Over at Rationalist Judaism there was a very interesting discussion about Chazal's (the Rabbis of the Gemora) beliefs, specifically about Sheidim (demons), and whether the Rambam was representing what Chazal believed or whether he "argued" with them. Josh Waxman over on Parshablog took the Gemora that I brought over in the comments on Rationalist Judaism and argued with my interpretation of the Gemora. What I would like to do is show how the Rambam's approach to Sheidim (demons), Astrology and other magical things that are mentioned in the Gemora is consistent with at least some opinions in Chazal.
First, we must analyze what it is that the Rambam believes. I would like to suggest two different ideas that the Rambam is likely to use when confronting a Gemora that seems to be non-rational, aka it seems to be acknowledging the existence of magic, demons or astrology. The Rambam states in his famous letter on astrology that can be found here in translated form (By Isadore Twersky):
The summary of the matter is that our mind cannot grasp how the decrees of the Holy One, blessed be He, work upon human beings in this world and in the world to come. What we have said about this from the beginning is that the entire position of the star gazers is regarded as a falsehood by all men of science. I know that you may search and find sayings of some individual sages in the Talmud and Midrashim whose words appear to maintain that at the moment of a man's birth, the stars will cause such and such to happen to him. Do not regard this as a difficulty, for it is not fitting for a man to abandon the prevailing law and raise once again the counterarguments and replies (that preceded its enactment). Similarly it is not proper to abandon matters of reason that have already been verified by proofs, shake loose of them, and depend on the words of a single one of the sages from whom possibly the matter was hidden. Or there may be an allusion in those words; or they may have been said with a view to the times and the business before him. (You surely know how many of the verses of the holy Law are not to be taken literally. Since it is known through proofs of reason that it is impossible for the thing to be literally so, the translator [of the Aramaic Targum] rendered it in a form that reason will abide. ) A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back...
The Rambam seems to be of the opinion that any Gemora that seems to understand that magic, astrology or demons (mystical demons) are real is a daas yachid (lone opinion) that was unaware of the truth in these matters, or perhaps there is another way to explain these Gemoras as not being a problem. This other reason is most clearly explained by the Rambam's son, Avraham ben HaRambam. He says in reference to aggadita (story, as opposed to halachic) gemoras (found here):
The second part of the stories consists of such stories as did not a[c]tually occur but were seen in dreams; they speak of them as real stories, because they believed that no thoughtful man would ever mistake them for real facts; as the one (Vol. I, 24.)We are taught (in a Baraitha) R. Ishmael said: “Once upon entering the holy of holies, to prepare incense, I noticed etc.,” and many other similar stories. And the same is true regarding certain stories in which are mentioned the visions of the prophets, how G-d spoke to them, and also the stories of demons. The thoughtless observer who, for the sake of believing, thinks that these things occurred exactly as stated though the facts are contrary to common sense, in doing so, is both foolish and ignorant of the laws of nature. (Introduction to the Agada, Abraham son of Moses Maimonides, translated by Rabbi S. H. Glick in the preface of Volume 1 of his translation of “En Jacob” page XIV).
To further reinforce our knowledge that the Rambam did not believe in magic, astrology or mystical demons we must turn to the Mishna Torah in the Laws of Idol Worship (11:16):
All these matters [i.e. necromancy, enchantment, et cetera] are all matters of falsehood and deceit, and it was with these that the early idolaters made the other [non-idolatrous] gentiles deviate and follow them. It is not fitting for Jews, who are the cleverest of the clever, to use such nonsense, or even to think that they are of any use, for it is written, "Surely there is no enchantment in Jacob, or divination in Israel" (Bamidbar 23:23), and it is also written, "For these nations, whom you shall dispossess, listen to soothsayers and diviners; but as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so" (Devarim 18:14). Anyone who believes in these or similar things and privately thinks that they are true and wise, but that [we don't practice them because] the Torah forbade them, is a fool and lacks knowledge, and is in the category of women and children, who are lacking in knowledge. But those people who are wise and of a perfect mentality know very clearly that all these things that the Torah forbade are not wise, but are merely stuff and nonsense which those lacking in knowledge follow and because of which abandon the ways of truth. Because of this, when warning us against these nonsenses, the Torah says, "You shall be perfect with the Lord your God". (Devarim 18:13)
The Rambam makes a pretty intense stance against any type of mysticism. He believes they are all illusions and falsehoods with no power. Also, the Rambam believes this to be the position of the Torah and that of Chazal (the Sages). There are many answers that are needed for several Gemoras. However, I would like to focus solely on Sheidim for now. Perhaps at a later date I will deal with Gemoras on astrology, magic and other such things, but for now I would like to narrow the Explanation to Sheidim (demons) that are found in the Gemora.
In order to do this, it is imperative that we understand what the Rambam's view of Sheidim (demons) is so that we can explain it. Luckily, the Rambam talks about this in the Moreh Nevuchim (The Guide for the Perplexed 1:7):
As regards the words, "the form of Adam, and his likeness," we have already stated (ch. i.) their meaning. Those sons of Adam who were born before that time were not human in the true sense of the word, they had not "the form of man." With reference to Seth who had been instructed, enlightened and brought to human perfection, it could rightly be said, "he (Adam) begat a son in his likeness, in his form." It is acknowledged that a man who does not possess this "form" (the nature of which has just been explained) is not human, but a mere animal in human shape and form. Yet such a creature has the power of causing harm and injury, a power which does not belong to other creatures. For those gifts of intelligence and judgment with which he has been endowed for the purpose of acquiring perfection, but which he has failed to apply to their proper aim, are used by him for wicked and mischievous ends; he begets evil things, as though he merely resembled man, or simulated his outward appearance. Such was the condition of those sons of Adam who preceded Seth. In reference to this subject the Midrash says: "During the 130 years when Adam was under rebuke he begat spirits," i.e., demons; when, however, he was again restored to divine favour "he begat in his likeness, in his form." This is the sense of the passage, "Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and he begat in his likeness, in his form" (Gen. v. 3).
The Rambam believes that Sheidim (demons) are regular human beings that are immoral and cause harm to others. This is an important tool for understanding the Gemoras that talk about sheidim (demons) according to the Rambam.
Before entering into the Gemoras let us just sum up what we know up to this point. The Rambam believes that all mystical things are falsehoods. Other than the belief in G-D which is a Mesorah from our forefathers who SAW Him, we trust our senses and scientific evidence above all else. This is not just the opinion of the Rambam, but of most of Chazal (the Sages) as well. If a Gemora seemingly contradicts this it is either allegorical, the opinion of a lone sage that was unaware of the falseness of mysticism, or the Gemora is not being properly understood. Now, let us continue onto the Gemoras.
I think it is most appropriate to bring the Gemorah that the Rambam is dealing with in "The Guide for the Perplexed." The Gemora is found in Eruvin 18b, it says:
R. Jeremiah b. Elazar further stated: In all those years during which Adam was under the ban he begot ghosts and male demons and female demons, for it is said in Scripture: And Adam lived a hundred and thirty years and begot a son in his own likeness, after his own image (Breishis 5:3), from which it follows that until that time he did not beget after his own image. An objection was raised: R. Meir said: Adam was a great saint. When he saw that through him death was ordained as a punishment he spent a hundred and thirty years in fasting, severed connection with his wife for a hundred and thirty years, and wore clothes of fig [leaves] on his body for a hundred and thirty years. (How then could he have begotten children?) — That statement (That Adam begot ghosts, male demons and female demons) was made in reference to the semen which he emitted accidentally.
There is an identical Yalkut Shemoni in Breishis 42 that replaces the name of R. Jeremiah b. Elazar with Rav Elazar ben Ezaria. Now, it would seem like there are two ways to understand this story. Either Rav Meir is coming to argue on Rav Jeremiah and Rav Elazar, or he is coming to explain them. If Rav Meir was coming to argue, then the Rambam makes a lot of sense, Rav Meir is just an opinion that is mistaken because he believed in magic and we do not hold of that. However, if he is coming to explain Rav Elazar and Rav Jeremiah then Rambam has to explain this as allegorical. The best way to explain it would, seemingly, be that Rav Meir is arguing on Rav Jeremiah and Rav Elazar ben Azariah. Rav Meir is holding that these Sheidim came from Adam's accidental semen emissions (non-natural) and Rav Elazar/R. Jeremiah are holding the "Sheidim" are a product of an actual pregnancy (natural). This seems likely because the Gemora brings in the word Meisavay which means Rav Meir is challenging them. (It would seem like Rav Elazar ben Azaria and Rav Jeremiah would hold that maybe Adam did separate for a time, but not necessarily 130 years, that is a bit excessive.)
Still, the Gemora says that Adam and Chava begot Sheidim (demons) even according to Rav Elazar and Rav Jeremiah, so how are we gonna explain that? We already did! The Rambam in "The Guide" that we quoted above says that Sheidim (demons) are real, however, they are not supernatural beings. These demons are just normal men who are wicked and cause harm to others. Therefore, we have a rationalistic approach to the Gemora that excludes magic and mysticism (like Rambam wanted) yet we have a perfectly logical and simple understanding of the Gemora.
Now, for the final idea that I would like to present. There are a series of statements made by Abaye in Chullin 105b that seem to indicate that he was originally taught that Sheidim (demons) do not exist, but then his Master taught him that really there were such a thing as demons. Here is one such example that will also help us with a later Gemora:
Abaye also said: At first I thought the reason why one does not sit under a drain pipe was that there was waste water there, but my Master has told me. It is because demons are to be found there. Certain carriers were once carrying a barrel of wine. Wishing to take a rest they put it down under a drain pipe, whereupon the barrel burst, so they came to Mar son of R. Ashi. He brought forth trumpets and exorcised the demon who now stood before him. Said he to the devil, ‘Why did you do such a thing?’ He replied. ‘What else could I do, seeing that they put it down on my ear’? The other [Mar son Of R. Ashi] retorted: ‘What business had you in a public place? It is you that are in the wrong, you must therefore pay for the damage’. Said the devil, ‘Will the Master give me a time wherein to pay’? A date was fixed. When the day arrived he defaulted. He came to court and [Mar b. R. Ashi] said to him, ‘Why did you not keep your time?’ He replied. ‘We have no right to take away anything that is tied up sealed, measured or counted; but only if we find something that has been abandoned’.
For some reason Abaye thought that Sheidim (demons) did not exist, but once his Master told him about them then his original thinking was out the door. Who was this Master? It was none other than his adoptive father Rabbah bar Nachmani. As Rashi tells us in Shabbos 22a (DH Kol Milay Dimar): This refers to Rabbah Bar Nachmani. So we see that Abaye only started believing in Sheidim(demons) after Rabbah bar Nachmani told him about it. There are several instances of this on the page in Chullin 105a, but I am just bringing in one example.
Let us note that Rav Yosef was the head of the academy at Pumedisa, where Abaye learned and he later became the head of the Academy after Rav Yosef. Rabbah bar Nachmani was Rav Yosef's famous bar plugta (debater). As noted in Sanhedrin 17b, they were both at the academy in Pumbedisa and were famous for being bar plugtas, always arguing. This is important to have in mind because we are about to show how Rabba bar Nachmani believed in mystical Sheidim (demons) and Rav Yosef can be understood to not believe in them. Therefore, Abaye was originally taught like Rav Yosef, but when he was done learning from Rav Yosef, Rabbah started teaching him about demons.
If we make this conjecture then we can explain the following two Gemoras in a very appropriate way according to the Rambam. There is a Gemora in Baba Kama that discuses an abandoned house that most commentaries explain to be talking about a Sheid (demon). It says (Baba Kama 21a) :
R. Sehorah slated that R. Huna quoting Rab had said: He who occupies his neighbour's premises without having any agreement with him is under no legal obligation to pay him rent, for Scripture says, Through emptiness(ושאיה) even the gate gets smitten.(Yishayahu 24:12) Mar, son of R. Ashi, remarked: I myself have seen such a thing and the damage was as great as though done by a goring ox (Better translation is- "I saw it and it was like a goring ox") and. R. Joseph said: Premises that are inhabited by tenants keep in a better condition. What however is the [practical] difference between them? — There is a difference between them in the case where the owner was using the premises for keeping there wood and straw.
This seems like a perfectly harmless Gemora, no mention of Sheidim (demons) at all. However, Rashi (and several other Rishonim) here and on page 97a explains that שאיה is the name of a Sheid (demon). So what is going on here? R. Sehorah is telling us that a person dwelling in a house keeps the demon Shaya away and Rav Yosef argues and says there are no demons, rather a person who lives in a house fixes the problems that arise. Also, Mar bar Rav Ashi says that he SAW this Sheid damaging and it was like a goring ox (the translation from Soncino has something to be desired). This makes perfect sense because, as we showed earlier, Mar bar Rav Ashi believes in Sheidim (demons) so much so that in Chullin 105b he was the one who exorcised a demon! So, it seems like we have Rav Sehorah and Mar bar Rav Ashi on the side that Sheidim exist and it is Sheidim that damage the house and on the other side we have Rav Yosef who, seemingly, does not believe in Sheidim and therefore concludes that the benefit here is that a person will fix the broken parts in a house.
So far, we have been able to use the Rambam's principles perfectly to explain these Gemoras. However, there is a Gemora in Pesachim 110a that appears to show that Rav Yosef believes in Sheidim (demons). It says there:
R. Joseph said: The demon Joseph told me [that] Ashmedai the king of the demons is appointed over all pairs.’ and a king is not designated a harmful spirit. Others explain it in the opposite sense: On the contrary, a king is quick-tempered [and] does whatever he wishes, for a king can break through a wall to make a pathway for himself and none may stay him.
Here, it appears to be saying that Rav Yosef is talking to a demon about demon issues. However, if we take a closer look, the Rambam tells us that sheidim (demons) are really just regular people that are wicked. So, perhaps this demon Joseph was just a wicked person. Also, the subject matter that they were discussing ended up being ambiguous, as seen by the contradiction of whether Ashmedai is a damaging spirit or not. Rav Yosef appears to be trying to show us that there is no clear answer about Sheidim (demons), adding to the idea that they are probably not really mystical.
This is in contrast to Rav Papa, who believes in mystical Sheidim (demons), who comes and argues with Rav Yosef. He says the very next word in the Gemora:
R. Papa said, Joseph the demon told me: For two we kill; for four we do not kill, [but] for four we harm [the drinker]. For two [we hurt] whether [they are drunk] unwittingly or deliberately; for four, only if it is deliberate, but not if it is unwitting. And if a man forgot himself and happened to go out, what is his remedy? Let him take his right-hand thumb in his left hand and his left-hand thumb in his right hand and say thus: ‘Ye [two thumbs] and I, surely that is three! But if he hears one saying, ‘Ye and I, surely that is four!’ let him retort to him, ‘Ye and I are surely five!’ And if he hears one saying, ‘Ye and I are six,’ let him retort to him, ‘Ye and I are seven. This once happened until a hundred and one , and the demon burst [with mortification].
The point of Rav Papa is to counter Rav Yosef's claim that demonology is ambiguous and show that everything is specific. Also, notice that in Rav Yosef's story this Joseph character is talking about some other demon, implying that he himself is not necessarily a demon, while in Rav Papa's story the Joseph character IS talking about himself as a demon. This is just another argument between a believer in mystical demons and someone who does not believe in mystical demons.
This is not an exhaustive list, but a mere peek into what explanations are possible. The Rambam is a very acceptable position and is not something that necessarily goes against Amoraim or Tannaim. Clearly, there is no reason to immediately claim that the Rambam goes against all of his predecessors. As I have said before, Aristotle, who did not believe in anything mystical, lived long before the Rambam, Amoraim and Tannaim. To claim that only mysticism existed in the times of Chazal (the Sages) is to deny plain and simple facts. True, there were probably people among the Sages that believed in mysticism, but there were probably Sages that did not.
The question here is what is the truth and what is the myth that crept in? When the Torah was given was there mystical Sheidim (demons) that had supernatural powers and Greek Hellenism effected some of the Sages and caused them to err? Or perhaps the opposite is true and the Persian/Babylonian Mysticism corrupted some of our Sages.
All we know for sure is that nowadays it seems like these things do not exist and that is all we can be certain of. However, the Rambam has definitely not corrupted the Mesorah in this situation.