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"A Swarm of Mazzikim" (Detail) by cat yronwode with Stable Diffusion, 2023

Mazzikim, also known as Mazzikin or Mazziks, are tiny, flighted Jewish demons. Their name means "Damagers" in Hebrew, and they were first described in Jewish texts during the era of the Babylonian Talmud (circa 200-500 CE). What we know of the mazzikim comes from the authors who described their actions and activities. According to "Chagiga 16a," "In three ways [the mazzikim] are like ministering angels: They have wings [...], they fly from one end of the world to the other [...], and they know what will be in the future [...]. And in three ways they are similar to humans: They eat and drink like humans; they multiply like humans; and they die like humans." In "Berakhot 6a," Rav Huna (c.250 – c.290 CE) said "Each and every one of us has a thousand demons to his left and ten thousand to his right. God protects man from these demons, as it says in the verse: 'A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; they will not approach you.'" (The verse he is citing is Psalms 91:7.) Abba Binyamin said: "If the eye was given permission to see, no creature would be able to withstand the abundance and ubiquity of the demons and continue to live unaffected by them." Similarly, Abaye (c.320 – c.350 CE) said, "They are more numerous than we are and they stand over us like mounds of earth surrounding a pit." Summarizing the effects of the mazzikim, Rava (c.320 – c.350 CE) attributed many forms of bodily weakness and pain to them, and then noted that "One who seeks to know that the demons exist should place fine ashes around his bed, and in the morning the demons' footprints will appear, like chickens' footprints, in the ash." However, even seeing them may be harmful, especially while breathing through one's open mouth, for "Rav Beivai bar Abaye (c.350 – c.375 CE) saw the demons, and was harmed. The Sages prayed for mercy on his behalf and he was healed."

Some think of the mazzikim as purely spiritual entities. For example, Joshua Trachtenberg, in his 1939 book, "Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion," quoted Moses ben Ḥanoch Altschul's book, the "Brantspiegel" (1602), which warned the irascible wife against scolding her husband because, "The mazzikim stand and see that she is angry at her husband and rejoice and take the kelalot [the anathemas, imprecations, insults, or curses she speaks aloud to him] and keep them until a time when God is angry with mankind. Then they bring the kalalot too." In other words, by gathering and storing the millions of carelessly harsh words that people direct against one another, and throwing them all together into the world when God is righteously angry, these tiny beings can create vast damage, far beyond what any single scolding might accomplish. To release someone from such curses held in abeyance, a person of authority may say, before the entire assembled congregation, "With the consent of the heavenly and earthly courts, of our sacred Torah, of the great and small Sanhedrins, and of this holy congregation, we release [Name], son [or daughter] of [Name] from all the curses, maledictions, oaths, or vows uttered in his home, or directed against him or any member of his household, be they his own curses or the curses of others against his person, or curses that he uttered against others, unwarrantedly or deservedly, in a moment of wrath or with malice aforethought, intentionally or unintentionally, whatever their occasion or character. With the consent of God and of His celestial and terrestrial household, let them all be null and void, like unto a clay vessel that has been shattered."

On the other hand, the location of these tiny demons in the air, trees, standing water, roof gutters, slaughterhouses, spoiled food, and feces; the fact that they take in nourishment, procreate, and die; the possibility of inhaling them through an open mouth; the inability to send them away while one is unconscious during sleep; and the evidence left by tiny foot-tracks in finely sifted ashes, points to a physical view of the invisible mazzikim as living entities, too small to be seen by the naked eye. Trachtenberg listed several traditional ways to guard against them that seem to support this theory: "Liquids left standing overnight must not be drunk, nor should one drink from a well at night, for the demons may have imbibed of them. Foods placed under a bed for safekeeping during the night are undoubtedly contaminated by evil spirits; to partake of them is to court trouble. Even a covering of iron [...] is no security against nocturnal invasion." As early as the 19th century, Jewish scholars began to identify the mazzikim with noxious insects, arachnids, and rodents, and with the invisible, disease-causing microbes they carry. The mazzikim are thus seen as a pre-scientific descriptor for a wide array of gnats, mosquitoes, bedbugs, flies, fleas, lice, kissing bugs, ticks, mice, and rats that transmit contagious bacteria, viruses, and protozoans and bring about epidemics of the plague, malaria, dengue fever, encephalitis, yellow fever, shigellosis, typhus, typhoid fever, trench fever, Lyme disease, sleeping sickness, and Chagas' disease. Among such thinkers, the best way to prevent the damage caused by the demonic mazzikim is to practice basic sanitation and personal hygiene, and to see a doctor at the first sign of illness.


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