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36 Days of Judaic Myth: Day 35, The Feast at the End of Days

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 Feast at the End of Days.

Day 35: The Feast at the End of Days

Behemoth and Leviathan by William Blakea=

Behemoth and Leviathan by William Blake

On the day the Messiah will come to redeem humankind all wickedness will vanish like smoke from the face of the earth. That day, God will set a gigantic table inlaid with precious stones and surrounded by rivers of balsam, and there he will invite the greatest scholars and their students from around the world. Jacob, the patriarch, will be called to the table, because his name is Israel, because when the people of Israel suffer, so too does Jacob, the patriarch, because his name is Israel too. At this table, the righteous will feast upon the three beasts, Behemoth, Leviathan, and the Ziz. Some say they will also eat of the Messianic-ox, which dwells in Paradise, waiting for the End of Days, when it will be slaughtered and served at the Messianic banquet. 

God will offer the righteous a choice of three wines, citrus, cider, or grape, from fruits preserved from the six days of creation. It is said that this Messianic wine was only served once, when Jacob had no wine to serve his father Isaac, and so an angel provided him with some. On this day, God will leave his Throne of Glory and sit with all the righteous. With the skin of the Leviathan, God will make a sukkah, and the righteous will dwell there in holiness. The parts of Leviathan that are not eaten will be spread across the walls of Jerusalem, where the city will shine so brightly that the whole world will know its light. 

 

The Myth’s Origins

The book of Isaiah speaks of a great feast at the time of the Messiah’s arrival: “And in this mountain will the Lord of hosts make unto all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.” And Tractate Baba Bathra 75a of the Babylonian Talmud says, “The Holy One, blessed be He, will in time to come make a banquet for the righteous from the flesh of Leviathan; for it is said: Companions will make a banquet of it.” The same tractate also says, “The Holy One, blessed be He, will in time to come make a tabernacle for the righteous from the skin of Leviathan; for it is said: Canst thou fill tabernacles with his skin.” And again, “The rest of Leviathan will be spread by the Holy One, blessed be He, upon the walls of Jerusalem, and its splendor will shine from one end of the world to the other; as it is said: And nations shall walk at thy light, and kings at the brightness of thy rising.”

It is customary to recite a prayer at the conclusion of Sukkot that speaks of Leviathan: “May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our forefathers, that just as I have fulfilled and dwelt in this sukkah, so may I merit in the coming year to dwell in the sukkah of the skin of Leviathan. Next year in Jerusalem.” At the end of Shavuot, the commemoration of the reception of the Torah, Jews recite the Akdamut prayer, which among others things, states that Leviathan and Behemoth will engage in a fierce battle, but God will slay them both with his mighty sword. 

In some versions of this myth, the Messianic ox and the Behemoth are conflated; they are the same beast, and many depictions of the Behemoth are ox-like. According to the Midrash, the Behemoth can only be killed by the one who created it, i.e. God, and therefore he will slaughter the beast at the end of days. In other tales, Leviathan and Behemoth battle it to the death, killing each other. Since Leviathan, Behemoth and Ziz were often seen as a triad of beasts dominating the Sea, Land, and Sky, they were often grouped together. In scripture, when the Behemoth is mentioned, there is also mention of “wild beasts of the field,” which were interpreted as birds, hence the addition of the Ziz. Thus the feasting of all three at the Messianic banquet represents the complete dominion of God over the earth’s sea, land and sky.

 

Some Thoughts on the Myth 

As I’ve said in previous posts, I love mythical creatures, and here we get a myth that incorporates three of them. At the end of days, the righteous get to feast on these giant beasts. The significance of the feast itself is obvious: it’s a time for rejoicing, and God invites to his table those whom he sees as most worthy of his blessings. Namely, righteous scholars, i.e. those who have devoted their lives to the study of Torah. But why these beasts in particular? I think because these are creatures that represent our fear. Each rules one portion of the earth. The eating of them signifies dominion over them and thus the end of fear. The coming of the Messiah ushers in a new age where terror vanishes. We eat what once frightened us at the table of God. What more do we have to fear after that? But until that time, until the redemption, we must dwell in this earthly realm under the dominion of frightful beasts. Until then, wickedness rules the earth.

I find it fascinating that among the orthodox, prayers mentioning Leviathan and Behemoth are common. These mythical sea and land beasts, once believed to lurk in deep waters or stalk distant landscapes, are still vibrantly alive in this myth that persists to this day. Eventually, if we lead righteous lives, we will devour our fears at the table of God. What once terrified us will decorate our holiest city, so that its light may shine forth. The monster’s skin will be make into dwellings to protect us. It’s a powerful message of transformation of terror into peace. It’s no wonder this myth has persisted for so long.

Also, I’m kind of hungry now.

 

Tomorrow’s Myth: The Lamed Vav, The Thirty-Six Hidden Righteous

 


36 Days of Judaic Myth: Day 34, The Evil Eye

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 Evil Eye.

Day 34: The Evil Eye

A Hamsa or Hand of Miriam talisman to ward off the Evil Eye

A Hamsa or Hand of Miriam talisman to ward off the Evil Eye

If one encounters good fortune in this life, if your blessings are abundant, one should not boast of them, for this attracts the jealous stare — the Ayin Hara, the Evil Eye — from others. If too many people become jealous, the Heavenly Court notices and reconsiders its judgment upon the boaster. Does this individual deserve such blessings that have been bestowed upon them? Thus, the boasting of one’s blessings one may bring about a reversal of good fortune.

There are some folks who simply cannot bear the good fortune of others– so great is their jealousy — and they alone have the power of the Evil Eye. They able to alter Heaven’s judgment upon the good fortune of another simply through their evil stare. 

There are many ways to ward off the negative effects of the Evil Eye. If one speaks of good fortune, we finish the sentence with Keynahora, or “no evil eye.” A chai necklace with the letters spelling the number 18 and the word “life” wards off evil. One should not have two weddings in one day, for too many blessings attract the Evil Eye.

However, if the Evil Eye has been provoked there are magical ways to shake off its negative influence. One may use mirrors, red and blue objects, to direct the Evil Eye’s glimpse away from you. One may chant a sacred verse while jumping our shouting (or both) to scare the Evil Eye away. Placing a precious stone between the eyes, placing a spot of dirt or ash between the forehead of a child, spitting three times onto the fingers, throwing salt into the corners of the room, and piercing a lemon with iron nails are all known ways to ward off the Evil Eye. 

If one is a direct descendant of Joseph, the Evil Eye has no power over them, for as it is said in the Talmud, “If a man on going into a town is afraid of the Evil Eye, let him take the thumb of his right hand in his left hand and the thumb of his left hand in his right hand, and say: I, so-and-so, am of the seed of Joseph over which the evil eye has no power.” If that fails, one may also pay a person who specializes in Evil Eye removal a nominal fee to remove the its baleful curse.

The Myth’s Origins

The Evil Eye is mentioned nowhere in the five books of the Torah, but appears several times in the Talmud and in various kabbalistic texts. The Talmud Tractate Berakoth 20a and 55b speaks much of the Evil Eye, the Ayin Hara. Its root cause is always jealousy; it is considered sinful to boast of one’s successes and blessings, and doing so brings about the jealousy of others, their covetous stares, the “Evil Eye.”

In Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of our Fathers, a Mishnaic text, Chapter 2 says, “Go and see which is the worst trait, the one that a person should most distance himself from. Said Rabbi Eliezer: An evil eye. Said Rabbi Joshua: An evil friend. Said Rabbi Yossei: An evil neighbor…” One should, the rabbis implore, cultivate a “good eye,” toward our fellow humans: we should have gratitude for their successes, and not wish them misfortune.  

The Evil Eye is not unique to Judaism, of course. The ancient Greeks spoke of it often, and today many cultures and religions, believe in its power. In fact there are many talismans uses to ward off its ill effects. There is the hamsa symbol, sometimes known as Hand of Miriam or Hand of God charm, which has been gaining popularity in the West again in charms, necklaces, and other hanging objects. There are also nazars, discs of concentric blue and white circles representing an evil eye that are hung at the entrances to stores and workplaces used to ward off the Evil Eye.

In Ashkenazic culture it’s very common for one to say, “Kaynahora!” (no evil eye!) after mentioning positive news as a way to ward off evil influences. It serves as a kind of “knock on wood,” as protection against evil. Also, when asking or speaking of one’s age, we add the phrase, “Biz hundert un tsvantzik!” (until 120 years!) so as to ward off the negative effects of stating any good blessings. It was until recently very common for grandparents of Ashkenazic culture to call their grandchildren, “Meuske,” (ugly) as a kind of coded blessing. One would not want to attract the Evil Eye by calling them beautiful! It was a way to praise them covertly.

The myth persists today among many people, and for a nominal fee one can visit a woman who will remove the effects of the Evil Eye.

Some Thoughts on the Myth 

Life is unpredictable. We walk out our front door (or sometimes before we even step outside) and a series of unfortunate events occur. A picture falls off the wall and the glass shatters. Cleaning up the glass, we cut our finger. On our way to the doctor we get into a fender bender. The cut gets infected. Maybe our child gets a rare disease, we lose our job just as we purchase a new home, or just as we reach a successful milestone in our life a loved one passes away. It is human nature to try to ascribe meaning to unconnected events, and so, rather than these happenings being random, we ascribe to them a malevolent force: the Evil Eye.

Like the Evil Inclination, the Evil Eye temps us at every turn. Not only are we subject to its effects from others, but we have the power to inflict it. It seems to me that what the rabbis describe in the Talmud and the superstitions around the Evil Eye encompass is a psychological state of uncertainty. Jealousy, both in us and of toward us from others, leads to resentment; resentment may lead to ill will. Therefore, boasting can lead to malevolent behavior toward you from others. And because this earthly world is not all there is in Judaism, boasting can lead to ill effects from Heaven as well. 

If we believe that we are subject to evil forces, our lives will corroborate that belief. And if we believe we are protected from evil, our life will reflect that. What I’m talking about is a psychological sense of feeling protected or unprotected. What these talismans and phrases do is offer us the semblance of control. Oftentimes in this crazy world, we feel terribly vulnerable. A hamsa charm or Evil Eye talisman guarding our workplace or a Kaynahora! declared after good news makes us feel as if we are in control. But the difficult truth to accept is that, though we can take a thousand precautions, are not the masters of our fate.

Tomorrow’s Myth: The Feast at the End of Days

 


36 Days of Judaic Myth: Day 33, The Pargod, The Divine Curtain

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 Pargod, The Divine Curtain.

Day 33: The Pargod, The Divine Curtain

The Pargod, The Divine Curtain

It’s so shimmery! The Pargod, The Divine Curtain

There is a curtain in heaven that separates God from the angels. We call this curtain the Pargod. This curtain is exceedingly splendid — it glows with empyrean light — and the light forms the letters of the Holy Name of God across it. Everything that is on this curtain also appears in our world — everything that exists is represented there. But not only what exists, but everything that has existed and everything that ever will exist is represented on the Pargod. Only the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence and God’s Bride, and the angel Metatron are permitted on the other side of this curtain to glimpse the divine splendor.

Rabbi Ishmael once visited heaven, led by the angel Metatron, and there he glimpsed the Pargod in all its glorious splendor. He saw, written upon this brilliant curtain, the whole history of the world. As he glimpsed the histories it was as if he were experiencing these things himself. 

The Myth’s Origins

In Jewish synagogues, the Torah scrolls are separated from the congregation by a curtain. This tradition dates back to the ancient Temple and desert Tabernacle when the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary, was separated from the outer chambers by a curtain. Exodus 26:31 says, “And thou shalt make a veil of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen; with cherubim the work of the skillful workman shall it be made.” This was to signify that one is entering into God’s presence, which is separate from ordinary existence. It was believed that within this barrier, separating the profane from the holy, the finite from the infinite, the Divine Presence dwelled, and various ritual purifications needed to take place before one could enter into such chambers.

The notion of such a curtain separating God from the rest of heaven comes from the Third Book of Enoch, which says, “Come, and I will show thee the Curtain of the Divine Majesty which is spread before the Holy One, blessed be He, and whereon are graven all the generations of the world and all their doings, both what they have done and what they will do until the end of all generations.”

Moses encounters God on Mt. Sinai, God says in Exodus 33:20, “Thou can not see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.” But here in this myth of the Pargod even most of the angels are forbidden from viewing God, such is his supernal splendor.  He sits on his Divine Throne with the Shekhinah (the Divine Presence) and Metatron by his side. 

It’s long been said that God knows all, past and future, and this myth gives that notion a physical object to represent his knowledge: a curtain, upon which is written the entire history of the world. This mirrors in many ways the Torah itself, which is seen among certain mystical groups to contain divine secrets about the past and future, as well as rules for the present. The Midrash Tehillim 90:12 says, from interpreting the Psalms, that the Torah existed 2,000 years before the world. God created every letter of its pages before he created earth and humanity.

Some Thoughts on the Myth 

Judaism is filled with separations. Separations of holy days from ordinary ones. Kosher food from non-kosher. The Sabbath from the rest of the week. The inner sanctuary from the outer. Thus it’s not surprising to find the myth extended to God’s realm itself. The Lord’s countenance is so bright, only the holiest may enter. The curtain separates the finite from the infinite.

What I find the most interesting about this myth is the curtain itself, upon which is written, in glowing, supernal letters, the entire history of the universe. God has a plan for the world, which he has inscribed on his curtain. Nothing is unknown to him. The concept is fascinating and has appeared in various analogs among many fantasy stories over the ages (Borges “The Aleph” comes to mind).

It brings up interesting questions about free will, that has been asked again and again. If God knows all past, present, and future events, where in that divine plan is there room for human decision? Should we simply not try at all, because no matter what we do, our plan is written? If we chose to give up, it is written. If we chose to try harder, it is written. Nothing we do is outside of God’s plan. If that is true, then is the sinner guiltless because his path was ordained? Does the saint lose his holiness because it was not him, but God who made him as he was? This is why the notion of predestination has never sat well with me. In such a world, we are all zombies.

Nevertheless, I do love the idea of a glowing curtain upon which the whole history of the world is written. Essentially, all of existence becomes one long book, and how cool is that? 

 

Tomorrow’s Myth: The Evil Eye

 


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