Shedim: Eldritch Beings from Jewish Folklore

Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Shedim are beings from Jewish folklore. They only appear twice in the Hebrew Bible, both times in the plural (although the singular form would be shēd or sheid). Psalm 106:37 says, “They sacrificed their own sons and daughters to demons!” (CEB). In a similar context, Deuteronomy 32:17 says,

They sacrificed to demons, not to God,
to deities of which
they had no knowledge—
new gods only recently on the scene,
ones about which your ancestors
had never heard. 

Shedim are therefore obviously bad news in the Bible. Oddly enough, the term seems to be related to Akkadian shedu, the word for spirit-beings generally. In Mesopotamian mythology, a shedu might be a benevolent or protective spirit, perhaps what we might think of as a guardian angel. Perhaps they are cast in a negative light in the Bible because of their associations with foreign gods and foreign worship. The biblical writers were obviously interested in discouraging infatuation with lesser protective spirits and the kind of devotion their neighbors offered to such beings.

Despite this minimal treatment in the Bible, a good bit of legendary embellishment grew up around shedim in later times. There are, for example, a number of theories as to their origin. Some say they sprung from serpents—maybe even the serpent in the garden of Eden. Others say they were humans that God left unfinished when he rested on the seventh day of Creation. Still others say they are the descendants of Adam and his first wife, Lilith.

According to the Talmud, shedim are not fallen angels, but rather a distinct order of creation between angels and human beings:

Our Rabbis taught: Six things are said concerning shedim: in regard to three, they are like the ministering angels; and in regard to three, like human beings. ‘In regard to three they are like the ministering angels’: they have wings like the ministering angels; and they fly from one end of the world to the other like the ministering angels; and they know what will happen like the ministering angels…. ‘And in regard to three, they are like human beings’: they eat and drink like human beings; they propagate like human beings; and they die like human beings. (Hagigah 16a)

They thus look and act much more like the jinn of Arabic tradition than the “fallen angels” of Christian theology. Also like jinn, they can be defeated with iron weapons.

Although their name is usually translated “demons,” shedim are not always seen as malevolent spirits. (There is, in fact, a different word strictly used for malevolent shedim: maziqin or “harmers.”) A story is even told in Leviticus Rabbah 24 about a water-sheid who warned a holy man about the threat posed by a harmful fellow sheid.

Some Qabbalistic rituals actually invoke “benevolent” shedim, and humans can consult them about the future by means of rituals involving oil and eggshells. The Talmud forbids this on the Sabbath, however (Shabbat 101a). The revered scholars Hillel and Johanan ben Zakkai are said to have understood the speech of shedim just as King Solomon did (another overlap with Arabic jinn-lore).

Even when they are not purely malicious, these creatures’ sense of morality can be quite alien to human norms. In one story from Russia, we see shedim acting in a capricious manner befitting the faeries of northern Europe. A hunchback wandering in the forest came upon a large and festive party of shedim, who grabbed him and pulled him into their wild dance. The shedim were so delighted with his participation that they demanded he come back the next day. Furthermore, they demanded his hump as a pledge that he would return. They took it, and the man went home delighted to have been made whole.

This man had a twin brother who, jealous of his brother’s new physique, asked him how he had achieved it. The man told him, and so the twin set out to do the same thing. When the shedim appeared to him in the woods, he also joined in their dancing. Then, assuming this was the same man as they encountered before, they returned his pledge, and he left with two humps—one on his back and the other on his chest! (Carol K. Mack and Dinah Mack, A Field Guide to Demons, Vampires, Fallen Angels, and Other Subversive Spirits [New York: Arcade, 2011]).

Shedim are described in various ways—and are often shapeshifters—but they are usually invisible by default and said to have have chicken-like feet. Other birdlike characteristics are sometimes attributed to them. Their presence can be detected by scattering dust or ashes on the ground and looking for their footprints.

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