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The Talmud’s Demonology Resembles the Schlocky Inventiveness of ‘Dune’ or ‘The Lord of the Rings’

Infused with magic—and ritual designed to conjure or contain magic—Jewish oral law remains a mix of jurisprudence and poetry

Adam Kirsch
February 23, 2016
New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

One of the challenging things about the reading the Talmud is the way it combines the most painstaking rationality with the most florid superstition. Both of these qualities were on display in last week’s Daf Yomi reading, which encompassed chapters 6 and 7 of Tractate Gittin. Most of the text was occupied with technical questions about how a husband or wife can appoint an agent to deliver or receive a bill of divorce. But then the rabbis shift to telling tall tales about Ashmedai the king of the demons and his duel of wits with King Solomon. “There were three hundred types of demons in Shichin,” says Rabbi Yochanan, even as he acknowledges that “I do not know what a demon itself is.” If he had never seen a demon, why was Yochanan so sure they existed? How could the same mind be so exacting and so credulous at the same time?

But perhaps the contradiction is only apparent. Clearly, what seems strange to us was perfectly natural for the rabbis themselves. The root of their knowledge of the universe was a text, the Bible, which itself combines legalism and magic. The same Moses who delivered the law on Sinai also transformed sticks into snakes and turned the Nile into blood. We are accustomed today to thinking of the universe as governed by law; but for the sages, it was the Jewish people who were law-bound, not natural phenomena. Perhaps the Law seemed all the more sacred and protective because it represented an island of rationality in an ocean of magic and madness. Or perhaps, in a deeper sense, the Law itself is magical. So much of rabbinic Judaism is about performing exactly the right actions and saying the right formulas in order to win God’s approval; as we saw much earlier in the Talmud, the rabbis even prescribe a particular sequence of prayers and fasts in order to provoke rainfall.

The primary argument in Tractate Gittin, from the beginning, has been about the use of agents to deliver a bill of divorce, a get. In the first five chapters, we learned that a husband can use an agent to send his wife a get, but only under certain circumstances: The get must be properly written, its delivery must be certified by two witnesses, and the husband has the right to revoke it before it is actually handed over to the wife’s possession. Now, in chapter 6, we learn that there is also a second kind of agency involved in divorce. Not only can the husband appoint an agent to deliver the get, but the wife can also appoint an agent to receive the get. And this opens up a whole new range of possible complications.

Ordinarily, if a woman appoints an agent for receipt, the divorce goes into effect immediately once the agent takes possession of the get. But a husband, we learn in Gittin 62b, has the power to nullify the wife’s agency and replace it with his own. Thus, if a woman appoints an agent for receipt, the husband can instruct him instead to act as an agent for delivery. In that case, the divorce does not go into effect when the agent takes the get, but only once he hands it over to the wife in person. Moreover, there are precise verbal formulas that must be used if the process is to work. If a woman says to her agent, “Bring my bill of divorce to me,” but then the agent encounters the husband and tells him, “Your wife said receive my bill of divorce for me,” which is he really—an agent for receipt or an agent for delivery? In this case, because the agent effectively misrepresented his powers, the rabbis rule that “even if the bill of divorce reached her possession, she is not divorced.”

Agency can be subject to other qualifications as well. Can a principal instruct an agent not just what to do, but how specifically to do it? What if a woman tells her agent to receive her get in one particular place—say, a certain city—but he meets the husband somewhere else and takes possession of the get? Was the woman’s instruction definitive or should it simply be considered a preference or a piece of advice? Here again, the difference between delivery and receipt becomes important. If a woman appoints an agent for receipt, she has the power to instruct him where to receive the get. If, however, he is an agent for delivery, then it doesn’t matter where he finds the get, only that he brings it to the woman in the end. These questions of agency ramify widely in Jewish law, and the Gemara brings in parallels with the laws of eruv to establish the extent of an agent’s powers.

A significant subset of divorce law has to do with deathbed divorces. Ordinarily, if a husband orders a scribe to write a bill of divorce but does not further order him to deliver it to the wife, there is no divorce. “A healthy man who said: Write a bill of divorce for my wife,” but doesn’t order it to be delivered, “sought to mock her,” the mishna instructs. If, however, a man who is about to be executed, or who is dying of illness, orders a get to be written, the legal presumption is that he also wants it to be delivered, and bystanders are authorized to do so. Even if a man has fallen into a pit so that he can’t be seen, only heard, bystanders are supposed to follow his verbal instructions to write out a get. This leads to the interesting question of how we know the man in the pit is who he claims to be. What if, the Gemara asks in Gittin 66a, the voice is actually that of a demon trying to make mischief? You can tell the difference between a man and a demon, Rav Yehuda explains, because a man casts a shadow and a demon doesn’t.

The question of demons returns in Gittin 67b, where the mishna asks what is to be done if a man tries to divorce his wife while he is temporarily insane. In such a case, his orders are to be disregarded, since he doesn’t know what he really wants. And what causes temporary insanity? Shmuel says that it is drinking new wine, but another opinion is that insanity is caused by demonic possession: “The name of the demon is Kordeyakos,” a name derived from the Greek word for “heart.” To cure the possession, the sufferer should wear an amulet in which the demon’s name is written.

This leads the Gemara to relate, starting in Gittin 68a, a long story about King Solomon’s encounter with Ashmedai, the king of the demons. Interestingly, though Ashmedai is a malevolent figure, he is also pious in his own way: “Every day he ascends to heaven and studies in the heavenly study hall and he descends to the earth and studies in the earthly study hall.” The idea that the king of demons is also a talmid hacham is fascinating. In a strange way it manages to domesticate the supernatural, bringing even demons under the wing of Jewish law.

We have read earlier in the Talmud about the shamir, the magical worm that has the power to bore through the hardest substance. The shamir was Jewish mythology’s answer to a dilemma regarding the building of the First Temple. According to the Bible, the stones of the Temple were so sacred that they could not be cut with iron, since iron is associated with weapons and thus with violence. But then how were the stones cut? The answer is that the shamir hewed them into shape. And how did Solomon get his hands on the shamir? We learn from the Gemara that he did so by kidnapping Ashmedai: Solomon tricked the demon into drinking wine, and when he got drunk the king subdued him with a magic chain that bore the name of God.

Ashmedai revealed that the shamir was in the possession of a wild rooster, who used it to hew cracks in stony mountains. To capture the rooster, Solomon used a clever trick: He covered the rooster’s nest in glass, so that when the rooster came back and tried to get in, he produced the shamir to cut through the glass. Then Solomon’s servant grabbed the shamir and made off with it, leaving the rooster to commit suicide out of disgrace. The king kept Ashmedai in chains until he was done building the Temple; but then Solomon fatally let his guard down. He removed Ashmedai’s chain, in order to get the demon to prove how strong he was; whereupon Ashmedai hurled Solomon 400 parasangs away, assumed his shape, and stole the throne. Only when it was observed that the king had started wearing socks in the harem, to hide his cloven hoofs, did people realize what had happened. In the end, Solomon got another magic ring and chain and managed to banish Ashmedai once and for all. It is a great story, full of imaginative detail, and I was left wondering who originally came up with it. At least one of the sages must have had the soul of a poet.


To read Tablet’s complete archive of Daf Yomi Talmud study, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.