Monday, November 3, 2014

Of Shedim and Mazikim,ptuh, ptuh, ptuh.

Of Shedim and Mazikim,ptuh, ptuh, ptuh.

At Halloween time, we Rabbis tend to preach against commemorating what is a remnant of an ancient pagan celebration.
But please allow me to use this as an excuse for one of my favorite topics which is Jewish magic and superstition. Now we all know the Jews are highly rational, highly reasonable individuals, adherents of a religion of reason and rationalism. But there is always “on the other hand.”
In every major phase of Jewish history, there has been what we could call an official Judaism. There is for example the Judaism as expressed in the Bible which very clearly rejects any kind of demons, any kind myth any kind of magic.
You look at the story of the patriarchs and with Abraham and Isaac; there is not one single magic trick mentioned, not one incantation. Jacob, it is true has his fight with what he thinks is a demon but the demon has been transformed into an angelic messenger. The Egyptians have their magicians and the Babylonians too, but what about ancient Israel? As the pagan necromancer, Balaam, himself admits,” There is no magic in Israel”! We outlaw and forbid it. The Bible is, in essence, on the warpath against magic and magical, fantastical thinking.

 The Judaism as expressed in the Mishna is in the same vein- it rejects all mystical speculation. “Whoever asks, ‘what is above, what is below, what before, what after--it were better he never were born! ( Mishnah Hagiga 2). That pretty much shuts down any discussion of afterworld daemonic realms.
The Judaism of the philosophers like Maimonides or Saadia Gaon  held no truck for anything irrational.In the same vein, when we approach the modern era, the great Jewish thinkers, from Reform to Orthodox, slammed the door shut on any discussion of anything other than the religion of “Pure Reason”.
Nevertheless in each and every age, there was always an intriguing and interesting very colorful underground of Jewish magic and superstition, although it must be clear, at heart very benign and well intending. There is no playing the devil and no black magic in Jewish sources.
Probably some of the most intriguing of stories go back to the time of the Mishna and Talmud some 1500 to  2000 years ago.
First of all, the early rabbis want to distinguish between true magic and fraud. It is said that Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Eliezer had a favorite trick called “the magic cucumbers. “ It is said that Rabbi Akiba asked Rabbi Eliezer “teach me how you plant the cucumbers” and so he said a word and the whole field was filled with cucumbers. Rabbi Akiba continued, “Now show me how you get rid of the cucumbers.” and he said another word and they disappeared. Their colleagues  then asked the question,” Since magic is so completely forbidden, how was he able to do this ? To which, the answer is, in order to fight magic you have to know magic .You have to know your enemy in order to your enemy.”
The Rabbis, in general, tried to discount miracles and the miraculous. They tried to explain away miracles as events created by God at the beginning of the universe; otherwise would be to admit that God made a mistake in creation if he needed to undo his own laws of physics.
And then…
There is the  story of the daughters of Rabbi Nachman who  could put their hands in boiling water without being scalded. How could that be? Because of their righteousness.
There is also the realm of the Mazikim. Now some of you familiar with modern Hebrew and   Yiddish know that a Mazik is often use to refer to a mischievous child. That is not the real meaning though of Mazik,  which means a destroyer, of the daemonic kind.
A good Jew would never enter a ruined building because of the Mazikiim inside. It may also be good practical sense because it’s it if it’s a ruined building, it could collapse.
Kin to the Mazik was the Shed, the demon.
 The king of all the Shedim was Ashmodai, or in English, Asmodaeus.  Now it is said of Ashmodai that he was not intentionally malicious; he was just drunk, mischievous and licentious. He was a hobgoblin to wise King Solomon and legends abound of him playing pranks on King Solomon, usurping the throne of Solomon, kicking Solomon out, pretending to be Solomon on throne while King Solomon had to spend aggravating time trying to get back to his throne.
It is said that Ashmodai has a host of followers who can be seen.
Said Rabbi Huna,” they all around us, 1000 to the left, 10,000 to the right. Said Rava.” When you are crowded sitting in the Academy but the room doesn’t look  full is because of the Mazikim. If your clothes get worn out before their time is because of the Mazikim. If you wish to know where they are, sprinkle flour around your bed at night and in  the morning you’ll see tracks like chicken feet. If you wish to see one, take the afterbirth of a black cat, daughter of a black cat, the firstborn daughter. Burn it to ashes and then rub it on your eyes; you will then see the Mazikim! ( Berakhot 6a) .
So far we’ve only talked about male demons. But let’s be fair. If Ashmodai is King, Agrat bat Mahlath is Queen and she has 10,000 demon attendants. It is said that at one time she was active at all times but Hanina ben Dosa restricted her powers to Wednesday nights and Saturday nights. Later it is said that Abbaye banished her from all populated regions but she still lurks in alleyways. Demons are especially harmful , it is said, in and around palm trees. Therefore should never go to the toilet by a palm tree or under a palm tree as that invites their attention.( Talmud Pesahim 110a)
Now do any of you remember an old  Superman comic in which he has a daemonic pest whom he can remove only by making him say his name backwards. I suspect the authors, who were Jewish, may have known of this solution to get rid of the demon Shabriri. You chase away a demon by using his name so if Shabriri strikes, you say Shabriri, Briri, Riri, Ri. You know by the way the famous magician’s charm, Abracadabra. That too, it is said, stems from a Jewish charm to remove the demon where a syllable is removed from each line till there is nothing left of the demon. The phrase itsel is said to come from the Aramaic, Abrech Dabra- Flee, Demon.
This perspective wasn’t just restricted to the world of the Talmud. If any of you read the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer the Nobel prize-winning Yiddish novelist you know that his world is full of demons and magicians and I once heard him affirm, in a public lecture, that he very much believed in them. They were not just elements of his fiction or imagination, however.
I once asked my father if Singer was exaggerating in his description of life in the old world, and then he told me of what was common in his little town of Dolina when he was a child .
For one thing you would never go to shul at night. After all the ghosts of the dead also want to go to synagogue and pray and where would they go if not to the synagogue. Of course they were considerate and they would not come during the daytime to bother anybody,  so when else would they come, if not at midnight. If a plague would strike, the townspeople would look for an orphan male and female teenager, take them to the cemetery and set up Huppah next to the graves of their parents and marry them off. They knew that the souls of the parents would be so happy at this marriage that they would then plead to heaven to stop the plague.
Finally, there is our well beloved phrase in Yiddish “Kine hora.” “Kine Hora” is a slurred Yiddish/Hebrew phrase” Kein eyin hora”-No evil eye, upon which you know we spit 3 times, Ptuh, Ptuh Ptuh, and knock on wood. Now it turns out that Greeks also spit three times and everybody knocks on wood. But kinehora goes back to a very good expression stated by the Rabbis, who said that one of the greatest trait we can have is Eyin Tov, a good eye, because we see good in other people and the worst trait is Eyin Ra, an evil eye, because we would only see evil  in other people and be consumed by  jealousy.
The truth is that belief in an evil eye is something widespread especially in the Mediterranean; I think all of us know this sense that when things go to well for us we’re always afraid of pressing our  luck. Thus came the idea that when something good happened or when someone said a complement, anxiety would set in and with came the need to protect and defend from someone else’s jealousy, which really is at the core of the idea of evil eye, the eyin hora or “eyna Bisha”.
The evil eye could come in many forms and many traits, so there were a number of charms and  amulets to protect against it. For example it is popular today to wear a charm with a hand of five fingers up with a blue stone in the middle known as the “Hamsa”, Five. It is almost literally like a hand being held up to block something. Blue is considered the most effective color and you’ll find  doors painted blue protect the house throughout the Middle East.
I still have my grandfather’s notebook in which he collected all sorts of what were called “Seguloth”, guaranteed formulas to solve problems. So one of them is a formula, ” Lachash Leayin Hara”- An incantation against the evil eye-tried and tested.” Mashbia ani aleychem –I  swear against you, all manner of evil eyes: eyna tsehuva, eyna techelta, - a yellow eye, a blue eye, a tall eye ,a short eye , etc . that you flee and abandon so and  so and all his household and you will not have the power over him and his household, neither day nor night, neither asleep nor awake from now and for ever more.”

Now what can we conclude from this. We know that we are rational creatures; we know that we think things through. We also know that we have our own anxieties and fears. Rational people go to feng shui to tell them how to design the rooms in a house. Rational mothers refuse to immunize their children thereby exposing them to an epidemic of measles and mumps with serious side effects. Rational people are filled with contradictions.

 Perhaps the healthiest thing in all of this,  is the thought that while Judaism takes us away from the irrational  and away from magical thought,  Jewish people are people like everyone else. All of us need something to hold onto, something that gives us a little extra bit of assurance, rational or not. It may be that we have the equivalent of the old adage about “Chicken soup.” A man is rescued from drowning at the beach and someone shouts. “Give him chicken soup .” To this another one replies “Chicken soup can’t help him!”. At this the man answers” Well it won’t hurt.”

So, ptuh, ptuh, ptuh, kinahora, knock on wood, we should all be healthy and well.


  1. lol, Norbert, you have no idea the memories that this story brought back to me.

    thank you