JEWISH LASER BEAMS

Reboot

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.

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