Demons, Dybbuks, Ghosts, & Golems

The sinister power of life-force gone awry.

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"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 around a field. R. Huna says: Every one among us has a thousand on his left hand and ten thousand on his right hand. Raba says: The crushing of the crowd in the Kallah [yearly public] 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."

Rarely does the talmudic literature go into detail about exactly how demons and magical creatures come into being, or whether they are really independent beings "out there," or merely psychological realities. If the latter, of course, then we today can perhaps understand this foreign-sounding discourse--after all, who among us has not been plagued by "demons" in their work or sexual life? As in the source above,"demons" (mazikim, a word which might be better translated "harmful beings") could be seen as anything that causes decay, pain, and the depletion of life-energy.

But there's reason to think that the text in Berakhot is not referring to metaphorical demons, as it goes on to say, "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." 

Unlike the Talmud, kabbalistic demonology is more detailed. Some demons are formed whenever a man improperly spills his seed--a sin considered so heinous by the Kabbalah because it subverts the creative process. Other demons are, as in the Christian myth, rebellious angels, or in the case of Lilith, primordial humans who disobeyed the divine plan. In all cases, they are instances of life-energy gone awry. In the proper functioning of the cosmos, energy flows like a cycle: down from heaven, then back up in the form of proper ritual action. But when the energy is misappropriated, as in masturbation or rebellion, its intense power falls into the realm of shadow.

golemThe mythic narratives of the Kabbalah may be difficult for us to understand today, but not if we situate them within the deep concerns--particularly those related to conception and childbirth--of the kabbalists and ordinary Jews who lived in a time of great uncertainty. Just as bearing children was central to one's identity, it was also rife with peril. Miscarriage, infant mortality, illness, and birth defects were all far more common in the medieval world than they are today. Bearing children was awesome and terrifying.

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Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson is a writer & teacher. He is a columnist for the Forward, the chief editor of Zeek, the executive director of Nehirim: GLBT Jewish Culture & Spirituality, and the author of God in Your Body. He is a Ph.D candidate in Jewish thought at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and holds a J.D. from Yale.