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The Talmud’s Many Demons

Sages in a superstitious age accepted the existence of invisible devils and the use of magic to render them visible

Adam Kirsch
August 14, 2012
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Michael Broad/Flickr)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Michael Broad/Flickr)

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

If you went to a Reform or Conservative synagogue, as I did, you were probably taught early on that Judaism doesn’t believe in demons and devils. The God of monotheism is a transcendent God, who leaves no room in the universe for other supernatural powers. And it went without saying that God was incorporeal, that he could not be imagined as having a human body. Both of these ways of thinking about the divine, we often hear, mark Judaism’s advance on paganism, with its pantheon of anthropomorphic spirits.

Reading the Talmud this week was a vivid reminder that this way of thinking about Judaism is in fact a modern invention. You can never pronounce on “what Judaism says” without specifying what Judaism you are talking about: post-Enlightenment, post-Reform Judaism may say one thing, where the Judaism of the Talmud says something entirely different. It becomes clear in Berachot 6a, for instance, that the sages of the Talmud not only believed in demons and folk magic, but that they never imagined such things could be theologically controversial.

Here is a baraita attributed to Abba Benjamin: “If the eye would be granted permission to see, no creature would be able to stand in the face of the demons that surround it.” We are all, apparently, constantly beset by invisible devils, and the rabbis of the Gemara go on to expand on the proposition: “Abaye said: They are more numerous than us, and they stand about us like a ditch around a mound.” “Rav Huna said: Each one of us has a thousand to his left and ten thousand to his right.”

The idea that we see only a fragment of reality, that our senses are not designed to perceive everything that is, has a surprisingly modern ring to it. Abba Benjamin’s dictum reminded me of a famous passage from Middlemarch, in which George Eliot praises human dullness: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” Taken as metaphor, the idea that we are surrounded by invisible powers is not hard to accept.

The problem is that the rabbis did not intend it as a metaphor. This becomes clear from the ensuing discussion of the effects of demons and the ways of making them visible. The evil these demons work is not metaphysical or catastrophic; it is trivial and bothersome, making them seem more like naughty sprites than devils. When your knees become tired, when your clothes wear out from rubbing, when you feel squeezed in the crowd at a public lecture—this is all, according to Rava, the work of demons. And there are magical ways of making demons show themselves. All you have to do is find a black female cat who is the firstborn daughter of a firstborn mother, burn her placenta to ashes, grind the ashes, and put some of them in your eye, and you will be able to see the demons. Be sure, however, to place the remainder of the ashes in a sealed iron tube, lest the demons steal it from you.

To my modern mind, there is something not just strange but scandalous about this. It shows that the rabbis of the Talmud could be at the same time geniuses of jurisprudence and men of their age, which was a pre-scientific and superstitious age. Most troubling, perhaps, is the way the rabbis never try to explain how these countless demons fit into a world picture where God is the source of all law and power. Did he create them, and if so, why? It is the taken-for-grantedness of demons and magic, the way they present no theological challenge, that seems most foreign to me in this Talmudic discussion. Perhaps I will discover a deeper treatment of the subject as I read.

Things get still more unexpected in the ensuing pages, where it is stated that God himself wears tefillin. On the scroll inside his tefillin, however, are different biblical verses from the ones in our tefillin: His bears the words, “And who is like Your people Israel, one nation in the land.” So, Israel’s tefillin contain the Shema, which praises “Adonai echad,” one God; in turn, God’s tefillin praise “goy echad,” one nation. It is a poetic idea, capturing the mutuality of the covenant, the special love that exists between God and his people.

But still, the question nags: How exactly can God wear tefillin? Can we imagine God with an arm and a forehead? The rabbis apparently could, quite literally, for in Berachot 7a we hear the story of Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, a high priest during the time of the Second Temple, who saw God sitting in the Temple on Yom Kippur. God asked the priest to pray for him, and when he heard the prayer, “He nodded to me with his head.”

This direct anthropomorphizing of God clearly troubled later commentators. “It is, of course, impossible to see God optically,” write the editors of the Schottenstein Talmud; they cite the 9th-century sage Saadia Gaon, who rather anxiously explained that what Yishmael saw was simply a great light. But how can a light nod its head? This seems like apologetics after the fact; none of the voices we hear in the Gemara itself object to the literal accuracy of Yishmael’s story.

But here, again, it is possible to resist one part of a Talmudic story while being drawn to another part. For the substance of Yishmael’s prayer displays an acute knowledge of God’s difficult temperament, as we see it in the Bible: “May it be your will that your mercy conquer your anger, and that your mercy overcome your sterner attributes, and that you behave toward your children with the attribute of mercy, and that for their sake you go beyond the boundary of judgment.” God, it seems, needs our help or encouragement to control his anger. There is something very appealing, in a post-religious age, about the idea that God needs our blessings as much as we need his.


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

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