Bribing Satan: Part Two[1]


The Tashlich service was not the only High Holiday ceremony that the masses felt they must observe to avoid having Satan harm them.

The eighth-century Midrash Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer is a rather unusual volume of biblical folk legends that many Jews insisted were true. The Pirkei author believed that the fate of the Jewish people, both collectively and individually, was determined on Yom Kippur by God during God’s annual analysis of their behavior of the past year. He felt that God did not deliberate alone and could be persuaded by advice of angels and demons. The author was also convinced that the chief demon, Satan, was corruptible and could be bribed to give a favorable report to the deity. He also thought that despite his angelic status, Satan was a dupe and could be fooled.

In part 46 of the 54 parts of the volume, the author informs his readers that many of the Yom Kippur practices were instituted to stop Satan from acting as an enemy advocate against the Jewish people who persuades God to punish Jews for their past misdeeds.

Accordingly, like many of his co-religionists, the Pirkei author contends that the goat that Leviticus 16 states was sent to Azzazel was, in fact, an annual bribe driven into the desert where Satan lived. The demon would smell it, take it, consume it; and, satisfied with this inducement, would reverse his usual evil demonic tactics and shift to the side of the Jews, acting as their advocate in his Yom Kippur discussions with God.

(The Pirkei author and most of his audience were unbothered that by the way in which he demeaned God. He portrayed the deity as an ignorant medieval prince who needed advice from both good and bad advisors, who was unable to differentiate bad from good ministers, and who was foolishly indirectly influenced by the bribe given to one advisor because he was too ignorant to see what was happening.)

In the event that Satan was not persuaded by the bribe, the Pirkei author informs his readers, the demon was fooled by Jews acting as if they were angels and not human beings because, presumably, Satan would not dare say anything bad about angels. The masses believed that angels did not eat, were unable to bend their knees, stood straight at all times, and did not wear shoes. Thus, the author writes, on Yom Kippur many Jews fasted, stood upright for all or most of the holiday service, and were barefoot, or did not wear leather shoes.

The Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 31b, 32b, and 35a) of several centuries earlier contains the same idea. It states that the biblical book Leviticus required the high priest to wear white on Yom Kippur when he entered the sanctuary’s Holy of Holies to pray for forgiveness for the misdeeds of the Israelites. The Talmud states that he was to be dressed like an angel. Jacob Z. Lauterbach[2] explains that “The white garments were aimed to deceive Satan who, when seeing the High Priest dressed in white, would mistake him for an angel and not seek to harm him. The custom, still prevailing in the Synagogue, that the pious worshippers, and especially the reader and the leader of the service, wear a white robe (‘Sargenes’ or ‘Kittel’) on the Day of Atonement also aims to make the worshippers appear like angels.”

Lauterbach also explains that the masses thought that one of the reasons that Bible told the high priest to enter the Holy of Holies with smoking incense was the belief that the smoke would drive the demon away and the high priest, whom Satan might recognize despite his disguise as an angel, would be protected from the demon.

Thus, four methods are used in dealing with Satan on the Day of Atonement. (1) He is bribed. (2) He is deceived by Jews disguising themselves as angels in order to ensure they are protected even if the bribe is unsuccessful. (3) To heighten the chances of success, the high priest prays to God on behalf of the people, disguised as an angel so that Satan does not harm him. (4) In the unlikely event that Satan is neither successfully bribed nor fooled, he is chased away from the sanctuary’s Holy of Holies by the use of smoke while the high priest prays to God during the holiday, the annual time that the deity is deliberating the fate of Jewry.

This was the primitive belief of many of the masses as recorded in the midrashic and talmudic literature. It was certainly not the understanding of rationalists such as Maimonides, who gave entirely different and more mature explanations for the practices.


Many Jews perform several ceremonies on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur due to their conviction that they are judged during this period. The rituals stem from the Jews’ desire to stop Satan from accusing them of improper behavior and persuading God to punish them. One of the practices instituted was tashlich, which many Jews still practice today.

Scholars have explained that the rite includes going to water because many ancients felt that divine beings inhabited water and its environs. Food was then tossed into the water to bribe the demon. Water with fish was preferred because the fish were seen as beings that could convey the bribe to the demon.

A host of rabbis attempted to stop the practice or at least elevate and rationalize the superstitious rite by giving symbolic interpretations of the various ceremonial elements. They also changed the time of the rite to remove the idea that it was associated with Satan. Many rabbis recognized the true origin of tashlich and refused to observe it. Maimonides held this view, and did not include the rite in his code of Jewish law.

[1] This is the second part of a chapter from my book “Maimonides: The exceptional mind” where I describe the thinking of the great sage who lived from 1138 to 1204.

[2] Rabbinic Essays, 63.