Who Was Lilith? Originally Published October 1-2, 2021.

Just in time for Parashat Bereshit, we are asked about Adam’s “first wife Lilith.”  Interestingly, some rabbis have said this female was Adam’s first mate and some have said second mate.  Some say that Lilith was made from the same soil as was Adam, while Eve was made from Adam’s rib.  And there is even more depth and breadth to this mythology, some even preceding Judaism.  Lilith’s name is said to be derivative of leilah, night.

It is thought that a Sumerian myth was her origin.  (We did read an opinion that a cuneiform inscription from Mesopotamia showed “Līlīt and Līlītu” as disease-bearing wind spirits, from the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, inscribed circa 1800 BCE.)  Meanwhile another reference to this dark woman comes from the seventh century BCE in a tablet found in Arslan Tash, Syria, containing the line “O flyer in a dark chamber, go away at once, O Lili!” 

Scholars note that Isaiah 34:14 describes a scary place where “goat-demons greet one another, and there the lilith shall repose and find herself a resting place.”  The footnote in Sefaria describes Lilith as a kind of demon, though there are some scholars in Ancient Near Eastern mythology who translate it as “screech owl,” while others point out the similarity in the wings and bird feet of demon goddesses of the time.

Another origin, though - or a parallel one - is from a midrash in Genesis Rabbah, wherein rabbis debate how Genesis 1 has a man and woman created at the same time while Genesis 2 has Eve created out of Adam.  Some time during the ninth or tenth century CE, in the Alphabet of Ben Sira (23a-b), there is a story of Adam and the first woman Lilith arguing about who should be in a superior position.  Lilith claimed equality, and Adam had none of it.  Lilith uttered God’s name and flew away.  God commanded three angels (Sanvi, Sansanvi, and Samangelof) to fetch Lilith if she wants to return.  The angels found her in Egypt, where mass drowning was imminent.  She averred that she was created to weaken boy babies at eight days old and girls at 12, and her dominion over them ends at that point.  The angels would not leave her alone until she accepted that each day 100 of her children would die.  Thus each day 100 demons die, and households with amulets showing those three angels are safe against Lilith.  Such exist as Aramaic incantation bowls (buried under doorways to block demons) from around 400-800 CE in Iraq and Iran.  Dead Sea Scroll 4Q510-511 shows Lilith in a list of monsters.

Eleventh century writings by Isaac ben Jacob haKohen show Lilith leaving Adam for the archangel Samael (also known as the demon king).  The Zohar (written in 12th century Spain) then went farther, positing that Lilith was not only Adam’s first wife but also wife of Satan.  In the Kabbalah, Lilith becomes a reverse image of the Shekhinah, and possibly competition for God’s masculine side.  Michelangelo (known sometimes to fail to do solid historic research) painted Lilith as part woman, part snake, draped around the Tree of Knowledge.

Lilith has been described as a demon, kidnapper and murderer of children, and seductress of any man sleeping alone.  Lilith, a demon alongside the male demon lili, has been around for several thousand years. Lilith often is pictured with wings and long hair. 

Since the 1960s, though, Lilith has taken her place in popular culture as the feminist who stands up to male domination.  (Your correspondent has long thought that the antidote might have come later in Genesis:  that Biblical Sarah and Hagar ought to have kicked out Abraham, and they could have raised their children together, thus avoiding so much marital and global strife, Sarah’s death from heart failure, and such a controversial feminist figure as Lilith.)