Friday, May 20, 2011

Wrestling with Demons

There are countless references in Tenach and Chazal to sheidim - demons. But how were these understood by Torah scholars throughout the ages? Amazingly, there has not to date been any comprehensive study of rabbinic attitudes to this challenging topic. So I am pleased to announce the e-publication of a new monograph, Wrestling with Demons: A History of Rabbinic Attitudes to Demons.

The monograph can be downloaded after making a donation via PayPal account or with a credit card. The recommended donation is $5, but if you have gained from the Rationalist Judaism enterprise and would you would like to take this opportunity to express your appreciation with a larger donation, it would be gratefully appreciated.

You can make a donation by clicking on the following icon. After the payment, it will automatically take you to a download link for the document.

As always, feedback is appreciated, and those who purchased the monograph will be notified via e-mail if a substantial update is released.

(And if you want to see something really scary, just read all the inane comments at Yeshiva World News coffee room's discussion of this topic.)


  1. I once took a class on the development of demons and the evolution of angels which looked at what early religions thought about such creatures. For the Demons course, we spent some time looking closely at Babylonian mythology. Demons played a big role in daily life (how to ward off the Lilith/Lilin especially) and early conceptions of angels as messengers of gods. It's very interesting to see what kinds of creatures the Jews were being told were running all over the place.

  2. I've always been interested in Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch's take on the sheidim issue: microbes. Whenever the topic comes up in Gemara I find it either goes in one of two directions: the mythical stuff like Ashmedai et al, and the "beware of them" stuff which sounds not dissimilar to ancient methods of contagion control.

  3. "I've always been interested in Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch's take on the sheidim issue: microbes. "

    reminds me of this cute post I saw once.

  4. Oh, come on, please don't waste your time!

  5. I find it interesting that the classic commentators on the Rambam; Magid Misnah etc, didn’t even entertain the notion that Rambam did not believe in demons. See, for example MT, Hil Gerushin 13:33

    ראו אחד עומד מרחוק ואומר שהוא פלוני בן פלוני ממקום פלוני, והרי נשכו נחש והרי הוא מת, והלכו ומצאוהו שנשתנה, ולא הכירוהו--הרי אלו משיאין את אשתו.

    The commentators go through lengthy discussion as to why Rambam didn’t mention the possibility of a demon impersonating the presumed husband.

    It would seem to me that the traditional “yeshivish” view is that the Rambam accepted the Talmudic references to demons literally, and that the “contemporary academic” view is that he rejected their actual existence.

  6. "yeshivish" yes, "traditional" no. Read the monograph!

  7. Is the Magid Mishneh not “traditional”?

  8. Sorry, I'll be clearer: Historically, there were those who accepted that Rambam denied demons, and those who didn't. So there was no single "traditional" view. And the Gra knew that Rambam denied them!

  9. Intressante. Are you quite sure, RNS, no one has made any studies of rabbinic attitudes to this topic? No one from the old German chevra, even? That is really quite amazing. A groi shkoi then for laying the groundwork.

    Re the sheidim = microbes thing: That explanation works well for a select few mamarie chazal, like the idea that sheidim were present on Noach's Ark. But there are scores and scores of references to sheidim in rabbinic literature, and it's clear that most times they are mentioned, they are thought of as actual demons.

  10. Should just add to previous post - it also is not clear that everyone in the time of chazal beleived in them. As i always say, there is no such thing as "chazal". We cant say ALL of chazal, in two countries in two empires over 500 years, believed in demons. Maybe only the amoraim in Bavel beleived in them, or maybe only certain superstitious people beleived in them. Or whatever.

  11. I think the Gra criticizes Rambam for his disbelief of Magic (Kishuf) which the Rambam explicitly denies in Hil Avodat Kochavim. Rejection of demons is not explicitly mentioned by Rambam or Gra.

  12. While the Bavli is saturated with references to and belief in demons, that the are "countless" references to sheidim in Tenach is a bit of an exaggeration. Off the top of my head the only reference to demons per se in Chumash is to sacrificing to the "se'irim" or goat demons.

    A developed angelology/demonology does not appear until 2nd temple literature coincident with the development of gnostic religions. That at least is my uninformed impression.

  13. Michael A. SingerMay 20, 2011 at 8:19 PM

    Awesome picture, Rabbi Slifkin! Of course, the Balrog of Morgoth isn't your average Talmud demon; he is one serious monster who can be defeated only through the use of magic (hence Gandalf, the Ba'al Shem :) )

    In addition to my excitement at seeing a pictorial representation of Tolkien's masterwork on your blog, I wanted to note that plenty of Jews and Christians living in the Middle East during the first millenium CE believed in demons - witness the trove of "Aramaic Incantation Bowls" discovered in recent years. So, "rational" sages like Rambam can doubt the existence of these creatures, but the situation "on the ground" for ordinary folks seems to have been different. Also, wouldn't rabbis or literate mystic-men have been the authors of these bowls, which indicates a belief among the learned in the reality of damage-causing demons?

    Shabbat Shalom,
    Michael A. Singer

  14. While I don't expect to read the monograph in the near future and thus am unable to respond directly, I'll go out on a limb here and supply some insight I find meaningful.

    One cardinal Jewish belief is that God is involved in the world's happenings to one extent or another. While our actions and reactions are shaped by our particular circumstances, it is God who is in fact, to one degree or another, producing them in the first place. Thus, there is typically talk of God's 'energies' or 'forces', as a means of describing the juncture at which God and our world intersect.

    Now the medieval mind had a certain way of apprehending things, and positive forces came to be conceptualized as angels, while the negative were seen as demons. This is not just some modernist hogwash. An examination of angel/demon-saturated works like the Talmud and Sefer Chasidim indicate that angels/demons are essentially 'messengers' who deliver great fortune or awful mishap - merely a colorful visualization of God's stewardship of our lives. Carrying this idea even further, they also have come to represent our own thoughts and deeds, and the fates we shape through our actions (thus lunacy (specific patterns of thought) might logically be described as 'possession'). [I believe this angles/forces equation is indicated both in Moreh Nevuchim, and often in the works of Chasidei Ashkenaz]. Ergo, religious avoidance of certain foods or behavior isn't an admission that one fears the revenge of the 'hairy ones' per se, so much as the concern that these represent God's destructive 'energies' which will result in some subtle negative effect.

    Two issues do remain, however. One is how far accounts of these entities go in describing them in great, seemingly physical detail. And second is the contexts in which they are depicted as being of a mind of their own. All I can say to that is that I imagine the range of belief in those phenomena might be aligned with the range of empirical vs. imaginative thought. What's reasonable/believable to one varies utterly from what is to another.

    On that note, I'm chagrined at the mean characterization of temimus'dike people who are faithfully repeating what they've been taught. Plenty of simple-minded Americans still believe in the existence of angels and ghosts too, and psychologists and anthropologists surely provide ample justification for these historic beliefs. Scholarship would do well to stick to systematic analysis and steer clear of resorting to plain jeering.

  15. "Oh, come on, please don't waste your time!"

    I've been trying to figure out what you mean by this, and it just dawned on me, that you probabbly equate the idea of "shadim = microbes", with "super special divine knowledge, and why didn't they cure cancer if they had that knowlege!?"

    However, for me, I make no connection. If shadim = microbes, then all it means is that observations were made, and labels were attached to explain those observations. You don't have to have super secret divine knowledge to give labels to things.

  16. The Chasam Sofer citation was just in the nick of time! :)

    Enjoyed the essay a lot. Thanks.

  17. Rabbi Slifkin, I blame you for my having gotten to bed late on Shabbat; I foolishly took a peek at your new monograph and wound up reading the whole thing. It's very good. Your point that given the knowledge base, belief in demons was rational is very well taken.

    And with all due respect to Rav Hirsch, the tendency of commentators to use recent hot topics in science (of which they frequently know about as much as they read in the newspapers or in popular books) to explain difficult and uncomfortable texts is pretty annoying and with the passage of time and development of new knowledge, often embarrassing.

  18. Michael, more to the point, the Balrog is a corrupted angel who can only be defeated by another angel, Gandalf :)

    Perhaps Moses ben Maimon believed in demons. Maybe not. So what? He probably believed in humours and the four elements. We know better now. If he could lay out evidence for their existence that can stand up to harsh, bright lights it's worth considering. If not, it's a historical note of purely intellectual interest in the same vein as his moderately Hellenized conception of angels. Are they Babylonian style demons, Muslim style shaitans or uniquely Jewish demons?

    Do we have any evidence for demons that isn't based on the Argument from Authority or the Fallacy of Consequences?

  19. OK, I read the comments on YN. Empirical physical reality changes when rabbis posken it to be so? Demons sneak into women's hair and braid it?

    I'm sorry, but that isn't just divorced from reality. It's gone through the custody hearing, sold the house, paid off the alimony and is currently shacking up with Nine Miles of Burning Crazy.

  20. Todd, not to make this into a Tolkien geek chat, but you are wrong about Balrogs. These fiery monsters were the creation of Melkor, the rebellious "archangel" (Valar) whom the Elves hated and named Morgoth (dark lord). Gandalf and Saruman were originally lower class Valar (Maia) who were sent to Middle-earth to counter the fallen Valar, Sauron (originally Melkor's principle servant, and later successor). In accepting their mission among men they accepted the possibility of mortality. Gandalf remained true to his mission while Saruman fell under Sauron's sway. Elven lords could also do battle with Balrog's although the result was often fatal for both.

    I haven't read R' Natan's monograph, but it has long been my understanding that the Rambam considered belief in shaidim as well as all forms of magic to be nonsense. Rationalist, though he was, he still fell under the influence of Aristotle's non-empirical theories of the natural and metaphysical world. As a result, much of what he writes in hilchot yesodei hatorah is dated and irrelevant to modern understanding.

  21. Hi,

    I read the whole monograph and I am surprised that none of the rishonim and achronim you mention make use of the Midrash Tanchuma in parashas Naso, sif 23 which states:

    "...on the day the Mishkon was erected, the demons were eliminated from the world. Before it was erected, the demons were commonly found in the world."
    The Midrash then proceeds to cite proof-texts as well as some descriptions of various demons and then concludes "the day the Miskon was erected they were eliminated."

    The possible use of this Midrash would seem to be too good to pass up.
    Why do you think nobody quotes it?
    It would imply that the Egyptians COULD have used magic before the exodus, but not after.
    That the Torah tradition would have information on them, but not have it practical anymore etc.
    (Not that I would hold of this, but it would seem to be a way out of making people do superstitous practices to protect themselves from demons).

  22. Thank you for an excellent essay.

    As far as I can tell, there are 4 possible explanations that are offered to understand the phenomenon of some sages interacting with demons.

    1. All happened in dreams

    2. Figments of their imagination

    3. Illusions/tricks played on them

    4. The sages didn't really believe in them but were trying to convey certain lessons

    Do you, Rabbi Slifkin, find these to be plausible explanations? I find them a bit tenuous. I'm curious, though, to know what other people think.

  23. Maybe i just haven't read enough truly frightening sheidim stories, but i've always felt that they're less like "demons" and more like "gremlins"... sorta mischevious, don't feed them after midnight, you know, but not particularly demonic.

  24. Someone who went to the Skokie yeshiva about 35 years ago told me that his teacher (I think Rabbi Starr who learned in Slabodka) used to say when the Gemara mentioned sheidim: "That means bacteria" (just like the Rav's brother said, as you mentioned).

  25. Gemorah in Brochos says that they have footprints of a chicken. What bacteria has footprints of a chicken?

  26. "Gemorah in Brochos says that they have footprints of a chicken. What bacteria has footprints of a chicken?"

    Thats not exactly what it says, however...


    Chicken Prints


    I'm sure more than a 2 minute search could get more impressive similarities.

  27. Well if you wwant to reconcile this view, chickens could certainly have been a vector for the microbe view of sheidim, as cariers of disease eg: avian flu

  28. A major character in Herman Wouk's *The Winds of War* and *War and Remembrance* was a brilliant yeshiva student, but one who came to the conclusion on his own that demons didn't exist. Rather than point him to Rambam, the Rebbe threw him out of the yeshiva and he went WAY off the derech.

  29. Haven't read Herman Wouk, but my daughter-in-law and her roommate did what it said in Gemorah Brochos that one should do to see the sheidim and no chicken footprints appeared in the morning. When the principal found out they were accused of a lack of Emunas Chachomim! Lol!

  30. How in the world did they get hold of the placentia of a black cat... and why weren't they arrested?

  31. I checked with her and it was a different story. The madricha said that if you don't read krias shma al hamita sheidim and wild animals will walk around your bed at night. If you spread flour around your bed you will see their footprints in the morning. So the girls didn't read the shma and threw laundry powder all around the place. Well, what do you expect should happen? I apologize, it was my bad. The kids were 14 years old. Why do you want to have them arrested? What's next? Burn them at the stake?

    Here is a true story. By us in Boro Park we go according to Sefer Hassidim. When a house is being constructed or remodeled, we take two metal studs and tape them together so that they form a square shaped space inside. This thing is then put into the walls behind the sheetrock and a small opening is left in the outside wall or in the roof for the shedim to go in and out freely. I saw it with my own eyes, I mean the studs not the sheidim. The reason that we do it is so that the sheidim shouldn't hurt us.

  32. Carol,

    I never thought the shedim=bacteria could work as peshat of the Gemara in most cases. It does, however, tell you something of the rationalist bent of the people who make this statement. Clearly, they're not comfortable with the Gemara meaning actual demons.

    And in a world where citing authority is everything (for many people), it's useful to have sources on your side, even if they don't make much sense.

  33. ...oh, and I loved your stories. :)

  34. as a rationalist I assume, you would not keep to sefer chasidim's warning not to block holes in a house not to upset the shedim.

    could you confirm this and also not marrying someone with the same name as your mother

  35. I always just figured it was the same as if any modern poseik were to publish an article abot or relating to or dealing with medicine. And then in a long time from now they find out that bacteria or w/e are actually entirely different then what we thought of them. The gemara simply accepted the existence of spirits and didnt delve into it the same way ppl nowadays dont delve into the validity of the existence of bacteria and other stuff. The Gemara "knew" they existed, and they therefore gave halachic advice/ stories abou it the same way they did about any other object/animal that exists.

  36. @Y. Aharon-
    The Balrogs were, in fact Maiar (lesser angels), as a careful reading of The Silmarillion bears out. Indeed, Gandalf (Olorin) the Maia was *barely* able to defeat the Balrog of Moria. BTW, as a hazzan, I love the Ainulindale as a "midrash" on B'riat Ha'Olam-that the Universe was created through song.
    Always a pleasure to participate in a Tolkien geekfest.

  37. The Torah mentions a curse of Ketev Mriri, or winged demons. After seeing a video about parasites, it occured to me that swarms of malaria carrying mosquitos coming from the swamps of Galili might be seen as demons, esp if they "passed over" some towns and attacked others. Also, doesn't the name "Mriri" sound like the buzz of a mosquito?

  38. The geek in me cannot help but point out that the fantastic image you are using for this post is a Balrog, a very cool demonic creature from the Lord of the Rings mythology. Nice call.


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