Talmudic pages

Gittin 68

King Ashmedai.

When you think about demons, supernatural villains in horror franchises, spooky stories of possession and exorcism, or a little devil sitting on your shoulder encouraging you to do the wrong thing may come to mind. But on today’s daf, we get a very different perspective on who at least one demon really is. 

Today’s daf tells an extended story about the king of demons himself, Ashmedai. The story is particularly long and detailed and filled with fascinating insights. Here I’m going to address only one piece of it, but I would encourage you to read the whole thing for yourself.

According to the Talmud, King Solomon was faced with a problem when he went to build the Temple. According to 1 Kings 6:7, the Temple had to be made with stones that had not touched metal tools — but then how were the workers to quarry and cut it? The sages tell Solomon to use a shamir, something which cuts stone without metal. And only Ashmedai, king of the demons, knows where the shamir is kept. So Solomon inquires of some lesser demons how he might find Ashmedai.

Where is he?

They said to him: He is on such-and-such a mountain. He has dug a pit for himself there, and filled it with water, and covered it with a rock, and sealed it with his seal. And every day he ascends to Heaven and studies in the heavenly study hall and he descends to the earth and studies in the earthly study hall. And he comes and checks his seal, and he uncovers it and drinks. And then he covers it and seals it and goes.

Here we get a fascinating view of a day in the life of the demon king: a morning spent studying Torah in heaven, an afternoon spent studying Torah in an earthly academy (presumably with the rabbis themselves) and breaks on a mountain where he has ensured that he will have clean and unpolluted water. The Gemara gives us a picture of a demon who is committed to studying Torah all day long, who uses his demonic abilities to span realms and study with experts in Torah in both heaven and earth, while being very careful about drinking water that has been exposed to the elements. Rather than a malevolent troublemaker, he seems to be a pretty upstanding demon who, if anything, wants to be left alone on his mountaintop to rehydrate. 

This description reminds us that demons in the Talmud are far more complex than modern popular culture thinks they are. In a world where a single good God created everything, the rabbis don’t think God’s creations could be pure evil — after all, what would that say about the nature of God? So if a demon is not pure evil, then perhaps he can even be good, and good as the rabbis measure it — in terms of Torah knowledge and punctiliousness! 

Solomon ultimately uses this information to kidnap Ashmedai and bend him to his will, forcing Ashmedai to give up the location of the shamir and then keeping him captive. Ashmedai eventually outsmarts the king known for his wisdom and usurps his throne. Though to be fair, I would react negatively to being kidnapped too. 

Read all of Gittin 68 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 23rd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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