Niddah 23 - 29
Is the snake considered a beast or a reptile?
The answer to this question seems rather obvious. It is nevertheless the subject of a problem raised by Tosefot in our gemaras discussion of Rabbi Meirs position that a woman becomes ritually impure if she gives birth to a creature resembling a beast.
Rabbi Yochanans explanation of Rabbi Meirs position is that the eyes of a beast have a similarity to the eyes of a human, so that in regard to ritual impurity the beast form that comes from the womans womb is considered a birth. This explanation should then include the birth of a form resembling a snake whose eyes are round like those of a human. Why then, the question is asked, did Rabbi Meir, in the mishna at the beginning of this perek, mention only animals, beasts and fowl and fail to include the snake?
The problem raised by Tosefot is based on the passage introducing the encounter between the snake and the first woman in the Garden of Eden. The ability which this creature would demonstrate in coaxing Chava to eat from the Tree of Knowledge against the command of G-d is signaled by the description: "The snake was more cunning than all the beasts of the field which the L-rd G-d had created." (Bereishet 3:1)
If the snake is thus included in the category of beasts, asks Tosefot, is it not a part of Rabbi Meirs listing of forms which includes beasts?
The solution to this problem offered by Tosefot is based on the Midrashic interpretation of the curse which G-d pronounced upon the snake as punishment for his role as an inciter to the first sin. "On your belly shall you crawl" (ibid. 3:14) is understood by our Sages as an indication that the snake originally had legs but they were removed as a penalty. Although the snake was referred to as a beast while it had legs, after their removal it was reduced to the status of a creeping reptile.
- Niddah 23a
Whos Out First?
A woman becomes ritually impure upon giving birth. In regard to what constitutes birth for such an effect, Rabbi Huna ruled that once the newborn has stuck his hand out of the womb his mother is ritually impure even if that hand was immediately withdrawn. As proof he cites the passage "And it came to pass that when she gave birth he extended his hand." (Bereishet 38:28)
In response to a challenge presented by Rabbi Yehuda to this ruling, Rabbi Nachman explained that according to Torah Law it is not considered a birth until a majority of the childs body exits the womb. Rabbi Huna, he pointed out, was referring to the rabbinical law which confers this status of impurity even for an extended hand and merely cited the above-mentioned Torah passage as an asmachta a cryptic allusion to the rabbinical decree.
The fact that in reality the extended hand from the womb does not constitute birth is evident from the very chapter in which this passage appears. Tamar gave birth to twin sons. When one of them extended his hand the attending midwife tied a red string around that hand to indicate that he was the firstborn. No sooner had he withdrawn that hand than his brother came bursting forth, and it was he, Peretz, who was indeed considered the firstborn.
An interesting footnote to this account of the birth is presented by the Ohr Hachayim in his commentary. The midwife, he suggests, was possessed with a Divine inspiration to tie the red string on the extended hand which she believed would be the firstborn. While we pronounce the word shani, meaning a red string, it is written in the Torah without vowelization and can be read as shaini, meaning second, which indeed he was since the simple extension of his hand was not considered a birth to confer upon him the status of firstborn.
- Niddah 28a