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Bavli, P'sachim 112:1:

ת״ר לא ישתה אדם מים לא מן הנהרות ולא מן האגמים בלילה ואם שתה דמו בראשו מפני הסכנה מאי סכנה סכנת שברירי ואי צחי מאי תקנתיה אי איכא איניש בהדיה לימא ליה פלניא בר פלנתא צחינא מיא ואי לא לימא איהו לנפשיה פלניא אמרה לי אימי איזדהר משברירי שברירי ברירי רירי ירי רי צחינא מיא בכסי חיורי

Our rabbis taught: One shall drink water neither from rivers nor from ponds in the night — and if he drank [from them at night], his blood is on his own head — because of the danger. What danger? ―the danger of Shavriri. So if he's thirsty, what's his remedy? If there's someone with him, let him tell him "P'loni son of P'lonis, I thirst for water"; and if not, let him tell himself "P'loni, my mother told me 'beware of Shavriri'. Shavriri vriri riri iri ri. I thirst for water in a clear cup."

(It seems from Rashbam on the page that Shavriri is a type of blindness. I seem to recall hearing, though, that it is the name of a supernatural creature that causes a type of blindness (which is why I capitalized the word).)

What does saying "שברירי ברירי רירי ירי רי" ("Shavriri vriri riri iri ri") accomplish? How does it do so?

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I've checked Chidushe Agados Maharsha and Ben Y'hoyada, but they both seem to say nothing about this. – msh210 Mar 19 '13 at 6:19
up vote 3 down vote accepted

In an important responsum on superstition, the Rashba (no. 825) writes the following:

ואי משום דרכי האמורי האמת אמרת שכל שיש בו משום רפואה וידוע לרופאים שהוא כן אין בו משום דרכי האמורי ויתר מזה שכל שלא נאסר בגמרא באותם המנויין בדרכי האמורי אין לנו לאוסרן לפי שאין הסגולות ידיעות ואין לנו לדון מדרכי הטבע המפורסם שהרי יש סגולות שלא נודע עיקרן לכל בעלי הטבע כקמיע של עיקרין וקדירת האבן היריקה הנקראת אם טופסי גם בעשבים גם בלחשים שהתירו חכמים כמו שאמרו בשאר המקומות לימר הכי ולימר הכי ואין לך רחוק מן הטבע מלחוש שברירי ברירי ואף על פי כן התירו חכמים ולא היתר בלבד אלא שצוו והזהירו לאומרו מפני סכנה והילכך כל שלא ידענו אם יש בו שום רפואה אם לא מותר אם לא אסרוהו החכמים בהדי אותן ששנינו בגמרא שיש בו משום דרכי האמורי

The basic gist of the responsum is that prohibited superstitions only include those practices that are proven ineffective. (Others seem to imply, that "segulah"/non-scientific remedies would be forbidden unless proven effective.) Even if the remedy is unexplainable by nature, such as amulets and incantations, they are permitted. Above he writes that you can't a more (scientifically) far-fetched remedy that the "Shavriri vriri" incantation. Still, it's permitted because Chazal have testified that it is effective. (See also responsa 167 & 413, and the Rashba on Chulin 77 and Shabbat 67)

I would infer from the above Rashba, that we have no idea how incantations work. So the answer to your question is "We don't know".

Another possible explanation is from the Rambam (Idolatry 11:1): מי שנשכו עקרב או נחש מותר ללחוש על מקום הנשיכה ואפילו בשבת, כדי ליישב דעתו ולחזק לבו, אף על פי שאין הדבר מועיל כלום, הואיל ומסוכן הוא, התירו לו כדי שלא תטרף דעתו עליו.

This is a quintessential example of the Rambam's denial of the effectiveness of incantations and other supernatural claims (divination, sorcery etc..). He writes that such incantations may help ease the mind of the (believing) victim so that he doesn't despair or panic. (A modern interpretation that this refers to a placebo effect has been suggested. I'm not so sure.)

(Indeed, the Vilna Gaon famously wrote that the Rambam was seduced by his study of "cursed" philosophy when he denied the effectiveness of incantations despite the testimony of Chazal.)

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Where is that quote of the gra from? I don't remember the word cursed showing up in the place I'm familiar with it from – Double AA Oct 16 '13 at 14:47
The famous quote from the GR"A appears in YD 179:13. You are correct in that the word "cursed" doesn't not appear there. But it does occur somewhere- I've seen the quotation in many places. – Ephraim Oct 16 '13 at 16:37
+1 on the post, but why would you davka quote a word that doesn't seem to exist? – Double AA Oct 16 '13 at 16:40
Because I've read the citation more often than I've read the actual source! Do a search for "cursed philosophy" and you'll see what I mean. But I found the answer in the Yeshurun journal of Elul 5768, page 253: The word "cursed" appeared in the first edition of the Biur HaGra in 1806. Further editions excised the offensive word, and yet the citation is still well known in its more strident form. (The Yeshurun article in turn cites an article in a 1949 issue of Talpiot. ) – Ephraim Oct 16 '13 at 16:56
See also page 152 of the 1860 edition of קריה נאמנה where the author cites a letter from a Tzvi Hirsch Kacenelenbogen who claims that the Gaon never said or wrote such things, and it was a forgery that made its way into printing. (The problematic passages are the "cursed philosophy" comment and another in which the Gaon mentions that the Rambam wasn't aware of Kabbalah. My apology for straying off topic!) – Ephraim Oct 16 '13 at 17:26

My Magid Shiur explained that this creature Shavriri gets alarmed and runs away when it hears its name being shrunk.

Some of the other anti-demon chants mentioned there also seem to be a play on words to frighten away the offending creature.

When you consider that their names describe their essence -- and may be their entire essence, if they are simply a figment of superstitious minds -- then renaming them would disarm them.

(Rav Yitzchak Fruchter, Jerusalem)

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I saw this too, in the Vilna Gaon's commentary on Sefer Yetzira: ענין צירופי אותיות שלצד הקדושה הצירוף הולך ומתמעט, שמתחיל בפירוד ומסיים בחיבור, ואילו אצל הס״א הולך ומתרבה וכו', ולכן כל הלחשים הולכים ומתמעטים כמו שברירי ברירי רירי ירי רי – Ephraim Oct 16 '13 at 11:55
Caveat: I have no knowledge of Kaballah, and can't be certain as to what the Vilna Gaon is actually talking about. Nevertheless, the above citation may also explain the use of "Na Nach Nachma Nachman" by some... – Ephraim Oct 16 '13 at 11:58
I think your proposal is arguing from the way the Rambam holds. I think this should be more clear. Else, How would ignoring the name of a thing rob it of its own essence? If it has been created, then its name is part of its existence. It would see that being unaware of its name can only remove from us control to act upon this wisdom that was gleaned and passed down. – Zachariah Oct 16 '13 at 13:16
If we can be certain that the beast is imaginary, then renaming would likely be a path to disposing of the problem, unless the alternative name is, by-chance, a pronunciation of another beast that is real (and presumably drawn nearer / invited by its name) – Zachariah Oct 16 '13 at 13:21
Many thanks and +1. This answer is acceptable, but I'll accept the other because it is better sourced. – msh210 Oct 16 '13 at 17:43

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