Vampires in Ancient Jewish Texts: What Were They Doing There?

Secure in their monotheism, Jews may scoff, but some of the earliest texts on vampires were written in Hebrew by their coreligionists.

Did Jews once believe in vampires? Evidently, some did, but they borrowed the superstition from their neighbors. Illustration: Vampire Diaries, embellished by Haaretz
Did Jews once believe in vampires? Evidently, some did, but they borrowed the superstition from their neighbors. (Illustration: Vampire Diaries, embellished by Haaretz) Vampire Diaries, embellished by Haaretz

The vampires that abound in popular culture today are for the most part a literary embellishment of the old Slavic belief that under certain circumstances, the dead can rise from their graves at night and kill their neighbors, friends and family.

Modern Jews might scoff at vampire culture, secure in their monotheism ruling out belief in such nonsense. But they should hold their tongues. Some of the earliest texts on vampires were written in Hebrew by their coreligionists, albeit after learning about the plague of the undead from their neighbors.

Some authorities mention Lilith as an early example of a vampire. It is true that like a classic vampire, she kills at night, but there the similarities end. Lilith would better be categorized as a demon. The first references to vampires in Judaism are in three Hebrew books written in the Middle Ages: Midrash Shmuel (the aggadic commentary on the Book of Samuel); Sefer Hasidim, an important book on the laws, customs and traditions of German Jewry at the turn of the 13th century; and the related book Sefer HaRokeah.

Of the three books, the reference to vampires in Midrash Shmuel is less explicit and certain, and the dating of it is more difficult.

What did Michal cover with goat's hair?

We know that at least part of Midrash Shmuel is over a thousand years old, dating from the end of the first millennium, since it is quoted in the works of the Gaonim. Some sections were clearly added later, in the second millennium. Hence it is impossible to accurately date the passage dealing with 1 Samuel 19:13: "And Michal took an idol, and laid it in the bed, and put a pillow of goats' hair for his bolster, and covered it with a cloth."

Midrash Shmuel has very little to say about this verse. It only quotes one Rabbi Aivo as saying that terafim – plural of the word that the King James Bible rendered as “idol” - are “nikorim of vrokali.”

This statement by Rabbi Aivo has puzzled scholars for years. Neither nikorim nor vrokali appear in any other source, and there isn’t much context to go by for interpretation.

Still, in 2004, Prof. Daniel Sperber, a scholar and a rabbi at Bar Ilan University, published an article in the Hebrew scholarly journal Leshonenu, claiming to have solved the riddle. Rabbi Aivo, he suggested, meant vampires. Nikorim, says Sperber, is a corruption of the Greek word nekros (“corpse”), and the “m” at the end is the Hebrew plural suffix. Vrokali is a corruption of the Greek vrykolakas (“vampire”).

So according to Rabbi Aivo, Michal piled vampires under the covers of King David’s bed, so that the henchmen of her father King Saul, wouldn’t know he had escaped.

This is probably not what the author of Samuel meant. It does indicate, if Sperber is correct, that later generations believed that terafim were vampires.

Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, with Helen Chandler as his victim (1930). As vampire fiction culture developed, modern Hebrew needed a word. The scholars reviving the language wound up choosing an obscure Aramaic word meaning "bat".
Underwood & Underwood, Corbis

Supernatural beings

This theory isn’t as insane as it may sound. Midrash Tanhuma, a somewhat older midrash, also makes the claim that terafim are supernatural beings.

The terafim there, however, sound more like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster than vampires. According to this midrash, you can make terafim talk using a corpse, salt, incense and a spell (Vayitze 12).

Sefer Hasidim is far more explicit: “There was once a woman that was a striya and was very sick, and there were two women with her at night - one sleeping and one awake. And that same sick woman stood before her and crackled her hair and wanted to fly and wanted to suck the blood of the sleeping woman. And the one that was awake woke up the one who was asleep, and they grabbed the striya. And the one that slept, slept more and the one that was awake didn’t sleep. And since she couldn’t do harm, the striya died because she needed that which comes from the blood, to swallow the blood and the flesh” (Sefer Hasidim, Margalit edition, 464)).

Sefer HaRokeah, another Hebrew text written in Germany in the same period, lists precautions to ensure that a striya doesn’t come back from the dead. The undertaker should examine her mouth before she is buried and “If it is open, it is clear that she will harm again a year after she died, and he should fill her mouth with an ample amount of earth so she will harm no more” (Sefer HaRokeah 317).

Where would Jews of the Middle Ages have come up with these superstitions, as no such things are mentioned in the Bible, the Mishnah, the Talmud or any other ancient Jewish text?

Belief in "striyas" was probably borrowed from their gentile neighbors, who believed in living-dead beings called strigoi in Romanian, shtriga in Albanian, and strzyga in Polish. So it seems some Jews believed in vampires after all, but this belief never caught on and became widespread.

Today nobody believes in vampires anymore. But when the vampire fiction making the rounds in the West began to be translated into Hebrew, revivalists needed to find a word for the imaginary being of the night. They did: the modern Hebrew word for vampire is arpad – taken from an obscure Aramaic word in the Talmud for bat (Bava Kama 16a).