We (humans) have something that sheydim (demons) want. We have bodies. Sheydim were, according to one story (1), created at twilight on the last day of creation and left unfinished. Because of this they have no physical bodies of their own and can take on whatever form they want (2). This is one of the reasons that we Jews recite psalms when, during the ritual of shmirah, we guard the dead. We want to protect the bodies from being inhabited by sheydim (3). Similarly we have methods for protecting ourselves from being possessed by sheydim (e.g. dybbuks) and for exorcising them if necessary (4).
Another way that sheydim attempt to get bodies is by having a child with a human, either by seducing the human (male or female) or by stealing the male’s seed (sperm) when he masturbates. According to Eruvin 18b. after Cain killed Able, Adam and Eve separated for 130 years. During this period they each had sex with demons resulting in a large number of demon children.
Rabbi Yirmeya ben Elazar said: All those years during which Adam was ostracized for the sin involving the Tree of Knowledge, he bore spirits, demons, and female demons, as it is stated: “And Adam lived a hundred and thirty years, and begot a son in his own likeness, after his image, and called his name Seth” (Genesis 5:3). By inference, until now, the age of one hundred thirty, he did not bear after his image, but rather bore other creatures.Eruvin 18
We are not Adam and Eve though. The child of normal human and a sheyd is a banim shovavim; half-sheyd (demon) and half-human. The term banim shovavim means comes from Jeremiah 3:14 and means, literally, “wayward” or “rebellious children.” Sheyd believe that banim shovavim can obtain a body as an inheritance from the human parent if they cling to him, particularly when he dies. Traditionally, Jews have been terrified of this. Our religious writings and folklore are filled with maxims to avoid being alone at night and to avoid sexual immorality including (euphemistically) spilling seed. In the modern world, though, its hard to not be a bit sympathetic to the banim shovavim who are children of two worlds and fit in neither.
The “Tale of Posen” tells one of the classic banim shovavim stories. In the story the banim shovim, who have been living in the cellar of their human father, come into conflict with the new owner of their father’s house after he dies. The story is wild in that the banim shovavim ask for and are granted the opportunity to defend the claim to their inheritance in rabbinic court. They lose their case largely on the grounds that as half-demons they do not have the rights of a human. They are then exorcised by R. Joel, a famous Baal Shem wonder rabbi.
As Joshua Tractenberg, in “Jewish Magic and Superstition” tells the tale….
This occurred in Posen at the end of the seventeenth century. … In the main street of Posen there stood a stone dwelling whose cellar was securely locked. One day a young man forced his way into this cellar and was shortly after found dead upon the threshold. Emboldened by this act the “outsiders,” who had killed the intruder in their subterranean haunt, entered the house itself and began to plague the inhabitants by casting ashes into the pots of food cooking on the hearth, throwing things off the walls and the furniture, breaking candlesticks, and similar pranks.
Though they did no harm to the persons of the inhabitants, these were so distressed and frightened that they deserted the house. A great outcry arose in Posen, but the measures taken by the local savants (including the Jesuits) were not sufficiently potent to oust the interlopers, and the foremost wonder-worker of the time, R. Joel Baal Shem of Zamosz, was sent for. His powerful incantations succeeded in forcing the demons to disclose their identity. They contended, however, that this house was their property and demanded an opportunity to substantiate their case before a court of law.
R. Joel agreed, the court was convoked, and before it a demon advocate, who could be heard but not seen, presented his argument. We may still sense in this graphic account of the trial the dramatic tenseness of the scene, the earnestness of the advocate’s plea, the solemn attentiveness of the three bowed gray heads on the bench, the open-eyed wonder, spiced with a dash of terror, of the audience.
The argument ran in this wise: The former owner of the house had had illicit relations with a female demon who, appearing to him as a beautiful woman, had borne him children. In time his lawful wife discovered his infidelity and consulted the great rabbi Sheftel, who forced a confession from the guilty man, and obliged him, by means of an amulet containing fearful holy names, to break off this union. Before his death, however, the demon returned and prevailed upon him to leave her and her offspring the cellar of his house for an inheritance. Now that this man and his human heirs are all dead, contended the advocate, we, his spirit children, remain his sole heirs and lay claim to this house.
The inhabitants of the house then presented their case: we purchased this house at full value from its owner; you “outsiders” are not called “seed of men” and therefore have no rights appertaining to humans; besides, your mother forced this man to cohabit with her against his will. Both sides here rested, the court retired for a consultation, and returned to announce that its decision was against the “outsiders.” Their proper habitat is in waste places and deserts and not among men; they can therefore have no share in this house. To make certain that the decision was carried out R. Joel proceeded to deliver himself of his most terrifying exorcisms, and succeeded in banishing the intruders from cellar as well as house, to the forests and deserts where they belonged.retold by Joshua Trachtenberg (6)
The banim shovavim make their impact on Jewish ritual practice. In addition to inspiring rabbinic exhortations for young men to keep their hands out of their pants, the banim shovavim add an additional fear to funerals. Along with fears that the departed might end up punished in Gehenna (8) or experience hibbut ha-kever, the beatings of the graves (9), the family had to worry that the departed or the departed’s human children might be attacked by his banim shovavim children. Gershom Scholem, one of the first major academic researchers of Kabbalah and Jewish magic, described a protective funerary ritual born from that fear.
The custom I shall now describe is rather extreme in character, but I believe that it illustrates the process by which such ‘anti-demonic’ rites-which later gained almost universal acceptance developed among the Kabbalists. Until quite recently (and occasionally to this day ) Jewish burials in Jerusalem were often marked by a strange happening. Before the body was lowered into the grave, ten men danced round it in a circle, reciting a Psalm which in the Jewish tradition has generally been regarded as a defense against demons (Psalm 91 (10)), or another prayer. Then a stone was laid on the bier and the following verse (Gen. 25 : 6) recited: ‘But unto the sons of the concubines, which Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts, and sent them away.’ Tis strange dance of death was repeated seven times. The rite, which in modern times has been unintelligible to most of the participants, has to do with Kabbalistic conceptions about sexual life and the sanctity of the human seed. Here we have an entire myth, the object of which is to mark of the act of generation from other sexual practices, which were interpreted as demonic in nature, and especially from onanism.Gershom Scholem, “On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (11)
I’ll admit that I got chills when I first read that passage. Abraham giving gifts to his concubine’s children and then sending them made a certain economic sense, e.g. managing inheritance, but feels cold and alienating from a family connection perspective. The banim shovavim “no-gifts, you’re not really my kids, scram” version is even more brutal. In an earlier era that felt that they were on the receiving end of demonic terror, this was just a safety precaution. Now it just feels like banishing kids who are different. Henry Abramovitch, in an anthropological essay on the “mismeeting” between religious and secular Israelis (12) describes “the situation in which an observant parent is buried with full ritual to the dismay of the nonreligious children.” I feel a bit of that dismay here. Banim shovavim might be wayward children but they’re still our children.
Notes and References
(1) This version of the creation of Demons comes from Pirkei Avot chapter 5, which catalogs a list of wondrous things created on the last day. There are other stories of how demons were created, too. They’re fallen angels. They’re the evil spirits of those who drowned in the flood. They are the children of Adam and Lilith and Eve and Samael. They come from the unfinished corner, from outside creation. More too, those are just some of the big ones.
(2) Except for their feet. Sheydim feet are always chicken feet. Go figure.
(3) For more on guarding the dead, see the article “The Soul, Evil Spirits, and the Undead:: Vampires, Death, and Burial in Jewish Folklore and Law” by Saul Epstein and Sara Libby Robinson, in the journal “Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural.”
(4) There is lot of well documented history and lore surrounding Jewish exorcisms. See J. H. Chajes’ “Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism” and Matt Goldish’s “Spirit Possession in Judaism: Cases and Contexts from the Middle Ages to the Present “
(5) I did the collage image for my “Banim Shovavim” Jewish Monsters and Magic trading card. Right now, I’ve completed 90 cards and will hopefully do a Kickstarter in mid-2023. The image combines the 1873 painting “Cellar” by Willem Linnig II with clipped and color adjusted images from the 1935 photo “Small girls sitting on cellar door, Georgetown, Washington, D.C” (courtesy of the Library of Congress).
(6) Joshua Tractenberg’s “Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion” is a classic. It’s still in print, and reasonably priced, from University of Pennsylvania Press. It can also be read for free online at Sacred-Text.com.
(7) “A Jewish funeral in Vitebsk” a woodcut by Shlomo Yudovin. https://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/vitsyebsk/pictures/lohamei_hagetaot.html
(8) Gehenna. Is where the dead go if they are not yet fit for the world to come. For a great contemporary book that covers Gehenna, check out “Jewish Views of the Afterlife” by Simcha Paull Raphael. The Jewish Encyclopedia and Wikipedia have good articles too.
(9) Hibbut Ha-Kever, the Beating of the Graves, is described alternately as a pre-Gehenna punishment in the grave or a pre-World-to-Come punishment in the tunnels between your grave and Jerusalem. The Jewish Encyclopedia has a short article and it’s described in the Simcha Puall Raphael book (note 8) and in Joshua Tractenberg’s “Jewish Magic and Superstion” (note 6). Also see the Mosaic magazine article “Who Presides Over the Dead in Judaism? His Name Is Dumah.“
(10) Psalm 91 is commonly used as a segulah (charm) for defense against sheydim.
(11) Gershom Scholem “On Kabbalah and It’s Symbolism” published in 1960, translated to English in 1965. The quoted description is on page 154 in the 1996 Shocken Books / Random House edition. An early edition is currently available online at Archive.org (I’m skeptical that it’s there legally so its likely to vanish some point.)
(12) Henry Abramovitch “The Jerusalem Funeral as a Microcosm of the “Mismeeting” between Religious and Secular Israelis”