Dark Tales of Jewish Folklore

Shana tova! to those of you celebrating the Jewish new year this past week. In case you don’t know, we’re currently in the midst of one of the most important times of the year for Jews. The days between the start of the new year (which began last Sunday night) and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (this Wednesday), are typically used as a period for deep reflection and introspection. In honor of this holiday, I decided to use this opportunity to reflect on some of the more gothic elements of Jewish folklore and tradition. Much of the monsters and boogeymen typically found in gothic fiction derive from a mostly Christian tradition, but Judaism has a rich array of creepy creatures, as well, that deserve their own turn in the spotlight.

A Prague reproduction of the golem (Wikipedia)
A Prague reproduction of the golem

One of the most famous monstrous creatures of Jewish folklore is the golem. A golem is an anthropomorphic entity made of mud or clay that can be created and controlled by learned Jewish mystics. Its creation mirrors the method by which God is said to have created Adam, the first human, out of the earth in Genesis. Though stories of golems have existed for centuries, the legend of The Golem of Prague served to popularize the narrative. The Golem of Prague is a story that began appearing in a number of different German texts around the mid-nineteenth century. In the story, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, a revered sixteenth-century Talmudic scholar, created a golem to defend his Jewish ghetto in Prague from attack. In some versions of the story, the golem suddenly turned violent—either due to unrequited love or because it wasn’t properly deactivated for the Sabbath—and Rabbi Loew had to disable it by removing the source of its vitality. In some accounts, the golem was animated by a scroll containing one of the holy names of God that had been inserted into its mouth, and could be deactivated by removing the scroll. Other stories depict the golem as having the Hebrew word for “truth” inscribed on its forehead, and removing one letter could change the word to “death” and deactivate the golem. Most of the stories ended with the golem’s now inanimate body being stored in the attic of the Old New Synagogue—which coincidentally is a gorgeous Gothic building, and one of Prague’s first to be built in that style—in case the Jewish community there ever found themselves in need of such protection again. The golem story bears a striking resemblance to the Gothic classic, Frankenstein: in both stories, man attempts to imitate God’s ability to create life and finds instead that he has created a monster beyond his control. Unlike Shelley’s version of Frankenstein’s monster, however, golems are generally considered to be mindless husks and the word “golem” can be used to insult someone who is acting brainless or clumsy and slow. Despite these sometimes negative connotations, golems are valued in folk tradition as protectors of the Jews.

Still from Waszynski's The Dybbuk
Still from Waszynski’s The Dybbuk

A slightly less well known, but possibly more frightening, creature is the dybbuk. A dybbuk is a malicious spirit—usually from someone who died with sins or unfinished business, or was not properly laid to rest—that possesses the body of a living being. Dybbuks found their way into popular culture through S. Ansky’s 1914 play “The Dybbuk,” or “Between Two Worlds,” which was later made into the classic Yiddish film by Michał Waszyński in 1937. In this tale a young woman is possessed by the spirit of a dead suitor whom her father had rejected despite having promised the boy’s father that their children would be betrothed. A dramatic exorcism is performed to force the dybbuk from the girl’s body. At the end, however, the girl confesses that she loves the dead suitor, and rather than marry another man she joins him in death. In Jewish folk beliefs, dybbuks were thought to often enter the bodies of the wicked as punishment, and having an improperly hung or neglected mezuzah might make one especially vulnerable to possession.

Not all spirits in Jewish tradition are malevolent, however. In fact, in the ancient world, spirits were sometimes turned to for help. Though the practice was frowned upon by religious leaders, there are a number of references to necromancy, especially as a means of gaining information from the dead, throughout the Hebrew Bible. An example of this practice is depicted in a passage from 1 Samuel, commonly referred to as “The Witch of Endor.” In this scene King Saul seeks out a medium, after having banished all such necromancers and magicians form the land, because he wishes to ask the late King Samuel for advice on the upcoming war with the Philistines. The shade of Samuel appears and forewarns Saul of his impending death. The Witch of Endor passage is notable for its surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a necromancer and its rare hints of what ancient Jews may have believed became of the spirit after death.

Painting of Lilith by John Collier
Painting of Lilith by John Collier

While golems and ghosts are always great fun, my absolute favorite creature from Jewish tradition is the demoness Lilith. Lilith is thought to have developed from earlier Mesopotamian demons called lilitu. In Jewish folk tradition, Lilith is the mother of all demons and is generally believed to be the source of sickness and death in infants. The most famous text on Lilith comes from an anonymous and possibly satirical medieval text called The Alphabet of Ben Sira. In this text, the character of ben Sira tells the story of Lilith to King Nebuchadnezzar as an explanation for the amulets he is creating to heal a sick child. In this version of the story, Lilith was originally created out of the earth like Adam to be his wife. However, after refusing to be submissive to Adam, she uses the power of speaking God’s ineffable name to fly away. God sends three angels to hunt her down, but she refuses to return, declaring that her new purpose in life is to cause sickness in infants. She makes a pact with the angels that if she sees their names on an amulet, she’ll leave the child alone. In addition, as punishment for running away from Adam, Lilith must allow one hundred of her demon children to die every day. In other texts, Lilith is portrayed as an embodiment of lust that appears to men at night to lead them astray. In recent years, Lilith has been reclaimed as a feminist symbol for her refusal to be a submissive wife and for her empowering sexuality.

I hope you enjoyed this brief foray into the Jewish gothic, and please add on if you think there’s anything I missed. What are some of your favorite creepy creatures or spooky stories from your own cultural heritage? Feel free to share in the comments!

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