Vampires and Witches in Sefer Hasidim

 

Guest post by R. Eli D. Clark

Rabbi Eli D. Clark lives in Bet Shemesh, Israel. He served as Halakha editor of the Koren Sacks Siddur and also practices international tax law.

Halloween is a pagan holiday, and knowledgeable Jews rightly view Halloween as alien to the Torah way of life. (Admission: I confess to watching, as a child, a Peanuts television special with a Halloween theme.) Yet witches do play a role in Jewish texts.

As we know, the Torah in Shemot (22:17) commands us not to allow witches to live. Rambam (Hil. Sanhedrin 4:3) views this as a biblical prohibition imposed on Beit Din. In Devarim (18:10-11) the Torah lists a variety of wizards to be avoided: “There shall not be found among you any one who passes his son or his daughter through the fire, one that uses divination, a soothsayer, an enchanter, a sorcerer, or a charmer, or one that consults a ghost or familiar spirit, or a necromancer.” The Sifrei and later commentators explicate the differences between these categories. All this is well known.

Not many know that the Sefer Hasidim, among other things, relates a number of incidents involving witch-like creatures called “estries,” who suck the blood of their victims. They fly, assume different forms and continue to attack victims even after they have been killed and buried. Perhaps most curiously, the remedy for a victim of an estrie is to eat from her bread and salt, which somehow acted as an antidote to her bites.

The passages below are my own translations; the original Hebrew sources are listed below. For a discussion of the sources, see J. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition (New York, 1939), pp. 38-39.

Siman 1465
There are women called estries, mares or werewolves. They were created at twilight (bein ha-shemashot). They could perform a certain act and thereby change form. There was one woman who was an estrie and she was very sick. Two women were with her at night; one was sleeping and one was awake. And the sick woman stood up beside [the sleeping woman] and shook out her hair and tried to fly and tried to suck the blood of the sleeping woman. And the woman who was awake screamed and woke her friend and they grabbed the sick estrie, and after this she slept. And if she had been able to attack and kill the other woman, then the estrie would have lived. But since she was not able to attack the other woman, the estrie died, because one that issues from blood needs to drink the blood of living flesh. The same is true of the werewolf. And since the mare and the estrie need to shake out their hair before they fly, one must cause her to swear to come with her hair shaken out, so that she cannot go anywhere without his permission. And if one strikes an estrie or if one sees her, she cannot live, unless she eats of the bread and salt of the one who struck her. Similarly, if she attacks someone, he must eat from her bread and salt. Then the soul will return to the way it was before.

Siman 1466
There was a [non-Jewish] woman who was suspected of being an estrie, and she would attack [people]. She appeared to a Jew as a cat and he hit her. The next day she asked him to give her some of his bread and salt, and he wanted to give it to her. An old man said to him “Be not overly righteous” (Ecc. 7:16). Where one has an obligation to others, one must not exhibit excessive piety, for if she lives, she will harm people. Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, created her for you [as a test], just as he created Amalek for Saul and punished him for letting him live.

Siman 1467
There was a woman who was an estrie, but she allowed her victim to take from her bread and salt. In such case, one should have mercy on her.

MS Oxford 1567, 41b
Know too that there was a witch, an estrie, who once was caught by a man. He said to her, Do not [try to] escape from my grasp, as you have caused numerous deaths in the world. What can I do to you so that after your death you will not consume [people’s flesh]? She said to him, If you find [an estrie] in the grave with her mouth open, there is no remedy, for her spirit will attack the living. And there is no remedy unless a spike is hammered into her mouth and into the earth. Then she will attack no more. And for this reason, one should fill her mouth with stones.

Bibliography:
Sefer Hasidim, ed. J. Wistinetzki (Berlin, 1891), p. 355. (link – PDF)
Sefer Hasidim, ed. R. Margoliot (Jerusalem, 1957), p. 318.
J. Dan, Hasidut Ashkenaz be-Toledot Ha-Mahshavah Ha-Yehudit, Vol. II (Tel Aviv, 1990), p. 181.

 

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102 Responses

  1. MDJ says:

    Any guesses as to the etymology of “estries” and “mares”?

  2. IH says:

    Apologies if I have missed the point, but is it really that surprising to find this in a sefer written in late 12th century Germany? Germany has a long history of recycling pagan myths and tales.

    It seems to me the more interesting sources are in the Talmud and Misrash. Here’s a paper from Prof. Meir Bar-Ilan “Witches in the Bible and in the Talmud” as a starter for ten: http://faculty.biu.ac.il/~barilm/witches.html

  3. IH says:

    The full text of the J. Trachtenberg book is available online. URL to p. 38 is:
    http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/jms/jms05.htm#page_38 (scroll up a few lines to catch the beginning of the paragraph). Snap: MDJ.

  4. Jon_brooklyn says:

    Thank God for the Rambam!

  5. Anonymous says:

    >Any guesses as to the etymology of “estries” and “mares”?

    nightmare
    late 13c., “an evil female spirit afflicting sleepers with a feeling of suffocation,” compounded from night + mare “goblin that causes nightmares, incubus,” from O.E. mare “incubus,” from mera, mære, from P.Gmc. *maron “goblin,” from PIE *mora- “incubus,” from base *mer- “to rub away, harm, seize” (cf. first element in O.Ir. Morrigain “demoness of the corpses,” lit. “queen of the nightmare,” also Bulg., Serb., Pol. mora “incubus;” Fr. cauchemar, with first element is from O.Fr. caucher “to trample”). Meaning shifted mid-16c. from the incubus to the suffocating sensation it causes. Sense of “any bad dream” first recorded 1829; that of “very distressing experience” is from 1831.

  6. MJ says:

    I assume that “estries” is “Estrus”

    From Wikipedia: derived via Latin oestrus (frenzy, gadfly), from Greek οἶστρος (gadfly, breeze, sting, mad impulse). Specifically, this refers to the gadfly that Hera sent to torment Io, who had been won in her heifer form by Zeus. Euripides used “oestrus” to indicate “frenzy”, and to describe madness.

  7. MJ says:

    I should clarify I meant etymologically related . Just as it is related to Oestra/Ostera/(Ishtar) etc. the goddess of springtime / fertility.

    It would not be surprising that the word for a female shape-shifting demon would be related to the words for female madness and sexual desire.

  8. MJ says:

    Back to the main post: I’m confused by R. Clark’s introduction. Witches, sorcerers, and necromancers in the Torah are people, not demons, succubi, or magical creatures. To say that “witches” (in the sense of machashefa etc.) play a role in these texts from Sefer Hasidim is extremely confused.

    And of course demons, especially female demons, show up in Jewish texts before you get to Sefer Hasidim. Just ask Lilith.

  9. IH says:

    On etymology, see footnote 34 of the Trachtenberg book URL (just click on 34 on the page) and you will see the etymology as per the 1930s scholarship R. Clark cites. There are also further mareh mekomot of interest there.

  10. Eli D Clark says:

    MJ wrote: “To say that “witches” (in the sense of machashefa etc.) play a role in these texts from Sefer Hasidim is extremely confused.” Agreed. And I did not say that.

    To the best of my knowledge, midrashic legends about Lilith do not figure in halakhic discourse. But many passages in Sefer Hasidim do.

    I am not a folklorist nor an ethnographer. I think people need to consider how to relate to these kinds of passages in a work that has wielded substantial halakhic influence over the last 500 years.

    In studying the Gemara, we are accustomed to distinguishing between halakha and aggada. Assuming we can apply this distinction to Medieval texts, the question is where do we draw the line?

  11. ruvie says:

    r’ clark – why would you distinguish between gemera and sefer hasidim? there are plenty of gemeras that are halachik that deal with dybuks and sheidim (e.g. not saying hello to a man in the street at night for fear he my be one of those) that we just ignore. are we suppose to be surprise that medeval folklore crept into halahik system?

  12. joel rich says:

    R’ Eli,
    “I think people need to consider how to relate to these kinds of passages in a work that has wielded substantial halakhic influence over the last 500 years. ” Great sentence! perhaps replace people with poskim but it’s influence is so deeply embedded it would take a long time to incrementally reverse it (of course I suppose we could go with the “he didn’t really believe these existed but people did so he had to deal with their beliefs) approach.
    KT

  13. MJ says:

    Agreed. And I did not say that.

    The title of this post is “Vampires and Witches in Sefer Hasidim”, it starts of with reference to witches in the Torah, then it transitions to Sefer Hasidim by referring to female demons as “witch-like creatures.” For give me for misreading you.

    As for Lilith, I believe she figures into halakhic discussions of how one ought to sleep, seminal emissions, masturbation, and prayers, incantations, and amulets for pregnant women and young children.

  14. MJ says:

    On etymology, see footnote 34 of the Trachtenberg book URL (just click on 34 on the page) and you will see the etymology

    Interesting. The association with “owl” recalls some depictions of Lilith.

  15. IH says:

    “I think people need to consider how to relate to these kinds of passages in a work that has wielded substantial halakhic influence over the last 500 years.”

    I am shocked, shocked, that you imply halacha is influenced by external sources :-)

    In all seriousness, though, the roots of this topic are organic to Rabbinic Judaism — albeit they may very well have seeped in at that time from surrounding cultures — so the case is harder to make that this was a real chiddush of the 12th century.

    Further, isn’t it at least possible that some of the Talmud’s view of women (e.g. al tarbeh sicha) is also based on such folklore?

  16. Hirhurim says:

    IH: I am shocked, shocked, that you imply halacha is influenced by external sources

    Actually, he didn’t say that. He said, or implied, that Sefer Chasidim was influenced by contemporary beliefs. He did not say that those beliefs influenced halakhah.

    Further, isn’t it at least possible that some of the Talmud’s view of women (e.g. al tarbeh sicha) is also based on such folklore?

    Maybe the Bible also. Isn’t it all just one big collection of secular influences that we should just toss out the window while, of course, still observing halakhah (more or less)?

  17. IH says:

    Gil — the Bible’s view of women is not normative in Rabbinic Judaism. Else we would have female leaders such as:
    וּדְבוֹרָה אִשָּׁה נְבִיאָה, אֵשֶׁת לַפִּידוֹת–הִיא שֹׁפְטָה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בָּעֵת הַהִיא

  18. Hirhurim says:

    You read your own personal views, based on contemporary values, into the word “שֹׁפְטָה”

  19. IH says:

    “`Oh, that was easy,’ says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.” – Douglas Adams

  20. Hirhurim says:

    Oh, I see. Chazal can be biased but not you.

  21. IH says:

    More seriously, Avot 1:1 makes it clear:
    משה קיבל תורה מסיניי, ומסרה ליהושוע, ויהושוע לזקנים, וזקנים לנביאים, ונביאים מסרוה לאנשי כנסת הגדולה.

    If you accept this Mesorah, then Devora had what the Tana’aim considered smicha.

  22. IH says:

    In any case, let’s get back to the point of the thread which is the cross-contamination between Jewish “magic”, non-Jewish “magic” and its potential influence on halacha (as per the referenced quotations in Sefer Hasidim.

    I was merely raising some food for thought, with which you disagree. Fine.

  23. Hirhurim says:

    I guess Sarah also had rabbinic ordination directly from Moshe Rabbeinu since she was a prophetess. That’s impressive logic.

  24. IH says:

    Your snarkyness is neither enlightening nor helpful. Di.

  25. Hirhurim says:

    Which of the above quotations influenced halakhah?

  26. Eli D Clark says:

    Back to Ruvie’s question: In a work with explicitly halakhic passages, when can you characterize a certain passage “aggadic”? In the Gemara, we do this all the time. In Sefer Hasidim, the lines are a little blurrier, as there are countless prescriptive passages that fall somewhere on the spectrum between Jewish law, Jewish custom, good advice, folk wisdom and rank superstition. Again, the question is where do you draw the line.

    Let’s complicate the picture: Elchanan Reiner published an article claiming that a teshuva of the Chavvot Yair was not a legal responsum but a piece of literary fiction modeled after the romantic literature of the period. And R. Ovadya Yosef published a responsum relating to the treatment of a rabbi that seems suspiciously similar to his own experience as a rabbi in Egypt. (This is discussed in B. Lau’s book.)

  27. Shalom Rosenfeld says:

    It’s sad that often people lump “rabbinic sources” together with regards to views/superstitions towards women; actually there’s a lot of weirdness out there that our good ol’ Babylonian Talmud very clearly made a point of leaving out — and the Bavli makes it pretty clear what’s halacha and what’s agadata. If I’m not mistaken (from some Bar-Ilan searching I did a while ago), you could learn the entire Babylonian Talmud with Rashi, and all you’d know about Lilith is it’s the name of some demon. Everything else doesn’t appear till someplace in Otzar HaMidrashim.

  28. IH says:

    Shalom — that is true to a point, but my question was specific to the Bavli — “isn’t it at least possible that some of the Talmud’s view of women (e.g. al tarbeh sicha) is also based on such folklore?”

  29. MDJ says:

    IH,
    “Al tarbeh” isn’t in the bavli, it’s pirkei avos.

  30. IH says:

    “In Sefer Hasidim, the lines are a little blurrier, as there are countless prescriptive passages that fall somewhere on the spectrum between Jewish law, Jewish custom, good advice, folk wisdom and rank superstition. Again, the question is where do you draw the line.”

    The first real evidence we have of the linkage of saying Kaddish to Hilchot Aveylut, as far as I know, is in Machzor Vitry in which a fantastical aggada is related: http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=33694&st=&pgnum=177 (last siman on the page).

  31. Rafael Araujo says:

    “Your snarkyness is neither enlightening nor helpful. Di.”

    You are the expert in snarkyness.

  32. IH says:

    MDJ — fair, but it is redacted into the Bavli. E.g. Eruvin 53b:
    שוטה לא כך אמרו חכמים אל תרבה שיחה עם האשה

  33. Shalom Rosenfeld says:

    IH,

    I think the Mishna and Bavli’s conspicuous absence of much such weirdness were their rejection of it. (Perhaps similar to what RH”S has said about Masada not appearing in the gemara.)

  34. IH says:

    Sholom — To the extent we disagree, I suspect it is just by degree. First, there is plenty of “weirdness” as you call it in the Bavli; and, second, there is still likely to be an underlying influence even if the certain blatant texts were redacted out.

  35. ruvie says:

    r’ clark – no doubt chazal had a negative view of magic and those that practice it – a perfect example would be shimon ben shetach not so nice view of honi ha-megalel.
    but we do see some influence in halachik discussion by reish leikish allowing witchcraft to play a role – in the yerushalmi (nazir) – so i wonder if chazal believed that certain people have magical skills or can acquire them that it would not be our halachik system. afterall, we see the belief that rabbis can curse people and kill them in the talmud.

  36. MJ says:

    If you want to explore where some kind of line needs to be drawn in Sefer Hasidim, then present a passage where it needs to be drawn. Instead you present a passage where there is no apparent “blurriness” and claim it raises all sorts of questions.

  37. Anonymous says:

    “I think the Mishna and Bavli’s conspicuous absence of much such weirdness were their rejection of it. ”

    The Bavli’s absence of weirdness? Are we reading the same Bavli?

    In any case, how about we just be normal? If you can honestly say that you believe in vampires because the Sefer Chasidim says so, terrific. I guess the question of how this intersects with poskim did and do believe is relevant. It may be difficult to come to grips with the gap between oneself and poskim, if one wants to be observant.

  38. ruvie says:

    shalom – on women and witchcraft : the rabbis taught the law of sorceress applies to both men and women. why is it written in nekavah? because mostly women are engage in witchcraft. – bavli senhedrin 67a also berchot 53a). in the name of shimon b. yohai it is said – ” the best of women is a sorceress” (mesechta soferim,xv,end)

    nice pedestal for benot yisroel

  39. Hirhurim says:

    I agree that the Bavli has some “weirdness” in it, at least what we today consider weird. But in those days it was accepted “scientific” belief.

    Exactly what to do about those few halakhic statements that are impacted by those beliefs is a matter of dispute. I think that many follow them anyway and many do not. Note that the Rambam generally — but not always! — omitted laws based on beliefs he rejected.

  40. Hirhurim says:

    Ruvie: Do you deny that Wiccan beliefs and practices existed in the ancient world, just as they do today but in much smaller numbers?

  41. Anonymous says:

    “Ruvie: Do you deny that Wiccan beliefs and practices existed in the ancient world, just as they do today but in much smaller numbers?”

    I don’t think the Gemara means only Wiccan. They meant Rebbetzins as much as women who called themselves whatever the Babylonian equivalent of Moonbeam Faerie was. It also means lead pouring, mass challah baking, and amulet hanging. Religious women seem drawn to this stuff, on average, a little more than men. Actually, there is an entire female (and probably male) folk version of Judaism and really all religions, that you will not find in the poskim or seforim.

  42. Anonymous says:

    “I agree that the Bavli has some “weirdness” in it, at least what we today consider weird. But in those days it was accepted “scientific” belief.”

    Let’s say we accept that premise – how should we account for this stuff in the early modern period when most (not all) of it was not accepted “scientific” belief? I understand the attraction of saying that Chazal were not, could not be “superstitious,” but what about later authorities?

  43. IH says:

    Insofar as a distinction is being made about agadot redacted into the Bavli vs. those that were redacted into the early Midrashic literature, it is worth noting that Rashi uses the Midrashic literature extensively in his “pshat” peirush of the Torah (sometimes attributed, sometimes not) so there is a further seepage point into halachic decision making from his time forward.

  44. Hirhurim says:

    Anonymous: I don’t think the Gemara means only Wiccan. They meant Rebbetzins as much as women who called themselves whatever the Babylonian equivalent of Moonbeam Faerie was.

    Well, that’s a matter of interpretation. Perhaps the Gemara meant rebbetzins who adopt some practices from Wiccans, much like today we see some rebbetzins (and some rabbis) adopting idolatrous and pagan practices. While some men carry red strings, my experience is the phenomena is mostly among women.

    Let’s say we accept that premise – how should we account for this stuff in the early modern period when most (not all) of it was not accepted “scientific” belief?

    I’m not surprised that rabbis were not always up-to-date in their scientific beliefs and I don’t see how that is less problematic than Chazal being wrong about science.

    I also don’t see what science has to do with women, unless you assume that Chazal based their views on women on contemporary science. I find that difficult.

  45. Shimon S says:

    IH: “On etymology, see footnote 34″

    Just in case:

    Estrie, Old French, from the Latin, strix, striga, cf. Grimm, II, 868. στριέ originally signified the night-owl; in the early Middle Ages it came to mean the same as the German Hexe, “worunter man sich bald eine alte, bald eine junge Frau denkt.” The word appears in various forms; cf. Rashi, Git. 69a; S. Ḥas. 1465; Ḥochmat HaNefesh 17a; Rokeaḥ 316; Güd. I, 203, n. 4, and n. 8; Toledot Adam veḤavah, 28:1, p. 182b; Ẓiyuni 9a.

  46. IH says:

    On “scientific” belief, it gets a dicier if you have to apply this rationale to Tanach. It seems to me hard to dispute that sorcery was considered effective (if wrong and a sin) by both the Torah and Talmud.

  47. IH says:

    In the “just in case” vein, here is the conclusion of Prof. Bar-Ilan’s paper to which I supplied a link at the beginning of the thread:

    “We have seen that the topic of women and witchcraft was possibly a minor one in the history of Jewish witchcraft, but it was clearly an important one in the history of the status of the women in the Jewish people in the ancient era. Whereas in the Biblical era the links between women and witchcraft were not absolute, over the course of time an identity emerged between women and witchcraft (but not between witchcraft and women). In the Apocrypha one finds this topic in the center not only in terms of time, but also in the center in terms of outlook: in other words, the source of witchcraft was women, even if one cannot utilize this source to say, as did the Tannaim hundreds of years later, that all women, even the most worthy among them, deal with witchcraft.

    There is no doubt that the explanation of these phenomena must be given within the framework of the social sciences, and not only through purely historical methods. In any event, it is proposed that the link between women and witchcraft be regarded as following from the inferior status of women in ancient times. On the one hand, the tension between the sexes brought about accusations of the physical weaker sex as being engaged in demonic pursuits which endangered the stronger sex. This was what the ruling class did to strengthen its power, and exploited the weakness of the inferior class: the women. On the other hand, the lack of social equality brought about, if not directly then at least indirectly, women with a charismatic ability to engage in witchcraft, if only to attain a certain degree of leadership and social status.”

  48. Hirhurim says:

    IH: See the Radak on the witch of Endor.

  49. Anonymous says:

    “Well, that’s a matter of interpretation. Perhaps the Gemara meant rebbetzins who adopt some practices from Wiccans, much like today we see some rebbetzins (and some rabbis) adopting idolatrous and pagan practices. While some men carry red strings, my experience is the phenomena is mostly among women.”

    I don’t think we’ve said anything different.

    “I’m not surprised that rabbis were not always up-to-date in their scientific beliefs and I don’t see how that is less problematic than Chazal being wrong about science.”

    I’m not surprised, but aren’t you a little dismayed, as I am? It’s one thing to be 10 years behind and it’s another to be 200 years behind.

    “I also don’t see what science has to do with women, unless you assume that Chazal based their views on women on contemporary science. I find that difficult.”

    Nothing. But you used the term “science” to contextualize “weirdness” in the Bavli.

  50. Hirhurim says:

    Considering the popularity of Wicca among mostly women, even in today’s society, I wonder whether Prof. Bar-Ilan’s class/gender-warfare assumptions are correct.

  51. Hirhurim says:

    Anonymous: I’m not surprised, but aren’t you a little dismayed, as I am? It’s one thing to be 10 years behind and it’s another to be 200 years behind.

    Life was different in those days and knowledge was much more closely held within academic circles.

    Nothing. But you used the term “science” to contextualize “weirdness” in the Bavli.

    I was thinking about demons and the influence of the moon.

  52. Y. Aharon says:

    It would be helpful if R’ Eli Clark or others would list some of the traditional practices based on folklore in sefer Hassidim. I suspect that some traditional practices involving tahara and kevura are so based.

    In terms of practice, I don’t see why the folklorish material in sefer Hasidim should be treated with greater reverence than similar material in talmud Bavli. Just as we disregard some injunctions of the Bavli such as avoiding even numbered things, so should we disregard similar injunctions from the above sefer. While custom is important for self-identification, it should not dictate acting in a highly irrational way.

  53. ruvie says:

    r’ gil: “Ruvie: Do you deny that Wiccan beliefs and practices existed in the ancient world, just as they do today but in much smaller numbers?”

    why limit to wiccan beliefs and practices?

    back to the post did these beliefs play a role in effecting halacha? in to that extent what kind of role? i don’t see why sefer hasidim would be the only or first place it shows up? although, the descriptions in the post are fascinating in its detail and not in any talmud (to my limited knowledge) i wonder what was written within the 100 years of sefer hasidim on werewolves, vampires, and other demons in secular works. acomparison would be useful – r’ clark?

  54. Rafael Araujo says:

    “Considering the popularity of Wicca among mostly women, even in today’s society, I wonder whether Prof. Bar-Ilan’s class/gender-warfare assumptions are correct”

    Reb Gil – who cares what Bar-Ilan has to say on the topic. If we reduce CHAZAL’s views to misogyny, then, as discussed about R.Dr. Sperber’s proposal to change our liturgy are valid. We should not be accepting these social arguments, because the result is to read halachich concepts like “kavod hatzibbur” out of existence, or least reinterpret as to render meaningless.

  55. Shachar Ha'amim says:

    If you visit the Bible Lands Museum in Israel you will see on display a number of 3-6 century artifacts – such as amulets or spell casting bowls – which are clearly Jewish (there are similar christian, muslim and samaritan artifacts as well). I say clearly Jewish because they are written in aramaic in Hebrew letters and don’t refer to any other non-Jewish appelations of the deity or non-Jewish prohpets. There are Jewish artifacts in other languages and/or alphabets as well. lots of Jewish spell casting and demon removal was going on at the time of chazal

  56. Anonymous says:

    “Life was different in those days and knowledge was much more closely held within academic circles.”

    It absolutely was not. All you had to do was learn to read, which very intelligent rabbis who delved into the depths of knowledge many hours a day could have done quite easily. Besides, 200 years out of date? There’s little excusing that. How then were Chazal not out of date? Also, who says this dissociation from science is extinct among poskim?

  57. Shalom Spira says:

    Ye’yasher kochakha R. Clark (and respondants).

    Of course, the gemara in Shabbat 30b cautions us against mocking the words of the Sages. On the other hand, to posit, in a non-mocking manner, that Chazal were mistaken but that they did their best based on the information they possessed for their time in human history, is indeed a thesis that some poskim do believe is acceptable, although others disagree. This debate is catalogued by R. Bleich in his Tradition articles “New York City Water” and “Piscean Parasites”.

    According to the second school of thought in this debate, how do we explain the demons of the Talmud? I recall, as a camper of Camp Sdei Chemed International, that the camp director R. Eli Teitelbaum (of blessed memory) suggested that the demons refer to microbes. (E.g. the gemara in Berakhot 6a says we are surrounded at all times by many demons, yet they are invisible to the naked eye unless elaborate chemical diagnostic tests are conducted, which was indeed Louis Pasteur’s discovery regarding microbes. Likewise, the gemara in Yoma 83b indicates that a rabid dog is possessed by sorcery/evil spirit; scientists call this the rabies virus). The Artscroll gemara in Arvei Pesachim (on the sugya of zugot, cited by R’ Y. Aharon) also has a footnote addressing this.

  58. Shlomo says:

    It absolutely was not. All you had to do was learn to read, which very intelligent rabbis who delved into the depths of knowledge many hours a day could have done quite easily.

    Read what? The printing press was not yet invented. Even if these rabbis had visited monasteries in search of scrolls, they wouldn’t have found anything better than Aristotle, which while more scientific than belief in vampires and witches is hardly a shining example of the scientific method.

  59. Anonymous says:

    “Read what? The printing press was not yet invented.”

    It was invented by the early modern period, which is what I mentioned and to what Gil replied.

  60. Shalom Spira says:

    See also http://www.dafyomi.co.il/pesachim/insites/ps-dt-109.htm for various approaches among poskim to the zugot issue. Not mentioned there (but appearing in the Yosef Da’at commentary of R. Yosef ben Arza on the same sugya) is that Chazon Ish was careful to avoid eating two eggs, since the gemara in Pesachim 110b calls this a “Halakhah le-Mosheh mi-Sinai”. Chazon Ish felt that this was therefore an eternal rule that could not evolve (even with the disappearance of other zugot restrictions).

  61. MJ says:

    Who says that today’s society is so equal?

  62. ruvie says:

    r’ gil -”Note that the Rambam generally — but not always! — omitted laws based on beliefs he rejected.”

    i believe its always when the sole source or reason is demons or dybuks. but correct me if that is wrong (or an exception or two).

  63. Shalom Spira says:

    Correction: in my comment at 1:13 p.m. above, I should not have written “that Chazal were mistaken”, which is an irreverent expression (even according to that school of thought among the poskim I cited), for which I apologize. Rather, I should have written “that Chazal spoke the language of their times, according to the commonly appreciated scientific understanding of their era” (according to that school of thought). Of course, we have an article in the new issue of Hakirah devoted to this fascinating question.

  64. IH says:

    Y. Aharon’s comment above reminds me of one of the more blatant remnants of practices based on folklore — the burial hakafot performed by some of the Chevrei Kadisha in Jerusalem. For those not familiar, see Heilman’s description at: http://books.google.com/books?id=hxw0dQ22xaEC&lpg=PP1&dq=heilman%20jew%20dies&pg=PA107#v=onepage&q&f=false

  65. ruvie says:

    Rafael Araujo – “We should not be accepting these social arguments…” are you saying that chazal were not influence at all by their surrounding cultures and/or beliefs? i find that hard to believe or that the evidence is to compelling to argue against that. maybe i misunderstand what you mean? can you explain?

  66. Steve Brizel says:

    Just curious-doesn’t this article merely confirm that much of what is in Sefer Chasidim is viewed as fascinating but by no means halachically binding unless one is Choshesh for its views ( i.e. marrying someone with the same name of a parent)?

  67. Joseph Kaplan says:

    “because the result is to read halachich concepts like “kavod hatzibbur” out of existence, or least reinterpret as to render meaningless.”

    Or, some would say, to reinterpret it as to render it meaningful.

  68. Hirhurim says:

    I’m still unclear what halakhos are derived from these passages in Sefer Chasidim.

  69. Steve Brizel says:

    In a recent Sefer dealing with Inyanei Kiddushin, Ksubos, etc, based on the Psakim of RSZA, there is a very lengthy chapter on when and when not the views of R Yehudah HaChasid are to be invoked or ignored. The thread that sparked this thread IMO proves that Poskim view Sefer Chasidim as interesting, but hardly binding in the absence of proof that someone raising a halachic inquiry mentioned a concern about a specific hanhagah in Sefer Chasidim. IIRC, Mosad HaRav Kook published a nice edition of Sefer Chasidim for those with the interest in the same.

  70. Anonymous says:

    ” The thread that sparked this thread IMO proves that Poskim view Sefer Chasidim as interesting, but hardly binding”

    The first to assert that was the Noda Beyehuda – brave soul – after centuries – centuries – of these things firmly entrenched in the collective consciousness of Ashkenazim. Sure, some of them had faded, but others hadn’t. It’s all well and good to talk about how poskim view them as “interesting” (why not “appalling?”) but our masores was actually to view them as truths revealed by an exceptional chasid. Sod la-hashem yere’av. The fact that poskim found ways to quietly bury *some* superstitions without fanfare is what’s “interesting.”

  71. Steve Brizel says:

    Anonymous wrote:

    “They meant Rebbetzins as much as women who called themselves whatever the Babylonian equivalent of Moonbeam Faerie was. It also means lead pouring, mass challah baking, and amulet hanging. Religious women seem drawn to this stuff, on average, a little more than men”

    First of all, what is wrong with challah baking, either on a mass or individual baking? Isn’t challah viewed as a special mitzvah that was given to women for their refusal to participate in the episode of the spies? I am not sure what the poster meant by “amulet hanging”, but is the poster somehow implying that afixing a mezuzah or having posters of Talmidei Chachamim in one’s home, or visiting a great Tzadekes such as Rebbitzen Kanievsky Zicronah Livracha is something beneath a rational person’s dignity?

  72. Steve Brizel says:

    Anonymous wrote:

    “It’s all well and good to talk about how poskim view them as “interesting” (why not “appalling?”) but our masores was actually to view them as truths revealed by an exceptional chasid. Sod la-hashem yere’av. The fact that poskim found ways to quietly bury *some* superstitions without fanfare is what’s “interesting.”

    When all is said and done, as R Gil asked-how many of the posted passages, let alone the entirety of the sefer in question, raises a Nafkeh Minah LHalacha-outside of anyone who considers the sefer in question binding in its entirety or is bothered by one of its more well halachic statements?

  73. Eli D Clark says:

    I know of no halakhot based on the passages cited in the post. But there are numerous halakhot that have been codified the source of which is the Sefer Hasidim. I will not give examples from the laws of kevura and aveilut, which are deeply rooted in superstition. (Ever wonder why we cover mirrors? So as not to see the spirit of the deceased.)

    Sefer Hasidim 791 rules that one whose father is an apostate (mumar) should not call be called to the Torah by his father’s name, but his grandfather’s name. The Rema brings this le-halakha in Orah Hayyim 139:3.

    To the modern reader, this rule seems to stem from a kind of superstition or ayin ha-ra-like concern. But it became halakha pesuka.

    The Shulhan Arukh (OH 101:4) rules that one can daven in any language. The Magen Avraham, based on Sefer Hasidim, writes that it is better to pray in a language you understand than in Hebrew.

    This rule actually reflects a non-mystical view of prayer.

    Many laws relating to tzeni’ut and separation of the sexes originate in Sefer Hasidim, including the idea of separate seating at weddings.

    Should these rules be seen as halakha? As musar? As superstition?

    Sefer Hasidim 238 says you should not sing non-Jewish songs to infants. This is cited by Magen Avraham to explain Rema OH 53:25 (incorrectly in my view).

    So it is not correct to say that Sefer Hasidim is not binding. It is taken very seriously and governs things that each of us does. (Though not the vampire stuff.)

  74. IH says:

    Steve — perhaps that is what will be said in 100 years about some of the bête noires of today’s RWMO. “We’re special” exceptionalism none withstanding.

  75. Steve Brizel says:

    Eli Clark-thanks for your recent post. Sefer Chasidim 791 WADR may reflect the seriousness with being an apostate was written and I could easily see why someone would not want to name a child after such a person.

    As far as SA:OC 104 and Magen Avraham quoting Sefer Chasidim thereat about the language one should employ in prayer, please clarify.The same may be be non-mystical, but I think that the notion of Tefilah as mortal man talking and conversing with Immortal God cannot be viewed as such, and that Tefilah in Lashon HaKodesh has a unifying influence on Jews around the world.

    Likewise-which of the many “laws relating to tzeni’ut and separation of the sexes originate in Sefer Hasidim, including the idea of separate seating at weddings”, as opposed to Sefer Chasidim quoting earlier views that may have existed? Are you referring to the Chupah, Seudah or both?

    I would suggest that passages from Sefer Chasidim are brought as Halacha Psukah may entitled to a different level of respect or inquiry than some of the practices that you mentioned or even the POV therein about marrying someone with the same name as your mother, etc. I will check the sefer that I mentioned re RSZA and see what, if anything RSZA said about Sefer Chasidim 791, as well as the volume of Halichos Shlomoh re Tefilah.

    As far as Sefer Chasidim 238 is concerned, there is a similar idea that one should not give an infant Chalav Akum based on a well known Medrash involving Moshe Rabbeinu?

    IH-Like it or not, exceptionalism and particularism are as much a part of Jewish continuity, belief and practice as universalism. The notion that Judaism is exclusively exceptional or universal cannot be attributed to RW MO.

  76. IH says:

    Steve — for clarity, I was referencing your “how many of the posted passages, let alone the entirety of the sefer in question, raises a Nafkeh Minah LHalacha-outside of anyone who considers the sefer in question binding in its entirety or is bothered by one of its more well halachic statements?”

    To which my comment: “perhaps that is what will be said in 100 years about some of the bête noires of today’s RWMO.”

  77. Steve Brizel says:

    Eli Clark-IIRC, RYBS understood, based on a pshat in Tosfos, that covering mirrors was based on the same idea as Kfias HaMitah-denying one’s humanity.

  78. Steve Brizel says:

    FWIW, one of the underlying rationales of Kvurah and Aveilus is that man is accorded the same level of Kedusha, both in life and in death as a Sefer Torah.

  79. Steve Brizel says:

    IH wrote :

    “Steve — for clarity, I was referencing your “how many of the posted passages, let alone the entirety of the sefer in question, raises a Nafkeh Minah LHalacha-outside of anyone who considers the sefer in question binding in its entirety or is bothered by one of its more well halachic statements?”

    To which my comment: “perhaps that is what will be said in 100 years about some of the bête noires of today’s RWMO”

    Sod HaShem LYireav.

  80. IH says:

    “FWIW, one of the underlying rationales of Kvurah and Aveilus is that man is accorded the same level of Kedusha, both in life and in death as a Sefer Torah.”

    Of course we re-interpret practices of e.g. K’vura and Aveilut to be relevant to our contemporary sensibilities. Those before us did the same — only in ways we sometimes find fantastical or superstitious from our contemporary perspective.

    Even something as elemental to our practice as an avel’s “chovah” or saying Kaddish Yatom (introduced to the liturgy after the Crusades) seems to have been rationalized on a (seemingly pseudo) midrash that is, by today’s perspective, fantastical.

    Ref: http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=33694&st=&pgnum=177 (last siman on the page).

  81. IH says:

    For those who prefer the English translation: http://tinyurl.com/6x89r2b

    It is also to be found in R. Freundel’s “Why We Pray What We Pray” on pp. 290-295 in side-by-side Hebrew & English.

  82. Anonymous says:

    ‘Sefer Hasidim 791 rules that one whose father is an apostate (mumar) should not call be called to the Torah by his father’s name, but his grandfather’s name. The Rema brings this le-halakha in Orah Hayyim 139:3.

    To the modern reader, this rule seems to stem from a kind of superstition or ayin ha-ra-like concern. But it became halakha pesuka.”

    I never heard such a thing. the peshat is that since the father is a mumar you don’t want to remind anyone of this person, just like the son will not sit shiva for the father.

    Sefer Hasidim has almost no significance in halacha. If he said something a later figure liked, he would quote it, but it is not halacha in the normal sense. There are loads of teshuvot about the status of Sefer Hasidim, especially regarding his tzavaah, and they all make this point

    So I don’t understand the point of this post. Sefer Hasidim believed in demons and all sorts of other superstitions. Well so did Rashi, and the Shulchan Aruch. Big deal.

  83. Anonymous says:

    “I would suggest that passages from Sefer Chasidim are brought as Halacha Psukah may entitled to a different level of respect or inquiry than some of the practices that you mentioned ”

    You’re just setting up so that nothing called “halacha” is problematic. What rule is there that separates this or that in Sefer Chasidim?

    To be sure, the logic of extracting the good and leaving the bad is fine. But then let’s acknowledge that this is what we do. And, of course, also explain why covering the mirrors for example is the good.

  84. MJ says:

    This discussion seems to ignore the fact that SH was almost definitely not the work of one person, but a growing compendium reflecting popular beliefs and practices of the Ashkenazi community. When SH is cited by Rema, it is likely that he was codifying an existing practice.

    The most important innovative use of SH in recent halakha relates to withdrawal of care from terminally ill patients. But in that case the application is conceptual.

  85. Eli D Clark says:

    Anonymous: I do not know on what you are basing your sweeping generalizations. First, I think you are incorrectly conflating the Tzava’a with the Sefer Hasidim. If you are aware of a single responsum that discusses the status of Sefer Hasidim — as opposed to the Tzava’a — please refer me to it.

    Second, while you may have no problem ignoring Sefer Hasidim, the early Aharonim did. The Levush brings a list of minhagim at the end of Levush Ha-Hur, among which he notes the CONFLICT between the Sefer Hasidim and contemporary practice regarding mixed seating at the wedding meal. To resolve this, he invokes the story in Berakhot regarding R. Gidal having a front row seat at the mikveh. I think this example contradicts your thesis.

    MJ: This is an example where SH was not codifying an existing practice. Also how do you know when the practice developed organically, as opposed to developed based on the influence of SH?

    I agree with your point about SH being a compilation, but do not see what that has to do with its influence. Early Aharonim all believed it to be the work of R. Yehuda ha-Hasid personally.

  86. Steve Brizel says:

    IH wrote:

    “Even something as elemental to our practice as an avel’s “chovah” or saying Kaddish Yatom (introduced to the liturgy after the Crusades) seems to have been rationalized on a (seemingly pseudo) midrash that is, by today’s perspective, fantastical”

    Would you concede that an avel for his father or mother ZL has a far longer time period for aveilus than for any other karov because of the obligation of honoring one’s parent?

  87. Steve Brizel says:

    IH wrote:

    “Of course we re-interpret practices of e.g. K’vura and Aveilut to be relevant to our contemporary sensibilities. Those before us did the same — only in ways we sometimes find fantastical or superstitious from our contemporary perspective”

    IH-WADR, would it be fair to say that if you view all of Talmud Torah from such a POV, there is no room for Chiddushim or a concept of Talmud Torah Lishmah, since as per your post, everything is merely a reinterpretation or regurgitation for each generation’s “contemporary sensibilities”?

  88. IH says:

    Steve — Sorry, but I have no idea what you’re talking about in either of your last 2 comments. Can you re-express them such that they are relevant to the context?

  89. Steve Brizel says:

    IH-you questionned the basis for Aveilus for 12 months for a parent, and posited that “we re-interpret practices of e.g. K’vura and Aveilut to be relevant to our contemporary sensibilities”. I merely pointed out that such an approach esentially has no place for Chidusim and that there very well be a basis for an child to engage in Aveilus for 12 months for a parent that may have far more ancient origins than the Crusades.

  90. IH says:

    “you questionned the basis for Aveilus for 12 months for a parent”

    I did???

  91. Anonymous says:

    IH -please explain the following :

    “Even something as elemental to our practice as an avel’s “chovah” or saying Kaddish Yatom (introduced to the liturgy after the Crusades) seems to have been rationalized on a (seemingly pseudo) midrash that is, by today’s perspective, fantastical”

  92. IH says:

    Anonymous — the first known reference to an Avel saying Kaddish in the course of his aveylut (i.e. not the burial Kaddish) or leading (specifically Barchu) is in the late 11th century.

    I previously provided the links to the Hebrew version and an English translation in: IH on October 27, 2011 at 6:15 pm & IH on October 27, 2011 at 6:27 pm.

  93. IH says:

    BTW, there is nothing controversial in this. It is just not known to people who have not studied the evolution of Kaddish. See also: http://torahmusings.com/2010/12/a-brief-history-of-kaddish/.

  94. Andrew Reichman says:

    not that I think or believe like most, but i KNOW from my own research that this article clearly demonstrates the ignorance and blindness of many people, Jews included. perhaps if one were to read and know from experience one would not have to speculate and forbid. Maybe if Jews among others were to be tolerant of others beliefs it would be nice. MAgicians are the holiest of the holy because they know and do not follow blindly. I speak from experience and validation and not from blind speculation.

  95. anonymous says:

    this ignorance sickens me

  96. Shalom Spira says:

    R’ Andrew Reichman,

    Thank you and ye’yasher kochakha for your insights. When you write “magicians are the holiest of the holy”, you are right on: Tosafot to Yoma 35a (s.v. parvah) explain that “Parvah” was a gentile magician who indeed wanted to see the Kohen Gadol’s service in the Holy of Holies first-hand. The magician therefore dug a tunnel under the Temple to reach the Holy of Holies. The magician was caught by the kohanim mid-way, and the chamber built over the place where he was caught was named in his honor (“lishkat ha-parvah”). [Parenthetically, according to R. Dovid Cohen in his Artscroll book "Yiddish: Hasafah Hakedoshah", this story is the source for the Yiddish term "parveh", meaning half-way between dairy and meat.]

    Regarding Jewish attitudes to non-Jews, see R. Soloveitchik’s “Confrontation” (Tradition 6:2), and also R. Aharon Lichtenstein’s “Jewish Philanthropy – Whither?” (Tradition 42:4), which fully articulate your important message (i.e. to be kind to all human beings), but with limits attached (no interfaith theological dialogue).

  97. Shalom Spira says:

    [N.B. For other opinions on the identity of "Parvah the magician", see http://www.dafyomi.co.il/yoma/insites/yo-dt-035.htm ]

  98. Steve Brizel says:

    IH-thanks for the clarification, which I was well aware of with respect to the recitation of Kaddish by a mourner for his ( or her parent). Many Tefilos that we recite have a historical background that we tend to overlook ( Av HaRachamim).

  99. [...] Vampires and Witches in Sefer Hasidim [...]

  100. [...] Though it is commonly perceived that gravesite praying and vigils was supported and popularized by followers of Kabballah (Lurianic Kabballah in particular), it appears, ironically enough,  that Rabbi Isaac Luria himself did NOT sanction the custom of visiting graves. The commentator Magen Abraham (559:14) cites R Luria as stating that “one should go to the cemetery only for a funeral-especially if one has not remedied the sin of seminal emission; for negative spiritual forces (hitzonim) cling to him”. Interestingly enough, Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, better known as the Vilna Gaon also expressed himself in a similar manner in a letter to his family (which was published as Iggeret Hagra and is better known as Alim L’terufaah): “Be careful not to go to cemetery at all (!), for there the klipot (negative forces) cling very much to people. And this warning applies, all the more so, to women. All the troubles and sins result from this (!). Even more macabre, strange and dramatic is the description of Rabbi Yehuda Hehassid about witches in the graveyard, see here  [...]

  101. Tim Lieder says:

    This is a fascinating little bit but I wish that the author would have contextualized the Sefer Hasidim within the framework of a medieval time period when Jews were abandoning their rational heights for mystical beliefs based on trying to stop things like the Crusades and the Black Death from tearing Jewish communities apart.

    As far as Sefer Hasidim is concerned, obviously it’s meshuggas and fantasy but the fact that people actually believed in it is interesting in and of itself.

    Also Halloween is a secular holiday and as a thinking Jew, I am more than happy to celebrate it.

 
 

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