The first mishnah in the tenth chapter of Pesachim opens with the mandate that everyone — regardless of their income — must drink four cups of wine on the first night of Passover. Given what we already know about the Talmud, we should expect the rabbis to follow up with a number of questions: How big must the cup be? How much of each cup must someone drink? What counts as wine? The rabbis of the Talmud do follow up with a number of questions, but weirdly, their first question isn’t any one of these. Instead they ask: How could the mishnah have mandated something that we know is dangerous?! To support this question, the Talmud cites a beraita:
A person should not eat pairs (i.e., an even number of food items) and he should not drink pairs (of cups) and he should not wipe himself with pairs and he should not attend to his sexual needs in pairs.
The Talmud goes on to explain that doing things in pairs may provoke demonic attack. Really. So if you want that second cup of wine, be prepared to pour a third. Ditto that second round in the sack.
Today’s daf kicks off a discussion on demons that will continue for the next four pages. Though there are many Jewish communities today that do actively believe in demons, likely many of the people reading this do not. It can be hard for some of us to read these pages and really get inside the minds of the rabbis of the Talmud. So it’s a good time to take a step back and ask: are the rabbis … serious?!
It is easy to take rabbinic teachings seriously when they are talking about the beauty of the Torah, the ways human beings are meant to relate to each other and the gifts that we can bring to the world. It is harder when they are talking about things which — to many of us — seem weird. In fact, depending on whether you are reading the daf in a variety of English translations, in Hebrew and Aramaic, or together with the medieval commentators Rashi and Tosfot, you’re going to see very different approaches to the Talmud’s demons.
Many modern commentators interpret the demons of the Talmud as metaphors or symbols for phenomena (like disease, poverty, etc.) the rabbis didn’t have the scientific language for. But as you read these pages, if you try to map where the rabbis identify demonic dangers with modern understandings of danger, you are doomed to fail. In the case of the four cups of wine on the first night of Passover, for example, the issue is clearly not one of drunkenness and alcohol poisoning; indeed, the rabbis suggest, one solution to the demonic danger might be to just drink a fifth cup of wine!
Taking another approach to the weirdness of these demons, 19th century German-Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz dismissed all the demon talk in these pages as foreign corruptions of authentic Jewish teachings, the negative effects of living in the Babylonian exile. It was all so weird to Graetz that he decided it could not really be rabbinic. But in fact, though demons were prevalent in the ancient world, many of the beliefs about demons that the rabbis describe have no parallel in any of the other religious traditions in late antique Babylonia. These really are rabbinic demons.
So, yes. The rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud do believe that demons exist and that demons interact with humans in a range of ways. And while you and I may or may not believe that demons exist, to fully understand how the rabbis thought about the world and their place in it, we have to take seriously even those parts of their thinking that seem most foreign to us today.