polymath Sir Thomas Browne Pierius wrote 

Whereas it is commonly said that a Salamander extinguisheth the fire, we have found by experience, that it is so far from quenching hot coals, that it dieth immediately therein.

And that should settle the matter. Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin did not throw a salamander into a fire, but he did accidentally leave one rather too close to a heat lamp, which is, I suppose, the next best thing. "I myself once found a fire salamander which I kept in a vivarium" he wrote in his fascinating book Sacred Monsters, "and when I accidentally left a heater too close to its cage, the salamander did not so much escape unscathed, as shrivel up into a withered corpse!"

A Fireproof Newt? SORTA

Rabbi Dr. Slifkin also references a report from a 1997 edition of Herpetological Review (All Amphibians, all of the time!) from a Mark Stromberg at the Hastings Natural History Reservation in California (part of UC Berkeley). He reported seeing the California Newt (Taricha Torosa) moving over the unburned litter in front of a controlled fire that had been burning for at least three hours. Then comes this:

Each newt walked directly into the flame front and did not pause while walking through the burning leaves. The slime covering their bodies foamed up, resembling an egg meringue. Within 20-30 s they were through the flames and on the cool, black ashes of the litter. Upon close examination, the now crusty white coating easily wiped off their wet bodies. I did not observe any skin blisters and the skin color looked normal. The newts were returned to the forest litter and they continued to walk downhill. They did not stop or curl up but walked normally, proceeding at near-record newt speed. As they walked through patches of un- burned grass, the leaves and litter removed almost all of the thin, white crust. They walked under a rotting log in dense litter and I did not follow them further. Fires are frequent in central, coastal California where T. torosa is common. Foaming of the skin secretions would dissipate heat and may be a mechanism used by this species to escape wildland fires.

(I tracked down the original. You can read it here, p82-84.)

This report is fascinating, but hardly proves that salamanders are fireproof.  At best, newts may have the ability to delay the brief harmful effects of a forest fire (which would certainly make evolutionary sense).  

An Explanation

Dr Warburg, the salamander guy from the Technion, noted in his paper that the salamander only spends about 1.25% of its adult life-time in ponds. The rest of the time it lives in rotting logs and leaf litters. This might explain the origin of the legend. When our ancestors, be they Jewish, Roman, or Christian would gather logs and kindling to light a fire, they might inadvertently sweep up a salamander or two with them. When these leaves and logs were set alight, the salamanders would scuttle out of the fire as quickly as they could, and ta-da, it looks like they were born from the flames. Perhaps that is how this whole salamander fire thing started.

The legend of the fireproof salamander is almost 2,000 years old, and certainly predates the Mishnah and Talmud.  It's a great story to tell around a campfire at night. Just don't be surprised if you see a salamander emerging, unscathed, from the ashes.

שנה טובה

Next time on Talmudology: The Youngest Mother in the World

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