Translation:The Story of King Solomon and Ashmedai
[Based on the Munich Codex of the Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 68a-b)]
The Temple, while it was being built, was made of whole, draft stones. Yet, hammers and axes, or any instrument wrought of iron, was not to be heard in the Temple while it was being built. – (I Kngs. 6:7)
Solomon inquired of the Rabbis: "How should it be constructed?" They answered him: "There is the Naxian stone (Aramaic: shamira) that Moses brought for engraving the stones in the vest worn by the High Priest." He asked them: "Where can it be found?" They replied: "Bring hither demons, both male and female, for they know of its whereabouts and they shall tell you."
He then went off and brought them, binding them together. They said to him: "We do not know where it is located, but perhaps Ashmedai, the Prince of the demons, knoweth." He asked them: "Where is he?" They said to him: "He is in a certain mountain, carving out a cistern and filling it up with water, and covering it over again with cobble stones, and then sealing it with his seal. Each day he then goes up into the sky and learns a thing or two from the celestial school and then comes down again to the earth and learns a thing or two from the terrestrial school, after which, he returns to examine his seal that it has not been broken open, opens it himself and drinks from it, and then covers it over again, putting his seal upon it, ere dozing off to sleep."
Solomon sent for Benaiah, the son of Yehoiada. He gave to him a chain whereon was engraved the ineffable Name of God, and an anklet whereon was engraved the ineffable Name of God, and woollen yarns, and leathern bottles containing wine. He went and dug for himself a cistern beneath that which was made by Ashmedai and drained out the water that was in the upper so that it emptied itself into the nether, and then clogged them up with the woollen yarns. He then went and carved out a cistern above the one made by Ashmedai, pouring therein wine which emptied into the other, and covering it over again. Thereupon, he went up and sat himself down in a tree. When he eventually came to examine his seal, he opened it and found that, instead of water, there was wine! He said, "It is written: Wine is a mocker, and strong drink is raging. He that is deceived thereby shall not become wise (Proverbs 20:1). It is, moreover, written: Whoredom, and wine, and new wine take away the heart (Hosea 4:11). I shall not drink of it!" When he thirsted, he could no longer hold back. He then reasoned, saying: "Wine maketh glad the heart of man, making the face radiant more than oil! (Psalm 104:15), I shall drink of it!" He became drunk and fell into a stupor. Benaiah then came and cast upon him the chain and locked it. When he awoke, he saw, to his dismay, that he was fettered in iron and tried to break loose. Said to him Benaiah: "Thy Master's name is inscribed upon you! Thy Master's name is inscribed upon you!"
While he was being drawn away, and they went along their journey, every tree that he approached, he'd brush himself up alongside it and cast it down. Every house that he approached, he would cast it down. Haply, he reached the dwelling place of a certain poor, elderly woman, being but a sepulchre carved from the rock. She came out and began pleading with him that he not destroy her humble abode. He then bent down his great stature, breaking a bone within himself while doing so. Being awakened to a sense of his condition, he then recalled what was written about this in the scriptures: A soft tongue will break a person's bone! (Proverbs 25:15).
Ashmedai then saw a blind man who had erred as he walked along the road. He lifted the man up, and put him back on the right path. He also saw a drunkard that erred on the path. He lifted him up. He then saw a place where there was merry-making, wherein the people were exceedingly happy. But he began to cry. He then heard a certain man saying to a shoemaker, "Make me a pair of shoes that will last me for seven years!" Ashmedai began to laugh. He saw also a certain diviner that was divining for lost bread. Again, Ashmedai began to laugh.
When they finally reached their destination, they did not bring him into Solomon's presence until after three days. On the first day, Ashmedai said to them: "Why doesn't the king desire that I come unto him?" They answered him: "It is because he is constrained by overmuch drinking." He then took up a brick within his hand and laid it on top of another brick. They came and told the matter to Solomon. Solomon said to them: "Thus he is saying to you, 'Go! Give unto him even more drink!'" On the next day, they said to him: "He is constrained by overmuch eating." He then took away a brick from off another. They came and told the matter to Solomon. Solomon said to them: "Thus he is saying to you, 'Go! Diminish his intake of food!"
At the commencement of three days, he came before Solomon. Yet, in his hand, he had taken up a cane rod with which men are wont to measure, and measured therewith four cubits, throwing the cane down before the king. He said to the king: "Verily, this man has naught in this world save four cubits! (i.e. the grave) Were you not satisfied in conquering the whole world that you had to come and conquer me withal?!"
Solomon said to him: "I do not want from you anything. I only wish to build the Temple and stand in need of a Naxian stone." He answered the king: "It has not been delivered unto me, but rather, unto the Prince of the Sea it has been delivered. Yet, he has not given it to anybody, save unto the hoopoe bird, seeing that he is faithful in keeping his sworn oath. And what does he do with it? He takes the rare stone to those desolate mountains wherein there is no settlement of any kind, and lays it on the ledge of a mountain. This is the reason his name is translated by us in the Aramaic tongue, Mountain Carpenter, seeing that he will first cleave the mountains, and bring thither seeds from other trees, and throw them therein, causing them to spring up in those places."
They searched for a nest of a hoopoe bird that had fledglings, and when they had found one, they covered the nest over with a plate of translucent glass. She then came to her nest, seeking to go inside, but could not do so. She then went off, and returned with a Naxian stone, hoping to have it laid on top of it so as to cut the glass plate. Suddenly, someone shouted at her, and she dropped the rare stone. They took it up, and soon made their way back with their find. She, meanwhile, went off and hung herself at not being able to keep her sworn oath.
Benaiah, the son of Yehoiada, meanwhile inquired of Ashmedai, saying: "Tell me. All those things that you did when you astonied me by your conduct, what was the reason, when you saw that blind man who erred on the road, that you lifted him up and put him on the right path?" He answered: "It was because I heard them making a proclamation over him in heaven, saying that he was wholly a righteous man, and whoever gratifies his soul shall have a portion in the world to come."
"And what was the reason, when you saw that drunkard who erred on the path, that you lifted him up?" asked Benaiah. Answered Ashmedai: "It was because I heard them making a proclamation over him in heaven, saying that he was wholly a wicked man. Let him alone that he might eat the good of his labours in this world, for he has nothing else coming to him in the world to come!"
"And what was the reason, when you saw that merry-making, that you began to cry?" asked Benaiah. Answered Ashmedai: "It was because the man who had just been married, unawares of his plight, was to die within thirty days. His bride would perforce keep herself unwedded for thirteen years more, until she could be wedded again in a levirate marriage to the younger brother of her deceased husband, now but a child."
"And what is the reason, when you heard that man saying to a shoemaker, 'Make me a pair of shoes that will last me for seven years,' that you began to laugh?" Answered Ashmedai: "It was because that man had not even seven more days to live. What use, then, is it to him having shoes that will last him seven years?!"
"And what is the reason, when you saw that diviner, you began to laugh?" Answered Ashmedai: "It was because he was sitting upon a treasure trove of riches fit for a king, only to divine for something else which he assumed might be beneath him!"
King Solomon kept him under house arrest for that entire duration of time, restraining him from leaving until he had built the Temple. One day, he sat alone with Solomon in his palace. Solomon said to him, "It is written: He hath as it were the majestic strength of a rhino (Numbers 23:22). By way of allegorically expounding the meaning of the verse, we say that 'majestic strength' refers to the ministerial angels, while 'rhino' refers to the demons. What is your advantage over us?"
He answered: "Remove the chain from me and give me your signet ring, whilst I show you mine advantage." Solomon forthwith removed the chain from him and gave to him his ring. He then swallowed it, and positioned one of his wings on the earth, and the other wing in the heaven. Thereupon, Ashmedai hurled him to a distance of four-hundred Persian miles from the place where he once stood, so that Solomon was deposed, expelled from his kingdom, and he went about like a pauper begging for a piece of bread. Every place that he'd go, he would say: "I am Koheleth (the preacher). I used to be a king over Israel in Jerusalem" (Ecclesiastes 1:12). When he'd say to them, "and this was my portion of all my labour" (Ecclesiastes 2:10), he'd anon show them his staff, which thing alone remained of all his dignity. Others say he'd show them his pauper's dish. [Meanwhile, Ashmodai usurped power and impersonated King Solomon. There was none in the kingdom who could tell the difference betwixt them.]
The Rabbis soon began to question themselves, saying: "Verily, had he been a mad man, he would not repeat incessantly only this one thing. What is this that we have here?" They asked Benaiah, the son of Yehoiada: "Hast the king called you unto himself lately?" He answered: "No." They then sent unto the neighbouring kingdoms, asking them whether the king had come unto them. They replied, saying: "Yes, he occasionally comes unto us." They again sent unto the kingdoms, saying: "Check his feet!" They returned an answer, saying: "Whenever he comes and goes, he is wearing stockings, [even while sleeping]! Moreover, he demands that women cohabit with him during their period of separation, and he hast demanded even of his mother, Bathsheba, that she sleep with him!"
At hearing this, they brought back Solomon who had been deposed, and they gave him the anklet whereon the ineffable Name of God had been engraved, and the chain whereon the ineffable Name of God had been engraved. When Ashmedai entered the palace, he saw him. He then flew off in the sky, making haste his escape. But even so, Solomon was filled with constant fear, trepidation and terror at the thought of Ashmedai's return, as it is written: Behold! The bed of Solomon! Sixty mighty men are about it, of the valiant men of Israel! All of them wield the sword, and are most expert in warfare; each man with his sword upon his thigh because of fear in the night (Song of Songs 3:7-8). THE END
- Codex Munich 95, copied circa 1340 CE, was selected because of its similarities with ancient Talmudic texts found in Yemen, Babylonia and elsewhere. For example, in the Yemenite Midrash HaGadol, section Piqudei, we find the story of Solomon and Ashmedai as brought down in Gittin 68a-b, no doubt copied from some early Talmudic text. There, in the story's episode, we find the same use of words as is found in the Munich Codex, such as: כוכא (sepulchre) instead of כובא (hut), as also קודו (his pauper's dish) instead of גונדו (his cloak), including common forms of spellings such as: אימצי instead of מצי, and נייח נפשיה instead of ניחא נפשיה, etc. Rabbi Hai Gaon used a similar Talmudic text, as proven by his commentary on the word קוד הבבלי in Mishnah Kelim 16:1.
- This stone is more popularly called "emery," and is mentioned by Pliny in his Natural History 36:54 (36:51). It is called by the Hebrews shamir, while the ancient Greeks gave the name smeris (a corruption of "shamir") to a powder derived from this very stone. Emery is a stone made-up of impure corundum (aluminum oxide, or alumina) as the main aggregate, along with diaspore, gibbsite, margarite, chloritoid and sillimanite. It is much used as an abrasive or polishing material. It has the appearance of iron ore. Formerly, it was found on the island of Naxos, and was chiefly used in cutting marble. First, the stone was crushed into a fine powder-like substance and cutting wheels were then coated with the powder by consolidating the powdered material with a bonding medium. In this way, by running the wheels to and fro over thinly traced lines marked in the marble, the marble could be cut without the aid of any iron instrument. (Tosefta Sotah 15:1 brings down an anecdote in the name of Rabbi Yehudah on its usage in Israel long ago. The stone, he says, was wrapped in woollen fibres and laid up within a cane-like tube made of lead, while the space between was filled up with whole bran of barley.)
- The men of Israel understood the words in Ecclesiastes 2:8, שִׁדָּה וְשִׁדּוֹת, to mean שֵׁידָה וְשֵׁידְתִין, that is to say, "male demons and female demons." In Babylonia, the meaning of these words was understood differently, namely, "an [exquisite] chest and trunks." (cf. Rabbi Hai Gaon's Commentary on Mishnah Kelim 22:8)
- According to Jewish tradition, the Prince of the Sea is named Rahab.
- Cf. the Aramaic Targum of Onqelos on Leviticus 11:19. The Aramaic word used there for the bird which, in Hebrew, is known as the דוכיפת is Nagar Tura, meaning "Mountain Carpenter."
- The translation of this verse is based upon Rabbi Saadia Gaon's Arabic translation of the Pentateuch, wherein he interprets the "ra'em" in our verse as meaning "rhinoceros."
- The word used here is "parasang," a Persian mile, equivalent to about four biblical miles, or 8,000 cubits. The standard cubit used by the Jews in Yemen has always been ca. 54 cm. This makes a Persian mile equivalent to 2.6 English miles. Solomon was driven away some 400 Persian miles, meaning to a distance of some 1,036 English miles!