Jewish Scholarship on Samael and Lilith

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Samael: Demon Prince, Consort of Lilith

The derivation of the name of this mightiest of demons is hard to determine. Some say it comes from shamam “desolation,” but that seems wrong as the first letter of Samael’s name is a sin, not a shin. Others offer that it means “Left hand of God,” which is highly suggestive of later Jewish thought on the nature of the demonic, but the relationship between the name and the word s’mol is more an assonance then linguistically justified. Some secondary sources translate it as “Gall of God,” evidently associating it with Samael’s purported role as the Angel of Death (see below, also see: Angel of Death I: Malach ha-Mavet, Severe Agent of… ), but how this translation is justified linguistically is beyond me [perhaps a reader out there will know]. Whatever the case, Samael has had many and complex incarnations in Jewish literature:

In several rabbinic texts “Samael” is the name of the Angel of Death. At least once in the Zohar he is declared the “shadow of death,” a kind of consort to Death (1:160b).

In other texts he is regarded as synonymous with Satan, but almost as often he is treated as a separate entity (BhM 1:58-61; Ex. R. 21:7). Elsewhere Samael is called “Chief of all the satans” (Deut. R. 11:10; 3 Enoch). (SEE: Did Satan Fall?: The Devil is in the Details)

In Midrash Konen, Samael is the prince of the third gate to Gehenna, the gate that opens on Jerusalem (2:30). One text designates him the guardian angel of Rome, the nemesis of Israel. This springs from a tradition that he is the guardian angel of Esau, the progenitor of Rome (Bereshit Rabbah 77.3; Zohar I:166a).

He sits in the celestial palaces with Satan and Dumiel and plots the overthrow of Israel (SH 8a-b). When he rejoiced over God’s decree that the Ten Martyrs should die at Roman hands, God punished him by afflicting Rome with all the diseases of Egypt.

Samael has made many earthly appearances. In Pirkei de Rabbi Eleazer (13) he is described as the greatest angel in heaven, who out of jealousy over the creation of humanity, decided to tempt Eve. Appearing in the form of the serpent, he actually copulated with her (Targum Jonathan, Gen. 4:1; Zohar 1:37a). It is he, in his role of Esau’s guardian angel, who wrestles with Jacob by the river Jabbok (Tanh. Vayishelakh 8; Zohar I:146a).

In the early Kabbalistic work Treatise of the Left Emanation, Samael is the animus of Adam; the evil doppelganger of the first man that came into being with the first human transgression:

“The first prince and accuser, the commander of Jealousy and Enmity…he is called ‘evil’ not because of his nature but because he desires to unite and intimately mingle with an emanation not of his nature… it is made clear that Samael and Lilith were born as one, similar to the form of Adam and Eve who were also born as one, reflecting what is above. This is the account of Lilith which was received by the Sages in the Secret Knowledge of the Palaces. The Matron Lilith is the mate of Samael. Both of them were born at the same hour in the image of Adam and Eve, intertwined in each other” (Excerpt from Early Kabbalah)

As this passage suggests, Jewish mysticism has a dialectic notion of ‘evil’; all things emanate from God, so Samael is one of God’s “severe agents,” yet he grows beyond the attenuated form God intended because he feeds upon the evil we humans do.

The Zohar has the most extensive, if sometimes confusing, descriptions of Samael. The Zohar builds upon the image of Samael found in the Treatise on the Left Emanation: he is the demon king and consort of Lilith; together they are the evil counterparts of Adam and Eve. He is the tempting angel from whom the Evil Inclination emanates. When he “copulates” with Lilith, the male and female principles of the “left side emanation” are united and achieve their full potential and demon souls are spawned, so he is in effect the evil left-side counterpart of Tiferet in the Sefirotic system.

In both Zohar and later Chasidic thought Samael is increasingly de-personalized, becoming the organizing force of the kelipot, the garments of evil that enshroud the divine sparks contained in all things.”

– Geoffrey Dennis, Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism

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