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.
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.
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.
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.
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.