What's in a Word?

For the week ending 15 July 2017 / 21 Tammuz 5777

Slithering Serpents and Sea Snakes - Part 2

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

In our previous installment of this topic we cited Avot d’Rabbi Natan who teaches that there are seven different words in the Bible for snakes besides the more familiar word nachash: saraph, tanin, tzefa/tzifoni, efeh, achshuv, peten and shephiphon. We explained the exact meanings of the first four of these words, and in what follows we will explore the meanings of the remaining three words for snakes.

The word achshuv is a hapax legomenon in the Bible because that venomous creature only appears once, in Psalms 140:4. Some commentators explain that it is the type of snake who spits out its poison, while others explain that that achshuv is not a snake at all but some other poisonous creature (e.g., a spider, which is an achavish in Hebrew).

Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) clarifies the exact meaning of the word peten by comparing it to nachash. He argues that while the word nachash implies a snake which can be charmed, peten, on the other hand, is a snake who is immune to the effects of snake-charming and continues to remain dangerous (see Psalms 58:6).

Moreover, Rabbi Wertheimer offers two ways of understanding the etymology of the word peten: it may be related to the Hebrew word miftan (“threshold”), which alludes to the fact that a peten-snake is always dangerous and cannot be charmed. Just as anyone who enters a house surely treads upon its threshold, so does anyone who encounters a peten surely enter a situation of danger. Alternatively, the word peten is related to the Hebrew word pituy (“coaxing”) and alludes to the snake’s role in cajoling Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge (Genesis 6:1-6). Needless to say, the English word python is likely derived from the Hebrew word peten.

The last word for snake, shephiphon, appears once in the Bible (Genesis 49:17) and is described by the Jerusalem Talmud (Terumot 8:3) as resembling a single hair. Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) writes that the root of the word shephiphon is the bilateral root SHIN-PEH, which is associated with closeness and attachment between entities (for example, the word shifshuf refers to “rubbing”). In the case of the snake it ambulates by wiggling and crawling on the ground, with its body always touching the floor. Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) argues that the Hebrew word shephiphon is related to the Akkadian word shepu which means "foot" and is representative of the Hebrew language phenomenon in which words can have polar-opposite meanings. So although in Akkadian — the lingua franca of the ancient word — shepu meant "foot", in Hebrew, it actually refers to the footless serpent.

Rabbi Yechiel Heilpern (1660-1742) cites the work Sefer HaChochmah, ascribed to the late 12th century Asheknazic scholar Rabbi Elazar Rokeach of Worms, which presents the differences between all the different words for snake. Parts of this explanation are cited in the commentary to the Torah also ascribed to Rabbi Elazar Rokeach. He writes that a nachash is specifically a yellowish-greenish snake whose color resembles saffron and whose bite is fatal. A nachash is a long snake, while, by contrast,a shephiphon is a small snake. (Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel Stahl points out that Rokeach’s commentary apparently contradicts itself because it also says that shephiphon is a large snake, while nachash is a smaller snake.) Interestingly, Rabbi Wertheimer adds that the letter NUN at the end of the word shephiphon implies that the creature in question must be something small. Nonetheless, appending a VAV-NUN to words does not always serve as a diminutive. The word peten focuses on the advanced age of a snake, while efeh refers to an extremely old snake that is also large. Tzefa is a flying saraph and has multiple tails. Rabbi Wertheimer also cites this explanation and argues that it is based on the otherwise undecipherable passage in Avot d’Rabbi Natan mentioned in Part 1.

  • Author’s note: Le’Zechut Refuah Shleimah for Bracha bat Chaya Rachel

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