Monday, June 1, 2009

Vampires, Einstein and Jewish Folklore

I don’t usually dabble with the Jewish side of magic or witchcraft nor do I concern my self with the Jewish occult and rarely do the existence of Vampires or werewolves cross my mind. But then again, rarely do I spend time focusing on Albert Einstein and the possible application of his theories and their extrapolations. However a few weeks ago everything seemed to come together as though there was an alignment of the stars.

Purely by coincidence or chance I was put in a situation where I saw the film “Twilight”. For those of you not aware, it is a love story about a vampire family living incognito among the “normal” citizenry of a small town in Washington State. Seeing the movie prompted me to read the book upon the recommendation of my daughters as well as the three sequels. All this happened to dovetail with my reading of a series of articles on the permutations and extrapolations of Einstein’s theories on science fiction. Being troubled by the possibilities, as improbable as they may be of vampires and werewolves roaming the earth I concerned myself with the eternal question: What do the Jewish sources say?

Stephenie Meyer, author of the four part best seller series on the life of a vampire family, got me thinking about the possibility that perhaps there was a fifth unimaginable and frightening dimension. For as long as man has lived he has been preoccupied with physical survival but obsessed with the spiritual. In man’s search for God and in his struggle for meaning, man, according to legend has encountered angels, demons, vampires and werewolves. Folk religions have grown over the millennia to include rich fables and stories about the occult, magic and witchcraft, tales of lost worlds where beings other than humans ruled supreme.

Religion is but one manifestation of reasonable people trying to explain and give meaning to the unknown. Belief in God is predicated on faith. On has to have faith in order to believe. If one believes in God and angels predicated on faith why can’t one believe in other systems as well? How much of a leap of faith is it for a person of faith who believes in God to believe in vampires as well? After all, the world isn’t one dimensional, and who is to say that what we see is all there is? Science fiction, concerned with this, is rooted in the principle that there is no limit to what man can imagine or create at least in his own mind. Science fiction has built a world where man can be transported through space back and forth; journey through wormholes, beaming through solid walls and travelling in starships that move faster than light.

Until now it’s been fun imagining the unimaginable. But converting Einstein’s theories from the theoretical to the real world has brought the unimaginable to a new level. Einstein’s universe is one that curves back on itself in three dimensions of space and a fourth invisible dimension – time. Scientists like Michio Kaku author of Physics and the Impossible believe that extrapolating Einstein’s theories can make time travel and travel through wormholes possible. If all this is true perhaps there is a fifth dimension that parallels our universe, one that has vampires and werewolves. If this is a consideration surely our Jewish sources would have commented on it.

Judaism developed along two tracks: the halachic, legalistic system, which gave expression to the formalistic practice of Jewish living and a folk religion enhancing much of its flavor and texture from aggadic text, informal and popular with the folk, but treated with reservation by the rabbinic leadership. Some of the aggadic texts, among other things, were peppered with stories of demons and angels. Many of these myths appearing in aggadic texts were unique to Jewish tradition and some of them were absorbed from the hosting cultures incorporated into our texts, but reflecting the culture and the times.

There are aggadic references in the Talmud of blood eating demons. In Chullin 105b and Eruvin 43a references are made with the explanation that in the Bible we are forbidden to consume blood because “it is the life force of all creatures” (ki dam who hanefesh). One of the most common types of vampires was Lilith (Eruvin 100b; Niddah 24b; Shabbos 151b) described as a wild haired winged nymphomaniac. Rashi recommended having amulets to protect oneself and loved ones from her. Medrash Rabbah explains that man’s wasted semen was used by Lilith to create vampires. Perhaps here is the appropriate place to explain that there was a time when Jewish cultural practice subscribed to the notion that there was a vast “middle world” neither of flesh nor entirely of spirit. Demons and angels populated this middle world and as a result of them magic (hashba’at shedim) was employed to conjure them up.

The estrie was another type of vampire that had much currency during the middle ages. The estrie was a type of vampire that lived among the human population, appearing as human, in order that it would have a steady supply of blood which it craved and needed for survival. An estrie wounded by a human being would die unless it obtained bread and salt from the intended victim. A rich source for this vampirology is fond in Rabbi Judah the Pious’s book Sefer Hasidim. According to Sefer Hasidim, estries were one of those creatures referred to in the Talmud that spoke of beings created in the twilight of the first Friday evening of creation, bodies not yet completed when God seized working in order to create the Shabbat.

In one incident detailed in great detail by Rabbi Yehudah Hachasid a woman who was an estrie fell ill and was watched over during the night by two unsuspecting ladies. When one guardian fell asleep the patient (estrie) began to unravel her hair and tried to suck the blood of the sleeping lady. The alert guardian cried out, woke the sleeping guardian and prevented the estrie from sucking the blood. If injured the estrie could reverse the damage by getting bread and salt from the victim. But what victim would then turn and give a vampire the necessary bread and salt, you might ask? Rabbi Yehudah wrote that they were able to morph themselves in to other creatures and thereby trick the victim. Sefer Hasidim relates an incident of an estrie who took the form of a cat. But a certain Jew sensed a familiarity with the cat, identified it as an estrie and struck it. The following day a woman approached the man asking him for bread and salt, would have complied but was warned by a wise old Jew not to give it to her.

Rabbi Yehuda Hachasid also cautioned that a deceased estrie in the grave wasn’t necessarily dead. It could rise from the grave unless it was buried correctly. Accordingly, an estrie that is buried with its mouth open must be stuffed with earth otherwise it will rise and seek out blood. He sites other rabbinical sources (Rabenu Yerucham, Rav Yoel Shem Tov, Rav Menasheh ben Yisroel; the Zohar; and Taame Hamitzvot of the Radvaz) that conquer with his opinion.

Our folk history is rich with customs on how to navigate in a world where vampires and werewolves in search of human blood moved freely in towns and villages where unsuspecting humans lived. Earlier I said that our tradition grew on two tracks one was halachic; the other folk history / aggadic. There were times however that while they ran somewhat parallel to each other at times they intersected. An instance of this intersection where the folk tradition influenced halachic renderings was at the crossroads of halacha and survival. Folk tradition understood that vampires, estries and Liliths do not always strike in obvious ways. Sometimes they appear in the night as spirits sitting on our hands and fingers waiting for us to rub our eyes, mouth or ears which would be the portals of entry into our bodies for these spirits. In order to avoid this, our rabbis declared that Jews upon waking in the morning before even walking “daled amos” were to wash there hands (negel vasser). Many developed the ritual of placing a bowel of water and cup near the bed precisely for this purpose. Interestingly, on Yom Kippur, although we are forbidden to bath our bodies we are still obligated by Jewish law to wash our hands up to the knuckles in order to perform the mitzvah of “negel vasser”, avoiding the possibility of the body being invaded by the “ruchot”, evil spirits who distinguish not between weekdays and holy days.

Our rabbis believed at one time in these spirits of the middle world. In our sophistication we have written out of our heritage a rich folk history that ought to be considered as a legitimate part of our tradition. Not until reading an innocuous and light weight best seller and connecting it to some science fiction based upon Einstein did I realize that maybe its true. Maybe there is a universe running parallel to ours populated by estries and Liliths crossing their boundary ever so often in search……of nutrition.