Four Died Because of the Advice of the Snake

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The Commentary of Rabbeinu Gershom to Bava Basra 17a

by R. Yisrael Herczeg

Why do righteous people die?

The Gemara in Shabbos 55b and Bava Basra 17a quotes a baraisa that says:

There were four who died because of the advice of the snake. They are the following: Binyamin the son of Yaakov, Amram the father of Moshe, Yishai the father of David, and Kilav the son of David.

Rashi in Shabbos comments:

“The advice of the snake.” [That is,] the advice with which the snake misled Chavah, and because of no other sin, for they did not sin.

According to Rashi, “the advice of the snake” refers to the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

The commentary attributed to Rabbeinu Gershom on Bava Basra 17a has a different understanding of “there were four who died because of the advice of the snake.” It says, “[The four died] because of the advice that [the snake] advised Chavah, and not because of Adam’s sin.”

Rabbeinu Gershom’s terse comment gives rise to many questions:

  1. Rabbeinu Gershom evidently is of the opinion that the advice of the snake was not a sin. Why then did it result in the punishment of death?
  2. Why should mankind be punished for what the snake did?
  3. If death had already been decreed upon mankind because of the advice of the snake, what was added when God cursed Adam with death for his sin?

In order to arrive at the answer to these questions, let us first examine why Rabbeinu Gershom apparently wishes to avoid explaining the baraisa as saying that the four did indeed die because of Adam’s sin.

The sugya in Shabbos 55a-b which quotes this baraisa says:

Rav Ami said: There is no death without sin, and there is no suffering without transgression. There is no death without sin as it is written, “The soul that sins, it shall die. A son shall not bear the transgression of the father, and a father shall not bear the transgression of the son. The righteousness of the righteous one shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked one shall be upon him” (Yechezkel 18:20). There is no suffering without transgression as it is written, “I shall make a reckoning of their offense with a rod, and with scourges, their transgression” (Tehillim 89:33).

The Gemara challenges Rav Ami’s statement from a baraisa that says that Moshe and Aharon never sinned. The Gemara defends Rav Ami by saying that he follows the opinion of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar who says that Moshe and Aharon died because of the sin they committed by striking the rock.

Then the Gemara challenges Rav Ami’s statement from the baraisa quoted above that says that there were four people who never sinned, yet these four people did die. The Gemara concludes that this baraisa is a refutation of Rav Ami.

Rashi and Tosafos understand that when Rav Ami says “there is no death without sin,” he means that an individual does not die unless he himself has sinned. The baraisa that says “there were four who died because of the advice of the snake” refutes this because it shows that these four people did not die because of their own sins. They died because of the sin of Adam and Chavah.

Rabbeinu Gershom apparently does not explain the baraisa as the other commentators do, because in his eyes, it would then not pose a problem for Rav Ami. Rav Ami says that that there is no death without sin. Rabbeinu Gershom does not understand Rav Ami as referring only to the sin of the one who dies. Rav Ami means that death always occurs because of some sin, whether it is the victim’s or someone else’s. Death because of the sin of Adam and Chavah, according to Rabbeinu Gershom, is death with sin. Were the baraisa referring to that sin, as Rashi and Tosafos understand it, it would not contradict Rav Ami’s statement. Yet the gemara says that it does. Therefore, Rabbeinu Gershom stresses that the baraisa does not refer to the sin of Adam. It refers to “the advice that [the snake] advised Chavah” which he views as not being a sin at all. But then what is it, and why do people die because of it?

The problems we have raised are resolved if Rabbeinu Gershom viewed “the advice of the snake” as a euphemism.

When God confronted Chavah with her sin, she said in her defense, “The snake advised me” (Bereishis 3:13). The word the Torah uses for “advised me” is השיאני. Rashi to Shabbos 146a, based on Midrashic sources (see Torah Sheleimah to the verse in Bereishis), cites an exegetical interpretation which reads the word as hisiani, with the letter sin, rather than hishiani, with the letter shin. Accordingly, the verse means, “The snake married me,” and teaches us that the snake had relations with Chavah. Along the same lines, Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, chs. 21 and 22, says that it was the snake who fathered Kayin.1

It does not seem that Chavah committed any sin through having relations with the snake for at the time she and Adam had not been given any prohibitions other than to refrain from eating from the Tree of Knowledge. This is implied by the comments of one of the Baalei HaTosafos to the above verse, brought in Tosafos HaShalem (vol. 1, p. 131). He writes that it is because Chavah had relations with the snake that women are forbidden to have more than one husband at a time. Hence, at the time that Chavah had relations, the prohibition was not yet in effect.

According to Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer (ch. 14), death was decreed upon the snake at the same time it was decreed upon Adam and Chavah. Nevertheless, it is possible that anyone born of “the pollution that the snake injected into Chavah”2 would have been mortal from the time of conception.

We now hold the key to Rabbeinu Gershom’s understanding of the baraisa. The four who died “because of the advice of the snake” never sinned, nor did they have anything to do with the sin of Adam. The “advice of the snake” is a euphemism for the snake’s relations with Chavah implied in the word השיאני, “the snake advised me.”3 Kayin was the offspring of the union between Chavah and the snake. Even if Adam and Chavah would not have sinned, he would have ultimately died because he was mortal from birth. Adam’s curse of death applied to his other sons, Hevel and Sheis, and to Sheis’ descendants. It affected them, but only – according to Rabbeinu Gershom’s view of Rav Ami’s opinion – if they sinned, like their ancestor Adam. All people since the time of the Flood are descendants of the snake because Naamah, the wife of Noach, was a descendant of Kayin.4 The four people who led lives free of sin did not die because of the curse of Adam, for that affects only those who have sinned. They died only because of the mortality they inherited from the snake.

The Maharsha (Mahadura Basra to Bava Basra 17a) asks why the gemara uses the circumlocution “the advice of the snake” rather than stating “the sin of Adam” directly. According to Rabbeinu Gershom this is not a problem; “the advice of the snake” is something different from the sin of Adam.

Rabbeinu Gershom’s interpretation of “the advice of the snake” resolves another difficulty. The gemara in Shabbos brings a source from Scripture that Yishai, father of David, died because of the advice of the snake. II Shmuel 17:25 refers to David’s sister Avigal as the daughter of Nachash (“snake”). The gemara asks, “Was she the daughter of Nachash? Wasn’t she the daughter of Yishai? But [the verse means] she was the daughter of the one who died because of the advice of the snake (nachash).” While it is true that Yishai died because of the advice of the snake, is “snake” the appropriate title to give such a saintly figure? According to Rabbeinu Gershom it is indeed appropriate to refer even to one as saintly as Yishai as “snake,” for as righteous as a man may be, there is no denying that a part of him is serpentine.

  1. According to this midrash, “And Adam knew Chavah his wife, and she conceived and gave birth to Kayin” means, “And Adam knew [what] Chavah his wife [had done], and she conceived…” Rav David Luria in his commentary to Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer (ch. 22, note 1) notes several points in the wording of the passage that the support this midrashic interpretation. 

  2. This is the wording used by the Gemara in Shabbos 146a. 

  3. According to Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer (ch. 21), Scripture uses another euphemism in this passage, as well. “ ‘Which was in the center of the Garden’ (Bereishis 3:3). ‘In the center of the Garden’ is a euphemism for that which is in the center of the body…” 

  4. Bereishis Rabbah 23:3. 

About Yisrael Herczeg

Rabbi Yisrael Herczeg teaches at Sha’alvim for women. He is the translator of the ArtScroll Rashi, and the author and translator of several other books.

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