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I have always had the impression that snakes are inherently evil. I’m sure it’s an idea I picked up from the Genesis account of the Serpent tempting Adam and Eve to sin. Is there any accuracy to this? In fact, when I was a child I once killed a snake – and I’m worried that it was inappropriate, perhaps bringing a stain on my soul.
Thank you for raising the interesting issue. There is actually a lot to write about the Sages’ attitude toward snakes – both the primordial one and the ones which exist today. I’ll write a few thoughts without getting too lengthy.
What was the original Serpent? It was really more than just a smart snake with legs. It was an intelligent, human-like creature (Talmud Sanhedrin 59b) whose mission was to tempt Adam and Eve to sin. Before Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they had no inherent desire to sin. Evil was not yet a part of the human psyche. Therefore, to test them, God created the Serpent, which would attempt to lure them to sin from the outside. The Zohar (Bereishis 35b) accordingly explains that the Serpent was really man’s evil inclination – a physical personification of Satan. (See this response for more on the Serpent, and this one about Satan.)
How does the Serpent relate to the snakes of today? It’s an interesting question. They are certainly related. Snakes today are the “punished” version of the Serpent, being animals without legs (as per Genesis 3:14: “on your belly you shall walk”), and which people feel a natural aversion to: “And hatred I shall place between… your seed and her seed” (3:15). Also, they generally swallow their food whole without enjoying it, as the Torah further curses them: “dirt you shall eat all the days of your life” (v. 14). To them, delicious meat is no tastier than dirt, since they simply ingest it without experiencing the pleasure of eating.
It is clear, however, that today’s snakes are not the evil creatures the Serpent once was. Part of God’s punishment of the Serpent was that it became an ordinary reptile – no longer the intelligent, crafty being it once was. Thus, it cannot be said to be “evil” today since good and bad are meaningless to it. It is merely driven by its natural wants and instincts, as animals generally are.
Even that said, the Sages generally have a fairly negative attitude about snakes, even contemporary ones. Not only are many snakes potentially dangerous, but even in their animal form they seem to have inherited some of the malice of their primogenitor. The Talmud states that a snake will bite (a person or animal before it) even when it has no thought of eating it (Ta’anit 8a). (The Talmud equates it to a man who gossips about his fellow though he receives no tangible pleasure from doing so.)
The Talmud generally sees snakes as dangerous animals threatening to man. Thus, at times we can hunt and kill them even on Shabbat, although killing living things is generally forbidden on Shabbat (see Talmud Shabbat 121b, Shulchan Aruch O.C. 116:7,10). Interestingly, the Sages were especially concerned about snakes coming to drink water left uncovered overnight, leaving some of their venom in the water (Talmud Avodah Zarah 30). Some are still stringent regarding this today. The Sages also viewed snakes as typical “messengers” God sends to punish the wicked (see again Shabbat 121b, as well as 156b and Sotah 8b) – and if you can make yourself a “messenger” to kill such messengers of doom, all the better (Shabbat 121b).
An interesting aside is that the Sages were of the opinion that seeing a snake in a dream is actually a good sign (Talmud Brachot 57a). The snake is a sign of a person’s livelihood, because as a result of the Serpent’s temptation, man was cursed that “with the sweat of your brow you will eat bread” (Genesis 3:19). Thus, seeing a snake in a dream implies you have your sustenance prepared for you. Continues the Talmud that if the snake bites you, you will really be affected by the snake’s curse and your income will double! On the other hand, if you kill the snake in your dream, it indicates you will lose your job! (Note that the Talmud also writes that we dream about what we think about during the day, so none of the above applies if you have a dream like this tonight.)
Thus, all in all, the Sages are not fond of snakes and see no harm in killing them, certainly during the week. Regardless, a person is not culpable for what he did as a minor, so you need not be worried at all about what you did as a child. So be well and stay away from snakes (when you’re awake)!