This paper appeared in Thalia: Studies in Literary Humor, Vol. 18, March 1999, 31-41. ©1999
Satan the Accuser: Trickster in Talmudic and Midrashic Literature
Hershey H. Friedman, Ph.D.
Professor of Business and Marketing
Bernard H. Stern Professor of Humor
Department of Economics
Brooklyn College of the City University of New York
Staff Writer, The Jewish Week
New York, NY
HERSHEY H. FRIEDMAN is a Professor of Marketing and Business in the Department of Economics of Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He is also the current holder of the Bernard H. Stern Chair of Humor. He holds a B.A. and M.A. from Brooklyn College, an MBA from Baruch College, and a Ph.D. from the Graduate Center of City University of New York. He has published articles in the Akron Business and Economic Review, Business Horizons, Journal of International Marketing and Marketing Research, Journal of Communication, Journal of Advertising Research, Journal of Applied Psychology, Decision Sciences, Journal of Statistical Computation and Simulation, Simulation, Journal of the Market Research Society, Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, Journal of Systems and Software, Journal of Business Ethics, and Thalia: Studies in Literary Humor.
Steve Lipman is author of Laughter in Hell: The Use of Humor During the Holocaust (Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1991) and is currently at work on a study of the use of humor by handicapped people.
Satan the Accuser: Trickster in Talmudic and Midrashic Literature
Satan, condemned in Christianity as a fallen angel, as evil incarnate, is a more complex figure in Judaism, where he originated. Satan is the angel who is constantly carping and who causes people to transgress the will of God. He is the angel that accused Joshua, the High Priest, of misdeeds before God (Zechariah 3:1) and who instigated David to sin by taking a census of Israel (I Chronicles 21:1). In Job (1:7), Satan is introduced as the angel who has come from "going to and fro on the earth, and from walking in it." Satan diligently but unsuccessfully tried to get Job to blaspheme the Lord.
The Jewish written law is contained in the Pentateuch (the Five Books of Moses, i.e., the Torah). The Talmud is the compilation of Jewish oral law, consisting of the mishna, compiled and redacted by Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, known as Rebbi, about the year 189 C.E.; and the gemara, commentaries and discussions on the mishna put into written form about 1500 years ago. The oral law elaborates on the written law.
The Talmud is mainly concerned with halacha (Jewish law) but also provides a detailed record of the beliefs of the Jewish people, their philosophy, traditions, culture, and folklore, i.e., the aggadah (homiletics). The Midrash, a separate scripture, recorded the views of the Talmudic sages and is mainly devoted to the exposition of Biblical verses.
Z. H. Chajes stated that the aim of the homiletic portion of the Talmud and Midrash was firstly to inspire people to serve the Lord and, secondly, to make certain that the audience paid attention. Maimonides felt that there were hidden inner meanings in the stories, riddles, parables, etc. used in aggadah. Clearly, many of the stories told in the Talmud and Midrash were not necessarily meant to be taken literally. But they have had a profound influence on Jewish thought and philosophy, and even on latter-day Hassidic stories.
The purpose of this article is to demonstrate how Satan appears in millennia-old tales from the aggadah (homiletics), as a formidable but sometimes defeatable figure, intent on manipulating mortals into sin, and teaching the public important and, often, poignant lessons about life. Satan is used as an archetype, often in a somewhat humorous manner, not unlike the fox fables and trickster tales. In fact, of all the trickster figures in the folktales of various diverse cultures -- e.g., the Native American Coyote, the African Trickster Rabbit, the Greek god Hermes, the Norse god Loki -- Satan is probably the oldest.
In the Hebrew scriptures, Satan is not a fallen angel. He is not an evil force equal and opposite to God; in fact, he is merely another angel, obedient and subservient to God. The literal meaning of the Hebrew word satan is "accuser" or "adversary," a word that connotes the angel's task as prosecutor in the Heavenly court. It is interesting to note that the word Devil, a synonym for Satan, is derived from a corruption of the Greek word diabolos, meaning "slanderer" which may have been derived from the Hebrew.
Satan is often identified as a person’s evil inclination in Jewish thought -- an internal counterbalance to one’s good inclination, both of which are under a person’s control. Satan is also the Angel of Death (Bava Bathra 16a), an angel whose duty is to take the souls of individuals whose time has come. Finally, Satan is the angel who tests individuals, tempts them into sin, and then testifies against them in the Heavenly tribunal, hence the name "accuser."
Evil inclination, angel of death, accuser, trickster: Are these distinct entities or merely facets of the same complex creation? Here is how the Talmud describes what this angel looks like:
It is said regarding the Angel of Death that he is full of eyes. When a sick person is about to die, he stands above his head with his sword drawn and a drop of poison hanging from the tip. When the sick person sees him, he trembles and opens his mouth [in terror]. He then drops the poison into his [victim’s] mouth (Avodah Zarah 20b).
The description of the Angel of Death as being full of eyes probably symbolizes mankind’s insatiable greed, but it is also a striking metaphor for the complexity of Satan’s persona and the multiplicity of modalities with which he goes about his "business."
As the Angel of Death, it is Satan’s job to take human souls from this earth. Then he becomes the Accuser, the prosecutor who testifies against the recently departed in a Heavenly court regarding the individual’s sins. Not only does this trickster get us to sin in the first place, he then stands up to accuse us, and to argue that our souls be sent to hell because of these sins that he impelled us to do. It is the ultimate trick on mankind.
Some individuals sin easily, others he tests or tricks into sin, always working of course within the individual’s own personal manifestation of the evil inclination.
The Evil Inclination
The Evil Inclination plays a major role in much of Jewish thought and modern Jewish literature, especially, for example, many of the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Luckily, Satan in his guise as the evil inclination is not always successful in getting people to sin. In fact, the Talmud believes that overcoming the temptations of the evil inclination may be viewed as either incredibly difficult or incredibly easy, depending on one’s point of view:
In the future, God will bring the Evil Inclination and slaughter him in the presence of the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous, he will appear as a tall mountain and to the wicked he will appear as a strand of hair. Both the righteous and the wicked will weep. The righteous will cry, saying: How were we able to overcome a mountain as high as this? The wicked will cry, saying: How were we not able to overcome this strand of hair? (Succah 52a)
Our outlook on the magnitude of the evil inclination depends on whether we have overcome it or not, whether we are looking forward or looking back.
Rabbi Assi stated: "The Evil Inclination at first is like the strand of a spider web and ultimately becomes like the rope of a wagon" (Succah 52a). Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish stated: "A person’s Evil Inclination gathers strength against him every day and seeks to kill him" (Succah 52b). Rava stated: "First, the Evil Inclination is called a passerby, then he is called a guest, and ultimately he is called Master" (Succah 52b). Satan, in the persona of the Evil Inclination, starts small, promoting the commission of small sins, then gathers strength until finally the individual is completely overwhelmed.
The Talmud believes that studying Torah enables one to overcome the evil inclination. "The School of Rabbi Yishmael taught: My son, if that Degenerate One approaches you, drag him to the House of Learning. If he is like stone, he will dissolve and if he is like iron, he will melt" (Kiddushin 30b). The term Degenerate One (sometimes translated as Ugly One) was well known as a reference to Evil Inclination.
When the guise of the Evil Inclination is not sufficient to induce humankind to sin, Satan appears to his appointed prey as a trickster, a tester, a tempter. He seems to revel in the task of proving that good people aren't really that good.
In the Book of Job, Satan is permitted by God to test Job’s faith by besetting him with a stream of afflictions of increasing intensity. By the time Satan is finished, Job, who started out as a righteous man living the idealized "good life" (good family, friends, prosperous, etc.) has experienced the worst string of bad luck ever conceived. Satan’s argument to God was that it had been too easy for Job to be righteous because his life was charmed and easy. Satan never achieves his goal; poor Job remained a righteous man.
Some commentators (e.g., Sforno on Genesis 3:1) claim that the snake who tricked Adam and Eve to commit mankind's first sin was Satan. Others believe that the angel Samael (frequently identified as Satan) was the one who persuaded the snake to do the evil deed (Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer 13; Midrash Yalkut Shimoni Genesis 2:25).
The Talmud feels that David would not have sinned with Bath-sheba were it not for the meddling of Satan. The Talmud describes what happened in this way: Bath-sheba was washing her hair behind a screen that concealed her from public view. Satan appeared in the form of a bird. David shot an arrow at the bird as it flew passed the screen. The arrow missed the bird and broke the screen apart. Bath-sheba stood revealed, and David saw her (Sanhedrin 107a).
This is the Talmudic explanation of the verse (II Samuel 11:2): "And he (King David) walked upon the roof of the King's palace and from the roof he saw a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful…" Satan took the form of a bird in order to cause David to sin with Bath-sheba. The assumption is that Bath-sheba would not have bathed on an open rooftop visible to all.
Since even great people can be tempted by Satan, they should therefore be more understanding of sinners. In an episode that demonstrates this principle and illustrates the danger of hubris, Satan the trickster tempts and teaches a great teacher of Israel.
Rabbi Meir used to scoff at sinners for giving in to their desires. One day, Satan appeared to him in the guise of a beautiful woman on the other side of the river. There was no ferry, so Rabbi Meir grasped the rope-bridge and proceeded across. When he reached halfway, Satan left him saying: Had they not declared in Heaven, "Beware of Rabbi Meir and his Torah" your life would not have been worth two maahs [a maah is a small coin]. (Kiddushin 81a).
A similar incident is recounted involving another great sage, Rabbi Akiva:
Rabbi Akiva used to scoff at sinners for giving in to their desires. One day, Satan appeared to him in the guise of a beautiful woman on a tree. Rabbi Akiva grabbed the tree and began climbing it, but when he reached halfway, Satan left him saying: Had they not declared in Heaven, "Beware of Rabbi Akiva and his Torah" your life would not have been worth two maahs. (Kiddushin 81a).
Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Akiva were respected leaders and scholars who lived in Israel approximately 1,800 years ago.
Would we ever think that Satan could teach us something about prayer? The next incident has Satan once again in disguise in order to teach a mortal an important lesson.
Plimo used to say every day, an ‘arrow in Satan’s eyes’ …
Plimo was a Talmudic sage. The expression "an arrow in the eye of Satan" is referred to elsewhere in the Talmud as well and was probably an idiomatic curse of the time period. The story continues:
… One afternoon, before the Day of Atonement, Satan appeared to Plimo disguised as a poor man. He came to beg at Plimo’s door and was brought some bread. He said: On a day like today when everyone is inside, should I be outside? He was brought into the house and given some bread. He said: On a day like today when everyone is eating at a table, should I be eating alone? They brought him in and sat him at the table. As he sat, he caused his body to be covered with boils and ulcers, and proceeded to behave in a most disgusting manner. Plimo told him to sit properly. He then asked for a cup of wine. When it was given to him, he coughed and spat his phlegm into the cup. They scolded him, so he pretended to die. Satan then caused Plimo to hear voices outside saying: Plimo killed someone. Plimo ran away and hid in an outhouse. Satan followed him there and Plimo [not realizing who it was] fell down before him. When Satan saw how much Plimo was suffering, he revealed his identity. Satan then said to Plimo: Why do you say this prayer [i.e., an arrow in Satan’s eyes]? What should I say, asked Plimo? Say: May the Merciful Lord rebuke Satan (Kiddushin 81a-81b).
This story illustrates somewhat humorously that one should be careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings, even Satan’s. If even the Angel of Death has feelings, all the more so mortals. The Talmud emphasizes the principle elsewhere that praying for an enemy’s repentance is always preferable to praying for his downfall, but never with a more untraditional teacher.
In the next story, Satan is compared to Peninnah, who along with Hannah, was a wife of Elkanah (I Samuel 1). According to the Talmud, Peninnah goaded barren Hannah into praying for a child. Hannah eventually gave birth to the prophet Samuel.
Rabbi Levy stated: Satan and Penina both had intentions to please Heaven. When Satan saw that God was showing favor towards Job, he said: Heaven forbid! Shall Abraham’s love of God be forgotten? … Rabbi Acha b. Yaakov lectured thus in Papunia. Satan came to him and kissed his feet (Bava Bathra 16a).
Satan was happy that someone recognized his good intentions -- that he denounced Job before God, in order to defend the patriarch Abraham, who, according to tradition, had passed ten of Satan’s tests. This story also demonstrates the importance of gratitude. Even Satan appreciated human recognition and was properly grateful for it.
The Midrash tells the tale of Satan’s unsuccessful attempts to mislead, misguide and misdirect Abraham while he was en route to carry out God’s order to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah. In this Midrash, Satan tries to trick Abraham and confuse him as to the source of the sacrificial commandment. Satan is brilliant in carrying out his task and this temptation, while unsuccessful, is viewed as an important test, an integral part of Abraham’s trial.
On the way to Isaac’s sacrifice, Satan ran ahead of Abraham and appeared before him disguised as an old man. Satan asked Abraham where he was going. Abraham replied: To pray. Satan asked Abraham: "And does one who goes to pray have fire and a knife in his hand and wood on his shoulder?" Abraham replied: "We may tarry there a day or two, and we will have to slaughter [an animal for meat], bake bread, and eat." Satan said: "Old man, was I not there when God told you to take your son? And an old man like you is going to go and destroy a son that was given to him at the age of one hundred? Did you not hear the proverb: ‘That which he had in his hand he destroyed and [now]seeks from others.’
Seeing his arguments were not working, Satan, the guise of the old man, tried another tactic, asking Abraham, in effect, How do you know that this commandment actually came to you from God?
You listen to the accuser [i.e., not God] and destroy a soul for which you will be judged guilty in court . Abraham said: I did not hear it from the accuser but from the blessed Lord; I will not listen to you.
Satan does not give up that easily. He left Abraham and went to work on Abraham’s son, Isaac.
Satan then appeared as a young man and stood on the right side of Isaac. He asked Isaac where he and his father were going. Isaac replied: to study Torah. Satan asked: While you are alive or dead? Isaac said: Is there then a person who can learn after death? Satan said: humiliated one [i.e., you are a doormat], son of a humiliated one, how many fasts did your mother fast until you were born. And that old man went crazy and he is going to slaughter you. Isaac replied: despite this, I will not violate the will of my creator or the command of my father (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayera 22).
A similar story is told in Midrash Rabbah (Genesis 66). There Satan told Abraham: "Old man, have you lost your heart? A son that was given to you at the age of one hundred, you are going to slaughter?" When that did not work, he tried another approach and told Abraham: "Tomorrow God will tell you are a murderer and are guilty for shedding the blood of your son." In both stories Satan is unsuccessful in deterring the patriarchs from their Heavenly task.
Satan was a bit more successful with Noah. According to the Midrash (Midrash Tanchuma Genesis: Noah 13), Satan was a partner of Noah in the planting of the first post-Flood vineyard. Satan’s contribution was the addition of the blood of a sheep, a lion, a pig, and a monkey. This is the Talmudic way of explaining the effect alcohol has on people. The drinker, initially as innocent as a sheep, after a few drinks becomes as bold as a lion. Eventually, as the drinks flow, the person becomes as filthy as a pig and acts like a monkey. Indeed, the Bible relates how Noah debased himself when he became intoxicated (Genesis 9:20-28).
In the next selection, the Talmud again demonstrates that good people do not have to fear Satan. It also shows how easy it is to fool Satan.
When Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was about to die, the Angel of Death was instructed to carry out his will [before taking his soul]. He appeared before Rabbi Yehoshua and revealed himself. Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: Show me my place in the world to come. He replied: All right. Rabbi Yehoshua said: Give me your slaughtering knife since you might frighten me with it on the way. He gave him his knife. Upon arriving in Paradise, the Angel of Death lifted up Rabbi Yehoshua and showed him his place. Rabbi Yehoshua jumped over to the other side but the Angel of Death grabbed him by the hem of his garment and was about to pull him back. Rabbi Yehoshua swore that he was not going to return. Thereupon, the Holy One said: If he has ever had an oath annulled [while on earth] then he must go back; if not, he can remain here [since Rabbi Yehoshua never had a vow annulled he was allowed to stay]. The Angel of Death then said: Give my knife back to me. Rabbi Yehoshua refused to return it. A Heavenly voice declared: Return it to him for it is needed for mortals.
A lesson to be learned from the story is that death is necessary for mortals. Only in a world where everyone is good and no one lies can there be immortality. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used the story of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi as the basis of the poem "The Spanish Jew’s Tale: The Legend of Rabbi Ben Levi" in Tales of a Wayside Inn.
So, the trickster was tricked. But, apparently, judging from the following story, it only works once.
Rabbi Chaninah ben Papa was a friend of the Angel of Death and when he was about to die the Angel of Death was instructed to carry out his will before taking his soul. He went to Rabbi Chaninah and revealed himself. Rabbi Chaninah said: Give me thirty days so that I can review my studies since it says, ‘Happy is he who comes here [the next world] with his learning in hand.’ He left him and returned in thirty days. Rabbi Chaninah said to him: Show me my place in the world to come. He replied: All right. Rabbi Chaninah said: Give me your knife since you might frighten me on the way. The Angel of Death said: Do you wish to do to me as your friend did? (Kethubos 77b).
The Angel Of Death
As we can see, in the Talmud, the Angel of Death is not always seen as a frightening figure. In one story, when commanded by God to bring back the soul of Moses, Satan is yelled at and chased away by Moses. Eventually, the Almighty Himself has to take the soul of Moses (Avos D’Rabbi Noson 12:4).
The Angel of Death is even quoted in the Talmud. For instance, Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi states three things he was taught by the Angel of Death (Berachos 51a); Abba, the father of Shmuel, a well known Talmudic sage, quotes him too (Avodah Zarah 20b). Quoting the Angel of Death is a sure way of getting people to listen to your ideas.
The Talmud and Midrash records the Angel of Death conducting conversations with many sages, even befriending several. For instance, in one story, Satan became very disconcerted over the response of a group of rabbis. The rabbis, headed by Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta, were invited to a circumcision. The father of the baby said to the rabbis: "Drink of this old wine because I am confident in the Lord in Heaven that I will give you to drink of this same wine at my son’s wedding." The rabbis response to the father was: "As you brought him into the covenant (of Abraham, i.e., circumcision), so too may you bring him to Torah and the marriage canopy." The Angel of Death subsequently met Rabbi Shimon, who left late in the evening towards home. The Angel of Death was critical of Rabbi Shimon for traveling at such a late hour. He said: "Because you rely on your good deeds, you venture out at a time which is not a time to travel (i.e., very late)." Rabbi Shimon asked the Angel of Death why he looked so upset and found out that he had been going to kill the child who had just been circumcised, after thirty days. The Angel of Death was concerned that the rabbis’ prayer would annul the decree against the child. Rabbi Shimon asked him how much longer he himself would live. The Angel of Death replied that he did not know because he had no jurisdiction over the life spans of Rabbi Shimon and the other sages. Rabbi Shimon asked him the reason for this. The Angel informed him that God adds years to the lives of those engaged in Torah study and acts of righteousness. Rabbi Shimon then prayed for the child and he survived (Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:2). In this story, the Angel of Death is seen as a less than frightening figure who has little power over a pious sage.
The following story, which we may call "Appointment in Luz," demonstrates that an individual cannot escape his or her destiny and must inevitably die. The Angel of Death is depicted as simply performing a necessary task, and doing it any way he can.
There were two Cushites that attended on King Solomon, Elichoreph and Achiyah, sons of Shisha, who were scribes of Solomon.
One day, Solomon noticed that the Angel of Death looked sad. Solomon asked him: Why are you sad? He replied: Because they have demanded from me the two Cushites that dwell here. Solomon had demons take them to the city of Luz [a legendary city where no one dies]. However, as soon as they reached the gates of Luz, they died. The next day, Solomon noticed that the Angel of Death was happy. He asked him: Why are you so happy? He replied: Because you sent them to the very place where they were supposed to die (Sukkah 53a).
Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived (according to I Kings 3:12), discovered himself outsmarted by Satan. There are obvious similarities here to the well known "Appointment in Samarra" story, a retelling of which was made famous by W. Somerset Maugham in his play Sheppey. Some scholars believe that the origin of the Maugham tale is "When Death Came to Baghdad," a ninth century Arabian Sufi story in Fudail ibn Ayad’s Hikayat-I-Naqshia. This similar story in the Talmud is several hundred years older.
The next selection was probably used to explain why good people often die young.
Rabbi Joseph wept when he came to the verse (Proverbs 13: 23): ‘But there is one that is swept away without justice.’ He exclaimed: Is there anyone who passes away before his time? Yes! As in the story told by Bibi ben Abaye, who was often visited by the Angel of Death. The Angel of Death told his agent to bring him the soul of Miriam the hairdresser and was brought the soul of Miriam, the children’s nurse. The Angel of Death told his messenger: I told you to bring me Miriam the hairdresser. The messenger replied: If so, I will return her. The Angel of Death said: Since you already brought her, then let her be included in the quota [i.e., of people scheduled to die that day] (Chagiga 4b).
The story concludes with Bibi asking The Angel of Death what he did with the extra years that Miriam the hairdresser should have lived. He was told that it was given to scholars who overlook any slights. Apparently, even Satan has trouble finding good help. And the Angel of Death cooks the books.
In the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 20b), Shmuel’s father quotes the Angel of Death as saying: "If I did not care for the dignity of human beings, I would cut open the throat of man as [wide and gaping as] that of a slaughtered animal." In other words, Satan prefers using the poison on the tip of his sword rather than the sword itself to kill mortals because he does not feel that people should be mutilated by death.
The following selection demonstrates the importance of dying with dignity. More importantly, it shows that good people have nothing to fear of death.
The Angel of Death appeared to Rabbi Shesheth in the marketplace. Rabbi Shesheth said to him: Will you kill me in the marketplace as though I were an animal? Come to my house (Moed Katan 28a).
The Angel of Death apparently complied with Rabbi Shesheth’s request. As noted above, Satan respects people’s feelings for a dignified demise. In the next selection we note that the Angel of Death understood that Rabbi Ashi needed some time to complete his studies. No one likes to leave an unfinished masterpiece behind after death.
The Angel of Death appeared to Rabbi Ashi in the marketplace. Rabbi Ashi said to him: Grant me thirty days respite in order that I may go over my studies, since it says, ‘Happy is he who comes here [the next world] with his learning in hand.’ On the thirtieth day, the Angel of Death returned. Rabbi Ashi asked him: What is the urgency? The Angel of Death replied: Rabbi [Huna] bar Nason is close on your heels [to succeed you as the President of the Sanhedrin] and "No sovereignty encroaches upon another even by as little as a hair’s breadth" (Moed Katan 28a).
John Milton, in Paradise Lost, has Satan saying: "Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven." From what we see of the Satan described in the Talmud and Midrash, he is not all that interested in being of the ruling elite. He revels in his work as a tempter of mankind, a tester of the righteous. He glories in his persona as the Evil Inclination, performs brilliantly as Angel of Death, and awaits every opportunity to function as the Accuser in the Heavenly tribunal. He is a trickster par excellence.
Because the Talmudic Satan is not overly intimidating, he figures in many Jewish jokes and sayings. For instance, the great Rabbi Nachman of Breslau is supposed to have said: "It was difficult for Satan alone to mislead the entire world, so he appointed rabbis in various communities." The Trickster of the Talmud and Midrash strikes again.