Judaism is full of hidden wonders — though they may be becoming less hidden as we digitize more of our texts. One topic of study that has seen increased attention in recent years in that of the supernatural: our texts around monsters. Like many communities, we have a rich tradition of demonology, including some shockingly practical tips on how to engage with demons.
Here are seven Jewish teachings about how to see and schmooze with the shedim (roughly translatable as demons) all around us, just in time for spooky season. Chag (C)Halloween sameach!
1. 1,000 Demons to the left, 10,000 to the right (Berakhot 6a:4)
“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)”
According to this teaching, there are 11,000 demons surrounding each of us. This raises so many further questions: Do we each get 11K demons or do we have to share sometimes? Do my shedim ever get confused and wander off with other people? If there’s a minyan, does that mean that there are 1,100,000 demons in the room? When people get married, are the shedim household or personal? Do they die with me or have I inherited my ancestors’ demons? How small are these demons if 11K are floating about invisibly all the time? At that scale, I’d presume they’re not much bigger than bacteria or viruses, which raises… disturbing possibilities.
2. Pandemic-Friendly Demon Safety (Taanit 20b:14)
“Another custom of Rav Huna was that when he had a new medicine, he would fill a water jug with the medicine and hang it from the doorpost of his house, saying: All who need, let him come and take from this new medicine. And there are those who say: He had a remedy against the demon Shivta that he knew by tradition, that one must wash his hands for protection against this evil spirit. And to this end, he would place a water jug and hang it by the door, saying: Anyone who needs, let him come to the house and wash his hands, so that he will not be in danger.”
While I cannot, in earnest, recommend most of the demon-purging tips on this list, this one has stood the test of time. Although Rav Huna lived well before germ theory, the “washing your hands” method of dispelling ailments caused by innumerable tiny creatures remains stellar advice. My only concern is that it was only advertised as a remedy against one specific demon. I wonder if this implies most demons were thought to be waterproof?
3. Chicken Feet (Berakhot 6a:6)
“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.”
This is useful if you want to verify (presumably larger) demons in your very own home. My questions about this are actually more about how practical this method is for the average family pre-industrial revolution. I’m sure they had access to ash — I grew up in homes heated by firewood, and for most of settled history, that was how people heated their houses. But the chicken feet thing seems less practical, if for no other reason than that chickens were common livestock in many of the places that this text would have been read. I, in 2022, might know that the chicken footprints don’t belong to my own egg-machine or my neighbor’s, but I’m not sure the same can be said for most pre-industrial households.
4. Lambs as Demon Self-Defense (Berakhot 62a:8)
“Because fear of demons in bathrooms was pervasive, the Gemara relates: Abaye’s mother raised a lamb to accompany him to the bathroom. The Gemara objects: She should have raised a goat for him. The Gemara responds: A goat could be interchanged with a goat-demon. Since both the demon and the goat are called sa’ir, they were afraid to bring a goat to a place frequented by demons.”
Another tip from a time when livestock was more common: an Anti-Demon Support Lamb. It makes sense to me that bathrooms were scary (outside, dark, too hot or cold, no actual plumbing) when this text was written — I’ve been in outhouses where it’s not difficult to presume there are demons lurking. (Bathrooms are sometimes scary now!) And I imagine that in many families, particularly wealthier ones, there was no deficit of lambs, although I do enjoy the notion that Abaye’s mother had an anti-bathroom-demon specific lamb, which presumably had to be replaced every few years since sheep have a much shorter lifespan than people.
I’m more interested in the question of what, exactly, a lamb was supposed to do about the demons. Does the wool absorb evil? Do you sling the sheep at the sheyd? Do they make aggressive lamb noises like a fluffy alarm bell?
5. A Shadow of a Shadow of a Doubt (Gittin 66a:9)
“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. 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.”
Other texts in the Talmud talk at length about the many forms that demons can take, so it is not particularly surprising that human-shaped demons are a concern. What I’d like more clarification on is how Yonathan, son of Rabbi Hanina, knew so much about demon shadows. Was he conducting experiments? What if a sheyd deduces how to simulate a shadow of a shadow? Is there an equivalent test to conduct with poor lighting?
6. Lulav Self-Defense (Sukkah 38a:1)
“When Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov would move the lulav to and fro, he would say: This is an arrow in the eye of Satan, as despite his best efforts, the Jewish people continue to joyously fulfill mitzvot. The Gemara notes: That is not a proper manner of conduct, as it will induce Satan to come to incite him to sin. Gloating due to his victory over the evil inclination will lead Satan to redouble his efforts to corrupt him.”
If you find yourself being attacked by a demon, there’s at least one rabbi who has some very practical advice, if it’s the right time of year. The Gemara pushes back on this method of demon slaying, but also implicitly endorses it as a way of summoning and fighting shedim — the argument is that Satan will increase efforts, not that lulav-stabbing is ineffective.
7. Demons Testifying In Court (Makkot 6b:6)
“Rava says: The one forewarning the accused of whom the Sages spoke need not be a third witness, but even if the victim forewarns the murderer from his own mouth, and even if the forewarning emerged from the mouth of a demon, meaning the source of the forewarning is unknown, the forewarning is legitimate.”
At least if demons are everywhere they can be useful on occasion? According to this one source, a demon can testify in court as a witness. Commentary from other sources indicate this was a way of explaining anonymous witnesses or those who testified without physically being seen, but personally, I like the idea that the beit din was more interested in the sheyd’s testimony than in the fact there was a sheyd testifying. And shedim can testify about more than murder — there’s another source (Gittin 66a:10) permitting their testimony in divorce cases.