Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Reader: If mazzikim (destroyers/monsters) are supposed to be taken figuratively as some sort of a psychological mirage, why then does the Gemara go out of its way to illustrate ways that we can see them? For example, burning a cat’s placenta and rubbing into our eyes, or pouring dust around our beds at night. How can these be interpreted figuratively?
Rabbi: Let’s read that talmudic portion (Brachos 6a):
Abba Binyamin says: “If the eye was given permission to see, no person would be able to withstand the mazzikim.”
Abaye said: “They are more numerous than we are and they tower over us like walls of earth surrounding a pit.”
Rav Huna said: “Each and every one of us has a thousand mazzikim to his left and ten thousand to his right.”
Rava said: “The crowding at the kalla (gatherings for Torah study during Elul and Adar) is from them; those knees that are fatigued even though one did not exert himself is from them, those clothes of the Sages that wear out, despite the fact that they do not engage in physical labor, is from friction with them; those feet that are in pain is from them.
One who seeks to know that the mazzkim exist should place fine ashes around his bed, and in the morning their footprints appear like chickens’ footprints, in the ash.
One who seeks to see them should take the afterbirth of a firstborn female black cat, born to a firstborn female black cat, burn it in the fire, grind it and place it in his eyes, and he will see them. He must then place the ashes in an iron tube sealed with an iron seal lest the mazzikim steal it from him, and then seal the opening so he will not be harmed. Rav Beivai bar Abaye performed this procedure, saw the mazzikim, and was harmed. The Sages prayed for mercy on his behalf and he was healed.
This last statement, “Rav Beivai bar Abaye saw the mazzikim” conflicts with Abba Binyamin’s opening statement, “The eye was not given permission to see the mazzikim.” Now, either mazzikim can be seen, or they can’t be seen. Which is it?
We must appreciate that Talmud’s words are not only content, that midrash is allegory, and also, that there is a structure to Talmud. The opening statement of this portion addressing mazzikim states that man cannot see mazzikim. This is the rule; what then follows must adhere to that rule. It is preferable to reduce arguments and interpret a Talmudic portion where all rabbis compliment each other. Unifying the rabbis’ views displays a unified Torah: Torah doesn’t contradict itself. Therefore, I explain Rav Beivai bar Abaye “seeing” mazzikim as metaphoric. We certainly do not see thousands of mazzikim surrounding us! We glean from this that whatever mazzikim are, they are many and are “formidable, like walls towering over us in containment.”
Rava gives a clue: “The crowding at Torah study during Elul and Adar is from them.” Elul is significant: it is the month immediately preceding Rosh Hashana when God decrees for each person his fate for the new year. This decree weighs heavy on us, causing people to be on their best behavior to earn God’s good decree. Rav says these crowded study halls are due to the mazzikim. He means that our attempts to ensure a good decree from God—which is based on fear—is due to the mazzikim. He means that mazzikim are human emotions or instincts; here, it is the emotion of fear.
“Anyone who is greater than his friend, his evil inclination is greater than his” (Sukkah 52a). The sages are people who constantly battle their instinctual urges more than others. They redirect their strong instinctual energies towards Torah study, generating a rocking and stirring of their bodies, wearing out their clothes.
“One who seeks to know that the mazzkim exist should place fine ashes around his bed, and in the morning their footprints appear like chickens’ footprints, in the ash.”
Another metaphor is “In the morning their footprints appear like chickens’ footprints.” As the rabbis teach, instincts are very active at night. But there will not be any footprints, as mazzikim refer to human instincts which aren’t physical and certainly have no feet! Mazzikim are our own instinctual and unconscious drives. They are more active in sleep when our minds are not in control. That’s why dreams can be very intense and without structure. This Talmudic portion says that only the “residue” of the mazzikim is detected—footprints—but the mazzikim themselves are not seen, as mazzikim are only psychological and not literal. Thus, upon waking each morning, our instinctual residue remains which overtook us in sleep. This residue is termed as “chicken footprints,” as chickens are known to be sexually active…referring here to active instincts. “Though one’s wife is always lawful [permitted] to him, it is proper that a disciple of the wise should demean himself with sanctity, and not be like a rooster [regularly with his wife sexually], rather [engage in intercourse] from Sabbath to Sabbath [Ketubot 62b]” (Maimonides, Laws of Human Disposition 5:4).
Jacob too wrestled a “man” at night. At night he was instinctually aroused, but there was no man, as the verse says, “Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Gen. 32:25). Rabbi Israel Chait explained that at dawn, one awakes, and his unconscious drives [the man] become hidden once again. Additionally, Halacha teaches that man should relieve himself at night as by day, with equal modesty, as there is tendency to be less on guard against our instincts at night (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 3:12).
“One who seeks to see them should take the afterbirth of a firstborn female black cat, born to a firstborn female black cat, burn it in the fire, grind it and place it in his eyes, and he will see them.”
A black cat that’s a first born is hard enough to determine…certainly a firstborn female black cat, born to a firstborn female black cat. One cannot determine birth ranks of multiple animal generations. Meaning, just as one cannot find these black cats, one can’t see mazzikim. As the gemara started out saying, man cannot see mazzikim, for instincts are internal and not visible. They are called monsters or destroyers as they lead man to harm himself through chasing lusts and fantasies.
Such a loathsome act of burning and grinding a placenta—and females demand even greater sensitivity—agitates one’s instincts to the point where one can succumb to dangerous mental states, termed here as “seeing mazzikim.” We know of people who are emotionally unstable, or who engage too much in instinctual lifestyles where they cannot abandon their paths. Others are psychologically disturbed, depressed, obsessive, paranoid, neurotic with any of a wide range of psychological illnesses. These conditions are all called mazzikim, and are abundant. Then gemara also teaches that one who could entertain performing such a gruesome act will “see mazzikim”—meaning he will encounter unruly emotions or psychological conditions and will harm himself.
“Rav Beivai bar Abaye performed this procedure, saw the mazzikim, and was harmed.”
A similar case is when King Saul was desperate and asked the witch to communicate with Samuel. Saul heard the voice of the dead prophet Samuel (I Samuel 28:15). But this is all hallucination as Radak discusses. In his state of mind, King Saul imagined he heard Samuel talk to him. This too was a case of mazzikim.
“He must then place the ashes in an iron tube sealed with an iron seal lest the mazzikim steal it from him”
This means that mazzikim “wish to remain to be unseen.” This euphemism expresses the nature of mazzikim: they are unseen. This is expressed by personifying mazzikim as desiring to steal the ashes so others can’t see them. Mazzikim aren’t alive, as we said. Buy the rabbis scripted these allegories to keep deep ideas from those unable to grasp them, but yet, to safely pass on Torah ideas in a disguised fashion.