Thursday, January 15, 2009

Spine Turns into a Snake

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The Gemora (Bava Kamma 16) cites a braisa: The spine of a deceased person becomes a snake after seven years, if he does not bow down for the modim prayer.

Tosfos explains that this is measure for measure. Rav Sheishes (Brochos 12b) said that when he bowed down during Shemoneh Esrei, he would bow like a rod (in one swift motion), and when he straightened up, he would straighten up like a snake (which raises its head first and then slowly raises the rest of its body). A person’s punishment is that his spine turns into a snake.

What is behind the bowing down like a rod and straightening up like a snake?

Kollel Iyun HaDaf explains this based upon the Maharsha and the Maharal: The point of "Modim" is to show one’s humility before Hashem, Who grants a person everything he needs for his daily life. The Gemora in Sotah (9b) teaches us that Hashem originally made the snake the king of the beasts, but the snake was not grateful and it became arrogant and wanted even more. Hashem punished the snake, saying, “I originally created you to walk with an upright stature, but now that you did not humble yourself, you will walk upon your stomach.” The snake, therefore, is a symbol of the punishment that befalls a person who does not humble himself and does not recognize that everything he has is a gift from Hashem. When a person bows down, he should bow like a rod, reminding himself that there is a Master in Heaven Whose word he must obey (for a king rules with his stick; see Sotah 40a and Shabbos 52b).

When a person rises after bowing, he must remember that even when standing erect, he should not do so in an arrogant manner. The Gemora here teaches us that if a person does not bow during Modim and thereby commits the sin of the snake, by standing erect and not recognizing Hashem’s dominion; after he dies, his spine that did not bend, will turn into a snake.

Tosfos brings another explanation: The Midrash says that there is a vertebra in the spine of a person from which he is resurrected in the World to Come. This bone is so strong and hard that fire cannot consume it. And now, when that bone becomes a snake, he will not be resurrected and will therefore not live in the World to Come.

Tosfos rejects this explanation, for it is not logical to say that one will punished so harshly for committing this minor transgression, for we have learned that all of Israel has a share in the World to Come.

Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch wrote in a letter: Anyone who reads this Gemora finds it laughable, but Pliny says the same statement almost word for word, “After a number of years the human spine turns into a snake” Chazal, however, used this to teach a mussar lesson. To any mind it is clear that every similarly surprising statement of Chazal, if we look into it, was accepted as true by the scholars of the time.