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Daf 5a - Rabbis and Demons

Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan


Ein Yaakov - The World of Talmudic Aggada

By Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan



Lecture 15:  Daf 5a

Rabbis and Demons



In the previous lecture we discussed mazikin, a type of demon whose existence the rabbis of the Talmud clearly took for granted. I suspect that some readers will be troubled by the notion that our greatest rabbis were enthusiastic believers in demons. We modern folk expect such discussions of demons to be relegated to Harry Potter novels and the like, rather than be made the focus of our sacred texts. I would like, therefore, to quickly discuss the various interpretations and understandings of Talmudic demonology presented by medieval and modern rabbinic authorities. I would like to thank my friend, R. Natan Slifkin, for giving me access to his unpublished manuscript on demons in rabbinic thought throughout the ages. Much of what follows relies upon his research. (For further discussion of this topic, see R. Yitzchak Blau’s VBM shiur: Understanding Aggada, Shiur #18: “Demons in the Talmud” available at


First, with regard to the classical rabbinic sources, it is important to note that the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud are far more interested in and worried about demons than the rabbis of the Land of Israel. The rabbis of Babylonia are quite aware of the fact that their brethren to the west do not seem to accept demons to the extent that they do. At one point, the Babylonian Talmud seeks to explain the Palestinian rabbis’ lack of concern with a particular demon-related danger – eating or doing things in pairs. The Gemara states:


The rule of the matter is

that for those who take note of the pairs,

the pairs take note of them;

those who do not take note of the pairs,

are not bothered by them

(Pesachim 110b).


In other words, demons are only a problem for those who are concerned about them and believe in them. As such, it seems that the best way to deal with demons is to do what most modern people do – pay no attention to them.


The various ways that medieval rabbis understand Talmudic references to demons reflect the range of approaches to Aggada in general that we discussed at the outset of this course. As we saw, the Geonim hold that aggadic passages in the Babylonian Talmud lack authority. They merely represent the personal opinions of individual rabbis. As such, there is no problem with rejecting aggadic statements that appear to conflict with reason. The Rambam accepts this principle, and also argues that some ostensibly irrational aggadot are in fact metaphors which, when understood properly, contain deeper meanings that are actually in line with reason.


Variations on this approach are taken by several leading medieval rabbis. Rambam, in his commentary on Mishna Avoda Zara 4:7, declares that the practice of attempting to commune with spirits is a complete fraud without any basis in reality, and enlightened individuals who know philosophy must reject it. The implication of this commentary is that there are no demons or similar such beings. In light of this ruling, many of the Rambam’s followers seek to re-interpret various apparent references to demons in the Talmud. Rambam’s son, R. Avraham, argues in his Maamar al Derashot Chazal that discussions of demons in the Talmud refer to events that take place in dreams, rather than reality. R. Menachem Ha-Meiri interprets such references metaphorically, as referring to various phenomena, including psychosomatic illness and the evil inclination. On our passage about the bedtime Shema, he explains his understanding of the mazikin against which the bedtime Shema is supposed to protect:


[Mazikin] are false opinions. People need [the Shema] during their free time in order to proclaim the unity of God, so that they not fall prey to dualistic beliefs.  For when one reads (the Shema) with proper intent, one’s bed will be protected from them.


For the Meiri, the bedtime Shema serves a philosophical purpose. It gives the individual the opportunity to focus on the true nature of God at a time when his mind may otherwise wander and entertain heretical beliefs.


Certainly, then, there is ample precedent in the tradition for rejecting the existence of demons. However, the alternate, literalist school of reading Aggada presents particularly stiff opposition to the rationalist camp on the issue of demons. As we mentioned before, the literalist approach to reading Aggada is generally associated with the Ba’alei Ha-tosafot and other rabbis of Northern Europe. In the case of demons, however, literal readings are embraced by a much broader array of scholars. Not only do Kabbalists generally accept the existence of demons, often presenting developed demonologies, but even figures generally associated with the rationalist school, such as the philosopher R. Chasdai Crescas, and his student R. Yosef Albo, affirm the existence of demons. Even more strikingly, the Ramban, who accepts the rationalist position regarding the fallibility of aggadic statements, not only wholeheartedly believes in the existence of demons, but also attacks those who deny their existence, accusing them of being influenced by the heretical Greek philosophers who deny Divine involvement in the world (Derashat Torat Ha-shem Temima).


Similarly, the great R. Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna, in a remarkable passage in his commentary on the Shulchan Arukh’s laws of idolatry, sharply castigates the Rambam for his denial of the existence of demons, saying in part:


Philosophy mislead [Rambam] through its teachings to interpret the Gemara entirely in the manner of the scoffers (lezaii) and to uproot the words of the Gemara from their simple meaning. God forbid that I should believe such things in any way! Rather all of these things are to be understood according to their simple meaning. However, they do have a deeper meaning, not the “deeper” meaning of the philosophers which is in fact superficial, but rather [the deeper meaning] of the masters of Truth (i.e. the Kabbalists).

(Biur Ha-gra, Yoreh Deah 179, # 13)


What lies behind this broad and deep support for the existence of demons? The Vilna Gaon, cited above, lays out some of the basic motivations. First, the simple reading of the Talmud is that the rabbis affirm their belief in demons on numerous occasions. The rationalist position on this matter strains credulity. Furthermore, demons are, to a degree, an integral part of Kabbalistic thought.  Rejecting demons was not an option for those many rabbis who accepted the authority of Kabbala.  As we saw in the case of the Ramban, who was an early adherent to Kabbala, demons became an essential part of the way many Jews understood how God interacts with the universe. Denying the existence of demons, therefore, threatened some scholars’ very conception of God.


This phenomenon must also be placed in an even broader context. Most people of all nations throughout world history, educated and ignorant alike, believed in demons. Demons help to explain the mysterious workings of the world, especially in its more malevolent expressions. They represent a coherent theory which elegantly explains any number of otherwise inexplicable phenomena. Only the scientific revolutions of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment gradually pushed away this old paradigm to make way for modern scientific theories. Even these new theories, in many cases, explain malady and misfortune in the world by simply replacing demons and magic with a new set of invisible beings and forces, with new names like bacteria and viruses, gravity and entropy. Thus most of the rabbis who wrote and commented on the Talmud took the existence of demons for granted as an integral part of their understanding of the world around them, just as we presume the existence of electrons, radioactivity and all sorts of other things that we cannot see, but upon which we nevertheless base our daily lives.


When placed in a broader historical context, opposition to demons can be seen as rooted in a secular scientific worldview, whether the classical rational approach that the Ramban encountered, or the modern approach at the time of the Vilna Gaon. We, especially those of us who identify with Modern Orthodoxy, take for granted the coexistence of science and religion.  But, there is, in fact, a fundamental opposition between the two. Science denies that which cannot be seen or demonstrated. Religion posits the existence of realms and beings who are beyond human comprehension. Science posits that all events in this world are the result of a few simple and unchanging rules. Religion posits that many, if not all, events in the world are controlled by a Higher Intelligence. There are ways of reconciling these conflicts, but always at a price to both religion and science.  I would like to suggest that some of those who attacked demon deniers as borderline heretics understood that Judaism can well exist without demons. But someone who denies demons will, the next day, deny angels and the day after that, God Himself, chas ve-shalom.


Long ago forgotten


The next passage in the Gemara is a brief interlude, presumably cited because it was transmitted by the same rabbis who presented the previous tradition, R. Levi b. Chama in the name of Reish Lakish. Despite its marginality in the current context, the passage makes an important statement regarding the very nature of the Torah, written and oral:


R. Levi b. Chama says further in the name of R. Shimon b. Lakish:

What is the meaning of the verse:

“And I will give thee the tables of stone,

and the law and the commandment,

which I have written that thou mayest teach them?” (Shemot 24:12) 

'Tables of stone':

these are the ten commandments;

'the law':

this is the Pentateuch;

'the commandment':

this is the Mishna;

'which I have written':

these are the Prophets and the Hagiographa;

'that thou mayest teach them':

this is the Gemara. 

It teaches [us] that all these things were given to Moses on Sinai.


God spoke these words to Moshe before he ascended Mt. Sinai. The simple meaning of this verse seems to be, as Cassuto explains, that God presents Moshe the two tablets with the Ten Commandments on them.  However, from a midrashic perspective, this reading is problematic. Why does it take God so many words just to say that he will give Moshe the tablets? Instead, the Midrash “atomizes” the verse, taking each term to refer to a different aspect of Torah.  The bottom line is that according to this verse, God revealed the entire Torah, written and oral, to Moshe at Mt. Sinai: all twenty-four books of the Tanakh, the entire Mishna, and the Gemara.


There are many places in rabbinic literature which list a series of disciplines or areas of study which collectively are meant to refer to the entirety of Torah. This list is notable because it includes the category of Nevi’im and Ketuvim, (“Nakh”), the Prophets and Writings, which make up the latter two sections of the tripartite Hebrew Bible. Furthermore, this term does not directly follow the reference to the Torah, as we might expect. Rather, the term “Mishna” intervenes between the two phrases referring to the various sections of the Hebrew Bible. Normally, such a list will begin with the term Mikra, which presumably refers to the entire Tanakh. Here, the term is clearly limited to only the Pentateuch.


The reason for this anomaly may simply be the exegetical needs of this verse. For the Rabbis, the term “Torah” would have obviously meant the Pentateuch. Similarly, the term “mitzva” is appropriately understood as “Mishna.” The Rabbis were now confronted with the phrase “which I have written.” This must refer to a form of revelation that is written down, but it cannot refer to the Pentateuch, which has already been mentioned. Left with little choice, the Rabbis assigned the Prophets and Writings to this phrase.


Another possibility is that in referring to Nakh and placing it following the Mishna, the Rabbis sought to make a statement about the status of Nakh and its place within the curriculum. R. Avraham of Minsk, author of the Ahavat Eitan commentary printed in the margins of the standard edition of the Ein Yaakov, suggests that the Gemara intends to state that the study of Mishna should take primacy over the study of Nakh. He notes that the Gemara states in Masekhet Nedarim (22a) that had Israel not sinned, the only books of the Bible that would have been given would have been the five books of the Torah and the book of Yehoshua. The rest of the Prophets and Writings deal, not with the ideal Divine plan, but with the exigencies of history prompted by Israel’s sins. The laws of the Mishna, on the other hand, are eternal commandments which reflect the ideal Divine will. Hence their study takes priority over that of Nakh.


We must now consider the implications of this passage for our understanding of the revelation at Sinai and the Oral Law. Some understand this passage quite literally. Moshe received the texts of the Mishna, Nakh, and the Gemara as we know them. They were transmitted orally until one by one they were committed to writing – Nakh by the various prophets, Mishna by R. Yehuda Ha-nasi, and Gemara by R. Ashi. As such, all of the key texts in Judaism are of equal status, because they were all revealed to Moshe on Mt. Sinai.


This interpretation is difficult to accept. Did Moshe really receive and transmit a text full of citations and deeds of rabbis who would live more than a millennium later? Did the sages in biblical times know of the major events in biblical history in advance? Furthermore, this reading would appear to negate any real creative human involvement in the process of the transmission of the law. What appears to be human argument and innovation was in fact pre-ordained at Sinai.


Furthermore, Rashi already works on the assumption that the term “Gemara” here cannot possibly refer to the text known to us as the Babylonian (or Jerusalem) Talmud, because that text did not exist at the time this statement was made. Since this statement is included in the Gemara, it must predate the Gemara’s redaction. Rather, “gemara” refers to “the underlying logic of the mishnayot from which [halakhic] rulings proceed.” Similarly, we can suggest that the term “mishna” is a general term for codified law, of which our text, the Mishna, is only a prime example.


R. Zvi Hirsh Chajes (the Mahara”tz Chayes, 1805-1855), the great Galician rabbi and maskil, in his commentary on our passage, argues that these lines should not be taken literally. Rather, these lines simply mean that:


God transmitted the tools (midot) whereby [the Torah] is interpreted and sages [of later generations] derived from these principles various ramifications and sub-categories, and derived hidden meanings from what was made explicit, and all these details are contained in the general principle.


All Moshe received at Mt. Sinai was the text of the Pentateuch and an embryonic Oral Law, consisting of some basic principles and presumably certain fundamental interpretations. All the rest is the result of centuries of development and human creativity.


While this fundamentally Maimonidean understanding of the nature of oral law is compelling in and of itself, I do not think it sufficiently explains the passage at hand. The rabbis here do not refer to general principles, but to the actual details and underlying reasoning of the law. Furthermore, the Mahara”tz Chayes does not explain what it means that Nach was given to Moshe on Sinai.


I would like to propose a slightly different reading in light of a parallel text often cited in our context. Explicating the verse:


And the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone

Inscribed by the finger of God,

And on them (ve-aleyhem) the exact words (ke-kol ha-devarim)

That the Lord had addressed to you out of the fire

On the day of the assembly. 


The Jerusalem Talmud, Peah, 2:6 states:


R. Yehoshua b. Levi said

Aleyhem, ve-aleyhem; kol, ke-kol; devarim, ha-devarim

[i.e. each of these words has an ostensibly superfluous prefix,

which teaches us that something not stated in the text also occurred.]

Scripture, Mishna, Talmud and Aggada,

Even all those things which a senior student

will say before his master,

We already transmitted to Moshe at Sinai.


The Jerusalem Talmud presents a very similar interpretation of a very similar verse to that found in our passage. Both state that the key corpuses of both the written and oral Torah were already given to Moshe. However, the Jerusalem Talmud adds one more thing. Even the statements of the most senior scholars throughout the generations were revealed to Moshe. This means that Moshe did not simply receive the canonical texts, rulings and ideals of the Written and Oral Law, but that he received every significant event and detail of the entire history of Torah study, from his day until the end of days. Every potentiality and possibility of the Torah was revealed to him. There is no way Moshe could have transmitted this nearly infinite set of knowledge to Yehoshua and the future generations. Rather, Moshe received this total knowledge of the Torah, but did not transmit it to others.


What then was the purpose of the revelation? The Jerusalem Talmud continues:


What is the reason for this?

For when a person says,

‘Look this is a new [interpretation or ruling],’

His friend can respond and say to him,

‘It already existed going back to eternity.’


The fact that the Torah was transmitted to Moshe in its totality teaches us that there is no such thing as a true innovation in the study of Torah. Such innovations are simply reconstructions of a preexistent primordial Torah.


Along similar lines, I would like to argue that our passage may well mean quite literally that Moshe received the contents of the entire Tanakh and Mishna as we know it, as well as the Gemara in some form. However, he only transmitted the Pentateuch and some sort of embryonic Oral Law to future generations. This places our passage in line with many traditions that Moshe was privileged to see into the future while on Mt. Sinai, but certainly did not disclose those apocalyptic visions to others.


The reason for this revelation to Moshe is, once again, to teach us that although it may appear to us that the tradition evolves throughout history at the hands of its human transmitters, it in fact conforms to a Divine plan in heaven. The Torah is not a constantly expanding universe, but, rather, a preexistent universe that is gradually uncovered over the generations.


The famous account in Nidda 30b regarding the fetus who learns the entire Torah in the womb, only to forget it with the smack of an angel at the moment of birth, provides a parallel, on a personal level, to this notion that the entire Torah was revealed at the dawn of Jewish history, but forgotten, only to be gradually reclaimed throughout the generations. Here, too, we find that the study of Torah is essentially a process of reclaiming that which has been lost.


(For more discussion of the passage in Nidda, see “The Angel’s Oath: The Relationship of Chazal to the Platonic Doctrine of Recollection” by my friend Rabbi Dr. David C. Flatto, available at: )



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