June 3, 2024
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June 3, 2024
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The Significance of a Spider Bite

The other day, I was handling one of the large and impressive tarantulas at the Biblical Museum of Natural History. I now have a huge and horrific spider bite on my arm.

Unfortunately there is no connection between the two (and the picture here was staged this morning); I was not bitten at the museum. I say “unfortunately” for two reasons. One is that it would be so much cooler to have been bitten by a huge tarantula than by some small spider at home that I didn’t even notice biting me. The other is that, contrary to popular belief, a bite from a tarantula is no big deal (which is why we let our visitors hold them), whereas the bite of some house spiders, particularly the Mediterranean recluse, can potentially have serious consequences.

Last night, when I noticed the enormous swelling, with two puncture holes at the center and the infection spreading up the lymph channels from my forearm to my armpit, I realized that I needed medical attention. After a visit to an emergency doctor, I’m on antibiotics and antihistamines. So far, I have not developed any superpowers. It stings a bit, and I’m nauseated and groggy (though that may be from the medication), but I’m otherwise OK so far, and it hasn’t spread further. Hopefully it was not a Mediterranean recluse and there will be no serious consequences.

So, what is the spiritual significance of all this?

Well, some people say that in such circumstances, one should check Perek Shirah. Having literally written the book on that, I don’t agree. Still, I decided to check my book to remind myself what I had written.

The song of the spider, called semamit in Perek Shira, is הַלְלוּהוּ בְצִלְצְלֵי שָׁמַע הַלְלוּהוּ בְּצִלְצְלֵי תְרוּעָה—“Praise Him with sounding cymbals! Praise Him with loud clashing cymbals!” In my book I related this to the other Scriptural mention of the semamit—“The semamit catches with her hands, yet she is in kings’ palaces” (although this actually might be referring to the gecko instead). And I wrote as follows:

The spider catches her prey with her eight hands, and is hated for it; yet she has not been wiped out as a result. Her cleverness enables her to spin webs even in kings’ palaces. Even if she is noticed, she may be tolerated, as her web will trap the flies.

The same is true of the Jewish People. We have been perennially despised, and many have tried to wipe us out. Yet they have not succeeded, and even during the height of our persecution, we have even made it to the king’s palace, thanks to our heritage of wisdom. Many were the kings and rulers who had a “clever Jew” as a trusted and loyal adviser (or physician) at hand in their palace.

The song of the spider is the triumphant sound of the one who has made it to the royal palace by virtue of his cleverness, overcoming the hatred that many feel towards him. It is the song of the royal instruments: “Praise Him with sounding cymbals! Praise Him with loud clashing cymbals!”

What does this have to do with my spider bite?

Nothing at all, as far as I can tell.

OK, so leaving Perek Shirah, what other spiritual significance may there be in it? A few years ago when I was in a scary situation with an escaped animal that I was trying to recapture, I kept thinking, “If this thing kills me, people will say that it proves that the Gedolim were right about my books!” Of course, there is no way to disprove such things, but hopefully people realize that there is no actual evidence for believing such things either.

But what about general Divine Providence? Although it is not very rationalist of me, I personally perceive enormous Divine Providence, not only in Jewish history but also in innumerable events of my own personal life. But I can’t see any providence in this spider bite. And before you object that “everything happens for a reason!” I will point out that this is largely a recent chasidic view. According to most Rishonim, it’s just not true. Things just happen.

Still, one can, and should, try to grow and learn from every experience. And this case is no different. I took the following three lessons, which are pretty standard and universal, but which nevertheless are always worth reinforcing:

Caution. I’m a cautious person in general, but I have a blind spot when it comes to animals, and I have done some embarrassingly reckless things that I prefer not to remember. The rest of you might not be tempted to run into a forest after a bear, but there are other dangers that we always need to remind ourselves to be cautious about, such as texting while driving.

Gratitude. I’m grateful that in general I have good health. I’m grateful to my wife for accompanying me to get medical treatment. I’m grateful to all the people who care about me. I’m grateful for modern medicine. And I’m grateful to have an amazing museum where people (like my youngest son, pictured here) can appreciate spiders!

Appreciation. Yes, as potentially dangerous as spider venom can be, it’s still something to marvel at (and spiders in general are absolutely extraordinary creatures). Almost all spiders are venomous, though only a very small number are dangerous to humans. Spider venoms, which apparently evolved from saliva, are a cocktail of many chemicals. Some are neurotoxins, which kill or immobilize their prey by attacking their nervous systems, while others are cytotoxins, which help break down the tissue so the spider can slurp up a liquefied meal. These unique, complex chemicals have enormous potential for medical science; for example, it was recently discovered that they can prevent damage caused by a heart attack and extend the life of donor hearts used for organ transplants! It’s just amazing that a chemical that evolved out of saliva to make grasshopper Slurpees has a completely different and incredibly beneficial use that the human brain has been able to discover.

Anyway, hopefully I’ll make a full recovery. You can save your prayers for more serious causes. Someone asked me for my full name, but my rationalist response was that Hashem already knows it!

Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin is the director of The Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh.

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