“Whatever has many branches, its shadow is dangerous.”
Today’s Daf Yomi continues the discussion from the previous days on witchcraft and superstitions. It is a dark shadowy world we have entered where one must walk on a straight path and be careful where he rests his head. We are reminded from the first Tractate that the act of relieving oneself is an especially vulnerable time.
Can I be really honest? This all seems somewhat nonsensical. But it was a time when ailments such as a migraine headache, a massive stroke or a swollen foot were mysterious with unknowable causes that were not informed by modern medical science. It is understandable when there were so many unexplainable illnesses to turn to the underworld or the otherworld.
We are told that there are several dangerous and very specific scenarios that can expose someone to witchcraft and “one who performs them, his blood is upon his own head,” which I interpret as the headache of a lifetime. These dangerous activities include one who relieves himself in a place between a palm tree and a wall when there is less than four cubits between the two (which would be too small of a space to allow for the passage of an evil spirit); one who passes between two palm trees where there is a private domain between them; one who drinks borrowed water from a minor; and one who steps over spilled water in a field (but never in a city.)
An additional danger is created if no one sprinkles dirt over the spilled water or spits on it (and gentleman, regardless of the lurking spirits, keep your spittle to yourself.) It is safe if the sun passes over the spilled water and sixty people stomp over it. There is also no imminent danger if one rides over the water on a donkey wearing shoes.
Here is the interesting thing about all this superstition: the danger does not apply “where there is no reason for concern for witchcraft.” And if there is concern for witchcraft, even if the limiting conditions are in place, such as wearing shoes while riding on the back of a donkey, one can be vulnerable. We are told that there was a “certain man” whose shoes shrunk, and feet shriveled up when he was riding a donkey. In other words, the dybbuks reside in your head.
There is danger ahead when you are traveling on the road with a friend and three of something passes between you – perhaps a dog, a palm tree and a woman. There is danger if a pig or snake passes by. We are told that the remedy to prevent one from harm from all of these scenarios is prayer: one should say a prayer that starts and ends with the word God.
A verse is offered from Numbers (23:22-23) that begins and ends with God: “God Who brought them out of Egypt is for them like the lofty horns of the wild ox. For there is no enchantment with Jacob, nor is there any divination with Israel; now is it said of Jacob and of Israel: What has been performed by God.” We are told that this verse indicates that Jewish people are immune from witchery.
So, why all this focus through the pages of Pesachim on witchcraft and spells if the Jewish people are immune? And will we ever find the thread back to Pesah as the holiday approaches on our modern calendar? The text even suggests that a menstruating woman is so powerful that she can kill two men if she passes them. The remedy in this instance, and all the others that are quoted in today’s text, is the recitation of a prayer that starts and ends with the word “God.”
And can I say that I love that a woman’s menstrual blood is so powerful that the Rabbis thought it could be a weapon of death? We are also told that two women who are sitting on either side of a road are conjurers of witchcraft and beware if you happen to pass through the path that separates them. There are horrific connotations with witchcraft, and we all learned about the Salem Witch Trials in school. But it also is one of the few instances in the Talmud that acknowledges that women have some sort of power.
Spells and witchcraft are only powerful if you believe in them. The poor man riding on the donkey who saw his feet shrivel up must have believed that he was riding through a valley of death to have suffered so. If someone can fight off the fear of what lurks beneath the surface through whatever it takes – prayer, burning sage, throwing salt over one’s shoulder – they can find safety from harm. But if one deeply and completely believes in the spells of spirits that exist in the particles of dust that float in the air, they will be consumed with fear.
When such a spirit lands on your shoulder and whispers in your ear, tell him to simply go away. Say “little ineffectual Dybbuk. Go away from me and take your mischief somewhere else.” And I promise you, the little spirit will find another vulnerable soul to torment. Perhaps someone who does not believe in social distancing or wearing masks or vaccines.