This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Speed Demon*

Jewish law establishes limitations about where and how far one may travel and carry on the Sabbaths or holy days. These laws are rooted in the passage in the book of Exodus that tells of the miraculous mannah, the “bread from heaven” that nourished the Israelites during their sojourn in the desert. Mannah would not materialize on the Sabbath, and the people were admonished not to leave their dwellings to look for it: “Abide ye every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” What may have originated as a warning to trust the divine word was understood by the Jewish legal tradition as a categorical prohibition against traveling beyond a specified distance from one’s place of residence or carrying objects between private and public domains.

Rabbi Ḥanina in the Talmud raised the intriguing question of whether the legal distinctions between the different domains apply only on the surface level; or do they extend above-ground—beyond the elevation of ten hand-breaths that normally defines the upper limit of a private domain? What was at that time a trifling instance of unrealistic rabbinic casuistry would later take on practical relevance for dealing with air rights in our age of aviation and drones.

In its effort to resolve Rabbi Ḥanina’s query, the Talmud cited an incident that occurred in the academies of fourth-century Babylonia. One Saturday morning, a collection of seven statements was expounded before Rav Ḥisda in the town of Sura, and towards the end of that day the exact same statements were cited before Rava in Pumbedita (today’s Fallujah), some 175 km away! The best explanation that the rabbis could produce for that instantaneous transfer of the teachings over such a large distance was by postulating supernatural channels of communication.

Jewish lore knows of one prominent figure who travels between the earthly and heavenly domains, namely the prophet Elijah. Scripture does not tell of Elijah’s death, but rather of his ascent to heaven in a whirlwind with a chariot of fire. Rabbinic literature relates many conversations between the prophet and Jewish sages, and it was therefore not entirely unreasonable for them to suppose that Elijah had couriered the teachings from Sura to Pumbedita. Since he was of course observant of Jewish law, he could not have walked beyond the permitted limits. Therefore, they initially assumed that he flew the distance (perhaps in a chariot or whirlwind). However, this explanation only works if we accept the premise that there is not any Sabbath no-fly zone in effect above ground level. This reasoning would appear to answer Rabbi Ḥanina’s question.

However, the Talmud rejects that argument. The Elijah hypothesis is not the only plausible way of accounting for the same-day delivery of Rav Ḥisda’s seven statements. The ancient rabbis knew of at least one other figure who could have traversed the distance: “Perhaps it was Joseph the demon who reported them!” Rashi explained that the demon was not subject to the objections leveled against Elijah because he was not Sabbath-observant.

The mention of a demon in an ancient Jewish text is hardly remarkable, since until quite recently virtually every known human culture shared the belief in invisible beings who have to be controlled or conciliated (In our more scientifically advanced civilization we assign similar roles to space aliens, viruses and Google). The Iranian heritage that held sway in Babylonia at that time was particularly rich in its mythology of subversive and malevolent “daevas,” and this is vividly reflected in the Talmud.

It is nonetheless interesting that the supernatural creature mentioned in this story bears a Hebrew name, and that the venues of his activities were rabbinic academies. It is not clear whether he was motivated by a helpful desire to advance the spread of Torah learning, or if he was colluding in a kind of plagiaristic hacking into proprietary Suran knowledge.

This is not the only place in the Talmud that mentions Joseph the demon. For the most part, he appears as a sympathetic figure, one who makes use of his demonic connections to assist the Jewish sages. Thus, Rav Pappa and Rav quote him as a source of practical first-hand advice about how to protect oneself from the machinations of evil spirits who are ready to attack the unfortunate persons who committed the deadly blunder of imbibing or performing other actions in even-numbered units.

Jewish rationalists were understandably reluctant to accept this kind of story at face value. The thirteenth-century Provençal scholar Rabbi Menaḥem Meiri asserted that the Talmud’s reference to Elijah was purely figurative; it alluded to a contemporary teacher—albeit one who was capable of leaping between distant towns like the biblical prophet. Similarly, for Meiri Joseph was not literally a demon. Like all such instances in rabbinic literature, that epithet was being employed here as a rhetorical euphemism to indicate a Jew who violated the Sabbath, and perhaps to contrast him with the proverbial “Joseph who honours the Sabbath,” the devout hero of a well-known talmudic tale.

Rabbi Judah the Pious of Regensburg, the foremost figure in the medieval mystical “Ḥasidei Ashkenaz” movement, insisted that not only do demons believe in the Torah, but they even scrupulous in their observance of all the rabbinic laws. When challenged as to how Joseph was able to transmit his information from Sura to Pumbedita without transgressing the Sabbath laws, Rabbi Judah explained that Joseph in fact never left Pumbedita, where he received the data from a fellow demon stationed in Sura who communicated it to him by means of a “long hollow tablet.”

I am not sure how exactly we are supposed to visualize that ancient communication device. Apparently Rabbi Judah had in mind an ultra-long tube capable of conveying and sustaining a voice over vast distances (He was probably not aware of the actual distance involved). In any case, Rabbi Judah’s disciple Rabbi Isaac Or Zarua‘ challenged his teacher’s explanation, pointing out that as long as there was no Sabbath desecration involved, then there was no reason for the Talmud to abandon its initial hypothesis that it was Elijah who conveyed the information to Pumbedita.

Our knowledge of talmudic Judaism in Babylonia derives almost exclusively from the information contained in the Talmud itself, with very few external archeological artifacts. An interesting exception to this rule is the phenomenon of “incantation bowls.” These are clay bowls whose interior surfaces are inscribed with magical texts in Aramaic, usually written in a continuous spiral beginning from the outer rim. These were intended to restrain or expel hostile demonic beings. The bowls would be placed upside-down so that they would symbolically entrap their supernatural targets. Thousands of these bowls have been unearthed, mostly around Nippur. Most of them are of Jewish provenance, and their wording is often modeled after Jewish legal formulas, especially those that are employed in documents of divorce or excommunications. There are certain rabbis whose names are standardly invoked in the incantations, but these are usually legendary figures who lived long before the time when the bowls were produced.

However, one of those bowls—after listing an impressive roster of figures who endorse the ban, continues: “...And may you be under the ban of Rav Joseph the demon. And may you be under the ban of all demons and dark ones that are in Babylonia.”

For the scribe who composed this incantation, Joseph the demon was not merely an observant Jew (as would later be claimed by Rabbi Judah the Pious), but he even qualified for a rabbinic ordination and the title “Rav”—Rabbi. Evidently the two callings were not regarded as mutually contradictory.

And his sermons might not have been original, but they were probably delivered very quickly.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Preachers, Teachers and Selected Short Features
Preachers, Teachers and Selected Short Features

published by

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, November 9, 2018, p. 13.
  • For further reading:
    • Halbertal, Moshe. Between Torah and Wisdom: Rabbi Menachem Ha-Meiri and the Maimonidean Halakhists in Provence. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2000. [Hebrew]
    • Harari, Yuval. Early Jewish Magic: Research, Method, Sources. Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, Ben Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the East, Yad Ben-Zvi, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2010. [Hebrew]
    • ———. Jewish Magic before the Rise of Kabbalah. 1st edition. Raphael Patai Series in Jewish Folklore and Anthropology. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2017.
    • Harviainen, Tipani. An Aramaic Incantation Bowl from Borsippa: Another Specimen of Eastern Aramaic “Koiné.” Studia Orientalia Edited by the Finnish Oriental Society. Helsinki: Federation of Finnish Learned Societies, 1981.
    • Ilan, Tal. “Rav Joseph the Demon in the Rabbinic Academy in Babylonia: Another Connection between the Babylonian Talmud and the Magic Bowls.” In Let the Wise Listen and Add to Their Learning (Prov. 1:5): Festschrift for Günter Stemberger on the Occasion of His 75th Birthday, edited by Günter Stemberger, Constanza Cordoni, and Gerhard Langer, 381–94. Studia Judaica 90. Berlin ; Boston: De Gruyter, 2016.
    • Levene, Dan. Jewish Aramaic Curse Texts from Late-Antique Mesopotamia: “May These Curses Go Out and Flee.”Magical and Religious Literature of Late Antiquity 2. Leiden: Brill, 2014.
    • Lindbeck, Kristen H. Elijah and the Rabbis: Story and Theology. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
    • Montgomery, James Alan, ed. Aramaic Incantation Texts from Nippur. Philadelphia: University Museum, 1913.
    • Secunda, Shai. The Iranian Talmud : Reading the Bavli in Its Sasanian Context. 1st ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
    • Shaked, Shaul. “Form and Purpose in Aramaic Spells: Some Jewish Themes [the Poetics of Magic Texts].” In Officina Magica: Essays on the Practice of Magic in Antiquity, 1–30. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2005.
    • Shaked, Shaul, James Nathan Ford, and Siam Bhayro. Aramaic Bowl Spells: Jewish Babylonian Aramaic Bowls. Magical and Religious Literature of Late Antiq­uity 20. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013.
    • Steinsaltz, Adin. The Essential Talmud. Translated by Chaya Galai. New York: Basic Books, 1976.