Demons & Medieval Jewish Medicine

Jewish physicians in the Middle Ages were also considered superior magicians.

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Reprinted with permission from Magic & Superstition in the Jewish Tradition (Spertus Institute of Judaic Studies).


Demons were believed not only to possess people and places but also to be the cause of physical illness and bad luck. According to Jewish folklore, demons were created on the eve of the Sabbath. They had souls but no bodies, since the arrival of the Sabbath terminated the creation. They had wings but no shadow, and were able to tell the future. At times demons could assume human form, and like men, they could eat, drink, propagate, and die.

Specifically "Jewish" demons are known, although their numbers are few in comparison to those of angels. They are Ashmedai. the leader of demons; the shedim, who worked at night; the mazikim, injurious spirits; the ruhim and ruhot, lost souls; and Lilith, the wicked temptress.

How To See a Demon

Invisibility was the demons' most terrible attribute, yet the Talmud (Berakhot 6a) tells us that in this we are fortunate:

"Abba Benjamin says if the eye had the power to see them no creature would endure the demons. They are more numerous than we are and surround us like the ridge round a field. Rabbi Huna says everyone among us has a thousand on his left hand, 10,000 on his right…

"Fatigue in the knees comes from them, wearing out of clothes of scholars comes from them, brushing of feet comes from them. If one wants to discover them let him take sifted ashes and sprinkle round his bed and in the morning he will see something like the footprints of a cock. If one wants to see them let him take the afterbirth of a black she cat, the first born of a first born, roast it in the fire, grind it to powder, put some in his eye and he will see them. Let him pour it into an iron tube and seal it with an iron signet that they should not steal it from him. Let him also close his mouth lest he come to harm. Rabbi Bibi ben Abbaye did so (put powder in his eye), saw them, and came to harm. The scholars prayed for him and he recovered."

Up To No Good

Demons were also held responsible for many unfathomable natural phenomena. The influence of the Evil Eye was attributed to them, as well as the extreme vulnerability of people in life crisis situations and the harm done by ill-chosen words. A strong connection has been made between demons and uncleanliness; for example, the special demon Shibeta is believed to prey on those who eat food touched by unwashed hands. The Talmud specifies that the washing of hands is not only for cleanliness, but for removing the traces of contact by evil spirits (Hullin 105b).

Demons were thought to live in latrines, wells, rivers, and old houses--places now regarded as major disease-producing areas. The dangers from demons or germs (as we refer to them today) are equally great. The dread of them was so strong that people eagerly grasped at anything that offered some possibility of protection.

Many of the anti-demoniacal charms and physical agents were really medicinal and therapeutic. In order for the magician to be successful, it was necessary for him to have a broad knowledge and understanding of medical and astrological as well as religious remedies.

Originally, demons were held responsible for all disease, as they were believed to disturb the harmony of the humors. Demons were particularly prone to cause a strained neck, epilepsy, lunacy, incurable diseases, and plica polonica, or koltenes (knots in the hair, tangled and interwoven, which according to some doctors was considered dangerous).

Until very recently, the most feared disease was the plague, which struck without warning. Since physicians were admittedly powerless before the plague, it was no wonder that people utilized any available sympathetic remedies. In such cases Jews frequently called upon the assistance of Rabbi Meir Baal ha-Nes.

Magic & Healing

Preventive measures against cholera included the hanging of a loaf of bread and a bottle of rose water in the house while reciting Psalm 27:5:
"For He conceals me in His pavilion in the day of evil;

He hides me in the covert of His tent;

He lifts me up upon a rock."

These and other remedies were listed in Taame Haminhagim (IV:87). It is apparent that the anti-demonic measures were frequently not any more effective than the medical remedies of the time, with lack of success attributed either to inappropriate time or inaccurate performance of the magical act.

Since demons were held responsible for disease, medicine became the legitimate province of the sorcerer. Jewish physicians, though not completely free from the general superstitious attitude, were among the foremost practitioners of scientific medicine in medieval times. This was due to the Jewish physician's knowledge of various languages, the availability of Judeo-Arabic and Greek medical works in Hebrew, and the Jewish physician's freedom from the church and its belief in miraculous cures.

Since drugs and poisons were synonymous terms to the medieval mind, the doctor was also considered a superior magician. The early association of medicine with spirits may be seen in the Septuagint, or Greek translation of Isaiah 26:14, where refaim

("shades") is translated as rofim ("physicians").

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