The Mystery of the Miscarried Snake (Niddah 24b)

Today’s daf considers the various forms that a miscarried fetus may assume. We learn of a woman who miscarried a baby with mashed fingers and toes, or a baby resembling a date tree, or a baby with two skeletons and two backs. In each case, the Talmud asks if the miscarried creature is sufficiently human that the woman is regarded as having given birth. If so, then she contracts the impurity of one who has just undergone childbirth. If not, then she remains pure in spite of her ordeal. Perhaps the most fascinating and suggestive case is that of the woman who miscarries the form of a snake. Here the Talmud breaks from its litany of halakhot to regale us with a brief story about the reptilian ruling, which proves to be a woefully miscarried tale:

Rav Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel: If a woman miscarried the form of Lilith, she has the impurity of a woman who has given birth. It is a child, but with wings.

What about a woman who miscarried the form of a snake? Hanina the nephew of Rabbi Joshua ruled that she has the impurity of a woman who has given birth.

Rabbi Yosef related this ruling to Rabban Gamliel. Upon hearing it, Rabban Gamliel sent a message to Rabbi Yehoshua to bring Hanina to him immediately.

While they were walking, Hanina’s daughter-in-law came to greet Rabbi Joshua. She asked about a woman who miscarries the form of a snake.

Rabbi Joshua said: The mother is regarded as pure.

She said to him: But didn’t I hear from my mother-in-law that you said she is regarded as impure because the snake has round eyes like a human?

When he heard her say this, Rabbi Joshua remembered that indeed he had ruled this way. He sent a message to Rabban Gamliel: Hanina actually learned this from me!

Abayey said: We learn from this that a Torah scholar who quotes something must always give a reason, so that when he is reminded, he will remember what he said.

This story, with its halakhic questions about Lilith and the snake, unfolds as a patterned echo of the Garden of Eden story. Rabban Gamliel, the patriarch and presiding elder, is distressed when he learns of Rabbi Hanina’s ruling about the snake, just as God is distressed to learn that Adam listened to the snake in the garden. God summons Adam with Ayeka, “Where are you,” just as Rabban Gamliel insists that Rabbi Hanina appear before him. But when questioned, Adam reveals that it was in fact Eve who handed him the forbidden fruit; just as Hanina received his erroneous teaching from Rabbi Joshua. Of course, Rabbi Joshua realizes this only after Rabbi Hanina’s daughter-in-law, who functions as the snake, opens his eyes to the fact that he is responsible for this ruling. Like Adam and Eve whose eyes are opened (ותפקחנה עיני שניהם) after they listen to the snake, Rabbi Joshua’s eyes are opened after he is reminded of his ruling about the snake. Incidentally, the ruling itself is about eyes: As the daughter-in-law reminds him, Rabbi Joshua ruled that the woman who miscarries the form of a snake is considered to have given birth because a snake has similar eyes to a human being.

As I imagine this scene, I wonder about the craftiness of the daughter-in-law who knew just when to ask her question so as to exonerate Hanina. Were Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Hanina meant to believe that this was a pressing issue for the daughter-in-law? If so, wasn’t this embarrassing for her? Perhaps she said, “Um, I have this friend of mine who just miscarried this baby that looks a lot like a snake, and she wants to go back to sleeping with her husband. Can she do that? I mean, I’m asking for a friend, of course.” One has to wonder.

And finally, it is worth noting that the mention of Lilith serves as a fitting prelude to the story of the snake. According to the midrash, Lilith was the first woman created by God to serve as a partner to Adam. But she was unwilling to be subservient to Adam, and so she deserted him, becoming an evil demon. In some texts she is synonymous with the snake, much like Hanina’s daughter-in-law, who is conflated with the Edenic snake as per this mapping:

Gamliel / God
Hanina / Adam
Joshua / Eve
Hanina’s daughter-in-law/ Snake

We might view this whole story as a tale of a miscarried rabbinic ruling, one that is inaccurately transmitted by the forgetful Rabbi Joshua. In a tradition that traces its legal rulings back to the Torah given on Sinai, such an error of transmission – a halakhic miscarriage – is a grave offense indeed.

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