Shabbat 110 finds us knee-deep in a varied collection of remedies, a tangent stemming from the discussion of medical treatments on Shabbat which has been occupying us for several pages. Some of these remedies — and the situations that require them — seem pretty dubious. For example:
One whom a snake encircled should descend into water and place a basket on his head and remove the snake slowly from him into the basket. And once the snake goes into the basket, let him throw it into the water and climb out and emerge.
Logical enough, maybe snakes dislike water and will flee into the basket as the person slowly submerges. But it gets weirder. Next, the rabbis imagine that a snake is angry and pursuing a person:
One at whom a snake is angry and who is being pursued by a snake . . . at night let him place his bed on four barrels and sleep outside beneath the stars. And let him bring four cats and tie them to the four legs of the bed. And let him bring twigs and branches and throw them there so that when the cats hear the sound of the snake crawling they will eat it.
This snake seems just a little more determined than we might expect; and the feline “watchdog” remedy seems rather elaborate. It soon becomes clear, however, that this angry snake is no ordinary serpent, but a Zoroastrian snake with demonic power. The Babylonian rabbis’ non-Jewish neighbors feared and despised snakes, believing them to be evil. Ahriman the demon, a divine adversary in the Zoroastrian religion, often appears in the form of a snake. In one Zoroastrian story, he creates two demonic snakes who demand human brains regularly for breakfast. This may be the reason the snake is so determined.
And it gets weirder. Now we examine the case of a snake that lusts after a woman:
What is her remedy so the snake will leave her alone? She should have relations with her husband before the snake. But some say: if she has relations in front of the snake, its desire will become stronger.
And, of course, what if she fails to fend off the amorous reptile?
A woman whom a snake has entered, let them spread her legs and place her on two barrels, and let them bring fatty meat and throw it onto coals. And let them bring her a bowl of cress and fragrant wine and place them there and mix them together. And she should take tongs in her hand, as when the snake smells the fragrance it emerges. And then one should take the snake and burn it in the fire, as if it is not burned, it will come back onto her.
While likely still influenced by the Zoroastrian demon snake, this passage also hints at the story of the primordial snake in the Garden of Eden. While sex is never described explicitly in the Bible, the snake does “tempt” Eve to eat forbidden fruit, drawing her away from her loyalty to Adam. This is not the only rabbinic text that associates the snake, a natural phallic symbol, with sexual temptation and danger, particularly for brides on their wedding night.
This last cure, using the smell of barbecue to lure a snake out of a woman, might make you cringe or laugh (or both). But it, too, is not uniquely rabbinic. Similar treatments feature in Greco-Roman medical texts which describe using vapors of various different smells between a woman’s legs in order to draw a “wandering womb” back into its rightful location.
Sometimes, rabbinic texts can feel like a world unto themselves. These medical parallels to Persian and Greco-Roman culture might not inspire our confidence in the efficacy of the remedies, but they do help us make sense of some of these stranger rabbinic texts — and situate the rabbis in a wider world context.