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Samael, Lilith, and the Concept of Evil in Early Kabbalah

  • Joseph Dan (a1)


The description of the divine world as a mythical struggle between good and evil is one of the basic symbols of the kabbalah, and a detailed mythology based on it is found in the Zohar late in the thirteenth century. The main source of the Zohar on this subject is a treatise by Rabbi Isaac ha-Kohen, called “On the Emanation on the Left,” written in Spain at the beginning of the second half of the thirteenth century, a generation before the Zohar. The problem studied here is: What were the sources of Rabbi Isaac's myth of evil?

Rabbi Isaac described Samael and Lilith as a pair, being the central powers in the Emanation on the Left. It seems that the literary development which brought forth this formula began with the myth of Lilith as presented in the satirical Pseudo-Ben Sira (tenth century?) and later revisions of that work which were known in Europe in the eleventh century and included a description of a sexual relationship between Lilith and a “Great Demon,” who was later identified as Samael. Both Lilith and Samael in these stories are not principles of evil; this transformation probably occurred only in the work of Rabbi Isaac.

When describing the levels of the spiritual world, Rabbi Isaac discussed a sphere he called “third air” which is the source of both prophetic visions and “use” of demons. This concept seems to be derived from the writings of Rabbi Judah the Pious and Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, the Ashkenazi Hasidim, early in the thirteenth century. In their works, however, there are no dualistic or mythical elements; these were probably added by Rabbi Isaac.

Rabbi Isaac formulated the myth of the evil worlds which were destroyed before this world was created, a myth which became a central motif in the kabbalah. It seems that this too is derived from the works of the Ashkenazi Hasidim, though it was Rabbi Isaac who added the mythology and the dualism. It should be noted that among such additions and elaborations by Rabbi Isaac we also find a detailed messianic myth which was rare if not absent among previous kabbalists.



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1. The text was published by Scholem, Gershom, “Qabbalot R. Ya'aqov ve-R. Yiṣḥaq benei R. Ya'aqov ha-Kohen,” Madda'ei ha-Yahadut 2 (1927): 244–64, as a part of the first study of the kabbalah of Rabbi Jacob and Rabbi Isaac ha-Kohen. (The study was also published as a separate book [Jerusalem, 1927], from which it is quoted here; the treatise on the Left Emanations appears on pp. 82–102.)

2. Scholem, , Qabbalot, pp. 8990 (pp. 251–52 in Madda'ei ha-Yahadut).

3. Hebrew, : ṣurah, here probably meaning “a spiritual being,” form as opposed to matter.

4. Hebrew, : toladah ruḥanit du-parṣufim, a creature which is at first male and female together (see Genesis Rabbah, 8:1), and then divided into separate beings.

5. See Scholem's, note (Qabbalot, p. 89, n. 4). Samael is identified with the north not only because of the biblical tradition that evil comes from the north, but also because of the possible reading of his name as “left,” which is identical with north (if facing east). His spouse, therefore, receives the feminine form of “north.”

6. My translation was prepared with the assistance of Mr. E. Hanker of Berkeley, California.

7. These names are in fact identical, because the snake (naḥash) had the form of a camel (gamal) before he was cursed; this midrashic tradition was included in the Book Bahir, sec. 200, based on Pirqei de-Rabbi ‘Eli'ezer, chap. 13–both serving as the basic source for Rabbi Isaac's description of the story of the Garden of Eden.

8. Some further descriptions of Lilith are translated below.

9. A serious problem concerning the development of this idea is related to a medieval text of magic, Sidrei de-Shimmusha Rabbah, published by Scholem, G. in Tarbiz 16 (1945): 196209. It is quite clear that the author of that text knew that Samael and Lilith were related, and there are several other points which suggest a close relationship between it and Rabbi Isaac's treatise. However, the chronological problem has not yet been solved, and it is impossible to decide with any amount of certainty whether Rabbi Isaac used ideas which were known some time before him and reflected in the “Shimmusha,” or that the author of the “Shimmusha” made use of some motifs he found in Rabbi Isaac's treatise.

10. Samael's role as a power of Evil is especially prominent in the section of Heikhalot Rabbati (Jellinek, Adolf, Beth ha-Midrash, 6 vols. [Leipzig, 18531877], 3:87) which describes the martyrdom of ten of the mishnaic sages, as well as in the separate descriptions of this martyrdom in the treatise on the Ten Martyrs (see my The Hebrew Story in the Middle Ages [Hebrew] [Jerusalem, 1974] pp. 6269).

11. The development of the image of Samael is described in detail by Scholem, G. in his Kabbalah (Jerusalem, 1974), pp. 385–89 (and see the detailed bibliography there).

12. Sec. 200 (the last section; in Scholem's edition–sec. 140).

13. See Isa. 34:14.

14. See Reuben Margulies's collection of the talmudic and midrashic traditions in his Malakhei Elyon (Jerusalem, 1945), pp. 235–37.

15. This tradition was preserved in Midrash Avkir and elsewhere; see Scholem, G., Kabbalah, p. 357 (and the detailed bibliography there concerning Lilith, pp. 360–61).

16. Yassif, Eli, “Pseudo Ben Sira, The Text, Its Literary Character and Status in the History of the Hebrew Story in the Middle Ages” [Hebrew], 2 vols., Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, 1977.

17. The later version is the one found in Bereshit Rabbati by Rabbi Moses ha-Darshan.

18. These three angels are Sanoi, Sansanoi and Samanglof, mentioned in the text of Pseudo-Ben Sira. Many attempts have been made to explain these names by the use of several oriental languages. It seems to me that they could have been created by the author of this work as a parody on the angelology of the Heikhalot literature (which often used names like Sansaniel, etc.).

19. Yassif, , “Pseudo-Ben Sira,” pp. 6465. This version is close to the one published by Friedman, David and Loewinger, S. D. in Ve-zot li-Yehudah (Budapest, 1926), pp. 259–60.

20. The question of the meaning of this story depends on one's attitude toward the character of the Pseudo-Ben Sira. I still maintain that this is a satirical, and somewhat heretical, collection of stories by a religious anarchist (see my Hebrew Story, pp. 6978), although Yassif regards them as usual folktales. (Compare also Lachs, S. T., “The Alphabet of Ben Sira: A Study in Folk-Literature,” Gratz College Annual of Jewish Studies 2 [1973]: 928). It is my intention to analyze the problem in detail elsewhere; but it is necessary to point out here that the whole story does not make sense if it is not understood as an expression of Lilith's bitterness toward God for the role assigned to her (in talmudic literature) of a baby-killer.

21. Deut. 24:4. Naturally, this whole “halakhic” discussion does not have any basis in actual Jewish law.

22. Yassif, , “Pseudo-Ben Sira,” pp. 2324. This version is similar to (but not identical; the “great demon” is missing) the one published by Steinschneider, Moritz in his edition, Alphabetum Siracidis (Berlin, 1858), p. 23.

23. Bahir, sec. 200 (and Pirqei de-Rabbi ‘Eli'ezer, chap. 13).

24. Concerning these “airs,” see below.

25. The author here constantly uses the term “qabbalah,” which I did not translate as “mystical” but, in the sense that the author seems to try to convey, ancient tradition.

26. Concerning Ashmedai, see Margulies, , Malakhei 'Elyon, pp. 215–21; Scholem, G., “Yedi'ot ḥadashot 'al ‘Ashmedai ve-Lilit,” Tarbiz 19 (1948): 165–75.

27. Lilit sabbeta rabbeta.

28. Scholem, , Qabbalot, p. 93 (Madda'ei ha-Yahadut, p. 255).

29. Shimmusha, meaning: magical use.

30. Shimmusha de-heikhalei zuṭartei.

31. Shimmusha de-shedei.

32. Meaning that the “magical use” of the “air of demons” is connected with the process of attaining prophecy; see below.

33. See above, n. 5.

34. Meaning that the creation in this way reflects the bisexuality in the structure of the spiritual, or even divine, worlds.

35. It should be noted that in this section, as in several others in the treatise, the author turns to the Aramaic language to express the great, ancient traditions. He relies here on the ancient mystical text, Heikhalot Zuṭartei, which was really written mostly in Aramaic, but of course it does not contain any hint of the material referred to by Rabbi Isaac.

36. The element “ṣefoni” seems to be the meaningful part of this name (i.e., from the north—evil).

37. See Genesis 36:39. The kings of Edom mentioned in this chapter were interpreted as evil powers in later kabbalah, especially in the Zohar.

38. See above, n. 35, and below, n. 41.

39. Lilit 'ulemta.

40. Scholem, , Qabbalot, pp. 9899 (Madda'ei ha-Yahadut, pp. 260–61).

41. This work is found in several manuscripts, and was partly published in Musajoff's, SolomonMerkavah Shelemah (Jerusalem, 1926), pp. 6a8b. Several sections were translated by Scholem, G. in his Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism and Talmudic Tradition (New York, 1960).

42. See below.

43. See above.

44. Rabbi Isaac stated that he and his brother met in Narbonne with a disciple of Rabbi Eleazar of Worms (see Scholem's introduction to the texts, Gnosticism, p. 8), and among other things he tells a hagiographic story about Rabbi Eleazar (chap. 10, p. 92). This story is told immediately after the statement concerning the use of the “demon's air” for the purpose of prophecy.

45. A clear example of such an attitude toward the Ashkenazi Hasidim is to be found in the “Epistle of Worms,” included by Rabbi Shem Ṭov Ibn Gaon in his kabbalistic treatise “Baddei ha-'Aron” (written in Palestine early in the fourteenth century), MS Paris 840. These examples attest to the fact that kabbalists in Spain used the reputation of the Ashkenazi Hasidim as great mystics and recipients of ancient traditions to enhance their own credibility.

46. Especially via Southern Italy; the arrival of Rabbi Aaron ben Samuel of Baghdad in Italy in the eighth century is regarded as the source of Ashkenazi hasidic prayer mysticism. See my The Esoteric Theology of the Ashkenazi Hasidim [Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 1968), pp. 1320.

47. Rabbi Aaron of Baghdad is presented in the Megillat ‘Aḥima'aṣ as a magician as well as a mystic. A summary of these traditions is to be found in my paper: “The Beginnings of Jewish Mysticism in Europe,” The World History of the Jewish People: The Dark Ages, ed. Roth, Cecil (Tel Aviv, 1969), pp. 282–90.

48. Scholem, , Qabbalot, p. 92. It should be noted that this story not only praises Rabbi Eleazar for his piety and his supernatural knowledge, but also states that he failed once in reciting the right formula, fell off the cloud, suffered injury, and remained crippled until his last day.

49. Concerning the date of his death see my Studies in Ashkenazi Hasidic Literature [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv-Ramat Gan, 1975), p. 69.

50. This stratification of “airs” or “winds” is based on Sefer Yeṣirah, chap. 1, sees. 9–10. Following Rav Saadia, Rabbi Eleazar of Worms in his commentary (Przemysl, 1883) described this heirarchy in detail (see especially p. 3c).

51. See my Esoteric Theology, pp. 184–90.

52. See Daiches, Samuel, Babylonian Oil Magic in the Talmud and Later Jewish Literature (London, 1913); Trachtenberg, Joshua, Jewish Magic and Superstition, (New York, 1939), pp. 219–22, 307–8; and my study, Sarei kos ve-sarei bohen,” Tarbiz 32 (1963): 359–69 (reprinted in Studies in Ashkenazi Hasidic Literature, pp. 3443).

53. The Ashkenazi Hasidim also used some more “prophetic” means to achieve this; compare the story told by Rabbi Judah the Pious concerning the discovery of a thief in Studies in Ashkenazi Hasidic Literature, pp. 1012.

54. Thorndike, Lynn, History of Magic and Experimental Science, 8 vols. (New York, 1923), 2: 161, 168, 320, 354, 364–65, and 1: 774. Compare Rashi to Sanhedrin 67b and 101a.

55. Dan, , Esoteric Theology, pp. 104–18.

56. In the twelfth chapter of his Yesod mora, as well as in his commentary to Exod. 33; see Dan, , Esoteric Theology, pp. 113–16.

57. Dan, , Esoteric Theology, pp. 129–43, based on the detailed discussion in the first part of Bodl. MS Opp. 540, part of which was published in Dan, , Studies in Ashkenazi Hasidic Literature, pp. 148–87.

58. Dan, , Studies in Ashkenazi Hasidic Literature, pp. 165–66; 2 Kings 6:15–17.

59. This is one example for the use of a basic Ashkenazi hasidic theological idea, that God's miracles were implanted in the world to teach the righteous God's ways; see Dan, , Esoteric Theology, pp. 8893.

60. Ḥokhmat ha-nefesh (Lemberg, 1876), p. 18c–d (the pagination in this edition is completely arbitrary and wrong; this page is marked as p. 20. In the Safed edition, reprinted exactly word for word and line for line, the pagination has been corrected, and this is the pagination used here). See Dan, , Studies in Ashkenazi Hasidic Literature, pp. 3941.

61. According to the author, the changes in the visions are supernatural and therefore reflect divine characteristics.

62. “Philosophers” in this text means “sages,” including Jews, and has nothing to do with Greek, Arabic or even Jewish philosophy, to which the Ashkenazi Hasidim were in fierce opposition. See Dan, , Studies in Ashkenazi Hasidic Literature, pp. 3133.

63. According to their concept of divine providence, there is a supervising angel (memunneh), who directs the fate of each person; see Dan, , Esoteric Theology, pp. 235–40.

64. The reading of this sentence in the manuscript is doubtful.

65. See Dan, , Studies in Ashkenazi Hasidic Literature, pp. 4143.

66. Dan, , Esoteric Theology, pp. 8893.

67. Dan, , Studies in Ashkenazi Hasidic Literature, pp. 171–72.

68. A homily by Rabbi Judah the Pious (Bodl. MS Opp. 540, fol. 84v) explains the leshad ha-shemen (“a cake baked in oil”) in Num. 11:8 as referring to these “princes,” so that it is clear that he called them “shedim” and not “sarim.” Prof. E. E. Urbach kindly informed me that in the commentaries in medieval halakhic literature concerning the relevant passages in Sanhedrin (above, n. 54), the halakhists often refer to “shedim.”

69. Scholem, , Qabbalot, pp. 8687.

70. Genesis Rabbah 9:2, ed. Theodor, Julius and Albeck, Chanoch (Berlin-Jerusalem, 1903), p. 68 and compare Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:11.

71. Ḥagigah 13b–14a.

72. Job 22:16.

73. According to Isaac, Rabbi (Scholem, Qabbalot, p. 88), they were emanated as spiritual worlds, and their end came in a spiritual manner, like the burning tip in an oil lamp which is plunged into the oil in order to stop its burning.

74. Ḥokhmat ha-nefesh, p. 10c–d.

75. That is, in a perfect way.

76. This is based on the text in Genesis Rabbah, chap. 3, sec. 9.

77. Similar ideas were expressed elsewhere in the thirteenth century, as in the mystical “Sefer Ha-ḥayyim” (MSS Brit. Lib. Or. 1055, Munich 209). See Dan, , Esoteric Theology, pp. 230–35 and compare Sefer ha-yashar (Venice, 1544), chap. 1.

78. See my discussion of their ethical attitude in Hebrew Ethical and Homiletical Literature [Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 1975), pp. 121–45.

79. Meaning: spiritual emanations.

80. From the Hebrew karoz, crier.

81. From the Hebrew masakh, curtain.

82. Scholem, , Qabbalot, pp. 8788.

83. The form of this name is quite mysterious, but it seems that it might contain the Hebrew element, penei 'esh (“fiery face”), which is included in the description of this power.

84. The Hebrew element gur (“cub”) is evident here as a scion of Judah.

85. It should be “prince” in the singular.

86. The author follows the same structure of parallel births, as he had stated concerning Adam and Eve and Samael and Lilith.

87. “Malkhut,” Kingdom, has here a double meaning, both as the tenth sefirah in the kabbalistic system and as a symbol of the Kingdom of Judah.

88. Based on the verse in Numbers 24:17 which was interpreted as referring to the messiah.

89. Isaiah 34:5.

90. Numbers 24:17.

91. Scholem, , Qabbalot, p. 99.

92. This term is used here in a derogatory sense—an intermediary who leads one to sin.

93. Isaiah 27:1, and compare Bava Batra 74b. See Scholem's, note, Qabbalot, p. 100, n. 5.

94. Samael's name is obviously interpreted here by Rabbi Isaac as derived from suma =blind.

95. Scholem, , Qabbalot, pp. 101–2.

96. “Other” in the Zoharic terminology concerning evil means both “left” and “evil,” while siṭra, “side,” refers to the system of emanations. See Scholem, G., Kabbalah, pp. 122–27, and Tishby, Isaiah, Mishnat ha-Zohar. 2 vols. (Jerusalem, 1949), 1: 288–92.

97. It is possible to compare this process to a somewhat similar one which occurred several centuries before Rabbi Isaac, namely, the description of the evil power, Armilos, in the Book of Zerubbabel (see Even-Shmuel, Yehudah, Midreshei ge'ulah, [Jerusalem-Tel Aviv, 1954], pp. 5688, and compare my discussion in The Hebrew Story in the Middle Ages, pp. 3346). In this case too we have a mythical description of an evil power, the son of Satan and a beautiful stone statue in Rome, who became the spiritual as well as political leader of the world and threatened to destroy the people of Israel. The original mythology of the power of evil is closely connected with the emergence of a new mythology of the messiah and a detailed description of messianic victories.

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