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Monday, March 19, 2007

Jewish Exorcism I: Defeating Demons


[A satyr has his own flute turned against him by his victim, an illustration by E.M. Lilien]

I want to return now to my earlier discussion of evil spirits who torment and possess mortals and examine Jewish traditions of exorcism.

In keeping with the vague description of Saul's torment by an evil spirit in I Samuel, the earliest post-Biblical sources do not make a clear distinction between demonic attack and demonic possession, so the earliest sources that describe driving away demons [1] do not specify whether the spirit is actually physically in control of the victim. As I mentioned in an earlier entry, references in demonic attack in Jewish sources of antiquity most closely associate the demonic with illness and disease, but Jewish sources do not explicitly describe anything we today would describe as a physical "possession." curiously, the only indication we have that Jews believed demons actually seized the body of their victim comes from sources "outside" authoritative Jewish tradition - the Jewish historian Josephus, who gives an accounts of demonic possession in his homeland [Wars 7; Antiquities 8:2,5], and in the Christian gospels (assuming we can rely on them to give us an accurate account of life in 1st Century Eretz Israel), Jesus reportedly exorcised quite a number of people (Mark 5 is a classic). Perhaps the relative silence of Talmuds and Midrash on the topic indicates there was a popular belief in and about possession that our Sages did not approve of. At the very least, demonic possession did not seem to be much of a concern of the Rishonim (the earliest authorities), because rabbinic literature itself gives scant attention to the problem.

Still, we have some tidbits of information. For example, from antiquity there have been Biblical texts considered effective in combating spiritual attack. The classic text in Jewish circles from earliest times (it appears, for example, in a collection of anti-demonic hymns among the Dead Sea Scrolls) to this day is Ps. 91:

1. You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, 2 Say to the LORD, "My refuge and fortress, my God in whom I trust." 3 God will rescue you from the fowler's snare, from the destroying plague, 4 Will shelter you with pinions, spread wings that you may take refuge; God's faithfulness is a protecting shield. 5 You shall not fear the terror of the night nor the arrow that flies by day, 6 Nor the pestilence that roams in darkness, nor the plague that ravages at noon. 7 Though a thousand fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, near you it shall not come. 8 You need simply watch; the punishment of the wicked you will see. 9 You have the LORD for your refuge; you have made the Most High your stronghold. 10 No evil shall befall you, no affliction come near your tent. 11 For God commands the angels to guard you in all your ways. 12 With their hands they shall support you, lest you strike your foot against a stone. 13 You shall tread upon the asp and the viper, trample the lion and the dragon. 14 Whoever clings to me I will deliver; whoever knows my name I will set on high. 15 All who call upon me I will answer; I will be with them in distress; I will deliver them and give them honor. 16 With length of days I will satisfy them and show them my saving power.

Other texts considered effective have been Pss. 16 and 121, and the Birkat Kohanim (Priestly Blessing, Num. 6:4-7).

To the best of my knowledge, there is no preserved ritual or liturgy for a demonic exorcism of an individual from antiquity. Perhaps the most intriguing source for what an early exorcism might have looked like are the texts that appear on "Demon Bowls" or "Incantation Bowls." These clay cauldrons were covered with spells, symbols, and illustrations. The function of these bowls could vary. Many were apotropaic - they were meant to be preventative protection against spiritual attack of a home and its inhabitants. We can see this from the wording, which often invokes a shotgun-like blanket protection against every conceivable demon, spirit, illness, warlock, witch, curse and/or evil eye. On the other hand, some were clearly formulated to exorcise a demonic force already present in the home. In one such bowl, the exorcism mimics the legal language of a divorce decree:

Be informed herewith that Rabbi Joshua bar Perahia has sent the ban against you....A divorce-writ has come down to us from Heaven, and therein is found written your advisement and your intimidation, in the name of Palsa-Pelisa ["Divorcer-Divorced"],who renders to thee thy divorce and thy separation, your divorces and your separations. Thou, lilith, male lili and female lilith, Hag and Snatcher, be under the ban...of Joshua bar Perahia,who has thus spoken: A divorce-writ has come for you from across the sea.... Hear it and depart from the house and dwelling of this Geyonai bar Mamai, and from Rashnoi his wife, the daughter of Marath.You shall not again appear to them, either in a deram by night or in slumber by day,because you are sealed with the signet fo El-Shaddai,and with the signet of the house of Joshua bar Perahia and by the Seven who are before him. Thou, lilith, male lili and female lilith, Hag and Snatcher, I adjuire you by the Strong One of Abraham, by the Rock of Isaac, by the Shaddai of Jacob, by Yah [is] his name..., by Yah his memorial...I adjure you to turn away from this Geyonai bar Mamai, and from Rashnoi his wife, the daughter of Marath. Your divorce and writ and letter of separation... sent through holy angels... the Hosts of fire in the spheres, the Chariots of El-Panim before him standing, the beasts worshipping in the fire of his throne and in the water... Amen, Amen, Selah, Halleluyah! [Text translated by Raphael Patai and appearing in his The Hebrew Goddess, 1978]

There is no way, given our present knowledge, to know whether this was typical of ancient approaches to exorcism. In all likelihood, there were many methods employed by early Jewish exorcists, from "divorces" to fumigation, sacrifices, purgatives and medicinals, performative rites, and reciting psalms - no doubt often used in combination.

If someone is aware of a detailed account of an ancient Jewish demonic exorcism or of a liturgy of the same, I would be very interested to see it.

In a following entry I will describe exorcisms directed against dybbuk or spirit possession.
[1] "Demon" is a catchall term for the many Hebrew terms for spirits such as sheidim, mazzikim, and lilin (djinns, imps, and night spirits). Yet the word is problematic, because these Hebrew terms do not carry same the infernal, satanic, essence of evil connotation of the English word "demon." While these spirits usually spell trouble for humans, they are as much like fairies as they are like devils. Nevertheless, "fairy" has too mild a connotation in itself. Therefore I choose the word "demon" as a global term for all spirits in Jewish tradition that are not angelic.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Robin Margolis said...

Dear Rabbi Dennis:

What a great essay!

I will pass on word about your book, as I am often asked questions about these matters.

One tiny typo in the essay: Is the Birkat Cohanim actually at Numbers 6:24-27, rather than verses 4-7?

But I shall look into buying your book.

Thank you again for this website!

Very cordially,
Robin Margolis
www.half-jewish.net

7:33 PM  
Anonymous Dawn said...

It was very gratifying to see the name of the angel Ahadriel in this post...

During a meditation I actually had a vision of an angel appear and he called himself Ahadriel...

I told him that I didn't believe in angels and that he must be for my friend Beth (meditating in group next to me.) He said, "no," he was there for me.

Ahadriel (some reference the name as Hadriel) is referenced in other places, too.

7:09 PM  

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