Should we worry about demons and evil spirits?

Today, when most people possess an intellectual consciousness, one who wishes to observe the custom of his forefathers is entitled, but the public should not be warned against dangers that supersede logic, unless they have moral reasons

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, | updated: 07:57

מצווה. הרב מלמד
מצווה. הרב מלמד
פלאש 90
Q: Is it necessary to be careful and beware of the warnings of our Sages against the harm of ruach ra (harmful spirits) and shaydim(demons), such as the warning not to eat peeled garlic, onion, or eggs that were kept overnight?

A: Today, there is no need to beware of the dangers of harmful spirits and demons, just as we learned about the warning of pairs.

One who is Particular, They are Particular about Him

In the days of the Talmud, many people were careful not to drink cups in an even number, such as two or four cups, and not to eat food in an even number, but were careful to eat and drink in an odd number, so as not to be harmed by demons (Pesachim 110a). Some halakhic authorities explained that these demons received their power from the Mazdayasna (Zarathustra) religion, who believed that there are two forces in the world, good and evil, and those who ate or drank in pairs were harmed by demons and harmful spirits of this idolatry (Maharsha).

However, our Sages added a basic rule: “When one is particular, they [the demons] are particular about him, while when one is not particular, they are not particular about him. Nevertheless, one should take heed” (Pesachim 110b). In other words, if a person is usually accustomed to be careful about such dangers, but is not, he is harmed; but someone who does not take care and drinks in pairs, these harmful spirits and demons do not harm him; nevertheless, ideally, one should not expose himself to their danger, and refrain from drinking in pairs, because occasionally, they also harm those who are not careful about them.

Worlds and Dimensions of Consciousness

The explanation is that spiritual worlds are composed of various spheres, which can also be termed as different dimensions. Every world has good and useful forces, and bad and harmful forces. In the worlds inclined to imagination and mysticism, these forces appear as angels, spirits, and demons whose presence has either positive or negative influence, each world according to the type of consciousness of its imaginations. In worlds that tend to the intellect, they appear as positive and negative ideas that spread forth and affect man and humanity, each world according to the perceptions at its core.

Every person has a world of consciousness of his own and lives in the world where his awareness exists, and the forces acting in that world have influence on him for good and for evil. This is what our Sages said: ‘When one is particular, they are particular about him, while when one is not particular, they are not particular about him’. In other words, someone who in his consciousness lives in a world of certain spirits and demons, such as those that harm people who drink in pairs, is influenced by their actions. But someone whose consciousness is not in that world, those same demons will not influence him.

Nevertheless, our Sages said it is wise to be careful of things known to be dangerous, because although one’s consciousness is removed from such demons and spirits, since he lives in an era where their perception is widespread, and he himself occasionally worries about demons and spirits of various kinds, against his will, the demons and spirits that harm people who drink in pairs can also have a certain influence on him, and therefore, one should be careful of things that expose himself to their danger.

Relating to Harmful Spirits in Our Times

Today, however, when almost all of us live in the consciousness of intellectual spiritual worlds that have no room for demons and spirits, and even the secrets of Torah and the worlds of rich imagination are explained logically, it is wrong to encourage concern for the danger of harmful spirits. And although in other worlds these harmful spirits most likely still exist, since in our world there is hardly anyone who thinks about them, they have no effect on us.

Regarding such things, it is said: “Hashem protects the thoughtless.” In other words, when many people are unaware of a certain thing, Hashem safeguards them, for they are not concerned with the dangers in other worlds. Moreover, since it is preferable for a person to live in an intellectual world, in which the influence of one’s choice is clearer, it is appropriate not to concern oneself with these dangers. Only those who still give them a place in their worldview, either because of their inclination or education, should take heed of them. But someone who comes to ask if it is proper to be careful of such dangers, should be instructed not to take them into account.

The Opinion of Rambam and Other Gedolei Yisrael

There were Gedolei Yisrael (eminent Rabbis), chief among them Rambam, who, even in the past, fought against the opinion of those poskim who took into consideration sorcerers, evil spirits, and demons, and in their opinion, all of their harm stems only from the fear they caused people, but in truth, there is no need to fear them (Hilchot Avodah Zarah 11:16; Commentary on Mishnayot Avodah Zarah 4:7; Moreh Nevuchim 3:37; ibid 46). According to what I have explained, Rambam’s world and those poskim who agree with him, which is a philosophical intellectual world, stood in complete contrast to the imaginary mystical worlds, and consequently, negated their existence.

However, the majority of our Sages disagreed with them, because people’s consciousness also creates reality, especially when it comes to intelligent people. Therefore, when human consciousness interpreted certain spiritual forces as demons and spirits, they appeared in the world as such (Ramban, in his commentary to Shemot 20: 3; Leviticus 17: 7, Deuteronomy 18: 9; Rashba, Teshuvot 1:413; Rivash 92, and the end of 93; Radbaz, 848,4 and many more).

However, they too would agree that when the public at large does not live in an awareness of such dangers, since in practice they pose no danger, this should not be provoked.

Warnings Possessing Ethical Explanations

Nevertheless, it is indeed appropriate to take into consideration warnings that also have ethical reasons, for indeed, sometimes dangers that supersede logic correspond to the depth of the ethical reason. For example, our Sages said that it is correct to be careful not to throw breadcrumbs on the floor, for one who does so, causes himself poverty, seeing as the angel responsible for sustenance and livelihood is named ‘nakid‘, or cleanliness, and the angel responsible for poverty is named ‘naval‘, or filth. Therefore, in a place where there are crumbs of food on the floor, the angel of poverty dwells, while the angel of wealth dwells in a clean place (Pesachim 111b, Chulin 105b, and S. A., O. C. 180:4).

This warning should be observed because this supernatural instruction is in accordance with ethical guidance, for someone who throws crumbs on the floor gives the impression that he despises Hashem’s blessings, and therefore, he does not deserve to be blessed with wealth. Moreover, neglecting cleanliness of one’s house leads to neglect in other areas, including managing money, which consequently, causes poverty (Peninei Halakha: Berachot 13:4).

Peeled Garlic, Onion and Eggs

Based on the fundamentals we have learned, I will explain the approach towards various cautionary minhagim (customs). It is mentioned in the Talmud in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, that someone who eats peeled garlic, onions, and eggs kept overnight, “forfeits his life, and his blood is upon his own head” (Nidah 17a). The Gemara explains that even if they are placed in a bag or a vessel, ruach ra (evil spirit) rests upon them, but if a bit of the peel or root remained, there is no reason for concern.

However, the majority of Jews are not accustomed to concern themselves with this warning, because it is not halakhically ruled by Rambam, in most of the books of the Rishonim, and in the Shulchan Aruch. Apparently, in their opinion, halakha is not like the opinion that takes ruach ra into consideration. And even if in the times of the Tannaim ruach ra could have been harmful, in the times of the Rishonim, the concern about it had already ceased. Some poskim wrote similarly regarding all harmful spirits, namely, that they lost their influential power (Tosafot Chulin 107b; Maharam of Rothenburg, Yam Shel Shlomo, Chulin 8:12, and others).

This is also the halakha that it is improper to introduce prohibitions that have no basis in halakha, and whose reason is based on a danger that is not evident and clarified in our times. This was the instruction of Rabbi Ovadia Hadaya ztz”l (1890-1969), who was one of the leading poskim and head of the kabbalists two generations ago. He explained that all the poskim who did not mention this prohibition were of the opinion that in their times there was no concern, and since people are unaware of this concern, clearly, even according to the approach of the machmirim (strict) they are not harmed, and as he wrote, “we have never seen or heard of anyone in our location that was harmed by them” (Yaskil Avdi, O.C. 7/44. And thus wrote Tzitz Eliezer 18:46; Aderet; Yad Meir 19; Beit Shlomo, Y.D.189; Shem Aryeh 27, and others).

The Minhag of Those Concerned

There are those who are of the opinion that l’chatchila (ideally), one should make sure that no peeled garlic, onion, or egg be kept overnight, and if they were, those who wish to act leniently and eat them, are permitted (see, Yabia Omer, 2/ Y. D. 7-8). And then there are those whose custom is even bediavad (after the fact) they should not be eaten (Ben Ish Chai, Pinchas 14, and others). It seems that anyone who follows the custom of his family and refrains from eating them even bediavad, does not have to worry about transgressing the prohibition of Bal Tashchit (do not destroy or waste), since he destroys the leftover food in order to fulfill the minhag, and not in vain. However, even people who do take this warning into consideration, if they mix in with the garlic, onion, or egg some type of food, even salt or oil, there is no concern if they are kept overnight (S’mak, Tzitz Eliezer 18,46,4; Yabia Omer 10/Y.D. 9).

Nevertheless, as I explained above, if someone comes to ask if it is correct to be concerned about such warnings, it is proper to instruct him that it is preferable not to be concerned.

Foods and Drinks Under One’s Bed

It is said in the Babylonian Talmud: “It was taught: If food and drink are kept under the bed, even if they are covered in iron vessels, an evil spirit rests upon them” (Pesachim 112a). However, in the Jerusalem Talmud, even though it is said that one should not keep food and drinks under the bed, it is not clear that the reason is because of ruach ra(Terumot 8: 3). Accordingly, Rambam wrote: “A person should not place a cooked dish under the couch on which he is reclining, even though he is in the middle of his meal, lest something that could harm him fall into the food without his noticing” (Hilchot Rotzeach 12: 5).

Therefore, the proper minhag is not to place food and drinks under the bed, because according to Rambam there is a logical reason for this. And there is also an ethical reason, for sleep is considered as one-sixtieth of death, and it is not honorable for foods meant to give vitality to be placed under a bed upon which one lies still, similar to a dead person.

Although, bediavad, if food was placed under the bed, they are permitted to be eaten. And even though there are poskim who are machmir (Gra, Birkei Yosef 116:10; Ben Ish Chai, Shana 2, Pinchas 14), according to what we have learned it is appropriate to be lenient, and this is the customary way of instruction (Shvut Yaakov 2:105; Pitchei Teshuva 116:4; Rabbi Akiva Eiger and Yad Ephraim ibid, and others).

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.