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Reality and Hallucination: Towards a Talmudic Ontology of Consensus (by way of demons)

In his 1978 essay, “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later“, Philip K. Dick wrote, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” This ontology is challenged by a syndrome recently brought to my attention in a recent post on boingboing.net, “Hallucinations brought on by eye disease,” wherein David Pescovitz writes,

In recent days, both the Daily Mail and Wired.com looked at Charles Bonnet Syndrome [CBS], a disease characterized by bizarre and vivid visual hallucinations. Interestingly, people who suffer from CBS aren’t mentally ill but have visual impairments such as macular degeneration. Even weirder is that the hallucinations often involve characters or things that are much smaller in size than reality.

Read the whole post and follow the link to this article at the Daily Mail on Charles Bonnet Syndrome, and this interview at Wired with neurologist Oliver Sachs. Together, they provide an insight for understanding a particularly fascinating method given in the Talmud for seeing Mazikin (lit. harmful spirits, ie. demons). Mazikin are a class of sheydim (animistic spirits) that pervaded the natural world in the Rabbinic Jewish worldview of late antiquity. From תלמוד בבלי ברכות ו׃א (Talmud Bavli Tractate Berakhot, 6a):

תניא אבא בנימין אומר אלמלי נתנה רשות לעין לראות אין כל בריה יכולה לעמוד מפני המזיקין אמר אביי אינהו נפישי מינן וקיימי עלן כי כסלא לאוגיא אמר רב הונא כל חד וחד מינן אלפא משמאליה ורבבתא מימיניה אמר רבא האי דוחקא דהוי בכלה מנייהו הוי הני ברכי דשלהי מנייהו הני מאני דרבנן דבלו מחופיא דידהו הני כרעי דמנקפן מנייהו האי מאן דבעי למידע להו לייתי קיטמא נהילא ונהדר אפורייה ובצפרא חזי כי כרעי דתרנגולא האי מאן דבעי למחזינהו ליתי שלייתא דשונרתא אוכמתא בת אוכמתא בוכרתא בת בוכרתא ולקליה בנורא ולשחקיה ולימלי עיניה מניה וחזי להו ולשדייה בגובתא דפרזלא ולחתמי’ בגושפנקא דפרזלא דילמא גנבי מניה ולחתום פומיה כי היכי דלא ליתזק רב ביבי בר אביי עבד הכי חזא ואתזק בעו רבנן רחמי עליה ואתסי

It has been taught:

Abba Benjamin says, If the eye had the power to see them, no creature could endure the Mazikin.

Abaye says: They are more numerous than we are and they surround us like the ridge round a field.

R. Huna says: Every one among us has a thousand on his left hand and ten thousand on his right. [Psalm 91:7]

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 rooster. If one wishes to see them, let him take the placenta of a black she-cat [that is] the offspring of a black she-cat [that is] the first-born of a first-born, let him roast it [the placenta] in fire and grind it to powder, and then let him put some into 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 [the demons] should not steal it from him. Let him also close his mouth, lest he come to harm.

R. Bibi b. Abaye did so, saw them and came to harm. The scholars, however, prayed for him and he recovered.

Could Raba’s magic recipe for perceiving demons by placing ash in one’s eye create a condition like Charles Bonnet Syndrome? Could Rav Huna’s 10:1 ratio of ubiquitous albeit invisible demons indicate a left-brained dominance when perceiving/hallucinating these creatures? Curious minds wish to know the answer to these arcane questions. Rav Huna’s midrashic reading of Psalms 91:7 in particular might suggest that these creatures are small and recalls the peculiar reduced stature of the persons in David Stannard’s hallucination.

So it came as a surprise to the 73-year-old when he looked up from his television one evening to discover he was sharing his living room with two RAF pilots and a schoolboy. ‘The pilots were standing next to the TV, watching it as if they were in the wings of a theatre,’ he says. ‘The little boy was in a grey, Fifties-style school uniform. He just stood there in the hearth looking puzzled. He was 18 inches high at most.’

Just in case anyone is worried, according to Jewish lore the likelihood of perceiving sheydim and “being brought to harm” is substantially reduced if one avoids ruins, wetlands, and other lonely places — and travels in groups of three or more. According to the following argument inברכות מג ב (Tractate Berakhot 43b):

רב זוטרא בר טוביה אמר רב אבוקה כשנים וירח כשלשה איבעיא להו אבוקה כשנים בהדי דידיה או דילמא אבוקה כשנים לבר מדידיה ת”ש וירח כשלשה אי אמרת בשלמא בהדי דידיה שפיר אלא אי אמרת לבר מדידיה ארבעה למה לי והאמר מר לאחד נראה ומזיק לשנים נראה ואינו מזיק לשלשה אינו נראה כל עיקר אלא לאו שמע מינה אבוקה כשנים בהדי דידיה שמע מינה

R. Zutra b. Tobiah further said in the name of Rab: [To avoid danger while traveling in darkness] a torch is as good as two [companions] and moonlight is as good as three. The question was asked: Is the torch as good as two [people] including the carrier [of the torch], or as good as two besides the carrier? [The first argument would require one to travel in darkness with at least one torch and one companion. The second argument would allow one to travel alone so long as they carried a lit torch with them. — aharon]

Come and hear: ‘Moonlight is as good as three [traveling companions]’.

If now you argue, ‘including the carrier,’ [then] there is no difficulty. [The torch carrier will need an additional companion.] But if you say, ‘besides the carrier’ [then there is a problem with your argument]. Why would I need four, seeing that a Master has said: “To one [person] a Mazik may show itself and harm them; to two it may show itself, but without harming them; to three it will not even show itself“? [With the ‘besides the carrier’ argument, four would equal the traveler plus the additional three virtual companions provided by the moonlight. Meanwhile only three are actually needed per the Master’s teaching concerning demons. –aharon]

We must therefore conclude that a torch is equivalent to two [persons] including the carrier; and this may be taken as proved.

In darkness, two people can see a demon but not be harmed. Only without the company of another can one both see and be harmed thereby. However irrational this idea appears on the surface, on deeper reflection I think one can see the logic of it. Rationally, one may interpret the mazikin as outward personifications of ever present danger or as dangerous constructs of one’s own imagination. One can endanger themselves, when stumbling about in darkness alone. When isolated from others, one’s imagination can lead oneself into madness. And in the company of two, one is still vulnerable to the Folie à deux. Only with the reality confirmation (and distraction) of friends can what is real be parsed from what is imaginary. (Perhaps for this same reason, a court of judges in Jewish law must be composed of a minimum of three persons.)

Jewish Demons

Jorge Luis Borges' Jewish Demons as illustrated by the graduate students in the Department of Illustration and Art of the Book at the Vakalo School of Art and Design in Athens, Greece for Borges' The Book of Imaginary Beings.

The image at the top of this post is a painting by Jesse Patrick Martin entitled “Litterbox” and inspired by the defecation of the animals in Borges’ Beastiary. (Used with the artist’s permission. Please visit Jesse’s site for more fantastic work.)

About Aharon N. Varady


Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words.

13 comments to Reality and Hallucination: Towards a Talmudic Ontology of Consensus (by way of demons)

  • Joe in Australia

    “R. Huna says: Every one among us has a thousand on his left hand and ten thousand on his right hand. ”

    You were misled by a bad translation. This means “a thousand to his left and ten thousand to his right”. The Aramaic (or the Hebrew original) doesn’t even use a word that could be translated as “hand”. This doesn’t damage your main argument, just the bit about the demons being really small.

  • Yeah, “hand” was really not necessary to get Rav Huna’s point across. But since the 10:1 ratio still applies, the demons perceived may still be very small.. or of many sizes, fractal-like, and perceived assymetrically by each hemisphere of the brain… who knows?!

  • bilbul

    Interesting ideas. I find it very unfortunate that you were duped by come-and-hear.com. They seem to have put a less offensive front recently, but their ultimate purpose is still vicious anti-semitism. They still have Elizabeth Dillings work (look her up on Wikipedia) http://www.come-and-hear.com/dilling/dexhibits.html.

    In their bibliography they include Schramm, Hellmut, Ph.D., Jewish Ritual Murder, a Historical Investigation, 1941, English translation by R. Belser, available at http://www.regmeister.net/schramm/schramm.htm. This website doesn’t work, but it still seems to be other places on the web. This book is solely blood-libel.

    I hope you can find another source online.

  • […] Pescovitz at BoingBoing draws attention to Aharon Varady’s post linking ‘demons’ in rabbinic literature to “Charles Bonnet Syndrome, a disease […]

  • I love this passage! I even made a comic out of it as part of a larger artistic project to comic-ise Tractate Berachot. There are tons of amazing demon stories in there. My favourite involves Raba and his wife warding off bathroom demons – wacky but cute.

    The interesting thing about 6a, though, is just how closely it resembles some folk methods in Ireland for seeing demons – right down to the iron container and putting the ashes in your eye.

  • bilbul: wow, that IS really odd. I looked at some of the other articles at come-and-hear and it seems you’re correct. I do think that it’s neat that these folks are helping me learn and share Torah though, regardless of their ulterior motive. Bizarre!

  • Yonah: I love your comix! Have you seen J.T. Waldman’s Megillat Esther graphic novel? Are you planning on publishing a dead-tree edition of your work?

  • I just saw his website, and wow. That’s insane – such beautiful calligraphy, and the people are like calligraphy, too.

    Re: dead trees – maybe, b’ezrat Hashem, but I’m too much of a pessimist to believe things will actually work out despite some kind publishers.

  • Tamara Adama

    I get annoyed when I see explanations like this. Deducing the unseen world to a trick of the eye, brought on by a condition, just serves to make people who do see such things hysterical. This is not the case. Demons are as old as time. They were spoken of before the written word. I doubt every incident or sighting can be explained away by an eye condition. This is why the world is fated to succumb to the stupidity of those who choose to explain everything away so simply, even those things that have NO explanation. There is a world unseen within this world, and classifying such things as a matter of bad eyesight is just making it that much easier for the dark things that reside in the shadows, amongst us, to take this world when we’re too busy trying to assuage our fears with stupid ideas.

    You keep making up excuses for the devil and God will never excuse YOU!

  • Self-righteous indignation is only a short term remedy for that which annoys you so. If you really want to change someone’s mind the best place to start is by being intellectually honest, humble, and civil (ie., not chastising people you disagree with in the name of God). Like you, I don’t doubt that “demons” exist… I just wonder what they are. In my tradition, they are not called “demons” — the latter is a rather pejorative and admittedly misleading translation of the Talmudic terms I introduced above: sheydim and mazikin. I much prefer to translate these as “animistic spirits” and “harmful spirits” respectively. That the mazikin cause harm I don’t doubt either, but I am curious as to the nature of the harm. Is the harm due to damage caused by the mazikin themselves or does harm come to the observer simply because seeing the mazikin is disorienting and might welcome madness? Again, I don’t know the answer, so I can only speculate, observe from the world and human experience, and read these ancient texts with respect. And by respect, I mean, by trying to read them with understanding, in their original language, and in the context of the time in which they were written.

  • Over at the Sefer Ha-Bloggadah, contributor Howard, writes about a teaching of Rabbi Yose concerning a blind man carrying a torch:

    R. Yose said: All my life I have been perplexed by the verse “And thou shalt grope at noonday as the blind gropeth in darkness” (Deut. 28:29). What difference [I asked], does it make to a blind man whether it be dark or light? [Nor did I find the answer] until the following incident occurred. I was once walking at the darkest time of the night when I saw a blind man walking on the road with a torch in his hand. I said to him, “My son, what need have you for this torch?” He replied, “As long as I have this torch in my hand, people see me and save me from holes, thorns, and briers.”

    My comment on his post:

    Harmful spirits will manifest as dangerous objects… The exceptional case of a blind man traveling alone helps explain the teaching since the “virtual companion” provided by the torch obviously cannot see for him. But the case of two traveling together and avoiding harm should still apply to him, per the blind man’s explanation — we are enjoined to look out for each other. Just as the Torah forbids us to place a stumbling block before the blind, here the rabbis appear to enjoin us to also make certain to remove harmful obstacles that might bring travail to travelers.

  • PB

    Yeah, “hand” was really not necessary to get Rav Huna’s point across. But since the 10:1 ratio still applies, the demons perceived may still be very small.. or of many sizes, fractal-like, and perceived assymetrically by each hemisphere of the brain… who knows?!

  • I did this and it worked! You see little foot prints in the ash the next morning. They look like tiny chicken feet only they have two toes on each foot.

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