Aaahh!!! Jewish Monsters

An illustrated guide

Elie Lichtschein Illustrated by Joey Ramona
October 29, 2021

Early in its first tractate, the Babylonian Talmud abruptly turns from the topic of prayer to a more pressing matter: demons. They’re everywhere, one rabbi claims, invisibly circling us like sounds and smells. Another rabbi adds, “If you could see how many surround you at all times, you’d never survive.” Despite this word of warning, the sages go on to offer detailed instructions for a ritual to reveal the presence of these demons, known as shaydim. Find a firstborn female black cat. Then take her first female offspring and separate its afterbirth. Burn it. Sprinkle the ash in your eye. When the world blinks back into coherence, you’ll start seeing the shaydim.

Judaism, a religion built on the word, is rife with textual monsters. The Talmud is frequently compared to a sea because of its vast size and the many shapes that lurk beneath its surface, but every major body of water has also inspired legends and warnings of massive creatures under the waves. The sea of the Torah is no exception. Monstrous beings are scattered throughout the Bible, swimming and soaring and even wheeling into fright. These same creatures make hairy multi-limbed appearances in the Talmud and Midrash and creep up in mystical writings through the Middle Ages. Some even arise from textual inferences—a method of deduction that contrasts with the ways most cultures have divined their monsters, often through oral folkloric traditions.

Despite the voluminous Jewish bestiary, the cinematic canon of religiously inspired horror has largely overlooked Judaism, as critics have recently noted. For decades, Christianity has filled movies with monsters inspired by Satanic allegiance, demonic possession, and exorcisms, often quelled with the aid of a crucifix, a shpritz of Holy Water, or a good old-fashioned leatherbound Bible. In recent years, a few independent films have drawn instead from the dark side of Jewish lore and legend, but the question remains: Why isn’t there more creaturely Jewish horror? It seems that the largely secular American Jewish community simply hasn’t been introduced to the horned Re’eh, the seven-headed demons, ancient kings the size of mountains, or angels shaped like eye-covered wheels. The sea is murky and deep and contains a wriggling trove of understudied treasures. With Halloween on the horizon, let’s take a look at some underappreciated horrors of the Hebrew canon.

“He never takes off his shoes”

One of the most frightening monsters in the Jewish imagination is the shayd, a shapeshifting demon that assumes the form of a living person. It can transform every part of its body except for its feet, which always retain their original form: a chicken’s claws. The Talmud includes a story about the king of the shaydim (a mountain-dwelling demon named Ashmedai) impersonating the king of the Jews (a castle-dwelling lady-lover named Solomon). The sages of the Sanhedrin determined the impostor’s true identity by asking his queens what the king’s feet looked like when he visited the harem. Their ominous answer: “He never takes off his shoes.” Nearly 2,000 years later, some claimed that Hitler refused to remove a certain pair of boots, especially in his last years, proof that he might have been a shayd. The Talmud explains elsewhere that the shayd’s natural enemy is flour, since the most common way to find out if shaydim are on the haunt is to spread some near the disturbed area. If the marks of chicken feet appear overnight, it means that shaydim are afoot and you better hoof it.

“The spirit of the creatures was in the wheels”

There are topics in Judaism that can break a student’s brain if studied prematurely. Pirkei Avot teaches that “forty is the age to study wisdom”; Maimonides expounds on this advice, specifying certain topics that should remain off limits until late in a Jew’s life. These include the mystical account of creation in Genesis, the separation between the “higher and lower waters” of existence, and the workings of the celestial chariot described in the first chapter of Ezekiel. The monstrousness of this prophetic vision serves as its own warning against consulting certain topics before the mind is ripe. The text describes a mystical chariot that God rides through the lower tiers of existence in a journey some sages interpret as a metaphor for the divine’s movement through the human realm. Amid the horrific images that appear in these 30-some verses, one stands out: a sapphire throne carrying the figure of “something like a man,” courted by four-winged, four-faced angels. Wheels within fiery wheels, each rippling with eyes along the rim. These horrific angels, which make up God’s entourage, stand in stark contrast to the more palatable depictions popular in Christian art under the Roman empire, with their cute little cheeks and sybaritic grins.

“Og, king of Bashan, the last surviving giant”

One of the most frightening stories in the Bible is the tale of Noah, in which God’s destructive might is realized in the form of a genocidal deluge. But if that’s not distressing enough, wait until you see what’s on the side of the ark. Deuteronomy mentions that a prediluvian king named Og was the last of the giants, a species that thrived before the flood. A midrash in the Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer asks how such a creature could exist—wasn’t all life destroyed during the torrent that lasted for 40 days and 40 nights? How did Og survive? The answer is scarily simple. He hung onto the side of the ark for the entire storm, eating scraps Noah fed him through a hole in the wall. Picture it: You step on the deck for a break from the bleating wildlife and the unrelenting stench. You watch the crash of endless waves, all that remains of the world. Curtains of rain soak you from above, and as you contemplate the godly horror of intentionally drowning a planet, you squint and just barely make out something through the wetness: The soaked figure of an enormous man, clutching the ark like a squid grips a whale. It’s no shock that when Noah reached dry land he turned hard to the vine.

“The flying one is the most dangerous of the fiery serpents”

Judaism is a religion filled with chiddushim (novel insights) about consciousness, morality, and life itself, but perhaps its most transformative chiddush is teshuvah. The notion of repentance, or a “return” to the way things were intended to be—an idea distinct from ​​apocatastasis, the Catholic notion of a return to how things were originally—is commonly understood in relation to individual people striving to improve themselves. But Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine and a peerless mystic, applied the concept more broadly. Not only is the individual on a path toward return, he taught, but so is the whole world; all of God’s creations undergo teshuvah to the way they were meant to be. So what would that look like in practice? When the wily serpent was punished in Genesis, it was condemned to spend all the days of its life slithering on its belly. Many commentators have understood this to mean that it had arms and legs prior to the curse. However, Isaiah mentions a “flying fiery serpent.” Supposing this is its “ideal form,” it follows that Rabbi Kook’s ultimate “teshuvah of all things” might well include a future full of scorched serpents soaring through the skies.

“You were formed from soil and to soil you shall return”

The golem is the prom king of Jewish monsters: Everyone knows its name, and it’s usually a big brawny hulk. The most popular origin story about this God-sparked homunculus traces back to Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, also known as the Maharal, a great scholar and practical mystic who supposedly fashioned a living being out of mud in the mid-1500s (although the first written account of this episode doesn’t show up until the early 1800s). The Maharal is said to have done this by channeling the same life-building kavanot (intentions) that God used when creating Adam. He wrote the Hebrew word for truth, “emet,” across the golem’s forehead, which animated it. When he wanted the golem to power down—which he did each erev Shabbat—the Maharal erased the first letter, the aleph, which also serves as a shorthand for “Elohim,” a name of God. This left two letters, the mem and tav, which in Hebrew spells “met,” or death; in other words, the Maharal would “kill” the golem by removing God from its forehead and “revive” it after the Sabbath by returning its life force in the form of an aleph.

One of the more frightening bits of lore involving the original golem stems from World War II. The story goes that when the Nazis overran Prague in their 1939 conquest of Czechoslovakia, a high-up member of the Thule Society, a group of proto-Nazi occultists, specifically sought out the Maharal’s shul. Legend spoke of a locked room in the back of the attic where the golem lay, awaiting the return of its aleph. The Nazi found the room, broke the lock, and entered. A minute later he returned, his face white as bone. “No one goes in there,” he commanded. “Not now, not again, not ever.” He never spoke about what he saw.

“The blood-sucking lady bird of the night”

A striya (sometimes rendered as “estries”) is a blood-sucking flying monster first mentioned in the Sefer Hasidism, a 1465 text penned by a member of the Hasidei Ashkenaz, which was a mystical movement of self-denying devotees that thrived in medieval Germany. The striya is not the first Jewish “vampire”; that distinction might go to the primordial she-haunt Lilith, depicted in the Talmud as a winged demoness with the face of a woman’s, or the “libelous blood eater” to which European Christians compared Jews starting in the 1100s. A creative reading of two verses in Leviticus might even suggest that the Israelites diagnosed the syndrome later known as clinical vampirism, since they bothered to prohibit the drinking of blood. Commonly depicted as a beautiful young woman, the striya is more vampire finch than bat. Although she flies at night and drinks the human red to survive, her name comes from the French word for a night owl, and she’s said to have huge talons and breasts full of poisoned milk. And while other undead bloodsuckers use their capes or chiropteran wiles to fly, the striya’s wings are her hair. The vision of a wild-maned, long-fanged, pale-skinned woman-thing flapping her locks through the night sky is far more upsetting than a Transylvanian count’s polite welcome to a silent castle.

“The great sea monsters and the living creeping creatures of the deep”

Many of the Hebrew Bible’s monsters appear at the very beginning. According to Pirkei Avot, that’s because God spent the inaugural Friday twilight making some of the world’s mystical and supernatural creatures. Among the panoply of flaming, flying, and winged things mentioned in the first chapter of Genesis are “the great sea monsters.” Rashi explains that this refers to the Leviathan; the Talmud expounds further that this beast was a massive underwater creature who could siren sailors across the ocean, eyes lit up like a pair of moons. The Leviathan is commonly depicted as an unfathomably vast monster; just one look could breed unrelenting thalassophobia. Some see the creature as a forerunner of cosmic horror, a genre perfected by the granddaddy of modern horror (and conflicted antisemite) H.P. Lovecraft. The monster’s appearance in The Book of Job—a poetic theodicy in which an afflicted man decries the injustice of his terrible suffering—particularly reeks of horror at the cosmos itself. At the book’s climax, Job’s ultimate foe—his creator—appears in a whirlwind to deliver a bewildering speech, which includes a lengthy description of the appearance and might of the Leviathan. The message is clear: To try to understand the world as God conceives it is like trying to tame the great wild beast of the sea. Considered beside such a terrible creation, human existence is a speck that barely registers.

– “The unfinished spirit of the dark cleaves to the being of light

No list of monsters would be complete without a ghost. The archetypal Jewish version is probably the “clinging spirit,” more commonly called a dybbuk. The word “dybbuk” first appeared in a German Jewish “Book of Strange Happenings” in 1602 and was later popularized by S. Ansky’s 1914 play The Dybbuk. The creature’s name comes from a Hebrew word meaning “to stick or to cling.” This is related to the Hasidic concept of “devekut,” an ecstatic state of divine union in which a person is so deep in God-love that they’re constantly clinging to their source. The dark side of this state of communion is embodied by the clinging spirit. Some claim that the dybbuk won’t leave until it’s banished by a holy person (perhaps a Jewish exorcist), but others believe that the dybbuk puppeteers a human in order to complete an unfinished task and only afterward vacates on its own. A Svengali-like spirit that no human authority can drive out, the dybbuk reads like an example of a ruach ra, or “spirit of the bad,” a phrase that appears multiple times in the Bible and the Talmud and functions as a catch-all for a piloting dark malevolence that settles onto a human host.

Elie Lichtschein is a writer based in downtown Manhattan. He’s the creator of The Creeping Hour podcast (WGBH / PRX). His short fiction has been published by Knopf and Supernatural Tales.

Joey Ramona is an Ashkenazi Jewish, genderqueer tattooer who explores Jewish ritual and healing through tattooing and painting. They also craft Judaica and enjoy spending time with their canine best buddy Frida.