Demons in the Talmud

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #18: Demons in the Talmud

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

"A person should not have less than four cups of wine [on the seder night]." How could the Rabbis institute something dangerous? Didn't we learn that a person should not eat or drink in even quantities? ... R. Nachman said: "It is a leil shimurim, a night that we are guarded from harmful forces." Rava said: "A cup of blessing can combine to produce good results but not bad results." Ravina said: "The Rabbis instituted four cups in the manner of a free person. Each one is a mitzvah in its own right." (Pesachim 109b)

In the West (Israel), they are not cautious about having things in pairs. Rav Dimi from Naharda'ah was cautious even about the markings on a barrel. There was such a story in which the barrel burst. The rule of the matter is that for those who take note of the zuggot (the pairs), the zuggot take note of them. Those who do not take note of the zuggot are not bothered by them. Nonetheless, it is good to show a modicum of concern. (Pesachim 110b)

The gemara apparently thinks that a danger exists in eating or drinking an even number of items. It would seem that certain demonic forces descend upon even numbers and only eating an odd number of items keeps one safe. Even more surprisingly, the danger recedes greatly if one does not give these forces undue attention. Perhaps based on this line of thinking, the scholars in Israel took the route of relative indifference to zuggot. Clearly, this gemara calls for some explanation.

There is a well-known debate about how to understand talmudic references to demons. Some commentators took these gemarot at face value while the Rambam denied that demonic beings exist. For example, one gemara (Makkot 6b) explicitly mentions the possibility of a criminal receiving warning from a demon. Rambam (Hilkhot Sanhedrin 12:2) cites this case as a scenario in which one hears the warning but cannot identify the source. Rambam offers a naturalistic reading in which no demonic beings exits and the term "shed" refers to a natural phenomenon whose source we have not yet discovered.

How would Rambam interpret our gemara about the danger of even numbers? Fortunately, R. Menachem Meiri, a follower of Rambam's general school of thought, provides an explanation in his commentary on Pesachim. Meiri argues that in talmudic times, the masses were very influenced by popular beliefs and superstitions. The sages directly combated these beliefs when they were linked to idolatrous practices. If the beliefs were simply foolish but not idolatrous, the sages would not reject them directly but rather took steps to limit their impact.

In the case of zuggot, no demonic forces exist in even numbers but the popular belief that they do sometimes created that very reality. People who ate an even number of a given food became convinced that they would become sick and this resulted in a psychosomatic illness. The gemara provides an excellent proof for Meiri's theory. The gemara suggests that only those who show excessive interest in the zuggot are affected by them. According to Meiri, those who show little interest in zuggot will not experience the psychosomatic impact. Of course, Meiri would still have to explain why the gemara advises a person to show a bit of caution.

Why did our sages not simply tell the masses that these beliefs were false? Perhaps because they knew that such a campaign would require great energy and had little chance of success. Once people internalize certain beliefs, it is quite difficult to convince them otherwise. The sages took on this difficult project to combat the remnants of idolatry, but not to combat mere stupidity. However, the sages did not just despair of educating the masses. Instead, they adopted a clever strategy of limiting the impact of zuggot. They affirmed their belief in zuggot but added many categories in which the dangers of even numbers do not apply (such as the answers of the three Amoraim above), thereby slowly weaning the people off this incorrect belief. At the end of the day, this more subtle method worked and zuggot stopped to bother the Jewish masses.

I believe that Meiri presents us with a broader educational question. On the one hand, educators should teach their students the truth and not condescendingly and cynically assume that the masses cannot handle the truth and need to be fed various fabrications to keep them frum. On the other hand, it is not helpful to teach people an idea that the teacher knows will not be understood by the student. When in this latter situation, a good teacher must eschew the approach of aiming for the immediate full truth, and discern how to slowly bring the student closer to the truth. Rather than always directly taking on the overly-superstitious student, it is sometimes more effective to attempt to minimize the influence of superstitious belief in that student's life. Finding the correct method in these situations is no easy matter. Indeed, the balance of the ideal and the real represents the central challenge of every educational endeavor.

It was taught: Abba Binyamin said: "If the eye had been given the ability to [fully] see, no creature would be able to stand before the mazikim."...

If you want to see them, bring the tail of a first born black cat, that is the daughter of a first born black cat. Burn it in fire, grind it up, fill your eyes with the ashes and then you will see them. (Berakhot 6b)

I am not aware of Rav Kook's general position on demons, but his commentary on the aggadot in Berakhot finds metaphorical meaning in the cited gemarot. Abba Binyamin teaches us something about the basic human curiosity for knowledge. For the most part, we should look favorably upon this intellectual inquisitiveness. However, there are people overly frustrated by any form of ignorance because they fail to appreciate that such ignorance can sometimes be a boon to humanity. Abba Binyamin instructs us that knowing everything can sometimes have destructive consequences.

One example quickly comes to mind. It has become quite common for expecting parents to read books from the "What to Expect When Expecting" genre. These books are often quite helpful and they supply much good information. At the same time, it is not a favor to nervous parents to teach them about all the possible illnesses that could accost the fetus. Such knowledge mostly causes harm and illustrates that at times, ignorance is bliss.

With regard to the Talmudic method for seeing demons, Rav Kook also finds metaphoric significance. Blackness is a ubiquitous symbol for the darker and more problematic aspects of life. In terms of the choice of animal, R. Kook mentions a gemara in Horayot (13a) that contrasts the dog's gratitude to its master with the cat's indifference to its master. Those who have pets testify to the difference in feedback owners receive from cats and dogs. If so, the cat symbolizes the ability to forget our Maker. Rav Kook argues that the damaging and demonic aspects of our existence stem from humanity forgetting the Ribbono Shel Olam.

I would argue that Rav Kook does not offer a metaphoric reading because he definitively adheres to Rambam's position that demons do not exist. Perhaps he believes in demons and perhaps he has no position on the matter. The vigorously held belief that motivates his interpretation has nothing to do with the existence of demons. Rather, it stems from the conviction that the gemara is not a collection of superhero stories. If one searches the gemara for demon stories as one would eagerly anticipate the next Superman comic book, then one has missed the point. The gemara is not an action and adventure story, but a work of religious and ethical instruction. Rav Kook found deeper meaning in this gemara because he was convinced that the gemara would not have mentioned the "cat method" for viewing demons if it did not contain some message of religious import. Those of us attracted to Talmudic stories bordering on the occult would do well to internalize Rav Kook's approach.