Snakes

Chullin 10a ~ On the Safety of Drinking Snake Venom

חולין י,א

תנן התם ג' משקין אסורין משום גלוי מים ויין וחלב כמה ישהו ויהיו אסורין כדי שיצא הרחש ממקום קרוב וישתה וכמה מקום קרוב א"ר יצחק בריה דרב יהודה כדי שיצא מתחת אוזן כלי וישתה

We learned in a mishna there (Terumot 8:4): Three liquids are forbidden if they were left exposed [ie they were not in a covered container]: Water, wine, and milk. How long shall they remain exposed and their contents will be forbidden? It is a period equivalent to the time necessary so that a snake could emerge from a proximate place and drink. And how far away is considered a proximate place? Rav Yitzḥak, son of Rav Yehuda, said: Even a period equivalent to the time necessary so that a snake could emerge from beneath the handle of the vessel and drink.

We last read about the fear of snakes contaminating water or beer back in October 2017. So let’s take an encore look at two important questions that arise from the Talmud.1) How dangerous is it to drink a liquid that contains snake venom, and 2) do snakes in fact leave venom behind when they drink?

Don't Touch That Beer !

There was a widespread belief was that snakes will drink from liquids left out overnight, (especially when left under the bed) and in doing so would leave fatal venom behind.  In Avodah Zarah 30b Rabbi Yehoshua even categorized three different kinds of liquid contaminated by a thirsty snake:

עבודה זרה ל,ב

שלשה מיני ארס הן של בחור שוקע של בינוני מפעפע ושל זקן צף

There are three kinds of snake venom: that from a juvenile snake sinks; from a middle-aged snake is found in the mid-section of a liquid, and that from an old snake floats on the top.

The Talmud also concluded that a snake would risk its own life to drink from undiluted wine, but is not willing to do so if the wine is diluted. Elsewhere, the Talmud delves into a series of questions about how thoroughly snake venom can infiltrate the lining a water pitcher, and how it will contaminate milk. For this reason (among others) cheese made by idol worshippers is forbidden. Apparently the milk from which the cheese was curdled could be contaminated by the venom in a way that Jewish cheeses were not.

So do snakes really contaminate a liquid from which they are drinking? The answer is no.  Absolutely not. Here is why.

A deep dive into snake venom

בבא קמא קטו, ב

והתניא מים שנתגלו הרי זה לא ישפכם ברשות הרבים ולא יגבל בהן את הטיט ולא ירבץ בהן את הבית ולא ישקה מהם את בהמתו ולא בהמת חבירו

It was taught in a Baraisa: water that was left uncovered should not be spilled out in a public area, nor should one knead clay with it, nor should one lay in the dust with it, nor should one give it to his animal, nor the animal of his friend, to drink. (Bava Kamma 115b)

The rabbis of the Talmud were very worried indeed about the health effects of water that had been left uncovered.  This concern was codified by Maimonides, and later by Ya'akov ben Asher (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? Nope. 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?

Video evidence - Drinking Cobra Venom

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. It involves drinking the venom directly from spitting snake. Apparently, these kind of human interest stories are popular in India. 

Why it is safe to drink snake venom

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 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 Biology, David 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.

As far as is known, all snakes are suction drinkers, and the only critical structural variations that might be predicted to influence drinking performance are the relative dimensions and shapes of the mandibles and their suspensorial elements and the arrangements of intermandibular muscles and connective tissues.
— Cundall, D. Drinking in snakes: kinematic cycling and water transport. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 2000; 203, 2171–2185.

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 water from which a venomous snake had drunk. None. What a relief.

[Partial repost from Bava Kamma 115, Avodah Zarah 30.]

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Avodah Zarah 31b ~ Drinking Snake Venom

Don't Touch That Beer !

The Daf Yomi cycle is currently on a snake venom binge.  The widespread belief was that snakes will drink from liquids left out overnight, (especially when left under the bed) and in doing so would leave fatal venom behind.  In yesterday's page (Avodah Zarah 30b) a Rabbi Yehoshua even categorized three different kinds of liquid contaminated by a thirsty snake:

עבודה זרה ל,ב

שלשה מיני ארס הן של בחור שוקע של בינוני מפעפע ושל זקן צף

There are three kinds of snake venom: that from a juvenile snake sinks; from a middle-aged snake is found in the mid-section of a liquid, and that from an old snake floats on the top.

The Talmud also concluded that a snake would risk its own life to drink from undiluted wine, but is not willing to do so if the wine is diluted. On Avodah Zarah 35, which we will study in a few days, the Talmud delves into a series of questions about how thoroughly snake venom can infiltrate the lining a water pitcher, and how it will contaminate milk. For this reason (among others) cheese made by idol worshippers is forbidden. Apparently the milk from which the cheese was curdled could be contaminated by the venom in a way that Jewish cheeses were not.

In today's page of Talmud we discover that snakes even contaminate beer with their venom, which is the entree into a discussion of the permissibility of beer made by those who worship idols.

All of this raises the question: do snakes really contaminate a liquid from which they are drinking? The answer is no.  Absolutely not. Here is why.

A deep dive into snake venom

בבא קמא קטו, ב

והתניא מים שנתגלו הרי זה לא ישפכם ברשות הרבים ולא יגבל בהן את הטיט ולא ירבץ בהן את הבית ולא ישקה מהם את בהמתו ולא בהמת חבירו

It was taught in a Baraisa: water that was left uncovered should not be spilled out in a public area, nor should one knead clay with it, nor should one lay in the dust with it, nor should one give it to his animal, nor the animal of his friend, to drink. (Bava Kamma 115b)

The rabbis of the Talmud were very worried indeed about the health effects of water that had been left uncovered.  This concern was codified by Maimonides, and later by Ya'akov ben Asher (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? Nope. 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?

Video evidence - Drinking Cobra Venom

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. 

Why it is safe to drink snake venom

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 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 Biology, David 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.

As far as is known, all snakes are suction drinkers, and the only critical structural variations that might be predicted to influence drinking performance are the relative dimensions and shapes of the mandibles and their suspensorial elements and the arrangements of intermandibular muscles and connective tissues.
— Cundall, D. Drinking in snakes: kinematic cycling and water transport. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 2000; 203, 2171–2185.

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 water from which a venomous snake had drunk. None. What a relief.

[Partial repost from Bava Kamma 115.]

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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.  T oxicon     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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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 (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?

VIDEO EVIDENCE - DRINKING COBRA VENOM

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. 

WHY IT IS SAFE TO DRINK SNAKE VENOM

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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