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.

Star light! Star bright! Make me a Talmud scholar tonight!

James Davila at Paleojudaica notes that Madonna supposedly cited the Talmud in her recent acceptance speech at her induction into the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame. The pop star stated:

There’s a saying in the Talmud that for every blade of glass there’s an angel that watches over it and whispers grow, grow. And I could still hear those angels whispering. And even the naysayers, the ones that said I was talentless, that I was chubby, that I couldn’t sing, that I was a one hit wonder, they helped me too. (Quoted from “The Bangkok Jungle“)

Well, it turns out that the “Material Girl” was a bit mistaken. She did not quote from the Talmud, but from the Zohar:

The Holy One brings out all the hosts, camps, and stars, each one is called by its own name, and “not one faileth” (Isa 40:26). Over all these stars and constellations of the firmament there have been set chiefs, leaders, and ministers, whose duty is to serve the world each one according to his appointed station. And not the tiniest grass-blade on earth but has its own appointed star in heaven. Each star, too, has over it a being appointed who ministers before the Holy One as its representative, each according to his order. All the stars in the firmaments keep watch over this world: they are appointed to minister to every individual object in this world, to each object a star. Herbs and trees, gras and wild plants, cannot flourish and grow except from the influence of the stars who stand above them and gaze upon them face to face, each according to his fashon. (Soncino Zohar, Shemoth, Section 2, Page 171b)

While she’s certainly no Talmud scholar, her lyrics have a new (and potentially more profound) meaning:

You must be my lucky star
‘Cause you make the darkness seem so far
And when I’m lost you’ll be my guide
I just turn around and you’re by my side

Starlight, star bright first star I see tonight
Starlight, (star bright) make everything all right
Starlight, star bright first star I see tonight
Starlight, (star bright) yeah

Come on shine your heavenly body tonight
‘Cause I know you’re gonna make everything all right

Update: Manuscript Boy (from Hagahot) e-mailed Jim Davila of Paleojudaica with the following quote from Genesis Rabbah 10.6:

א”ר סימון אין לך כל עשב ועשב ברקיע שאין לו מזל ברקיע שמכה אותו ואומר לו גדל

Neusner’s translation:

Said R. Simon, ‘There is not a single herb which is not subject to the influence of a planet in heaven, which smites it and says to it, “Grow!”‘

As Manuscript Boy notes, it’s “Not whispers but beatings. Other than that, it’s pretty close.”