Thursday, March 14, 2013

A different approach to sheidim

The sages of the Talmud describe all sorts of experiences with sheidim – creatures which are neither human nor beast, which may or may not be visible or tangible, and which affect our world in numerous ways. The term sheid is often translated, unsatisfyingly, as "demon".

I have heard all sorts of explanations for the nature of sheidim, including the idea [attributed to Rambam, as you will see below] that sheidim are an outdated superstition, but none of the explanations suits the canon of sheid-related material in the writings of the sages.

I am indebted to Rabbi Hillel Goldberg for showing me the following explanation. I must confess that I don't understand it, but the little I grasp says this is a very interesting idea. It comes from notes recorded by Rav Yitzchak Hutner, published on page 74 of a Sefer Zikaron compiled in his memory. The book is available in the Otzar haChochmah database. Here I present my own translation, followed by the original Hebrew:

"In the declarations of our sages we have found many indications of the existence of sheidim. This is the way to explain it:

"The statement in Avot d'Rabbi Natan 31 is known, that all that exists in the universe exists in man. The reverse is also true.

"The power of imagination is found in Man. With this power, Man designs for himself a reality which does not exist, at all, in the universe; this exists only in the realm of imagination. Since this power exists in Man, its parallel must exist in some creature in the universe. Those creatures are the ones called sheidim – theirs is an existence which is not an existence.

"When we say of something that it is only imagination, we mean that nothing like it exists in reality. However, certainly, for one who deals in human psychology, when he investigates the activities of the human brain, for him this imagination is certainly full-fledged reality.

"Thus, it is appropriate that Rambam wrote (Commentary to Mishnah Avodah Zarah 4:7) that sheidim do not exist in reality, and this does not contradict, at all, the declarations of our sages which indicate the existence of sheidim."

במאמרי חז"ל מצינו כמה פעמים ענינים מורים על מציאותם של שדים. ומהלך הסברה בזה הוא דידוע מאמר אדר"נ פל"א שכל מה שיש בעולם יש באדם. והוא הדין לאידך גיסא. והנה באדם נמצא במוח כוח הדמיון, שבכוח זה האדם מצייר לעצמו מציאות שאינה מצויה בכלל העולם. וה"ז מציאות רק בכוח המדמה. ומכיון שישנו כוח כזה באדם, בודאי שנמצא דוגמתו בריה בעולם. הבריות הללו הם הם הנקראים שדים. כלומר, שהם מציאות-בלתי-מציאות. והנה באמרנו על איזה ענין שאין זה אלא דמיון, כונתנו שאין דבר כזה במציאות. אבל  מי שעסקו הוא בכוחות הנפש של האדם, בודאי שבשעה שהוא חוקר את הנעשה במוחו של אדם, בודאי שבשבילו הדמיון הזה הוא מציאות גמורה. ולהכי שפיר כתב הר"מ (פיה"מ ע"ז ד) דשדים אינם במציאות כלל. ואין זה סותר כלל וכלל לכל המאמרים המורים על מציאותם של שדים.

What do you think?


  1. Is the idea here that sheidim exist in some sense purely because someone thinks they do?

    1. It seemed to me more like it was saying 'sheidim exist because it's possible for someone to think they do.'

  2. It's possible to think many other things are real, too! Is every product of our imagination, arising from either yetzer, in the same category?

  3. Steg (dos iz nit der šteg)March 15, 2013 at 12:32 AM

    Interesting! I usually translate "sheidim" not as 'demons' but as 'gremlins' (because from the descriptions they just sound much more mischievous than demonic)... but it sounds like Rav Hutner would prefer to translate it as 'hobgoblins [of little minds]'

  4. I like this because it has ramifications for other non-physical creations such as angels, perhaps according to the Rambam they don't "exist" either?

    What I understand he is saying is that if we say man is a microcosm of creation then every facet of man must have a spiritual counterpart.

    1. I think the Rambam is saying they're all in the mind, and they DO exist anyway. In the neo-Platonic model of creation the Rambam outlines in Moreh sec II and in Yesodei haTorah ch. 2, it's all about Thought.

      Hashem has a Thought, which has a thought, which has a thought, and so on down 10 levels of angels, the spheres, and us. And a prophet is someone who can ascend the chain, and therefore experiences metaphysically higher realities.

      This idea is a book, not a blog comment. I did a somewhat longer but still insufficient explanation at this recap and the blog posts it points you to.

      In any case, it could well be that the Rambam identifies metaphysics and ideas. The Leshem seems to understand / spin the Rambam that way, when the Leshem uses the Moreh to explain the Qabbalistic idea that the matter of one world is the forms of the world below it.

  5. "Thus, it is appropriate that Rambam wrote (Commentary to Mishnah Avodah Zarah 4) that sheidim do not exist in reality

    Which mishna in chapter 4?

    1. 4:7. To quote in part:

      והם דברים שזכו לפרסום רב אצל האומות, ושורש זה, הצאבה, והם העמים אשר יצא אברהם אבינו מכללם וחלק על דעותיהם הנפסדות במה שאצר ה' בליבו מן החכמה, והיו מגדלים את הכוכבים ומייחסים להם פעולות שאינן להם, והם אשר יסדו את גזירת הכוכבים והכישוף והלחשים והורדת הרוחניות ושיחות הכוכבים והשדים והקסם והניחוש לכל ריבוי מיניהם, ודרישת המתים, והרבה מאלה הענינים אשר שלפה התורה האמיתית חרבה עליהם וכרתה אותם, והם שורש עבודה זרה וענפה.

      The Rambam says sheidim are one of the AZ ideas the torah exists to stamp out.

  6. Bob, Daniel-
    I don't know; neither of those seems right, but I can't propose a better explanation.

    Too '80s, sorry.

    R' Micha-
    But then they are as real as anything else in the universe?

    R' Micha beat me to it, but I have now added a link in the post (and a link to the text in Avos d'Rabbi Nasan as well).

  7. The Rambam in Yesodei haTorah 2:5 says that mal'akhim are *more* real. Hashem is the most real (1:1), and each step removed is contingent on the prior step.

    I don't know if he would say that about sheidim. They are abstractions, tzuros beli chomer, but they are being produced from people, not in the above described chain.

  8. Even in current psychology, people talk about "exorcising one's demons." Today we psychologize them, but this does not mean they do not exist. The point might be that psychological trauma is real, even if it does not represent any kind of physical or metaphysical reality on the outside and is simply a projection of the mind. But a projection of the mind affects people in real life and must be dealt with; to express that trauma as an outside force/sheid may simply indicate that it is not necessarily intrinsic to a person but can be treated and gotten rid of. (H/T to Alan Brill's lectures as the basis for some of my own thoughts on the subject.)

  9. There is an old Basque saying: Everything that has a name exists.....

  10. Does mr.Rambam imagination is real?