The Seven-Headed Serpent
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
The Talmud on Kiddushin 29b, records a fantastic story of a “mazik”, (destructive force), which plagued the study hall of Abayeh. As the account goes, Rav Acha bar Yaakov, upon witnessing his son’s poor Talmudic skills, ventured to this place of study, as he decided that he was more fit to learn than his son. When Abayeh learned of Rav Acha bar Yaakov’s upcoming arrival, he urged all townspeople not to offer Rav Acha hospitality. Rav Acha will thereby be forced to lodge at the study hall, and perhaps a miracle will be performed for him in his study hall, and he will be spared from this mazik. It was stated that even two students who entered this study hall, even during the day, were at risk due to this mazik. Rav Acha stayed in the study hall overnight. During his stay, this mazik appeared to him as a seven-headed serpent, a “tanina” in Aramaic. Rav Acha began to pray, and with each bow of his head in prayer (to G-d) one of the serpent’s heads fell off. The next morning, Rav Acha stated that had it not been for a miracle, he would have been in danger.
We have no shortage of questions! But before reading mine, think about the account for yourself.
1) Why couldn’t Abayeh himself rid the study hall of this
7) The serpent did not attack Rav Acha, or anyone for that matter. What then was the danger?
8) Why did Rav Acha attribute his success to a miracle? Did he not witness his actions himself?
9) What is the meaning of, “even two who enter” and even “by day” are at danger”?
10) Why was the mazik also referred to as a “tanina”, a serpent?
I am always interested in teaching a method of Torah study, in addition to offering explanations. This case presents a prime opportunity for unraveling step-by-step, the Rabbis’ bizarre stories and their hidden meanings, encountered in Scriptural and Talmudic portions. I have listed the questions above so you may think into them. I will demonstrate what I feel is an effective approach to questioning, offering my own explanations for this metaphor in the process.
The fact that the mazik was only found in the study hall should draw our attention. How should we formulate a question leading to an answer? Simply asking “Why was it there?” will not lead to a critical analysis. However, reformulating the question as follows will better lead to some insight: “What is the distinction of a study hall, that a specific damage can occur there, as opposed to other places?” This type of formulation drives our thoughts towards a study hall’s distinction. We can now answer, “it is a place designated for learning”. So we question further, “what danger is there when one learns in the study hall”? (The story clearly states this location is where this mazik was found.) Studying is the greatest of all G-d’s commands! What type of danger can exist when occupying our time with G-d’s greatest command? Let’s think. Whether we learn quickly or slowly, we still learn, so we are not in danger as regards acquiring content. If we don’t learn at all, this is not characterized as a “danger”. If we learn false ideas, this is inevitable, we all make errors. Nothing can be done about man’s disposition to err. So wherein lies the danger?
But there is one facet of study which is in fact harmful. We learn from Pirkei Avos (Ethic of the Fathers) that one can learn for the sole purpose of being called a scholar, and this has destructive results. Man’s desire for self aggrandizement - even through Torah study - is ridiculed by the Rabbis. I believe with this small piece of information we can open up the entire mystery of this story.
The mazik being found only in the study hall shows us that there is a “damaging” force alive in this place. But it is not a being. I believe this “mazik” is a metaphor for a psychological attitude. We are well familiar with it; “competition”. Learning in Abayeh’s study hall had an ill effect on those students: they felt they had to be as smart as Abayeh. This is unfortunately a common practice today, where people learn for the sake of honor. It is even promoted. However, this is not the derech ha’Torah - the way of G-d. One’s learning should be for one purpose; the love of uncovering Torah insights. The appreciation of the Torah system and all true ideas must be our goal in our studies - not the honor gained by our mastery.
In Abayeh’s study hall, somehow, there was a competitive drive which caused those who could not see themselves on Abayeh’s level, to view themselves as failures. Compared to Abayeh, they failed at learning, and threw up their hands in surrender. This occurred due to an egotistical motive for learning, not the true motive to learn for the love of truth.
Abayeh knew this, and wished to remedy the situation. Upon hearing of Rav Acha’s planned visit, he wanted a demonstration shown that one could learn successfully, if he was on a proper level, and with proper motives. Abayeh therefore told all townspeople not to let Rav Acha stay overnight, so it be demonstrated that Rav Acha, and anyone for that matter, could learn well despite Abayeh’s great reputation. He would learn for the proper reasons. But we see that the story states that this mazik even appeared to Rav Acha. This means that even he was under some degree of influence of this competitive emotion. But how did he combat it? He directed his energies towards G-d, and reconfirmed his purpose for learning through prayer. By praying, he realigned his attitude for learning with the zeal for discovering G-d’s wisdom. It was a slow process; therefore the story states that with each bow he removed a head from the “mazik”, from the danger. This competitive emotion could not be removed all at once, but only in a slow and steady fashion. So we read that the heads were severed one at a time, not simultaneously. In general, any change in our emotions takes time. (It is for this reason that Jacob limped on his leg after wrestling with his own personality [the “man”], and why Bilaam hurt his leg when slowly realizing his attempt to curse the Jews was a fruitless activity. A ‘hurt leg’ in both instances means that one’s “path in life” is being redirected. “Leg” represents the vehicle for ‘traveling’ in a path of life, and a ‘hurt leg’ means this path is being inhibited.)
But why did the author of this metaphor design the creature as a seven-headed serpent? (The number seven is not important, as it merely indicates “many”.) The answer: to show that the problem, the mazik, refers to that which involves the “head”, i.e., wisdom. Abayeh was a great scholar - analogous to one with ‘many heads’. Thus, the creature’s form. I believe it is possible that the author of this medrash, (story), referred to the creature as a serpent (“tanina”) for a good reason. As the tanina here represents the competitive drive which Abayeh’s greatness awakened, tanina is used, because it also shares the same Aramaic root relating to learning, or one who learns. (“Tana” or “tanina” refer to an author of a Mishna.) So tanina is used in this story as a hint, that the creature represents the one who learned well, namely Abayeh.
The reason “even two students were in danger”, is to teach us that normally, when two students study together, the self aggrandizement born out of one’s own, new ideas, is belittled by the partner’s inevitable critique of his ideas. Two people who learn together always experience their ideas being tested and opposed by their learning partner. In normal circumstances, one’s ego would be in check. This story hints at the specific danger through telling us that “even two students” were subject to this danger. This points to an “ego” issue.
“Even by day” teaches us that at night, emotions have the upper hand. Daytime normally dulls the impact of our emotions, so this emotion should have been less harmful at day. But here, this competitive emotion was so strong, that daytime did not dull this competitive drive.
Rav Acha, learning for proper reasons and humble enough to pray to G-d to assist him, demonstrated his removal of self-importance. He succeeded at not falling prey to this damaging emotion of competition, which was generated out of Abayeh’s tremendous reputation. My friend Benji suggested this very same humility caused Rav Acha to attribute his success to G-d’s miracle, and not to himself.
My friend Jesse asked, “Why didn’t Abayeh come out straight and tell Rav Acha what he was up to, instead of keeping silent?” Two answers occur to me: 1) Had Abayeh done so, Rav Acha would be on guard for this phenomena, and it would not have had the emotional impact necessary for demonstrating that one could conquer such an emotion. When one is on guard of his emotions, he is less effected by them, and the demonstration which Abayeh sought to have Rav Acha display (to rid the mazik) would never have occurred. 2)Warning would do no good, as Abayeh’s level of learning was the cause of the mazik, and could not be removed. This also explains why Abayeh could not rid the study hall of this mazik himself.
Perhaps Rav Acha was well aware of this competitive drive, as all wise men know psychology well. Rav Acha therefore made his journey to remove this problem.
After a careful analysis of this account, being mindful of the Rabbis’ lesson that bizarre stories are not to be taken literally, we arrive at a new insight into human psychology. We learn of a flaw that rears its ugly “seven heads” to Torah scholars. We also learn from Rav Acha’s response what the corrective measure is for such a damaging, competitive emotion.
The Torah does not hide from discussing any idea, even if it exposes our teachers flaws in the process. As a Rabbi once said, there is no hero worship in Judaism. We do not seek to view humans as infallible - not even Rabbis. For this reason, the Torah also teaches Moses’ flaws.
Training children and students that we expect their attainment of a level like a Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, may result in the student’s abandoning Torah study when he or she fails at such an impossible goal. What we should teach our children is to do their best, and nothing other than that is expected. They should be taught to learn for the purpose of discovering beautiful Torah ideas, that afford us all the greatest happiness available. A child’s natural curiosity is G-d given - we see this all the time. This priceless curiosity is often destroyed by our current school system’s “memorization and regurgitation” code. We must be on guard to counter this devastating emotion of competition, if our children are to enjoy Torah study, and remain steadfast to its study throughout their lives.
Today’s children are tomorrow’s leaders. We must have deep concern for future generations. Let us insure that others will benefit from our hard work at raising our children and students correctly, in line with the insights from this metaphorical, Talmudic account.
The “seven-headed” serpent is in fact nothing more than a metaphor for Abayeh’s strong, Torah abilities. Each element in this story serves to draw our attention, pointing to clues for our investigation, as well as the causes and effects of the competitive emotion.