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‘The Snake at the Mouth of the Cave’ Continues Rav Soloveitchik’s Teaching Approach

Reviewing: “The Snake at the Mouth of the Cave” by Moshe Sokol. Maggid Books 2021. English. Hardcover. ISBN: 9781592645473.

It is said that when giving public lectures on Aggadah, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik would work especially hard on them. He felt that if an attendee misunderstood his Talmudic lectures, the effects would not be particularly devastating. However, given the nature of aggadic texts, if an attendee misunderstood the lecture, they could leave with heretical ideas or think that the rabbis of the Talmud were buffoons.

The nature of aggadic texts is that they contain ideas that are quite deep but prone to misinterpretation. Often called rabbinic tales, Aggadah is far from simple anecdotes. They explore deep, metaphysical concepts hidden deep in the text. Furthermore, misunderstanding these narratives could lead one to believe in God’s corporeality, polytheism or other heretical concepts. Thus Rabbi Soloveitchik’s effort in ensuring they were understood with crystal clarity.

In “The Snake at the Mouth of the Cave: Exploring Talmudic Narrative” Rabbi Moshe Sokol, dean of Lander College, has written a brilliant book that continues the Rav’s approach of approaching aggadah seriously and interpreting the stories as sophisticated, profound narratives.

In this highly original work, Sokol analyzes eight aggadic narratives about Chazal (Talmudic sages). The challenge in attempting to understand these stories is that there will forever be an inherent tension in trying to understand the personalities of Chazal. In the Talmud (Shabbat 112b), Rava bar Zimuna states: If the early generations of Sages are characterized as sons of angels, then we are human. But if the early generations are characterized as human, then we are like donkeys.

To which Rava bar Zimuna clarifies that he does not mean like the holy donkey of Rabbi Pincḥas ben Yair, who was an extraordinarily intelligent donkey; rather, like a typical donkey. Sokol bridges that tension and explores how the Sages, while angelic, were also human. They had feelings and emotions and were men of deep convictions and principles.

For many people, the 2004 ban on the books of Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin was the first time they had to deal with the notion of cherem (excommunication). Note that Slifkin himself was not put in cherem, rather his books. In two of the chapters, Sokol deals with two of the greatest sages in history who were put in cherem: Rabbi Eliezer and Avakya ben Mahalalel.

He explains how their highly principled approaches to life put them on a collision course that led to their cherem. He contrasts how they ultimately dealt with that reality. With Rabbi Eliezer, he died in purity, freed from his excommunication, to which one cannot go more than a few pages in the Talmud without seeing him quoted. While Avakya ben Mahalalel suffered a crueler fate, even with his genius and greatness, aside from a single quote in Pirkei Avot, he is not mentioned in the Talmud.

A generation gap is a difference in values and attitudes between one generation and the next, often manifest between a child and their parents. Sokol shows this is not a new phenomenon and opens his book with an analysis of Rabbi Eliezer and his father, Hyrcanus. He was just Eliezer then, and his lack of yeshiva education brought him to tears. As one of the richest men at the time, not only did Hyrcanus not support his son in that endeavor, but their gap in values was so immense that communication between them was not feasible. In fact, there could be no communication between them, as they were so different and their values far apart.

Sokol writes that even when Rabbi Eliezer became the leader of the generation, and after he reconciles with his father, their reconciliation is nothing more than a superficial one. While Hyrcanus took pride in his son’s achievements, he still fails to truly understand his son or to appreciate the values to which he has devoted his life. And that is the classic definition of a generation gap.

Perhaps the most stunning piece of aggadah in all of the Talmud is the story of Rabbi Eliezer and the oven of akhnai. What should have been the equivalent of a simple kashrut question turns into a fierce debate that includes supernatural events, excommunication, death and more. The debate over the purity of this unique clay oven leads the sages to excommunicate Rabbi Eliezer.

The notion of personal excommunication is something not to be taken lightly. The Hebrew term for excommunication is cherem, which Rabbi Ezra Schwartz quoted Rav Hershel Schachter, who noted that it has the same three letters as r-m-ch, which the Talmud uses to represents the 248 limbs of a person, i.e., the person themselves. So when an individual is put in cherem, the court that is doing that is in effect saying that these 248 limbs, i.e., the person, should drop dead.

The story of the oven of akhnai and ensuing excommunication is one filled with drama, personality conflicts, religious principles and more. Sokol concludes that sometimes there is a cost to living a principled life, for living a principled life may come at the expense of living an emotionally sensitive one. And those are precisely the conflicts that created a loggerhead between Rabbi Eliezer, Rabban Gamliel and other great sages of the time.

Other seminal aggadic stories include that of Rav Yochanan and Resh Lakish, Rav Kahana and Rav Yochanan, and Honi Ha’Magil. Sokol brings fascinating insights to these narratives, and the reader is left with a level of clarity that takes the inscrutability out of these tales.

Sokol has written a highly original and engaging work. He brings out the profundity of aggadah and gets to the depth of the personalities involved. The challenge with Aggadah is that it is extraordinarily easy to misinterpret, and that was the dilemma the Rav had to deal with. And like the Rav in his aggadic discourses, in “The Snake at the Mouth of the Cave,” Rabbi Moshe Sokol rises to the occasion.


Ben Rothke lives in New Jersey and works in the information security field. He reviews books on religion, technology and science. @benrothke

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