In the last several centuries, demonology has not been a popular Jewish subject, though belief in them by the general public had been widespread until modern times. The Talmud has numerous demon stories and there are various references throughout the Bible.
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno however seems to have been a strong believer in their reality and this usually succinct commentator goes to great lengths to describe the habits and nature of what we generally today believe to be mythical creatures.
In Leviticus 17:7 it states:
“And they shall slaughter no longer their offerings to the “sheerim” (demons) that they stray after…”
Sforno explains that while Israelites typically did not worship demons, they did seek them out for some of the unique services they could provide, such as messengers to far off lands (precursor to modern telecommunications?).
Sforno exhorts us to actually be knowledgeable about these “mezikim” (injurers), as paraphrased below from the Talmud (Tractate Chagiga 16a):
“Demons can fly from one side of the world to the other, can tell the future, they eat, drink, reproduce and die.”
The scientist and doctor that was Sforno attempts to give a rational explanation for how they function:
“They can see, but are not visible. This cannot be unless they are composed of an extremely fine substance which is invisible. Since they eat and drink, their food must be of a substance composed of something extremely fine which is assimilated into the organism consuming it. Now there are no compositions known to us more refined than the ‘vapor’ of blood (oxygen!!) from which the spirit, which carries the life force, exists. This force being carried is the soul of life through which every creature lives…as it says “For the blood is the life” (Deuteronomy 12:23).
Sforno continues to explain that the demons live off blood but cannot take it unless someone spills it for them and are then in that persons debt. Demons also like the company of people who consume blood themselves, as they will have similar dispositions (antecedent to vampires?).
He ends with a warning that demons are really bad news, and the Torah obviously knowing this, order various preventive measures (including covering the blood of a slaughtered animal) to keep us away from them.
Chasidic lore has it that the Baal Shem Tov, in the 1700s, arranged via divine intervention for the removal of all demons from the earthly plane, which may be one reason why we really haven’t heard from them lately.
In any case, may all our demons, whether real or imagined be banished, or at least safely tucked away where they will do no harm.
No dedication this week. I had a few candidates to compare to blood-sucking demons, but decided that “discretion is the better part of valor.”
Al Hanisim report
Thank you to everyone for the warm words of interest and appreciation for the Al Hanisim. We received great feedback from people from a spectrum of Judaism from all over the world, many of which had apparently chosen to use our text.
Due to the strong interest (and debate) that our text has engendered, we will continue to work on it. For some of the public discussion (in Hebrew) check out the comments at: alhanisim.blogspot.com