World of the Sages: Close encounters with an 'arod'

The Mishna tells us that even if a snake is coiled around your leg as you stand in prayer, you must continue your supplications without interruption.

The Mishna tells us that even if a snake is coiled around your leg as you stand in prayer, you must continue your supplications without interruption (M. Berachot 5:1). The Talmud qualifies that this rule was said only in regard to a non-lethal snake; a venomous snake or a scorpion warrants a prayer stoppage (B. Berachot 33a; Y. Berachot 9a). In this connection, our sages recount a marvelous story of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa. Often stories of our sages are retold in different sources with slight variations. The story of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa appears in a variety of rabbinic sources, each redaction offering a different tenor to the tale. The earliest recorded version describes the greatness of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa (T. Berachot 3:20; Tanhuma, Va'era 4). An animal called an arod approached and bit Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa as he stood in meditative prayer. Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa did not allow this serpent-like creature to disrupt his prayers and he continued as if nothing had happened. His students searched for the arod and found it lying dead near its hole and promptly proclaimed: "Woe to a person who is bitten by an arod, and woe to the arod that bites Ben Dosa!" Thus in the context of interrupting prayers, Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa is presented as the paradigm of concentration in prayer. The account suggests a connection between single-minded, undiverted focus and Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa's ability to withstand and even reverse the arod bite. A parallel version of this tale adds detail and color, explicitly making the connection suggested in the earlier account (Y. Berachot 9a). In this version of the story, the students turn to Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa and incredulously wonder: "Master, did you not feel the arod bite?" Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa responds by assuring the students that due to his intense concentration in prayer he felt nothing; so focused was he that even a lethal arod bite did not disrupt his supplications. In this source the animal is called a habarbur, but the commentators agree that the habarbur and the arod are the same creature. After recounting the events, the passage relates to this unknown creature, describing its curious properties. Clearly it is a serpent-like character for it is always mentioned in the context of snakes, as in this case where its escapade with Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa is recounted after we are told that a prayer interruption is not justified even if a snake is coiled around your leg. One commentator suggests that it is related to the toad, but concludes that we do not have the requisite expertise to identify the arod (Meiri, Provence, 13th century). Later commentators suggest that it is a cross between a snake and a toad, acknowledging that it is extremely dangerous (Rabbi Moshe Margulies, 18th century, Amsterdam). Whatever its origins, the arod or habarbur has an extraordinary feature. While its bite is lethal, the bite itself does not end the ordeal. Rather, the bite begins a race, a race to a body of water whereby the winner lives while the loser - whether it is the biter or the bitten - dies. The account makes no mention of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa racing to a body of water; indeed the point of the story is that Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa did not move from his place of prayer. How then was he saved? The talmudic passage concludes by saying that the Almighty created a spring beneath his feet and thus he reached water before his arod adversary. The passage concludes with the verse: He will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him, and He will hear their cry and He will save them (Psalms 145:19). Thus this version focuses not only on Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa's greatness but on the divine protection afforded to those who do the Almighty's will. We come to the final version of the story recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (B. Berachot 33a). The reference point of the story is the same - the rule that a snake coiled around your leg does not justify a prayer disruption - yet this account changes the focus from the description of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa's focused prayer and its efficacy. In a certain place there was an arod that was wreaking havoc. Seeking a solution, the people came to Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa. Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa promptly responded: "Show me the hole where the arod lives." When he came to the arod's lair, Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa calmly put his heel on the mouth of the hole. The arod darted out and bit the proffered foot, whereupon it dropped dead. Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa picked up the dead animal, slung it over his shoulder and brought it to the beit midrash (study hall). As he entered the beit midrash Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa declared, perhaps holding the arod in plain view for all to see: "Look my children, it is not the arod that causes death but sin that causes death." In this account Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa is not a passive supplicant solely devoted to heartfelt prayer; he actively goes out to combat the arod crisis. Even once this dangerous creature has been neutralized, Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa uses the opportunity for an educational lesson. He brings the carcass to the beit midrash, teaching the people that they should be more wary of following God's commandments and avoiding sin, than running from the arod who is merely one of the Almighty's messengers. The power of death does not lie with the arod, but with the arod's creator. This version of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa's encounter with the arod tells not of his unique piety in prayer; it is presented as a harbinger for all those who fervently serve the Almighty. It also points to the action expected from worthy leaders, and the guidance it is hoped they will provide, boldly facing up to the challenges of the day and using every encounter as a teaching moment. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.