While Jews and lasers have been much in the news of late due to the bloviations of antisemitic internet trolls, legends about Jews using magic beams of power has a long and august history. Although beams of light and power can be traced back to the Bible, especially in the prophetic visions of Ezekiel, Jewish lasers come into their own as a narrative motif in the Talmud. Stories that involve laser beams shooting out of eyes play a role in narratives concerning two of the most important 2nd century CE rabbis whose teachings are anthologized in the Talmud.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is described as being completely devoted to the study of Torah, to the preclusion of all other pursuits. In his posthumous reputation, his complete absorption in holiness and religious study was seen as a model for kabbalistic approaches to Jewish tradition. The Zohar, the classic text of Jewish mysticism, is attributed to Rabbi Shimon. In Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 33b it is recounted how Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar retreated from society and studied without cease for 12 years. Miraculously, a spring appeared, and a carob tree grew near the cave where they were in hiding so that they would never need to worry about feeding themselves and could completely absorb themselves in their study. After the 12 years, the rabbis reappeared in public. Momentarily enraged by the sight of people pursuing the quotidian affairs of life and ignoring the worlds of divine power, beams of fiery light shot forth from the two rabbis’ eyes, setting nearby fields on fire. Unbeknownst to them, their sacred pursuits had conferred on the rabbis supernatural powers. The rabbis returned to the cave for another year as a punishment, to learn to curb their newfound laser wielding abilities.
In another story, found in Babylonian Talmud Tractate Bava Metzia 59b, Rabbi Eliezer is in a conflict with his colleagues in the yeshivah about whether or not an oven made up of multiple parts can be rendered ritually impure. This seemingly arcane debate grows heated. Rabbi Eliezer suggests that if he is correct, and everyone else wrong, the walls of the yeshivah should demonstrate support for his view. Immediately, the walls shake and the building nearly collapses. Next, Rabbi Eliezer calls upon the power of the Heavens to attest to the truth of his view—an angelic voice proclaims his ruling correct. Nevertheless, the rabbinic court decides that the majority must rule, and that a non-conforming viewpoint must bend to the will of the collective. This story, referred to as the Oven of Akhenai and frequently included in Jewish children’s anthologies, is cited as an example of the ascendancy of reason in the Jewish tradition. However, the Oven of Akhenai has an epilogue that pushes the narrative in unexpected directions. The rabbis punish Eliezer for his obstinacy by publicly ostracizing him. Eliezer’s great spiritual powers in combination with his rage unleash a torrent of problems around the world including shipwrecks and famines—and he begins to shoot beams of fire from his eyes. In rabbinic narratives, the emotional economy can be disrupted by non-conformity. The power of brilliant, beautiful outsiders can unleash great physical danger, represented by the emanation of deadly light from the eyes.
Stories about Jewish billionaires in the present-day wielding supernatural technologies to bring about their nefarious plans has little resonance with these Talmudic stories of rabbinic non-conformity and spiritual power. However, the image of dangerous spiritual energy emanating from holy Jewish bodies extends into the present in the ritual of the duchenen, the priestly blessing given by descendants of the Kohanim, the ancient Jewish priestly caste, during special moments in the liturgical calendar. During the priestly blessing the congregants are supposed to shield their eyes from the effluence of sacred power by hiding their faces under a talis. As a child I was told that I could go blind if I looked at the kohanim while they recited the blessing, anecdotally suggesting that emanations of dangerous sacred energy continue to play a role in Jewish sacred social experience.
Jeremiah Lockwood is a musician and scholar, disciple of blues legend Carolina Slim, founder of The Sway Machinery, recent PhD from Stanford University. He is currently living in Brooklyn and pursuing research on Jewish liturgical music while performing and writing.