This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Dancing with the Demons*

A recurring question in the Talmud concerns the need for conscious intention in the performance of religious precepts. Though everyone would agree that we should initially strive to be fully mindful of our actions, there is still room to ask: What is the de facto status of a mitzvah that was performed under compulsion or absentmindedly? Is the performance deemed adequate, or must it be done all over again.

Depending on the precise nature of each commandment and the wording of its Biblical proof-text, different rulings are applied to different cases. Predictably, there are occasional disputes among the rabbis about how to interpret the sources.

The Talmud raises this issue in connection with the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. As usual, it attempts to translate the theoretical considerations into a concrete case, as follows: What is the status of a person who sounds the shofar "in song," as a mere musical instrument.

In explaining the passage, Rashi’s commentary adds the following remark: "In the text of my teacher Rabbi Isaac ben Judah I have seen the reading ‘if one sounds it for a demon’; i.e., in order to drive away an evil spirit."

The textual variation between "song" and "demon" is after all a barely perceptible one in an unvocalized Hebrew text. The words "le-shir" and "le-shed" differ only by a dalet and a resh, which are graphically almost identical. Either reading provides a valid instance of how someone could blow a shofar without intending to fulfil the religious precept.

Further investigation reveals that the divergence in the Talmudic texts predates Rashi and his teachers by several generations. The matter is discussed by Rav Hai Ga’on, who headed the Babylonian academy of Pumbedita in the tenth century. Rav Hai reports: "Our reading is ‘in song’; such as to accompany the psalm that is sung over the offering of a sacrifice, or to make music music… However we have heard that there are those in the academy of Mehasiah who have the text ‘for a demon’…; At any rate, we have no idea how or why a person would sound a shofar for such creatures."

This last remark has an unmistakable tone of ironic sarcasm, expressive of a longstanding academic rivalry that frequently coloured the relations between those two foremost institutions of Jewish learning whose origins can be traced to the third century. The yeshivahs of Pumbedita and Mata Mehasiah–the latter is better known by its other name "Sura"–were the principal venues for the debates of the Babylonian Talmud, and they continued to co-exist through the Islamic era (though then they moved to the new metropolis of Baghdad).

Rav Hai’s derisive dismissal of the "demon" tradition in the Talmud text is consistent with a fundamental divergence in the religious outlooks of the two Babylonian academies, one that continues to surface throughout the Talmudic and Ge’onic eras. While the Pumbeditans were distinguished by their rationalism, the Suran rabbis had a reputation for delving into magic and the supernatural. There is no small measure of irony in the fact that Rav Hai himself acquired a posthumous reputation as a mystic, the result of fictitious traditions that were ascribed to him by later generations.

Thus, among the revered scholars of Sura we find the ninth-century Ga’on Rabbi Moses Hakohen, famous for his expertise in amulets and spells. Shortly afterwards, the story goes, the Ga’on Rav Natronai of Sura transported himself magically from Babylonia to Spain and back in order to teach Torah, without taking a caravan and without being observed in any conventional mode of transportation. This episode was often invoked by the proud Spanish Jews as evidence of the antiquity and authority of their scholarly tradition.

When Rav Hai Ga’on was asked to comment on Natronai’s legendary exploit, he treated it with his customary skepticism: "Stuff and nonsense!" he assured the Jews of Kairowan, Tunisia. "Perhaps it was just some imposter who showed up claiming to be Rav Natronai."

Though he insisted that the reports of Rav Moses Hakohen’s magical abilities were greatly exaggerated, Rav Hai admitted that similar beliefs were popular in Sura. This should not be surprising, since they dwell in close proximity to the Babylonians and the House of Nebuchadnezzar, and have been influenced by their pagan superstitions. Not so the enlightened sages of Pumbedita who have never been tainted by such folly.

The moral of the story, concludes Rav Hai, is that a fool will believe everything he is told!

Both the Suran and the Pumbeditan approaches had their followers among subsequent generations of Jews. In spite of Rav Hai’s professed perplexity about the purpose of sounding the shofar for a demon, it is of a well established rabbinic belief that one of the objectives of the shofar is to "confuse Satan" when he rises to accuse before the Heavenly Court. Many Jewish thinkers have been quick to insist that such imagery must be understood metaphorically, though others (like Maimonides) omitted that explanation altogether.

However there have also been Jews who believed with stark literalness in the efficacy of the shofar as a weapon against demonic forces. This was particularly true among the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe who had less exposure to scientific and philosophical rationalism.

Thus it happened one Rosh Hashanah in medieval Frankfort that the community’s shofar could not be made to utter a sound, and the congregation had no doubt of the cause: Satan was sitting inside the ram’s horn! Once the problem had been diagnosed, the remedy was a simple one: Psalm 91, long acknowledged as a potent defense against evil spirits, was recited three times into the haunted shofar, and immediately it became usable.

Hopefully, the sounding of the shofar this year will be received neither as musical entertainment nor as protection against demons, but rather as a meaningful call to improve our spiritual and moral lives for the coming year.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, Sept 17 1998, pp. 20-21.

  • Bibliography:
    • S. Asaf, Tequfat ha-ge'onim vesifrutah, Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1967.
    • J. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition, New York: Atheneum, 1970.