The Weird and Wondrous World of Jews and MagicContrary to popular belief, magic has been a presence in Judaism from biblical times until today.
The first time I came face-to-face with Jewish magic was when I moved to Israel in my early 20s. It was the fall of 1995 and Jerusalem was beginning a 15-month celebration marking the 3,000 years since King David conquered the city and proclaimed it the capital of the Jewish people. Bright banners emblazoned with “3000” hung from street lamps throughout the municipality and the mood was festive. Along with countless others, I watched the opening ceremonies outside the Knesset and listened, enthralled, as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told of leading the Israeli Army into the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1967 War and then spoke about how the real message of the last 3,000 years was the need for tolerance between religions and love between peoples. At the end of the speech, an Israeli man turned to me and told me that, for the first time, he believed Israel would know peace within his lifetime.
Six weeks later Rabin was shot dead. Overnight Jerusalem was transformed. Black-and-white images of the slain prime minister replaced the celebratory banners, and a somber atmosphere prevailed. Wild rumors soon emerged, with one in particular gaining traction. I heard over and over that a magical curse had led to the assassination.
At a time when the impossible had happened, this seemed plausible to many. The rapidly spreading story held that 32 days before the assassination, on October 3, 1995, a small group of ten or so fringe national-religious activists, angry at Rabin’s intention to trade land for peace, had gathered outside the prime minister’s home in Jerusalem. It was Yom Kippur Eve—considered the holiest night of the entire Jewish year—and the rabbis, who had fasted for two days in preparation, stood in a circle around two Torah scrolls, blew a ram’s horn and then chanted: “On him, Yitzhak son of Rosa, known as Rabin…we have permission…to demand from the angels of destruction that they take a sword to this wicked man…to kill him…for handing over the Land of Israel to our enemies, the sons of Ishmael.” Known as the Pulsa deNura (“Lashes of Fire”), this ancient Aramaic ritual was first mentioned in the Talmud and then described in greater detail in ancient Hebrew manuals of magic. When performed correctly, the curse was purported to inflict divine wrath on its victims within a year.
After Rabin’s assassination, Pulsa deNura quickly became a household phrase. It remains a canonical element of any recounting of Rabin’s assassination; even the official Israeli government biography of Rabin mentions the curse by name.
Intrigued by this tale, I began to study the use of magic in Judaism. Like many others, I hadn’t been aware that Judaism had a rich tradition of magic that dated back to the Hebrew Bible. Many modern Jews simply ignore the topic altogether, because they believe that Jews have evolved past that aspect of their religion. They dismiss it as “irrational folklore,” says Yuval Harari, author of Jewish Magic Before the Rise of Kabbalah. Magic is an “alien element that penetrated” Judaism “from the outside and stained it,” influential mid-20th-century Israeli scholars Saul Lieberman and Ephraim Urbach argued. Their view prevailed until Moshe Idel, the preeminent scholar of Jewish mysticism, presented a picture in which magic was a central aspect of Judaism. Magic, he writes in the foreword to the 2004 edition of Joshua Trachtenberg’s Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion, “is a vital form of Jewish spirituality. [Judaism is] deeply informed by magical ways of thinking and manners of action that are conceived to be both effective and licit.”
As I investigated magic in the Bible, I found many contradictory messages. In Exodus we are told, “You shall not suffer a witch to live.” In Deuteronomy, Jews are forbidden from being a “soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer.” It appears from these texts that the Bible views magic as a real phenomenon, albeit one that the Israelites shouldn’t take part in. Yet the most revered figures in the Bible engage in magical acts. Following a directive from God, Aaron throws his rod down before Pharaoh and it becomes a snake. The Egyptians follow suit, and using their “secret arts,” perform the same act. But proof of Aaron’s superiority comes when his snake swallows the Egyptian ones.
The Torah of course is full of supernatural acts—manna raining down from heaven, barren women giving birth, animals speaking—but these events are all attributed to God. Thus the supernatural happenings of the Israelites—whose source of power is God—are extolled. Similarly, when God parts the Red Sea as the Israelites flee Egypt, it’s considered a miracle. When I asked Dan Ben-Amos, a folklorist at the University of Pennsylvania, about this, he explained: “In short, God makes miracles and people perform magical acts.”
The Talmud is also full of magical lore and seems equally conflicted about the supernatural. Talmudic-period rabbis (70-640 CE) forbid some magic as being the “ways of the Amorites,” the people who inhabited Palestine before the Israelites, but describe other magical acts with awe and even pride. In one story, the sage Rabbi Eliezer gains prestige when his deep knowledge of Torah endows him with supernatural powers that enable him to prevent a house from collapsing. In one of my favorite stories, a pair of 3rd-century rabbis are celebrated for using a spell to create cows on a Friday afternoon, just in time for a sumptuous Shabbat steak dinner. But when another rabbi uses the same words to manufacture a humanoid golem, his rabbinical colleague turns it to dust because it cannot speak and therefore must be “a [dangerous] creature of the magicians.”
In general, Talmudic rabbis are not concerned with magical actions per se, but rather with the character and intentions of the person performing the act. As in the Torah, whether an unusual event is a miracle (and therefore praiseworthy) or magic (and thus deplorable) depends on who does it and for what purpose.
Part of the confusion hinges on the definition of terms: What’s the difference between religion and magic? How can we distinguish a prayer from a spell, or superstition from religious ritual? Carlo Ginzburg, a history professor at UCLA and author of the seminal 1976 book on folk religion and magic, The Cheese and the Worms, attributes it to point of view. “Magic,” he says, “is generally used to describe the religious and ritual practices of people of whom the speaker disapproves.” He adds that historically there is an attitude that “what I do is ritual, but what other people do is magic or idolatry.” Folklorist Ben-Amos agrees that perspective is key. “Terms like superstition and magic are usually used to describe the beliefs or religious practices of other people,” he tells me. “The beliefs of Jews, for instance, were considered superstitious by Christian Europe.” Ultimately it’s hard to know exactly what magic is. “In real life,” he says, “religion and magic often converge.”
Yuval Harari concurs. “From biblical times to our day,” he maintains, “there is an unclear and sketchy borderline between the prophet or the rabbi, the hasid or the sorcerer, miracle or magic and prayer or incantation.” He argues that “we should not draw a hard line between magic and Jewish ritual or halacha, because magic is not essentially different from the ‘normal’ Jewish religious view that ascribes actual power to sacrifice, prayer, ritual and observance of law.” Magic, which calls on unseen forces, also does not differ from common Jewish views of the involvement of God—and angels and demons—in day-to-day life.
Indeed, magical creatures populate Jewish texts and traditions. Shedim is the Hebrew word for demons or malevolent spirits, and like most people in the pre-modern world, Jews believed that shedim were real and ubiquitous: One medieval census estimated the number of demons at somewhat more than one for each person on earth. Amitai Adler, a rabbi who lectures on Jewish magic, explains that the belief in the prevalence of demons reflected a life replete with unexplained diseases and other threatening phenomena. Evil spirits, Jewish sources relate, were potentially everywhere: They inhabited dark corners and even lurked at the dinner table to gather leftover crumbs. Jews thought demons could cause harm by infiltrating one’s house, body, thoughts and even dreams. They were invisible, but fortunately, the Talmud gives practical advice on how to deal with them: For a person to see the demons that surround him, he should “take the afterbirth of a black she-cat, the offspring of a black she-cat, the first-born of the first-born,” roast it, grind it up and then put the powder in his eye. Another text recommends sprinkling ashes around one’s bed: If demons are present, you will see their footprints in the ashes the next morning
If you wanted to protect yourself from a demon or expel one that had already infiltrated your body, the Talmud also provides specific advice about how to use amulets and magical bowls covered with spells and holy names. Although in many ways Jewish magic is similar to other magic, it possesses certain defining characteristics. One is the use of the Hebrew language and biblical names. In Jewish Magic and Superstition, Trachtenberg writes that “invocation of [biblical] names was the commonest feature of medieval Jewish magic. Incantations most often consisted of a name, or a series of names, with or without an accompanying action.”
This aspect of Jewish magic caught the attention of non-Jews early on. Origen Adamantius, a 3rd-century theologian and the first Christian known to study Hebrew, commented on the magical power of invoking biblical names. In his Hexapla, the first critical edition of the Hebrew Bible, he wrote of biblical names that “are so powerful that when linked with the name of God the formula ‘Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’…exorcises demons, and [it is] used not only by members of the Jewish nation but also by almost all those who deal in magic and spells.” Adamantius correctly understood that Jews used the exact same words and liturgical formulations in both “normal” and magical settings.
From biblical times to our day, there is a sketchy border between the prophet or the rabbi, the hasid or the sorcerer, miracle or magic and prayer or incantation.
Popular ancient Jewish magic manuals reprinted in the late medieval period, such as Sefer ha-Razim (The Book of Mysteries) and Harba de-Moshe (The Sword of Moses), contain magical spells and formulas that could enable one to know the future, speak to the moon and stars or see the sun during the night. The books claim that these powers, and much more, might be achieved through modifying common Jewish rituals for magical purposes, and offer instructions for manipulating objects and concocting potions. For this kind of folk magic, Jews made use of many of the same materials employed by non-Jewish magicians—blood, saliva, feces, hair, herbs, gemstones and salt. Rabbis turned a blind eye to much of this activity, though they were more comfortable with the more “elite” incantations that made use of the Hebrew language and Jewish names. Black magic—practices that intentionally called upon evil spirits to harm other people—was the only form of magic that was absolutely forbidden.
On the more whimsical side, love potions and charms were wildly popular in many eras. “Love,” however, didn’t necessarily have much to do with modern notions of romance. Yuval Harari explains that in Jewish magic literature, the word “love” refers to a wide spectrum of relationships—from marriage and strong emotional attachments to sexual relations and even sexual abuse. A typical love spell inscribed on an amulet discovered in the Cairo Genizah reads, “You, all the holy knots and all the praiseworthy letters, kindle and burn the heart of Tarshekhin son of Amat-Allah in longing after Gadb daughter of Tuffaha.” There were also detailed spells such as one described in a recipe also found in the Cairo Genizah: “For love. Tested and proven. Take an egg and draw out what is in it through a small piercing and when the egg will be empty, take the blood of a man and of a woman and fill the entire egg and seal the hole in the egg with wax. Write on the egg with the mixture of the bloods the names of the man and the woman and bury it in the ground. Immediately there will be great love between them, they will not be able to separate from one another.” Other “love” spells were more troubling, including ones for a man to force a woman to follow his orders “even if it goes against her own wishes” and incantations for a man to get rid of a woman he no longer sexually desired.
Today there are new ways of packaging and marketing Jewish magic in regard to romance. For only a small donation to its website, the American Orthodox rabbinic group Vaad HaRabbonim will chant incantations and pray for donors to find their romantic mates at midnight on the seventh day of Pesach—apparently the exact time of the parting of the Red Sea. The group boasts that 90 percent of the names on its prayer list have gotten engaged. There are also Israeli organizations that advertise special segulot (charms) performed on the holiday of Lag b’Omer, again in exchange for a donation, that result in the curing of “severe lovesickness.”
Throughout the generations, Jewish women were not just the objects of men’s spells, they were also active participants in the magical arts, serving as healers, diviners, dream-interpreters and mediums. Jews and non-Jews both believed that women were more likely than men to possess supernatural gifts such as clairvoyance. Women mainly practiced folk magic, usually for household purposes—especially anything to do with fertility, birth control or pregnancy. According to Rebecca Macy Lesses, author of the 1998 book Ritual Practices to Gain Power: Angels, Incantations, and Revelation in Early Jewish Mysticism, women’s expertise in folk magic was such that “while rabbis blamed women for being involved in sorcery, they were at the same time willing to learn from them about healing and the use of amulets and incantations.” There is even a case of a woman and a rabbi performing spells together to rid a household of demons. By the early 17th century, there were instances of rabbis consulting with female mediums in order to reach the dead—which brings us to witches.
A dark and threatening image of Jewish women as witches emerged during the Middle Ages. At the time, in Christian as well as Jewish society, there was a great fear of the supposed prevalence of witches with vampire-like characteristics. These women were accused of drinking blood and eating children. Even after death, they were thought to find ways to devour the living. Sefer Hasidim (The Book of the Pietists), the most important work of the 12th- and 13th-century mystical movement, provides advice on how to deal with these women. The book recommends that in the moment before a vigilante-style execution (the book clarifies that this, of course, would never be done by the pietists themselves), these cannibalistic witches should be offered absolution in exchange for information about how to neutralize them in their graves. The book reports that one “witch” suggested that she be killed by having a stake driven into her mouth and down through her body to the ground beneath, while another proposed filling the mouths of her dead cohorts with gravel. And although Jews did not actively take part in the early modern European witch hunts, which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of women, leading Jewish figures endorsed them. Menasseh ben Israel, the 17th-century rabbi famous for being Spinoza’s teacher, justified the executions as being a “necessary” response to the “insurmountable threat of the demonic pack of witches.”
A new kind of unwelcome body invader entered the Jewish lexicon during the 16th century—the dybbuk. A malevolent spirit or ghost, the dybbuk was said to usually possess low-status members of society, most commonly women and children. Badly behaved spirits, dybbukim were renowned for accusing respected members of the Jewish community of embarrassing sexual acts. Usually a male spirit possessed a female body. In one famous case, a dybbuk was alleged to possess Eidel, the beloved daughter of 19th-century Hasidic leader Rabbi Sholom Rokeach of Belz. After his death, the voice of Rabbi Sholom emerged from Eidel, accusing different prominent men in the community of sexual misconduct. Eventually a dybbuk was identified by Eidel’s brother and exorcised. The exorcism itself likely involved burning herbs and incense and then immersing Eidel in water. Following the exorcism, Eidel collapsed and never fully recovered, reportedly suffering from severe depression for the rest of her life. Kate Miriam Loewenthal, a professor of psychology at the Royal Holloway, University of London, theorizes that voiceless members of society may have claimed to be possessed in order to have a way to express their views, or that those who were deemed possessed were actually suffering from mental health issues.
To my surprise, there were also instances in which Jews actively wished to be possessed by benevolent spirits. Isaac Luria, the foremost Jewish mystic of the 16th century, and his followers regularly performed graveside rituals intended to attract friendly spirits to possess their souls. They believed that being possessed would increase their ability to know and understand the unseen world.
During the early modern period, roughly the 15th through 18th centuries, the study of magic and mysticism occasionally led to close personal contact and intellectual collaboration between Jews and Christians. Kabbalah, equated with magic by many, caught the eye of Christian scholars such as the Catholic priest Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) and philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494). Both men wanted to discover the secret ancient wisdom they believed existed in medieval Jewish mystical literature. Pico’s “tutor” in Jewish Kabbalah and the Hebrew language was Rabbi Johannan Alemanno, a famous Italian Jewish humanist who also taught other Christians. Alemanno argued that the study of magic should be regarded as the final and most important stage of a man’s intellectual and spiritual education
This kind of collaboration, however, was unusual. More often, Christian interest in Jewish magic led to trouble for Jews and contributed to anti-Semitism. Medieval and early modern Christians viewed the Jew as the magician par excellence. Christians believed that Satan was the ultimate source of all magic. As a result, Jewish skill with magic was taken as evidence of their allegiance to Satan and their demonic nature as a people. Because of this belief, Christians persecuted Jews time and time again. The most serious episodes were mass attacks and massacres, such as the one that began at the coronation of King Richard the Lionheart in London on September 3, 1189. Amid fears that they would cause mayhem, Jews and women had been barred from the ceremony. Despite the ban, a Jewish delegation attended, bearing gifts and pledges of fealty. Accused of having come to cast evil enchantments over the newly crowned king, they were stripped, whipped and banished from court. The violence escalated and led to a large-scale pogrom in London that eventually spread to other cities in England. Thousands of Jews died before the brutality ended more than a half-year later. Similarly, untold numbers of Jews were accused of black magic and killed during the roughly 600 years (1231-1826) of the Roman Catholic Inquisitions. These prejudices followed Jews into the modern world, and accusations of black magic persist as a source of anti-Semitism.
Magic is an important part of my Jewish heritage. We live in troubling times. The ancient wisdom of Jewish magic helps me bring order to chaos.
Sometimes Jews viewed magic as a tool to combat their enemies. Throughout their history, Jews have created and compiled magical practices, spells and recipes intended to harm those who threatened them. One example occurred during World War II. As the news of the Nazi annihilation of the Jews spread beyond Europe, there were Jews in Palestine, who over the objections of some rabbis, began to practice magic in an attempt to save European Jewry. Rabbi Yehuda Fetaya (1859-1942) led a group of 60 people to Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem, a location long used by Jews for magical rituals. Once there, the group put ash-filled sacks on their heads and chanted incantations for 24 hours. At night, they blew dozens of shofarot and called for God to show the Jewish people mercy. Afterward, the group filled cups with tears and marched around the tomb seven times, then shouted seven times in unison for God to prevent Hitler from entering Jerusalem. Similar pilgrimages were made to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. And, to protect Palestine itself from the Nazis, Kabbalists were said to have traveled in a plane to spread cock blood on the borders of the land. An alternate version of this story claimed that British officers asked the Kabbalists to fly in a military plane to spread the protective blood over both Palestine and Egypt. It is also possible that Jerusalem Kabbalists created three magical charms intended to kill Adolf Hitler. These rumors are found in contemporaneous letters and reports and, although evidence that these events actually took place is scanty and disputed, the prevalence of such stories demonstrates the continuing importance of magic in the modern Jewish world.
Which brings us to today. Not only is Jewish magic alive and well, it has also become trendy. In the United States, Jewish witches or “Jewitches” bring a Jewish angle to New Age practices such as astrology, moon rituals and goddess worship. The Jewitches I spoke with explained that they use magical Jewish rituals and charms to address contemporary concerns such as workplace discrimination and wage disparity. Gilah Levin, a Jewitch living in the Bay area, says, “Magic is an important part of my Jewish heritage. We live in troubling times. The ancient wisdom of Jewish magic helps me bring order to chaos.”
And perhaps it does more as well. A few weeks ago, I had lunch with my childhood friend Rachel and her new baby daughter. Rachel spent close to 15 years attempting to get pregnant. She tried every known fertility drug and in vitro fertilization treatment multiple times, to no avail. She prayed daily to become pregnant. Finally, early last September, she paid an Orthodox rabbi in Israel to perform a segulah (charm) that he claimed would cure her infertility. Following his advice, on each day of Sukkot, hoping that she was already pregnant, Rachel bit off and chewed the pitom or stem of an etrog in order to ensure a safe delivery. In late October she learned that she was pregnant, and this June, at age 49, she gave birth to a healthy baby. There is no way to know how or why Rachel finally got pregnant. But looking at her glowing face and that of her beautiful daughter, I realized that the actual cause didn’t matter. To me, it was magic.