Wherever you look nowadays, fantasy-based films, books and games are all the rage. What does Judaism say about the themes in these works?
Whether it’s Harry Potter, Jurrasic Park, or Lord of the Rings, the fantasy craze has forced dialogue on the occult, and Jews are no exception to the phenomenon. Have you ever wondered what Judaism has to say about ghosts, wizards, demons, and the like? Below is a short presentation of some relevant Jewish sources on the topic, but, as with everything mystical, a grain of salt is advised.
Although the Torah itself makes very little reference to the supernatural, the Babylonian Talmud deals with it at great length. The Torah purposely left out any significant discussion about angels, lest people come to make them into deities and otherwise attribute supernatural powers to them.
There is support in the Talmud for the limited and controlled existence of ghosts. We see from several Talmudic passages that spirits of the dead have also been known to affect and interact with the living. Rest assured, however, that for the most part, they cause no harm, and actually they often try to help. Don’t laugh this subject off – not only did your ancestors believe in this stuff, they even worshiped demons and offered sacrifices to them! (cf. Deuteronomy 32:7)
It is recorded that after his death, the ghost of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi, author of the Mishna, would routinely visit his family in order to recite “Kiddush” for them on Friday nights. King Saul, no less, conducted a séance to call up Samuel the prophet. For the record, Samuel was not too pleased to have been disturbed. Nevertheless, ghosts are generally considered insignificant within rabbinic literature and Jewish tradition, although it is worth noting that the dead are present at their funerals, and are listening to the eulogies being delivered.
Demons, the Babylonian Talmud asserts, do exist and were intentionally created by God just like everything else. According to tradition, demons were created on the first Friday of creation towards the evening. Certainly anyone familiar with Jewish texts would have come across such terms as sheidim, Ashmedai, and Azazel, all of which refer to the esoteric side of Judaism. There is also the infamous Lilith, mother of all demons. She is known to be grouchy and to sexually harass people, particularly males. Rabbi Hanina forbids men to sleep alone in a house at night lest they fall prey to her.
The Talmud makes no reservations about its feelings on demons and magic. For example, the Talmud teaches that demons are more numerous than we are. In fact, according to the Talmud there are approximately eleven thousand of them surrounding you as you read this. Indeed, if you have ever gotten tired from walking, or found that your clothes were wearing out rather quickly, it’s probably because of those wretched demons rubbing on you and wearing out your clothes. No need to panic, however, as demons have a number of other places they prefer to loiter besides among humans. They are also known to hang out on pitchers and other containers of water, palm trees, and especially in bathrooms.
In case you’re spooked or scared, just relax. There really is no need to have a demon detector installed in your home. The Jerusalem Talmud and its rabbis all but reject the possibility of the existence of demons. You can also take comfort in what Maimonides, the Rambam, has to say on the issue: “Belief in astrology, sorcery, oaths, lucky charms, demons, forecasting the future, and talking to the dead – all these are the essence of idol worship, and are lies…. He who believes in these is nothing but a fool.”
By: Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
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