A Jewish Monsters and Magic Reading List (in English)

I’ve been building a library of books in English on Jewish monsters and magic. Here are the books I come back to over and over again.

Jews are the People of the Book, right? So it figures that if you want to learn about about Jewish monsters and magic then you might want to grab a few. Over the last couple of years I’ve shared a few versions of a starter list. Over time it’s grown into this list here.

Two things about this list. First, the focus here is on books and articles written or translated into English. There’s lots more great stuff out there in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, and Judeo-Arabic but I’m not able to cover that. I can’t do much past basic prayerbook Hebrew. Someday I’m going to fix that.

Second, the folks who’ve asked me for reading lists have done so for their own, and often very different, reasons and have needed very different lists. These have included:

  • Jewish fiction writers, artists, and game designers wanting a better basis than what our synagogues or pop culture have delivered
  • Jewitch practitioners, looking at Biblical divination methods, Sephardi protection charms, or Ashkenazi folk healing methods to add richness to their daily lives
  • LGBT Jews and others with a complicated relationship with Judaism who approach Judaism with a deep love and a DIY attitude
  • women who realized that their grandmothers, or great-great-grandmothers, had a ritual life that never got handed down to them
  • others, like me, that are just nerds for this stuff and find our lives and Judaism enriched by it

Regardless of why you’ve found this list, I hope that you find resources that are useful. If you want a bigger list, I’ve got a LibraryThing list of all the books in my library. All sorts of wild stuff. For the articles, I’m only listing stuff that is easily available free online. Some of my favorite articles aren’t on the list beause they require JSTOR access. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, or want some help finding the right resource leave a comment on the page, or message me on twitter @adnesadeh and let me know what you’re looking for.

Some of the articles I list are posted on Academia.edu. Free registration is required. In most cases the books are easily available wherever you buy books. Most of my links will be to Bookshop.org, which helps you buy new books from local stores, or Alibris, which is a good used-bookstore aggregator site. In some cases, though, your best bet is to go right to the publisher. Some of these are kinda pricey academic books. But most aren’t.

I’m sure I’m going to update this occasionally. So check back. This version is dated Nittel Nacht (December 24), 2022.

Update 1. Dec 26 2022. Added two books on legendary figures (the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Ya’aqov Wazana), Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book on Jewish Meditation, and a video of the Moroccan Tahdid sword ceremony for a brit milah.

Update 2. Dec 30 2022. Added essays on Jewish astrology, Jewish “superstitions” in the 1920’s, ruach ra’ah, the “last” Jewish demon (still actively included in Jewish ritual). and an amazing essay on the anti-demon aspects of Jewish weddings which includes a summary of the three main Jewish anti-demon strategies; fight, bribe, and conciliate them.

Jewish Magic and Monsters 101

Super Fast, Super Fun Intros

Check out Ezra Rose’s one page print & fold zines. They’re free or pay what you want.

Ezra has great art and stickers available too. Check them out!

Articles on Magic

Fast Summaries

Essays

Articles on Monsters

Fast Summaries

Essays

Sources in Translation

Seferia.org – “Sefaria is home to 3,000 years of Jewish texts. We are a non-profit organization offering free access to texts, translations, and commentaries so that everyone can participate in the ongoing process of studying, interpreting, and creating Torah” While not everything at Seferia is translated into English, a lot is. I pretty much live there. Tanakh, Talmud, later writings, dictionaries. Everything crosslinked to commentary. So many wonderful texts. Also check out their Source Sheets, which Seferia users put together on interesting topics. To get you started, here are 5 sources.

  • Deuteronomy 3.11 – “Only [the giant] King Og of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaim. His bedstead, an iron bedstead, is now in Rabbah of the Ammonites; it is nine cubits long and four cubits wide, by the standard cubit!”
  • Sanhedrin 65b – “Indeed, Rava created a man, a golem, using forces of sanctity. Rava sent his creation before Rabbi Zeira. Rabbi Zeira would speak to him but he would not reply. Rabbi Zeira said to him: You were created by one of the members of the group, one of the Sages. Return to your dust.”
  • Chagiga 16a – “The Gemara returns to discussing the heavenly beings. The Sages taught: Six statements were said with regard to demons: In three ways they are like ministering angels, and in three ways they are like humans.”
  • Berakhot 6a – “In another baraita it was taught that Abba Binyamin says: If the eye was given permission to see, no creature would be able to withstand the abundance and ubiquity of the demons and continue to live unaffected by them.”
  • Otzar Midrashim 2c (alternate version of the Alphatbet of Ben Sira) – “He said to him, “The angels appointed for healing: Sanoy, Sansanoy, Semangalof. When the Holy Blessed One created the first Adam alone, They said, (Genesis 2:18) ‘It is not good for this Adam to be alone.’ They created for him a wife out of the Earth like he had been, and called her Lilith. Immediately they began to challenge each other.”

Books

  • Jewish Magic and Superstition by Rabbi Joshua Tractenberg. Written in 1939, Jewish Magic and Superstition is still the best starting point. It focuses on 13th century Ashkenazi Jewish lore which is as wild as it comes. It’s inexpensive and easily available. JMS is also online at Sacred-Texts.com. Highly recommended.
  • The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism by Rabbi Geoffry Dennis. Exactly what the title describes. Encyclopedic in scope, but very short descriptions. A great gift and great for finding things of interest, but you’ll want more if you want to understand something with any depth
  • Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism by Harold Schwartz. So good. Mostly covers legends up to the Talmudic period and some Zohar. Wonderful writing and great commentary.
  • Sacred Monsters by Rabbi Natan Slifkin. A thoughtful, well sourced, book on Jewish monsters written by a rationalist Orthodox rabbi looking to debunk them. While the concept is a bit ironic, and a bit frustrating for monster fans, it’s a must read book. You’ll get a better price buying Sacred Monsters directly from the publisher, Gefen.
  • Magic, Mysticism, and Hasidism: The Supernatural in Jewish Thought by Gedalyah Nigal. Nigal describes the Baal Shem “wonder rabbis” and their amulets, holy name magic, kefitzat ha-derekh (“shortening of the path” or Jewish teleportation), transmigration of souls (reincarnation), and demonic possession. This one’s harder to get. As of today Alibris has a reasonably priced copy.
  • Ritual Medical Lore of Sephardic Women: Sweetening the Spirits, Healing the Sick by Isaac Jack Lévy and Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt. An amazing exploration of prekante, or charms, in the Sephardic community. If you want to be ready to handle the evil eye, this is the book. Also, this is a must read if you want to learn more about Jewish women’s rituals.
  • A Frog Under the Tongue: Jewish Folk Medicine in Eastern Europe By Marek Tuszewicki. Serious discussion of folk medicine in the Ashkenazi community, a tradition that is more magical than medical to our modern sensibilities.
  • Ashkenazi Herbalism. “Deatra Cohen and Adam Siegel add a new dimen­sion to our pic­ture of every­day life in the Pale of Set­tle­ment with a high­ly read­able por­tray­al of folk heal­ers, herbs, and med­i­c­i­nal prac­tices.” Great book for a modern practitioner to draw on but its presentation of Askhenazi medical lore is way too sanitized for me. Where are the cures based on wearing a mouse around your neck or eating fried sawdust? Where’s the horse teeth and lead?
  • Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid by Moshe Idel. This is the definitive book on the history of golem in Jewish religious thought.
  • A Remembrance of His Wonders: Nature and the Supernatural in Medieval Ashkenaz by David Shyovitz. “Analyzing a wide array of neglected Ashkenazic writings on the natural world in general, and the human body in particular, Shyovitz shows how Jews in Ashkenaz integrated regnant scientific, magical, and mystical currents into a sophisticated exploration of the boundaries between nature and the supernatural.” The werewolf article, above, became a chapter in this book.
  • Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism by J. H. Chajes. This is the best academic book on dybbuks. A great analysis of how dybbuks fit into Jewish theology and life.
  • Women’s Divination in Biblical Literature: Prophecy, Necromancy, and Other Arts of Knowledge by Esther Hamori. “Hamori examines the wide scope of women’s divinatory activities as portrayed in the Hebrew texts, offering readers a new appreciation of the surprising breadth of women’s “arts of knowledge” in biblical times.” Very readable. Love it.
  • On My Right Michael, On My Left Gabriel: Angels in Ancient Jewish Culture by Mika Ahuvia. “Angelic beings can be found throughout the Hebrew Bible, and by late antiquity the archangels Michael and Gabriel were as familiar as the patriarchs and matriarchs, guardian angels were as present as one’s shadow, and praise of the seraphim was as sacred as the Shema prayer” Fantastic discussion of angels in Judaism.
  • Demons in the Details: Demonic Discourse and Rabbinic Culture in Late Antique Babylonia by Sara Ronis. “The Babylonian Talmud is full of stories of demonic encounters, and it also includes many laws that attempt to regulate such encounters. In this book, Sara Ronis takes the reader on a journey across the rabbinic canon, exploring how late antique rabbis imagined, feared, and controlled demons.”Another book that as academic in depth but very readable.
  • Amulets and Magic Bowls: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity by Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked. “Amulets and magic bowls are part of a long-standing tradition of magic in the Near East. They were used to protect the home and inhabitants of the home from evil and disease as well as to arouse love. Texts taken from these items provide insight into the society, religion, and culture of pagans and Jews during the early Christian era which corresponds to that of the Talmudic period.”
  • Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. “Students of mediation are usually surprised to discover that a Jewish mediation tradition exists and that it was an authentic and integral part of mainstream Judaism until the eighteenth century. Jewish Meditation is a step-by-step introduction to meditation and the Jewish practice of meditation in particular.” He’s an amazing writer who was deeply involved in the meditative aspects of Kaballah. And yeah, this is the same person who wrote a commentary on the Serfer Yetzirah (see below)
  • Jewish Astrology, A Cosmic Science: Torah, Talmud and Zohar Works on Spiritual Astrology by Yaakov Kronenberg. I haven’t put much time into Jewish astrology yet so don’t really have the context to evaluate this book. I’ve had it recommended to me by a few folks so want to include it.

Jewish Grimoires and Spellbooks

  • Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan translation. The Sefer Yezirah describes the mystical process by which God created the universe and is traditionally, the text that rabbi’s studied to learn how to make golems. Kaplan’s translation is tiny part of the book, it’s his commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah that makes this a must read.
  • Sword of Moses. Yuval Harari translation. As Harari notes, of the “two Jewish magical treatises – the other being the Sefer ha-Razim (The Book of Mysteries) – that have survived from antiquity in many respects [the Sword of Moses] is the more significant one. It presents a broad assortment of magical practices for accomplishing various goals, all based on the use of a magical ‘‘sword’’ of words, which Moses brought down from heaven.” The link is to a downloadable .pdf from Academia.edu
  • Sefer ha-Razim, The Book of Mysteries. Michael Morgan translation. The Sefer-ha Razim is a “Jewish magical text supposedly given to Noah by the angel Raziel, and passed down throughout Biblical history until it ended up in the possession of Solomon, for whom it was a great source of his wisdom and purported magical powers.” (quote from Wikipedia)
  • Shimmush Tehillim (Magical uses of the Psalms). Attributed to Rav Hai Goan, document by Reuven Brauner. Describes magical uses of the Psalms for protection from demons, protection from miscarriage, and a lot more. The link is a downloadable .pdf from Halakhah.com
  • The Aleph-Bet Book by Rebbe Nachman of Bresolv. Not a spellbook, per se, but tucked in with the Rebbe’s aphorisms on how to live a good Jewish live are a wonderful assortment of segulah (charms).

Beliefs about Death

Jewish Views of the Afterlife by Simcha Paull Raphael. “Jewish Views of the Afterlife is a classic study of ideas of afterlife and postmortem survival in Jewish tradition and mysticism. As both a scholar and pastoral counselor, Raphael guides the reader through 4,000 years of Jewish thought on the afterlife by investigating pertinent sacred texts produced in each era.” Another must read.

Final Judgement and the Dead in Medieval Jewish Thought by Susan Weissman. “Through a detailed analysis of ghost tales in the Ashkenazi pietistic work Sefer Hasidim, Susan Weissman documents a major transformation in Jewish attitudes and practices regarding the dead and the afterlife that took place between the rabbinic period and medieval times.” Ghosts. The walking dead. Here it is folks.

Folklore Collections

  • Lilith’s Cave: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural selected by Harold Schwartz. Great collection from around the Jewish world. Includes stories about Lilith and “The Finger,” one of the inspirations for the Tim Burton film “The Corpse Bride.”
  • Mimekor Yisrael: Classical Jewish Folktales collected by Micha Joseph Bin Gorion, translated [from the Hebrew] by I.M. Lask.
  • Yiddish Folktales translated by Beatrice Weinreich. Includes stories about early modern Jewish monsters including shretelech, who are sprites that, if shown respect and given gifts, will protect the house.

Legendary Figures

In Praise of Baal Shem Tov (Shivhei Ha-Besht: The Earliest Collection of Legends about the Founder of Hasidism) – “In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov is the first complete English translation of the tales surrounding the Besht, a rabbi and kabbalistic practitioner whose teachings bolstered the growing Hasidic movement in the eighteenth century.” He also fought with sorcerers and werewolves, wrote amulets and recommended healing practices.

Without Bounds: The Life and Death of Rabbi Ya’aqov Wazana. “Without Bounds illuminates the life of the mysterious Rabbi Ya’aqov Wazana, a Jewish healer who worked in the Western High Atlas region in southern Morocco and died there in the early 1950s. Impressed by his healing powers and shamanic virtuosity, Moroccan Jews are intrigued by his lifestyle and contacts with the Muslim and the demonic worlds that dangerously blurred his Jewish identity.”

Late Modern period (mid-18th century to the 1920’s)

Og, King of Bashan riding a Unicorn from Aunt Naomi’s Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends

Other Media

There’s a lot of great material out there and a lot of weird stuff that I stay away from. Here are a few bits I know about and want to share. This list is also really short on rabbinic material. I need to fix that. I’ll cover Jewish monsters and magic artists in another posts.

Podcasts

Jewitches – “Talking about all things Jewish witchcraft, mysticism, folklore, magic, and practice. Bi-weekly deep dives into all things magical & Jewish, hosted by Jewitches.com”

Throwing Sheyd – “Better living through Jewish demonology”. 48 episodes deep dive into Jewish demons filled with warm and wisdom. Alan a nd Miriam are great hosts.

Websites

Pulling Threads – Rediscovering the forgotten rituals of Eastern European Jewish Women

Videos

Jewish Monster Hunting – A practical guide to Jewish Monster Hunting. This is my channel. Only one video so far, but it’s a fun one.

Demons in the Talmud and Demons and the Four Cups of Wine at the Passover Seder Sara Ronis

10 Historic Jewish Women Mystics You’ve (Probably) Never Heard of “Are there any Female Jewish Mystics or is Jewish Mysticism just a Boys Club? Join us as we explore ten incredible women Mystics, Martyrs, Mothers, Messiahs, masters of Kabbalah, Educators, Oracles, Patrons, Prophets, Poets and Philosophers who left an unforgettable mark on Jewish History.”

Reigning Cats and Dogs: Angelic Animals in the Jewish Mystical Tradition – David Shyovitz

Angels in Ancient Jewish Culture and On My Right Michael, On My Left Gabriel: Angels in Ancient Jewish Culture – Mika Ahuvia

Great Myths and Legends: The Queen of Sheba in History and Legend and Great Riddles in Archaeology: The Ark of the Covenant: Lost, Found, or Forgotten? – Annette Yoshiko Reed. I haven’t watched these yet but they’ve been on my list.

An Expert Explains – How to Make a Golem – Alana Vincent. I havent watched this one either, but it’s been on my list.

The Dybbuk: The Full Original Film and Story

Tahdid Sword Ceremony for the Brit Milah in Morocco. Posted by the Jewish Learning Channel. A lot more info is provided by the website https://yalalla.org.uk/ in the article “Jewish Saharans Singing To Birth”

“The word Tahdid comes from hdid, metal, in Arabic, bringing in technologies of metallurgy to protection rituals. The women used to hold the mother and baby ‘hostage’ in the room and barter jokingly with the men who were knocking at the door and begging to come in. Joking negotiations back and forth in Judeo-Arabic were meant to make everyone laugh and ensure that everyone knew where the real power was! Once allowed into the mother’s room, the men sang liturgical poetry in Judeo-Arabic and Hebrew, lightly tapped ritual swords against the walls of the four corners of the room, on the baby’s crib and on the four cardinal points, all the places where the evil spirits are said to hide. They then continued singing mystical poems and murmuring prayers in Hebrew and the women finished with loud yuyus of celebration. Afterwards there is a feast for everyone gathered. This Tahdid, from July 2013, was led by the paytan Jacob Wizman, a student of the famous Rabbi David Bouzaglo. Filmed in Casablanca by Ron Duncan Hart.”

Serah bat Asher Part II: Werewolf Hunter

We grow, love, and die in the flash of a firefly on a summer evening. But not Serah bat Asher. She lives forever. As I described in my last post, “Serah bat Asher: Immortal Secret Keeper,” Serah had lived for two thousand years by the time she leaned into Rabbi Yohannan’s window to tell him that the Red Sea looked like lighted glass. By 2020, she’s nearing 4000. That’s about 130 generations of Jews for whom she’s looked out. Give or take. While the Jewish tradition doesn’t chronicle all of her adventures, there are a few more to share. Which is great, because each one has something deep to teach us.

Serah bat Asher, Werewolf Hunter!

The Tanach, in II Samuel, tells of Serah saving a city during the reign of King David and of her hunting werewolves! Sheba ben Bichri, a “scoundrel” of the tribe of Benjamin, was leading a rebellion against King David. David sends his army, lead by Joab, to smack down the rebellion. First, Joab applies some pre-game stabbiness to another of David’s generals (1). Then he and his troops catch up with Sheba, who’s hiding with his troops in city of Abel of Beth-maacah. Which is a great hideout for a scoundrel. It’s up on a hill, strong walls, lots of locals to use as human shields. Perfect! To support the kingdom of Israel, and to stop the conflict before Joab tears down the city walls and applies more stabbiness to the city’s inhabitants, an unnamed “clever woman” comes out of city and demands to speak to Joab. First she convinces him that attacking is a bad move (why destroy one of David’s cities? David might want it later). Then she convinces the people of the city to decapitate Sheba and throw his head over the wall (2). While the Tanach doesn’t identify the woman, Rashi does. The clever woman was, of course, Serah who “completed the faithful of Israel. (3).”

Here’s the full(ish) story from II Samuel 20. (4)

A scoundrel named Sheba son of Bichri, a Benjaminite, happened to be there. He sounded the horn and proclaimed: “We have no portion in David, No share in Jesse’s son! Every man to his tent, O Israel!” … And David (the king) said to Abishai, “Now Sheba son of Bichri will cause us more trouble than Absalom. So take your lord’s servants and pursue him, before he finds fortified towns and eludes us.”….

[E]verybody continued to follow Joab in pursuit of Sheba son of Bichri. [Sheba] had passed through all the tribes of Israel up to Abel of Beth-maacah; and all the Beerites assembled and followed him inside. [Joab’s men] came and besieged him in Abel of Beth-maacah; they threw up a siegemound against the city and it stood against the rampart. All the troops with Joab were engaged in battering the wall, when a clever woman shouted from the city, “Listen! Listen! Tell Joab to come over here so I can talk to him.”

He approached her, and the woman asked, “Are you Joab?” “Yes,” he answered; and she said to him, “Listen to what your handmaid has to say.” “I’m listening,” he replied.

And she continued, “In olden times people used to say, ‘Let them inquire of Abel,’ and that was the end of the matter. I am one of those who seek the welfare of the faithful in Israel. But you seek to bring death upon a mother city in Israel! Why should you destroy the LORD’s possession?”

Joab replied, “Far be it, far be it from me to destroy or to ruin! Not at all! But a certain man from the hill country of Ephraim, named Sheba son of Bichri, has rebelled against King David. Just hand him alone over to us, and I will withdraw from the city.”

The woman assured Joab, “His head shall be thrown over the wall to you.”

The woman came to all the people with her clever plan; and they cut off the head of Sheba son of Bichri and threw it down to Joab. He then sounded the horn; all the men dispersed to their homes, and Joab returned to the king in Jerusalem.

II Samuel 20:1 to 20:23 (4)

So, using her wisdom and long memory to save a city of thousands from being destroyed is pretty great. But I promised werewolves…where are the werewolves‽ As I keep saying in my posts, Jewish monster hunters have to read the texts carefully. And remember that reading Torah is about making associations. This story already has Rashi associating an unnamed person, the clever woman, with Serah, a well known woman. So I’m adding my own midrash to the Serah story that fills in the family drama and generational associations. Here goes…

Jan Cossiers – Júpiter y Licaón. 17th Century. (5)

Sheba ben Bichri wasn’t just any rebel. He was a Benjaminite. In my prior post, Benjamin is a Predatory Wolf, I talked about Serah’s grandfather Jacob blessing her uncle Benjamin as being a “predatory wolf” e.g. a werewolf. The Jewish tradition has always understood Jacob’s blessing to be as much focused on Benjamin’s descendants as on Benjamin himself. So if Benjamin was a werewolf, then some of Benjamin’s descendants are too. And Serah would know that. She was there when Benjamin was blessed. She would have recognized Sheba for what he was as soon as he entered the city. And she rallied the town to hunt him down and throw his head over the wall.

Monster Hunter Pro Tips

1. Werewolves are vulnerable to decapitation. Particularly when in human form.
2. Stay vigilant. While we have no shortage of external foes, the enemy is also us.
3. Be a leader. Serah didn’t save her city by picking up a sword and going it alone. She rallied her town and taught them how to fight.

I love the idea of Serah as an eternal counterbalance to Benjamin’s curse. Monster hunter counterbalancing threat, all within the family. And it is a family thing. Serah is an Asherite, the daughter of Benjamin’s brother Asher. Asher had the opposite blessing from Benjamin, to receive royal rewards (6), and was known for his single-minded virtue (7). This single-mindedness for good, inherited from her father, is Serah’s third blessing, after God blessing her with wisdom and Jacob blessing her with immortality.

So Serah, as I see it, is a perfect example of a Jewish monster hunter, using deep Torah and mystical knowledge to protect Jews from the werewolves, and other threats, in our own communities. She’s not a warrior, the way Abraham was. She’s not a combat mage, the way Moses was (8). None of her blessings gave her that kind of fire power. She’s more Willow than Buffy (9). As a vigilant keeper of our memory, though, she’s what we need.

Abel of Beth-Maachah, near Metula, Israel. View of the tower, with its northeastern corner of large boulders and the layers of small stones, looking southwest. Tel Abel Beth Maacah Excavations. (10)

It’s worth noting that not everyone in the Jewish tradition agrees with my applause for Serah’s handling of the Sheba situation. As early as the 2nd Century CE, the rabbi’s who wrote the Tosefta debated the ethics of sacrificing a single person to save a group. In Tosefta Terumot 7.23, the rabbi’s are split (11). They seem to decide that in this case it was justified because Sheba was a criminal who was endangering in the city, that handing him over (or handing over his head) avoided the group being punished for his crime, and that Joab was a Jew. In other cases, particularly when the threat comes from outside, however it’s better to let the group die as a group, before sacrificing the individual. We’re not to be complicit in the crime.

Stay tuned for next post, when we hear about “Serah in Exile or The Death of Serah?

Notes and References
(1) David gave his generals Joab and Amasa a set amount of time to gather their troops. Amasa was late…so Joab stabbed him to death on the street and commandeered his troops. As one does. II Samuel 20 @ Sefaria.
(2) According to the midrash (Genesis Rabba 94:9), Serah convinces the people of the city using the following strategy. “The woman immediately came to all the people with her clever plan. ‘Do you not know David’s reputation?’ she urged them, ‘Which kingdom has successfully resisted him?’ ‘What does he demand?’ they asked her. ‘A thousand men,’ she replied, ‘and is it not better [to sacrifice] a thousand men than to have your city destroyed?’ ‘Let everyone give according to his means,’ they proposed. ‘Perhaps he would be willing to compromise,’ she suggested. She then pretended to go and appease him, and returned with the number reduced from a thousand to five hundred, then to one hundred, to ten, and finally to one, a stranger there, and who was he? – Sheba the son of Bichri. They promptly cut off his head [and threw it down to Joab]” The translation comes from Moshe Reiss’ essay “Serah bat Asher in Rabbinic Literature.”
(3) Rashi’s full commentary on this passage was “I am [from the people of the city] that are loyal and trustworthy to Yisroel. I am from the people of the city that are loyal and trustworthy to Yisroel and to the king. An Aggadic Midrash [states:] this was Serah, the daughter of Asher. I faithfully rewarded those who faithful [to God]: Through me, the location of Yosef’s coffin was revealed to Moshe. I told Yakov that Yosef was alive.”
(4) A slightly trimmed version of II Samuel 20 (Sefaria.org).
(5) Ok, Jan Cossiers painting Júpiter y Licaón is a scene from Greek mythology…. but you get the idea. Public Domain Image from Wikipedia Commons. I really need an art budget.
(6) See Genesis 49:20 (Sefaria.org)
(7) In The Testament of Asher the Tenth Son of Jacob and Zilpah, one of the Apocryphal books, Asher is quoted as saying. “All these things, therefore, I proved in my life, and I wandered not from the truth of the Lord, and I searched out the commandments of the Most High, walking according to all my strength with singleness of face unto that which is good.Testament of Asher @ Sefaria.org. The Testaments of Asher comes from The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, which is a bit of a muddy text. The text we have took its final form around the 2nd century CE and mixes Jewish and Christian thoughts. I’m citing this text because it’s a good example, but the sentiment shows up elsewhere.
(8) Yes. Abraham was a warrior and Moses was a mage. The tradition is pretty specific on both points. Abraham being a warrior is straight Tanach. See Genesis 14 (Sefaria.org) Not even Talmud. Same with Moses’s magic. Remember the whole rods to serpents and 12 plagues incidents? Oh, and his brass serpent? Yeah, that’s all at God’s direction so if we’re being Dungeons and Dragons technical, that makes him a cleric, not a mage. But my previous post about Serah, where Moses raised Joseph’s coffin from the Nile, is a good example of mage power. Abraham and Moses’s being badasses will come up over and over again. I’ll write both soon when I write about Og the giant.
(9) In case you don’t get the reference, I’m talking about characters from the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Which is a fantastic contemporary monster hunting TV show (and a meditation on what it’s like to be a teenager in America). It is absolutely not based on Jewish lore, but it does have Jewish characters including Willow, one of Buffy’s “Scooby gang” sidekicks. Willow is often the brains of the team. Buffy has the punch and the willpower, but Willow has the smarts and the lore. The show also happens to have a Jewish werewolf named Daniel “Oz” Osborne. Oz isn’t a Benjamite, though, he became a werewolf the ouch way.

(10) Tel Abel beth Maachah. Near Metula, Israel. The picture is a view of the tower, with its northeastern corner of large boulders and the layers of small stones, looking southwest. Photo by Tel Abel Beth Maacah Excavations. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons license. CC-BY-SA-4.0
(11) Tosefta Terumot 7.23 (Sefaria.org). Sefaria community translation. “A group of [Jews] to whom gentiles say, “Give us one of you and we shall kill him, and if not, behold, we will kill all of them”; they should let themselves be killed and not deliver them one soul from Israel. But if they designated [the person] to them – for example, Sheva ben Bichri – they should give him to them and not let themselves be killed. Rabbi Yehuda said, “When do these words apply? In a case when he is [inside and they are] outside [a fortified city]; but in a case when he is inside and they are inside, since he will be killed and the [other Jews] will be killed, they should give him to them and not let themselves all be killed. And so did it state (II Samuel 20:22), ‘And the woman come to all of the people in her wisdom, etc.’ – she said to them, ‘Since he will be killed and you will be killed, give him to them and do not kill all of you.’” Rabbi Shimon says, “So did she say [to them], ‘Anyone who rebels against the monarchy [of the House of David] is liable to [receive] the death penalty.’”

Benjamin is a Predatory Wolf

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))
The Werewolf Howls
Werewolf in woodland at night. (7)

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