Q. What does the name Lilith mean in Biblical Hebrew?

One of the most interesting personalities listed in rabbinic and non-rabbinic literature is the figure of Lilith, who was said to be Adam’s “first wife” and she is sometimes referred to as “the first Eve.” The only reference to Lilith may be found in Isaiah 34:14 where the name “Lilith” (lîlît) first appears.

Older bible translations render “lilit” as “screech owl.”[1] This interpretation is consistent with the previous stanzas that speak about other wild animals or birds.

Newer translations seem to prefer “Lilith” because of its strong connections to Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian mythologies. In Sumerian, the word lil “wind” was related to the name and she was known as a storm-demon. If this definition is correct then the other creature mentioned in the same verse “sa’ier” must mean the hairy goat-demon. The fact that Lilith does not appear in any other Scriptural reference is significant—especially given the antiquity of the belief of her existence.[2]

For many years scholars thought that the name “Lilith” is connected to the popular folk etymology laylâ ( = “night”). However, the real origin of the name derives from the Assyrian lilîtu and Akkadian the lilū, lilītu and ardat lilī, who were the three storm deities. [3] In Sumerian, the term líl means either “wind” or “spirit.” The Jews probably first learned of this feminine demonic being after the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel was deported to Assyria in 721 B.C.E., and shortly later when the Southern Kingdom was deported to Babylon.[4]

[1] Cf. the Septuagint, Pseudo-Targum Jonathan and the Vulgate. A modern rendering of this passage would thus be: The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the howling beasts; and the shaggy goat shall cry to his fellow. The screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest (MKJV).

[2] The líl is also mentioned in the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld (ca. 3rd millennium B.C.E.).

[3] Cf. BDB 539:1; HALOT 528; cf. Marcus Jastrow’s Dictionary of Targumim, Talmudic and Midrashic Literature, p. 707; Numbers Rabbah 16:25.

[4] According to one rabbinic tradition, Lilith was the daughter of Ahreman, the opponent of Ohrmizd in the Zoroastrian religion (T. B. Bava Bathra 73a). See Karel Van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter Willem Van Der Horst, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. (Leiden; Boston; Grand Rapids, Brill: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 520. She is also mentioned in the Jerusalem Targum to Num. 6:24; Deut. 33:24; Isa. 34:14 and in T. B. Erubin 18b.