Jewish tradition is opposed to magic, divination, and sorcery. Exodus 22:18 reads: “You shall not allow a witch to live.” And Deuteronomy 18:10-11 is more elaborate: “Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire [i.e. who offers their child as a sacrifice, as some neighboring religions did], or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead.” Magic of this sort was and still is a major no-no. The point of these Biblical prohibitions is that there are correct ways to relate to God (namely, prayer and sacrifice), and then there are incorrect ways — magical ways — to try to manipulate divine power or call upon the supposed power of other gods.
This doesn’t mean that Jews didn’t do these things, of course. In fact, the very first king of Israel, Saul, illicitly contacted the soul of the dead prophet Samuel with the help of the Witch of Endor.
In antiquity there was very little difference between religion, magic, and medicine. Mostly, the distinction lay in which practices were deemed legitimate and which were not. And those ideas have changed over the centuries. For example, the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud understood the world to be full of invisible mazikin, demons who disrupted human activities and even endangered human lives.
So, despite the prohibition against magic, Jewish tradition and lore is actually full of monsters, demons, witches, and other shady characters with dubious dark powers. Many of them come straight from the Bible. Here’s a quick sampling:
Ashmedai or Asmodeus was, according to Zoroastrian and also Jewish legend, the prince of the demons. He appears in the Book of Tobit (one of the ancient Jewish religious books that was not included in the Jewish Bible, but is retained in Jewish tradition) where he torments a woman named Sarah. Sarah is married to seven men in succession and Asmodeus slays each husband on their wedding night. (Sarah’s eighth husband, Tobias, manages to outwit the demon on his wedding night and enjoy a long marriage with her.) A famous legend about Asmodeus in the Talmud (Gittin 68a-b) has it that King Solomon outwitted the prince of demons into helping him construct the first Temple.
Dybbuks are possessor demons from early modern Jewish mythology (they first appear in 16th c. writings). They were thought to be the souls of dead people who temporarily possessed the living in order to accomplish certain tasks. This kind of demon came to widespread attention with the publication of S. Ansky’s play The Dybbuk, about a bride who is possessed by the soul of the man she was supposed to marry.
The myth of the golem originates in the idea that human beings might be able to form living creatures from clay, just as God made Adam. The most famous golem is the one made by Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague, who inscribed a clay man with the word emet meaning truth, and then spoke the divine name and brought him to life. The golem protected the Jewish community from persecution, but was also difficult to control and ultimately dangerous, so the rabbi deactivated him by erasing the first letter of the word emet, leaving the word met “dead.” The golem tales of early modern Jewry find parallels in other early modern tales of the creation of life, including Frankenstein and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The golem remains a favorite monster in popular culture to this day.
In Jewish tradition, the Leviathan is a terrifying primordial sea monster, perhaps having the form of a giant crocodile, sea serpent, dragon, or whale. The Leviathan is referenced throughout the Hebrew Bible, in Psalms, Job, and Isaiah and, according to tradition, is very ancient, having been created by God at the beginning of time. Leviathan has a counterpart land monster, called Behemoth. In some version of the legend, Leviathan is the female mate of Behemoth. In others, God originally created two Leviathans, male and female, but slew the female so they could not reproduce and destroy the world. There is also a Jewish legend that in the messianic era the Leviathan will be slain and the righteous will dine on its flesh.
In Jewish lore, Lilith was actually the very first woman ever created — before Eve. Lilith, whose name is related to the Hebrew word laila, meaning night, was feared because she was believed kill women in childbirth and snatch their babies. She was also known for her uncontrolled sexuality, and thought to force mortal men to lie with her so she could give birth to more demons. In contemporary Jewish feminist circles, Lilith has been reclaimed as an icon for her independence and she is the namesake of a popular Jewish magazine.
According to Genesis 6, in the early generations of humanity, some divine beings (“elohim” understood by many ancients to be angels) were so attracted to human women that they came down to earth and procreated with them. The offspring produced of these unions were known as Nephilim. These semi-divine “heroes” or “giants” stalked the earth for generations, to God’s dismay. But what became of them is as murky as their origins.
In first Samuel 28, King Saul, the first king of Israel, is in trouble. He has been fighting unsuccessfully against Israel’s primary enemy, the Philistines. He has sought military advice from God through the usual channels: dreams, prophecy, and the oracular stones belonging to the High Priest, the urim and tummim. But the Philistines are still devastating Israel on the battlefield. Previously, Saul had expelled all witches and necromancers from Israel, but now he is desperate. He dons a disguise and goes in search of an underground practitioner of the dark arts. Saul finds the Witch of Endor who helps him to contact the soul of the dead prophet Samuel, the very one who anointed Saul king. But rather than give him winning military advice, the ghost of Samuel berates Saul for turning to necromancy and foretells his death in battle the very next day.
Want more? Check out our article on Demons, Dybbuks, Ghosts, & Golems.