First, the gemara in Eruvin which I claim indicates literal belief in sheidim. I should point out that I strongly suspect that this gemara is not from the Amoraim but from the Rabanan Sovorai, and so this particular gemara need not indicate that Chazal themselves believed in literal demons.
The gemara reads as follows. Eruvin 43a:
תא שמע הני שב שמעתא דאיתאמרן בצפר' בשבתא קמיה דרב חסדא בסורא בהדי פניא בשבתא קמיה דרבא בפומבדיתא מאן אמרינהו לאו אליהו אמרינהו אלמא אין תחומין למעלה מעשרה לא דלמא יוסף שידא אמרינהוOr, from the Point by Point Summary:
I would emend this to not just "a certain Shed" by Yosef the Shed, the same one who spoke to Rav Yosef and Rav Papa elsewhere; and that he does not observe Shabbos is Rashi's explanation.
1. Suggestion: Eliyahu said them (he flew above 10 from Sura to Pumbadisa) - this shows that Techumim does not apply above 10! Me'iri, Chasam Sofer 6:98
There are two reasons to leap to the assumption that a magical or mystical creature is responsible. First, how are you to travel higher than 10 handbreadths the entire distance from Sura to Pumpedita? It must be via flight, which Eliyahu haNavi could accomplish. But once we assume it is someone violating the Shabbos, why assume a sheid, a demon, particularly? Why not any human being, be it a non-Jew or any irreligious Jew?
Thus, the second reason. Sura is located about 6 km from al-Hira, according to a teshuva from Rav Natronai Gaon. Its longitude and latitude coordinates are:
Meanwhile, Pumpedita was located in what is modern-day Fallujah. Its coordinates are: 33°21′04″N 43°47′10″E. And here is an image of it, placed in Iraq:
N Latitude 31 53 0.00, E Longitude 44 27 0.00 (Point 1)
and N Latitude 33 21 4.00, E Longitude 43 47 10.00 (Point 2)
174.628 kilometers; 108.509 miles
Azimuth from point 1 to point 2 = 339.32°
Azimuth from point 2 to point 1 = 158.96°
Horses speed varies with their stride length, body build, and other factors, but here is a basic idea of how fast-- in miles per hour-- horses move at their various gaits:So a thoroughbred, running at full gallop, for three hours could make the trip. But how long can a horse maintain this full gallop? According to another horse site:
Walk: Roughly 3-4 MPH. A pleasure show horse can go as slow as 2 mph. Gaited horses-- who do not trot-- can do a 'running walk' as fast as 15 mph.
Trot: The trot is roughly 8-10 MPH. Again, a shorter striding horse could trot slower, and a horse with a long stride could move faster.
Canter/Lope: 10-17 MPH.
Gallop: This depends on the horse's condition and athletic ability. Some horses are not built to run fast an may only do a fast canter at their best; however, the gallop is about 30 mph. Thoroughbreds, which are bred for running distance but not speed, have been clocked at over 40 MPH. Quarter horses, bred and raced for short distances at speed, can reach 50 MPH in short bursts according to the AQHA's website.
How long can a horse sustain a gallop? The distance a horse can maintain a gallop depends on their build and physical fitness. A well conditioned horse can easily maintain a gallop for a mile to a mile and a half. At two to two and a half miles most horses will feel fatigued. Lighter built horses (Arabians and Thoroughbreds) can maintain a gallop over longer distances than heavier horses (Draft or Quarter Horse type), and horses with longer strides can travel longer distances with less effort.
A horse is built to cover many miles in one day, but not at a gallop. A horse can cover more ground, faster, if kept consistently at a trot. While a horse may be exhausted after a three mile gallop, that same horse could trot, with a few walk breaks, 15 miles without extraordinary strain.
So we would not expect one horse to make this trip, or at full gallop. Maybe if the person switched horses every two or three miles, but that would involve a lot of horses. I suppose at an average between a trot and canter, that is an average of 10 mph, and switching horses about ten times, one could make it in 11 hours. On a long Shabbos, this might be just possible. It is still quite an ordeal, and thus somewhat farfetched.Most people assume the Pony Express riders galloped their entire route. In fact, the speed of a pony express rider averages out to 10 miles per hour- meaning they spent most of their time alternating between a trot (about 8-9 mph) and a canter (12-13mph). The Pony Express riders switched to fresh horses every 10-15 miles.
Another possibility recommends itself by examining the map. Both Sura and Pumpedisa are located on the river. (Indeed, Pum-Bedita means "at the mouth of the Bedita river, which is a stream of the Euphrates.) Which way does the water flow in the Euphrates? In a south-easterly direction. Since Pumpedita is northwest of Sura, and the message came from Sura, this would mean moving upstream, against the current. But according to this book, Ebalitica, in discussing the Euphrates river and in general, in Old Babylonian Times, speed upstream by boat or by foot was about 25 to 30 airline km / day, which falls far short of the required 174 km.
Now, that was much earlier, in Old Babylonian times. Perhaps by Talmudic times, a boat could make this 108.5 mile jouney on a Shabbos. Indeed, a boat is one of the subjects under discussion in the gemara.
Regardless, I think the extreme distance and thus fast travel necessitated Eliyahu Hanavi, or else a demon, in the thought of the gemara.
In my earlier post I considered the possibility that Yosef Sheda was a human expert on demons. I would now say that I regard this as unlikely, based on the wording in Pesachim:
אמר רב פפא אמר לי יוסף שידא בתרי קטלינן בארבעה לא קטלינן בארבעה מזקינן בתרי בין בשוגג בין במזיד בארבעה במזיד אין בשוגג לאOr in English:
From the wording of קטלינן, and מזקינן, "we kill" and "we damage", it rather seems that Yosef Sheda himself is a sheid.
1. They strike on account of two whether it was Shogeg or Mezid; they damage on account of four only if it was Mezid.
Back to the gemara in Eruvin, given the astounding speed required to travel this great distance, I would regard the reference to Eliyahu Hanavi in the gemara as absolutely literal. And as such, he is traveling by flying very very quickly, higher than 10 tefachim. And if Eliyahu HaNavi was intended absolutely literally, then I would guess that Yosef Sheda was also intended absolutely literally, but that since Yosef is a sheid and not a Jew, since he is not a human being, as Rashi writes, he does not keep the Shabbos.
An allegorical approach seems far-fetched to me, because if Eliyahu Hanavi is supposed to represent, e.g., a deep spiritual realization, while Yosef Sheda, e.g., represents the Yetzer Hara or some such idea, why in the former case would it be subject to the laws of Shabbos, such that we can derive laws of techum? And in the latter case, how is this allegorical meaning to convey a message from one place to another? In other words, there are aspects of the gemara itself that seem to require a literalness to Eliyahu haNavi and Yosef Sheda.
It is of course always possible to kvetch any gemara, given enough brilliance, time and effort. Still, I prefer to take a text-internal approach. Ignore any hashkafic repercussions. What in the gemara itself indicates the most likely way to interpret this? And that we are drawing halachic repercussions from a discussion about a real-life incident where diyukim are made from rather practical considerations of where the path of travel must have been, I would conclude that the most likely interpretation is a literal one.
Once we know this, there are two possibilities. Either Chazal (in this gemara) are right and we are wrong about the reality of sheidim, or the reverse.
Meanwhile, the Meiri does not believe that demons are real, and he has a running commentary on the gemara. How does he interpret the gemara?
Well, in terms of how to travel higher than 10 tefachim off the ground, Meiri notes in the beginning of the gemara:
בעי רב חנניא יש תחומין למעלה מעשרה או אין תחומין למעלה מעשרה עמוד גבוה עשרה ורחב ארבעה לא תיבעי לך דארעא סמיכתא היא כי תיבעי לך בעמוד גבוה עשרה ואינו רחב ארבעה אי נמי דקאזיל בקפיצה לישנא אחרינא בספינה מאיWe are not discussing land higher than 10 tefachim but wider than 4, for this is considered ground. Rather, it is higher than 10 but very narrow, narrower than 4. Alternatively, בקפיצה. This means, according to Meiri, either via repeated jumping or some תחבולה, trick, ruse, strategem. Alternatively, by boat (where the boat is 10 tefachim off the riverbed).
How does he explain Eliyahu Hanavi? As follows:
ובאו ללמדה משב שמעתא הנזכרות (בראש בפרק) [בר"פ] אלו
טרפות דאיתמר בצפרא לקמיה דרב חסדא בסורא ובאותו היום
בעצמו נאמרו לרבה בפום בדיתא ויש שם יתר מן התתום אף
על ידי עירוב ואם כן מל כרחך בשהלך המגיד למעלה מעשרה
והמשילו [לאליהו] על דמיון תנועת העופפות . ולמדנו מכל מקום
שכל למעלה מעשרה מהלך כמו שירצה . ותירץ לו דרך צחות
דלמא יוסף שידא . פרשו בו גדולי הרבנים שאינו משמר שבת .
Thus, it is not Eliyahu HaNavi, but they only used him by way of comparison, that it was someone traveling over 10 tefachim, in a way similar to Eliyahu Hanavi who would fly. And by Yosef Sheda, he does not say that it means a sheid, but just that various meforshim say that this Yosef Sheda did not keep Shabbos. Perhaps he maintains that this is a human named Yosef Sheda, or a parallel to Yosef Sheda but any individual who does not keep Shabbos. He is unfortunately not explicit on this point, but I do believe he is explaining why one need not resort to belief in demons.
In terms of whether I think it is plausible, while more plausible than an allegorical interpretation, I don't find it more plausible than the literal. After all, later on in the same gemara they discuss how Mashiach cannot come on Shabbos, and mention Eliyahu Hanavi coming the day before. It is a bit strange for the former to be non-literal and the latter to be literal. And if simply a human, this does not account for the great speed from one place to the other. And it is difficult to say that there is a 100+ mile high and narrow land-ridge from Sura to Pumpedisa, over which someone ran at great speed. I suppose we can salvage this by saying that this was travel by boat, but I would really have expected the gemara to say simply that the travel was by boat. Further, Eliyahu Hanavi and Yosef Sheda (based on that other gemara I mentioned) are mythical persons/demons. That the gemara chooses these two in particular is strange, and would indicate to me a literal approach.