The monsters of Jewish lore

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Golem figurine (Judy Meltzer).

There is a legend about the 16th-century Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague, who had a dream in which a Christian child was murdered by a nefarious sorcerer named Thaddeus, tossed into a sack and snuck into a house in the city’s Jewish ghetto.

Loew took this matter into his own hands, by creating a golem and bringing it to life, explained Judy Meltzer, the former director of adult Jewish learning at Chizuk Amuno Congregation. Loew named the creature Joseph and instructed it to find where the sorcerer had hidden the child’s body. The golem then led the rabbi to the cellar of a Jewish household, finding the sack inside. Loew had the golem pick up the sack and bring it secretly into the cellar of the sorcerer Thaddeus, Meltzer said, who could be heard cackling maniacally at how he had “fixed the Jew this time.” Leaving the sack, Loew informed the authorities he had heard a rumor that the child’s body was in Thaddeus’ home, sparing the community from a pogrom.


The Halloween season is creeping upon us, and though the holiday is not part of Jewish tradition, Judaism is not short on stories of its own monsters.

Golems

One such creature that is particularly underrated is the golem. Rabbi Eli Yoggev of Beth Tfiloh Congregation described the golem as having a physical form that is “oftentimes described as clay or dust and water that’s put together to create some sort of humanoid,” as well as some sort of spiritual entity that animates it and makes it come alive.

If a tale of life being brought into a previously inanimate, hulking form sounds familiar, Meltzer stated that “many people believe that Mary Shelley fashioned the Frankenstein story after [the] golem.”

Yoggev explained that animating the creature can be accomplished through meditation, or by inscribing the letters of the name of God on the golem, such as on its neck or forehead, or on an amulet it would wear.

“Sometimes it’s explained that you have three letters: alef, mem and tav,” Yoggev said, “which is ‘emet,’ truth. In order to terminate the golem’s life, you have to remove the alef from the name.”

Doing so leaves the creature with the word ‘met,’ which translates as death, matching what would then become the golem’s lifeless husk.

In fact, the golem and its soul are supposedly so close to that of a human being that some scholars have questioned whether a golem could be part of a minyan, Yoggev said, adding though that this was ultimately ruled against.

“Obviously there has to be a belief that the spiritual component is so strong and potent that you could even [have it] count as a human for a minyan,” Yoggev said.

Furthermore, according to Meltzer, “Adam, the first man, was looked at as a kind of golem-like figure, and in the Talmud the word ‘golem’ was understood as the form of a man before he acquired a soul.”

According to Meltzer, the word “golem” may have a number of different possible origins.

“In modern Hebrew, ‘golem’ means rock,” Meltzer said, “but it can also mean fool, or dummy, or stupid.”

Some believe “golem” came from a different word translating as “raw material,” and also that some Jewish mothers, if particularly irked by their children, might chastise them by saying “ugh, you’re such a golem!”

Demons

While often more closely associated with Christianity, Jewish sources do make mention of entities such as “spiritual essences that can either inhabit someone’s body, which is more like a ‘dybbuk,’ or demons/Satan who are spiritual forces whose purpose is to harm humans and withhold them from progressing in their closeness to God,” Yoggev said.

Yoggev added that, according to the Talmud, there are so many of these entities all around that to see them would overwhelm a normal person.

According to Meltzer, most demons do not have physical bodies, as God began creating them just before the first eve of Shabbat and had only enough time to fashion their souls before he had to stop working. One notable exception to this, however, involves the character of Lilith, “the queen of all demons,” who appears in the Talmud, midrash, and at one point the Book of Isaiah, Meltzer said.

Described as “a demoness with long black hair,” Meltzer explained that “the first woman that God created for Adam was Lilith. And they didn’t get along too well.”

Eventually Lilith left Adam, Meltzer said. When God commanded Lilith return and obey Adam, Lilith refused, afterwards becoming a demon of sickness for infants.

“If the infant is male,” Meltzer said of Lilith’s response, “I have dominion over him for eight days after his birth, and if female, 20 days.”

Meltzer added that the use of amulets inscribed with Lilith’s name or her image have been used to guard against the danger she poses to newborns.

While Meltzer explained that it is common to look at Lilith as a mistake, and Eve the correction, she sounded admiring of Lilith for being “very fiercely independent, whereas Eve just went along as the proper companion. So she was tough.”

Vampires

There may be no monster in Western lore that’s more iconic than the vampire. It’s so widely known that it apparently even finds its way into Jewish sources.

“There’s discussion of vampires in Jewish texts, actually,” said Yoggev, explaining that a source known as the Sefer Hasidim makes mention of creatures called “estries.” In one account, according to Yoggev, “one woman, who was an estrie, and the two women were with her at night, and then the estrie stood up, shook out her hair, and tried to fly and suck the blood from the sleeping woman.”

Yoggev added that the way to be cured from an estrie attack is to “eat from its bread and salt,” though he personally could not say why this would function as a remedy.

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