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:

As a result of the legend of Adam’s relations with Lilit [an alternate spelling—MS], although this function was by no means exclusively theirs, the Lilits were most frequently singled out as the demons who embrace sleeping men and cause them to have nocturnal emissions which are the seed of a hybrid progeny. . . As the demons whose special prey is lying-in women, it was found necessary to adopt an extensive series of protective measures against her …. We seem to have here a union of the night demon with the spirit that presides over pregnancy, influenced no doubt by the character of the Babylonian Lamassu, and the lamiae and striga of Greek and Roman folklore.[4]

Trachtenberg’s insight is obviously accurate. According to the Zohar, a man who masturbates in this world will be treated in the next life like one who is worst than a murderer—since he has, in effect, murdered his own seed; in God’s eyes he is considered the most reprehensible kind of human being.[5] In a strange way, the Zohar sees Lilith as the guardian of family purity. Any couple failing to observe the laws governing sexual abstention risks incurring her wrath. Even making love by candle light can result in Lilith causing children to become epileptic and risk being pursued and killed by Lilith.[6] One may deduce from the Zohar’s condemnation that the fate of young men or children dying is a talionic punishment for having spilled seed. The proof text for this was Er and Onan who died rather than give their seed to Tamar (Gen. 38:1-10).[7]

Archaeology has discovered special incantation bowls that were used to help a person seek protection from “demons, demonesses, lilis, liliths, plagues, evil satanic beings and all evil tormentors that appear.” As one scholar noted, “The liliths were but one class of an elaborate taxonomy of malevolent spiritual beings. The sexually aggressive character of the lilis and liliths accounts for the fact that exorcistic texts are often expressed in formal divorce terminology, such as this text (No. 35, Isbell): ‘Again, bound and seized are you, evil spirit and powerful lilith…. But depart from their presence and take your divorce and your separation and your letter of dismissal. [I have written against] you as demons write divorces for their wives and furthermore, they do not return [to them].’”[8]

[1] T.B. Erubin 100b; T,B. Nidah 24b.

[2] The origin of the English word “nightmare” has nothing to do with a murderous horse derived from Grimm’s Fairy Tales; it was an evil female spirit who afflicted sleepers with a feeling of suffocation. “Nightmare” is compounded from “night” + “mare” (Old English for “goblin.” In Old Irish, Morrigain is the “demoness of the corpses,” lit. “queen of the nightmare” while in Polish, mora means “incubus” or “succubus” (the former is a male demonic spirit, the latter is the female equivalent). Each of these stories is based on the Lilith myth.


[3] Cf. Zohar 1:14b; 27b; 33b; 34b; 55a; 169b; 2:27b; 96a; 106a; 3:19a; 76b-77a.

[4] Jewish Magic and Superstition (New York: Commentary Classic ,1939; reprint, 2004), p. 36.

[5] Zohar 1:219b.

[6] Zohar 1:14b.

[7] For a comprehensive treatment of this subject, see David M. Feldman’s Abortion in Jewish Law (New York: London: New York University and University of London Press Limited, 1968), pp. 109-165.

[8] The New ISBE, Vol. 3, s.v. “Lilith,” p. 536.