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Some religions, particularly Christianity, have a concept in which demons or evil spirits can enter a person's body and take control of them.

Does Judaism have a concept similar or like this? The literal translation of I Samuel 16:23 would imply such a thing can happen, but I have always been taught the Rabbinical tradition that it was not an actual evil spirit disturbing Shaul HaMelech, but a mental illness. (Source?)

This is not a question of comparative religion; I have mentioned Christianity only to serve as an example so others maybe will understand what I am talking about.

  • If someone could help out with the tags, that would be great. – ezra Mar 29 '17 at 15:04
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    I believe the ancient understanding of madness as equivalent to possession was pretty widespread. Google "dibuk". See also commentary on the first mishna of "mi sheachzo kordayakus" in gittin. – Loewian Mar 29 '17 at 15:10
  • I'm pretty sure I've seen Gemaras that discuss being possessed by sheidim, but I can't locate any of them at the moment. – DonielF Mar 29 '17 at 15:29
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    Emphasis on beginning. That's why I left them as comments and didn't post it as an answer. – DonielF Mar 29 '17 at 16:01
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Like many other beliefs, Judaism doesn't have a clear opinion on the matter, but individual Jews do. Rashi, for example, believed in demons and gives that explanation of ruah raah in Eruvin 45b s.v. ruah ra'ah.

Accordingly, Saul's possession by the ruah raah (I Samuel 16:14) would be a demonic possession. However, like most other things, there is not a single Rabbinic tradition on the matter. For that reason it is unsurprising that other Jews, such as the Meiri, and most famously, Rambam (cf. commentary to Avoda Zara 4:7) did not believe in demons at all. Indeed, Rambam omits every Talmudic mention of demons from his Mishneh Torah, or quotes it in some altered non-demonic form.[i] In his commentary to Eruvin (4:1), he explains that the ruah ruah refers to mental illness:

רוח רעה, קורין לכל לקיון בכח ההבחנה של אדם

Accordingly, he would presumably explain Saul's ruah raah, not as demons, which he did not believe in, but as depression, or some other mental illness.


[i] For the complete list, see Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters, by Marc Shapiro.

  • Got something against Jewish beliefs commentless downvoters? – mevaqesh Apr 5 '17 at 4:26
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A Mishna says (in Eiruvin 41b):

מי שהוציאוהו נכרים או רוח רעה אין לו אלא ד' אמות

With regard to one whom gentiles forcibly took him out beyond the Shabbat limit, or if an evil spirit took him out i.e., he was temporarily insane, and found himself outside the Shabbat limit, he has only four cubits that he may walk from where he is standing.

Rashi comments:

שנכנס בו שד ונטרפה דעתו ויצא חוץ לתחום ואחר כך נשתפה והרי הוא חוץ לתחום:

The demon entered him and he went insane...

  • Although it could be poetic license. – Shmuel Brin Mar 29 '17 at 16:16
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    ...or inaccurate contemporary medical knowledge. – Double AA Mar 29 '17 at 16:20
  • I mentioned in my original question concerning the interpretation that Shual HaMelech's "evil spirit" was actually a mental illness. This mishnah could be the same way; lacking a word or medical knowledge to describe a mental issue. – ezra Mar 29 '17 at 17:15
  • @ezra the proof is from Rashi. – Shmuel Brin Mar 29 '17 at 17:51

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