We see several examples in Tanach of great characters who feared that perhaps they had sinned and as a result God would not keep a promise or protect them from harm. The quote from today’s daf presents a challenging idea from R’ Hanina ben Dosa:
תנו רבנן: מעשה במקום אחד שהיה ערוד והיה מזיק את הבריות, באו והודיעו לו לרבי חנינא בן דוסא. אמר להם: הראו לי את חורו! הראוהו את חורו, נתן עקבו על פי החור, יצא ונשכו ומת אותו ערוד. נטלו על כתפו והביאו לבית המדרש. אמר להם: ראו בני, אין ערוד ממית אלא החטא ממית. באותה שעה אמרו: אוי לו לאדם שפגע בו ערוד ואוי לו לערוד שפגע בו רבי חנינא בן דוסא
[With regard to the praise for one who prays and need not fear even a snake,] the Sages taught: [There was] an incident in one place where an arvad* was harming the people. They came and told Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa [and asked for his help]. He told them: Show me [the] hole of the arvad. They showed him its hole. He placed his heel over the mouth of the hole [and the] arvad came out and bit him, and died.
[Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa] placed [the arvad] over his shoulder and brought it to the study hall. He said [to those assembled there] see, my sons, it is not [the] arvad that kills [a person] rather transgression kills [a person. The arvad has no power over one who is free from transgression].
At that moment [the Sages] said: Woe unto the person who was attacked by an arvad and woe unto the arvad that was attacked by Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa.
* Koren note – Arvad. Based on the descriptions in the Gemara, apparently the arvad is a type of snake or perhaps a large, very dangerous reptile. In parallel discussions in the Jerusalem Talmud, the arvad is called a havarbar. Some identify this as the black snake of the coluber genus, which, although not poisonous, is very aggressive and bites.
The question is: How could Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa be so sure that he was free from sin? We know little about this tanna except that he lived in the first-century in the lower Galilee and was a disciple-colleague of Yohanan b. Zakkai. Hanina was distinguished for his extreme piety, and for his zealous observance of religious precepts.
The sages applied to him the Biblical phrase “man of truth” and held him up as an example of a completely righteous man. Because of his righteousness, his prayers were regarded as being especially acceptable and potent, and as a result he was frequently requested to pray for the sick and those in trouble. The aggadah speaks extensively of the miracles that happened for him; in fact, more has been transmitted about his pious deeds and his wonders than about his religious rulings and dicta.
An exceptional man obviously but I wouldn’t go around standing on holes containing snakes – well not until just after Ne’ilah maybe!