Off the Shelf: Demons in the rabbinic world

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Demons, gremlins, golems: for many contemporary Jews, these creatures belong to the realm of fairy tales. This was not true – at least, not in the case of demons – for the ancient rabbis who lived in Babylon. In her book “Demons in the Details: Demonic Discourse and Rabbinic Culture in Late Antique Babylonia” (University of California Press), Sara Ronis, associate professor of theology at St. Mary’s University, San Antonio, TX, shows how “the Babylonian Talmud is filled with stories about rabbinic encounters with demons as well as with the laws that regulate and integrate demons into the rabbinical intellectual system.” Although they recognized that demons could be dangerous, these Babylonian rabbis felt that demons were not necessarily evil. That view not only differed with the religious culture in which they lived, but allowed them to incorporate demons into rabbinic culture. That was done by claiming demons were also subject to the rabbinic legal system. In addition, demons sometimes worked with the rabbis and, in at least one case, served as a servant to a rabbi. 

Ronis notes that post-biblical Jewish literature originally offered two theories to explain the origin of demons. One posited that demons were part of God’s original plan for creation. The other saw demons as the result of angels and humans engaged in forbidden encounters: those born of these encounters were demons. Neither of these views are found in the Chumash (the first five books of the Bible). Whether or not demons can be found in the prophetic writings is a matter of interpretation. This changes during the rabbinic period: there are mentions of demons in the Palestinian Talmud, although the major theological development and the normalization of demons only occurs in the Babylonian Talmud. The Babylonian rabbis believed that demons came into being after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. But Ronis notes that the rabbis believed “that the creation of demons was the accidental product of an accidental sin, rather than the product of intentional acts of inappropriate sexual intercourse,” which was the Palestinian rabbinic opinion.  

The author also discusses Greek and Christian ideas about demons in order to compare them with rabbinic thoughts. One major difference is that, with only a few exceptions, the rabbis did not join those groups in having systemic discussions about the nature of demons. Instead, details appeared in different parts of the text during discussions of specific encounters with demons. Ronis notes these details include the fact that demons could be male or female; either had their own name (biblical or Aramaicized) or appeared nameless in groups; and could move quickly over large distances. The rabbis saw the demons as a distinct species: they were not connected to angels or to humans. Demons could be dangerous and there were discussions in the talmudic text about how to avoid the danger, for example, being careful when urinating or defecating in fields (so as not to do so on an unseen demon), or eating and drinking in even numbers. 

The Babylonian rabbis sought to control demon behavior by making them subject to the halachic (Jewish legal) system. Ronis notes that “[the rabbis] used the law and their status as lawmakers to define, restrict, and prevent demonic harm.” In this way, they absorbed demons into the rabbinic community. The rabbis were very serious in their discussions of demons; there is no noticeable difference in tone between their discussions of demons and those of other Jewish laws, for example, Shabbat, festivals and kashrut (the dietary laws). It’s clear they believed demons were subject to halachah and offered tales of demons who studied Torah.

The rabbis didn’t see the demons as a great danger to the general community, at least to those who followed rabbinic law. However, demons were considered more of a danger to the rabbis themselves because greatness – in men or women – attracted demons. Ronis notes, “The rabbis acknowledged demonic danger as they undermine it for their followers: if you follow rabbinic dicta, you were largely safe from demons; but if you disobey rabbinic dicta, you will be attacked by demons. This type of totalizing discourse, whether or not it was ever actually enacted in particular rabbis’ lived experiences, involved both rewards (the proud lineage, spiritual fulfillment, and prestige in belonging to the rabbinic class) and punishment (dangerous demons). The rabbis control and neutralize capricious intermediary beings; at the same time, the rabbis construct demons as enforcers of rabbinic laws.” By being subject to rabbinical law, the rabbis were able to control and work with demons.

“Demons in the Details” is a fascinating look at how the Babylonian rabbis ordered their world. Ronis does an excellent job explaining and analyzing passages of the Babylonian Talmud that reference demons. Her prose is generally clear, making it possible for non-specialists to understand her ideas. This work may challenge readers’ ideas about their ancestors’ view of the world, something that definitely makes it worth reading for anyone interested in learning more about rabbinic times.