Sorcery in Judaism Demons, Golems, and Evil Spirits

Torah: nearly silent about the existence of supernatural beings

Talmud: rich, though vague, demonology; spirits are everywhere. Rarely goes into detail about exactly how demons and magical creatures come into being

Kabbalah: demons and dybbuks, golems, and ghosts are all the results of misspent life energy

(יז) מְכַשֵּׁפָ֖ה לֹ֥א תְחַיֶּֽה׃ (ס)
(17) You shall not tolerate a sorceress.

What is a Demon?


demons or harmful beings

Anything that causes decay, pain, and the depletion of life-energy.

According to this definition, what are the demons in your life?

תניא אבא בנימין אומר אלמלי נתנה רשות לעין לראות אין כל בריה יכולה לעמוד מפני המזיקין אמר אביי אינהו נפישי מינן וקיימי עלן כי כסלא לאוגיא אמר רב הונא כל חד וחד מינן אלפא משמאליה ורבבתא מימיניה אמר רבא האי דוחקא דהוי בכלה מנייהו הוי הני ברכי דשלהי מנייהו הני מאני דרבנן דבלו מחופיא דידהו הני כרעי דמנקפן מנייהו אמר רב הונא כל חד וחד מינן אלפא משמאליה ורבבתא מימיניה אמר רבא האי דוחקא דהוי בכלה מנייהו הוי הני ברכי דשלהי מנייהו הני מאני דרבנן דבלו מחופיא דידהו הני כרעי דמנקפן מנייהו האי מאן דבעי למידע להו לייתי קיטמא נהילא ונהדר אפורייה ובצפרא חזי כי כרעי דתרנגולא האי מאן דבעי למחזינהו ליתי שלייתא דשונרתא אוכמתא בת אוכמתא בוכרתא בת בוכרתא ולקליה בנורא ולשחקיה ולימלי עיניה מניה וחזי להו ולשדייה בגובתא דפרזלא ולחתמי' בגושפנקא דפרזלא דילמא גנבי מניה ולחתום פומיה כי היכי דלא ליתזק רב ביבי בר אביי עבד הכי חזא ואתזק בעו רבנן רחמי עליה ואתסי:

In another baraita it was taught that Abba Binyamin says: If the eye was given permission to see, no creature would be able to withstand the abundance and ubiquity of the demons and continue to live unaffected by them.

Similarly, Abaye said: They are more numerous than we are and they stand over us like mounds of earth surrounding a pit. Rav Huna said: Each and every one of us has a thousand demons to his left and ten thousand to his right. God protects man from these demons, as it says in the verse: “A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; they will not approach you” (Psalms 91:7).

Summarizing the effects of the demons, Rava said:
The crowding at the kalla, the gatherings for Torah study during Elul and Adar, is from the demons;
those knees that are fatigued even though one did not exert himself is from the demons;
those clothes of the Sages that wear out, despite the fact that they do not engage in physical labor, is from friction with the demons;
those feet that are in pain is from the demons.

Were the rabbis being metaphorical when speaking about demons?

Brachot 6a

Spirits are everywhere:

They haunt dark places, homes, even the crumbs left on the dinner table.

Brachot 6a

One who seeks to know that the demons exist should place fine ashes around his bed, and in the morning the demons’ footprints appear like chickens’ footprints, in the ash. One who seeks to see them should take the afterbirth of a firstborn female black cat, born to a firstborn female black cat, burn it in the fire, grind it and place it in his eyes, and he will see them. He must then place the ashes in an iron tube sealed with an iron seal [gushpanka] lest the demons steal it from him, and then seal the opening so he will not be harmed. Rav Beivai bar Abaye performed this procedure, saw the demons, and was harmed. The Sages prayed for mercy on his behalf and he was healed.

What do demons looks like?

אינהו נמי אידמויי אידמו דחזו ליה בבואה אינהו נמי אית להו בבואה דחזו ליה בבואה דבבואה ודלמא אינהו נמי אית להו א"ר חנינא לימדני יונתן בני בבואה אית להו בבואה דבבואה לית להו
The Gemara objects: Demons too can appear in human form, and therefore the fact that the being looked human is not a proof that it is not a demon. The Gemara explains: It is a case where they saw that he has a shadow [bavua]. The Gemara objects: Demons also have a shadow. The Gemara explains: It is a case where they saw that he has the shadow of a shadow. The Gemara objects: And perhaps demons too have the shadow of a shadow? Rabbi Ḥanina says: Yonatan my son taught me that demons have a shadow but they do not have the shadow of a shadow.

ת"ר ששה דברים נאמרו בשדים שלשה כמלאכי השרת ושלשה כבני אדם שלשה כמלאכי השרת יש להם כנפים כמלאכי השרת וטסין מסוף העולם ועד סופו כמלאכי השרת ויודעין מה שעתיד להיות כמלאכי השרת יודעין ס"ד אלא שומעין מאחורי הפרגוד כמלאכי השרת ושלשה כבני אדם אוכלין ושותין כבני אדם פרין ורבין כבני אדם ומתים כבני אדם

The Gemara returns to discussing the heavenly beings. The Sages taught: Six statements were said with regard to demons: In three ways they are like ministering angels, and in three ways they are like humans. In three ways they are like ministering angels: They have wings like ministering angels; and they fly from one end of the world to the other like ministering angels; and they know what will be in the future like ministering angels. The Gemara is puzzled by this last statement: Should it enter your mind that they know this? Not even the angels are privy to the future. Rather, they hear from behind the curtain when God reveals something of the future, like ministering angels. And in three ways they are similar to humans: They eat and drink like humans; they multiply like humans; and they die like humans.

Rabbeinu Bahya Vayikra 17:7:2

These “demons” were primarily composed of only 2 of the 4 elements which man is made of, i.e. of fire and air (spirit). Seeing that they are also light in weight they can fly all over at will. At the time of their creation they were composed of only two elements instead of the four elements which human beings, animals, as well as the plants have in common. As a result, instead of possessing solid bodies such as human beings and animals which therefore are tangible and easily recognizable, these demons are of such transparent shape that they cannot be easily seen and identified. However, they are able to assume a visible form when they so desire by “dressing up” as if they were humans or animals. Their “bodies” are essentially spiritual in nature The creatures composed of four elements are germane to their environment being a composition of the elements in which they exist, i.e. earth, and they fall sick when the correct balance of their four elements is disturbed so that they die as a result and the respective elements disintegrate each to merge again with its constituent part. These demons experience a similar fate when there is an imbalance in the two elements they consist of.
This is what our sages (Chagigah 16) meant when they said that we have been told of six features possessed by these demons to help us identify them. In three respects they are like human beings, whereas in another three respects they are like angels, i.e. disembodied creatures. These demons have wings, can fly, and have foreknowledge of future events just like the angels.

If we are all possessed of life-energy, then what happens to that energy when we die?


Demons are, as in the Christian myth, rebellious angels, or in the case of Lilith, primordial humans who disobeyed the divine plan. In all cases, they are instances of life-energy gone awry. In the proper functioning of the cosmos, energy flows like a cycle: down from heaven, then back up in the form of proper ritual action. But when the energy is misappropriated, as in rebellion, its intense power falls into the realm of shadow.

The mythic narratives of the Kabbalah may be difficult for us to understand today, but not if we situate them within the deep concerns–particularly those related to conception and childbirth–of the kabbalists and ordinary Jews who lived in a time of great uncertainty. Just as bearing children was central to one’s identity, it was also rife with peril. Miscarriage, infant mortality, illness, and birth defects were all far more common in the medieval world than they are today. Bearing children was awesome and terrifying.

The Dybbuk

Ideally it returns to its source, but sometimes the process goes wrong. In such cases, a variety of ills may befall the soul. The most well-known of these is the phenomenon of the dybbuk, or possession when one soul “sticks” onto another. Possession by a dybbuk can happen for a number of reasons. Perhaps the departed soul is sinister and the living person innocent. Or, conversely, the departed soul may have been saintly, but wronged by the living; in this case, possession by a dybbuk is essentially punishment (or revenge) for an improper act. Or, apparently, possession may happen almost at random.

(ה) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֗ים תּוֹצֵ֨א הָאָ֜רֶץ נֶ֤פֶשׁ חַיָּה֙ לְמִינָ֔הּ בְּהֵמָ֥ה וָרֶ֛מֶשׂ וְחַֽיְתוֹ־אֶ֖רֶץ לְמִינָ֑הּ וַֽיְהִי־כֵֽן (בראשית א, כד) וַיַּ֣עַשׂ אֱלֹהִים֩ אֶת־חַיַּ֨ת הָאָ֜רֶץ לְמִינָ֗הּ וְאֶת־הַבְּהֵמָה֙ לְמִינָ֔הּ וְאֵ֛ת כָּל־רֶ֥מֶשׂ הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה לְמִינֵ֑הוּ... (בראשית א, כה)׃... אָמַר רַבִּי חָמָא בַּר הוֹשַׁעְיָא, בִּנְפָשׁוֹת אוֹמֵר אַרְבַּע, כְּשֶׁנִּבְרְאוּ הוּא אוֹמֵר: חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ לְמִינָהּ וְאֶת הַבְּהֵמָה וְאֵת כָּל רֶמֶשׂ הָאֲדָמָה, אֶתְמְהָא. רַבִּי אוֹמֵר, אֵלּוּ הַשֵּׁדִים, שֶׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת נִשְׁמָתָם וּבָא לִבְרֹאת אֶת גּוּפָן וְקָדַשׁ הַשַּׁבָּת וְלֹא בְרָאָן, לְלַמֶּדְךָ דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ מִן הַשֵּׁדִים, שֶׁאִם יִהְיֶה בְּיַד אָדָם חֵפֶץ טוֹב אוֹ מַרְגָּלִית עֶרֶב שַׁבָּת עִם חֲשֵׁכָה, אוֹמְרִים לוֹ הַשְּׁלֵךְ מִמְךָ, שֶׁמִּי שֶׁאָמַר וְהָיָה הָעוֹלָם הָיָה עָסוּק בִּבְרִיָּתוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם וּבָרָא אֶת נִשְׁמָתָן בָּא לִבְרֹאת אֶת גּוּפָן וְקָדַשׁ שַׁבָּת וְלֹא בְרָאָן.

"And God said: Let the earth bring forth the life (nefesh) of living creatures of all types, cattle, creeping things, and wild beasts of all types. And it was so. And God made wild beasts of all types, cattle of all types, and creeping things of all types…” (Genesis 1:24-25) …R. Hama bar Hoshaya said: Souls are spoken of 4 times, but when they are created, it says, “made wild beasts of all types, cattle of all types, and creeping things of all types.” Why 3 here and 4 there? Rabbi says: These are the demons. God created their souls, but when He came to create their bodies, He sanctified Shabbat and did not create them.

The Ibbur

There are other “possession” possibilities as well. A soul may visit a person during sleep, bringing messages from the beyond or prophecies about the future, or it may haunt a place, as in popular ghost stories.


The Classic narrative: The Golem of Prague

The most famous golem narrative involves Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late 16th century rabbi of Prague, also known as the Maharal, who reportedly "created a golem out of clay from the banks of the Vltava River and brought it to life through rituals and Hebrew incantations to defend the Prague ghetto from anti­ Semitic attacks" and pogroms.

Depending on the version of the legend, the Jews in Prague were to be either expelled or killed under the rule of Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor. To protect the Jewish community, the rabbi constructed the Golem out of clay from the banks of the Vltava river, and brought it to life through rituals and Hebrew incantations. The Golem was called Josef and was known as Yossele. It was said that he could make himself invisible and summon spirits from the dead.

Rabbi Loew deactivated the Golem on Friday evenings by removing the shem before the Sabbath (Saturday) began,[5] so as to let it rest on Sabbath.[5]

One Friday evening Rabbi Loew forgot to remove the shem, and feared that the Golem would desecrate the Sabbath.

A different story tells of a golem that fell in love, and when rejected, became the violent monster seen in most accounts. Some versions have the golem eventually going on a murderous rampage.

The rabbi then managed to pull the shem from his mouth and immobilize him in front of the synagogue, whereupon the golem fell in pieces.

The Golem's body was stored in the attic genizah of the Old New Synagogue,where it would be restored to life again if needed. According to legend, the body of Rabbi Loew's Golem still lies in the synagogue's attic.

avra k’davra: “I create as I speak"

The Golem

  • artificial anthropoid animated by magic.
  • The Talmud relates a tale of rabbis who grew hungry while on a journey–so they created a calf out of earth and ate it for dinner. The kabbalists determined that the rabbis did this magical act by means of permuting language, primarily utilizing the formulas set forth in the Sefer Yetzirah, or Book of Creation. Just as God speaks and creates, in the Genesis story, so too can the mystic. (The word Abracadabra, incidentally, derives from avra k’davra, Aramaic for “I create as I speak.”) Thus, under the rarest of circumstances, a human being may imbue lifeless matter with that intangible, but essential spark of life: the soul.
  • Tales of mystical rabbis creating life from dust abounded, particularly in the Early Modern period, and inspired such tales as Frankenstein and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”
  • Sometimes the golem saves the Jewish community from persecution or death, enacting the kind of heroism or revenge unavailable to powerless Jews. Often, however, Jewish folktales about the golem tell what happens when things go awry–when the power of life-force goes astray, often with tragic results.
  • The classic narrative of the golem tells of how Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (known as the Maharal; 1525-1609) creates a golem to defend the Jewish community from anti-Semitic attacks. But eventually, the golem grows fearsome and violent, and Rabbi Loew is forced to destroy it.

In the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 38b), Adam was initially created as a golem (גולם) when his dust was "kneaded into a shapeless husk." Like Adam, all golems are created from mud by those close to divinity, but no anthropogenic golem is fully human. Early on, the main disability of the golem was its inability to speak. Sanhedrin 65b describes Rava creating a man (gavra). He sent the man to Rav Zeira. Rav Zeira spoke to him, but he did not answer. Rav Zeira said, "You were created by the sages; return to your dust".

A golem is inscribed with Hebrew words in some tales (for example, some versions of Chełm and Prague, as well as in Polish tales and versions of Brothers Grimm), such as the word emet (אמת, "truth" in Hebrew) written on its forehead. The golem could then be deactivated by removing the aleph (א) in emet,[6] thus changing the inscription from "truth" to "death" (met מת, meaning "dead").

What are the similarities and differences between the creation and destruction of Adam and a Golem?


ת"ר לא ישתה אדם מים בלילה ואם שתה דמו בראשו מפני הסכנה מאי סכנה סכנת שברירי ואם צחי מאי תקנתיה אי איכא אחרינא בהדיה ליתרייה ולימא ליה צחינא מיא ואי לא נקרקש בנכתמא אחצבא ונימא איהו לנפשיה פלניא בר פלניתא אמרה לך אימך אזדהר משברירי ברירי רירי ירי רי בכסי חיורי:
The Sages taught: A person should not drink water at night. And if he drank, his blood is upon his own head, due to the danger. The Gemara asks: What is this danger? The Gemara answers: The danger of the shavrirei, an evil spirit that rules over water. And if he is thirsty, what is his remedy? If there is another person with him, he should wake him and say to him: I thirst for water, and then he may drink. And if there is no other person with him, he should knock with the lid on the jug and say to himself: So-and-so, son of so-and-so, your mother said to you to beware of the shavrirei verirei rirei yirei rei, found in white cups. This is an incantation against the evil spirit.

ת"ר הוא ללמוד ובנו ללמוד הוא קודם לבנו ר' יהודה אומר אם בנו זריז וממולח ותלמודו מתקיים בידו בנו קודמו כי הא דרב יעקב בריה דרב אחא בר יעקב שדריה אבוה לקמיה דאביי כי אתא חזייה דלא הוה מיחדדין שמעתיה א"ל אנא עדיפא מינך תוב את דאיזיל אנא

על בת בההוא בי רבנן אידמי ליה כתנינא דשבעה רישוותיה כל כריעה דכרע נתר חד רישיה אמר להו למחר אי לא איתרחיש ניסא סכינתין

על בת בההוא בי רבנן אידמי ליה כתנינא דשבעה רישוותיה כל כריעה דכרע נתר חד רישיה אמר להו למחר אי לא איתרחיש ניסא סכינתין

Abaye heard that Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov was coming. There was a certain demon in the study hall of Abaye, which was so powerful that when two people would enter they would be harmed, even during the day. Abaye said to the people of the town: Do not give Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov lodging [ushpiza] so that he will be forced to spend the night in the study hall. Since Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov is a righteous man, perhaps a miracle will occur on his behalf and he will kill the demon.

Rav Aḥa found no place to spend the night, and he entered and spent the night in that study hall of the Sages. The demon appeared to him like a serpent with seven heads. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov began to pray, and with every bow that he bowed one of the demon’s heads fell off, until it eventually died. The next day Rav Aḥa said to the townspeople: If a miracle had not occurred, you would have placed me in danger.

Legend of the Jews 1:2:43

(43) The Divine resolution to bestow a companion on Adam met the wishes of man, who had been overcome by a feeling of isolation when the animals came to him in pairs to be named. To banish his loneliness, Lilith was first given to Adam as wife. Like him she had been created out of the dust of the ground. But she remained with him only a short time, because she insisted upon enjoying full equality with her husband. She derived her rights from their identical origin. With the help of the Ineffable Name, which she pronounced, Lilith flew away from Adam, and vanished in the air. Adam complained before God that the wife He had given him had deserted him, and God sent forth three angels to capture her. They found her in the Red Sea, and they sought to make her go back with the threat that, unless she went, she would lose a hundred of her demon children daily by death. But Lilith preferred this punishment to living with Adam. She takes her revenge by injuring babes--baby boys during the first night of their life, while baby girls are exposed to her wicked designs until they are twenty. days old The only way to ward off the evil is to attach an amulet bearing the names of her three angel captors to the children, for such had been the agreement between them.