In East European Jewish culture, the demon—variously referred to as ruaḥ (spirit), mazik (evildoer), ḥitson (the external one), and shed (demonic spirit)—embodied forces of evil. Jews imagined demons as various sorts of evil forces seeking to intrude into the Jewish realm to destroy the well-being of individuals. The early eighteenth-century medical doctor Tobias Cohen reported a widespread belief in demons among East European Jews, which he found unparalleled elsewhere.
As imaginary external enemies, demons performed a crucial social and cultural function in the popular Jewish imagination. Early modern Jewish society placed demons on the margins in order to circumscribe the borders of Jewish culture, to reinforce the authority of religious tradition, and to argue against intermingling with non-Jews. East European practical Kabbalah maintained that demons caused many afflictions, especially socially disruptive ones such as impotence and barrenness, which prevented Jews from performing the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. Rabbinic, kabbalistic, and Hasidic authors, from Yom Tov Lipmann Heller and Yesha‘yahu Horowitz to Shimshon of Ostropolye and Efrayim of Sudilkov, popularized an old kabbalistic belief that demons were products of Jewish sins—first and foremost, nocturnal emissions, which they categorized as among the gravest of sins. Demons were also considered responsible for temptation more generally (the yetser ha-ra‘). In some early modern Jewish sources, the Catholic church appeared as a haven of evil spirits, and Christian missionaries and priests as the embodiment of the demonic. Some demons were less than lethal: they broke dishes or tied knots in one’s hair. A sore throat or a cough might be caused by the “evil eye.”
Ashkenazic Jews were familiar with various demons: Na‘amah, demon of lust; Ashmedai (Asmodeus, son of Na‘amah), king of demons; and Agrat, daughter of Maḥalat, demon of prostitution, all of them also figuring in kabbalistic literature and well known among Jews elsewhere. But East European Jews in particular saw Lilith (Yid., Lilis; legendary first wife of Adam and mother of demons) as one of the most dangerous among demons. She was mentioned as a major threat to a Jewish household in eight out of every ten explanatory notes that Polish–Lithuanian kabbalists attached to child- and house-protective amulets. Eighteenth-century Jewish miracle workers drew heavily from the Talmud (Nidah 24b, ‘Eruvin 100b, Shabat 151b), from the Zohar (1:19b, 34b, 55a; 3:76b), and from Naftali Bachrach’s ‘Emek ha-melekh (The King’s Valley; 1649) to shape the image of Lilith as an androgynous creature with long hair and wings, the mother of chaos and destruction, and the mate of Ashmedai. Lilith was widely believed to kidnap or murder baby boys, to cause infertility, and to make men defile themselves in their sleep, seducing them in order to propagate more demons.
One of the Polish ba‘ale shem recommended a number of effective ways to keep Lilith and other demons at bay. To protect their houses, Jews were told to place a mezuzah containing God’s name Shadai (associated with divine omnipotence) on the mezuzah’s external side; to protect their children, they were to recite the Shema‘ into their children’s ears while they were asleep; and to prevent Lilith from capturing baby boys, Jewish parents were told not to cut a boy’s hair until he reached the age of three. Many practical kabbalists recommended suspending verses from Psalm 121 in the room where a birth was to take place; and the words “Adam, Eve, out Lilith” often appeared together with the verses. Lilith was viewed as particularly dangerous since she was capable of turning into a male stranger (sometimes into a Catholic priest) who would cause a Jew to abandon his or her protective amulet, thus becoming vulnerable to her evildoing.
Protective amulets and healing remedies (segulot, refu’ot), written by expert practical kabbalists such as ba‘ale shem, contained relevant biblical verses and numerical and alphabetic codes, especially those signifying holy names with the power believed to keep demons at bay. Popular books on practical Kabbalah claimed to date the tradition of healing magic back to Ashmedai himself, who was said to have revealed to King Solomon the secrets of amulets and remedies. Not only the simple folk but also members of the economic and rabbinic elite resorted to magical amulets for protection. The best safeguard by far, however, was pious behavior.
Evil spirits—or, more often, tormented souls of the deceased—that possessed people’s bodies were less dangerous than demons, but could not be ignored. The danger of possession was greatest during rites of passage (a baby boy before circumcision, a girl before her wedding). Equally vulnerable were those in situations of uncertain social status in a family-centered society: single (widowed or unmarried) women, for example—and those whose activities took place “between worlds,” such as travelers, woodcutters, and shepherds. Demons and unbodied souls inhabited the borderland between the town and the forest, preferring also wells, latrines, doorsteps, and the basements and attics of houses. Their favorite victims were Jews who neglected traditionally prescribed Jewish objects: a woman without a wig (shaytl), a man without garment fringes (tsitsit), and a house without mezuzahs. Women were more likely to be possessed than men. The motif of women being particularly susceptible to the demonic recurs throughout rabbinic literature.
Once they took hold of an individual, possessing spirits caused dementia, amnesia, impious physical behavior, or loss of self-control and upset the person’s socializing abilities; they also weakened or distorted the hearing, vision, and speech of the possessed. To exorcise evil spirits, the rabbinate resorted to the help of practical kabbalists (ba‘ale shem), who threatened the spirits with excommunication (ḥerem). According to tradition, the spirits usually respected the exorcists and discussed with them the terms and conditions of withdrawal from the body in which they dwelled.
By the early twentieth century, due to the spread of secular and rational knowledge, demons became less important in the Jewish imagination; yet they remained a customary component of ritualized speech—which, for example, regularly invoked protection against the “evil eye” when something good or beneficial was mentioned.
Dan Ben-Amos, “On Demons,” in Creation and Re-Creation in Jewish Thought, ed. Rachel Elior and Peter Schäfer, pp. 27–37 (Tübingen, 2005); Joseph Dan, “Samael, Lilith, and the Concept of Evil in Early Kabbalah,” AJS Review 5 (1980): 17–40; Matt Goldish, ed., Spirit Possession in Judaism (Detroit, 2003); Gershon David Hundert, Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity (Berkeley, 2004), pp. 143–147; Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, “The Master of an Evil Name: Hillel Ba’al Shem and His Sefer ha-Heshek,” AJS Review 28.2 (2004): 217–248; Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion (Philadelphia, 2004).