QUESTION: The Gemara teaches that after seven years, the spinal cord of a
person turns into a snake if the person did not bow down during Modim in his
lifetime (the Girsa of the Tur (OC 121) is "after seventy years," meaning
after he passes away). Why is this an appropriate punishment for one who
does not bow during Modim?
ANSWER: TOSFOS (16b, DH v'Hu) explains that the Gemara in Berachos (12b)
teaches that when one bows down during Modim, he should bow down like a
stick and then raise himself like a snake. If one does not bow and then
raise himself like a snake, his spine turns into a snake, measure for
To understand this better, we must understand why we are required to bow
like a stick, and to rise like a snake, during Modim.
The Acharonim explain that the point of Modim is to show our humility before
Hashem, Who grants us everything that we need for our daily lives. The
Gemara in Sotah (9b) teaches that Hashem originally made the snake the king
of the beasts, but the snake was not grateful and, to the contrary, it
became arrogant and wanted even more. Therefore, Hashem punished him,
saying, "I originally created you to walk with an upright stature, but now
that you did not humble yourself, you will walk upon your stomach." The
snake is, therefore, a symbol of the punishment that befalls a person who
does not humble himself and recognize that everything he has is a gift from
Hashem. When a person bows down, he should bow like a stick, reminding
himself that there is a Master in Heaven Whose word he must obey (for a king
rules with his stick; see Sotah 40a and Shabbos 52b).
When a person rises after bowing, he must remember that even when standing
erect he should not do so in an arrogant manner. The Gemara here teaches
that if a person does not bow during Modim, committing the sin of the
Nachash by standing erect and not recognizing Hashem's dominion, then after
he dies his spine that did not bend will turn into a Nachash (see MAHARSHA,
and MAHARAL in Chidushei Agados and Nesivos Olam, Nesiv ha'Avodah #10).
(b) Taking this theme further, we find that the sin of the snake was the sin
of Esav, who refused to recognize Hashem's dominion and arrogantly wanted
everything for himself (see Rashi to Bereishis 33:9). The Chachamim equate
the Nachash with Esav in Midrashim that associate both of them with Sama'el,
the Satan, which causes people to act in denial of Hashem's presence (see
Rashi in Sukah 29a and Sotah 10b; regarding the Nachash, see Zohar Bereishis
TARGUM ONKELOS (Bereishis 25:27) describes Esav as "Nachash Yarchan"
(according to the Girsa of the Ba'alei ha'Tosfos in Pane'ach Raza). This
might mean that Esav shared the trait of the Nachash with regard to his
"Yerech," his thigh. The thigh is the place from which a person begins to
bow. Just like the Nachash stood with an erect posture and did not humble
itself, Esav, too, did not bow and humble himself to Hashem. Yakov, who knew
this, realized that the way to overcome Esav was by humbling himself and
bowing down to Hashem. That is why, when he met Esav on his return from
Lavan, he greeted his brother by bowing down seven times (see Bereishis
We find similarly in Kidushin (29b) that when Rav Acha bar Yakov was faced
with a fearsome Nachash, he vanquished it by bowing down seven times in
prayer to Hashem (see Insights there).
(c) This comparison between Esav and the Nachash lends support to the
assertion of the MAHARSHA (Bava Kama 3b) that the four Avos Nezikin
correspond to the four exiles. The Maharsha writes that Mav'eh corresponds
to Esav, or Galus Edom, according to both interpretations of Mav'eh: if
Mav'eh is *Adam*, it alludes to Esav who is called "Edom." If Mav'eh is
*Shen*, it alludes to Esav whose profession is the Cherev (the Maharsha
seems to mean that the damage of the sword is referred to as eating, as in
Yeshayah 1:20). According to the Midrash that compares Esav to the Nachash,
Mav'eh alludes to Esav because Esav's poison is that of the snake, which is
expressed from its teeth (Bava Kama 23b). The Maharsha adds that the verse
that the Gemara brings to show that Mav'eh is Shen, "Eich Nechpesu *Esav*
Niv'u Matzpunav" (Ovadyah 1:6), is a verse that is describing Esav.
Rav Mordechai Aran in NIFLA'OS MI'TORASECHA (Erech Mav'eh) points out that
the only place in the Torah in which the word "Mav'eh" appears as Roshei
Teivos is the verse (Bamidbar 10:9) which says," v'Chi Savo'u *M*ilchamah
*B*'Artzechem *A*l *H*a'Tzar ha'Tzorer Eschem, va'ha'Resem
ba'Chatzotzeros...." Remarkably, this is the same verse that the RAMBAN
(Mitzvas Aseh #5) cites as the source in the Torah to pray to Hashem during
a time of trouble, corresponding to the verse of "... Im Tiv'ayun Be'ayu"
(Yeshayah 21:12), which the Gemara cites as the source that Mav'eh means
Adam *who prays to Hashem*.
Rav Aran points out that what we have written explains the appearance of
Mav'eh in this verse, according to the opinion that Mav'eh is Shen, meaning
the Shen of Esav which is the Shen of the Nachash and the Satan, because the
Zohar (Vayakhel 196b) explains that this verse is describing the war against
Sama'el (by blowing the Shofar, "va'ha'Resem ba'Chatzotzeros," on Rosh
Hashanah to confuse the Satan).