Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Compared to the thousands of ideas in the Babylonian Talmud, there are relatively few instances of the term “shadim,” usually translated as “demons.” Regardless of its infrequence, the concept deserves elucidation. When the Rabbis discuss unusual phenomena, one must be extra cautious to maintain rationality and refrain from a flight of fantasy.
If we are in a remote rural area, in a pit, on a mountain top, or if it is at night…the Rabbis tell us not to give greetings to “others,” lest he be a “shade.” Additionally, a Talmudic portion (Gittin 66a) states that if one hears a voice calling from a pit, (telling anyone who hears) to divorce his wife, we listen to him. The gemara asks, "Perhaps it is a shade?" [And we should ignore it] The gemara continues, "No. It is when you see a shadow." [Therefore it's a real person] The gemara asks, "But the shadim also can have shadows!" The gemara concludes, "No. You also saw a shadow of a shadow."
The gemara ends, saying that since you saw a “shadow of a shadow,” this cannot be a shade, and we can divorce this man’s wife. On the surface, this is a very strange gemara indeed. But there must be an idea here. (We can also ask why a shade might be assumed in such a case, where one thinks he hears a man wishing to divorce his wife.)
There are a number of questions:
1) What exactly is a demon? Can it be taken literally that there are demons roaming the earth? Have any of us ever seen one?
2) Why are we not admonished from greeting our friends in the city? Why is the warning only in the fields, pits, night time, and mountain tops? Are shadim unable to leave these four situations?! This is truly odd.
3) What is the warning about? Will they harm us? If so, what's the difference if we greet them or not? Can they not harm us equally, whether or not we greet them?
4) In Gittin 66a above, how does a “shadow of a shadow” prove that it is not a shade?
The answer to all these questions can be approached by first looking at one peculiar bit of information: the location where we are warned not to greet friends. All the cases — pits, fields, mountain tops, night time — are cases of isolation. Either geographical isolation (mountain tops, pits/caves, or fields/deserts) or psychological isolation: at night.
What does isolation do to a person?
Man, a social creature by definition, fears isolation more than anything. This is why solitary confinement is the worst punishment. Isolation is even recognized by the Prophets as one of the worst situations, and requires one to bench gomel, (praising God for being saved) as we read in Psalms, 107:4, “They wandered in the wilderness, in the desolation of the path, they found no inhabited city.” Not finding inhabitants is utterly distressing, to the point that King David made mention of it here in Psalms.
When one is isolated, his acute desire for company causes him to project onto reality: he will think he sees someone. But it is all an illusion to satisfy his fear, his loneliness. Thus, what the Rabbis are telling us not to offer greetings to, is in fact our psychological fantasy, a “demon.” Greeting that which is a mirage, is crossing the line from fantasy to reality, one of our worst crimes. The Rabbis, knowing that these shadim are truly daydreams or illusions, warned us not to talk to them. Talking to a mirage elevates fantasy to reality. There are so many areas of the Torah which deter man from living an illusory life, that the Rabbis saw it fit here too to remove us from this behavior. Talking to a phantom of the mind gives credence to it. The Torah desires that man abandon all that is false, “midvar skeker tirchak; from falsehoods keep distant (Exod. 23:7).”
This now explains why the gemara in Gittin said that if there was a shadow, then it is a real person. You can then divorce the wife of this person in the pit, although you do not see him clearly. When a person creates these illusion to comfort himself, that people are in fact around, he only creates the minimal information needed to convince himself of this. That is, either a form of the person’s face, his height, his hair color, or something else distinct to the person he desires to be around. But what is not needed, is not created, such as a shadow. This offers the person no comfort, and is therefore not created by the fantasy. Therefore, if one sees a shadow, it most probably is a real person. The gemara goes on to suggest that even shadim have shadows. This means that in some cases, one will create a more defined illusion. This is possible, so the gemara adds that when there's a “shadow of a shadow,” for certain, it is not a shade. Shadow of a shadow means that completely detailed illusions do not exist, and hence, it must be a real person one is seeing, and greetings are then permitted, and divorce is warranted.
It now makes sense that shadim don’t enter cities. Deciphered, this mashal (metaphor) means that images of friends are not created when they are in reality near to us, as is found when we are in cities. Here, no need exists in our psyches to create illusions. At night however, when we are psychologically alone, or in the mentioned isolated locations, we will create images to comfort us.
In summary, the Rabbis teach that shadim are illusions created to satisfy real concerns. They are fantasies created in our minds. As the Rabbis warned us not to cross the line with a greeting, thereby treating fantasy as reality.
Rashi states (Gen. 6:19) that Noach took two of every species into the ark, “even shadim.” This fits in well with our theory. Noach was now embarking on a state of isolation. Rashi is intimating this aspect of isolation by suggesting metaphorically that Noach brought shadim into the ark.