Let Them Believe in Demons
I guess that it shouldn’t be surprising that a number of people have written about the common belief in demons that is found in the first chapter of the Talmud. Basing himself upon the teachings of the Rambam and Rabbi Aharon Soloveitchik, Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky wrote the following:
This Rambam comes to mind when trying to understand two main stories in today’s daf. The Gemara describes Shedim, demons, which are invisible but number in the thousands to our right and to our left and cause many types of bodily harm. How can a person knowledgable in modern science understand these stories? Rav Aharon Soloveitchik provides an answer in his book, Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind (pages 50-52). He explains that these invisible demons are germs. Once one understands this basic point, the wisdom of the Gemara becomes readily apparent. How could rabbis before the age of microscopes and modern medicine explain microscoptic creatures that cause us harm? They describe them as invisible demons numbering in the thousands who, if we could only see them, would make us crazy. Imagine if we could see the thousands of germs all around us at all times. I think we would go crazy. They advise us because of these demons to wash our hands three times when we wake up in the morning, sound medical advice indeed.
He continues and writes that:
Furthermore, Rav Aharon Soloveitchik explains that at times these Shedim do not refer to germs but other forms of invisible destructive forces in our world like mental illness, hallucinations and the like. The common denominator of these descriptions is rather than portraying our Sages as backwards superstitious people chas veshalom, they unlock the brilliant insight that our rabbis are providing.
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 belief in demons and demonology was fairly common in antiquity. Isaiah Ganfi has discussed this at length in his chapter “Babylonian Rabbinic Culture” that was published in David Biale ed., Cultures of the Jews: A New History,
One seemingly obvious example of contact between popular Iranian culture and statements recorded in the Babylonian Talmud relates to the realm of demons and demonology. To be sure, a belief in the existence of vast armies of demons and spirits existing alongside human beings and constantly interacting with them was shared by all the peoples of the Ancient Near East.
This being the case, we can understand how all sorts of actions might be attributed to demons who take control of a man’s faculties, thereby controlling his deeds as well. Not only was this sort of compulsion known to the Babylonian rabbis, but they even attempted to define the legal ramifications of such behavior. In this context the Talmud cites the following halakhah: “If a man is compelled by force to eat unleavened bread [on Passover], he thereby performs his religious duty.” The nature of the compulsion, however, is immediately addressed: “Compelled by whom? Shall I say by an evil spirit?” (BT Rosh Hashanah 28a).
Gafni has also written about how this belief in demons and demonology was one of the reasons that many 19th scholars of Judaism preferred the less demon filled life and texts of the Land of Israel.
So, let them believe in demons and give us the wisdom to appreciate the rabbis of the Talmud for who they were and not for who we wish they were.