Mark Levenson
On Jewish fantasy, folklore, and more
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Trick or tractate?

Sure, the Talmud explains how to know if your house is infested with demons, but these writings about evil spirits always have a Jewish twist
Screenshot from Der Golem, a 1915 German silent horror film.
Give him candy and send him away. (Still from Paul Wegener's Der Golem, 1915)

What COVID-19 will do to Halloween this year remains to be seen, although the ubiquitous Internet availability of masks and costumes based on the globular-and-spikey shape of the virus suggests that children may find a humorous way to cut the pandemic down to size, at least for a night—if a glance in the mirror doesn’t scare them witless.

While most people who celebrate Halloween aren’t thinking at all about the holiday’s pagan roots, those roots help explain why the night isn’t just un-Jewish, but antithetical to the Jewish outlook on life. When everything comes from God, independent actors of supernatural evil—witches, ghouls, demons, and their like—have no place. Or do they?

The bible tells us that Saul sought help from the witch of Endor to summon the ghost of the prophet Samuel. Medrash tells us that Adam’s first wife was Lilith, who eventually became the Queen of Demons. If you think that the Jewish tradition doesn’t have its share of things that go bump in the night, think again. Against the larger world’s rogue’s gallery of supernatural evils, we have plenty of examples of the uncanny to call our own.

For example, if you want to know if your house is infested with demons, place fine ashes around your bed and in the morning the demons’ footprints will appear like chickens’ footprints, in the ash. If you want to see the demons, take the afterbirth of a firstborn female black cat, born to a firstborn female black cat, burn it in the fire, grind it and place it in your eyes, and you will see them.

That advice might sound like something out of the Brothers Grimm but it’s actually from the Talmud (Berachos 6A). The sages of nearly two thousand years ago clearly accepted demons—and more—as real enough to be the subject not just of lore, but of law. For example, putting out a light on the Sabbath was forbidden—but the Sages allowed exceptions for one who was fearful of heathens, robbers, or an evil spirit (Mishna Shabbos 2:5). The distance one could walk on the Sabbath was also proscribed, with a limited extension allowed for one who was forced beyond the standard limit by heathens or evil spirits (Mishna Erubin 4:1). And one was forbidden to enter ruins in part because they were often inhabited by demons (Berachos 3A-B).

What makes the acceptance of evil spirits, ghosts and demons by the Sages so remarkable was that theirs was not a pagan world with competing supernatural forces, but a monotheistic world. There was only one power responsible for all. The traditional Jew confirms this daily in blessing God “who forms light and creates darkness, who makes peace and creates all things” (Birnbaum translation). Or, as the Chasidim say, “Not a blade of grass moves but by the will of the Creator.”

Is a world unquestionably governed by God consistent with a world of demons and evil spirits, and, if so, how? It’s akin to asking why there’s evil in the world; the traditional Jewish answer being that the presence of evil is necessary for man to choose good—and free choice is central to the tradition. Demons and evil spirits can be looked upon as mechanisms for evil, much as God created disease, plagues, and wild animals. Supernatural evils aren’t challenges to God, as they are in the non-Jewish world—to us, they are challenges to humanity.

Mikel Koven points to the suggestion of the great Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem that ancient and medieval Jews didn’t just adopt the local beliefs of non-Jews among whom they lived, but “Judaicized” them. They found ways to incorporate local beliefs into forms acceptable to Judaism. That would explain why Tanakh, which predates Talmud, is largely devoid of ghosts (with that notable exception of Samuel), demons, imps and the like. After more than a thousand years, however, these non-Jewish “converts” to Judaism managed to find their place in the religion.

But the Sages didn’t just tolerate these supernatural newcomers. They used them to validate principles that are linchpins of Judaism (and, in many cases, have become universal values). For example, the Sages say that one is not permitted to allow his ritual fringes to drag along the ground in a cemetery, so as to avoid insulting the dead, who can no longer honor God by performing the commandment to wear such fringes (Berachos 18A). That in turn leads to a discussion as to whether the dead are indeed aware of the living.

To prove that they are, the Talmud relates a series of ghost stories. But these aren’t horror tales. The most elaborate of the set validates the important Jewish values of justice, care for orphans, and honor to parents. A trustee of orphans’ money has died and the money can’t be found, leading to accusations that the dead man stole it. His son goes to the cemetery to ask his father’s ghost what happened. The father assures him that he didn’t steal the money; he buried it for safekeeping and tells his son where to find it. The son also learns that his childhood friend, also deceased, has been denied entrance to heaven because of sins committed in this world. When the proud father tells his son how highly regarded he is by heaven, the son replies that on the strength of that reputation, heaven must allow his friend to enter. And that’s what happens. It’s a ghost story, but a very Jewish one.

Or take the example of the golem. That the golem should have universal appeal is unsurprising; nearly every culture has its stories about the human creation of life. Even Pinocchio is a golem of sorts. But what makes the golem inherently Jewish is also what sets him (and golems are mostly, but not inevitably, men) apart from other creation stories. The Sages and Kabbalists who first created golems did so to form a closer connection to the Creator of all life. They emulated God to better understand him—not to challenge him or compete with him. That’s why the Kabbalists were first required to be masters of Torah and Talmud before delving into the mysteries of Kabbalah. Kabbalah in general and golem-making in particular were higher paths within the tradition, nor routes by which to challenge it.

Rabbis also created golems to protect their communities; the Maharal, Rabbi Judah Lowe of Prague, is the most famous example. But the most well-known ending to the story—that the golem runs amok and has to be destroyed—is not the original one. It seems to have been grafted onto the golem legend about the time that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. This likely borrowing from Frankenstein makes for a more powerful ending. But it’s not Jewish because God has inspired man to create the golem as protection; we don’t believe in a cruel God who would pull such a horrific practical joke. Only if man were to misuse the golem would its destructive power be plausible within the tradition.

So, Halloween isn’t the least bit Jewish. But, if you open your door on Saturday night to find a lilliputian golem or demon queen, maybe offer it a candy before sending it back into the night.

About the Author
Mark Levenson is a journalist, dramatist, screenwriter, and short story writer whose work in Jewish fantasy has won honors from The National Foundation for Jewish Culture and the American Jewish University. He is at work on a novel of Jewish fantasy. Follow him at www.marklevensonauthor.com.
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