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Magical Thinking, Superstition, and Incantations in Jewish Oral Law

By elevating witches and demons to the level of gods, Talmudic rabbis diminished religious thought

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)
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Reading the Talmud, for me, has been an effort to expand and sometimes defy my usual ways of thinking. That’s because the Talmud’s whole worldview—from its conception of the universe down to such basic matters as how to read a piece of text—is almost always at variance with my own, modern, secular understanding. Often, my first response to something I read in the Talmud is impatience—a reaction I often see in the comments to these articles and can certainly sympathize with.

Why, for instance, did the rabbis devote so much time and thought to elaborating the rules about eruvs, when the eruv itself seems like a legalistic evasion of the real point of Shabbat? If Shabbat is supposed to be about not carrying things, why not simply stop carrying things, rather than devise a whole system to allow you to carry them? Recently, when I was reading the Kuzari—a 12th-century dialogue in defense of Judaism by Yehuda Halevi—I was surprised to see that Halevi put this very point in the mouth of one of his speakers, a Khazar king who is quizzing a rabbi about Jewish practice. Suddenly, I felt less alone and less rebellious: Evidently Jews have been asking the same questions about the Talmud for a thousand years.

Most of the time, I am able to suspend my own disbelief long enough to explore why the rabbis thought as they did. To me, this is the essence of reading the Talmud, or any text, with respect: You don’t have to agree with it, but you at least have to try to understand what its authors intended. The way the Talmud approaches biblical interpretation, for instance, can seem totally arbitrary: Each word of a verse is isolated and used to teach a point of law, or else the repetition of a word in widely separated verses is taken as an occult link between them. But in these cases, it’s not hard to see that the rabbis’ approach to the Bible depended on their understanding of it as a divinely authored text, in which every letter was charged to the brim with intentionality. A God-written text must be infinitely meaningful, and the rabbis’ task was to figure out some of those pre-existing meanings. Where we see them as “reading into” the text, they saw themselves as deciphering it.

But then the Daf Yomi cycle will bring me to something like this week’s reading, from Chapter 10 of Tractate Pesachim, and the gulf between the rabbis and ourselves suddenly seems unbridgeable. Pesachim 109a starts normally enough, with a discussion of some of the Seder rituals. One of the major purposes of the Seder, for example, is to pass on the Exodus story to the next generation, and so the rabbis discuss ways to keep children awake and interested during the meal. Children, the Talmud teaches, do not like to drink wine, so during the Seder they should be given “roasted grains and nuts … so that they will not fall asleep and also so they will ask the four questions.”

By the same logic, the Seder should start promptly at sundown, so that children won’t get tired and fall asleep during it. On most days, we learn, Rabbi Akiba would keep teaching his students late into the night: “He never said the time had to come to arise in the study hall,” but kept talking as long as people were willing to listen. The exception was Passover, when he insisted that his pupils (who were themselves adult men) go home early to start their families’ Seders on time.

But then the rabbis come to the topic of the four cups of wine, and things begin to move in a strange direction. Why, the Gemara asks, did the Tannaim establish the rule that we drink four cups of wine, when this is “a matter through which one will come to danger?” You may wonder why drinking four cups is dangerous—perhaps because it will lead you to get drunk? But no, the rabbis have an entirely different explanation: It is because everything done in groups of two is dangerous, since even-numbered actions expose one to witchcraft and demons. “A person should not eat pairs, and he should not drink pairs, and he should not wipe himself with pairs, and he should not attend to his sexual needs in pairs,” the Gemara explains.

This is not exactly a religious doctrine: The rabbis do not trace the rule about pairs to any biblical verse or theological principle. Rather, it seems to the rabbis simply a rule of common sense—as we might say “always look both ways before crossing the street.” In the Talmud, everyone just knows that demons are attracted by pairs of actions. Indeed, we have this on the best authority, since Rav Pappa once heard it directly from the mouth of Yosef the Demon, who explained that if a man drinks two cups of wine, the demons kill him, whereas if he drinks four cups, they only injure him.

The rabbis go on to discuss other principles of demonology. If you do happen to drink an even number of cups of wine and so leave yourself a target for demons, there is a way to protect yourself: “He should take his right thumb in his left hand, and his left thumb in his right hand, and say as follows: ‘You, my thumbs, and I are three, which is not a pair.’ ” If a demon should overhear this and try to turn the tables by adding, “You and I are four”—which is an even number—then you can do him one better by saying, “You and I are five.” If the demon says six, you say seven, and so on indefinitely: On one occasion, the Gemara relates, “there was an incident in which someone kept counting after the demon until he reached a hundred and one, and the demon burst in anger.”

And there are other ways to defeat a demon. One man was tricked by his vengeful ex-wife into drinking an even number of cups of wine—after he drank 16 cups, he lost count, understandably enough—and so he was bewitched. He solved the problem by hugging a palm tree, whereupon the demon was transferred to the tree, which dried up and burst. (According to an alternative interpretation, however, it was the man himself who burst.) According to Ameimar—who had it from “the chief of witches”—if you are set upon by witches you can banish them with an incantation: “Hot feces in torn date baskets in your mouth, witches.”

It is impossible to miss the misogynistic element in all this talk of witches and magic. For instance, there are three things that should not be allowed to pass between two people walking on a road: “A dog, a palm tree, and a woman. And some say: also a pig. And some say: also a snake.” Such a saying unmistakably places women in the same category as contaminated creatures like pigs and dogs. Elsewhere, the Gemara instructs men not to pass between two women sitting on either side of a road, because “they are certainly engaging in witchcraft.” If it’s impossible to avoid walking between the women, there is another useful incantation: “Iggeret, Azlat, Asiya, Belusiya are killed by arrows.”

There are other ways besides pairs to attract the attention of demons, the Gemara continues. According to Reish Lakish, “There are four matters. The one performs them, his blood is upon his own head, and he is held liable for his own life: One who relieves himself between a palm tree and a wall, one who passes between two palm trees, one who drinks borrowed water, and one who passes over spilled water.”

What is most fascinating here is not the existence of superstition, which is common to all ancient cultures, and certainly has not disappeared from modern ones. Rather, it is the way the Gemara goes on to perform an authentically Talmudic analysis of these superstitions. Just as the rabbis codify in great detail exactly what can and can’t be moved on Shabbat, or how tall an eruv has to be, or what time in the evening you can say the Shema, so they lay out the rules and exceptions about urinating between a wall and a palm tree. This is dangerous, they explain, “only when there are not four cubits of space between the two objects. However, if there are four cubits, we have no problem. … And even when there are not four cubits, we said there is a problem only when the demons have no other route besides that one. However, if they have another route, we have no problem with it.”

The ease with which magic and witchcraft find a place in the Talmudic worldview is, to my mind, both illuminating and compromising. For it suggests that the Talmud’s general commitment to exact measurement and correct action—the need to find out exactly how to behave in order to please God, down to the order in which you put on your shoes in the morning—is itself a kind of magical thinking.

For the rabbis, Jews are the protagonists of a cosmic drama in which their every slightest action will be either rewarded or punished. There is something ennobling about this, but when the same kind of scrutiny is attributed not just to God but to demons and witches, it begins to seem oppressive and even absurd. What’s more, it impugns the authority of the rabbis themselves. If we have to listen to the Sages when they tell us about the 39 melachot of Shabbat, aren’t we just as bound to listen to them when they tell us that a “sorb tree that is close to the city contains no less than 60 demons?” And if they are wrong about the demons, mightn’t they also be wrong about the melachot?

And yet, for all the extravagant superstition on display in this week’s Talmud reading, there was also a hard kernel of good psychological sense. In Pesachim 110b, the Gemara explains that while the Jews of Babylonia were worried about pairs, in Palestine they were indifferent to the subject. “The rule of the matter is that all who are particular about pairs, the demons are particular with him; and if one is not particular, they are not particular with him.” This almost says that the whole idea of pairs being cursed is a self-fulfilling prophecy: If we suffer from performing even-numbered actions, it’s because we expect to suffer. Even so, this doesn’t mean that the demons don’t exist.

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Magical Thinking, Superstition, and Incantations in Jewish Oral Law

By elevating witches and demons to the level of gods, Talmudic rabbis diminished religious thought