ancient Jewish magic

INTRODUCTION

The phrase “Jewish magic” might sound like an oxymoron, but Jews have been practicing magic since ancient times, dating back to the period of the First Temple (10th century BCE-587 BCE).

Before we delve deeper into the discussion of Judaism, magic, and how the two intersect, it’s important to get a couple of definitions out of the way.

Judaism, translating, quite literally, to “Jew-hood” or “the state of being Jewish,” is the compilation of the spiritual beliefs, traditions, practices, and laws of the Jewish tribe. It’s important, for example, to understand that Judaism long predates the concept of “religion.” Even the word “Judaism” does not appear in the Torah or Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”), but instead, was conceived much later, not by Jews, but by the Greeks.

After Jews were forcibly displaced from our homeland, Judaism became a “vehicle” for us to remain connected to the tribal practices, traditions, land, and beliefs of our ancestors.

The word magic describes ritual power, including incantations, rituals, symbols, materials, or formulas that are meant to influence events or other entities.

 

IN ANTIQUITY

In Judaism, the power of magic has always been secondary to the power of G-d. Nevertheless, there are multiple documents attesting to the use of magic during the First and Second Temple periods (10th century BCE-first century CE).

The Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the oldest Jewish texts, document various spells and incantations.

The Sefer HaRazim, translating to the “Book of Secrets,” is perhaps the most famous Jewish magic text. According to Jewish tradition, it was gifted to Noah by the angel Raziel before Noah entered the Ark. The Sefer HaRazim outlines the names of the angels in the seven heavens, incantations, instructions for dream interpretations, healing, fortune-telling, how to speak to the moon and the stars, and how to triumph over enemies.

Such ancient spells were also later documented in the Cairo Genizah, a collection of 40,000 Jewish texts dating back to the year 870.

Ancient Jewish magic was passed down via oral tradition.

 

PROTECTIVE VS OFFENSIVE

Prior to the dispersion of the Jewish Diaspora following the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE), ancient Jewish magic could be divided into two strains:

(1) Eastern Jewish magic was magic practiced in the tradition of the Land of Israel, with some cultural influences coming from Mesopotamia.

(2) Western Jewish magic was influenced by various groups Jews came into contact with, usually through trade or their conquest of the Land of Israel. Some of this foreign influence came from the Egyptians, the Greeks, and, later on, the Romans.

Notably, ancient Jewish magic was defensive (i.e. protective), rather than offensive, unlike Greek or Roman magic, which was generally offensive. Jewish spells were meant to protect from demons, ghosts, spirits, and other supernatural beings. Whether knowingly or not, Jews continue to practice defensive magic to this day through the usage of protective amulets, such as the hamsa or the evil eye.

While there is much historical speculation regarding the origin of the hamsa (the open palm-shaped amulet), a popular theory is that it originated among Canaanite cultures, such as the Phoenicians. Archaeologically and linguistically-speaking, the Hebrews, as you’ll recall from some of my other posts, emerged from Canaanite tribes.

It’s likely that Jews were the first group to utilize the hamsa as a protective amulet.

 

EVIL EYE

The Jewish belief in the “ayin ha’rah” (evil eye) — the idea that one can bewitch or harm someone merely by looking at them — goes back to ancient times. The “ayin ha’rah” can also refer to evil inclinations or envy.

This belief is not just a folk superstition, but it’s also addressed in ancient Jewish texts, such as the Midrash and the Talmud. According to rabbinic interpretation, the evil eye can also be found in the Torah.

To protect ourselves from the evil eye, Jews can wear eye amulets or hamsa amulets. Though most often associated with Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry, the usage of these amulets likely predates the Diaspora.

After Sepharadim were expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497, respectively, they took the hamsa with them to North Africa and elsewhere for protection.

During the period of the Byzantine Empire and the Medieval period, Ashkenazi Jewry also wore the hamsa. According to historian Shalom Sabar, Kohanim (i.e. the Jewish priestly class) continued to wear the hamsa in Europe until much later, “as a distinctive sign of the priesthood, especially when they wished to show that a person was of priestly descent (Kohen)…”

However, because of the instability of Jewish life in Europe due to relentless persecution, expulsion, massacres, and more, its use among Ashkenazim declined, until recent decades. Today the hamsa is often associated with the Jewish practice of Kabbalah.

Another Jewish method of protection against the evil eye is spitting three times after uttering the name of a vulnerable person, or saying “let it be without the evil eye” (“bli ayin ha’rah” in Hebrew or “kinehora” in Yiddish. “Kinehora” is a contraction of “kayn ayin ha’rah”).

 

DEMONS & SPIRITS

A plethora of Jewish demons and spirits are mentioned in ancient sacred Jewish texts, as well as in Jewish folklore from across the Diaspora. It would be impossible to outline them all in a single slide, but if you’re interested, my book “The Witches of Escazú and Other Jewish Fairytales” includes a glossary describing these entities.

We can protect ourselves from these demons and spirits in a variety of ways. Sometimes, we can utter specific incantations to keep them away, as is the case with Bar Shirika Panda, the Jewish bathroom demon (yes, it’s not just a Roots joke! It truly exists).

Many common Jewish traditions also have multiple meanings. Sometimes, these traditions are meant to protect us from demons and spirits. For example, it’s customary during Jewish weddings for the groom to step on a glass at the end of the ceremony. The reasoning most associated with this tradition is that we do it to remember the destruction of the Temple even in our moments of joy. However, the breaking of the glass also scares away evil spirits that try to spoil the happy occasion.

 

KABBALAH

Today Kabbalah is the practice most often associated with Jewish magic. Kabbalah is the sacred practice of the mystical interpretations of the Torah. Though the origins of Kabbalah are so ancient that the practice is thought to predate world religions, it reached its peak in the 12th and 13th centuries, as a response to the great rationalism of Maimonides, the famous Jewish philosopher and Torah scholar who was highly critical of magic.

Kabbalah is divided into three branches: (1) theosophical, (2) ecstatic/prophetic, and (3) practical. The practical branch of Kabbalah is thought to explain the mystical values of Hebrew letters and uses formulas, such as meditation and incantations (i.e. name recitation), to find closeness with G-d.

The Zohar is the foundational text (or rather, collection of texts) of the practice of Kabbalah. It was first published in the 13th century by a Sephardic Jewish writer named Moses de Leon, who attributed the texts to Shimon bar Yochai (also known as Rashbi), a sage who lived during the period of the Siege of Jerusalem (70 CE). According to legend, Rashbi hid in a cave for thirteen years after the destruction of the Second Temple, where he wrote the Zohar after receiving inspiration from the Prophet Elijah.

Kabbalah is considered so sacred and complex that Jewish tradition dictates one must not start studying it until reaching the age of 40. Though often appropriated by Christians and New Ageists, Kabbalah is a closed Jewish practice.

 

ASTROLOGY

Astrology is not often associated with Judaism, and many rabbis across all movements warn against it. Nevertheless, astrology is not considered “idol worship,” and there is a rich Jewish tradition relating to stars and constellations. It’s likely that the Hebrew phrase “mazal tov” — translating to “good luck” but meaning “congratulations” — has its origins in ancient Jewish beliefs in astrology.

There are multiple passages in the Torah and Talmud that make reference to constellations providing both good luck and misfortune.

It’s well-understood that Jews practiced astrology during the Babylonian period (587 BCE-539 BCE). In the Dark Ages, Jews living in Muslim-majority lands wrote countless books on astrology and astronomy. Jews in the Middle Ages widely considered astrology a “true science,” though some, such as Maimonides, strongly opposed the practice, considering it superstitious, dangerous, and secondary to the power of G-d. Some Jews in Medieval times even served as court astrologers for kings in Europe.

There is a Kabbalistic practice of astrology, known as “mazalot.” It can be used to document and interpret a person’s birth chart to understand it through a Kabbalistic lens. Kabbalistic astrology differs from mainstream astrology in a variety of ways; for example, in addition to being a Jewish closed practice, Kabbalistic astrologers observe the planets not to see how they influence daily activities, but instead, to understand how they relate to each sephira (“emanations”) in the Tree of Life.

In Leviticus, the Torah arguably forbids some practices of astrology: “You shall not practice divination or soothsaying” (Leviticus 19:26). However, “mazalot” comes up twice in the Tanakh, and specific constellations, such as Orion, are mentioned.

 

OPPOSITION

As long as Jewish magic has existed, so has opposition to it.

The Torah itself makes the distinction between two kinds of magic: the kind of magic that comes from G-d, and the kind of magic that comes from sorcery. In Devarim (Deuteronomy), there is a long list of prohibited magic practices.

In the Torah, supernatural abilities and powers that come from G-d are celebrated, while those that come from sorcery are considered nefarious and dangerous.

Jewish rationalists in the Middle Ages were critical and weary of magic but seemed to believe in it to some extent. Even Maimonides, for example, believed in astrology, though he warned that it was dangerous.

During the Enlightenment and the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), Jewish belief in magic, particularly in Europe, waned. However, it was still practiced, especially among Sepharadim and Mizrahim, and continues to be practiced to this day.

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