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Torah Commentary
Haazinu (September 27, 2014)

Benjamin J. Zeidman, Assistant Rabbi

HAAZINU IS ONE OF MY favorite Torah portions because it is one of two places in the entire Hebrew Bible that explicitly mentions demons, or sheidim.

In our parashah, Deuteronomy Chapter 32:17 says, “They sacrificed to demons, no-gods, Gods they had never known, new ones who came but lately, who stirred not your fathers’ fears.” The other mention is in Psalm 106: “They worshiped their idols, which became a snare for them. Their own sons and daughters they sacrificed to demons. They shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; so the land was polluted with bloodguilt.”

Unfortunately for horror fans like me, these demons are not demons at all. These sheidim are really the gods that others are worshipping. The Torah is using “demon” as a pejorative term for Israel’s neighbors’ gods! This is especially because, to our disappointment, some of the Israelites found themselves themselves worshiping and even sacrificing their own children to these false gods.

So the only two times “demons” are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible are to mock and deride heretical behavior. Actual “demonology” doesn’t enter Jewish text until the Rabbinic period, perhaps as much as 700 to 1,000 years after the writing of the Torah. It comes from folk religion, bubbe-meises (grandmothers’ tales) and superstition rather than from that which established the foundation of the Jewish people (Torah). Magic, mysticism and demonology expanded in Judaism in the Middle Ages, as it did in many religions.

In Numbers Rabbah we learn: “Rabbi Yohanan said: ‘Before the Tabernacle had been established, the demons would aggravate the beings of the world. When the Tabernacle was established and God’s presence took up residence there, all of the demons of the world were eradicated.’” Rabbi Yohanan did not believe that demons existed in our world in his day, although many other rabbis tell stories of their existence.

They, the people, needed demons to help them to understand the world and its complexities. Today, science helps us understand many of their then unexplainable concerns. For example, we now know why people have seizures and how people get deathly ill from drinking water that looks clean to the naked eye. That which needed superstitious explanation no longer does; we can provide rational answers to our questions instead.

Yes, there continue to be Jewish cultural stories and tales that discuss these magical creatures. However, the use of the word “demons” in the Hebrew Bible simply was meant to scare people away from horrible practices. While, rationally, demons and other mystical creatures are a lot of fun to learn about, thankfully we live in an age when the miracles of science alleviate us from having to base our daily experience upon irrationality.

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