Pick Your Poison
In the midst of the Greco-Persian wars, at a time before people like Alexander the Great and Alexander Litvinenko regularly fell subject to political assassinations via poisoning, two Tarsusian courtiers in the palace of the Persian king Ahasuerus plotted to kill the monarch. According to the Talmud (Megillah 13b), these subversive agents, named Bigthan and Theresh, planned to place poison (eres) in the king’s cup and get rid of him once and for all. An alternate tradition about their traitorous plan reads that they wanted to slay Ahasuerus while he slept, and present his decapitated head to the Greek kings (Yossiphon ch. 4). A later source synthesizes these two versions by recording that the traitors planned to poison Ahasuerus’ queen Esther by having her drink a sam ha’mavet (poison), and then slaying her royal husband (Targum Sheini to Esther 2:21). In this article we have encountered two Hebrew terms for “poison”: eres and sam ha’mavet. Additional words for “poison” include ra'al, eches, rosh, chamat and la’anah. This essay investigates these various words for “poison,” examining their etymologies and seeking to find out in what ways, if at all, they different from each other.
When discussing the suspicion that a snake might have injected its venom into a liquid drink left uncovered, the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 30b) states that there are three types of eres: that of a young snake, which sinks to the bottom of a liquid, that of an old snake, which flows on the top, and that of a middle-aged snake, which dallies along somewhere in the middle (see also Succah 50a and Bava Kama 115b). On the very next page, the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 31b) claims that all sheratzim (loosely, “insects”) have eres, but only a snake’s is lethal. Elsewhere, the Talmud discusses how exactly snakes emit their eres, seeking to clarify whether they release venom only when they are angry, or if the venom is always present on their teeth (Sanhedrin 78a, Bava Kama 23b). From all of these sources it becomes apparent that the word eres is not a general term for “poison.” Rather, it refers to “venom” as a specific type of poison, and most often refers even more specifically to “snake venom.”
The word eres does not appear in Biblical Hebrew or in Mishnaic Hebrew, but as we have seen above, it does appear in Hebrew passages of the Babylonian Talmud. It also appears a handful of times in the Jerusalem Talmud, where it is almost always spelled with a YOD after the initial ALEPH (so it was likely pronounced something like iras). Although the origins of this word are shrouded in mystery, eminent etymologists like Dr. Alexander Kohut (1842-1894), Rabbi Ernest Klein (1899-1983), and Avraham Even-Shoshan (1906-1984) claim that the Hebrew word eres actually derives from the Latin word virus (which means “virus” in English). Nonetheless, the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon considers this etymology “highly dubious.”
The two-word phrase sam hamavet literally means “potion of death.” It, too, does not appear in the Bible, but makes a single appearance in the Mishna. The Mishnah rules that if an animal consumed a sam ha'mavet or was bitten by a snake, it is not considered a treifah that would render its ritual slaughter invalid, but it is still forbidden to be eaten because it is dangerous (Chullin 3:5). Given the context, it is clear that sam ha'mavet does not refer to a snake’s venom. This term also appears several times in the Talmud, as when discussing in Eruvin 56a whether a tznon (loosely, “radish”) is considered healthy (sam ha’chaim) or poisonous (sam ha’mavet), in discussing the deleterious effects of studying Torah without the proper intentions (Taanit 7a), and in a story where a woman swore on the life of her child (Gittin 35a). The Talmud (Bava Kama 47b, 56a) also discusses whether one who killed another person’s animal by feeding it a sam ha’mavet can be held liable in court.
Although the word sam is spelled in these sources with a SAMECH, the letters SIN and SAMECH are often understood to be interchangeable. Hence, when the Bible (Gen. 23:33) reports that Bethuel “placed” (sam) food before Abraham’s servant who sought to wed Bethuel’s daughter to Abraham’s son, various exegetical sources (such as Midrash Sechel Tov, Midrash Aggadah, and Daat Zekanim) see that word as an allusion to Bethuel attempting to poison Abraham’s servant. Other assassinations using sam ha’mavet include those carried out by Athaliah (see a commentary attributed to Rashi for II Chron. 22:10).
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) understands the core meaning of the biliteral root SAMECH/SIN-MEM as “placing something in its place.” He explains that the Biblical word samim ("potion/elixir," or in Modern Hebrew, "drugs") — used in reference to the ingredients of the ketoret (Ex. 30:7, 30:34, 40:27, Lev. 16:12, II Chron. 2:3, 13:11) — derives from this root because such substances are typically stowed in specially-designated places. It seems from all of this that sam ha’mavet is a general term for a “poison” that includes various different types of toxic solutions, but does not refer to any one specific poison.
The prophet Isaiah warns that
The prophet continues to foretell that, in the future,
The Talmud (Shabbat 62b, Yoma 9b) explains that Isaiah’s last criticism of the Daughters of Zion was that they would place various perfumes inside their shoes, so that when they would happen upon Jewish bachelors in the marketplaces of Jerusalem, they would kick their feet and spray enticing fragrances in a shameful way. In doing so, these women would infect those men with the Evil Inclination, which functioned like eres (“poison,” venom”). Based on this, Rashi (to Isa. 3:16) explains that eches means “snake venom,” and the act of eches attributed to the Daughters of Zion refers to “poisoning” the young Jewish men to sin. Interestingly, the Vilna Gaon connects these two meanings of eches by noting that eches refers specifically to shoes that were enclosed in snakeskin.
Other commentators disagree with Rashi’s assertion that eches means “poison.” For example, Ibn Ezra and the Radak (to Isa. 3:16) explain the verb form of eches differently by connecting it more directly to the noun form of the word. They explain that eches in the first verse refers to the Daughters of Zion calling attention to themselves by making noises with their special shoes. Radak even adds that these shoes functioned like bells that produced metronomous sounds. Although these commentators do not mention this, perhaps this meaning of eches also connects back to snakes because the sounds made by these shoes resemble the rattle of a rattlesnake.
Similarly, when Proverbs (7:22) compares the immoral woman to an eches, Rashi (to Prov. 7:22) explains that eches refers to a snake’s venom. Rabbi Isaiah of Trani (1180-1250), however, writes that eches there refers to a ball and chain often tied to prisoners’ feet to impede their escape. This relates to eches in the sense of “shoes” because they are both worn/tied to the feet (see Ibn Ezra there and Radak in Sefer HaShorashim as well). The analogy presumably means to highlight that when one sins, that sin is “tied” to him forever and will resurface when one faces the Day of Judgment (see Sotah 3b). Others explain eches as “dog.”
Dr. Kohut was the first to note that Rashi’s explanation of eches as “snake venom” was likely informed by the Greek word echis (“viper”). The word echis does seem to appear in rabbinic literature in that sense, as the Midrash (Midrash Tanchum 18, Mechilta to Ex. 15:22) translates efeh, which is a type of snake in Biblical Hebrew, into echis. (For more about words for “snake” in Hebrew, see my earlier essay called “Slithering Serpents and Sea Snakes” from July, 2017).
However, Rashi (to Shabbat 62b) offers a different etymology of the term eches, noting that this word is a metathesis of the word ka'as ("anger"), because the snake emits its venom only when it becomes angered. Conversely, Rabbeinu Efrayim supposes that ka’as is a metathesis of eches (“poison”), because anger puts a sort of poison in one’s heart.
Either way, the connection between eches and ka’as is already found in the Talmud, when offering a homiletical explanation of the name of Caleb’s daughter Achsa (Joshua 15:16-17, Judges 1:12-13, I Chron. 2:49). The Talmud asserts that she was called Achsa "because anyone who sees her becomes angry (ka’as) at his wife," which Rashi explains to mean that she was so beautiful, that comparing her with any other woman might cause a man to become angry at his wife for not being as beautiful. The basis for this onomastic exegesis is the metathetical connection between AYIN-KAF-SAMECH (the supposed root of Achsa, which also seem to be the root of eches) and KAF-AYIN-SAMECH (ka’as).
Interestingly, the great Italian Kabbalist Rabbi Menachem Azariah of Fano (1548-1620) explains that Achsa’s name alludes to the fact that she was a reincarnation of Moses’ wife Zipporah, who saved Moses from death by “snake” through circumcising their child (Ex. 4:24-26).
Other Hebrew words for “poison” include:
- Ra’al(Nachum 2:4, Zech. 12:2) or tarelah (Ps. 60:5, Isa. 51:17, 51:22) is often understood to mean “poison.” However, Rashi (to Isa. 51:17, Nachum 2:4) writes that it actually refers to some concoction that renders a person weak and immobile, as though he were tied up and detained. There is, indeed, a similar word re’alah (Isa. 3:19), which is a sort of adornment in which one “wraps” oneself. Radak (to Isa. 51:17 and Sefer HaShorashim) cites the explanation that ra’al refers to “poison,” but also defines the word as meaning “shake,” “rattle,” and “roll” (akin to ro’ed, to which ra’al might be etymologically-connected via the interchangeability of LAMMED and DALET). Perhaps we can reconcile these two understandings by positing that ra’al refers not to a lethal poison but to a sort of toxic contagion that would cause a person to have seizure-like convulsions. In Modern Hebrew, the word ra’al refers to “deadly poison.”
- Rosh(Deut. 29:17, Iyov 20:16, Lam. 3:19, and more) refers to “poison” extracted from the rosh ("head") of a snake, and essentially refers to “snake venom” (see Targum and Rashi to Jer. 8:14). This word is typically spelled with an ALEPH in the middle, just like the Hebrew word for “head;” but in one instance (Deut. 32:32), this rosh is spelled with a VAV instead of an ALEPH. Other sources understand rosh as referring to a poisonous plant extract, with Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Felix (1921-2004) writing that rosh is best identified with poppy/opium or conium. To that effect, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim traces this word to the biliteral REISH-SHIN (“head”) as reflective of this plant’s round top, which resembles a head.
- The word chamat (Deut. 32:33, Ps. 58:5) refers to "poison" as something emitted by a snake when “angered” (cheimah).
- Interestingly, Rabbi Shlomo of Urbino (in his lexicon of Hebrew synonyms Ohel Moed) claims that the Biblical term la’anah (typically translated as “wormwood”) is a synonym for rosh, chamat and ra'al in that all these words mean “poison.” However, this assertion is quite novel, because the earlier commentators (like Rashi and Radak) mention that la’anah is very bitter but do not write that it is deadly or poisonous.