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Jewish Demons

On salamanders, wondrous creatures, and the early modern blending of the scientific and the magical

Maoz Kahana
June 01, 2023
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In 1651 the rabbi-politician-philosopher and ex-converso Menashe ben Israel (1604-57) published Nishmat chaim—a polemic treatise proving the immorality of the soul from almost every possible aspect. The course of the discussion led the author to look into the possibility of the existence of “mixed” human-demonic hybrids: “And indeed, if, as investigation shows, it is possible for women to have sex with demons, we must ask whether they [the demons] have reproductive organs.” To investigate the issue, ben Israel reviewed the opinions of “the great Christian sage Augustine,” alongside the words of R. Simon bar Yochai, and referring also to his own lived reality: “Now, all of Germany, Alsace, and France ... know of the craft of witches … who are women who have made covenants with demons … They assemble in groups in a designated place where they dance and hop in the night, and they have intercourse with satyrs, that is, with spirits.”

As the discussion continues, Menashe embarks on a scientific description of such creatures, and questions the necessity of judicial actions against the human participants of such strange interactions, namely, the witches.

Nishmat chaim was part of an early modern process that saw an increased scholarly interest among Hebrew writers in novel intellectual regions and domains. As such, its use of intertwining scientific, demonological, and kabbalistic language closely corresponded with the literature of its age, such as Rabbi Aron Modena’s Ma‘avar Jabok (1626), or the more homiletic-theoretical works of kabbalists like Rabbi Isaia Horowitz’s Shney luchot ha-brit (1648), as well as the later, and more scientific-medical approach taken by Tuvia Ha-Cohen in his Ma‘ase Tuvia (1707), which was devoted to enriching Jewish knowledge with detailed scientific descriptions.

The fascinating nature of such mixed or magical creatures as dragons, centaurs, sirens, and the aforementioned human-demonic hybrids was a common focus of such early modern Jewish works. Science, Kabbalah, and Jewish Talmudic and medieval demonological traditions were merged together, creating a vibrant and widespread discussion. In this manner, these 17th-century works contributed to the growing place of wondrous creatures in Jewish imagination and literature. In this specific realm, Jewish interest can be seen as closely corresponding with the growing European concern with similar creatures. This interest is evident, for instance, in Francis Bacon’s influential plan for cataloging the wondrous phenomena of the natural world, and its subsequent materializations such as Joseph Glanvill’s works on magic and witchcraft. These and similar works played no small role in what might be termed the “new science” of the 17th century.

Could these general European and specific Jewish interests gain influence also on the core of the Jewish traditional culture, namely, the world of rabbinical writings: Talmudic scholasticism and legal halachic jurisdiction? A short answer to this question might be found in an unexpected halachic inquiry, written by the notable halachic scholar Rabbi Zvi Aschenazi (1656-1718) known as the Chacham Zvi, and published in his book of responsa (rabbinical replies on halachic matters) in 1712. The inquiry dealt directly with the potential halachic quandaries arising from the creation of a Golem:

I am uncertain about a person who was created through Sefer Yetsira—such as the one mentioned in Sanhedrin, “Rava created a man,” and as they testified about my grandfather, the eminent Rabbi Elijah, the head of the rabbinical court of Chelm [Chelm—Poland]. Might the Golem be counted [toward a quorum] for matters that require ten, such as kaddish and kedusha?

The discussion, as expressed in these opening sentences, was inspired by the Talmudic magical traditions about the sages’ power to produce a Golem, namely, a humanoid creature. It furthermore draws on one specific tale of the creation of such a creature in the 16th century, by one of Chacham Zvi’s ancestors. And yet, while the discussion draws on past traditions and debates, its combination of scientific and legal discourses is quite novel: Can a human-divine mechanism function as a valid legal participant in Jewish rituals and ceremonies?

The answer to the intriguing halachic question raised by the responsum cannot be dealt with here. What interests me here is the striking penetration of miraculous creatures into rabbinic literature in all its branches in the last decades of the 17th century. Our discussion begins with the Chatam Sofer and the scientific interpretation of one wonder in his writings, namely, the salamander.

The book of Leviticus presents a list of animals that are forbidden for consumption. One of these is the turtle, which is accompanied by the phrase “in all its variations.” What is implied by this addition? Which other animals are similar to the turtle, and how? The sages of the Talmud phrase their answer in the following words: “Our Rabbis taught: ‘The turtle in all its variations’—this includes the arod, the nephilim and the salamander. And when R. Akiva arrived at this verse he used to say: ‘How manifold are Thy works, O Lord!’” Tannaim (sages of the period surrounding the destruction of the Second Temple) such as R. Akiva were filled with amazement and wonder at the greatness of the Creator when they recalled the existence of such animals. Of this short list of wondrous creatures, the salamander, at least, is mentioned in other places in the Talmud. Thus, for instance, in Tractate Hagiga:

R. Abbahu said in the name of R. Eleazar: The fire of Hell (Gehinom) has no power over the Torah Scholars, it is an ad majus conclusion [to be drawn] from the salamander: If now [in the case of] the salamander, which is [only] an offspring of fire, he who anoints himself with its blood is not affected by fire, how much more so the Torah Scholars, whose entire body is fire, for it is written: “Is not My word like as a fire? saith the Lord.”

The wondrous salamander serves as a model for the sages of the Talmud, through which they can explain a future additional wonder, namely the question: How will the sages not be incinerated by the fires of hell? Because he who anoints himself with the blood of the salamander, the Talmud claims, will not be burnt by fire, the sages—who are themselves saturated with a kind of fire—will not burn in the fires of hell. Rashi, the classical Talmudic exegete of the 11th century, explained that the wondrous salamander is created by a special spell, which forges it out of a lengthy burning of myrtle trees. The fire from which the salamander is born turns its blood into the protective substance mentioned above, which is resistant to any other fire.

As one can derive already from its name, the notion of the salamander’s special connection to fire predates the traditions encapsulated in the Talmud. The salamander appears already in the works of Aristotle (fourth century BCE) and Pliny the Elder (first century CE), as well as in Greek and Roman mythologies. The Talmudic passages make secondary use of such existing myths, assimilating the creation of this fantastic creature into rabbinic literature.

Let us now skip forward in time, from the days of the Talmud to the modern era and to Rabbi Moses Sofer (1762-1839), also known as the Hatam Sofer. An influential halachist and a great communal leader during turbulent times in the history of the Jews, the Hatam Sofer attempted, in his exegesis on one of the aforementioned Talmudic passages, to question Rashi’s explanation of the salamander’s origin. Writing with a certain level of humility, the Hatam Sofer found challenging the notion that the salamander was created through magic, rather than naturally. He phrased his exegetical solution as follows:

Therefore, in my humble opinion, it appears that [the salamander] is surely a creature that [is created out of] the source of fire. And it grows in the famous fire-spouting hills. And ... when [the salamanders] emerge into the air they immediately die, therefore the sorcerers must prepare for them a hot location, similar to the source of fire in which they live ... [therefore] the sorcerers prepare a furnace that has been heated for seven years with myrtle trees, whose heat is thus close to [the heat of the] source of fire, and they attach the salamander to this [fire] in order to bring it here, and they are fruitful and multiply there, and men are anointed with their blood and [become] impervious to fire.

The enigmatic description of the salamander encountered in rabbinic literature becomes a thicker scientific description in the Hatam Sofer’s words. The various “data points” are not new: They were gathered and tied together by the Hatam Sofer from the vast body of medieval and early modern Jewish literature. The innovation in the Hatam Sofer’s reorganization of the material is in his solution for the tension between the forces of sorcery and those of nature. The solution is exegetical and cautious; the sorcerers do not really create the salamanders, as Rashi explained, but rather extract them from their natural habitat in the volcanoes, and miraculously transport them to the civilized world. According to the Hatam Sofer, therefore, the verses in Leviticus that allude to the salamander cannot indicate a creature that is not part of the natural order, even if all the details of its existence are wondrous and magical.

As we shall presently see, the Hatam Sofer exhibited a similar naturalistic tendency when dealing with other strange creatures, demons, and monsters. The question arises, why was it important to this author to come up with a naturalistic solution to the salamander’s existence—a solution which stood in direct opposition to earlier thinkers such as Rashi? To answer this question, we must turn to the Hatam Sofer’s varied, and at times surprising, personal life as a halachist, Talmudic exegete, and leader of traditional European Jewish society, who at the same time acted also as an exorcist and as a reader of scientific literature in various fields. Over the following pages, I will offer a rough sketch of the Hatam Sofer’s rabbinic, magical, and scientific views and activities, which, I will argue, shed light on his treatment of miraculous creatures.

At the beginning of the 19th century, in Pressburg, a capital of the Hapsburg Empire, the following story was told regarding a child, Lieb, son of Sarah, who was possessed by an evil spirit:

A young boy lived in Pressburg, named Lieb, son of Sarah. And she was a righteous woman, and she lived in the great house on the Jewish street, called Nesterhaus ... and one day the child was possessed by an evil spirit, God protect us, and he came ... and tore the mezuzot [a doorpost comprising a piece of parchment inscribed with Hebrew verses from the Torah] and all the chumashim [volumes of the Pentateuch] and siddurim [prayer books], God protect us ... and he jumped up high and made strange gestures, and his face turned different shades [of color]. And when he found a book in gentile languages he would kiss and hug it and kneel [before it]. And he uttered the names of idols, God protect us, and there was a great noise and the whole city buzzed with excitement. And many came from far away to see this, even priests, and they marveled at his ability to call the names of different and ancient idols.

The spirit that possessed Lieb was, according to this description, a strong and alarming spirit. It turned the Jewish boy into a sort of reincarnation of an ancient Christian and enabled him not only to use the “gentile language” that he did not know but also the names of various ancient Christian saints who were strange even to expert priests of the 19th century. The boy was brought to the city rabbi—Rabbi Moses Sofer. Initially, the Hatam Sofer attempted to solve the problem using moderate, conventional methods:

He commanded that the boy be brought before him, he stood him up between his knees and commanded him to read the chumash and pray from the siddur. And he did as he was commanded. But when [the boy] went from his home to the courtyard, where the study house of the yeshiva stood, and heard the kedusha or the kaddish, the spirit, God protect us, came to him again and he returned to his actions and his bad ways.

The Hatam Sofer sought to wear down the force of the impure spirit that had possessed the boy using routine ritual actions, such as reading in the chumash and reciting prayers from the siddur. This simple solution appeared to achieve its aim, but it was promptly discovered that it was insufficient as a cure, since, while the reading from the chumash or praying from the siddur supposedly banished the spirit, a similar or stronger ritual action—hearing sanctified parts of the prayer from within the yeshiva space—reawakened it, and the boy remained troubled and afflicted. It was only after the stubborn persistence of the affliction that the Hatam Sofer, responding to repeated communal requests, consented to do what he had originally been asked:

He called his student, Fischel Sofer, and gave him an amulet to tie around the boy’s neck, and [told him to] command that the spirit leave the boy[’s body] through his little finger, and that he should open the window. And [he told him] to place several brave men beneath the window, with a black dog, and to command the spirit to absorb this dog. And these people should then put the dog in a sack and throw it into a river. And the aforementioned rabbi [Fischel Sofer] did this by his rabbi’s commandment … and the boy fell to the ground and screamed “my hand, my hand!” like a crane and his finger opened, and the people who were standing there outside with the dog ... threw the dog into the Danube river, and after a few days the boy healed and he [returned to] study in the yeshiva.

The Hatam Sofer’s proficiency in the writing and use of amulets is not unexpected. He was closely trained by his greatest teacher, the rabbi, kabbalist and magician Rabbi Nathan Adler (1742-1800), who trained him from the time he was 11. This personal guidance aimed to create in Sofer a brilliant Torah scholar in the Talmudic sense, but, at the same time, Rabbi Nathan trained his student in the use of the amulets. Some of the content of these amulets can be recreated from the writings of Fischel Sofer, the Hatam Sofer’s scribe and student mentioned in the story above, who copied in his own hand formulas of kabbalistic names, which he learned from the Hatam Sofer for memorization. In addition, over the past few years, pages copied from an amulet booklet bequeathed by Rabbi Moses Sofer to his heirs have begun to be published, bit by bit. The magical practices collected therein were intended for a variety of purposes: “an incantation against the Evil Eye,” “an amulet for protection,” “an amulet for finding favor [chen],” and so on. An examination of the origins of these magical formulas confirms that many of the Hatam Sofer’s exorcism techniques were the heritage of his childhood in the Rhineland. Alongside the magical practices learned from Rabbi Nathan Adler, one can find additional formulas inherited from lesser known kabbalists, such as Rabbi Berish of Hanover or Rabbi Levi Ba’al Shem (the miracle worker) of Frankfurt. Formulas for protective amulets are described in detail in other places in the Hatam Sofer’s writings as well.

The Hatam Sofer’s collection of magical practices, like those of other miracle workers, was rich, varied, and hybrid in nature. Alongside amulets inspired by Lurianic Kabbalah one also finds simpler magical formulas, as well as ones that are accompanied by ritual recitations of biblical verses. Some of these magical instructions and formulas appeared already in earlier works. Among these are the talismans found in Amtachat Binyamin and Shem tov katan, printed in the first few decades of the 18th century by Rabbi Beinush ha-Cohen (d. 1725), one of the most fruitful collectors in the field of Jewish magic of his time.

Information regarding two slightly hazy years in the Hatam Sofer’s childhood biography has the potential to add some further complexity to our exploration of this interesting figure. The Hatam Sofer’s teenage years, which he spent with Rabbi Nathan Adler in Frankfurt am Main, were interrupted during the years 1775-77, a period that he spent in Mainz. This sojourn in Mainz may have been motivated by the Hatam Sofer’s desire to distance himself from the tension that arose between himself and his teacher, Rabbi Nathan Adler, on the one side, and his family on the other (the Hatam Sofer left his parent’s home at a young age, supposedly due to some sort of tension, according to a familial tradition, recorded by his grandson). It is also indisputable that the young and talented scholar continued his Torah studies during these years. But in the perspective lent by the passage of time, these years were recollected primarily as time spent by the 14-year-old in the study of various natural sciences—geography, mathematics, history, astronomy—under the patronage of a wealthy Jew in whose house he resided during this period. In the romantic language of one of his students: “He said to the wisdom of nature and creation: ‘you are my sister’ (Prov. 7:4). And she, too, reached out her arms to him as one who leans upon her beloved (Song of Songs 8:5).”

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Should we view the Hatam Sofer’s clear interest in the study of sciences, in the original German, and perhaps also French sources, which continued from this date onward, as standing in uneasy tension with his kabbalistic and magical training? Do these transitions—from Frankfurt to Mainz and, two years later, back to Frankfurt, reflect the inner turmoil of a young student caught between the lure of the scientific writings of Euclid and the power of Lurianic Kabbalah, between magic and science, between old and new? The simple answer to this question is unequivocally negative. For a talented Ashkenazi scholar of the mid-18th century, the study of secular fields of wisdoms was part of a wider interest in natural philosophy, and from this perspective there was actually much affinity between the Hatam Sofer’s curiosity regarding these branches of knowledge—particularly physics and astronomy—and kabbalistic and magical lore. A look at the varied genres of writing produced by the Hatam Sofer in his adulthood reflects a continued theoretical and conceptual preoccupation with a wide range of topics from the world of nature. Astronomy, astrology and alchemy, chemistry and physiology are present in his exegetical and homiletic writings, and closely intertwine with his religious interests and methods in what appears to be an almost purposeful confusion.

The terminology that ties these various components into the consistent, coherent language of rabbinic composition is, naturally, kabbalistic on the whole. Kabbalistic language lends general direction, and religious and exegetical meaning, to the scientific endeavor. Even hermetical thought patterns, as I demonstrate in a forthcoming study, invade the Hatam Sofer’s halachic writings, where they function as scientific analyses of traditional halachic categories.

Of course, the Hatam Sofer was not a scientist, but a rabbinic writer, and his use of his scientific knowledge is eclectic—it contains no independent scientific knowledge or observation, using scientific facts in order to base or demonstrate a halachic or moral claim. This eclecticism closely corresponds with the scientific perceptions of the time: Like many other of his contemporaries, both Jewish and non-Jewish, as well as earlier thinkers, the Hatam Sofer viewed chemistry, alchemy, astronomy, and astrology as fields of study that are closely intertwined. All of these fields—like the attraction of iron to a magnet—were viewed as an integral part of the combined structure of the examination of the qualities of substances and the operating mechanisms of the natural world.

The Hatam Sofer’s youthful sojourn in Mainz was eventually well integrated into his adult writings. His study of the elective parallel fields of Kabbalah, magic, and science characterizes a wide stratum of traditional Jewish European scholars of the early modern era. In this sense, the preoccupation with scientific study in the Jewish society of this time had clear positivistic ties to the study of Kabbalah, and at times, magic. These fields of knowledge lent each other support on the conceptual level, and partially overlapped in their fields of exploration.

The Hatam Sofer’s scientific education was also expressed in a somewhat more systematic way, in a Hebrew composition on techuna (astronomy) and cosmology written sometime toward the end of the 18th century. This short, largely forgotten treatise, which was first printed a century after its composition, includes an elementary description—systematic, cosmologic, and astrologic—of the material world. It ends abruptly in the middle of the fourth chapter. Details on the essay’s composition, and on its abrupt ending, are found in an internal family tradition:

He himself [the Hatam Sofer] was knowledgeable in the wisdoms of measurements and algebra ... and likewise was proficient in the wisdom of astronomy and physics. And he began to write a special book [devoted] to these fields, so that his students would have it and could learn from it ... and after Sefer ha-Brit (the Book of Covenant) was published he reviewed it start to finish and showed it to his students, and said: Buy such a one as this, any of you who wish to fill your hands with various wisdoms. And you and I will be grateful to the author [of Sefer ha-Brit], who saved me from much wasted time, since I do not need to compose such a [book] for you.

The Hatam Sofer’s unfinished astronomy treatise can be seen, indeed, as somewhat reminiscent of Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz of Vilna’s Sefer ha-brit, the first edition of which was published in Brünn in 1797. Rabbi Pinchas’ tremendous, encyclopedic magnum opus was devoted to a detailed exposition of his systematic study of the various scientific fields of his time, incorporating them into a comprehensive, kabbalistic worldview, as the statement printed in the title page of the book declares: “[The book] speaks of matters of ... logic ... and experiments and truths of the wisdom of nature ... [and] from the worlds of atsilut, beri’ah, yetsirah and asiyah ... and the attainment of the Holy Spirit [ruach ha-kodesh’].”

The Hatam Sofer’s study of the elective parallel fields of Kabbalah, magic, and science characterizes a wide stratum of traditional Jewish European scholars of the early modern era.

An examination of the Sefer ha-brit’s reception informs us that this particular combination of traditional kabbalistic thought patterns with old and new scientific knowledge appealed to many. The book immediately became a bestseller, and was reprinted in dozens of editions in the following decades—in Hebrew, Yiddish, and even Ladino. Interestingly, however, this unequivocally positive reception was not shared by the intellectual elite of the Berlin Jewish Enlightenment movement (the maskilim), despite the fact that the dissemination of scientific knowledge in Jewish society was, ostensibly, one of their greatest declarations—the clear realization of the project of Enlightenment with which they were occupied. A review of the book in the maskilic journal Ha-me’asef argued:

This book is full to its brim with many studies and wisdoms ... and heavenly intellects [sechalim nifradim] regarding the knowledge of the world ... which, by knowing, a person will achieve the peak of wholeness. [He, the author] launched in a slight opening to the science of logic through Aristotle’s ten categories, and afterwards he raised his eyes heavenward and talked of the seven firmaments ... according to the statements of the Zohar on this matter and he continued on to speak of the heavenly spheres [galgalim] and the stars and constellations and he concealed himself in the hidden pathways of the kabbalah.

Another reviewer phrased his frustration differently: “Truly, why would the author conceal the true purpose that of his book to transmit the treasures of wisdoms from the gentile languages to Hebrew.” The true purpose and benefit of this encyclopedic enterprise, according to the polemic, yet substantively positive reviewers of the Me’asef, was the translation of scientific knowledge into the Hebrew language, in order to improve Jewish society. The kabbalistic conceptual framework into which this knowledge was placed was nothing but a deception, a mistake, and a concealment of the author’s true intentions.

And yet it was exactly this interweaving of scientific knowledge into kabbalistic conceptualization, criticized by the maskilim, which so appealed to the Hatam Sofer, whose religious-scientific paradigm was indeed similar to the one developed by the author of Sefer ha-brit. The conflicting knowledge paradigms we are dealing with here are not necessarily those of “open” versus “closed” or “reform” versus “orthodox.” Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz and the Hatam Sofer, like many of their contemporaries, developed internal Jewish adaptations within the tradition of European, post-Renaissance natural philosophy, in which the study of nature and divine powers combine empirical exploration with astronomic and alchemic science, new scientific discoveries with ancient astrological and hermetical literature. The vociferous objection glimpsed on the pages of the Ha-me’asef was motivated by an alternative, inverted coding of scientific knowledge and the process of its dissemination, located at the heart of the paradigm of political action embraced by certain strands in the 18th-century Enlightenment, which sought to regulate individual and social lives according to the rules of rational reason. This political mold establishes itself, among other ways, through the systemic division between “scientific”/“rational” and the “spiritual”/“divine.”

The Hatam Sofer’s interrupted techuna pamphlet is a short, condensed example of the astrologic-hermetic worldview within which he operated. The world described within this pamphlet is surrounded by the seven wheels—the planets. These planets (“ziben planeten” in his words, echoing the German source of his cosmological education) “were given the power and leadership over certain things, and each of them controls one hour of the day.” This paradigm expresses an astrological perception, according to which the astral force of the different planets affect each person’s fate, according to the time of his birth, and the quality of any given moment. But even these forces are subject to higher spiritual hierarchies: ministering angels, who also have supervisors in the form of kabbalistic emanations whose source is identified in the three divine worlds that exist above the angelic world (the worlds of yetsirah, beri’ah, and atsilut). The sequential description of the natural world with the mysteries of the divine places the detailed kabbalistic descriptions of the heavenly worlds in a scientific, cosmological-astronomical framework. This cosmology was naturally integrated also into the rabbinic concept of the world of angels. The placing of the astronomical and astrological worlds on the same relational plane as the kabbalistic worlds also requires an accompanying synchronization of concepts between seemingly independent semantic and conceptual fields. Such a process of synchronization is described by the Hatam Sofer during the course of the systemic, methodical writing of the techuna pamphlet:

And you, know that, until now, we have spoken [on the matter of the planets] from the perspective of this mundane world, and have not come to the border of the worlds of the planets, which the astrologers call the Middle World, for above it is yet another, upper world, in which the celestial beings reside. Indeed, according to the kabbalists the planets too are considered part of the lower world, and the world of the angels is the next world, and the world of the [Divine] Seat is the third world, and high upon high, is the highest world, which they call atsilut.

The astronomical division into three worlds (a lower, median, and upper), and the accepted kabbalistic division into four worlds, argues the Hatam Sofer, describe the same reality using different names. This overlap reaches up to a certain point, at which the description of the reality known to the astronomers ends, while the kabbalistic description continues upward. This unified picture is the one described throughout the astronomical techuna pamphlet, and it is this picture that enables the multifaceted scientific endeavor, which is, at the same time, also kabbalistic, astrological, or magical. This worldview accompanies the Hatam Sofer’s techuna pamphlet even while he discusses the “sponge-like nature” of the air, the type of movement of the “obersten luftkreys” (i.e., “the upper wheel of the air,” in the Hatam Sofer’s explanation of the German term he used for his discussion), the nature of volcanoes or the attempt to organize the cosmological hierarchies and location relations between the four classical elements in accordance with their qualitative attributes.

From the examination of this last topic (the cosmological hierarchy of the four elements), the cosmogenic discussion in the techuna pamphlet turned to an explanation of the nature of demons and mezikim—harmful beings, in whose expulsion, as the reader will recall, the Hatam Sofer was also involved in practice: Thus were created in the water things that are derived of only three elements: water, air and fire; these are the harmful beings that are called Wassermenschen “in German, i.e., the water men. And in the air there are those [composed of] two elements: air and fire, and they are the demons mentioned by the Talmudic sages, who can see but cannot themselves be seen, due to their thinness, [which is] like the air, and there is also at the source of fire a creature [that is made] only of fire, it is unknown whether it is a demon or an angel or something else.”

All of the standard organisms of creation are, according to the accepted tradition, created out of the four Aristotelian elements. But there are, the Hatam Sofer argues, three exceptions to the rule: the mysterious fire creature, the salamander, whose identity—angel or demon—is unclear; the rabbinic demons, who are constructed of only air and fire, who see and cannot be seen and reside in “the element of air”; and the “water people,” who are constructed of three elements. These last creatures, while they can be seen, usually reside in the depths of the water, from which they received their name.

In his description of demons as creatures of two elements, the Hatam Sofer continues a medieval tradition that persisted well into the modern period. The depiction of the Wassermenschen, on the other hand, draws on a new, distinctly early modern European tradition, which was imported into rabbinic literature. Then there is the salamander, whose genealogy is more complex. Its ancient antecedents in Greek mythology were, as mentioned above, assimilated into rabbinic literature and exegetical traditions already in antiquity, and at the same time persisted in Western culture throughout the Middle Ages. Interest in the salamander was expanded in some fields of scientific research of the early modern era, such as in the highly influential medical and philosophical works of Philippus Aurelius Paracelsus (1493-1541), who integrated a host of pagan creatures into his scientific descriptions. The wondrous salamander was one of the most important of these—Paracelsus identified it as a symbol for, as well as the foundation of, the independent existence of the element of fire. It appears, then, that the Hatam Sofer’s description of the salamander closely resonates the scientific- European decoding of a creature, of whose existence and importance he knew from within his rabbinic-particularistic culture as well. Clearly, the factual-scientific analysis of the foundation of fire according to the Paracelsian approach is insufficient grounds for a Jewish ethical determination concerning the question of the creature’s demonic or angelic status. The Hatam Sofer thus left this important issue open to further examination. In this rare instance there appears, for a moment, a fissure between the Hatam Sofer’s scientific education and its coherent assimilation into the conceptual language of Jewish tradition, the language to which he is accustomed and in which he is fluent. Scientific analysis places angels and demons on one plane—as creatures that deviate from the rule of the four elements. The salamander, therefore, might be either negative or positive. Science, in its very nature, cannot supply the answer and, in this particular case, neither can the rabbinic tradition.

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A similar uncertainty does not accompany the Wassermenschen, who are described as “harmful spirits,” despite the fact that there is no parallel being identified in the rabbinic world of demons. These beings constitute one of the most well-known and widespread creations of German folklore. The Hatam Sofer’s use of the German phrase (in the singular as “watery man”) in describing this being also points to this cultural arena as its field of origin. German mythology in the Rhineland (where Hatam Sofer was born and educated) is replete with stories of various water monsters, of whom Heine’s famous Lorelei is but one late literary derivation.

One folkloristic German tradition, documented in the 19th century, describes the Wassermenschen in the following colorful fashion:

Demonic beings, ugly to behold, live in the depths [of the ocean]. They rise out of there infrequently, through special rivers of entrance and exit, which give these creatures their name, “water people.” They come into our world particularly to steal the most beautiful babies away from their mothers while they sleep. They clothe themselves in the appearance of children [Wasserkinder] and replace these babies with themselves, casting a spell on the sleeping mother so that she will not notice the change. To this day there is a special talisman that the parents tie to their doors in order to protect their homes from these water people.

The German “Wassermensch” in descriptions of this sort is indubitably worthy of the Talmudic appellation, mezik (“harmful being”), with which the Hatam Sofer ascribes it. In addition, practices similar to the use of the talisman described in the German source were widely employed by Jews of the same cultural region to protect parturient women from demons and other harmful beings, such as Lilith. The negative moral judgment, in this case, is assimilated from German folk traditions to the rabbinic decoding of the phenomenon but, at the same time, the water man, like his predecessors in the Hatam Sofer’s list of creatures, was described not as a mythical or folkloric being, but scientifically—as a creature composed of three elements, of which water is the most dominant. The source of this analysis is not necessarily an independent one, and it is likely that it, too, was borrowed from scientific, post-Paracelsian alchemic literature, in which even folkloristic creatures often served as objects of scientific research. Thus, a contemporary devil like the Wassermensch, a traditional mezik from the rabbinic era, and the immortal salamander—are all scientifically located into the ordered natural world. This understanding uses the unifying language of the elements in order to integrate modern, 18th-century demons with the demons of ancient rabbinic literature.

For the Hatam Sofer, the topic of demons is not an abstract, theoretical topic—these are, after all, the same creatures that were the subject of the very practical exorcism efforts made by the protagonist of our story, as described above. But how do the water people, salamanders, or plain old demons participate in creating the mental disorder that brings about the need for such an exorcism? The answer to this important question can be gleaned from another place in the Hatam Sofer’s writings:

For demons and spirits do not master human form [tsurat adam] [unless] there is a lack in his form—i.e., in his thinking or his mind ... for it is his mental malaise that forms the chariot for the demon or the mezik ... then, when his mind has been completely compromised by his illness, the mezik comes to the place that has been prepared for it. [In times] when the disease departs, the mezik also departs, and with its departure he [the mezik] returns to his place [in the patient’s mind and body]. Insanity, therefore, is the result of a cognitive weakness whose causes are varied—physical or psychological. This weakness is what enables the demons or the harmful spirits to take the place of healthy consciousness and thus control the patient. The dybbuk, in which a demon descends upon a person, is described here as a complex, hybrid phenomenon in which the body, the soul, and the demonic presence maintain reciprocal relations with each other. This hybridity also has therapeutic ramifications; the healing process, as is intimated here, can often be attained through medicinal- natural treatment, since the healing and strengthening of the patient’s body will also banish the mezik. But occasionally there is no choice but to use the healing force of the amulets and the holy names they contain. Hybrid notions of the nature of illness, such as the understanding described here, are very characteristic of the Hatam Sofer’s contemporaries—central European thinkers and practitioners of the eighteenth century, and it is central to their understanding of the reciprocal relationships between body and soul, corporeality and spirituality.

The distinction between natural reasons and essential or preternatural ones is also a dominant theme in the literature of Jewish healers and exorcists. In this analysis of demonology, illness, and insanity, one must, of course, explain the process of healing through magical intervention—how does the amulet exercise its curative effect on the patient?

The Hatam Sofer explains the process of magical healing in the course of a long halachic discussion regarding the ethics of amuletic-astral activity. The topic was addressed in the context of one of his communications with Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum (1768-1841), a Polish immigrant who became the head of the Jewish court of Sátoraljaújhely, in northeastern Hungary. Rabbi Moshe became known, during this period, as a rising Hasidic leader, whose authority in his new region spread considerably due to his wholesale distribution of large quantities of amulets to those who turned to him for aid. It was exactly with relation to this matter that the Hatam Sofer wished to demonstrate the close affinity between himself—the student of Rabbi Nathan Adler, who had witnessed the healing power of magical names first hand—and Rabbi Moshe—the Seer of Lublin’s student, trained in Galician Hasidism. “And I will speak for another moment,” the Hatam Sofer wrote, “for the holy names are real actions, from what I have witnessed with my own eyes from a miracle worker, my teacher, the Righteous Cohen [Cohen tsedek], may his memory be for a blessing.” The ensuing discussion dealt with the boundaries of the legitimacy of using the holy names which, as the Hatam Sofer mentioned, are real actions, that is to say—are effective in bringing about the desired magical result. According to the Hatam Sofer’s views, as they emerge from this letter, the amulets and the names work in parallel and apparently identical ways to the “swearing-in” of demons and angels. The shared goal of all these practices is to influence the divine abundance directed at the mundane world and change the courses through which it flows thence. Is such scientific-religious activity really legitimate, asked the Hatam Sofer? What is the difference between a “negative” action undertaken with the help of demons or angels, and a legitimate one undertaken in the amulets with the help of the holy names?

The Hatam Sofer’s answer stemmed from a schematic distinction between different stops on the routes through which the divine abundance flows between the heavenly world and the mundane one. The undesirable swearing-in (of demons and angels, “black magic”), although it is possible and even effective, is the one directed at “the lower forces,” which are located in “the world of action,” namely—the physical world. These forces are commanded by upper ministers, whose power one should not harm. The desired and fitting action uses “holy names” in order to turn to “the Uppermost Power,” “the High upon High,” “He who is Before the Abundance.” This type of action is not only possible but also desirable, and in fact, this is the very action that God himself desires: “These [the upper powers] are conducted over by the power that is above them, through the holy names.” It is this regarding which the sages said: “Sing praises to Him who rejoices when they conduct [lit. conquer] Him.” The holy names are tuned so as to conduct (!) upper forces in the natural and divine worlds, and to direct them to man’s needs and desires. Unlike the world of the angels and ministers, which might react adversely to the disruption of powers entrusted to it—the order of the natural world—and harm people, the king himself, God, is pleased with the activity of the holy names which conquers/conducts and changes the routes through which the abundance flows before its descent into the natural world. This action is not witchcraft—it is the holy names through which the world was created, after all—and it is this upon which the logic of the ancient Sefer yetsirah is predicated, and upon which the contemporary use of amulets rests.

At the beginning of the 17th century, Francis Bacon formulated his plan for a reform in the study of the natural world. This plan famously included a call for a clear and comprehensive documentation and cataloging of wondrous and magical phenomena in the world, with the intent of creating from them, through a process of rational induction, valid knowledge of the world and its rules that would be more encompassing than anything previously known. Over the next few centuries, many responded to Bacon’s challenge, which placed the fringe phenomena of wondrous events and fantastic beings at the center of scientific exploration, as a tool for the dismantling of unreliable knowledge, and simultaneously as a window into the hidden reasons for strange occurrences in a large and varied world. Detailed stories of miracles were published by the annals of the scientific societies of London and Paris, and treasure rooms (Wunderkammer) of magical stones and curious mechanisms became objects of both elite and popular fascination.

Bacon’s plan, however, was not, as we know, ultimately realized. Beginning at the end of the 17th century, mechanical philosophy replaced Bacon’s approach, accompanied by a worldview which posited predictable, “normative” facts as the object of all scientific exploration, and ultimately as forming its exclusive boundaries. All these were, finally, joined by the cultural and political agenda, whose rational framework identified the dangers of magic—vulgarity and unchecked religious fervor, threatening the political order. In this context, the miracle changed from a cultural, valued treasure, to a social and conceptual burden and even a threat.

Yet what constituted a threat for European “modernists” might, at the same time, constitute a valuable possession for European enthusiasts and Pietists, as well as for some Jewish “traditionalists.” From this perspective, the tension between the patterns of knowledge adopted by the Hatam Sofer and by Sefer ha-brit, and the scientific perception of the Me’asaef as described above, becomes a wide and important chasm, whose significance spreads much further than the Jewish society in which it took place. For Sefer ha-brit, scientific knowledge in all its forms—whether rational or strange, natural or wondrous—formed a moral ladder upon which one could ascend to a more comprehensive religious understanding of the world, and finally embracing this scientific data—reaching even the Holy Spirit, a program which clearly gave expression to exactly the kind of Schwärmerei and enthusiasm which thinkers of the Enlightenment, Jews and gentiles alike, so feared.

The Hatam Sofer shared this sanctified view of knowledge, although he himself was not a methodical author of scientific or magical literature. His main interest lay in the practical and literary work of a rabbi, preacher, and exegete, who was also occasionally called upon to perform the odd exorcism. His sharp emphasis on the normative deciphering of unusual creatures like the salamander and the Wassermenschen expressed his devotion to an “old” scientific coherence which, through his activity and over time, became more and more identified with the world of traditional society and that began to play an unexpected role in the self-perception of “old,” orthodox religion. In this way, old guests such as the salamanders, and new ones, such as the German Wassermenschen became welcome and beloved visitors in the Jewish living room, presenting and symbolizing the wonders and wideness of natural and preternatural creation, far more than the traditional category of “miracles.” Their existence and deciphering became essential to the traditional society of the day.

This point becomes even clearer when one compares Sefer ha-brit and the Hatam Sofer’s works to those of their Jewish contemporaries. In the same years in which the Hatam Sofer exorcised spirits and demons in urban Pressburg, a yet relatively unknown Hasidic leader resided in a small village in Podolia, from where he told his followers stories of ancient-new wonders. In the legends told by Rabbi Nahman of Breslov (1772-1810), a variety of fantastic creatures appear: a prince made exclusively of precious stones, a demonic horse which jumps into a small water pump, enchanted forests in which golden trees grow, phoenixes, dragons, bewitched princesses, and more.

In one of these legends, the parallel stories of two childhood friends who grew up together in a small village are told. The “wise son,” the story tells, left the little village in which he was born for distant capital cities, where he became a talented doctor and a great philosopher. During his travels, he was exposed to so many different and sophisticated fields of knowledge. His enlightenment caused him to cease believing in the existence of the king. Despite the great professional success of this philosopher, he never married. His wisdom led him to an essential lack of understanding of the human world until, finally, he ceased to find meaning in life. When he returned, in despair, to his childhood village, he discovered that his parental home had been neglected and destroyed, and that he therefore had no place to come home to.

His childhood friend, the “simple son,” on the other hand, stayed in the village his entire life. This man, who worked at simple, menial tasks and was happy in his lot, hosted the despairing “wise son” upon his return home. The next part of the story reverses the roles of the two protagonists, with the simplicity and fidelity of the simple son eventually, and surprisingly, leading him to a senior position in the king’s court, and the wise son’s eternal questioning of the king’s existence leading him to unrelenting doubt, which alienates his fellow villagers. At the end of a long series of events, the wise son—the philosopher—finds himself sinking in quicksand and attacked by the devil himself—a monstrous, swamp-dwelling demon, whose existence the philosopher also continues to deny, even as he is being beaten by him directly. Only the simple son and the baal shem can rescue the philosopher from the swamp and the blows of the devil. But this, explains the storyteller, cannot happen before the wise philosopher admits the existence of the demon in whose swamp he is stuck; as well the extraordinary power of the miracle worker to rescue him from his clutches.

The relationship between the Enlightenment, wondrous creatures, and the world of amulets and miracle workers is described in this story as a clear schematic: The rationalistic Enlightenment is, in fact, a type of quicksand. The enlightened man will not find his fulfillment, nor will he be able to come to terms with the existence of the king (God), before he again accepts the existence of demons and other harmful creatures, and the authority of the miracle workers. The path of healing through which the modern “wise son” returns to the normative, humane, and traditional world, according to the story, necessarily passes through the acknowledgment of—and actual encounter with—the demonic forces and wondrous creatures of folk stories: demons, dragons, and a prince made of precious stones. This miraculous world is the one that will refute the Enlightenment and shake the foundations of the illusion of knowledge and control it seeks to enforce upon the world.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Maoz Kahana, “Rabbinic Monsters: The World of Wonder and Rabbinic Culture at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century,” in “Monsters and Monstrosity in Jewish History” (2018), edited by Christian Wiese and Iris Idelson, and is reprinted with permission of the author.

Maoz Kahana is an associate Professor in the Jewish History Department at Tel Aviv University.