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Notes from Limmud 2005

Judaeo-Spanish Mythology: Lilith

Sharonah Fredrick

Melusine is a hideous French-Christian variant of an old Sephardic story. The French version is as follows: A prince marries a beuatiful woman, who is actually a sea-monster, a serpent. Because he is so in love with her agrees to a deal with her, long before she tells him what she is. She tells him she cannot be with him ever between midnight and sunrise.

For seven years Melusine and the prince live together in a castle in Langue D'Oc - an area of many castles, and a lot of weirdness - and the prince respectfully retires a little before midnight. After seven years, the prince's mother tells him: if Melusine loves you so much, how do you know she's not hiding a lover in there from midnight to dawn? No, says the prince; she's sworn she's celibate during that period, and submerged in prayer. But the mother continues needling him.

Eventually the prince gives in to her wheedling. So one day five minutes before midnight the prince hides in a side entrance to the room. (Twilight and just before dawn and midnight are "crossing times".)

Melusine's legs turn into a tail and she becomes a writing, coiling, sea-monster. [I shall post my notes from the session on sea-monsters in due course. :o)] The prince screams; Melusine realises she's been found out, and flies through the window. (In many mythologies sea monsters are also flying serpents.)

Ever since, you can see her, every night between the hours of midnight and six o'clock, writhing in the sky. (This is a good form of control if you don't want people out at that time.)

The idea of the woman turned folklore had come into France with the entry there of many Jews from Cataluña. It was a Sephardic idea, which had come from Egyptian folklore, and before that from Babylonian.

In old Sephardic folklore, you find the concept of a monster called lamia, meaning something unreal in Arabic. In mediaeval Arabic folklore, we reach about lamias with the tail of a serpent, the body, mostly of a serpent, and the breasts and head of a woman, and the arms of a lion. (Presumably, coming as this did from Egyptian folklore, it was influenced by the Sphinx.)

In the original Babylonian form, this monster was the goddess of the night, called Lilit. Sephardic Jewry (which goes back to the second century in Tarregona) had always regarded itself as an offshoot of the Babylonian community, and tied to the Exilarch in Babylonian. They viewed themselves as being in a fierce competition with the Babylonian Jews, but actually they were carrying their heritage, via the responsa. (When Benjamin of Tudela set out from the Basque community, for example, the first community he wanted to get to was the Babylonian community.)

לילית Lilit means "little night" in Hebrew, but ליל is not an originally Hebrew term (as El was not either). In Babylonia, Lilit was the goddess of night, who was connected with sex (not to be confused with love - Ishtar was the goddess of love), and was viewed with a lot of fear by the ancient Babylonians, because when she got angry she killed children.

Now back to Spain, where Moses de León published the Zohar in 1274. Kabbalists claim the Zohar was written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the second century, but the syntax in the Zohar is Aramaic written as if it were mediaeval Spanish. Though, as R. Jeremy Rosen points out, this does not preclude the work containing ideas that went back to R. Shimon bar Yochai. The Zohar has a lot of influence of Christian sources, and is a tremendous amount of Babylonian influence.

Lilit appears in the Zohar. (She also appears in the Talmud and elsewhere, for which see my notes from Limmud 2004.) She is the character who appears the most in the Zohar; she appears there as an outright sexual character in a way that would be characterised as evil in mediaeval Spain.

She is described as tall, and with violet eyes, extremely beautiful, and vampirical: she kills children, as she is described millennia beforehand as doing in the Epic of Gilgamesh, En-Gidu and tablets of Ur; and survives on a diet of blood.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth century commentaries she is called arpada [sp. in Hebrew?], "vampire".

José de Chicatilia from Valladolid said the Torah was given as black fire written on white fire; the important part, he said, was the white fire, the gaps. The Zohar comes to fill in the gaps. When Adam is created, the text says "male and female created He them", but on the next page, Adam is alone.

To explain this, the Zohar (and Genesis Rabbah) say there was another woman, who was banished. The Zohar goes overboard on this and goes on to describe their sex life. She and Adam are very happy until one day Adam tells her he has to go off and name the animals. Lilith according to the Zohar is furious, and screams - lit. לְיַלֵל "howls like a dog" - at Adam to take her with him, so she can name the animals too.

Adam says no, and tells her to stay by the Euphrates. Adam goes off, and Lilith calls the most important demon, or rather shade (a term Shakespeare used one hundred times - it came into English from translations of the Bible), Ashmodai. These shades were created by G-d, says the Zohar, in the twilight between the fifth and sixth day of creation. Ashmodai is described in the Zohar; if Lilith is every man's fantasy, Ashmodai is every woman's. Dark, large dark eyes, very seductive. So the two of them get off, in the Euphrates, whilst Adam's off naming animals.

So guess what Adam finds when he comes back? Adam tries to kill Ashmodai but Ashmodai disappears. Adam is furious with Lilith and screams at her to repent. She refuses. He threatens her with everything, and then he threatens her with גרושין, divorce.

She refuses to knuckle under. She is מגורשת, expelled from the Garden of Evil - the same root as the word for divorce - and goes off with Ashmodai. The two of them now have a palace seven leagues under the sea. The two of them take people as their sexual slaves. According to the Zohar, both of them are waiting at the crossroads at midnight.

There is much information in the Zohar on how to meet Lilith (less as to how to meet Ashmodai: the author was male!). Firstly - "look at Michael busy taking notes" :o) - the men should not be wearing blue, because blue is one of two colours associated with frightening away the Evil Eye in Sephardic folklore. In the synagogue in Sofia in Bulgaria - one of the places Sephardim fled to after the Expulsion from Spain - the ceiling is painted blue down almost to the middle of the pillars, so if Lilith flies into the synagogue, she will have to disappear, because blue is the colour associared with Heaven.

The other colour associated with driving away the Evil Eye is red, particularly in the form of a red thread around her wrist, of screwy Kabbalah Centre fame. This custom arose from the practice of a woman wearing a red thread around her wrist on the eighth day of a son's life so as to frighten off Lilith. (For more, see The Treasury of Jewish Lore (??) by Nathan Ausubel.)

Secondly to attract Lilith or Ashmodai, you need to make sure there is no blue around your windows. (All the windows in Safed, a great centre of Jewish mysticism, have blue frames.)

This belief in the proximity of Lilith became a terror in the Sephardi community. But these beliefs were not new: Maimonides (of all people!) says anyone who uses amulets keeps Lilith away.

How does Lilith penetrate you [as the Zohar puts it]? She focuses on the man's left eye, and hexes you. (Note the use of left, of course! Left has always been regarded as evil; the Catholic Church in the C14 issued a papal bull that any priest caght writing with the left hand should be flogged!)

Certain people will be immune to Lilith because they are her sons. We call people בני אדם children of Adam as distinct (in the Zohar) to בני לילית children of Lilith. (Shoshanna added: in the Bible, all bad people are identified through their mother. This can be found in other traditions too, Dr Fredrick pointed out: In Mexico when you insult someone you call them a son of Malinche (the Nahua woman who helped betray the Aztex Empire to the conquistador Cortés); when you compliment someone you call them a son of Cortés. Yet, Cortés and Malinche each only had one son, by each other!)

So, how to identify a son of Lilith? They have to be left handed, red haired, with green eyes, and with a beautiful voice. (Which ties into the issue of קול אשה.) Such people are immune to demons.

(Brian Epstein wrote in his autobiography that one time he had John and Cynthia Lennon over for Seder night. John Lennon started asking lots of questions. Epstein's mother, Queenie, who was into mysticism started talking about Lilith, and the characteristics of demonic people. The moment Lennon heard about left-handedness, Lennon said "that explains Paul McCartney!")

When the Ashkenazic tradition met with the Sephardi in the sixteenth century, it gave rise to a hysterical form of folklore. In the time of crisis, the rational thought characteristic of the likes of Maimonides vanishes, and mysticism and superstition rise to the fore. (Another universal: Leibowitz.)

Many Sephardi Jews fled from the Inquisition at the time of the expulsion to Czechoslovakia and Cracow. Ashkenazi Jewry had known many ups and downs, and had never known a Golden Age such as had existed in Spain. When they met, the Ashkenazim were also going through hell. In the early sixteenth century, the nobility in Poland, which had protected the Jews, gave way before waves of ultra-Catholic horsemen from the Ukraine - the Cossacks - and there were pogroms all over. The Sephardim ended up having fled from the frying pan into the fire.

A very small group of Sephardim made their way to Bulgaria (where Joseph Karao was born), and then on to Jerusalem, and then on to Safed, because it is near Mt Merom, where R. Shimon bar Yochai is believed to have written the Zohar. Apocalyptic fever then went on to grip Safed. It was believed by them that the ability lay within their grasp to bring the Messiah.

To bring the Messiah, first you had to be a צדיק (righteous). Then you had to fast for forty days (as Moses did when he ascended Sinai to the receive the Toah). You also had to abstain from sexual relations for seventy-two days (representing the seventy-two letter Name of G-d). After praying and purifying yourself, you pronounced the sacred Name, and the Sephardim believe that Lilith appeared at your window, looking as beautiful as she can look - except that her fangs are dripping blood - to tempt you, as sent by G-d.

Why does G-d send her? At no point is there any insinuation that she is acting independently. If you say you're righteous, you have to prove it. And according to Sephardic folklore, to date no rabbi has been able to withstand Lilith when she appears thus.

In sixteenth century the hysteria spread to Prague. The Maharal (R. Judah Löw) had been profoundly influenced by Sephardi mysticism. The story of the Golem derives from a much older source: the twelfth-century, ספר יצרה Sefer Yetzirah, also from Cataluña, gives instructions on how to make a human being. According to tradition, the one person who tried to do this was the prophet Jeremiah, but he then decided not to.

Most Sephardim in Salonika and Bulgaria were rationalist, but the ones who went to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Israel were die-hard mystics. A trade sprung up in the ḥamsa (Arabic for "five"), a.k.a. Hand of Fatima (the thumb of which is distorted so as not to be regardable as an idolatrous image). A number of rabbis regarded this trade as idolatry - included in whom later was the Vilna Gaon, who prohibited the use of any sort of amulet amongst the Jews of Lita.

But then the Lilith myth started turning up in Lithuania too. She is everywhere. She turns up in the writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholom Aleichem. She is the anti-mother figure, sucking men's blood, then their children's: The message is that if you're beautiful and intelligent, you cannot be a mother figure.

As a result, Dr Fredrick argues that the modern feminist attitude towards Lilith as a role-model is completely back to front. (Gershom Sholem, in his introduction to the Kabbala, wrote: "Above and beyond all things, you must remember that when you read about a female figure in the Kabbala, women had no part in the shaping of that figure. Women were not allowed to study Kabbala; women are not permitted to touch it.") (Also [Shoshanna]: Lilith is evil directed by G-d; the real independent woman is Eve!)

In the seventeenth century, the false messiah Shabbetai Tsevi was the crystallisation of the persecution complex of both Ashkenazim and Sephardim. His mother's entire family had been burned at an auto da fé. His father's entire family had been wiped out in a pogrom in Lodz. His father was a kabbalist and his mother very superstitious. Traditionally you are not supposed to study Kabbala until you are over forty, married, and a Torah scholar, but Shabbetai Tsevi started going into it by the age of twelve!

He deteriorated fast from the path of mysticism into black magic; this is precisely why Maimonides was opposed to mysticism. He first declared he was receiving visitations from G-d, and then declared he was the Messiah, and then declared he had been authorised to reverse the Ten Commandments.

He was very charismatic; he used to sing; specifically, he went into the synagogues and sang a hymn to Melusine.

By 1665 (to cut a long and fascinating story short) he had organised an entire army to march on the Sultan's palace in Florianopolis. Given the choice between proving he was the Messiah, converting to Islam or death, he chose to convert. And the moment Shabbetai Tsevi was revealed as a fake, the mysticism and superstition surrounding him fell into disrepute.

From that moment on, Kabbala was seen to have led to a tremendous disappointment, and remained marginalised until Madonna came along. <rolls eyes> [I'm not sure that's accurate, but that's what Dr Fredrick said.]

Date: 2006-01-04 02:21 pm (UTC)
liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (teeeeeeeeea)
From: [personal profile] liv
Oh my goodness, this is the coolest story ever. The connections between Lilith and Melusine and the Golem sound ever so far fetched, but very cute all the same. Thank you so much for posting this!

Date: 2006-01-04 04:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] compilerbitch.livejournal.com
What is the reason for the construction 'G-d'?

Date: 2006-01-04 04:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
The Third Commandment (in our count, Second in the Christian reckoning) prohibits taking the name of G-d in vain. Two thousand years ago, Jews stopped pronouncing the Tetragrammaton (the four-letter name of G-d) for fear of violating this commandment by speaking the holy name other than in prayer; instead, they pronounced it Adonai, meaning Lord.

Along with this, they stopped writing the Divine Name except in scrolls of Scripture and prayer books; because once written down, the name of G-d could not be destroyed, and it must not be treated as household rubbish. (It has to be put in a geniza, a place of storage for such material, and then when the geniza is full, buried.)

The Men of the Great Assembly, the body constituted after the second return from the Babylonian exile, 2300 or something years ago, said to make a fence around the Torah: i.e. to make additional prohibitions so as to avoid breaking a Torah law. For example, dealing with money is prohibited on the Sabbath, so the Sages ruled that money could not even be handled, so as to prevent any possibility of forgetting, or being tempted, etc.

As part of this, the restriction against writing the Divine Name was extended, more as a custom than a law, to languages other than Hebrew.

There is actually a tradition of overkill on this; the name Adonai became imbued with holiness, and was not written, and except during prayer is substituted with Hashem, "The Name"; then there are those who won't even write השם (Hashem) in Hebrew, but abbreviate it to ה׳, and those who won't even write that, but write it as the "close miss" ד׳. Not everyone is that over-the-top, though.

Strictly speaking, there's no reason not to write "G-d" in full in English, doubly so on an electronic medium and displayed on a raster display, but doing so constitutes a fence and prevents accidentally doing so on other occasions.

Date: 2006-01-04 05:01 pm (UTC)
liv: In English: My fandom is text obsessed / In Hebrew: These are the words (words)
From: [personal profile] liv
I've laughed at you before now about your inconsistent approach to this. But this is actually a really coherent explanation of what's going on with that hyphen, so thank you.

Date: 2006-01-04 04:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tea-cantata.livejournal.com
AFAIK, it's because anything with the full word written on it may not be destroyed. (Do please correct me if I've got the wrong end of the stick here, [livejournal.com profile] lethargic_man.)

Date: 2006-01-04 04:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] snjstar.livejournal.com
very interesting

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