Parshat Shemini: The Snake and the Curse of Having it All

Parshat Shemini is popularly known for its section on the laws of Kashrut, though this topic does not actually present itself until the sixth Aliyah. Nevertheless, with the esoterism of much of the rest of the Parsha, Kashrut becomes an easy stand-in for children in school and for Divrei Torah at the Shabbat table. This essay will be no exception. Exploring the section on Kashrut, however, we find that its organization is a bit hazy. Take a look and see if you see what I see:

11:1-8 – Kashrut of Land Animals
11:9-12 – Kashrut of Marine Animals
11:13-19 – Kashrut of Air Animals
11:20-23 – Kashrut of Insects, Bugs, and Locusts
11:24-41 – Laws of Purity and Impurity as Relates to All Types of Animals
11:42-45 – Kashrut of Snakes and Scorpions
11:46-47 – Summation of the Laws of Kashrut

Did you see it? The placement of the snakes and scorpions requires analysis. Why is it so late in the game, after the section on purity and impurity? Why is it not connected to the bugs and insects which, like the snakes and scorpions, are described as שְׁרָצִים, creeping things?

A further anomaly presents itself when examining the section on snakes and scorpions itself (chiefly 11:42). The Torah gives us what seems to be a category of animals:

ספר ויקרא פרק יא פסוק מב
כֹּל הוֹלֵךְ עַל גָּחוֹן.

Anything that walks on its stomach.

But Rashi tells us that this is not, in fact, a category, but rather a single item:

פירוש רש”י לספר ויקרא פרק יא פסוק מב
הוֹלֵךְ עַל גָּחוֹןזֶה נָחָשׁ. וּלְשׁוֹן גָּחוֹן שְׁחִיָּה, שֶׁהוֹלֵךְ שָׁח וְנוֹפֵל עַל מֵעָיו.

Which walks on its belly – This is the snake. And the term גָּחוֹן implies bending down, because the snake
walks low down and fallen upon its stomach.

A few questions: First, if the snake is the only animal in the category of “הוֹלֵךְ עַל גָּחוֹן,” walking on its stomach, then why does the Torah list it as a category rather than simply inform us that the snake itself may not be eaten? Second, why is the snake described as “walking” (הוֹלֵךְ) when it is really not doing any walking at all? Finally, why does Rashi, after identifying the snake as the sole animal which “walks on its belly,” feel the further need to provide a brief scientific study of the snake, an animal with which most people would likely be quite familiar?

The same anomaly applies to the rest of this Pasuk (11:42), in which “כֹל הוֹלֵךְ עַל אַרְבַּע,” all those which walk on four legs, is described by Rashi as merely the scorpion (עַקְרָב); while all of those which are many-legged,כׇּל מַרְבֵּה רַגְלַיִם,” is defined by Rashi as only the centipede. Again we ask: why are these lone animals phrased as if they were part of a larger category, if there is only one of each?

The question of why the snake and scorpion are described as walking when they are doing nothing of the sort serves as a segue for us to revisit the primordial נָחָשׁ, snake, who was informed that due to his misbehavior,

ספר בראשית פרק ג פסוק יד
… אָרוּר אַתָּה מִכָּל הַבְּהֵמָה, וּמִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה; עַל גְּחֹנְךָ תֵלֵךְ, וְעָפָר תֹּאכַל, כָּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ:

… you will be more cursed than any other animal and any other creature of the field. On your stomach you will walk, and dust you will eat, all the days of your life.

Notice the symmetry between the original Nachash (serpent), who was cursed that עַל גְּחֹנְךָ תֵלֵךְ, “on your belly you will walk,” and the Nachash of Parshat Shemini, which is referred to pejoratively as one which הוֹלֵךְ עַל גָּחוֹן, “walks on its belly.” It seems that more than merely having been cursed, the primordial Nachash was dealt a new identity with which it would be associated for all time, one of “walking on its belly,” to such an extent that in Parshat Shemini it (and its cousins, the scorpion and centipede) are referred to not by name but only by their diminutive descriptor. Rashi thus feels the need to not merely identify the Nachash but to point out exactly why it is forbidden. The fact that, as Rashi says, הוֹלֵךְ שָׁח וְנוֹפֵל עַל מֵעָיו, it “walks bent over and fallen upon its stomach,” is not an evolutionary happenstance but a result of its own behavior, which in turn is the very reason why a thinking human should not want to consume it.

There is a well-known idea (of which I cannot at this moment find the source) that the curse of the Nachash in Parshat Bereishit is paradoxical, because in fact the Nachash was now closer to its food source than before and would never lack for sustenance for the remainder of its existence. This idea posits that in fact, the curse was one of excommunication and existential loneliness. Hashem said, in effect, “Take your food and go. I want nothing to do with you forevermore; you are on your own. Don’t call or write.” This abandonment was essentially a writing-off of its very existence; the loneliness and heartache of not being able to communicate with its Creator (as could, say, a praying mantis) was the ultimate curse. And here again, in Parshat Shemini, the Nachash is shunted to the end of the Parsha, referred to not by name but by its pejorative descriptor. Here we have a fulfillment of the curse of old, the curse of cold abandonment. Other non-Kosher animals may be forbidden because of their lack of physical signs. The Nachash, on the other hand, is forbidden simply because הוֹלֵךְ עַל גָּחוֹן, it “walks on its belly.” It is the exiled castaway of the animal kingdom.

We can now explain the seemingly unnecessary (and internally repetitive) addendum of a three-Pasuk coda to the one-Pasuk unit on snakes:

ספר ויקרא פרק יא פסוקים מג-מה

פסוק מג – אַל תְּשַׁקְּצוּ אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם בְּכׇל הַשֶּׁרֶץ הַשֹּׁרֵץ וְלֹא תִטַּמְּאוּ בָּהֶם וְנִטְמֵתֶם בָּם׃

פסוק מד – כִּי אֲנִי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי וְלֹא תְטַמְּאוּ אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם בְּכׇל הַשֶּׁרֶץ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל הָאָרֶץ׃

פסוק מה – כִּי אֲנִי יְהֹוָה הַמַּעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לִהְיֹת לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי׃

Pasuk 43: You shall not abominate your souls through anything that swarms; you shall not make yourselves impure with these and become unclean yourselves.

Pasuk 44: For I am Hashem, your God; you shall set yourselves aside and be distinctive, for I am distinctive. You shall not make yourselves impure through any swarming thing that moves upon the earth.

Pasuk 45: For I am Hashem, Who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall be distinctive, for I am distinctive.

Notice that this section moves from first speaking about “anything that swarms” (כׇל הַשֶּׁרֶץ הַשֹּׁרֵץ) in Pasuk 43 to discussing only “the things which swarm on the earth” (כׇל הַשֶּׁרֶץ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל הָאָרֶץ) in Pasuk 44. The first category includes both the snakes and scorpions of our unit as well as the arachnids of earlier in the Parsha. These together form a collection of animals which are “abominable” (אַל תְּשַׁקְּצוּ) and which can make a person impure (וְנִטְמֵתֶם בָּם). Yet it is only the snakes of Pasuk 44 whose prohibition is quixotically associated with our having been taken out of Egypt (הַמַּעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם). The Exodus from Egypt is the ultimate expression of G-d’s wanting a close and personal relationship with His nation, the likes of which could not take place in the confines of the bitter exile in which we found ourselves at that time. Eating a snake, which permanently lost the ability to communicate with Hashem and whose very existence is one of exile, displays a distinct lack of understanding both of the lowliness that the snake represents and the elevation (הַמַּעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם, but now metaphorically) which we can have by communicating with Hashem directly. The prohibition of eating snakes and scorpions is thus not merely because they are “abominable” like the other swarming things, but because they are antithetical to the elevated nature that Hashem seeks for us to cultivate with Him. The snake was denied this relationship long ago when it was cursed to הוֹלֵךְ עַל גָּחוֹן, walk on its belly, receiving nourishment directly from the ground rather than being able to request it from Hashem. The Jewish nation is conceived to be elevated beyond this level, but we must be cognizant of this mission in order to actualize our full potential.

As humans, we are an elevated species because of our ability to speak (see Onkelos to Bereishit 2:7), and those of us born or accepted into the Covenant are elevated further still. We dare not debase ourselves by casting this specialness into doubt through consumption of a species which abandoned its relationship with Hashem long ago. Ultimately, it is the Exodus from Egypt which serves to remind us of this distinctiveness, but we would do well to consider this privilege anytime we engage in the unique service of communication with the Divine which the snake was permanently denied. May it be His will – and ours.

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