The Rod of Asclepius, a serpent wrapped around a staff that is associated with the Greek god of medicine, is commonly used as a symbol for medical centers.

Centuries before ancient Greece, however, this symbol is found in the Torah. Numbers 21 describes how the Children of Israel suffered from a plague of snakes after they complained about conditions in the wilderness. When the people repented, Moses followed God’s instructions and made “a serpent of brass, and set it high upon a pole. And it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked up to the serpent of brass, he lived” (Numbers 21:9).

What was the significance of a brass serpent raised on a pole? Perhaps God wanted them to remember where the live serpents came from–where, indeed, everything comes from. The sages taught: “Did the [brass] serpent cause death or cause life? No; [what it indicated is that] when Israel turned their thoughts upward and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed, but otherwise they pined away” (Rosh Hashana 29a).

As for Asclepius…It is interesting to note that the original snake-rod made by Moses was kept by the Jewish people for generations. Unfortunately, under the influence of their neighbors, the people turned the snake into an idol. Eventually, King Josiah (who was righteous) “broke in pieces the brass serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel did offer to it; and it was called Nehushtan” (II Kings 18:4). One can certainly assume that many of those who did not care for Josiah’s reforms simply left the land of Israel and took their false gods with them…and perhaps this was how the snake and staff found its way to Greece.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.