Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Talmudic demonology and mythology

THIS WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: The Talmud’s Demonology Resembles the Schlocky Inventiveness of ‘Dune’ or ‘The Lord of the Rings.’Infused with magic—and ritual designed to conjure or contain magic—Jewish oral law remains a mix of jurisprudence and poetry.
One of the challenging things about the reading the Talmud is the way it combines the most painstaking rationality with the most florid superstition. Both of these qualities were on display in last week’s Daf Yomi reading, which encompassed chapters 6 and 7 of Tractate Gittin. Most of the text was occupied with technical questions about how a husband or wife can appoint an agent to deliver or receive a bill of divorce. But then the rabbis shift to telling tall tales about Ashmedai the king of the demons and his duel of wits with King Solomon. “There were three hundred types of demons in Shichin,” says Rabbi Yochanan, even as he acknowledges that “I do not know what a demon itself is.” If he had never seen a demon, why was Yochanan so sure they existed? How could the same mind be so exacting and so credulous at the same time?

I'm not going to hold Adam Kirsch responsible for the headline, but calling the inventiveness of Dune or LOTR "schlocky" is uncultivated.

A recent post with background to the demonology of b. Gittin is here. Meanwhile, here is some more of that mythology for you. To my surprise, I find that there are no previous PaleoJudaica references to Ashmedai or the Shamir worm.
This leads the Gemara to relate, starting in Gittin 68a, a long story about King Solomon’s encounter with Ashmedai, the king of the demons. Interestingly, though Ashmedai is a malevolent figure, he is also pious in his own way: “Every day he ascends to heaven and studies in the heavenly study hall and he descends to the earth and studies in the earthly study hall.” The idea that the king of demons is also a talmid hacham is fascinating. In a strange way it manages to domesticate the supernatural, bringing even demons under the wing of Jewish law.

We have read earlier in the Talmud about the shamir, the magical worm that has the power to bore through the hardest substance. The shamir was Jewish mythology’s answer to a dilemma regarding the building of the First Temple. According to the Bible, the stones of the Temple were so sacred that they could not be cut with iron, since iron is associated with weapons and thus with violence. But then how were the stones cut? The answer is that the shamir hewed them into shape. And how did Solomon get his hands on the shamir? We learn from the Gemara that he did so by kidnapping Ashmedai: Solomon tricked the demon into drinking wine, and when he got drunk the king subdued him with a magic chain that bore the name of God.

Read on for the rest of the story. Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.