The Thrice-Told Tale of the Likeable and Loathsome Lilith
Aside from the few astonishing legends about regal amazons who retained control over their spouses and men in general, world history has unfortunately continually assigned a submissive and subservient role to women in the home and in society.
Since Judaism is not monolithic, Jewish literature contains both positive and negative statements about women. One example of this conflicting portrayal of women is the unusual tale of Lilith. What began as (1) a non-Jewish description of mischievous demons deteriorated to (2) a Jewish fable portraying women acting independent of the will of men to (3) a peculiar evil representation. The latter notion is not part of the Jewish religion, but regrettably it became a notion accepted by many Jews. It is another example of the many tragic superstitious notions abhorred by Maimonides.
- What is the origin of the name Lilith?
- How was it first used?
- What was the positive version of the tale?
- What was its negative reinterpretation?
- What elements of the myth contradict traditional Jewish belief?
The Origin of Lilith
The name Lilith is very old. It is customarily translated as “the night monster” because the root of the word may be leil, “night;” however, most scholars question this etymology. In currently-existing Assyrian-Babylonian texts, material from which ancient Jewry drew many of their notions about demons, lilith is the title given to one specific spirit or demon but nothing is told of her individual personality.
The later biblical book Isaiah 34:14 uses the term simply to describe a demon: “And the wild-cats shall meet with the jackals, and the satyr [the Hebrew is sei’ir, which also means “goat”] shall cry to his fellow; yea, the lilith shall repose there, and find her a place of rest.” There is, however, no certainty that the passage is referring to demons because, as I mentioned, the basic meaning of sei’ir is goat, and the original meaning of lilith has been forgotten.
In Qumran, near the Dead Sea in Israel, documents were found that are known to date no later than 67 C.E., when Qumran was destroyed. The name lilith is used in this literature, but also only to describe a demon generally or a certain group of them. A document called The Seductress states: “I, the sage, declare the grandeur of His radiance in order to frighten and terrify all the spirits of the ravaging angels and the bastard spirits, demons, liliths, owls….”
There are five references made to lilith in the Talmud, but none of them, again, relate more than that lilith was a demon. The Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 151b, the most elaborate narration, states she “takes hold of whoever sleeps alone in a house.”
Thus the earliest versions of Lilith were drawn from Assyrian-Babylonian non-Jewish sources, and describe her simply as a demon, not speaking of her origin or personality.
The Second Alphabet of Ben Sira
The first known attempt to expand the brief mention of Lilith and to create a scurrilous tale of her origin is found in a non-rabbinic book written sometime between the eighth and eleventh centuries of the common era. The book is called the second Alphabet of Ben Sira and is a compilation of scandalous folk tales. It contains insulting portrayals of Jewish heroes. For example, it portrays Joshua, the Israelite leader after Moses, as being so fat that he could not ride a horse.
The second Alphabet contains a myth based on the two biblical versions of the creation of Eve. In Genesis 1:27, the Bible appears to state that Adam and Eve were created simultaneously – “male and female created He them.” However, in 2:21–25, Scripture relates that God created Eve from Adam’s tzeila, “rib” or “side.” The Lilith legend in Ben Sira contends that the first woman referred to was not Eve; she was Lilith.
The Alphabet relates that when God first creates the male and female, the female, Lilith, is, like Adam, created from the earth. She is equal in every way to her male counterpart. Unfortunately, the two do not get along because Lilith is quite independent and displays none of the submissive traits traditionally attributed to women.
Graphically describing her independence, the Alphabet informs the reader that she insisted on being on top during the sexual act. When Adam refuses to comply with her demand, she pronounced God’s Ineffable Name – the name that the mystically minded were convinced gives its user magical powers – and flies far away. Adam, the more pathetic creature, wails to God requesting divine help, and God dispatches three angels to drag the reluctant Lilith back to her tearful husband.
Lilith, vacationing at the Red Sea after escaping from pathetic Adam, adamantly refuses to budge. Incensed by the angels’ threat and Adam’s perseverance, she screams at the angels that unless she is left alone she will harm Adam’s future children. The angels are able to secure a compromise with Lilith, but she, the independent female, triumphs in the negotiations and bests both her husband and his heavenly helpers. Having gained the upper hand, she secures the ability to remain alone and act as she wills – and she retains the ability to harm Adam and Eve’s descendants.
There is, however, a limit to Lilith’s powers – and this is the “compromise.” She can only harm boys until the eighth day after their birth and girls until the twentieth. Additionally, she cannot hurt them at all if they are wearing an amulet containing either the names or pictures of the three unsuccessful angels, which will protect them.
Lilith also agrees to accept a penalty: one hundred of her own children will die daily. However, this fine is a ridiculous mockery since she is given the power to produce many more children, called demons, each day.
When it becomes clear that Lilith will not return, Eve is created as her replacement. Formed from Adam’s rib or side, depending on how one translates the Hebrew tzeila, she is an extension of man and therefore, according to the Alphabet, submissive to him, just as his other extensions, his arms and legs.
This original version, which presents Lilith as a woman who refuses to comply with Adam’s demands and turns herself into a self-reliant demon who kills unprotected children, receives expanded negative treatment in later mystical literature.
The Version of Lilith in The Emanation of the Left Side and the Zohar
Two thirteenth-century mystical works presented a more negative portrayal of Lilith that superseded the previous interpretation. The books and many that followed their theme popularized the legend and demonized Lilith quite a bit further. It was not long before virtually all Jewish women felt compelled to protect their babies against Lilith by using magical amulets. Many rabbis bought into the superstition; their literature is full of discussions of what writings the amulets should contain.
Just before the appearance of the Zohar (first introduced around 1280), in the middle of the thirteenth century, Rabbi Isaac Hakohen composed a book called The Emanation of the Left Side. Rabbi Isaac postulated a dualistic system to explain the presence of evil on earth. In his opinion, God produces good in the world through a series of ten emanations, sefirot, which flow from the right side of God; He produces wickedness through ten foul sefirot on His left.
The chief force on the left side, according to Rabbi Isaac, is Samael, also called Satan. His wife is Lilith. Unlike the Lilith of the Alphabet who was created by God as a wife for Adam, this Lilith rises spontaneously from beneath the Throne of Glory. There is also another Lilith of lesser status, according to Rabbi Isaac, who is married to Ashmedai, a prince of demons; this Lilith is in constant contact with and influences all kinds of injurious demons.
The right side of the Sefirot ends with the tenth emanation called both shekhinah and malkhut. Rabbi Isaac and later mystics saw this emanation as a feminine aspect of God, one that interacts with people and aids them. In contrast, on the left side, the tenth emanation is Lilith – probably Ashmedai’s wife, also a female who is involved with people, but not to help them; rather, she works with other demons and causes troubles, pain, suffering and death.
The Zohar accepted this description of God’s right and left side and expanded upon it. For example, not having another male to help her produce children, she seduces Adam and has a long-standing adulterous 130-year relationship with him. Many demons result from the union. Not satisfied with a single male, Lilith crosses to God’s right side and seduces one of the ten good emanations of God.
Thus, from a brief Assyrian-Babylonian demon mentioned without origin, personality, or power, Lilith turned, in the second Alphabet of Ben Sira, into a paradigm of the independent wife and a demonic destroyer of children. Then, in The Emanation of the Left Side, the Zohar, and a host of mystical books that grew out of these views, she grew into the prime source of evil, and in one conception she, being the tenth emanation of the left side, is equal in power to the shekhinah, the tenth emanation on the right. Many of the mystics began to think of a dual power on earth, believing that Satan has as much power as God and that he functions independently with Lilith, his evil wife, at his side. Many mystics saw Satan and Lilith on one side equal to God and the shekhinah on the other.
Maimonides, who preferred a rational understanding of Jewish tales and symbols, abhorred this kind of thinking, which incorporates mysticism, demons, amulets, and a polytheistic concept of evil.
 It is somewhat surprising that this version of the Lilith history serves as a model for the independent woman in the women’s movement today since the author of the second Alphabet was clearly writing to ridicule the human race, and the portrayal of Lilith, although positive in some ways, is more negative generally since she is shown to be a destructive demon who can be controlled by magical amulets. In modern terms, a person can read into the tale the degrading notion that a woman is so fickle that she can be controlled by a diamond bracelet or necklace, the modern equivalent of an amulet.