Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Snake Skins and Oil

All snakes regularly slither right out of their skins, and so the snake collection at the Biblical Museum of Natural History regularly provides us with sloughed-off skins. (One of our larger snakes once shed an immaculate nine-foot skin in the evening. I spread it out on the floor to dry overnight. When the secretary came in the next morning and saw it, she coincidentally jumped out of her skin!)

A woman who works in a store that I frequent has been asking me for a while for the shed skin of a snake. I assumed that she wanted it as some sort of novel household decoration, but yesterday she told me the reason, and it was quite different. She has unfortunately been unable to conceive for several years, and she was referred to a Holy Rabbi who told her to hang the shed skin of a snake in her home.

I literally (literally) slapped my palm over my face.

"What?" she asked.

"That's complete nonsense!" I said.

She attempted to reassure me by explaining that this Holy Rabbi certainly possessed special powers. After all, he knew all kinds of things about her, such as the name of her husband, which there was no earthly way of his knowing!

I facepalmed again. "How did you get to him?" I asked.

She explained that an associate of his heard about her and referred her.

"Is it not possible," I gently suggested, "that this associate used Google, or some other means, to find out this information?!"

Her face fell for a moment, but she recovered herself and said that she didn't think that this was likely. It was more likely that the Rabbi had special powers. Besides, she said, even if it's not true, what harm does it do to hang up the snakeskin?

"True," I admitted. "It doesn't do any harm. As long as you didn't give him any money."

No, she insisted, he's not that kind of person. He didn't ask for any money -

"Oh, good," I interjected -

- he just has a tzedakah box on his desk, she continued, in which she placed 500 shekels.






















(See too my post Karma and Chameleons)

39 comments:

  1. Isn't it darkhe ha Emori(sorcery) to indulge in these practices?And isn't it avodah zarah(idolatry)believing anything other than H'K'B'H'can help you?

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    1. Isn't it darkhe ha Emori(sorcery) to indulge in these practices?

      The categories are not so simple. According to the Rambam, if it works, it is not Darchei Emori, so if the person is just kind of foolish and thinks it works, it may not be a violation. It would be for those who know better. According to the Ran, as long as you are not asking for help from spiritual/astrological powers other than God, it is not Darchei Emori.

      And isn't it avodah zarah(idolatry)believing anything other than H'K'B'H'can help you?

      You can answer your own question: Is it Avodah Zarah to go the doctor?

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    2. Would anyone do anything if they themselves KNEW it doesn't work? It seems that the permission is only if it is, perhaps, widely accepted that it works. It is very hard to believe that one person's belief would remove the issur.
      As far as going to the doctor, that is derech haTeva. Hanging a snakeskin is obviously not.

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    3. Thanks,David Ohsie.

      Delete
    4. The comparison with visiting a doctor is nonsensical:you don't pray to/ask supernatural things from a doctor.

      Delete
    5. You wrote "And isn't it avodah zarah(idolatry)believing anything other than H'K'B'H'can help you?"

      Does the doctor help you? Is the doctor something other than God? Your question didn't say anything about the supernatural.

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    6. Would anyone do anything if they themselves KNEW it doesn't work? It seems that the permission is only if it is, perhaps, widely accepted that it works. It is very hard to believe that one person's belief would remove the issur.
      As far as going to the doctor, that is derech haTeva. Hanging a snakeskin is obviously not.


      You are mentioning something that is a difficulty in the Rambam's position. His position on Darchei Emori is basically "don't do stupid spooky stuff that doesn't work, since it will lead to idolatry which is also stupid spooky stuff that doesn't work". But then he is faced with question of how Chazal could have done some stuff that looks like that. His answer is they thought it worked. I'm guessing that when people sell they various snake oil cures, they always say "trust me, I've done this before at it works".

      The Rambam himself accepted (or at least did not reject) various supposed phenomena that we would recognize today as superstitious. See some examples here. For example, looking into the eyes of a wild ass will improve your vision and tuberculosis is caused by being around cats.

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  2. Nachum Sokolov once remarked "If only this עם חכם ונבון would've also had some שכל".

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  3. I hope you gave her the skin gratis, if she does have a son he should be blessed by the presence of the skin to be a Rationalist. Then the money will have gone to good use.

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  4. A fool and her money were parted. Just because this "Rabbi" is a Rasha Gamur doesn't change the reality that the gullible look for magical fixes, and they'll find them -- even if they don't cost 500 shekel.

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  5. Does she get a refund from the Tzdaka fund if she hangs up a snake skin and still is unable to conceive (or is that inconceivable)?

    Anyway, wish her bracha and hatzlacha and hope that she is able have children, with or without a snakeskin on the wall.

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  6. I'd go with this image
    https://www.ou.org/oupress/files/Divrei-HaRav-653x1024.jpg

    kt

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    Replies
    1. LOL, that's great! I will add it.

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    2. That picture improved the post immensely :).

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  7. > It was more likely that the Rabbi had special powers.

    I find it hard to understand people who think using magic is more likely than using Google.

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    Replies
    1. They want to believe it. It somehow is a better world that way.

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    2. I can understand the attraction of a mystical world, if I tilt my head and squint real hard. It's the thinking that the supernatural is more likely than the mundane that's hard to understand.

      Maybe she didn't mean that supernatural powers are more probable, but that it's more likely that a Rabbi had magic powers than that a holy man would lie. That's more understandable, if awfully naive.

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    3. I don't think it's naive at all to believe that a holy man would not lie. What IS naive is her believing that that person is really holy.

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  8. Its hard to fathom how people can be so naïve. But then I look at politics today, and the millions of people who are each certain that the millions of others are corrupt/gullible/mean-spirited/racistsexistmisognisthomophobe/immoral/ignorant, etc, and I am no longer so shocked. So I still think they're naïve, because I cant change the way I view things, but I take it in stride.

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  9. David,
    Mankind has always been beset by foolishness and truly rational people are in the minority. Unfortunately, irrationality in the 'modern' world appears to be on the rise. Nor is there a shortage of people willing and able to take advantage of the naïve.

    I have some reservations about your citations from the Rambam and Ran. I believe that the Rambam was referring only to Kame'as (amulets) when he distinguished between a permissible and a forbidden type. Kame'as had been part of Jewish life since ancient times and can't be properly termed 'darchei Emori' (Gentile customs). Even the texts employed in such amulets are based on Jewish writings - not Gentile. Those that can be labeled as irrational Gentile customs would be labeled as forbidden by the Rambam - even if they were believed to be effective.

    I also find it difficult to believe that the Ran would label matters ostensibly in the category of 'darkei Emori' as being permissible if the practitioner doesn't invoke 'spiritual powers'. It seems to me that to invoke the aid of such presumed powers falls under 'avodah zarah', since it's a form of worship, rather than 'darkei Emori'. The latter merely refers to adopting irrational Gentile customs even if worship is not involved or implied. I believe that the Talmudic examples of 'darkei Emori' support that contention without the need for reinterpretation.

    Y. Aharon

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    1. I also find it difficult to believe that the Ran would label matters ostensibly in the category of 'darkei Emori' as being permissible if the practitioner doesn't invoke 'spiritual powers'.

      He states it quite explicitly here

      After these prefaces let it be clearly stated that when Abbaye and Rava say that all those who seek to effect a cure are not operating within the framework of "the ways of the Emorites," they are not necessarily assuming that this cure is dictated by reason. Their meaning is, rather, that all those who seek to effect a cure based upon the tendency of certain things [because of the phenomenological properties residing in them] to favorably alter the condition of the sick person — all who operate from this orientation are not operating within the framework of "the ways of the Emorites." For whatever one makes use of, be it drugs or words, for the sole purpose of favorably altering the condition of the sick person is in no way forbidden and partakes in no way whatsoever of "the ways of the Emorites." And even the drawing of a particular design is permitted for therapeutic purposes, as indicated in the Gemara (Sabbath 65a): "One may walk out [on the Sabbath] with a coin on the tzinit. What is the tzinit? The sole of the foot [in this case, an infected sole]." The Gemara then asks: "Why necessarily a coin? If hardness is the curative factor, why not use a shard? If [the absorption of] silver is the curative factor, why not use silver plate? And if the design is the curative factor, why not draw a design on wood? Abbaye answered: 'It is to be understood from this that all three factors in combination are necessary.'"

      And we are speaking here of a curative agent of this type [the phenomenological; in the above case, the design]. For there is no difference whatsoever between resorting to this or to the herb called "fiunia" in Arabic. And all that the Gemara permits is of this type. What it forbids because of "the ways of the Emorites" and what is acknowledged to be forbidden by the Gemara is of a different type whatsoever. There were certain primitive peoples who sought, by act or word, to derive benefit from certain objects by drawing down to them the favor of certain heavenly powers. All things of this type, whether they have some basis in fact or none whatsoever, were forbidden because of "the ways of the Emorites" and the ways of idol-worship.

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    2. Unfortunately, irrationality in the 'modern' world appears to be on the rise.

      I don't see any evidence of this. I see evidence of the opposite.

      I will say that the rise of Trump supports your point :).

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    3. I believe that the Rambam was referring only to Kame'as (amulets) when he distinguished between a permissible and a forbidden type.

      "It is not inconsistent that a nail of the gallows and the tooth of a fox have been permitted to be used as cures: for these things have been considered in those days as facts established by experiment. They served as cures, in the same manner as the hanging of the peony over a person subject to epileptic fits, or the application of a dog's refuse to the swellings of the throat, and of the vapours of vinegar and marcasite to the swelling of hard tumours. For the Law permits as medicine everything that has been verified by experiment, although it cannot be explained by analogy."

      See also my citations above from Herbert Davidson.

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  10. Why requisition a snake skin when a supplication with a real live snake would probably prove more efficacious. And they don't charge anything for their services.
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=iUdc5h10zTo

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  11. An internet search reveals that according to the Trotula, a medieval compendium of women's medicine, one way to ease the childbirth process was to "let the woman be girded with a snake's skin from which the snake has emerged."

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  12. Once I heard a nice lecture by the director of the organization Puah, Rabbi Menachem Borenstein, Sh'lita. Puah offers help for people who have trouble conceiving children, with all sorts of solutions that are in accordance with halachah. Rabbi Borenstein said in his lecture that there are, what he calls, "קבלנים" (literally, "contractors", instead of מקובלים, Kabbalists) who take a brief course in Kabbalah, learn some lingo, and think that they can pull the wool over people's eyes. There was one case of a woman who went to such a קבלן, asking for help in conceiving a child. The pseudo-mystic said that she'll give birth within a year, and he will be the sandek at the child's bris.
    Well, 12 months passed. She started to think, "Maybe he meant it to be a שנה מעוברת?" She waited another month--neither the year was מעוברת, nor was the unfortunate woman a מעוברת. (Rabbi Borenstein's oratory skills are amazing! The lecture was very entertaining, as well as being informative.)
    Eventually, the woman went to Puah. Rabbi Borenstein and his staff diagnosed her problem: apparently her ovulation was too early, and by the time she would go to mikvah, the odds of conceiving were significantly reduced. He prescribed a pill to delay the time of ovulation, and, Boruch Hashem, she conceived and had a child. (I don't think the קבלן ended up being the sandek, however.)
    --Yehudah P.

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    1. He? (R. Borenstein) prescribed a "pill"? Is he an MD or did her refer her to an endocrinologist with experience in fertility?

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    2. Looking at the Puah website (http://www.jewishfertility.org/diagnosis-treatment.php)
      it seems Rav Borenstein is not a doctor, but, from the wide range of treatments, it's clear that he works closely with doctors.
      --Yehudah P.

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    3. Did she really think she'd give birth within a month if she wasn't even pregnant? She should have caught on that the guy was a quack within three months.

      That is, of course, Puah's solution. Other poskim will find heteirim to lower the amount of time a woman has to wait to go to the mikva.

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  13. While certainly wishing her well, I wouldn't give her a snake skin. If she should conceive, and I hope she does, she would then regard it as "proof" that the snake skin worked and perpetuate the nonsense by sharing her "remedy" with others.

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    1. Maybe give her the snakeskin, but then say that it will only help if she has 100% emunah sheleimah that it won't work.

      Delete
  14. "According to the Ran, as long as you are not asking for help from spiritual/astrological powers other than God, it is not Darchei Emori."

    Not quite. The Ran allows effective spiritual remedies, unlike the Rambam. (Actually, the distinction may be purely theoretical. The Rambam, when presented with a proven 'segulah' would consider the effect natural, with the mechanism yet unknown to science.)

    Drasha 12 is not the only place the Ran discusses the matter...
    The Ran on Shabbat (67?) writes that the remedies natural or supernatural must be effective, or perhaps at least not proven ineffective. He writes similarly in his חידושים on סנהדרין נב, and חולין. Also see Drash 4.

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    1. Not quite. The Ran allows effective spiritual remedies, unlike the Rambam. (Actually, the distinction may be purely theoretical. The Rambam, when presented with a proven 'segulah' would consider the effect natural, with the mechanism yet unknown to science.)

      This isn't true. Let's first deal with the fundamental distinction:

      The Rambam thinks that everything that is Assur is ineffective and everything effective is permitted. This is because he thinks that Darchei Emori and Witchcraft are prohibited due to being ineffective mumbo-jumbo that will lead to following AZ. Of course, just a failed experiment can't be assur, so he adds that the practice must be obviously silly to begin with.

      The Ran (and Ramban) think that there are some things which are effective, yet prohibited because there are certain powers which are off limits for Jews. They have been given substitutes like Nevuah. So the Ran has to distinguish between prohibited stuff that works vs. unprohibited stuff that works. In Drasha 12, he says that the stuff that you can't do, even though it might work, is to try to gain favor with heavenly powers.

      I need some time to look at your other sources. I don't remember anything that contradicts in Drash 4, but I'll look. The other source, I probably never saw (I'm not so knowledgeable).

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    2. OK, so I think that the Ran that you refer to is here. He does say that if any incantation or anything else is known to be effective then it is OK (but he is probably not including a prayer to a planet, as he says in Drash 12.) whereas if something has been proven ineffective, then it would be prohibited (presumably only if it involves segulah). He also says that in all likelihood this only applies to things proven ineffective, but anything doubtful is OK. Have snakeskins been proven ineffective? Not to my knowledge. They would be regared as ineffective in our theoretical framework, but not that of the Ran. I can't see how he would object (I don't speak of the Ran if he were alive today and knew what we know today. Perhaps he would change his mind. But using his framework which is to accept that the Gemara supports the use of occult [segulah] powers, snakeskins seem pretty harmless).

      ב ל דבר שיש בו משום רפואה. כין
      לחש כין כל דכר כיון שאנו
      יודעין שהוא מרפא והכי מוכח
      כתוס׳ ואפשר דאף לחשין שאין
      אגו יודעין אס יש כהן משום רפואה
      מומרים מספק ולא אסרו אלא אותם
      שכדקו ואין מועילין וכתב הרשב״א
      ז״ל שכן נראה שפירשו כתוס׳ אלא
      שראיתי להר״ר יונה ז״ל שחשש ככל
      קמיע שאינו מן המומתה משוס דרכי
      האמורי:

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    3. Good summary, David. The Rambam is tricky to understand. The way I understand is that he's trying to maintain a balance between his rationalism and the strict halacha. The Mishna certain permits weird remedies. For most authorities, effective remedies are permitted even if they are "segulot". (For the moment, let's exclude segulot with AZ overtones.) That how most understand the Mishna that deals with fox teeth, locust eggs and gallows nails- they are indeed non-natural remedies that are effective. Yet, the Rambam writes in his Guide that they work "in the same manner" as natural remedies. Here, the Rambam deviates from the usual understanding of the Mishnah. However, he does write that they were "considered in those days" to be natural- implying that is his own era, they were not considered natural remedies. Now, for those who believe in segulot, there's no contradiction: even if Chazal felt those effective remedies to be non-natural they would still be permitted. But the Rambam, is compelled to interpret the Mishna to deal with remedies that are naturally effective- at least as understood at the time of the Mishna.
      (Still, there's the Mishna in Yoma, dealing with rabid dog liver as a forbidden remedy for rabies. There, the Rambam explains that the remedy is forbidden because a Torah violation may only be transgressed for a natural remedy, not for a segulah. By implication, a segulah remedy, presumably effective, would be permitted were no Torah violation is involved.)

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    4. I found my notes on דרכי האמורי, and here's what I found from the ר"ן:

      ר"ן שבת :
      כל דבר שיש בו משום רפואה. בין לחש בין כל דבר כיון שאנו יודעין שהוא מרפא והכי מוכח בתוס׳ ואפשר דאף לחשין שאין אנו יודעין אם יש בהן משום רפואה מותרים מספק ולא אסרו אלא אותם שבדקו ואין מועילין וכתב הרשב״א ז״ל שכן נראה שפירשו בתוס׳ אלא שראיתי להר״ר יונה ז״ל שחשש בכל קמיע שאינו מן המומחה משום דרכי האמורי

      חידושי הר"ן סנהדרין נב:
      ...שהתורה אסרה כל מנהג מיוחד לנמוסי ע״א שמא ימשך האדם אחריהן כמותם וכן נמי אם הכותיים נהגו באיזה מנהג שאין לו מבוא בדרכי הטבע ולא נתאמת הנסיון העושה כמותן יש בו משום דרכ"א...וכן פירש הרמב״ם. והנראה בביאור דבריו — שמאחר שכתוב בתורה או שאפשר לנהוג כמנהג זה ע״פ הטבע — אין מנהג זה מיוחד לנכרים

      חידושי הר"ן חולין ס"פ בהמה המקשה:
      כל שיש בו משום רפואה אע״פ שאינה ניכרת שרי, שלא אסרה תורה משום דרכי האמורי אלא אותם מעשה תוהו שלהם שאין בהם תועלת

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  15. כל המאמין בדברים אלו, וכיוצא בהן, ומחשב בליבו שהן אמת ודברי חכמה, אבל התורה אסרה אותן--אינו אלא מן הסכלים ומחסרי הדעת, ובכלל הנשים והקטנים שאין דעתן שלמה.

    Just saying.

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    Replies
    1. Gavriel M: you've really mellowed out.

      Delete
  16. Cynicism aside.
    I met once a Sefardi "Mekubal" of sorts, who I must admit did not strike a very impressive image of a Tzaddik for one reason or another.

    However, he did correctly know my name (one letter out), my father's name, my age (one year out) and the fact that someone I knew suffered from a specific medical condition, just by looking at me. We had never met before. I believe it is called Chochmas Hapartzuf and I believe it does exist.

    Oddly enough, the story repeated itself, when I met an Indian fellow in the West End (london) several years later, who likewise guessed my age, number of children and other stuff. This one however demanded £50 for his services, which I gracefull declined!

    ReplyDelete

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