Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic Advice Column

Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck has worked as professor of Jewish studies, religious studies, advanced Talmud, halacha, Jewish law codes, and Jewish liturgy, at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He has published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish life. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Go to for details.

Dear Rabbi,

I’ve been studying the Talmud and have come across some passages that take seriously things like demons, demon possession, and exorcisms. This got me thinking and asking: If the Talmud promotes primitive superstitions that I reject, why should I take seriously anything else that it teaches?

Possessed in Paterson


Dear Possessed,

You are correct to be concerned about this content. The Talmud’s Jews lived in Babylonia 1500 years ago, in a world that was filled with shedim, mazikim, and ruhot – demons and spirits, some evil, some not. The Talmud’s Jews believed that demons lived all around them, in trees, in bodies of water, on housetops, and in latrines. The Talmud cautions its readers that it’s a good thing that demons were invisible since, “If your eye could see them, you could not endure with them around. They surround a person. They are more numerous than people. Each person has a thousand demons on his left side and ten thousand on his right side.” So yes, demons appeared persistently throughout the Talmud and in the midrashim.

That cultural fact reminds us vividly of something that most observant Jews would prefer to forget – that the wisdom of our ancient books comes along with the naive baggage of a less scientific, less philosophical era.

So what are your options? Sure, you can insist on a take-it or leave-it approach to the Talmud. Since part of it is superstition and you reject that, then you may say let’s toss away the whole work.

As a rabbi I am obligated to remind you that we believe the religious and theological wisdom of the Talmud provides a profound and meaningful basis for our spiritual lives. It’s part of the extended Oral Torah that derives its authority from what God gave to Moses at Sinai.

And so does that mean that we rabbis today believe that the demons spoken of in the Talmud were, and are, real entities?

Some fundamentalist rabbis, even today, will say that yes, demons are real, exactly as described in the sacred texts.

More modern rabbis will suggest to you that there are sophisticated ways to handle this issue.

The traditional nuanced believer’s response will be to remind you that for centuries great scholars and sages have distinguished between the halachah (the legal and ritual content) and the aggadah (the folklore and legend) in the Talmud. Serious sages have agreed that we need not accept the aggadah at literal face value. And teachings about demons are part of the aggadah that can be glossed over or taken symbolically.

A common modern and somewhat trite and obvious explanation based in this free approach to the aggadah is the idea that demons are merely metaphors. We can say that we all have our own personal “demons” of one sort or another, demons with which we struggle. In this frame of interpretation we affirm to take hold and keep the aggadah, including what it says about demons, but with a grain of salt and a heap of free associations.

What’s my advice to you then? Talmudically, I see three possible paths. First, if you have already decided to reject your faith and community, you will conclude that you must be utterly consistent and throw the baby out with the bathwater. A second path open to you, if you have decided to continue in your community, is that you accept the traditional answers that distinguish between that which we consider to be authoritative and that which we no longer need to heed.

And a third path for you is that you continue to explore and struggle with the metaphoric use of talmudic ideas like demons. I know one person who spends several hours every month with a professional therapist trying to deal with the personal issues of his life in a modern behavioral way. Yet on occasion he finds it most helpful to concretize an issue that he faces, and to imagine it takes the form of a demon, and then to actively banish it from his life.

Whatever path you choose, I hope this question does not haunt you much longer and that the paths of your life not be beset by demons.


Dear Rabbi,

I have been attending a 6:30 daily morning minyan at my local synagogue for many years. Right after minyan I rush out to catch a bus and go to work in the city. Many others at the minyan are on tight schedules and must connect with car pools or take their children to school. We always have completed our services at 7 promptly to satisfy our schedules.

Recently a man who is a mourner in shloshim (the first thirty days of mourning after losing a relative) was asked to lead the services, as is our custom. He recites the prayers clearly and accurately but there is a problem. He goes too slowly and sometimes finishes at five or ten minutes after seven. I have had to leave several times before the service is completed so that I could get to my bus.

I want to ask the man to speed up his davening. My friend says that is rude and I should not approach him. What is your advice?

Slow Pray in Bergenfield


Dear Slow Pray,

I play a lot of golf. So please allow me to describe a somewhat parallel question involving slow play that I encountered one recent day in that more profane activity. I was playing on a local course with three friends. The group in front of us was playing way too slowly. After several holes we all became antsy waiting for the foursome ahead of us to hit and move forward.

One of my friends insisted that we talk to them when they are on the next tee, to implore them to play faster. I argued that was poor etiquette, and if we wanted to get the pace quickened we had to speak to the ranger on the course and ask him to reprove the slow players.

We debated the point back and forth in our foursome for a while and eventually we did find the ranger and asked him to intercede. He spoke to the slowpokes, play picked up, and we did not have to confront the offending players.

Of course, slow play is not the same as slow pray. But you need to balance your desire for a steady and predictable speed with the needs of the community of praying people. You probably have a gabbai, a member of your minyan who is in charge. It’s best in a big minyan if you speak to the gabbai about the delay and let him approach the mourner who is leading your services.

If your minyan is small and friendly, you may take a chance on explaining your schedule-needs directly to the slow shaliach tzibbur (leader). It’s likely that he will not be offended and will make efforts to pick up the pace.

I do hope that you find helpful this brief Talmudic analysis and advice for the day-to-day reality of the pace of our contradictory world, where one person’s slow pray may be another person’s perfect day.