The fabulous world of Harry Potter, so prominent in the news right now, may seem very far removed from Judaism. After all, magic, the central feature of the series, is prohibited by the Torah. But some of the most striking inhabitants of Harry’s world are very much part of Torah. Many of the strange beasts that Harry encounters, including mermaids, giants, centaurs and dragons, were described in the Talmud and Midrash long before J.K. Rowling ever took up her pen.
Harry’s headmaster, Professor Dumbledore, owns a magical phoenix, an immortal bird that is continually reborn in fire. The phoenix is also described in several instances in the Talmud and Midrash, having received its gift of immortality as a result of not eating from the Etz Ha-Da’at (Tree of Knowledge) in the Garden of Eden. Hogwarts, the school where Harry is a pupil, houses a lake inhabited by mermen and mermaids. Mermaids are also mentioned in the Midrash, and Rashi likewise discusses people who are half man, half fish.
The Hogwarts grounds are home to a forest inhabited by centaurs, men with the legs of horses. According to the Midrash, the descendants of Enosh turned into centaurs.
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry’s teacher Hagrid makes a bonfire in his “Care of Magical Creatures” class. Out of the bonfire emerge salamanders, which continue to survive in the fire and whose blood has extraordinary powers. The Gemara likewise attests that salamanders are generated from fire, and Rabbi Akiva expresses amazement at their ability to survive only in that environment. Hagrid himself is a half-giant, standing ten feet in height, while the giant Grawp measures twenty. The Gemara puts Moshe Rabbeinu and the Levites in between, at ten cubits (fifteen feet) in height, and describes Og of Bashan as being many hundreds of feet tall. A few years ago, I published a book titled Mysterious Creatures, which explored conflicts between the Talmud and science in the context of strange animals described in Jewish tradition. While the book was of great interest to those struggling with conflicts between Torah and science, and aroused considerable controversy in some quarters, it turned out that those most passionate about the book were of a different group: Harry Potter readers. These teenagers were thrilled to discover that denizens of J.K. Rowling’s universe were a part of their own heritage.
This month, the sequel to Mysterious Creatures, titled Sacred Monsters, is being published. It includes an expanded discussion of all the beasts in Mysterious Creatures, as well as a host of new monsters from Jewish tradition: werewolves, centaurs, gigantic giants, diminutive dwarfs, the kraken, two-headed monsters, and the enigmatic shamir. Aside from the latter, all of these are classical monsters that are also found in the Harry Potter books.
While the publication of this book was not deliberately timed to coincide with the release of the latest and final Harry Potter book, the timing is indeed fortuitous. (Editor’s Note: Sacred Monsters can be purchased at Jewish bookstores and online at www.yasharbooks.com.)
The question many readers ask is quite understandable: Given the vast accumulated knowledge about zoology and the physiology of animals that declares the existence of such animals to be impossible, how are we to react to the claims in Jewish tradition that they do exist? In Sacred Monsters, I explore various techniques used by traditional commentaries in understanding these passages.
In examining the statements of the Talmud and Midrash that describe the fabulous monsters of Harry Potter, there are several potential approaches to be used. One is to assess whether the description of the creature has perhaps been misunderstood. The Mishnah, when discussing which types of images are idolatrous and must be destroyed, includes the image of a creature called the drakon. The etymological similarity of the name drakon to “dragon” may suggest that it is the animal being referred to. The Talmud Yerushalmi and various commentaries, however, explain the drakon to mean a snake, perhaps a cobra.
There are pesukim that have sometimes been interpreted as referring to fire-breathing, flying dragons. For example, Yeshayahu (30:6) addresses the Jewish kings who sought to form a military alliance with Egypt against Assyria: