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Jewish Dragons

Oh yes, these magical beasts exist in Judaism too.

Detail of a caption framed by the curved tail of a dragon at Shabbat Parah.

It is essential that we begin with defining dragon, as in truth, this mythical beast can take many forms. According to Oxford Languages, a dragon is "a mythical monster like a giant reptile. In European tradition, the dragon is typically fire-breathing and tends to symbolize chaos or evil, whereas in East Asia it is usually a beneficent symbol of fertility, associated with water and the heavens".


Rothschild Machzor, Florence 1490.


According to Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin, author of Sacred Monsters: Mysterious and Mythical Creatures of Scripture, Talmud, and Midrash, there are a few categories of dragons found within western mythologies, "the heraldic or "true" dragon (a gigantic four-legged reptile with huge, bat-like wings), the wyvern (a similar beast o the heraldic dragon, but with only one pair of legs); the guivre or Worm (a huge, limbless serpent that killed by crushing victims in its coils and with its poisonous breath); the lindorm or blindworm (similar to a guivre, except at it possessed hindlegs), and the amphiptere (a limbless winged serpent generally reported from the Middle East and North Africa) (6).


From this definition, we see dragons floating through Jewish texts as well as folklore. As with everything in Judaism, there are heavy discussions about what each creature is, particularly rationalists who denounce the supernatural and seek to remove it from texts. This means that you may have been taught something different or read texts that do not explicitly use the word dragon.

We must start first at the roots of Judaism in Caanan.


The Tannin is a mythological creature (dragon) from Caananite and Jewish mythologies.


In Caananite mythology, it is a serpentine sea creature synonymous with chaos and destruction (5).


It was often portrayed as having a double tail or multiple heads, as pictured here.


In Judaism, the tannin is often conflated with Leviathan and Rahab.


Tanninim appear heavily throughout Jewish texts, including Genesis, when they are created. The term is often translated to sea-monsters and then further translated to mean whales, large fish, or crocodiles. This


This serpentine perception continued in Judaism. Because of it's importance in the Torah, dragons are often called tannin, though in later times were referred to as teli, and are most often serpent-like creatures in Judaism--much less like lizards than their European counterparts. It can be theorized that they are relics of the time before Judaism was codified. The perception of flying, fiery snakes or serpents is widespread in Judaism; however, like most cultures, Jews eventually created or become aware of other types of dragons.


Dragon Haggadah, credit to the Ursula and Kurt Shubert Archives


Isaiah 14:29 is one of the most memorable lines regarding the fiery serpents in Jewish texts:


“Do not rejoice, O Philistia, all of you, because the rod of him who struck you is broken; for out of the serpent's root shall come forth a viper, and his fruit shall be a fiery serpent.”

Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 2:10:2 "For when the ground was difficult to travel through, because of the multitude of serpents, which it produces in vast numbers, and which, indeed is singular in some of those creatures, which other countries do not breed, yet such as are worse than others in power and mischief, and with an unusual fierceness of sight; some of which ascend from the ground unseen, and also fly in the air, and so come upon men unawares and do them mischief."


Here, these flying serpents not only fly but are accused of causing mischief.


Numbers 21 witnesses the story of the Israelites in the desert. Moses, unable to stop them from complaining, watches as "G-d sent the fiery serpents against them, and they bit them, and many died from Israel. And the people said to Moshe, 'We have sinned against G-d and against you! Please pray to G-d that he will take away these serpents from us.' And Moses prayed. And G-d said to Moses, 'Make a fiery serpent and put it on a pole. And anyone who is bit will see it, and live.'


These fiery serpents are frequently interpreted as dragons, like by Rabbi Gavriel Goldfeder.


The Nehushtan (the bronze pole with the serpent) was created in order to save those who were bitten.


Isaiah 13:22 declares that, "jackals shall abide in its castles And dragons in the palaces of pleasure. Her hour is close at hand; Her days will not be long."



Rabbi Acha and the 7 Headed Dragon Demon

Kiddushim 29b features the story of Rabbi Acha, who fights off a demon who comes to him as a dragon using nothing but prayer.



Rav Aḥa found no place to spend the night, and he entered and spent the night in that study hall of the Sages. The demon appeared to him like a serpent with seven heads. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov began to pray, and with every bow that he bowed one of the demon’s heads fell off, until it eventually died. (2)


This multi-headed creature is exceedingly similar to the creature we see above of the Tannin.


Decorated initial-word panel accompanied with two dragons with foliated tails.


Tanin'iver

A blind dragon, the Tanin'Iver was believed to be the steed of Lilith, becoming her vehicle for evil. It is described in the Treatise of Left Emanation, Zohar, Emek ha-Melech, particularly in writings by Kabbalist thinker and author Moses ben Jacob Cordovero


Bel and the Dragon

In the brief but autonomous companion narrative of the dragon (Daniel 14:23–30), "There was a great dragon which the Babylonians revered."[8] In this case the supposed god is no idol, but an animal. However, Daniel slays the dragon by baking pitch, fat, and hair (trichas) to make cakes (mazas, barley-cakes) that cause the dragon to burst open upon consumption. In other variants, other ingredients serve the purpose: in a form known to the Midrash, straw was fed in which nails were hidden,[9] or skins of camels were filled with hot coals,[10] or in the Alexander cycle of Romances it was Alexander the Great who overcame the dragon by feeding it poison and tar.[11] (1)


No discussion would be complete without a mention of the Leviathan. However, the depth and breadth of that discussion means that the Leviathan truly deserves its own post.


In Jewish Imagery

Throughout the globe, Jews have assimilated and taken on certain stories to merge with their diasporic folk tales. For example, many

Hungarian Jews remember stories of the Sárkány, a Hungarian dragon, while German Jews may remember the regional varieties found in their area.


Jews of Medieval Europe were especially fascinated by dragons, as evidenced by the use of their imagery in texts and art from the time period. As seen throughout this article, Jews have been including dragons in their art for centuries.


Many of these works are attributed to Joel Ben Simeon (called Feibush Ashkenazi), scribe and artist from Germany. But he was not alone in creating art works filled with dragons.


Despite Avodah Zara 3:3 seemingly clearly banning the use of dragons in Jewish imagery, "In the case of one who finds vessels, and upon them is a figure of the sun, a figure of the moon, or a figure of a dragon, he must take them and cast them into the Dead Sea and not derive any benefit from them, as they are assumed to be objects of idol worship (3)", these images not only persisted but also found themselves in synagogues across Europe, carved in stone, worked into the metal filigree of the decoration--even used the decorate the Aron Ha-kodesh (the ark holding the Torah) (4).


There are hundreds more references to dragons throughout Judaism--Sefaria comes up with nineteen mentions in Jewish sacred texts, while folklore allows their inclusion at an even higher rate.


So, what does Judaism think about dragons? They were around and we were totally into them when they weren't biting us for kvetching too much.


Sources:

  1. https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/230658.8?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

  2. https://www.sefaria.org/Kiddushin.29b.13?lang=en&with=all&lang2=en

  3. https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Avodah_Zarah.3.3?lang=en&with=all&lang2=en

  4. Ilia Rodov, “Dragons: A Symbol of Evil in Synagogue Decoration?” Ars Judaica, 1 (2005), 63-84.

  5. God's Conflict with the Dragon and the Sea

  6. Sacred Monsters: Mysterious and Mythical Creatures of Scripture, Talmud, and Midrash

  7. https://www.sefaria.org/Midrash_Tanchuma_Buber?lang=en&p2=Midrash_Tanchuma_Buber%2C_Bechukotai.5.1&lang2=en