Seeing demons in the Talmud

David Pescovitz at BoingBoing draws attention to Aharon Varady’s post linking ‘demons’ in rabbinic literature to “Charles Bonnet Syndrome, a disease where mentally healthy people have very strange and vivid hallucinations.” Aharon quotes from the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berakhoth 6a:

It has been taught: Abba Benjamin 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. R. Huna says: Every one among us has a thousand on his left hand and ten thousand on his right hand.2 Raba says: The crushing in the Kallah3 lectures comes from them.4 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. If one wants to discover them,5 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. Let him also pour it into an iron tube and seal it with an iron signet that they6 should not steal it from him. Let him also close his mouth, lest he come to harm. R. Bibi b. Abaye did so,7 saw them and came to harm. The scholars, however, prayed for him and he recovered.

(2) Cf. Psalm 91:7 which verse is quoted in some editions.
(3) The Assemblies of Babylonian students during the months of Elul and Adar, v. Glos.
(4) For really the lectures are not overcrowded.
(5) MS. M.: their footprints.
(6) The demons.
(7) He put the powder into his eye. (Soncino)

He also cites b. Ber. 43b, another passage where demons are mentioned. (Demon = מזיק maziq; pg. 755 in Jastrow.)

On a tangential note, under the entry for מזייעי (frightening demons) in Jastrow’s dictionary, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Numbers 6:24 is cited, which contains a nifty expansion of Aaron’s Priestly Benediction:

The Lord bless thee and keep thee. The Lord make His face to shine upon thee, and gracious unto thee. The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and grant thee peace. The Lord bless thee in all thy business, and keep) thee from demons3 of the night, and things that cause terror, and from demons of the noon4 and of the morning, and from malignant spirits and phantoms.  The Lord make His face to shine upon thee, when occupied in the law, and reveal to thee its secrets, and be merciful unto thee. The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee in thy prayer, and grant thee peace in thy end.

3 Liliths
4 Psalm 91:6. Vulg. et Sept. (Tg. Ps.-J. Num 6:24-26; Etheridge’s translation)

It’s interesting that both the Soncino Talmud and Etheridge’s translation of the Targum mention Psalm 91:6-7 (vv 5-7 quoted below):

You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. 91:5-7 NRSV Be not afraid of the terror of demons who walk at night, of the arrow of the angel of death that he looses during the day; Of the death that walks in darkness, of the band of demons that attacks at noon. You will invoke the holy name; a thousand will fall at your left side, and ten thousand at your right; they will not come near you to do harm. Targum Psalms 91:5-7 (Cook)

These rabbinic passages are quite strange. All three documents associate this Psalm with the demonic. I’m too tired to analyze this, but it seems an appropriate post for Friday the 13th, a few minutes before midnight.

It’s good to see the Babylonian Talmud getting props on BoingBoing.

1 thought on “Seeing demons in the Talmud”

  1. Thanks so much for taking note of my post and adding more context from the Targum Psalms. I have been thinking about the Nehushtan and how it relates to ancient depictions of the Angel of Death for a few years, especially as it relates to the aggadah of a giant serpent swallowing Moses prior to Tzipporah’s circumcision of Eliezer, and the blood painted on the doorpost to ward off the angel of death in the 10th plague in Egypt. I’ll be posting more about this and I’ll be interested in your insights.

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