Rabbinic Altered States of Consciousness?

The subject of demonology has fascinated me ever since I first began reading scary stories as a child. In our culture today, the belief in demonic spirits continues to play a role in literature, movies, and religion. The recent stories about Rabbi Batzri and his exorcisms show that in Haredi and Hassidic communities, the belief in demonic possession is still very much alive and well–irregardless whether such malevolent entities exist or not.

In the world of the psyche, the imagination runs amok in our unconscious and conscious minds. Our dreams bear witness to this mysterious reality where the line between the real and the unreal seem to conflate. The Talmud actually has a pretty sophisticated treatment of demons. In one of the more remarkable passages of the Talmud, we find:

Abba Benjamin says, If the eye had the power to see them, no creature could endure the Mazikin [the “damagers”]

Abaye says: They are more numerous than we are and they surround us like the ridge round a field.

R. Huna says: Every one among us has a thousand on his left and ten thousand on his right (Psalm 91:7).

Raba says: The crushing in the Kallah lectures comes from them.  Fatigue in the knees comes from them. The wearing out of the clothes of the scholars is due to their rubbing against them. The bruising of the feet comes from them. If one wants to discover them,  let him take sifted ashes and sprinkle around his bed, and in the morning he will see something like the footprints of a rooster. If one wishes to see them, let him take the placenta of a black she-cat that is the offspring of a black she-cat that is the first-born of a first-born, let him roast it the placenta in fire and grind it to powder, and then let him put some into his eye, and he will see them. Let him also pour it into an iron tube and seal it with an iron signet that they the demons should not steal it from him. Let him also close his mouth, lest he come to harm.

R. Bibi b. Abaye did so,  saw them and came to harm. The scholars, however, prayed for him and he recovered.[1]

Most of you reading this probably think some of the rabbis may have been taking hallucinatory drugs. This is one interpretation we cannot rule out. As we suggested above, the rabbis might have been describing frightening dreams or nightmares they experienced. We do not really know the original context that fueled these interesting discussions. In the spirit of open-minded discussion, it pays not to rush and invalidate points of view that we make find disagreeable.  Continue reading “Rabbinic Altered States of Consciousness?”

A Midrashic Deconstruction of the Miracle at the Sea

There is a well-known Midrash that tells of God’s reluctance to perform the miracle until He saw Israel make a move itself to deal with the prodigious problem.

All the tribes of Israel were afraid to jump into the water. Each tribe competed with the other in vacillation and retreat from the joint destiny of the nation.  Finally Nahshon ben Aminadav, a prince of the tribe of Judah, fearlessly, he jumped in, and then the members of his tribe followed, and soon all the people joined in.

An early but lesser-known Halachic Midrash tells the story differently: All the tribes competed with each other to be the first to plunge into the Red Sea, to show the way to the others.  In the heat of the competition, the tribe of Benjamin reached the water first. [1] But the message of this Midrash emphasizes the joint courage manifested by a combined effort of all of Israel helped make the miracle a reality.

Rather than passively relying on faith alone, the community stood together. When a faith community work toward a common purpose, great and unexpected things can occur for contrary to Euclid, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Moderns refer to this concept as “synergy.”

It is unfortunate that of the two Midrashim, the first is better known.  Yet, the first Midrash is, after all, a tragic commentary on the lack of faith within Israel, which in turn prevented them from  working together in finding solutions to the nation’s immediate problems.



[1]For a complete compendium of this material, see R. Menachem Kasher’s Torah Shelmah, Vol. 4 pp. 67-68.

What does Joseph’s Egyptian name “Zaphenath-paneah” actually mean?

Byline:  Dec. 18, 2009–4:00 PM

41:45 וַיִּקְרָא פַרְעֹה שֵׁם־יוֹסֵף צָפְנַת פַּעְנֵחַ  — Pharaoh then gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah — Like other foreigners, Joseph assumes an Egyptian name so that he would better fit in Pharaoh’s court and be better accepted by the Egyptian people. The meaning of this Egyptian name is remains unclear and the certainty of its meaning has eluded scholars since the time of the Septuagint and rabbinic tradition.

For example, the some early exegetes think the name means, “revealer of secrets” [1]. More correctly, R. David Kimchi and Ibn Ezra  (ca. 13th century) observe that  Zaphenath-paneah is really an Egyptian name. Some suggest that  the name Zaphenath-paneah is a Hebrew transcription of an Egyptian name meaning “the god speaks and he lives.” [2]

Professor Kenneth Kitchen, points out that  Zaphenath-paneah was originally Zat-en-aph, for in ancient Egyptian was pronounced Djed(u)en-ef (‘he who is called’). This point, he asserts, is a familiar phrase to all Egyptologists. Furthermore, it is an example of where the letters ‘t’ and ‘p,’ became reversed. Such orthography illustrates the common (but unintentional) practice whenever difficult words and names  are transferred  from one language into another. A Hebrew scribe most likely slipped into the use of a common Semitic root zaphan while writing zaphenat, for the unfamiliar vocalization of Joseph’s Egyptian name. The second part of the name, “Paneah,” may be derived from the Egyptian word,  “aneah” ankh or ankhu (signifying ‘is alive’). The initial “Pa” or “Pi,” corresponds to the Egyptian word Ipi or Ipu. Therefore, “Zaphenath pa’aneah” means, “he who is called Anakh.”[3]

Lastly, Yoshiyuki Muchiki proposes yet another possible rendering, “My provision is god, the living one.” [4]

[1]  See Onkelos,  Rashi, Septuagint and Josephus’ Antiquities 2:6:1. Kimchi also suggests, “Revealtor Occuti” – “revealer of hidden things.”

[2] Other suggestions worthy of consideration: In the Septuagint, we find: Ψονθομφανηχ (Psonthomphantech), “the one who furnishes the nourishment of life” or “healer of the world” (Vulgate).  Some scholars propose that in the Coptic language, it signifies a “revealer of secrets,” or, “the man to whom secrets are revealed,” or, “The man who  knows all things” (Vergote). This name may also  mean “The Nourisher of the Two Lands, the Living One”; or possibly, “savior-of-the-world, or -land”;  or “sustainer of life” (Albright) In any case, the name suggests that it was through Joseph life in Egypt had been preserved

[3] K.A. Kitchen, “On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 345-346.

[4] Yoshiyuki Muchiki, Egyptian Proper Names  and Loanwords in North West Semitic (Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series  173) Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999, pp. xxv, 326-327.