Talmudic pages

Pesachim 110

Demonic thinking.

How do demons fit into the Jewish world? How do they fit into the rabbinic world? Today’s daf shows us how the rabbis think about these questions. As a reminder, on yesterday’s daf we learned that a beraita prohibits doing many things in pairs for fear of provoking demons. The discussion now continues to explore that prohibition in more depth.

The Gemara first allows someone to drink two cups of wine if they go for a walk between cups. Other rabbis then permit drinking in pairs if one is intending to stay home, but not if they are going to go to sleep or to the bathroom — activities that make one more vulnerable to demon attack. Then a number of rabbis explore the question of whether it is all even numbers, or just doing something twice (and twice alone) which is harmful. Creatively interpreting the priestly blessing in Numbers 6:24-26, the Talmud eventually limits the danger to doing something twice.

To support this claim, the Talmud then cites a remarkable set of teachings:

Rav Yosef said: Yosef the Demon said to me: Ashmedai, the king of the demons, is appointed over all who perform actions in pairs, and a king is not called a harmful spirit (a pun on the word for “demon,” mazzik, which means “harmer”) . Some say this statement in this manner: On the contrary, he is an angry king who does what he wants, as the halakhah is that a king may breach the fence of an individual in order to form a path for himself, and none may protest his action.

Yosef the demon (speaking to Yosef the rabbi) tells us that the demons are organized into a monarchy, with their King Ashmedai, who has the power to set the tone for how demons react to even numbers. Rav Yosef’s informant should be familiar to us — we’ve already met him in Eruvin 43. There, Yosef the demon is a rabbinic teacher who teaches Torah in the major rabbinic centers of Sura and Pumbedita on Shabbat. Today too he is teaching the rabbis, this time about how the demons calculate danger. After all, who better to teach us about how demons think than a demon himself?!

Yosef the demon continues, this time talking to Rav Pappa:

Rav Pappa said: Yosef the Demon said to me: If one drinks two cups, we kill him; four, we do not kill him. Four, we harm him. With regard to one who drinks two, whether he did so unwittingly or intentionally, we harm him. With regard to one who drinks four, if he does so intentionally, yes, he is harmed; if he does so unwittingly, no, he will not be harmed.

This teaching is even more remarkable. The idea that liability changes depending on whether one’s behavior is intentional or accidental is rooted in the Torah’s teachings about both ritual and criminal law. Thus, for example, according to Numbers 35, one who murders someone is put to death, but one who accidentally kills someone may flee to a city of refuge and be spared. What do you know, demons think in exactly this way too!

The Talmud also tells us what demons think. Demons, according to today’s daf, are capable of keen observation and can discern our intentions — whether to go for a walk, go to sleep, or even to go to the restroom. They know when we are doing something on purpose or by accident and can take these legal complexities into account when deciding how to react. And they seem to be relatively unwilling to actually kill human beings — otherwise, why would Yosef the demon bother telling the rabbis all their secrets?

Read all of Pesachim 110 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 11th 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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