Does Jewish magic exist? Did our sages practice magic? Dr. Ishay Rosen-Zvi surveys Yovel Harari’s book on magic in Judaism, which shatters some of the myths relating to magic, and is part of a growing trend of academic study of this topic. It turns out that not only did most of the sages express an opinion on magic , but that dealing with magic was an elitist issue, rather than a foreign influence that penetrated only to the lower classes, as is often believed. Surprising rulings on the subject can be found even in the most fervent opponent to magic, Maimonides.
"I write for them a divorce decree, to all the Lilliths, male and female, appearing before her, to her, Ori the daughter of Maroshita, and to him, Kaki the son of Tziporata, in the dreams of night and in the sleep of day…You will not be revealed to them either in a dream of night or in the slumber of the day, since I rid you of them in a book of divorce and a divorce decree and a bill of release according to the religion of the daughters of Israel, and from this day and forever after, amen amen selah halleluyah – in your name I have done this. Gabriel, Michael and Rafael are signatories of this decree."
How can this be? Does Jewish magic exist? Did our sages practice magic? Did they not know that the Torah forbids magic and even explicitly decreed, "A sorceress will not be permitted to live?" Isn’t magic practiced by "others?" All these questions are raised in Yuval Harari’s book Early Jewish Magic: Research, Method, Sources. Harari recognizes that this issue does not resemble other issues in halakha or Aggada; indeed, just dealing with the topic of magic is certain to cause discomfort and will require particular justification. Thus he writes in his prefatory remarks: "Every time I was asked what I do, there was always someone who remarked, when I replied that I research Jewish magic, "Jewish magic? No such thing; it’s either Jewish or it’s magic." And what of amulets? Segulot? Blessings? Curses? Use of holy names? And dream interpretation? And chanting psalms? And mezuzot? And holy men? And miracle makers? "Well, that’s another issue entirely." (page 2)
The starting point of the research focuses on the question: what, if anything, is Jewish magic? To answer this question, the author travels a long and fascinating journey through the maze of ancient Jewish literature, the charms found in archeological digs, incantation bowls attained from antiquities dealers, magical recipes in books preserved in the Cairo Geniza, sages’ stories about battles with demons, restraining spirits, and much more. This is the first academic book in Hebrew on Jewish magic, and is therefore great tidings not only for researchers, but also for readers who are not experts in Jewish thought (or in magic). At the same time, this study is part of a wider trend of awakening in the academic world to the topic of Jewish magic and the return thereof from the margins to the center.
Until two decades ago, the predominant view was that rabbinic literature is anti-magical at its foundation, and that in its wake most canonical Jewish literature rejected magic. The presence of magic in these texts was explained away as part of the need to deal with common beliefs that had penetrated to the masses from the outside. Take for example the quote Harari brings from Efraim Elimelech Urbach’s book The Sages: "In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud and midrash – with all their recognition that there is none other than God and that therefore there cannot be magic—could not ignore the reality that large portions of the masses believed in and used magic. They [the sages] tried to find a position of compromise." In the same vein, Saul Lieberman writes that "the ignorant masses…acquired the beliefs of their neighbors in matters of magic, astrology and other superstitions, all forbidden by the written and Oral Torah (Greek in Jewish Palestine, page 69).
In recent years a different view has gained momentum — that Jewish magic is not an external influence, but rather part and parcel of Jewish literature and culture, in all its varieties and through the generations. Not only does the literature of the sages testify to a deep interest in magic and magical techniques (including detailed directions on how to expel evil spirits and stories about sages who specialized in this kind of activity), but most of the sages also believed in the power of magic and some – like R. Hayim Vital, R. Yosef Karo, The Baal Shem Tov and others – even actually used it. In fact, those who deny the power of magic, with Maimonides topping this list, are actually in the minority. Today, there is wider recognition that magic was not a commoners’ phenomenon, but rather an elitist one, parts of which, like astrology, were considered a respected science demanding much study.
As its name indicates, the central issue of the book is ancient Jewish magic, from the second temple period to the height of the ancient period and the beginning of the Moslem period. The subject is divided into two clear groups. The first deals with the magical materials themselves: amulets, magical recipes, and the literature of magical methodology. Some of these findings were discovered in various archeological digs; most were found in the Cairo Geniza, where many magical texts were preserved, only a small portion of which have seen publication. In addition to these materials, mostly originating in the land of Israel, a great wealth of Babylonian materials from the height of the ancient period were found: 2000 incantation bowls in Jewish Aramaic (one of them quoted above) scattered in museums or held by antiquities collectors; only a small portion have been published. The importance of the bowls stems not only from the size of the corpus (which is not much smaller than the Talmud in quantity!) and from its thematic richness, but because, aside from the Babylonian Talmud, "it is the only source remaining in our hands from Babylonian Jewry from the period preceding the Moslem invasion." (182)
The second category of materials dealt with by the book is the written literature relating to magic. Here Harari draws a wide picture, beginning from the Second Temple period, to the Qumran scrolls, the Heikhalot literature, Karaite polemic writings, the literature of the Geonim, and concluding with Maimonides – the great opponent to all types of magic. In this context, Harari points to the tension between Maimonides’ beliefs, as expressed in Guide of the Perplexed and his halakhic rulings in the Mishnah Torah. In the former, Maimonides writes: "You must beware of joining the mistake of those who write amulets. Whatever you hear from them, or read in their works, especially about the names that they form by combination, is completely meaningless." (Guide of the Perplexed, chapter 61). In the latter, however, he allows carrying a "tested amulet" on Shabbat, and adds, in the wake of the Talmud: "What is a tested amulet? One that has cured three people."(Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Shabbat 19:14) The complicated attitude to amulets, it turns out, is found even in the most fervent opponent to magic in all Jewish history.
Harari dedicates most of his discussion of the written literature to rabbinic literature, where we find many stories about demons and sorcery, about the evil eye and predictions, and also about dream interpretation. In analyzing these texts, Harari shows how difficult it is to agree with Urbach and Lieberman’s views, quoted above, according to which all appearances of magic represent the sages’ compromise with the trends of the masses. Harari quotes there, among other things, the recipe brought in the Babylonian Talmud (Brachot 6a) for one who wants to see the demons surrounding him: "Take the afterbirth of a black she-cat, the offspring of a black she-cat, the first-born of the first-born, let him roast it in fire and ground it in powder and let him put some in his eye and he will see them."
The first part of the book deals with questions of methodology and a research survey. This section is more professional, and there will probably be those, whose curiosity overcomes them, that will skip right to the second, juicier, section. The first section supplies important background information about the state of the research and those questions of defining magic in general and specifically Jewish magic. Harari demonstrates the enormous difficulty in defining magic, and differentiating between it and other religious phenomena (like prayer or other ritual objects of safeguarding like tefillin or mezuzah). He also demonstrates the difficulty that researchers face in the bias against dealing with magic.
Finally, Harari offers his own definition of Jewish magic in his book, which I will not expand upon here. In an evening held in honor of the book at Machon Ben-Zvi, all the speakers refused to reveal the author’s resolution to defining magic. I will also follow that path and send the inquisitive to find out the solution for themselves.
Ishay Rosen-Zvi is a senior lecturer in the department of Hebrew culture at Tel Aviv University and a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.