Smashing the Copper Snake

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Our Torah provided the symbol of the medical profession: a snake wrapped around a pole. You find this symbol used by medical schools, hospitals, and the American Medical Association. The source is the following passage in the Book of Numbers: Medical Snake

And G-d sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit the nation, and many perished of the people of Israel. And the people came to Moshe, and they said, “we have sinned, because we spoke against G-d and against you; pray to G-d that He take away from us the snakes.” And Moshe prayed on behalf of the nation.

And G-d said to Moshe, “make for yourself a snake and put it on a pole, and it will be that anyone bitten will see it, and live.” And Moshe made a copper snake, and set it on a high pole, and it was that if a snake bit a man, and he stared at the copper snake, that he lived.

— Numbers 21:6-9

But here is something of which many are unaware: King Chizkiya, a pious king who was fourteenth after King David, destroyed the snake — and the Sages praised him for doing so [Mishnah Pesachim 4:9].

The copper snake had no magical powers. Rather, our Sages ask, “does a snake cause a person to die, or bring him to life? Rather, when Israel would look upwards and devote their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they would be cured.” King Chizkiya destroyed it because people were attributing powers to the snake itself, and worshipping it as an idol.

Just a few hundred years ago, doctors had limited talents, and disease was feared. Until quite recently, in fact, many in Jewish communities would refer to cancer as yenneh machaleh, “that disease”, rather than mention it by name. But in recent generations, the success of new treatments has made people more confident, less frightened of the word.

Perhaps we are trusting a bit too much in the copper snake. There’s an awful lot of progress that hasn’t been made. My father-in-law passed away just over a year ago from the same variety of cancer that was my grandmother’s final illness more than a quarter-century earlier — and nothing learned during the interim was able to extend, much less save, his life. Shots can innoculate a person against viruses by exposing him or her to a weakened or dead form, but there really is no cure for a virus other than the body’s own defenses.

Sometimes, to paraphrase the Haggadah, help cannot come by the hands of an angel, not by the hands of a seraph, and not by the hands of a messenger, for the messengers have nothing in their hands. Only the Holy One, Blessed be He, is the Healer of All Flesh.

May Refael Aharon Elimelech ben Penina Liba have a speedy and complete healing.

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7 Responses

  1. Mordechai says:

    ASK!
    – For the week ending 4 June 2005 / 26 Iyyar 5765
    – from Ohr Somayach | http://www.ohr.edu

    The Healing Serpent

  2. Lumpy Rutherford says:

    >Aesculapius, who was a son of Apollo and the god of healing

    No, Aesculapius was the son of Coronis, daughter of Phlegyas. She was changed into a crow by Athena while fleeing Poseidon.

  3. DovBear says:

    Unless you refer back to the Torah, there is no connection between the snake symbol and healing.

    The caduceus is the wand of the messenger of the gods, Hermes — or Mercury in Greek mythology. Though it often is used as a medical icon, the official symbol of the health care profession is the staff of Aesculapius, who was a son of Apollo and the god of healing. This god’s symbol has a single serpent wrapped around a rough-hewn tree branch.

    The American Medical Association adopted the staff of Aesculapius as its symbol in 1910.

    Unfortunately, eight years earlier, the U.S. Army Medical Corps mistakenly made the caduceus its symbol of medicine, and this is the representation that has taken hold in the public eye.

    The staff of Aesculapius has one snake. How did it get there? Many possibilities. But it seems unlikely that a story from Bamidbar is the source material for a Greek myth.

  4. Yaakov Menken says:

    Micha, I like your explanation — while Dov’s is equal to yours in defining the caduceus, it doesn’t explain how it became the symbol of medicine rather than commerce and industry. Unless you refer back to the Torah, there is no connection between the snake symbol and healing.

    Dilbert, I never intended to suggest that medicine has made no progress, or that medical research is not valuable. [I’ll admit that my statement concerning the lack of cures for viruses came from a popular book rather than a medical guide, but I also didn’t mean to suggest that such cures are not on the way in any case.] On the contrary, I was reminding myself that perhaps I was trusting the progress of medicine too much, and was frankly surprised (and, of course, dismayed) that there remain many sorts of illnesses that we not only cannot cure, but cannot even effectively combat.

    My nephew had a brain tumor, and was admitted to a hospital where my father is both an attending neurologist and clinical professor at the associated medical school. In addition to my father’s obvious familiarity with brain tumors, he also had direct access to the radiologist who read my nephew’s MRI, and the oncologist and surgeon who might have attempted to treat it. Their unanimous conclusion was that by the time that symptoms were apparent (if not much earlier), the cure lay beyond the limits of current medical science.

    I’m not saying that we shouldn’t continue to work towards a cure — far from it. All I intended to say was that all medical wisdom notwithstanding, sickness and health remain firmly in the hands of the True Healer.

  5. Micha says:

    The caduceus, as it’s called, took a detour from Sinai to the medical office.

    Lehavdil elef alfei veribei revavos havdalah, it was the symbol of the Greek god Hermes (Roman: Mercury). Hermes was the god they believed was the messenger between man and the gods. This is why he is drawn with winged shoes, and the caduceus has wings on it. The other difference is that there are two snakes (which were originally two ribbons) not one. Hermes was also credited with sharing with humans esoteric knowledge.

    The symbol of the American Medical Association is the Staff of Aesculapius, one snake, no wings but the staff is branched at the top. Aesculapius also comes from Greek idolatry, he was their god of healing. The snakes are associated with him, probably because of the role of venum in Greek homeopathic medicine.

    If I’d have to guess, it looks like the Greeks deified Rafael, worshipping him directly (see Rambam Hilchos AZ about the origins of idolatry), and then needed a way to associate the traditional symbol of healing with the resulting god.

  6. dilbert says:

    Dear Rabbi Menken,

    HaMakom Yehachem Otcha b’toch sha’ar aveilei Tziyon v’Yerushalayim. I am very sorry for your loss. I am not sure if anything I can write will be of any consolation to you, but I will quote someone far wiser than I. R. Emanuel Feldman(one of your co-bloggers) in one of his editorials opening an edition of Tradition(obviously he was far more eloquent than I will be here) asked why the name of G-d that we use here is Makom? His answer in short was that the word Makom encompasses the entire universe, symbolizing that what we percieve as good and evil all stem from the same place, Makom, from Hashem. Its just that with our limitations, it is hard to see the hand of Hashem in certain situations.

    The art and science of medicine has improved markedly over time, and continues to do so. Medicine has cured diseases, eradicated polio in the united states, eradicated small pox world wide, cured a wide variety of cancers, and made strides in essentially every area. Unfortunately, not every disease has been cured, and new ones seem to crop up. Much work has been done in the area of treating viruses. HIV, which 20 years ago was a death sentence, is now usually a managable problem, similar to high blood pressure or high cholesterol- requiring treatment and medication, but survivable over a reasonably long term. Many anti-viral drugs have been developed and many more are in testing phase. Unfortunately, many viruses respond poorly or not at all, but if you think about it, the technology and DNA information that is neccessary for anti-viral development has not been around for a long time. The scientific method, as Edison noted, is 99% perspiration, and 1% inspiration. When you look at progress in medicine from a day to day or month to month or even year to year basis, you may not be encouraged. However, when you look back 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, you see the amazing progress that has been made on many fronts, and the incredible promise of what is being developed in the laboratory.

    Ani Hashem Rofecha. Hashem provides healing, but we are obliged to seek out healing from qualified healers, and the healers themselves are obliged to heal. Ayn somechim all haness. We, as doctors do the best we can, and the art and science has improved vastly over time, and hopefully will continue to do so. However, there are still limits to what medicine can achieve. The loss of your loved ones does indeed demonstrate the inadequacies of medicine in our present day and age. However, there are many others, perhaps with different diseases, who have been helped, who thankfully are still here. At this time of your loss, I realize it is hard to see medicine as anything but a failed undertaking. And I certainly cannot blame you or fault you for that view. However, when seen on a more global level, medicine is making remarkable strides. May you have only simchas in your future, for you and your family.

  7. DovBear says:

    Our Torah provided the symbol of the medical profession: a snake wrapped around a pole.,

    That symbol, called a caduceus, was carried by Hermes (The Greek god of commerce, invention, cunning, and theft, who also served as messenger, scribe, and herald for the other gods.) It was given to him (according to one legend) by Apollo.

    The symbol of two intertwined snakes appeared early in Babylonia and is related to other serpent symbols of fertility, wisdom, and healing, and of sun gods. This staff of Hermes was carried by Greek heralds and ambassadors and became a Roman symbol for truce, neutrality, and noncombatant status. By regulation, it has since 1902 been the insignia of the medical branch of the U.S. army. The caduceus is much used as a symbol of commerce, postal service, and ambassadorial positions.