Pesachim 112

By the power of Torah …

Many of us are especially concerned about our safety at night. Women in particular have been taught to take precautions when out alone in the dark. Maybe when we are walking to our cars at night, we carry our keys between our fingers. Maybe we carry pepper spray in our purse. Though it is relatively rare, no one wants to be mugged or attacked.

Today’s daf raises the specter of a different danger inherent in going out alone at night. You guessed it — demons. We read:

Do not go out alone at night, neither on Tuesday nights nor on Shabbat nights (i.e., Friday nights) because the demon Agrat, daughter of Mahalat, she and 180,000 angels of destruction go out at these times. And each and every one of them has permission to destroy by itself.

We’ve already met Ashmedai, the king of the demons. Now, we’re introduced to another member of the demonic nobility, Agrat daughter of Mahalat, and her enormous entourage. Here, rather than having women be particularly at risk of danger, it is the woman (or, rather, demoness) who is particularly dangerous. She and her entourage are empowered to act independently, and can cause massive destruction.

Why only two nights a week?

The Gemara continues:

Initially, these demons were present every day.

Once Agrat, daughter of Mahalat, met Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa and said to him: Had they not announced about you in the Heavens, “Be careful of Hanina and his Torah,” I would have placed you in danger.

He said to her: If I am considered important in Heaven, I decree upon you that you should never travel through inhabited places.

She said to him: I beg you, leave me a little space.

He left for her Shabbat nights and Tuesday nights.

Across the Talmud, Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa is depicted working miracles and controlling powerful dangers (we met him back in Berakhot and will again). He also appears in a number of Babylonian incantation bowls, bowls with texts written on the inside that Drs. Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked have suggested might have functioned as demonic “mouse-traps.” Several of these bowls include a story in which Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa compels the demon Agag daughter of Baroq to stop causing harm to unsuspecting humans. Importantly, these bowls were likely not written by the rabbis themselves — and so they testify to Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa’s fame across genres and communities.

In the story on today’s daf, Rabbi Hanina doesn’t use any kind of magical power to control Agrat. Instead, it is the fact that his Torah-expertise is renowned in Heaven that forces Agrat to comply with his commands and limit her roaming to two nights a week. And indeed, the story continues with another encounter between Agrat and a rabbi, very similar to the first:

And furthermore, once Agrat, daughter of Mahalat met Abaye and said to him: Had they not announced about you in the Heavens: “Be careful of Nahmani (Abaye’s given name) and his Torah,” I would have placed you in danger.

He said to her: If I am considered important in Heaven, I decree upon you that you should never pass through inhabited places.

Whereas Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa’s fame is due to his wonder-working, Abaye’s fame is almost entirely linked to his Torah knowledge. Here too, Heaven’s recognition of Abaye’s Torah expertise compels Agrat and her evil minions to avoid inhabited places. And so, according to this story, a powerful demonic leader knows of these two rabbis’ Torah expertise, and is compelled by them to avoid human habitation — at least most of the time.

Read all of Pesachim 112 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 13th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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