Lecture 20: Daf 6a - Gremlins

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

 

Ein Yaakov - The World of Talmudic Aggada

By Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

 

 

Lecture 20:  Daf 6a

Gremlins

 

 

The Gemara presented a series of statements attributed to Abba Binyamin, a mysterious figure who does not appear elsewhere in the Talmud. With Abba Binyamin’s second to last statement, the Gemara returns to its discussion of mazikin, the invisible demons who the rabbis believed were responsible for much misery and misfortune in the world. The discussion returns to some of the themes about demons that we have already encountered in the Gemara’s earlier discussion of demons. Abba Binyamin’s statement is followed by a similar statement by Abaye:

 

It has been taught: Abba Binyamin says,

If the eye had the power to see them,

no creature could endure the demons.

Abaye says:

They are more numerous than we are and

they surround us like the ridge round a field.

 

Both rabbis here express similar sentiments in their statements. The mazikin are extraordinarily numerous. They surround us constantly like swarms of insects. The only thing that saves us from being overwhelmed by the very sight of them is the fact that they are invisible to us. In this view, the world out there is a terrifying place. We are in constant danger from every side. The only reason we are not paralyzed by fear and can go about our daily business is that mercifully, we don’t notice all the danger that surrounds us. In many ways, this concept of mazikin is quite similar to modern science’s notion that we are constantly surrounded by microscopic germs that threaten our health, and we are subject to invisible forces that can cause all sorts of damage. On a theological level, Abaye and Abba Binyamin’s views imply a worldview that we have previously attributed to Reish Lakish: The norm in this world is that the forces of destruction have free reign. Suffering is to be expected, not explained. Neither Abba Binyamin nor Abaye suggest any way of avoiding the mazikin. All we can do is be thankful that we cannot see them.

 

A slightly more optimistic view is presented by R. Huna:

 

R. Huna says:

 

Every one among us has a thousand on his left hand

and ten thousand on his right hand.

 

In and of itself, this statement does not advance our conversation much. However, the attentive reader will notice that the phrase, “a thousand on his left hand and ten thousand on his right hand” is a clear allusion to Tehillim 91:7, which is cited here in several textual witnesses, including the Ein Yaakov. The passage from Tehillim reads as follows:

 

You need not fear the terror by night

Or the arrow that flies by day,

The plague that stalks in the darkness

Or the scourge that ravages at noon.

A thousand may fall at your left side,

Ten thousand at your right,

But it shall not reach you…

Because you took the Lord…

As your haven.

 

Careful readers of this series will not be surprised that the rabbis interpret this verse as referring to demons. We have already seen how in the case of Devarim 32:24 in Parashat Ha-azinu, the rabbis interpreted terms for plagues as the names of demons. In particular, the word ketev was understood as a type of devil. The term ketev reappears in our passage from Tehillim, translated as “scourge.” To the rabbis, it may well have been obvious that these verses refer to demons.

 

In recalling this verse, R. Huna adds two things to our conversation about mazikin. In previous Talmudic discussions of demons, the emphasis was on the threat of demons at night. In much of this passage, however, the text implies that demons are let slip to wreak havoc day and night. The verses in Tehillim explicitly make reference to dangers that “stalk in the darkness” and “ravage in the day.” This would appear to be a significant expansion of the powers of the mazikin. Presumably, though, demons reach the height of their destructive powers at night.

 

These verses also bring a new source of optimism to our concerns about demons. Abaye and Abba Binyamin both tell us that we are constantly surrounded by demons and offer no hope of escaping their clutches. By referring to this verse, R. Huna reminds us that ultimately God is in charge, and He will protect us from the mazikin if only we put our trust in Him.

 

The next lines further expand the role of mazikin in our daily lives:

 

Raba says:

The crushing in the Kallah lectures comes from them. 

Fatigue in the knees comes from them.

The wearing out of the clothes of the scholars

is due to their rubbing against them.

The bruising of the feet comes from them.

 

According to Raba, mazikin are not just responsible for death and extreme suffering. They also cause the minor annoyances and indignities of daily life. The modern equivalents of the events Raba attributes to mazikin might include: crowded subway cars at rush hour, runs in stockings, missing socks and repetitive stress injuries. If we exclude the first event listed by Raba, all of these events have something else in common. All of these things are caused by the gradual accumulation of small, often unperceivable forces. Lacking our scientific understanding, people in the ancient world would have been most puzzled as to why these things occur. Raba mentions specifically the clothing of scholars, who are not involved in manual labor. Since such clothing is not exposed to the elements or other forms of abuse, they must have wondered, why does such clothing not last forever? Similarly, why do various parts of the body give out, even if I have not exerted myself? The only scientific answer that Raba can come up with is that all these mysterious problems are caused by invisible demons. Once again, is this really so different from our explanation that they are caused by tiny, invisible forces?

 

The first example that Raba gives does not fit into this category. He talks of the crowding at the Kalla, the semi-annual conclaves in which Jews from all over Babylonia would gather in the great yeshivot to study Torah. Surely Raba understood that the crowding at these Torah lectures was caused by the large number of people there? I do not understand why one would need to attribute such phenomena to demons.

 

The Gemara now moves on to give some more concrete advice:

 

If one wants to discover them,

let him take sifted ashes and sprinkle around his bed,

and in the morning he will see something like the footprints of a cock.

If one wishes to see them,

let him take the after-birth of a black she-cat,

the offspring of a black she-cat,

the first-born of a first-born,

let him roast it in fire and grind it to powder,

and then let him put some into his eye,

and he will see them.

 

This passage presents instructions of the sort one might expect to find in a potions textbook available in Diagon alley rather than in the Babylonian Talmud. It is important to note that most demon-oriented spells and potions claim to give protection from, or even control, over demons. The procedures described here are of a more academic nature. They allow the individual to observe mazikin, or at least their movements. The first suggestion, of placing ashes around one’s bed and looking for footprints in the morning, almost recalls a child’s home science experiment meant to demonstrate basic phenomena like evaporation.  This “experiment” also emphasizes the nocturnal nature of demons, in apparent contradiction to the previous lines.

 

As the Gemara continues, it becomes apparent that there are real dangers involved in the pastime of demon watching:

 

Let him also pour it into an iron tube

and seal it with an iron signet

that they should not steal it from him.

Let him also close his mouth, lest he come to harm.

R. Bibi b. Abaye did so, saw them and came to harm.

The scholars, however, prayed for him and he recovered.

 

It seems that the demons do not want to be seen.  They will attempt to steal the visibility potion from its owner. Moreover, they will attempt to harm the person who has gained the ability to see them, by attacking him through the mouth. One is thus advised to keep one’s mouth shut during such an encounter.

 

Finally, we learn of a case in which R. Bibi b. Abaye was actually harmed in the course of viewing mazikin. The story does not say how or why he was harmed. From the context, it would seem that R. Bibi failed to shut his mouth while he was watching the demons. But this is never stated explicitly. The simplest reading of this line is that viewing demons is, in and of itself, dangerous. This would give new meaning to the opening lines of our passage, that if humans could see all the demons around them, they could not withstand it. Perhaps the very sight of demons can be bad for your health.

 

The story of R. Bibi thus far is a simple cautionary tale. After a discussion of how to see demons, the Gemara concludes by telling us “don’t try this at home,” relating a story of someone who got hurt doing it. However, the Gemara continues the story and tells us that whatever happened to R. Bibi (perhaps they turned him into a newt!), he did get better as a result of the rabbis’ prayers.  Why is this detail important? Would not this cautionary tale be even more effective if R. Bibi was not cured? I am not sure, but perhaps this is to reassure the readers that ultimately we are not at the mercy of the demons. The rabbis’ prayers directly to God can undo whatever damage the demons have done.

 

 

Holiness in numbers

 

Finally we come to Abba Binyamin’s last statement:

 

It has been taught: Abba Binyamin says:

A man's prayer is heard [by God] only in the Synagogue.

For it is said:

‘To hearken unto the song and to the prayer’ (I Melakhim 8:28).

The prayer is to be recited where there is song.

Ravin b. R. Adda says in the name of R. Yitzchak:

How do you know that the Holy One, blessed be He,

is to be found in the Synagogue?

For it is said:

‘God standeth in the Divine assembly’ (Tehillim 82:1).  

 

Abba Binyamin now argues that prayers are only heard when recited in the synagogue. We have already cited this position in our attempts to understand Abba Binyamin’s previous discussion of the case in which two individuals enter a synagogue to pray. This discussion suggests that praying in the synagogue has value even when there is no communal prayer going on. However, even if we read this text minimally, as simply saying that it is better to pray in a synagogue, Abba Binyamin’s final statement seems to flatly contradict his first reported statement. In that statement, Abba Binyamin stressed the importance of praying before one’s bed, presumably at home. I do not know how to reconcile his advocacy of praying at home and his stress on praying in the synagogue.

 

I am also not clear on how he derives this principle from the verse cited. In the verse, King Shlomo talks of the Temple, which he has just built, as a place for prayer. The verse makes no mention of the synagogue. I also do not understand the phrase, “The prayer is to be recited where there is song.”

 

Ravin b. Ada offers a complimentary statement whose source is more understandable. He declares that the reason prayers are heard in the synagogue is that God Himself dwells in the synagogue. He cites the verse, “God stands in the Divine assembly.” In this midrash, Ravin seems to take the word assembly, edah/adat, as referring to the gathering together of worshipers to praise God. This understanding works nicely since the peshat (simple meaning) of the verse is that God stands among His angels. This midrash thus substitutes God’s heavenly servants with his human ones. Furthermore, the word edah is understood in other midrashim as referring to a minyan. If this reading is correct, Ravin does not mean that God dwells in the physical structure of the synagogue, but rather that He dwells among those who have gathered for communal prayer. This is different from Abba Binyamin’s statement which apparently refers to the synagogue building even when no services are going on.

 

Rashi, however, interprets this midrash as playing on the proposed relationship between the words edah and moed.  He states that according to Ravin, the verse means that God dwells in his beit moed, “his appointed place.” Rashi thus understands Ravin as referring to the physical location of the synagogue, like Abba Binyamin’s statement. The term beit moed, which has its roots in Iyov 30:23, seems here to be a combination of the terms Beit Ha-mikdash and Ohel Moed. Just as God dwelt in the Mishkan and the Beit Ha-mikdash at all times, God also dwells in the synagogue at all times.

 

One factor militating against Rashi’s interpretation is that the very next line in the Gemara takes up the question of God’s presence among those who are engaged in prayer:

 

And how do you know that

if ten people pray together

the Divine presence is with them?

For it is said:

'God standeth in the assembly of the Divine’ (Tehillim 82:1). 

And how do you know that

if three are sitting as a court of judges

the Divine Presence is with them?

For it is said:

‘In the midst of the judges He judgeth’ (Ibid.). 

And how do you know that

if two are sitting and studying the Torah together

the Divine Presence is with them?

For it is said:

‘Then they that feared the Lord spoke one with another; 

and the Lord hearkened and heard,

and a book of remembrance was written before Him,

for them that feared the Lord and that thought upon His name’ (Malakhi 3:16). (What does it mean:

'And that thought upon His name'? 

R. Ashi says:

If a man thought to fulfill a commandment

and he did not do it,

because he was prevented by force or accident,

then the Scripture credits it to him

as if he had performed it.)

And how do you know that

even if one man sits and studies the Torah

the Divine Presence is with him?

For it is said:

‘In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned

I will come unto thee and bless thee’ (Shemot 20:20).

 

With the exception of the lines placed in parentheses here, which are a late Amoraic gloss, this entire passage appears in slightly different versions in Pirkei Avot 3:6 and in the Mekhilta. It is therefore clear that these lines are not part of Ravin’s statement, but a citation of an earlier source brought by the Gemara to complement Ravin’s statement.

 

Notably, the sources in the Mishna and the Mekhilta refer only to groups of people studying Torah, whereas our source refers to ten people praying together and the rest studying Torah. Once again we find in this chapter the theme of Torah study and prayer as complementary and even interchangeable activities.

 

This passage has a sort of dramatic framework. It starts out by making the striking claim that God Himself is present when even ten people assemble to engage in His service. The passage then engages in a process of one-upmanship, producing a succession of verses that prove that God is present in even smaller gatherings, until finally, we learn that no human community is even necessary in order to merit the Divine presence. Even an individual studying on his own brings God into his company. The Gemara, however, does not think in such literary terms: 

 

Now, since [the Divine presence is] even with one man,

why is it necessary to mention two? 

The words of two are written down

in the book of remembrance,

the words of one are not written down

in the book of remembrance.

Since this is the case with two,

why mention three?

I might think [the dispensing of] justice is only for making peace,

and the Divine Presence does not come [to participate].

Therefore he teaches us that justice also is Torah.

Since it is the case with three,

why mention ten?

To [a gathering of] ten the Divine Presence comes first,

to three, it comes only after they sit down.

 

In its characteristically mathematical fashion, the Gemara notes that once we have found a verse that proves that God is present even with a single individual, the previous verses proving that He is present with greater numbers are redundant. Once I show that water boils at one hundred degrees centigrade, there is no longer any need to prove that water also boils at 110 degrees and 120 degrees. For the Gemara, each and every verse in the Tanakh is needed to prove a specific thing. The idea that two verses might teach the same thing is highly problematic for the Gemara. The Gemara takes two approaches to this problem. In two of the instances, the Gemara argues that while God is present even with smaller numbers of people, the level of Divine involvement goes up as the numbers increase. In the case of three individuals that sit in judgment, the Gemara uses this as an opportunity to teach that meting out justice according to the halakha is itself a form of Torah study.

 

This entire passage encapsulates a fundamental tension in Judaism. On the one hand, we believe that God is everywhere and available to all. No matter where or with whom one studies or prays, one can always establish a relationship with God.  On the other hand, Judaism teaches that God is associated with certain places, especially the Temple, but also the synagogue. In the same way, God dwells among the assembly of His people, not among scattered individuals. This passage seeks to balance the tension between these two concepts. On the one hand, it states that God dwells specifically in the synagogue, especially among an assembled community of prayer or study. However, it also emphasizes that while such a geographically and communally centered spiritual life may be preferable, any individual who seeks out God can find Him.