REVIEW: The Snake at the Mouth of the Cave

Yitzchak Blau Tradition Online

Moshe Sokol, The Snake at The Mouth of the Cave: Exploring Talmudic Narratives (Touro College and Maggid Books, 2021), 231 pages 

Moshe Sokol’s The Snake at The Mouth of the Cave: Exploring Talmudic Narratives makes a significant contribution to the burgeoning literature analyzing aggada. In this volume, Sokol, dean at Lander College and rabbi of the Yavneh Minyan of Flatbush, interprets seven Talmudic tales and one story from Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer. Although other scholars have already analyzed the stories of Honi, the oven of Akhnai, and the dispute between R. Yohanan and Resh Lakish, Sokol adds fresh insight and novel interpretations. 

In his unpacking of the narratives, the author displays sensitivity to the potential symbolic import of names and halakhic details. For example, in the tension between R. Gamliel and R. Eliezer, Imma Shalom (“mother of peace”), sister of the former and wife of the latter, ironically fails to reconcile or to make peace between them (63). In another case, Ilfa means ship in Aramaic and a character named Ilfa suspends himself from the mast of a ship (132).

Moving to halakhic details, the other Sages ask R. Eliezer questions about the laws of blemishes because they have excommunicated him and one living under the ban experiences the isolation of the leper (81). In the well-known story of tanur shel Akhnai, R. Eliezer debates the Sages regarding whether or not an oven consisting of sections of sand in between hardened clay is considered a finished product for the purpose of ritual impurity. Sokol connects this debate to their argument about how Jewish law works. R. Eliezer brings miracles to prove his halakhic position as he strives for ideal truth. His scholarly peers content themselves with an operative legal system, a functional halakha, even absent clear divine approval. In the same way, an oven with portions made of sand works in practice but is not an ideal appliance. The Sages deem it good enough to be considered an oven, and therefore susceptible to ritual impurity, whereas R. Eliezer demands achieving the absolute ideal (55). 

Symbolism can simultaneously work on two levels. The aforementioned Ilfa found himself on the deck of a ship, having left the scholarly life behind to embark on a professional career outside of the beit midrash.Ships symbolize the world of commerce and business but can also symbolically point to Torah study as navigating the metaphorical “Sea of Talmud.” Ilfa’s ship, and his suspension from its mast, conveys the tension between these two options (131). To support another dual reading, Sokol cites the Etz Yosef commentary on the disputation between R. Yohanan and Resh Lakish. When an insulted Resh Lakish says “u-mai ahanat li,” the word ahanat could derive from the root meaning to insult or the root meaning benefit. According to Etz Yosef, Resh Lakish intends to convey that he did not come to the beit midrash to be insulted but instead R. Yohanan understands him to be saying that joining the world of Torah study has not proven beneficial (153). 

Two interpretations reveal great psychological sensitivity. When R. Akiva and his colleagues visit R. Eliezer on his deathbed, R. Eliezer becomes irritated with his son for removing his father’s tefillin before Shabbat instead of lighting Shabbat candles. In the same story, R. Eliezer expresses his frustration that years of excommunication prevented him from sharing his Torah with myriads of students. Sokol notes that, absent other students, R. Eliezer had only his own son to teach. There was no way for his son to compensate for all the missing disciples and by the nature of things, a father teaching his son poses a complicated dynamic under the best of circumstances and predictably things turned ugly (76). 

After Honi sleeps for seventy years, he unsuccessfully tries to return home and to the beit midrash. For Sokol, this reflects Honi’s alienation from “the two most important elements in the social life of a religious person” (215). As manifest in his approach to solving a drought, Honi believes in immediate solutions and not in the long term thinking evident in the planting of carob trees. After the rabbinic world moves away from Honi’s mode of behavior, the finale of the story reflects the growing divide between him and the rest of the Jewish community.

According to Rambam, angels are not supernatural beings but natural forces existing within each person. Sokol utilizes his expertise in Jewish philosophy in marshaling Rambam’s position in the service of interpreting an aggadic passage. When R. Yohanan and Ilfa leave the study hall, only the former hears two angels threatening them for leaving their study behind. Ilfa does not hear anything. This is not because heavenly entities communicated solely with R. Yohanan. Rather, only R. Yohanan was tormented by his conscience for abandoning the world of Torah study (127-129). 

Sokol demonstrates a fierce commitment to preserving a pristine account of the Talmudic Sages (5, 145), one not always to my taste. For the most part, this does not interfere with his acute analysis but there is one notable exception. When Resh Lakish falls deathly ill, R. Yohanan ignores his own sister’s pleas to pray on behalf of her husband. Rather than see this as a moral shortcoming, Sokol provides an ideological justification, R. Yohanan’s fear that respect for teachers was dwindling (164). To my mind, this explanation seems quite unconvincing. 

Additionally, while the author does show awareness of both traditional commentary and contemporary academic scholarship, he might have integrated them more seriously into his central discussion. Regarding the latter, references to works by Yonah Fraenkel and Jeffrey Rubenstein are always regulated to the footnotes rather than the main body of text and a more rigorous interaction with these writers would prove fruitful. Sometimes, the contrast with Sokol’s approach would have enhanced the discussion. More than a generation ago, Aharon Agus already suggested that Honi believes in immediate solutions while the other Sages emphasize the patient slow process of religious observance.1 However, unlike Agus, Sokol situates Honi’s approach along the backdrop of a powerful sense of divine encounter that only knows the present (207). Does this difference from Agus make the approach more or less convincing? 

Additional usage of traditional commentaries would also have enhanced the book. Why does R. Gamliel get punished with death if his harsh treatment of R. Eliezer was nobly motivated and served an important purpose? Sokol suggest two answers. In scenarios of competing values, even doing the right thing may require atonement as when a person takes on added prohibitions (fasting or nezirut). From this perspective, granting justification for his decisions, R. Gamliel still needed to compensate for excommunicating R. Eliezer. Secondly, R. Gamliel could have shown more empathy for his suffering colleague and brother-in-law (65-66). R. Yaakov Emden offers a different understanding explaining that we must show great hesitancy in excommunicating outstanding individuals; even when we have good reason to do so, perhaps we should choose to desist given the circumstances.2 It would have been interesting to see Sokol comparing his approach with that of R. Emden.

R. Kook adds an interesting insight to the Honi episode. Honi excels at prayer and emphasizes respect for the Sages. Shimon ben Shetah, on the other hand, exemplifies Torah study and stresses the glory of God. Honi’s approach leads to immediate gain when the people are inspired by Honi’s rain-making prowess. Shimon, however, understands that the impact of diminishing God’s honor proves more harmful in the long run. This divide also reflects the tension in thinking on the present as opposed to viewing matters with a more wide-range lens (Ein Ayah Berakhot 3:30). 

These demurrals aside, we are grateful to Moshe Sokol for enhancing our understanding of Talmudic stories and look forward to his ongoing contributions to Jewish scholarship and learning. 

Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, associate editor of TRADITION, is Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem.

  1. Aharon Agus, The Binding of Isaac and Messiah: Law, Martyrdom and Deliverance in Early Rabbinic Religiosity (SUNY Press, 1988), 70-82.
  2. See the discussion of this point in my Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada (Ktav, 2009), p. 173-175.

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