What does the Talmud and Kabbalah have to say about Lilith?

Q. The Talmud makes ample mention of Lilith’s activities. Lilith is described as a female night-demon whose erotic nature evokes a desire for illicit sexual relationships (succubus). Lilith’s physical attributes are also described in detail; she is depicted as having long hair and wings[1] and the rabbis warns all men not to sleep alone in a house lest Lilith come and seduce them in their dreams (T. B. Shabbat 151b).[2] Lilith is especially popular in the Zohar where she appears as the seductress supreme.[3] In all likelihood the rabbinic stories about Lilith were probably, in part, intended to prevent young rabbinic scholars from the sins of masturbation and illicit sexual relations which the Zohar equates to the crime of murder. The scholar Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg explains: Continue reading “What does the Talmud and Kabbalah have to say about Lilith?”

Q. What are some of the Lilith legends?

What are some of the Lilith legends?

Although the origin of Lilith is not mentioned anywhere in the Talmud, she is mentioned popular medieval composition known as The Alphabet of Ben Sira (ca. 8th century). According to medieval Jewish folklore, God created Lilith from the earth just as He created Adam. From the beginning of their relationship, Adam and Lilith immediately began to fight. According to one version of the myth, Adam insisted on the making love in the missionary position and Lilith agreed—provided she could be in the dominant position instead:

After God created Adam, who was alone, He said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18). He then created a woman for Adam, from the earth, as He had created Adam himself, and called her Lilith. Adam and Lilith immediately began to fight. She said, ‘I will not lie below,’ and he said, ‘I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while I am to be in the superior one.’ Lilith responded, ‘We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.’ But they would not listen to one another. When Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air. Adam stood in prayer before his Creator: ‘sovereign of the universe!” he said, ‘the woman you gave me has run away.’ At once, the Holy One, blessed be He, sent these three angels to bring her back.[1]

The quarrel was obviously more deeply psychologically nuanced and their parting ways is similar in many ways to the kind of arguments men and women have today. The myth draws attention to the pattern of dysfunction that affects the complicated world of human relations. It is conjectured that Adam could not endure having an egalitarian relationship and so their conflicts quickly lead to Lilith’s sudden departure—she did not want to be Adam’s underling! Rather than acting like an experienced marriage counselor, YHWH sent for three angels to bring her back and issued the following ultimatum. “If she agrees to come back, fine. If not, she must permit one hundred of her children to die every day.”[2]

After the Lilith prototype proved to be a failure, and to make sure there would never be a problem regarding who would be the “head of the family,” God this time creates a woman out of Adam’s rib to symbolize her subservience to her husband. In short, according to this version of the story, Lilith preferred to stay alone and focus on making infants sick. She threatened to inflict harm upon male infants until the eighth day after birth, female children after twenty days (but some variants say twelve). Lastly, Lilith made one additional vow: she would not harm the infant in any way if the infant wore an amulet bearing the name of three special angels. When Lilith sees their names, she remembers her oath, and the child recovers.”

[1] David Stern and Mark J. Mirisky, Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives from Classical Hebrew Literature (Chicago, IL. Publisher’s Row/Varda Books, repr. 2001), pp. 183-184.

[2] It seems strange that The Alphabet of Ben Sira did not think to ask where Lilith was going to find her new love interests. However, in a different variant of the myth, the angel Samael (not to be confused with Samuel), chief of the fallen angels (a.k.a “Satan”), finds her weeping and falls in love with her. Unlike Adam, Lilith finds Samael to be more egalitarian and appealing; she accepts him as her mate. See Maximilian Josef Rudwin “The Legend of Lilith” Devil in Legend and Literature (Chicago: Open Court, 1931), pp. 94-104.

Q. What does the name Lilith mean in Biblical Hebrew?

One of the most interesting personalities listed in rabbinic and non-rabbinic literature is the figure of Lilith, who was said to be Adam’s “first wife” and she is sometimes referred to as “the first Eve.” The only reference to Lilith may be found in Isaiah 34:14 where the name “Lilith” (lîlît) first appears.

Older bible translations render “lilit” as “screech owl.”[1] This interpretation is consistent with the previous stanzas that speak about other wild animals or birds.

Newer translations seem to prefer “Lilith” because of its strong connections to Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian mythologies. In Sumerian, the word lil “wind” was related to the name and she was known as a storm-demon. If this definition is correct then the other creature mentioned in the same verse “sa’ier” must mean the hairy goat-demon. The fact that Lilith does not appear in any other Scriptural reference is significant—especially given the antiquity of the belief of her existence.[2]

For many years scholars thought that the name “Lilith” is connected to the popular folk etymology laylâ ( = “night”). However, the real origin of the name derives from the Assyrian lilîtu and Akkadian the lilū, lilītu and ardat lilī, who were the three storm deities. [3] In Sumerian, the term líl means either “wind” or “spirit.” The Jews probably first learned of this feminine demonic being after the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel was deported to Assyria in 721 B.C.E., and shortly later when the Southern Kingdom was deported to Babylon.[4]

[1] Cf. the Septuagint, Pseudo-Targum Jonathan and the Vulgate. A modern rendering of this passage would thus be: The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the howling beasts; and the shaggy goat shall cry to his fellow. The screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest (MKJV).

[2] The líl is also mentioned in the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld (ca. 3rd millennium B.C.E.).

[3] Cf. BDB 539:1; HALOT 528; cf. Marcus Jastrow’s Dictionary of Targumim, Talmudic and Midrashic Literature, p. 707; Numbers Rabbah 16:25.

[4] According to one rabbinic tradition, Lilith was the daughter of Ahreman, the opponent of Ohrmizd in the Zoroastrian religion (T. B. Bava Bathra 73a). See Karel Van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter Willem Van Der Horst, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. (Leiden; Boston; Grand Rapids, Brill: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 520. She is also mentioned in the Jerusalem Targum to Num. 6:24; Deut. 33:24; Isa. 34:14 and in T. B. Erubin 18b.