In that 1967 film classic "the Fearless Vampire Killers," there is a memorable scene in which a lady tries in vain to fend off the vampire Shagal by waving a cross at him. The creature of the night, with an unmistakable Yiddish intonation, retorts "Boy have you got the wrong vampire!"
Indeed, the literary and cinematic depiction of vampires, from Dracula onwards, has been so strongly imbued with Christian symbolism that the very idea of a Jewish vampire makes an easy target for such comedic moments; notwithstanding the tragic medieval blood libels that charged Jews with using Christian blood in the preparation of Passover matzah.
Nevertheless, the study of medieval Jewish texts teaches us that a belief in vampire-like creatures was very intense in certain Jewish communities. Not surprisingly, this belief tended to surface in settings where it was also prevalent among their non-Jewish neighbours. That the concept was of foreign origin is also indicated by the non-Hebrew names by which the fearsome creatures were designated.
Most of the Jewish references to vampires are contained in the writings of the Hasidei Ashkenaz, a mystical pietistic movement that flourished in thirteenth-century Germany. The monsters were usually female, and were referred to as estries. The term is French, and derives from strix, a Latin word for a night-owl. The ancient Romans believed that the owls consume human blood, and Petronius tells a scary tale about a certain Cappadocian who was snatched away by a strix, and later found dead. The striges were said to be terrible women who could turn themselves into dreadful birds of prey, with huge talons, misshapen heads and breasts full of poisonous milk. In medieval folklore, they continued to be associated with screech owls
Cannibalistic behaviour typified the medieval German estries, who were believed to have a special fondness for the flesh of children. During the Middle Ages, the striges were given a Christian interpretation, and they were perceived as servants of Satan and his demons. They were usually portrayed as witches who practiced sorcery and flew through the air.
Several chilling stories about them were preserved by the Hasidei Ashkenaz, especially in the most important collection of the group's lore, Rabbi Judah the Pious's Sefer Hasidim.
According to Sefer Hasidim, the Talmud was referring to estries when it spoke about beings who were created at twilight on the first Friday, and whose bodies were not completed when God ceased working at the onset of the Sabbath.
A different theory was proposed by the fifteenth-century commentator Rabbi Menahem Zioni. Basing himself on midrashic sources, he claimed that it was the builders of the Tower of Babel who were transformed into vampires, werewolves, wood- and water-spirits, and sundry monsters.
The same author speaks of men and women who, by anointing their bodies with special oils, are able to fly. They must, however, return home before the break of dawn.
The sixteenth-century exegete Rabbi Obadiah Sforno speculated that supernatural beings like demons could not consume normal food. It follows, therefore, that their diet consists of the most subtle and spiritual substance, and this must be blood, which the Torah equates with the power of life. By extension, humans who desire to befriend the spirits will offer them blood; while those who aspire to partake of supernatural powers are likely to consume blood themselves.
In one story that appears in Sefer Hasidim, a woman who was an estrie fell ill, and was watched over during the night by two unsuspecting ladies. When one of the guardians dozed off, the patient suddenly stood up and began to unravel her hair. In true Dracula-like style, the estrie tried to fly off and to suck out the blood of the slumbering lady. Fortunately, her alert companion managed to cry out and wakened her, and the two of them were able to seize the estrie and prevent her from carrying out her nefarious scheme.
The Sefer Hasidim had no doubt that the estrie's survival depended on her success in slaying her victim. If prevented from doing so, the estrie perished. "This is because a being who was created from blood needs to swallow blood from flesh."
The medieval texts prescribe several different ways to restrain the estries--none of which involve crosses, holy water or wooden stakes. They could be controlled by the imposing of an oath upon them. Furthermore, since their powers were somehow dependent on the loosening of their hair, they could be rendered harmless if the hair was somehow held in check. And if a known estrie was included in the prayer for the sick that is recited in the synagogue, then the congregation was cautioned not to respond "Amen"!
Although an estrie could be injured by a physical blow, the effect of the blow could be undone if she was allowed to eat bread and salt belonging to her assailant. Conversely, bread and salt also worked as an antidote to injuries inflicted by the estrie.
At first glance, it is hard to imagine how anyone would be stupid enough to offer bread and water to an estrie after taking the trouble to attack her. However, we must bear in mind that the creatures were capable of morphing themselves into different forms, and therefore were not easy to recognize. Rabbi Zioni described this ability in detail, and noted that they had a special propensity for turning into cats.
Sefer Hasidim records a case of a suspected estrie who had assumed feline form. However, a certain Jew recognized her true identity (the source does not indicate how), and struck her. On the following day, a lady asked him for some bread and salt, and the imprudent Jew would have complied, had it not been for an old man who appeared on the scene and warned him of his folly.
As with our familiar vampires, the malevolent power of the estries did not cease with their deaths. For this reason, it was important to examine their corpses very carefully. Rabbi Eliezer Rokeah states that if the estrie has her mouth open when she is buried, you may be certain that she will continue to devour children for a year after her death. In order to curtail such anti-social behaviour, it is crucial to stuff her mouth with earth.
Most of the Hebrew descriptions of estries seem to assume that the creatures were not Jewish. However, at least one story implies otherwise.
Thus, we read in in Sefer Hasidim about some students who wanted to inflict capital punishment on women who were accused of baby-eating. The rabbi reminded them that, while in exile, Jewish courts did not have such authority. He did, however, suggest that an announcement be issued in the synagogue, in the presence of the suspects, that if any harm should befall the children, then they would have their teeth filed on the stones surrounding the well. If the accused were in fact guilty, then the ordeal would result in their inevitable deaths.
Of course, the fact that the estries in this story attended synagogue proves that they were Jews--and observant Jews at that!
To the best of my knowledge, Jewish sources have not recorded any vampire sightings for several centuries now. Nor is there any truth to the widespread rumours that the blood-suckers have been recruited as fundraisers for the United Jewish Appeal.
Nevertheless--purely as a precaution--parents are advised take some precautions the next time a sweet old bubbeh tells them that their precious infant looks "sweet enough to eat."
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