There are a lot of stories about werewolves within the Jewish tradition. In most cases that I’m familiar with Jewish werewolves were Jewish men who were cursed to take a wolf form. (1) And not a super-scary wolf-man, just a dog with big teeth. While you had to protect yourself against them, you didn’t want to hurt them if you didn’t have to. I’ll write more about this kind of werewolf later. Recently, though, I was pointed to a story of werewolves cited within in the Torah itself (H/t to the fine Jewish educators on the JEDLab Facebook page). My best contemporary source on this is Natan Slifkin, who writes about it in his book Sacred Monsters (2) and his blog Rationalist Judaism (3). I’m borrowing heavily from Slifkin here, as well as from Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein’s shiur (Talmud lecture)“Parashat Shemot: Werewolves in the Parasha” (4).
The story is anchored in the Torah in Parshat Vayech, Genesis 49 (5). Jacob has come to Egypt, been reunited with his son Joseph, and is dying. It is time for him to give his final blessings. As the last of the patriarchs, and the guy who wrestled an angel, his blessings are a big deal. They are prophecies, not just parental bequests. Jacob does it in grand style, saying “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come…..Reuben, you are my first-born, My might and first fruit of my vigor, Exceeding in rank And exceeding in honor.” Ok, pretty great so far. Simeon and Levi, though, get a head smack. Jacob says “Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness….For when angry they slay men, And when pleased they maim oxen.” (Hey, Levi….want to go cow maiming? Sure Simeon, I’m in!) Jacob goes through each of the brothers, and Joseph’s two sons in turn. The last of the brothers was Benjamin, who was blessed (or cursed?) with the statement “Benjamin is a predatory wolf; In the morning he consumes the foe, And in the evening he divides the spoil.”
Jacob’s statement is typically understood as a prophecy about the bad behavior of Benjamin’s decedents (e.g. Judges 19 (6)). But Rabbi Ephraim ben Shimshon, one of the Tosafists (early commentators on the Talmud), took it more literally. If Jacob said that Benjamin was a wolf, then he must have been a man who could turn into a wolf. A werewolf.
Another explanation: Benjamin was a “predatory wolf,” sometimes preying upon people. When it was time for him to change into a wolf, as it says, “Benjamin is a predatory wolf,” as long as he was with his father, he could rely upon a physician, and in that merit he did not change into a wolf. For thus it says, “And he shall leave his father and die” (Gen. 44:22)—namely, that when he separates from his father, and turns into a wolf with travelers, whoever finds him will kill him.(Rabbi Ephraim, commentary to Genesis 44:29, Translation from Slifkin (4))
According to R. Ephraim, not only was Benjamin a werewolf but he killed his mother Rachel. Rachel, the beloved matriarch, dead by werewolf attack! In his commentary, R. Ephraim quotes a “writer from Ashkenaz”, saying
There is a type of wolf that is called loup-garou (werewolf), which is a person that changes into a wolf. When it changes into a wolf, his feet emerge from between his shoulders. So too with Benjamin—“he dwells between the shoulders” (Deuteronomy 33:12). The solution for [dealing with] this wolf is that when it enters a house, and a person is frightened by it, he should take a firebrand and thrust it around, and he will not be harmed. So they would do in the Temple; each day, they would throw the ashes by the altar, as it is written, “and you shall place it by the altar” (Leviticus 6:3); and so is the norm with this person whose offspring turn into wolves, for a werewolf is born with teeth, which indicates that it is out to consume the world. Another explanation: a werewolf is born with teeth, to show that just as this is unusual, so too he will be different from other people. And likewise, Benjamin ate his mother, who died on his accord, as it is written, “And it was as her soul left her, for she was dying, and she called his name ‘the son of my affliction’ ” (Genesis 35:18). (Commentary to Genesis 35:27)(R. Ephraim, commentary to Genesis 44:29, Translation from Slifkin (4))
MONSTER HUNTER PRO TIPS
1. Werewolves are afraid of fire. Take a firebrand and thrust it around and you’re good.
2. Check that newborn for teeth. It might be a werewolf.
R. Ephraim and “the writer from Ashkenaz” (who was probably R. Eleazar ben Judah of Worms or a member of his circle) were writing in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Ashkenaz (German and France) and had a lot to say about monstrous creatures. They, and other Ashkenaz pietists of the time, wrote extensively about the acts and processes of physical transformation and applied them to answering challenging halachic (Jewish legal) questions. For example, R. Eleazar wrote about the transformation of the serpent in Genesis, saying :
The serpent [in the Garden of Eden] walked upright and somewhat resembled a man. Know that those that those who know how to change the form of a man into a wolf, or cat, or donkey – the eyeball does not change. Similarly the snake that changed [when it lost its legs] did not have its eyes change. Thus one who miscarries in the form of a snake is impure as if she had given birth for the eyes [of the snake] resemble those of a human.R. Eleazar of Worms, Sefer Hasidim (8), quoted from David Shyovitz ‘s 2014 essay “Christians and Jews in the Twelfth-Century Werewolf Renaissance”(9)
R. Eleazar is wrestling a deep question that is still highly contentious today… what is a fetus? Is it human? If it is, then we must mourn with her for the loss of a child and we must wait for her until she once again is ritually pure. R. Eleazar comes to a conclusion by connecting werewolves, who change from man to wolf and back but whose eyes don’t change, to the serpent of Eden, to a miscarried fetus that looks a bit snake-like but has rudimentary eyes. It’s the eyes that mark it as human. While this logic is a bit Monty Pythonesque (“So, logically– – If she weighs the same as a duck, she’s made of wood, and therefore is a witch?)”, this was serious stuff.
Moving on to a more practical, monster hunting, perspective, all of this raises fascinating questions about Benjamin and his tribe. How did R. Ephraim and R. Eleazar believe that Benjamin became a werewolf? Was it a curse of some kind? Did the tribe of Benjamin inherit the curse? Were there more Jewish werewolves running around in contemporary 13th century Ashkenaz? The answer… yup. There were. But that’s for a later blog post.
Notes and References
(1) Yes, werewolves in the Jewish tradition were usually men. And vampires, called Estries, were usually women. I don’t know why.
(2) Sacred Monsters, Natan Slifkin https://www.biblicalnaturalhistory.org/product/sacred-monsters/
(3) Rationalist Judaism “Was Rachel Imeinu Killed By A Werewolf?” http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2011/12/was-rachel-imeinu-killed-by-werewolf.html
(4) Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein “Parashat Shemot: Werewolves in the Parasha” (Video). https://www.torahanytime.com/#/lectures?v=24754 (FWIW, this video is in English, but it’s really in Yeshivish. Yeshivish is English with a lot of Hebrew and Yiddish terms mixed in. It’s common in the Orthodox Yeshiva (Torah school) world. As an outsider to that world, it’s great fun to listen to and to try to keep up with. I do ok but get lost sometimes.)
(5) Genesis 49 https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.49?lang=en&aliyot=0
(6) Judges 19 https://www.sefaria.org/Judges.19?lang=en
(7) Werewolf in the Woodland at Night. Main illustration for the story “The Werewolf Howls.” Internal illustration from the pulp magazine Weird Tales (November 1941, vol. 36, no. 2, page 38). Creative Commons License. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WeirdTalesv36n2pg038_The_Werewolf_Howls.png
(8) Sefer Hasidim, https://www.sefaria.org/Sefer_Chasidim.1?lang=en
(9) “Christians and Jews in the Twelfth-Century Werewolf Renaissance,” David Shyovitz. https://www.academia.edu/8882537/_Christians_and_Jews_in_the_Twelfth_Century_Werewolf_Renaissance_Journal_of_the_History_of_Ideas_75_4_2014_521-43