Lilith, Lady Flying in Darkness

The most notorious demon of Jewish tradition becomes a feminist hero.

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“Half of me is beautiful

but you were never sure which half.”

            Ruth Feldman, “Lilith”

Lilith is the most notorious demon in Jewish tradition. In some sources, she is conceived of as the original woman, created even before Eve, and she is often presented as a thief of newborn infants. Lilith means “the night,” and she embodies the emotional and spiritual aspects of darkness: terror, sensuality, and unbridled freedom. More recently, she has come to represent the freedom of feminist women who no longer want to be “good girls.”

Biblical and Talmudic Tales of Lilith

The story of Lilith originated in the ancient Near East,where a wilderness spirit known as the “dark maid” appears in the Sumerian myth “The descent of Inanna” (circa 3000 BCE). Another reference appears in a tablet from the seventh century BCE found at Arslan Tash, Syria which contains the inscription: “O flyer in a dark chamber, go away at once, O Lili!”

Lilith later made her way into Israelite tradition, possibly even into the Bible. Isaiah 34:14, describing an inhospitable wilderness, tells us: “There goat-demons shall greet each other, and there the lilit shall find rest.” Some believe this word “lilit” is a reference to a night owl, and others say it is indeed a reference to the demon Lilith. A magical bowl from the first century CE, written in Hebrew, reads:” Designated is this bowl for the sealing of the house of this Geyonai bar Mamai, that there flee from him the evil Lilith…” Ancient images of Lilith which show her hands bound appear to be a form of visual magic for containing her.

In the Talmud, Lilith becomes not only a spirit of darkness,but also a figure of uncontrolled sexuality. The Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat151a) says: “It is forbidden for a man to sleep alone in a house, lest Lilith get hold of him.” Lilith is said to fertilize herself with male sperm to give birth to other demons.

Lilith as Escaped Wife

In Genesis Rabbah, we encounter a brief midrash that claims that Adam had a first wife before Eve. This interpretation arises from the two creation stories of Genesis: in Genesis 1, man and woman are created at the same time, while in Genesis 2 Adam precedes Eve. The rabbinic tale suggests that the first creation story is a different creation, in which Adam has a wife made, like him, from the earth. For some reason this marriage doesn’t work out,and so God makes Adam a second wife, Eve.

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Rabbi Jill Hammer, Ph.D., is an author, educator, midrashist and ritualist. She is the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic Jewish seminary, and the co-founder of the Kohenet Institute, a program in Jewish women's spiritual leadership. She is the author of "Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women," "The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons" and "The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women." She lives in Manhattan with her spouse and daughter.

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