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  • Solomon and Ashmedai (bGittin 68a–b), King Hiram, and Procopius:Exegesis and Folklore
  • Joseph M. Davis


The story of Ashmedai and Solomon in bGit 68a–b is an extravagant tale of travel, demons, doppelgängers, sex, teetotaling, and magical rings. One of the longest narratives in the Babylonian Talmud, it is a story that has understandably attracted many interpreters, both traditional and academic.1 Our tale interweaves folklore and Bible exegesis, in much the way that Shalom Spiegel once described.2 But scholars of rabbinics have too often set aside the folkloric elements, while folklorists have too often downplayed Bible exegesis.3 [End Page 577]

The interplay of folklore and exegesis in rabbinic tales such as this one can be compared to the dialectical relation of folk belief and lived experience. Think, for example, of ghost stories, which are both folk beliefs and lived experiences. The relation of the two elements is dialectical and iterative. New ghost experiences give rise to new, updated versions of traditional ghost beliefs, while these new beliefs, in turn, influence the experiences of new generations of listeners.4 In a similar way, in rabbinic culture, folk legend and biblical exegesis interacted dialectically. Folk beliefs were read into biblical verses, but biblical exegesis, in turn, affected the content of the folk beliefs of the rabbis and their students. The development of the talmudic story of Solomon and Ashmedai is rooted in this complex interplay.5 [End Page 578]


Let us first summarize the talmudic story. King Solomon was forbidden, the Talmud asserts (on the basis of 1 Kgs 6.7), to use iron tools in building the Temple. Puzzled as to how to proceed, he consulted (the Talmud claims) the sages of his day, who advised him that instead he must locate the wondrous shamir—a magical worm, by some reckoning, a stone, in others—which is able to break rocks by its mere glance or touch.6

In order to locate the shamir, Solomon needed to capture the demon-king Ashmedai. The king sent out his lieutenant Benayahu and armed him with a magic ring. But Ashmedai spent his days studying Torah, and he was difficult to capture. Benayahu employed a stratagem. Tricking Ashmedai into drinking wine instead of the water that he was normally careful to drink, he subdued the demon. Benayahu returned with Ashmedai to Solomon, Solomon obtained the shamir, and with it he built the Temple.

Solomon continued to keep Ashmedai imprisoned, but one day, Ashmedai in turn tricked Solomon into taking off his magic ring. Thereupon Solomon lost his power over the demon-king, and Ashmedai cast Solomon off his throne. Ashmedai assumed Solomon’s appearance and ruled in his place, while the real Solomon became a wandering beggar. Eventually, Solomon returned to Jerusalem and warned the sages about the counterfeit. To test the identity and nature of the ersatz king, the sages questioned his wives, who told them that the king often demanded forbidden sex, and that he always kept his legs clothed (presumably in order to hide his nonhuman legs). The sages thus confirmed that he was an imposter. The sugya concludes with a disagreement between two third-century amoraim, Rav and Samuel; according to one, Solomon regained his throne. The story as a whole seems to reflect this opinion. According to the other opinion, the demon remained king, and Solomon remained a beggar until he died.


Despite its literary twists and turns, which take it far from the biblical narrative, the main events and central characters of this tale, apart from [End Page 579] Ashmedai himself, are securely scriptural. Its folkloric elements are grafted onto biblical elements. The legend of the shamir is entwined with the building of the Temple, while the story of Solomon’s fall is read into the first chapters of Ecclesiastes. The reshaping of Solomon into a conqueror of demons was a particularly early turn of the Solomon legend, attested already in the first century; it also enjoyed popularity in Byzantine culture.7 Our text treats...


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pp. 577-585
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