From Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends (1919)
“Demons are spirits that act malevolently against human beings, usually in the form of disease, illness, confusion, or misfortune.”
“The malevolent effects of demons are many: they cause illness and death, especially for the vulnerable (children, women in childbirth), they trouble and deceive the mind, and they cause contention in the community of mortals. The appearance of demons varies, but is always terrible.”
“Intriguingly, there is a strand of tradition that holds a mortal can work constructively with demons, if one knows the proper rituals of power to control them.”
“Usually spirits must be controlled magically, captured, and coerced to do the will of the adept. By the same token, anything that smacks of demon veneration or worship, such as making offerings or burning incense to a demon, is expressly forbidden.”
The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism (Second Edition)
Depending on one’s religious beliefs, demons may be characters in complex stories embellished over millennia or may be very real presences in an equally complex existential scheme. Either way, like so many traditional visions, they offer opportunities to see the world we live in and the people we live among with fresh eyes. If demons do happen to be in our midst, this information may come in handy.
From The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism (Second Edition) by Geoffrey W. Dennis
Demons are spirits that act malevolently against human beings, usually in the form of disease, illness, confusion, or misfortune. Judaism has not produced one uniform attitude toward the demonic, its origins, nature, or functions. Jews do have traditions of demonic creatures which are ontologically distinct from humanity (Such as Samael, Asmodeus, and Lilith), yet an equally large body of Jewish thought regards these same evil spirits to be malevolent byproducts of humanity: incomplete human Souls, the malevolent dead, or spirits spawned by human action. While there are a few pre-existent spirits, demons are usually understood to be spiritual byproducts of human criminal and immoral sexual activity. Moreover, it is not until the Middle Ages and the rise of classical Kabbalah in the 13th century, that one can read of demons that fit the Christian mold of hell-spawn that threaten the very fabric of the cosmos; the majority of sources from antiquity view shedim, mazzakim, and kesilim as other traditional cultures have imagined djinns, sprites, and elves—cruel, mischievous spirits who afflict humanity with miseries, both great and small.
While the Hebrew Bible devotes remarkably little attention to demonology, it does make mention of evil spirits (Lev. 16:10; 1 Sam. 16:14–16; Isa. 13:21, 34:14), including satyrs and night demons, but does not provide a great deal of detail. In fact, the language of the Bible is so ambiguous, it is often difficult to discern whether the author is referring to a named demon, or poetically reifying an abstract concept, such as Death, plague, or pestilence (Jer. 9:20; Hab. 3:5; Ps. 91:6).
Clear-cut and more elaborate stories about demons appear during the Greco-Roman period. The Gospels, which provide us with a comparatively detailed picture of Jewish life in 1st-century Palestine, record several accounts of confrontations between Jesus and demonically possessed people (Mark 5). Select demons—Belial and Masteman—are mentioned repeatedly in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Josephus also includes some reflections on the subject (War 7; Ant. 8:2, 8:5)….
The Talmud begins by asserting that they are a creation of the twilight of the sixth day (M. Avot 5.6). The suggestion is that these spirits are partly formed souls, unfinished beings left over from God’s creative process. The Talmudic sources do not specify whether demons are an independent creation, or whether they first appear as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve, which in some traditions also happened at twilight of the sixth day. Whatever the case, they are tied to humanity, for they cannot procreate on their own; they used semen from Adam in order to make more of their own kind (Eruv. 18b). A celebrated elaboration on this tradition is that of Lilith, the first woman, having transformed herself into a witch-demon using the Tetragrammaton, takes the nocturnal emissions of men she seduces to procreate demons (AbbS). Eve was also seduced by incubi, producing a line of malevolent offspring, beginning with Cain (PdRE 21; Targum Pseudo-Jonathan 4:1)….
The malevolent effects of demons are many: they cause illness and death, especially for the vulnerable (children, women in childbirth), they trouble and deceive the mind, and they cause contention in the community of mortals….
There are numerous strategies to stop the predations of demons. Reciting certain psalms repels evil spirits (Pss. 29, 91, 121), as do other key verses of Scripture (Num. 7:4–6). Magical phrases and incantations have also been recorded that can combat their malevolent effects….
Intriguingly, there is a strand of tradition that holds a mortal can work constructively with demons, if one knows the proper rituals of power to control them. This idea premised on the implications of absolute monotheism—all things are created by God purposefully. This belief that man can direct demonic energy to beneficent purposes is first articulated in stories about Solomon controlling demons (Testament of Solomon). One Sage in the Talmud permits demon summoning, provided one does not violate Torah in either the manner of the summoning or what is asked of the spirit (Sanh. 101a). Eliezer of Metz (ca. 12th century) permitted the use of imps in spells and amulet writing: “Invoking the demons to do one’s will is permitted … for what difference is there between invoking demons and angels?” Demons can be turned against other demons (Lev. R. 24). Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague permitted communication with demons, but solely for the purpose of divination (B’er ha-Golah 2).
Sometimes the demon will help a human willingly, which is taken as evidence that even demons serve God, however inscrutably (Pes. 106a), but usually spirits must be controlled magically, captured, and coerced to do the will of the adept. By the same token, anything that smacks of demon veneration or worship, such as making offerings or burning incense to a demon, is expressly forbidden (Sanh. 65b).