Let’s talk about demons. No, not your personal demons like memories of old relationships, but actual demons. They crop up on our daf in a most unlikely way. The Mishnah tells us:
“one who was thrown into a pit and he said that anyone who hears his voice should write a bill of divorce for his wife, those who hear him should write this bill of divorce and give it to his wife” (Gittin 66a)
The Gemara proceeds to ask what, to the Gemara, must have seemed like a very logical question – how do you know that the voice you heard asking to write a divorce is a person and not a demon? And then it gives just as logical an answer- check its shadow since only people have shadows (or actually shadows of shadows), demons do not.
A similar conversation takes place in Yevamot. Here the issue is that someone on a hill proclaims that a man is dead. Then he disappears. On the basis of that statement, his wife may remarry. Again the Gemara is worried that this is a demon speaking and not a man and offers the same solution – check the shadow:
“an incident with regard to a certain individual who stood at the top of a mountain and said: So-and-so, son of so-and-so, from such and such a place died. They went and found no person there, but they allowed the wife to marry.” (Yevamot 122a)
As our Gemara continues, so does the demon theme. In the beginning of Gittin’s seventh chapter, we hear about demons that cause disease (Gittin 67b) and this leads into a long discussion and story about King Solomon and his counterpart, Ashmedai the king of demons. What are we to make of all these demons?
Did Ashmedai look like this?
Louis Le Breton, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Today most of us are what I will call Maimonidean Jews. We rely on rationalism and science and give short shrift to the spirit world. As we will see, Maimonides did not believe in demons. But their presence permeates Talmudic literature and so they are worth examining in depth. The Bible strongly polemicizes against polytheism and sorcery and so demons are barely mentioned and when they are it is almost in code, with strange names like Ketev Meriri. By the time we reach late Second Temple times, Gnosticism and its belief in dualistic forces of good versus evil became more prevalent in the Jewish world. The sectarian writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as the authors of the Gospels season their works with mentions of angels and demons. Here the demons are less interested in causing physical harm and more about leading people astray and tempting them into sin.
The Mishnah does not mention demons and they rarely appear in the Jerusalem Talmud either. Where the conversation about them really takes off is in the Babylonian Talmud. The culture in Babylonia in Amoraic times was full of demonology and this seems to have seeped into the Jewish world as well. We have a few mentions of how the rabbis in each place are different. Here in Gittin for example, the Eretz Yisrael rabbis explain the verse about שדה ושדות very differently than their Babylonian counterparts:
“’I got myself sharim and sharot, and human pleasures, shidda and shiddot’ (Ecclesiastes 2:8) . . . “Shidda and shiddot”: Here [in Babylonia] they interpreted: Male demons [shidda] and female demons [shiddetin]. In the West [Eretz Yisrael] they said that these words are referring to carriages [shiddeta].” (Gittin 68a)
Similarly, in a Gemara in Pesachim that goes extensively into the danger of doing things in pairs because it will bring demons, we have the offhanded mention that in the West (Israel) they were not careful about pairs. But the Babylonian Talmud is replete with demon talk. In Berachot (6a) we learn that thousands of demons surround us all the time. In fact, Rava says that is why we feel so crowded in the Bet Midrash at the times of the great lectures of the Yarchei Kallah. Elsewhere we hear about the dangers of demons in the bathroom, at night, in pits and in open fields. Specific demons are mentioned (Ashmedai, Lilith, the chief of witches) as well as people who are either demon experts or demons themselves (Yosef the Demon, Yonatan the Demon).
The belief in demons seems to have intersected with Gittin in more ways than one. In a fascinating article (https://thegemara.com/article/naming-demons-the-aramaic-incantation-bowls-and-gittin) Dr. Avigail Manekin Bamberger shows that Aramaic incantation bowls discovered in Babylonia sometimes used the language of Jewish divorce to rid the house of demons. Incantation bowls were written in Babylonia in the fifth to seventh centuries CE. Their purpose was to banish curses and bring blessings into a home. They incorporated Hebrew names and verses from the Bible as well as legal language. They are the earliest written source for the Jews of Amoraic times in Babylonia.
The bowls had a formula that bore similarities to divorce papers. They often cited that this is a divorce between the owner of the house and Lilith (or another demon) and even include the standard וכל שום דאית ליה ; and any (other) name the owner has. Bamberger suggests that this shows how widespread and accepted the gittin formula was among Babylonian Jews, as well as how perhaps scribes could have written both writs of divorce and incantation bowls.
An incantation bowl
LGLou, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
In medieval times Maimonides condemned the belief in demons. In his commentary to the Mishnah he argued against many false ideas, among them demonology:
“and demons, and old tales, and magic, and soothsaying, and asking the dead, and many other such issues. which the true Torah fights and cuts off, being the essence of idolatry and its branches.” (Maimonides commentary to Mishnah Avoda Zara 4:7)
On the other hand, many rabbinic luminaries such as Nachmanides believed that demons existed and Kabbalah and Hasidism built up these ideas even more. Can demonology be reconciled with modern sensibilities? Rabbi Ahron Soloveitchik in his book Logic of the Heart Logic of the Mind offers a fascinating suggestion. What is invisible but everywhere around us, causing harm both physical and psychological? Germs and perhaps hallucinations. If we take the word demon שד and substitute bacteria/germ/hallucination, our stories become much more palatable to a modern reader.
Some demonic bacteria
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Public Health Image Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
I will leave the last word on this topic to the Kotzker Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk 1787-1859), a famously acerbic and brilliant Hasidic rabbi. When asked by his followers how he can reconcile the fact that demons are mentioned all over the Gemara yet Maimonides denied their existence, he answered:
“Demons did exist. . . but as soon as Maimonides denied their existence, they disappeared from the world to honor him and from then on there are no more demons.”
Special thanks to my husband Rabbi Jonathan Mishkin, who does not believe in demons, for the many interesting sources he provided me with.