“The blood is the life”, states the Torah, and also declares “the life-force of all creatures resides in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11). Eating blood is strictly forbidden by the Torah. Yet if one were to do so, he would acquire some measure of the semi-spiritual nature of the demons. They are not truly spiritual, since they must eat blood to live; yet they are not strictly bound to physical matter, insofar as they possess the power of invisibility, and the ability to travel great distances quickly. These are precisely the attributes ascribed to vampires! As the Sforno explains (Leviticus 17:7):
Regarding the demons…[in the Talmud, our Sages of blessed memory] mention the fact that they eat, drink, reproduce and die… they can see but are not visible! Now this cannot be understood unless they are composed of an extremely fine substance which is invisible. And since they eat and drink, it follows that their food must be a substance composed of something extremely fine which is assimilated into the organism consuming it. Now there are no compounds known to us which are more refined than the vapour of blood from which the spirit, which carries the life force, exists. This force being carried is the soul of life through which every creature lives, and since this force cannot be without this carrier, at times it is called life as it is said, “the blood is the life”. Since [blood] is the food of demons, he who offers them blood, which is the source of their substance and which they are powerless to take on their own… will gain their love, and he who eats it will aquire a temperament which tends toward their nature and thus they will long for his company. Now, since many desired the companionship of demons and their love, so that they would assist them in acquiring vain pleasures, …they would bring an offering of blood to the demons and eat it themselves in order to join with them.
…they desire their companionship so that the demons will be their servants and assist them in their affairs, or as messengers to be sent to a distant land, as [the Sages] mention concerning Joseph the Demon (Eruvin 43a) and the demon that frequented the house of Rav Ashi (Chullin 105b).
The most common terms used for vampires in Jewish tradition are lilith, estrie, and striga.
The Hebrew term lilith is of uncertain etymology, but may be related to the word lilah, night. The plural forms “lilim” (Hebrew) and “lilin” (Aramaic) are found in Talmudic and Kabbalistic literature with the meaning “night-spirits.” The word lilith is sometimes used as a term for an owl, and indeed some Bible versions translate it as “night-owl”. Jewish tradition also asserts a special connection between tempests and evil spirits. Indeed, the term lilith is sometimes understood as “wind-spirit”, and in Hebrew, the word for “spirit” (ruach) also means “wind”. This may relate to Lilith’s power of flight. (A rich mythology surrounds this term, which will be further explored in the section on Jewish Demonology. Here we are concerned only with the vampiric aspects.)
Lilith is described in the Talmud as a wild haired, winged creature, with nymphomaniac tendencies (Eruvin 100b; Niddah 24b; Shabbos 151b). The great commentator Rashi writes, “Lilin, which are possessed of human forms, also have wings.” Lilith was also reputed to be very beautiful, and to have sharp black hairs on her legs. King Solomon reportedly suspected the Queen of Sheva of being Lilith because of her hairy legs.
The fact that Lilith preys upon newly delivered mothers and their babes is recorded in the Midrash and is well known amongst the Jewish people; amulets for protection against Lilith are still available in any traditional Jewish bookstore, although the proprietors sometimes profess ignorance of the significance of these “decorations”; if the customer does not already understand their meaning, she should not ask to have it explained.
Numerous passages in the Zohar and Midrash Rabbah describe how Lilith consorted with Adam, giving rise to demonic progeny. In this capacity, Lilith acts a succubus, a spirit who seduces men in their sleep. (In Jungian psychology this term refers to the repressed, socially unacceptable feminine aspects of a man’s character). Although the predations of a succubus are often fatal to her victim, she may instead bear him children as she did with Adam, who fathered a horde of demon vampiresses. In this case, the man’s nocturnal emissions give rise to demonic children, who gather round the man’s bed at his death and hail him as their father. The traditional Jewish final confession (still in use only amongst the Orthodox) contains an explicit ban on these demonic progeny:
“I hereby pronounce a ban and excommunication upon the evil spirits and destructive forces created by the drops of seminal emission and my wasted seed – all of them are included in the ban. May they not touch me, my bier, nor my clothes, nor accompany me to the grave.”
The Estrie is described as a fearsome female spirit, a vampire, living among humanity in order to satisfy its appetite for blood. Children were its favorite prey, although men and women were attacked as well. It could change its appearance at will but reverted to its demonic shape while flying about at night. If an estrie is wounded by a human being, she must die unless she can obtain some of his bread and salt. According to one medieval Jewish account, a man who was attacked by an estrie in the form of a cat, and managed to beat her off, was approached by her in human form the next day and asked for some of his bread and salt.
The striga is described as a female witch, who transforms herself into a crow and drinks human blood. The term is likely related to the word estrie, and also likely cognate with the term strigoii, the most common type of undead Romanian vampire (fem. strigoica).
Each of these characteristics of the Jewish vampire has parallels in the vampire legends of other cultures as well. In fact, a review of the folklore literature reveals that most vampires worldwide are female, and they are remarkably similar to the Jewish vampire. For example, the Hannya of Japan is described as a beautiful woman transformed into a monster, who preys on young men and infants. The Lamia is an extremely attractive female vampire, highly dangerous to males and children. The flying vampire of Malaysia, the Langsuir, is said always to be a female of stunning beauty, with long nails and long black hair, who transforms herself into an owl. The Bruxsa, a feared female vampire of Portugal, transforms herself into a large bird to hunt for the blood she must drink to survive. In the Phlippines, the Aswang is a beautiful woman by day and a flying fiend by night, who feeds on the blood of children. The Strix, a Roman blood drinking night bird sometimes translated as “screech owl,” drank the blood of young children.
And these same basic characteristics have become associated with the modern literary vampire as well. In Bram Stoker’s novel, we see the same feeding habits ascribed to the wives of Dracula:
“Are we to have nothing tonight?” said one of them, with a low laugh, as she pointed to the bag which he had thrown upon the floor, and which moved as though there were some living thing within it. For answer he nodded his head. One of the women jumped forward and opened it. If my ears did not deceive me there was a gasp and a low wail, as of a half smothered child. The women closed round, whilst I was aghast with horror; but as I looked they disappeared, and with them the dreadful bag.
After she becomes a vampire, Lucy apparently has the same dietary preferences, as described in the newspaper stories:
In all these cases the children were too young to give a proper account of themselves, but the consensus of their excuses is that they had been with a “bloofer lady.” …some of the children, indeed all who have been missed at night, have been slightly torn or wounded in the throat.
A striking similarity exists between accounts of vampirism and, l’havdil, certain miraculous occurrences involving renowned Sages and Rabbis. For example, everybody knows that vampires are undead, leaving their graves at night to mingle amongst the living.
Representative is the well-known case of the Serbian vampire Peter Plogojowitz, which is notable for the completeness of the official report, attested to by three officers of the Imperial Army who were summoned for the inquest. The story is also noteable here for the fact that it was included in Lettres Juives by the Marquis d’Argens, published in London, 1729, under the title The Jewish Spy:
Plogojowitz, a farmer, died in September 1725 but apparently departed his grave three days later, appearing before his son and demanding food… the widow of this Plogojowitz deposed that she herself had been visited by him since his death.
Regarding the great sage Yehuda HaNasi, compiler of the Mishnah, it is recounted that after his death he would routinely visit his family on Friday night, making Kiddush for all those present (Sefer Chassidim, cited in Likutey Sichos 4, Yud Shvat). The Rabbis of old, discussing this incident, were not in the least bit surprised about his appearance; the only thing that they felt required explanation was how a deceased person would be permitted, under Jewish law, to make Kiddush for the living!
It is also common knowledge that when the grave of a vampire is opened, the body will be found intact, and plump with blood. Such findings are attested to in numerous accounts of the exhumations of suspected vampires, of which the following is typical:
Johannes Cuntius, a citizen and alderman of Pentach, in Silesia, when about sixty years of age, died somewhat suddenly, as a result of a kick from his horse. At the moment of his death a black cat rushed into the room, jumped on to the bed, and scratched violently at his face. Both at the time of his death and that of his funeral a great tempest arose…
Eventually [after the onset of vampiric predations] it was decided to disinter the body. It was found that all the bodies buried above that of Cuntius had become putrefied and rotten, but his skin was tender and florid, his joints by no means stiff, and when a staff was put between his fingers they closed around it and held it fast in their grasp. He could open and shut his eyes, and when a vein in his leg was punctured the blood sprang out as fresh as that of a living person. (From Dr. Henry More, Antidote Against Atheism, 1652)
According to Jewish tradition, the bodies of the perfectly righteous do not decompose in the grave. Regarding Moses, Rashi states (Devarim 34.7) “his life fluids remained within him; decomposition did not affect him” and their are many examples of this in the Talmud (Shabbos 152b, concerning R’ Achai bar Yoshia; Bava Basra 58a, concerning R’ Tuvi Bar Masnah; Bava Metsia 84b, concerning R’ Eleazar; Kesubbos 103a, concerning R’ Yehuda HaNasi). Here follows a modern, well documented account of this phenomena:
Exactly twenty years after the Rebbe Rashab, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, had been laid to rest in Rostov-on-Don in 1920, ten of his faithful chassidim risked their lives in order to exhume his body just before the old cemetery was bulldozed to make way for a Soviet housing project. They found his holy body intact, with only his tallis protecting it from the soil in which it lay, and reinterred it in its present resting place in the new cemetery in Rostov.
Their contemporary account of this episode has been preserved by Rabbi Moshe DovBer Rivkin, the late Roshe Yeshiva of Torah VaDaas, in Kuntreis Ashkavta DeRebbe (N.Y., 1953). In 1961, the editor of the present volume heard a first-person description of the episode from the mouth of one of the ten participants – the late Reb Yonah Eidelkop, one of the venerable founding fathers of Kfar Chabad in Eretz Yisrael. (From “To Live and Live Again” by Rabbi Nissan Dovid Dubov, ed. by Uri Kaploun, Sichos In English, Brooklyn, 1995)
How are we to interpret these reports, and the similarities between them? One explanation, no doubt favored by the skeptic, is that all these accounts may be accurate in their observations, but credulous in their conclusions, the latter resulting from an ignorance of necropathology, and the normal processes of death and decomposition.
A second interpretation, the one most consistent with traditional Jewish belief, is that the apparent similarities in these cases result from the parallelism between good and evil. As the Ramchal explains in Derech Hashem (III.2.8):
God decreed that the universe contain both good and evil, and therefore arranged that evil should be able to exist on every level where it possibly can…It was therefore arranged that every good concept have its counterpart in evil. This is what is meant by [King Solomon’s] statement, “God has made one opposite the other.” (Koheles 7:14).
Thus, each supernatural phenomena that proceeds from the levels of Holiness and Sanctity has its corresponding phenomena in the domain of the impure and profane.
There is also a third possibility – but it is too horrific and inconceivable to consider. For surely, no-one, least of all myself, would dare to suggest that these holy rabbis, were in fact…vampires…