Love Thy Vampire, Kosherly

Like European myths of the time, medieval Jewish tradition includes stories about bloodsuckers, but with a unique Jewish moral perspective.

Admiel Kosman
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Admiel Kosman

The TV series "True Blood" has been so successful that only "The Sopranos" rivals it. "True Blood" is about a world of imaginary creatures. Particularly strange is the vampire world parallel to human society.

The series, based on a series of novels by American writer Charlaine Harris, involves a scientific breakthrough: the Japanese invention of synthetic blood, which enables vampires to integrate into human society, since they no longer need pose a threat.

The 'True Blood' TV series poster.

Vampire tales in general sprung from ancient Slavic myths about dead people who rose from their graves seeking "blood transfusions" from the living. These myths were the basis for Bram Stoker's 1897 novel "Dracula," which paved the way for a large number of vampire films and books, including Harris' "Southern Vampire Mysteries" series.

Many people have noted that the vampire legends could be a metaphor for spiritual energies that have not undergone sublimation and are "buried alive" in the subconscious - our dark past, which repeatedly rises "from the grave" and "sucks" away our life force.

Such legends influenced Medieval European Jews along with their neighbors. But Christian-European attitudes toward those vampires are very different than those seen in "Sefer Hasidim" (Book of the Pious ).

Many of the Christian-European stories describe vampires as evil and abusive. On the other hand, a source within "Sefer Hasidim" (which was written mostly by Rabbi Judah Hehasid in 12th and 13th-century Germany ), says: "There was one woman who was an estrie [a bloodsucker, perhaps from a word meaning 'disturbance' or 'danger'] and she was very sick and there were two women with her at night; one was sleeping and one was awake. And the sick woman stood up and loosened her hair and she was about to fly and suck the blood of the sleeping woman. And the woman who was awake screamed and woke her friend and they grabbed the sick estrie, and after this she slept. And moreover, if she had been able to grab the other woman, then she, the estrie, would have lived. Since she was not able to hurt the other woman, the estrie died, because she needs to drink the blood of living flesh" (This story, incidentally, is missing from several editions of the book ).

The above description presents the "Jewish vampire" as a very tragic figure, one who even arouses empathy, since what is described is not simply cruel bloodsucking, but a sick woman fighting for her life. Moreover, these vampires apparently suck only enough blood to keep themselves alive, and don't kill their victims.

The following passages in "Sefer Hasidim" (which are also missing from several editions ) discuss the ethics of the matter, and surprisingly show empathy toward vampires. Another passage shows how sensitive members of the Jewish community were to the estrie's distress: "One woman, an estrie, caused damage but allowed the person she harmed to take of her bread and her salt. In such a case she should be treated with compassion."

In other words, the estrie used to suck community members' blood, but since she did so not out of wickedness but for lack of alternative, she tried to compensate those she attacked and allowed them to take some of her food; such a "vampire" should be pitied and included within the community, not harmed.

Of course, these are not the only records that Jews of Ashkenaz (Medieval France and Germany ) wrote at the time; other sources clearly indicate that the Jews, like their neighbors, were afraid of vampires. Therefore some records call for taking practical steps to ensure estries cannot leave their graves and cause harm after death. For example, "Sefer Harokeah," which was written by a disciple of Rabbi Judah Hehasid, Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, says: "When an estrie that has eaten children is being buried, one should observe whether her mouth is open. If it is, she will persist in her vampirish pursuits for another year unless it is stopped up with earth."

I found an interesting parallel to the European literature on "bloodsuckers" in Asian folklore. In a 1933 article in the journal of the Folklore Society in London (Folklore 44 ), Prof. Maung Htin Aung, who later became the rector of the University of Rangoon, described how Buddhist folklore depicts Burmese monks. According to his description, the zawgyi - a Burmese variation of the word yogi - lived in a forest in inner peace, without attaching himself to any object or person.

The zawgyi has a body unlike ours, so he does not face many of our physical needs and limitations. He does not contend with fatigue or pain, and has magical powers. He can live for hundreds of years, and can fly or enter the underworld with invulnerability. The zawgyi has no need of food or drink, although he can occasionally enjoy berries (which Burmese folklore strangely describes as having sexual relations with these fruits, which are considered feminine ).

The stories in Buddhist folklore are the inverse of Western vampire stories. According to Aung's description, the zawgyi is entirely cut off from human society. And why? Because he has an exceptional sense of smell (which incidentally recalls Jewish legends about the Messiah, according to Isaiah 13:3: "And he shall smell with the awe of God" [see Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 93b] ). He therefore keeps his distance from human society, whose members smell like eaters of flesh and blood. For that reason, writes Aung, the zawygi cannot have sexual relations with women, because he is repelled by the fragrance of the blood they have eaten. And in spite of that, emphasizes Aung, if the zawgyi encounters human beings in the forest, in spite of himself, he will be generous: He gives them gifts and cures the sick.

Buddhist folklore therefore created a mirror image of Western folklore: The West invented demonic creatures that we must destroy, since they are evildoers that seek to torture us and "suck our blood"; whereas Far Eastern folklore says that we, human beings, are the "vampires," since we are the ones who "suck the blood" from the creatures of nature. According to the Burmese, only a pure person who avoids us - the human beings, urban vampires - and flees to the forest (nature ) can sense our repulsive smell.

Where does Jewish tradition fit in among these worldviews? The Jewish stories don't regard vampires as Satanic, evil creatures, but rather as sick people (in this case, sick women, which requires another discussion ) who reluctantly harm others. But unlike Buddhism, they do not consider an ascetic monk to be the ideal. What is unique about the stories in "Sefer Hasidim" is that human beings can feel empathy toward the sick and follow the golden mean: neither being harmed nor causing harm and becoming insensitive to suffering, which ultimately would turn us into vampires.

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