Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 4 June 2005 / 26 Iyyar 5765

The Healing Serpent

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Yehudah S.

Dear Rabbi,

I'd like to know if there are any Jewish origins to the symbol of a single snake wrapped around a single staff being used as a medical symbol. Although this is usually attributed to Greek gods, I'm wondering if they just copied something from us. I'm thinking of the event where Aaron goes about the camp with a staff with a snake wrapped around it to cure the people struck by the plague. Is that the true meaning of the symbol, or am I just grasping at straws? Please note that I'm not talking about the two-snake version. Either way, would either of these symbols be considered idol worship, or maybe not, since few people these days know the origins of these symbols? Thank you.

Dear Yehuda,

The snake and staff symbol traditionally associated with the healing arts is often attributed to Greek mythology either as the single-snake emblem of Asklepios, or as the double-snake emblem representing the caduceus (magic wand) of Hermes (Mercury).

The Asklepion emblem of a single snake coiled around a staff has been associated with curing since the 5th century BCE, when Asklepios became accepted by the Greeks as the god of healing. Whether he was also an historical figure as healer in earlier ages is not certain.

The caduceus of Hermes, portrayed by two snakes intertwined around a staff topped by wings, is related to the mythological messenger of the gods who guided souls to the underworld, and was seen as protector of travelers, shepherds, merchants and thieves. During the Middle Ages the caduceus became a symbol of pharmacy and alchemy, and eventually, although "mythologically" incorrect, came to be associated with medicine.

The event you refer to occurred in the desert after the Exodus in approximately 1300 BCE. The Torah states (Numbers 21:5-9):

"The people spoke against G-d and against Moses, Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this desert, for there is no bread and no water, and we are disgusted with this rotten bread. And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord, that He take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, Make a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass that everyone that is bitten, when he looks upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived."

This event would seem to predate Greek mythology and may, as you suggest, be a source for what came to be the association of a single snake and staff with healing.

Regarding the cause of the plague, our Sages taught, "Let the snake, which was smitten for speaking evil to Eve come and punish those who spread slander about the manna. Let the snake, for which all types of food taste the same, come and punish those ingrates who complain about the manna which miraculously has many tastes" (Rashi, from Midrash Tanchuma, Chukat 19, Num. Rabbah 19:22).

Regarding the healing through the snake on the staff, our Rabbis commented, "Could a snake [on the pole] cause death [by not looking at it] or give life [by looking at it]? Rather, at the time Israel would look upward and subject their heart to their Father in Heaven, they would be cured; but if not, they would waste away" (Rashi, from Rosh HaShanah 29a). Their healing consisted solely in comprehending that a Jew is to live above the natural order of things. By looking at the snake and then upward, they repented and then re-affirmed their trust in G-d and His healing power, and were cured.

To the extent that these symbols are based on Greek mythology, they are to be associated with paganism and idolatry. Unfortunately, over time even Moses snake on the staff was worshipped as an idol. When the righteous king Hezekiah rose to the throne of Judah in the late 8th century BCE, the verse records: "He removed the high places, and broke the images, and cut down the groves, and broke in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made, for in those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and he called it Nechushtan" (2 Kings 18:4).

One must not deify doctors nor mythologize medicine, but rather one must enlist their help knowing that it is G-d which enables them and their methods to heal.

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