Today’s daf contains a series of prescriptions for a range of problems: different kinds of fever, boils, wounds of various types, and different kinds of demons.
One of these is the demon of the privy, or outhouse, named Bar Shiriqa Panda. (The Talmud actually associated demons with outhouses in a number of places including Berakhot 62a and Gittin 70a.) The idea of an outhouse demon isn’t a rabbinic innovation. A scholar named Avigail Manekin Bamberger has demonstrated that Bar Shiriqa Panda is actually the much more ancient Akkadian privy demon Šulak (there’s an etymological connection between the names Shiriqa and Šulak). But what is it about outhouses that made them demonic stomping grounds, across such a long span of history?
Today, when indoor plumbing is common across the industrialized world, most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about outhouses. But for much of human history, and for many today, the outhouse is or was a place of real domestic vulnerability. Outhouses are dark, and they stink. Predatory animals such as snakes can lurk there unseen, waiting to attack an unsuspecting and only partially-clothed human. Today we further understand how untreated waste can also be an important disease vector for a range of often fatal diseases. In sum, outhouses are inherently spooky.
Beyond the physical dangers associated with outhouses, there’s also something weird about a semi-public spaces in which we experience our most private bodily functions. Going to an outhouse involves multiple kinds of vulnerability, from removing clothing to tending to urgent physical needs. No matter who you are, how important or powerful, going to an outhouse is a reminder that, as a popular children’s book tells us, “everybody poops.” And while that universality may be comforting for small children, the Talmud reminds us that this act of making oneself vulnerable can itself be experienced as danger.
Today’s daf offers a solution to each of the medical and/or demonic problems it raises. These problems can be addressed by either a particular verbal formula, prescribed actions, or some combination of the two. Here’s the solution for the privy demon:
To be saved from the demon of the bathroom, let him recite as follows: On the head of a lion and on the nose of a lioness we found the demon named Bar Shiriqa Panda. With a bed of leeks I felled him, and with the jaw of the donkey I struck him.
There may be a reference here to Samson’s miraculous feat of slaying a thousand Philistine enemies with the jawbone of a donkey (Judges 15:15); perhaps the formula is meant to invoke the raw physical power of one of Israel’s strongest defenders. And I think we can all agree, there’s something to be said for the power of formulaic actions and words to make someone feel better, safer, or more confident being vulnerable.