Demons & Medieval Jewish Medicine

Jewish physicians in the Middle Ages were also considered superior magicians.

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Reprinted with permission from Magic & Superstition in the Jewish Tradition (Spertus Institute of Judaic Studies).


Demons were believed not only to possess people and places but also to be the cause of physical illness and bad luck. According to Jewish folklore, demons were created on the eve of the Sabbath. They had souls but no bodies, since the arrival of the Sabbath terminated the creation. They had wings but no shadow, and were able to tell the future. At times demons could assume human form, and like men, they could eat, drink, propagate, and die.

Specifically "Jewish" demons are known, although their numbers are few in comparison to those of angels. They are Ashmedai. the leader of demons; the shedim, who worked at night; the mazikim, injurious spirits; the ruhim and ruhot, lost souls; and Lilith, the wicked temptress.

How To See a Demon

Invisibility was the demons' most terrible attribute, yet the Talmud (Berakhot 6a) tells us that in this we are fortunate:

"Abba Benjamin says if the eye had the power to see them no creature would endure the demons. They are more numerous than we are and surround us like the ridge round a field. Rabbi Huna says everyone among us has a thousand on his left hand, 10,000 on his right…

"Fatigue in the knees comes from them, wearing out of clothes of scholars comes from them, brushing of feet comes from them. If one wants to discover them let him take sifted ashes and sprinkle round his bed and in the morning he will see something like the footprints of a cock. If one wants to see them let him take the afterbirth of a black she cat, the first born of a first born, roast it in the fire, grind it to powder, put some in his eye and he will see them. Let him pour it into an iron tube and seal it with an iron signet that they should not steal it from him. Let him also close his mouth lest he come to harm. Rabbi Bibi ben Abbaye did so (put powder in his eye), saw them, and came to harm. The scholars prayed for him and he recovered."

Up To No Good

Demons were also held responsible for many unfathomable natural phenomena. The influence of the Evil Eye was attributed to them, as well as the extreme vulnerability of people in life crisis situations and the harm done by ill-chosen words. A strong connection has been made between demons and uncleanliness; for example, the special demon Shibeta is believed to prey on those who eat food touched by unwashed hands. The Talmud specifies that the washing of hands is not only for cleanliness, but for removing the traces of contact by evil spirits (Hullin 105b).

Demons were thought to live in latrines, wells, rivers, and old houses--places now regarded as major disease-producing areas. The dangers from demons or germs (as we refer to them today) are equally great. The dread of them was so strong that people eagerly grasped at anything that offered some possibility of protection.

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