This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Uncommon Cold *

In spite of my most stubborn efforts at denial, there is an unmistakable chill in the air and a sniffle in my breathing. We are approaching the season of heavy parkas and runny noses.

The rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash occasionally turned their thoughts to the effects of cold weather on human health. Their musings led them to some whimsical observations about the relative responsibilities of God, nature and human behaviour in the spread of sicknesses.

Several discussions in the Babylonian Talmud connect the issue to an unlikely text, a verse

in the book of Proverbs (22:5) that is usually translated as "thorns and snares are in the way of the perverse: he that keepeth his soul holdeth himself far from them."

Virtually all the Jewish commentators are in agreement about the verse's basic meaning. Like most of the book of Proverbs (attributed by tradition to the perspicacious King Solomon), it sets out an extreme contrast between the wise man and the fool; the former is headed toward glorious success, whereas the path of the latter will inevitably lead to shameful disaster. The obstacles mentioned in the Hebrew text of the verse, ṣinnim and paḥim can be translated based on other occurrences of those roots elsewhere in the Bible as referring to dangerous thorns and to pits that are laid out along a roadway. Thus, an intelligent person is vigilant enough to watch out for such potential hazards, but a fool who walks carelessly is doomed to be pierced by the thorns and to stumble into the pit.

This is a simple and straightforward message, worthy of inscribing on schoolyard gates. The specific examples in the verse can, of course, be generalized as archetypes for any kind of hazard that might lie in our path.

Nevertheless, when we take a careful look at the interpretations of this verse in the Babylonian Talmud, we find that the ancient Jewish sages understood the dangers in quite a different sense, as alluding not to thorns and pits, but to cold and heat.

Even Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) who was unswerving in his devotion to the literal meaning of scripture, could not ignore the numerous talmudic passages in which the verse was applied to cold and heat. The closest he could come to acknowledging the verse's original sense was by suggesting that it be paraphrased as "cold and chills are as a pit and a trap in the path of a perverse one."

The talmudic rabbis--with their characteristic disinterest in sequential chronology--assumed that the patriarch Jacob had King Solomon's advice in mind when he admonished his children not to take their youngest brother Benjamin to Egypt: "If harm befall him by the way in which you go, then will you bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave." What "harm" was it that preoccupied Jacob when contemplating his son's journey to Egypt? The sages' initial assumption was that the patriarch feared Benjamin would be afflicted by an "act of God." Exactly what sorts of perils could he have had in mind? The Talmud refers us to the same terms that appeared in Proverbs--ṣinnim and paḥim--understood as: cold and fever.

The third-century teacher Rabbi Ḥanina bar Ḥama declared that "everything is in the hands of Heaven except for chills and heat." There is something very surprising about this sentiment when we compare it to the numerous texts in the Bible that extol the Creator's absolute control over the forces of nature including the blazing sun, snow and frost. As understood by the Talmud and its interpreters, Rabbi Ḥanina was not setting any limitations to divine omnipotence, but was lamenting the folly of the human species.

Rashi explained that in contrast to other ailments that may strike at people in ways that are entirely beyond our control, colds and fevers occur as the consequence of human carelessness, and therefore are fundamentally preventable. If people lack the good sense to dress warmly or stay in heated houses, and then fall victim to shivers and fevers, then they are at least partly to blame for their predicaments, and hence the disease cannot be classified entirely as an act of God.

The Tosafot expanded on this interpretation: Of course the states of extreme cold and heat are meteorological phenomena whose origins lie in the works of the Almighty. However, if self-destructive idiots are determined to leap into flames or frigid rivers, then they are perfectly capable of doing so even without special assistance from divine or natural forces.

The Maharal of Prague was adverse to extremes of any sort, whether of cold or of heat, both of which he regarded as inherently ungodly. He explained that the Almighty, as the embodiment of righteousness and justice, is utterly antithetical to all forms of one-sided extremism, and therefore he refuses to have anything to do with excessive heat or cold, preferring instead to allow those forces to follow their natural courses without supernatural intervention. How refreshing it is to contemplate a deity who distances himself from extremism, meteorological or otherwise!

The discussion described thus far was based on traditions contained in the Babylonian Talmud. Evidently, the problematic proof-text from Proverbs did not figure in the discussions of the subject that were composed in the land of Israel and preserved in works like the Jerusalem Talmud and Leviticus Rabbah. Those sources report that Rabbi Aḥa arrived at a similar observation by basing himself on a different text, Deuteronomy 7: 15 which assures us that "the Lord will take away from thee all sickness." This suggested to Rabbi Aḥa that the responsibility for sickness is in some way "from thee"--that is, it is at least partly our own fault and not God's.

Rabbi Ḥanina explained that the sickness being referred to by the Torah was a cold; and he even went on to observe that ninety-nine percent of people perish from cold, and only one percent due to other afflictions. The midrash went on to comment that Rabbi Ḥanina's attitude was probably influenced by the fact that he resided in the chilly Galilean town of Sephoris. Just imagine if he had experienced the delights of a Canadian winter!

Not everybody was daunted by the prospect of frigid temperatures. In one of those legendary encounters that the rabbis enjoyed relating between Rabbi Judah the Prince and the Roman leader known as Antoninus, the latter asked his Jewish comrade to offer a blessing on his behalf. When the Jewish sage uttered a plea for protection from the cold, Antoninus retorted dismissively that adequate protection from cold could be provided by simply adding a few extra layers of warm clothing. Rabbi Judah thereupon emended his prayer to one for preservation from the heat.

Antoninus acknowledged that the latter blessing, if effective, was indeed a most precious one, because there is no escaping the discomfort of unbearably hot weather.

Some commentators stressed that Rabbi Ḥanina's observation about colds and fevers should not be confused with the well-known maxim that "everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven." That statement referred to the fundamental characteristics of one's personality, physical constitution, economic circumstances and moral stature. The dictum about colds and fevers, on the other hand, is more modest in its scope, dealing only with how people cope with certain external conditions of health and climate.

At any rate, the promise in Deuteronomy that colds and other ailments will eventually be eradicated appears to contradict the rabbinic claim that cold lies outside the range of divine control. Some commentaries harmonized the difficulty by arguing that the Torah's blessing is an assurance that God will completely rid the world of extreme cold weather, so that even those reckless souls who do not have the sense to stay inside during a blizzard will be saved from the consequences of their foolishness.

As I contemplate the approach of winter, that is a prospect that truly warms my heart.

This article and many others are now included in the book

On the Trails of Tradition
On the Trails of Tradition

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, October 29, 2010, p. 10.
  • For further reading:
    • Krauss, Samuel. Antoninus und Rabbi. Vienna: Israel-theologische Lehranstalt, 1910.
    • Meir, Ofra. Rabbi Judah the Patriarch: Palestinian and Babylonian Portrait of a Leader. Sifriyat Helal Ben-Ḥayim. Tel-Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1999.