Picture this: It’s early morning and the summer sun is low in the sky. You’re on a walk — maybe walking to work, maybe just walking for exercise. You are surrounded by homes, shady trees and lots of greenery. All seems peaceful and quiet. Are you thinking about what you need to do today? Are you spacing out? Are you listening to music or a podcast on your headphones? According to today’s daf, this is not a good idea!
Today’s daf imagines the world is full to the brim with demons. Demons lurk behind or inside trees and bushes. Demons dwell also within shadows cast by trees, plants and outhouses. And because of their ubiquity, we have to be constantly aware and careful of them.
As today’s daf points out:
With regard to one who relieves himself between a palm tree and a wall, we said that he places himself in danger only when there are not four cubits of space between the two objects. However, if there are four cubits, we have no problem with it.
Remember, as we learned recently, relieving oneself makes one more vulnerable to demon attack. Especially at such a moment, we must always know how close or far we are from the trees around us, which might harbor these unseen creatures.
Why four cubits? Four cubits is the Talmud’s standard marker of personal space. And whose personal space is at stake here? The demon’s! Apparently (and, when you think about it, unsurprisingly) demons do not appreciate being on the wrong end of a stream of urine.
And yet, the Gemara continues:
Even when there are not four cubits, we said there is a problem only when the demons have no other route besides that one. However, if they have another route, we have no problem with it.
Demons would prefer to avoid humans, and will flee rather than attack where possible. If they can escape that stream of urine, they will. While the demons don’t seem to want to attack humans, it is on humans to be aware of where demons live and to leave them alone.
In addition to having favorite hangouts (the aforementioned trees, shadows, outhouses, etc.) today’s daf also tells us that demons are more prevalent at particular times of the day, month and year! One must be aware of whether it is morning or evening, the phase of the moon, and the season. For example, during the first 16 days of the month of Tammuz, demons are prevalent, but perhaps not for the rest of the month.
And beyond these dates and times that can be found on a clock or a calendar, one must also be aware of one’s own personal time — and whether it is a propitious time for you or not! As one story on today’s daf states:
Abaye was coming and walking along the street and Rav Pappa was walking on his right and Rav Huna, son of Rav Yehoshua, was on his left. Abaye saw a certain ketev meriri (a kind of demon) coming on his left side and he switched Rav Pappa to his left and Rav Huna, son of Rav Yehoshua, to his right. Rav Pappa said to Abaye: And I, what is different that you were not concerned about any possible harm to me? Abaye said to him: The time is in your favor.
In this story, Abaye swung his colleague Rav Pappa around to meet the demon and shield the other two, knowing that Rav Pappa was at that time more “immune” from demonic attack.
For the rabbis, simply going on a walk becomes a fraught dance of demon avoidance. The rabbis expect pedestrians to expend a substantial amount of effort to avoid provoking demons. This constant vigilance seems like it would have been exhausting, and honestly, at that point, many of us would choose to just stay home. But it also would have fostered a uniquely rabbinic way of moving through the world, constantly aware of those, seen and unseen, who are around us, and putting the onus of responsibility on us to avoid causing them discomfort.
Read all of Pesachim 111 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 12th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.