Speculative Fiction Author
36 Days of Judaic Myth: Day 32, The Fear of Death

To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on The Fear of Death.

Day 32: The Fear of Death

"as little as the taking of a hair from the milk"

“as little as the taking of a hair from the milk”

Rabbi Seoram was at his brother Raba’s deathbed. Raba said, “Brother, please beg the Angel of Death not to cause me pain as I die!”

And Rabbi Seoram answered, “Aren’t you and the Angel of the Death old friends? Why not ask him?”

But Raba sighed heavily and said, “The Angel of Death has no respect for the dying.”

“Very well,” said Rabbi Seoram. “When the Angel of Death comes, I will plead to him for mercy. But promise me this: when you arrive on the other side, come back to me in a dream and show me the secret of life and death.”

Raba agreed, and shortly after their conversation, his brother Raba died. A few nights later, Raba appeared to Rabbi Seoram in a dream. “What was death like?” Rabbi Seoram begged. “Did you suffer great torment?”

“No,” said Raba. “I felt no more pain than the prick of a needle when a doctor draws blood. But let me tell you a story. When I was still alive, I sat at the deathbed of Rabbi Nahman, and made the same pact with him you made of me. I said to him, ‘When you die, come to me in a dream and show me the secrets of life and death.’ And Rabbi Nahman came to me in my dreams as he had promised. I asked him the same question you asked of me. ‘Did you suffer greatly, Rabbi Nahman?’ The rabbi answered thusly: ‘The Angel of Death came to me and drew my soul from my body. His touch was as light as a hand drawing a hair out of a jug of milk. However, even if God Almighty were to command me to return to earth and live again, I would refuse the Lord!’ I asked Rabbi Nahman, ‘Why would you refuse the Lord, who has commanded you to live again?’ ‘Because,’ Rabbi Nahman said, ‘my fear of death is that great.'”


The Myth’s Origins

This anecdote comes directly from the Talmud, Tractate Mo’ed Katan 28a, which speaks on the topic of death. This story makes a point to the reader that death is relatively painless: a short pinprick, and it’s done, as brief and soft as a finger drawing a hair from a jug of milk. And yet even knowing this, evening after having gone through this, these men still fear death. The implication that it is an inescapable fact of life: death is terrifying for all, even learned and holy men.


Some Thoughts on the Myth 

This a short but poignant passage in the Talmud, and I find this anecdote quite poetic. Death draws the soul from the body with as light a touch as one draws a hair from a jug of milk. The soul is not yanked free, torn away. It does not suffer great torment. Its release is easy. Yet the idea of death still haunts even the dead, so much so that they would refuse to live again. This story states that there are some things we will always fear, and there is nothing to be done to avert them.

It’s interesting to note, as Raba says, that the Angel of Death will not listen to the pleas of a dying man for mercy. Yet all people die in the same quick way, as a hand draws a hair from milk. So why does he wish for Rabbi Seoram to plead to the Angel of Death for mercy if Raba has already been told death is relatively painless? Because he still feels great terror at the prospect of dying. He understands his total helplessness in the face of death.

This brief anecdote is an almost psychological study into the mind of a dying person. In a few short sentences conveys a powerful message about death and acceptance. Suffering is just as much a part of life as happiness is, and we all, sooner or later, will suffer death as well. Even the most learned and holy men will still fear the Angel of Death when he comes knocking.


Tomorrow’s Myth: The Pargod, The Divine Curtain


36 Days of Judaic Myth: Day 31, Dybbuks, the Possessing Spirits

To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on Dybbuks, the Possessing Spirits

Day 31: Dybbuks, the Possessing Spirits

Dybbuk by Ephraim Moshe Lilien

Dybbuk by Ephraim Moshe Lilien

When a person dies, their soul flies free from the body. It crosses the land, sea, and sky. Sometimes the soul settles in a fish and is eaten by a person. If a blessing is said over the fish, the soul ascends to rest beside God in the Garden of Eden. If the soul settles on land it grows into a fruit, and if these fruits are blessed by a person before being eaten, so too is the soul blessed as it flies up to the Garden of Eden. If the soul ends up in the belly of an animal, again a blessing must be made over the flesh of the animal if the soul is to ascend back to God. Sometimes, souls do not find their way back to God. They get lost on the way to the Garden of Eden. Perhaps blessings were not made over the food they inhabited before it was eaten. Or, if the person was wicked in life, then she is not permitted into the Garden and becomes a wandering spirit. Sometimes these wandering spirits find their way into the body of a living person. We call these possessing spirits dybbuks.

A tale is told of a widow living in the city of Safed in the 16th century who was possessed by a dybbuk. She went to see Rabbi Isaac Luria and ask for his help. To his astonishment, the woman spoke with the voice of a man, and this voice addressed the Rabbi by name, as if they were old friends. The dybbuk said he once had been a student of Rabbi Arsin, which the Rabbi Arsin confirmed. The dybbuk said that as a human being he had slept with another man’s wife and fathered a child with her. While out at sea a storm hit and he drowned. His body was recovered and buried in a Jewish cemetery. But before the earth was dry, the angel Dumah came and used his fiery rod to crack open the grave and take him down to the gates of Gehenna. Yet even there, the soul was not permitted access, for so great was his sin in life. He was punished to wander the earth, continually tormented by three demons.

His soul had taken possession of two more bodies before this unfortunate widow: a rabbi, who escaped the dybbuk by invoking impure spirits, and a dog, who was so upset by the spirit inside of it that it ran and ran until its heart gave out.

Rabbi Arsin tried to perform an exorcism of this dybbuk, but his incantations would not work. So he called in the great Rabbi Hayim Vital. As soon as Rabbi Vital entered the room, the widow turned her back on him.

“Why do you turn your back?” Rabbi Vital asked.

“I cannot bear to look,” said the widow in the voice of a man. “For your countenance is too great.”

Rabbi Vital nodded, because he was a holy man and filled with the light of God. “You are a lost spirit,” the rabbi said. “How long are you cursed to wander?”

“I shall wander this earth until my illegitimate son has died.”

“How did you enter this woman’s house?” the rabbi said. “It is protected by a mezuzah.”

“The mezuzah,” the spirit said, referring to the bound-up prayer scroll attached to the door, “is empty.”

The rabbi gasped, and when he had a man check the mezuzah on the woman’s door, he found his words to be true: there was no prayer parchment wrapped inside.

“And how did you enter this woman’s body?” the rabbi said. “For she is of the House of David.”

“She doubts that the Red Sea truly parted.”

Rabbi Vital was learned in the ways of the Torah and was able to speak to the woman even though the spirit was possessing her. He asked the widow if she believed in the Red Sea miracle, and she replied that she did. He had her repeat this three times, then he commanded the dybbuk, using a secret kabbalistic formula, to depart the woman’s body. The woman shrieked as the spirit fled from her pinky toe of her left foot. A new mezuzah was put up that very night.

The Myth’s Origins

The word dybbuk means to adhere or to cling, and entered common usage in the 17th century through German- and Polish-speaking Jews. Tales of dybbuks and possessing spirits are rife in medieval literature. Early tales of demonic possession in Jewish folklore can be found in Josephus’s Antiquities 8:2.5, “God also enabled him to learn that skill which expels demons, which is a science useful and sanative to men. He composed such incantations also by which distempers are alleviated. And he left behind him the manner of using exorcisms, by which they drive away demons, so that they never return; and this method of cure is of great force unto this day.” And Talmud Me’ilah 17b speaks of an exorcism. 

But in the latter medieval texts, the possessing spirit is not a demon but that of a corrupted soul who could not enter paradise. This concept went hand in hand with the concept of gilgul, or the transmigration of souls, and it was understood that these lost spirits sought refuge in human bodies. One of the tests of true faith among Jews was the belief in the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea. And those who didn’t believe in this miracle were seen as leaving themselves open to unclean spirits.

Also, the mezuzah, literally “doorpost,” is a small prayer written on parchment, wrapped in a tiny ornamental box, and affixed to the doors of one’s home, as prescribed in Deuteronomy 6:9. It was believed, in much the same way that the lamb’s blood painted on the door posts spared the ancient Hebrews the wrath of the Angel of Death during the Exodus, that affixing a mezuzah to one’s door protected that home from malicious spirits. An empty mezuzah was one such way these evil spirits tricked people into letting them into their home.

Rabbi Isaac Luria and his many disciples wrote down many stories about dybbuks, and they documented how one might exorcise them. Those who were learned in kabbalah and knew how to apply the Holy Name, these baalai shem, or masters of the name, were able to exorcise these unclean spirits and send them down to Gehenna, where they belonged. 

One of the most famous instances of this myth is S. Ansky’s 1916 play “The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds.” S. Ansky became deeply interested in Judaic myth and folklore and feared it might be lost as the culture interacted more and more with the rapidly modernizing world. Between the years of 1911 and 1914, he dove deep into Eastern European and Russian regions, the so called “Pale of Settlement,” to document the traditions of the local Jews, asking them more than 2000 detailed questions. His assistant Samuel Schreier-Shrira stated that S. Ansky was particularly impressed by the stories of a Mirapol hasidic rebbe known as Samuel of Kaminka-Miropol and his reputation as an exorcist of dybbuk spirits. Before that, the concept of dybbuks was not widely known outside of Jewish circles. 

Some Thoughts on the Myth 

Tales of possession by evil forces are rife in the world’s many faiths. What’s common about the tales of Jewish dybbuks are the same basic premises: a spirit possesses a body and causes chaos until a rabbi intervenes. Then the dybbuk tells its tale to the rabbi, before the rabbi “exorcises” the spirit, and the person is freed from its evil influence. The possessed is often someone of wavering or no faith, though not always.

What might be occurring here is a religious explanation for mental illness and its periodic psychoses. Whether by placebo or through a talk therapy — the “dybbuk”telling his or her story — the “evil spirit” is freed from the body. The disturbing mental energy is thus discharged, and the person goes on living his or her life. Imagine a person with schizophrenia living within a hasidic world. How often would they need to be exorcised? And would talking about their needs and their story discharge the turbulent mental energy enough to quell the psychotic episode? Did these exorcisms form an early version of psychotherapy? Or did these religious machinations only make things worse? If someone with mental illness was seen as “evil,” this would no doubt adversely affect his or her relationship with the community. They might be shunned and feared.

Also, here we see another example of of a paranoid world-view. Only by obeying God’s laws and protecting one’s home with magic mezuzah can one protect herself from evil spirits. Doubt the Red Sea miracle? Then you leave yourself open to possession. Don’t want to put a mezuzah on your home? Then evil spirits will enter it.

I feel bad for the mentally ill person who was both a believer in God and the Red Sea miracle and had a proper mezuzah on her door, only to be told she was “possessed” by evil. While these tales might make great fictional story fodder, in real life such myths probably accounted for much suffering among people.


Tomorrow’s Myth: The Fear of Death


36 Days of Judaic Myth: Day 30, The Origin of Chaos

To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on The Origin of Chaos.

Day 30: The Origin of Chaos

The Gnostic Kabbalah Myth Salad!

The Gnostic Kabbalah Myth Salad!

Before the existence of the world, there was tohu and vohu, chaos and void. Chaos comes from darkness, and the darkness was created by an infinite force that existed before all creation, since the very beginning of existence. This infinite force created many kinds of immortal creatures, all the gods, and all the demons. And from this infinite source came Wisdom, which was made in its likeness. Wisdom took the form of the primordial light and acted as a veil separating us from the world above.

The Myth’s Origins

This myth comes from the Gnostic text, On the Origin of the World, one of the 13 Gnostic texts found in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. The text appears to comment on the book of Genesis. Genesis 1:2 says, “Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.” And Genesis 1:26 says, “And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.'”

The myth predates the Kabbalistic system of Sephirot, or divine emanations, but shares many similarities with that concept. The infinite force that predates all things may be the Ein Sof, the endless. When the Ein Sof decides to create, it forms Keter, or crown. This is the first stirrings of its will. This will then creates a vessel in its “image,” known as Wisdom. In the Sephirotic system of Kabbalah, this is Chokhmah. In Gnosticism, this is Sophia.   

But whereas the Gnostics see this world as totally evil and needed to be escaped at all costs, the Lurianic Kabbalists see this world as full of good and evil; this world is broken and needs repair to bring it into holiness, and we play a necessary part in that process. 

Some Thoughts on the Myth 

One of the central tenets of Gnosticism is the notion that we each have s holy spark within us that has fallen into this world and become trapped in a human soul. This spark needs to be awakened by a divine aspect of ourselves so that we can be reunited with the divine. This is quite similar to the later Lurianic concept of the Shattering of the Vessels and the raising of the Holy Sparks, or Tikkun Olam. 

There are other parallels as well. In Gnosticism, creation of the world is seen as a kind of divine accident or fall from a prior supernal state. In Lurianic Kabbalah, creation is a conscious decision by God. Nevertheless, God’s creation shatters; his primordial worlds cannot hold his light, and they “fall” to the earth. 

In Gnosticism, the divine spark within us is trapped in a realm of shadows. This parallels the Kabbalistic Sitra Achra, or the Other Side, in which forces of evil cling to the fallen sparks when we commit acts of sin. In both traditions, the purpose of existence is to reunite these fallen sparks back to their divine home. In Gnosticism, the sparks are wholly within, but in Kabbalah, the sparks are seen as within and without: the world needs repairing too.

It makes me wonder how much Isaac Luria knew of Gnosticism and its teachings. Was he learned in Gnostic texts, or were the ideas transmitted to him through other means? While Isaac Luria’s myths are said to have come from his readings of the Zohar, his ideas are close enough to Gnostic concepts that it’s clear their’s a causal relationship between the two conceptual systems, but perhaps not a direct one.

Modern Jewish orthodoxy follow many customs based on the kabbalistic myths set down by Isaac Luria and his disciples, which means that, in an indirect way, the Hasidim are modern practitioners of an ancient form of Gnosticism, filtered through a Talmudic lens. Which is super fascinating to consider, because the Gnostics were a second-century heretical Christian sect who got their ideas from Buddhists and Neoplatonists and Aristotelians, to name a few!

Just call it a myth salad.

Tomorrow’s Myth: Dybbuks, the Possessing Spirits


36 Days of Judaic Myth: Day 29, Dune, Frank Herbert, and The Shortening of the Way

To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on Dune, Frank Herbert, and The Shortening of the Way.

Day 29: Dune, Frank Herbert, and The Shortening of the Way

Paul Atreides, the Kwisatz Haderach

Paul Atreides, the Kwisatz Haderach

Tales are told of great and learned rabbis who, by the practice of using the secret Holy Names of God, were able to travel vast distances in a short amount of time. One such tale is of Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov, an 18th century rabbi who lived in Poland. Often he and his disciples would set off for a town hundreds of miles away, only to arrive in a few hours.

One night he and some new students had been traveling all day, and the town was nowhere in sight. The sun was nearing the horizon, when the Sabbath would begin. They could not drive their horses on the Sabbath, and this was no place to set up camp for the night, for in those parts of the world Jews were treated with suspicion, contempt, and often violence, and the roads were known to be filled with dangerous men at night. “Rebbe!” his disciples cried. “We are hours from any town and the Sabbath approaches! What shall we do?”

“Not to worry,” said the Baal Shem Tov. And just as he spoke, the town appeared as if from beyond a cloud, and the landscape all around them had changed, as if they had crossed a vast distance suddenly. “Ah,” the students said. “Our master has performed kefitzat ha-derekh, the Shortening of the Way.”

One of the Baal Shem Tov’s disciples is quoted as saying, “That was one of my first experiences with kefitzat ha-derekh, the Shortening of the Way. Somehow the rebbe was able to travel great distances in impossibly short periods of time. I do not know how he did it. Dozens of times we traveled hundreds of miles in only a few hours. As the horses could normally cover only five to ten miles in an hour, we never understood how the master was able to accomplish such a feat. But he did it so many times, we stopped questioning.”

It is said that throughout history all baalei shem, or masters of the name, had this power of kefitzat ha-derekh. They studied the inner secrets of Kabbalah, and using special incantations of God’s Holy Name and the names of the angels, they were able to perform their miracles of transport.

The Myth’s Origins

The Talmud speaks of three individuals who kefitzat ha-aretz, earth jumped. They are Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, Jacob the Patriarch, and Abishai ben Zeruiah. As the awareness of and study of Kabbalah increased, tales of individuals being able to jump across vast distances became more common throughout Europe. People who performed this miracle were called the baalei shem, or masters of the Holy Name. Sometimes they chanted the name, other times they inscribed it on the horses’ hooves.

Though this miracle was typically performed by those learned in Kabbalah, sometimes the miracle happened without the traveler’s knowledge; it was performed by God for the traveler’s benefit. But frequently it is the holy man, like the Baal Shem Tov, who uses the kefitzat ha-derekh to reach a distant city so he may perform his righteous duty, his religious obligations, or help someone in need. Though the Torah explicitly forbids using any kind of magic, the use of kefitzat ha-derekh was nonetheless widespread in folktales.

The first written mention of the kefitzat ha-derekh is in a letter sent by a North African community to one Rabbi Hai Gaon. The community wanted to know if kefitzat ha-derekh was possible, because they had heard tales of a learned holy man who was seen in one place on Sabbath eve, and on the very same night he was seen hundreds of miles away. The next morning, he was seen in the first place again. How was this possible? they asked. Rabbi Hai Gaon did not believe in kefitzat ha-derekh, and denied the existence of such miracles. Yet the stories lived on in folktales, especially from the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov.

Some Thoughts on the Myth

So what does all this have to do with Frank Herbert and his novel Dune, as in the title of my post? In Frank Herbert’s book, the religious order of the Bene Gesserit has been attempting to breed a super-being, one whom they call the Kwisatz Haderach. They wanted this being to be a woman and thus fall under the control of their female religious order. But Lady Jessica unexpectedly gives birth to a boy, Paul Atreides, and thus the Bene Gesserit’s plan for domination of the universe fails when Paul cannot be controlled by anyone. The Kwisatz Haderach is known in the books as “the one who can be two places simultaneously” and “the one who can be many places at once.” Hebert defines the Kwisatz Haderach as “The Shortening of the Way.”

Also of interest to me is that the words “Bene Gesserit” resemble one of the names of the Jewish people, the Bene Jeshurun, which approximately means “Children of the Upright” in Hebrew.

I was unable to find any sources where Herbert describes how he came up with the Kwisatz Haderach, but it’s clear the myth influenced his concept of Dune.

So here we see again, as with Spock’s Vulcan salute, another Judaic myth making its way into popular science fiction culture, often with few people realizing their mythical origins. 

Tomorrow’s Myth: The Origin of Chaos