Devils


Moshe Ben-Chaim




This week, two independent people questioned the same Talmudic section regarding mazzikim (devils or destroyers”). It caught my attention. 

As we often state, King Solomon taught that the Rabbis wrote in riddles, as he did himself. Our Rabbis also included in their riddles clues that direct us to their meanings. Below, I wish to convey how the clues must force the reader to abandon a literal misunderstanding in this case too, and seek the truly intended concealed insights. 

I will quote the entire source, then take each statement individually; first highlighting those clues, and once again I will cite each statement offering my interpretation.



 (Talmud Brachos 6a)

It has been taught: Abba Benjamin says, “If the eye had the power to see them, no creature could endure the mazzikim (devils/destroyers).” Abaye says, “They are more numerous than we are and they surround us like a ridge around a field.” R. Huna says, “Every one among us has a thousand on his left hand and ten thousand on his right hand.” Raba says, “The crushing in the Kallah lectures comes from them. Fatigue in the knees comes from them. The wearing out of the clothes of the scholars is due to their rubbing against them. The bruising of the feet comes from them. If one wants to discover them, let him take sifted ashes and sprinkle around his bed, and in the morning he will see something like the footprints of a cock. If one wishes to see them, let him take the afterbirth of a black she-cat, the offspring of a black she-cat, the first-born of a firstborn, let him roast it in fire and grind it to powder, and then let him fill his eye, and he will see them. Let him also pour it into an iron tube and seal it with an iron signet that they should not steal it from him. Let him also close his mouth, lest he come to harm.” R. Bibi b. Abaye did so, he saw them, and came to harm. The scholars, however, prayed for him and he recovered.”




 If the eye had the power to see them, no creature could endure the mazzikim

Abba Benjamin opens this topic, teaching that devils cannot be seen by the eye. So the hypothetical seeing and harm he mentions, makes no sense if taken literally. For if something cannot be seen, there is no hypothetical case where they can be seen. Therefore, mazzikim cannot refer to physical phenomena. Furthermore, what is meant that we cannot endure these mazzikim if we saw them? How would “seeing” them alone harm us? What is Talmud's view of a devil?



They are more numerous than we are and they surround us like a ridge around a field

This means they “surround” us; at all times from all directions. But if they are not subject to vision, how is this statement made? What makes devils “more numerous” than people?



Every one among us has a thousand on his left hand and ten thousand on his right hand

The right hand is what we use to accomplish our daly tasks, as most people are right-handed. So what is it that works against us to a far greater degree (10,000 at our right hand) when we attempt progress, but are less numerous and less destructive when we are not engaged in progress?



The crushing in the Kallah lectures comes from them

These devils cause mass attendance at Torah lectures. Thus, they are not inherently evil if they contribute to study.



Fatigue in the knees comes from them

Faintness of heart and fear are caused by these devils.



The wearing out of the clothes of the scholars is due to their rubbing against them

Those not engaged in manual labor, still suffer the wearing-out of their garments (Rashi). But how?



The bruising of the feet comes from them

These devils motivate us towards our daily activity, as walking (feet) bruises the feet. Without walking, our feet remain unharmed.



If one wants to discover them, let him take sifted ashes and sprinkle around his bed, and in the morning he will see something like the footprints of a cock

Notice it says “discover,” not “see,” meaning evidence can be found of these devils. Why around his bed; what does sleep have to do with discovering devils? Maharsha says, at night, there are more devils and they also cling to man more at night. Also, why do they appear like a cock's footprints?



 If one wishes to see them, let him take the afterbirth of a black she-cat, the offspring of a black she-cat, the first-born of a firstborn, let him roast it in fire and grind it to powder, and then let him fill his eye, and he will see them. 

One should take a disgusting afterbirth, and also cruelly kill a helpless animal? Can he also truly find out which cat is a firstborn, of a firstborn? Then, he should grind the burnt remains? This is morbid, and it's likely also prohibited to kill animals for such purposes. How then can the Rabbis tell us to do such acts?



Let him also pour it into an iron tube and seal it with an iron signet that they (the devils) should not steal it from him

He must seal these powdered remains so they are not accessible to the other devils. What is meant that other devils would steal the remains? What do the devils need them for?



Let him also close his mouth, lest he come to harm. R. Bibi b. Abaye did so, he saw them, and came to harm. The scholars, however, prayed for him and he recovered

Why does speech (an open mouth) bring greater harm? Why was R. Bibi b. Abaye – a scholar – harmed?



The questions are many. After thinking them over, read further to see my interpretation. 




If the eye had the power to see them, no creature could endure the mazzikim

Devils cannot be seen by the eye. These mazzikim cannot refer to physical phenomena. Mazzikim are destroyers. What kind? 

They are human instincts; they drive us towards our own destruction; thus, the title destroyers or devils. This explains why they cannot be seen. Our instincts work in a hidden fashion, within our psyches. Examples of mazzikim are viciousness, anger, revenge, aggression, hatred, etc.  

What is meant that we cannot endure these mazzikim if we saw them? This means that if we confronted these parts of our psyches openly, in a non-sublimated manner, we would be controlled by them. They are powerful forces. Most of us sublimate our aggression and hatreds, in a manner we can accept, while still satisfying the instinct. Lashon Hara, evil speech, is a perfect example. Tell a person who always speaks Lashon Hara about her friend Nancy, that she truly wishes Nancy dead, and she won't be able to accept that. Her aggression is sublimated to a tolerable form: speech. But ask her if she ever dreamt of Nancy dead, and she might say yes. For in sleep, our inhibitions are almost gone. Our true desires are unbridled to a great degree. But while awake, our other instincts like guilt and peer approval force us to sublimate our raw desires. Nightmares are wishes that bother us to the point of waking us. As we don't wish to see this side of ourselves in their full and unbridled rage, we can't handle the nightmare, and escape by awakening. And if we truly confronted our deepest rages while awake, they would devastate us. Thus, the Rabbis say, “If the eye had the power to see them, no creature could endure the mazzikim.”



They are more numerous than we are and they surround us like a ridge around a field

Our instincts are always at work, they constantly “surround us.” What makes devils “more numerous” than people? Simple: each person has many instinctual drives.



Every one among us has a thousand on his left hand and ten thousand on his right hand

The right hand is what we use to accomplish our daily tasks, as most people are right-handed. When attempting this progress, we must work within a set of rules. Farming requires many steps, and at the right times. Proper ploughing, certain seeds, certain times of the year and certain quantities of water yield a healthy crop. By nature, our instincts wish unrestrained reign and freedom over every one of our acts. So when we must follow rules that will yield success, the desire of the instincts for freedom are far more numerous than when we are recreational or at relaxing pursuits, that fully comply with our instincts, and thus, there are less instincts working against as at those times.      



The crushing in the Kallah lectures comes from them

These devils cause mass attendance at Torah lectures. Thus, they are not inherently evil since instincts also serve to satisfy ego goals, which may be enjoyed by learning much, and boasting. Attending a popular lecture can be motivated by ego, by these devils.



Fatigue in the knees comes from them

Faintness of heart and fear are caused by these devils. Instincts come in all forms. Fear is one form.



The wearing out of the clothes of the scholars is due to their rubbing against them

Those not engaged in manual labor, still suffer the wearing-out of their garments (Rashi). But how? Men who study, have controlled their instincts for business accomplishments, sex, and other indulgences. The fight against these drives is described here as the wearing our of their clothes. Alternatively, we can say their clothes actually wear out, as a result of their sublimation of their urges, translated into shuckling as they study, which wears out their clothes. 



The bruising of the feet comes from them

These devils motivate us towards our daily activity, as walking (feet) bruises the feet. Without walking, our feet remain unharmed. This needs no interpretation.



If one wants to discover them, let him take sifted ashes and sprinkle around his bed, and in the morning he will see something like the footprints of a cock

Notice it says “discover,” not “see,” meaning evidence can be found of these devils. Why around his bed; what does sleep have to do with discovering devils? Maharsha says, at night, there are more devils and they also cling to man more at night. Also, why do they appear like a cock's footprints?

This means that sleep is an experience when our instincts have free reign, as stated above. In the morning, a person senses the residue of the powerful emotions dreams express. “Around his bed” means after awakening, that residue slowly fades, as do the small footprints of birds on ashes. 



 If one wishes to see them, let him take the afterbirth of a black she-cat, the offspring of a black she-cat, the first-born of a firstborn, let him roast it in fire and grind it to powder, and then let him fill his eye, and he will see them. 

One should take a disgusting afterbirth, and also cruelly kill a helpless animal? Can he also truly find out which cat is a firstborn, of a firstborn? Then, he should grind the burnt remains? This is morbid, and it's likely also prohibited to kill animals for such purposes. How then can the Rabbis tell us to do such acts?

The Rabbis don't mean we should do this cruel act. However, the lesson is that if one engages in a cruel act, he will sense a satisfaction; he will face his demons, as his instinctual urges become real, like in his dream state. His unbridled engagement in base instincts will actual appeal to him, for this is the raw desire. He will see the devil in himself. But as we also said above, man does not wish to admit of his base instincts and rage. This is almost impossible to face, as impossible as it is to find a black she-cat first-born, of another black she-cat first-born. “Filling his eye,” means he will see, he will comprehend his devils.



Let him also pour it into an iron tube and seal it with an iron signet that they (the devils) should not steal it from him

He must seal these powdered remains so they are not accessible to the other devils. What is meant that other devils would steal the remains? What do the devils need them for?

Sealing these remains, means he must keep them restrained, for his own benefit. For the instincts find greater power when teamed with other urges and drives. When the Jews sinned with the Gold calf, they also arose and partied. Their idolatrous satisfaction awoke in them other instinctual urges.



Let him also close his mouth, lest he come to harm. R. Bibi b. Abaye did so, he saw them, and came to harm. The scholars, however, prayed for him and he recovered

No one is immune to the powers of the instincts – not even Torah scholars. Furthermore, irreparable harm can come to anyone if he indulges his base instincts. This is why R. Bibi was saved only through God's help via the prayers of others.



In summary, we again witness the keen intelligence of the Rabbis, their insights into human nature and their abilities to write metaphors in such a way that they direct us to truths. This approach must be applied when we encounter all similar Talmudic stories. Mysticism is not part of Judaism. It is not witnessed in any of God's works; Chumash, Prophets and Writings describe no prophet or patriarch following anything but reason. These great, perfected personalities from whom God wishes we study, lived intelligently. May we all do the same.