What the rabbis had to say about objects and artifacts

Numbers 19:1-25:8

Michah 5:6-6:8

by RabbiEliezer Finkelman

Like cranky vacationers at a luxury hotel, our ancestors in the desert complain about the food. The miraculous bread that descends each day, the manna that looks like coriander seed and tastes like something glazed with honey (Exodus 16:31), eventually bores them.

They gripe against God and Moses: "Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this wilderness, for there is no bread and no water, and our souls are disgusted with this lightweight bread" (Numbers 19:5). Nothing seems good enough for bored and petulant people.

When they encounter an infestation of poisonous snakes, our ancestors respond by apologizing for their criticism. God tells Moses how to treat the snakebites: "Build a fiery object, put it on a pole, and anyone bitten who sees it will live." So Moses builds a copper serpent, and it works (Numbers 21:8-9).

The rabbis of the Mishnah find this story enigmatic. In general, we avoid making metal images of animals (see Exodus 20:4), especially if someone might worship them. Fortunately, looking at a metal snake does not seem much like worship. On the other hand, looking at a copper image of a snake does not seem like a rational treatment for snakebite, either.

By some uncanny coincidence, the caduceus, a figure of snakes entwined around a pole (derived from Greek and Roman mythology) symbolizes the healing professions even to this day. Which still does not make the snake on the pole fit the guidelines of proper therapy.

The mishnaic rabbis provide a religious explanation: "Does a snake really kill, or does a snake really bring about life? But when Israel looked on high, and submitted their hearts to their Father in heaven, they were healed" (Rosh Hashanah 3:8). The rabbis did not wish to accept a magical account for this apparently magical story. Copper snakes just do not have the power to heal illnesses.

You might wonder what ever happened to that copper snake. Years later, the pious King Hezekiah of Judah "ground up the copper snake that Moses had made, for until those days, the children of Israel were offering incense to it" (Kings 2 18:4).

Although the snake was produced by Moses, our teacher himself, following divine command, Hezekiah still destroys it. The rabbis approve of Hezekiah's action (Mishnah Pesahim 4:9), for eventually Israel erred with it (see Tosefta Ovadah Zara 3:19).

I find it hard to imagine an artifact with greater significance to Jews than an object described in a biblical story, produced by Moses our teacher at the divine request. Imagine the reaction if archaeologists somehow found this copper snake now: Jews and gentiles would come from around the world to see it, to improve their understanding of the biblical story.

I remember how thrilled I felt to see a picture of an archaeologist's find in Israel, a clay seal stamped with the signet of a relatively minor biblical character, Baruch ben Neriah, the scribe and friend of the prophet Jeremiah (mentioned in chapters 32, 36, 43 and 45 of the Book of Jeremiah).

So what if some misguided persons act incorrectly in response to this copper snake? Those of us in the know can learn from it. Hezekiah opts to protect the ignorant, even at a cost to the wise. He acts ruthlessly toward the object, out of concern for the people in his care. The rabbis approve. Judaism does not belong to the elite.

When I finish writing this article, I have to go back to packing for a move. Many things in my house should not make the move with me. Even things that I acquired for good reasons, which I value as precious, might not, at this moment, serve a good purpose in my possession. I hope I can make those decisions. Otherwise, the possessions own me.