Judaism & witches

 

JEWISH VIEWS ON WITCHES

Historically Christian society has regarded witches as demonic (and, perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the nefarious characteristics attributed to witches, such as eating children, sound suspiciously similar to antisemitic tropes like blood libel). In recent times, a lot of secular society has come to celebrate witches and witchcraft. So what is the Jewish opinion on the matter?

If you are familiar with anything Jewish, it will come as no surprise that the Jewish perspective on witches and witchcraft has never been monolithic. It has varied significantly over time and geographical location. And unlike their Christian neighbors, Jews have held a more nuanced view.


BIBLICAL TIMES

In the Tanakh, witchcraft is practiced by both men and women. Unlike the mainstream depiction of witches as women living in the margins of society, witches in the Tanakh are depicted as having a tremendous amount of power. Queen Jezebel, for example, is a witch. Wizards work for Egyptian and Babylonian kings. Because witchcraft is associated with idol worship, the attitudes are highly negative.

The Torah distinguishes between two types of magic: power that comes from G-d, which is celebrated, and power that comes from sorcery, which is frowned upon.

As far as the specific practices of witchcraft, the Tanakh mostly stays silent on the subject.



TALMUDIC PERIOD  

Unlike the Biblical period, during which witchcraft was associated with both men and women practitioners, Talmudic rabbis associated witchcraft with women, so much so that it was assumed their own wives all practiced some degree of witchcraft. However, men, including some rabbis, were still considered capable of engaging in witchcraft by way of reciting incantations, engaging in healing rituals, and concocting potions.

While witchcraft was mostly considered malevolent (for example, witches were accused of causing infertility and cursing rivals), other forms of sorcery were considered acceptable and even positive, such as the use of evil eye amulets to ward off the evil eye and healing rituals.

In many cases witches were considered to be the source of the evil eye. Other forms of witchcraft were more neutral, such as using one’s hand to stir a boiling pot.



THE WITCH OF ENDOR

The most famous witch in the Torah is known as the Witch of Endor (called the Woman of Endor in Biblical literature). In the Torah narrative, King Saul, the first king of the United Kingdom of Israel (1047-930 BCE), calls a Canaanite witch, known as the Woman of Endor, to summon the spirit of Samuel to receive advice on how to defeat the Philistines in battle.

While she summons the spirit of Samuel, his ghost terrifies the witch, and she later admonishes King Saul for disobeying G-d. The witch predicts Saul’s downfall. The next day, just as she predicted, Saul is wounded in battle. The witch comforts him and feeds him before he ends up killing himself with his own sword.

The Woman of Endor is anonymous, though in 11th century Jewish literature she is identified as the mother of Abner.



PERSECUTION

Though sometimes they were viewed negatively, Jews didn’t persecute witches, unlike their Christian counterparts.

Jews, however, were historically persecuted by Christians during the witch hunts. In fact, during the European witch craze between the 14th and 17th centuries, witches and Jews — particularly Jewish women — were persecuted interchangeably. That is not to say that non-Jewish women weren’t persecuted — they were (most notably, Roma women were persecuted as well) — but it’s important to understand that the persecution of “witches” was deeply intertwined with the persecution of Jews.

Witches were “identified” using the same criteria that had been used to demonize Jews for centuries: an association with the devil, as well as the use of strange rituals, incantations, and potions. In some parts of Europe, when a woman was identified as a witch, their punishment was to stand dressed as a Jew in public.

 

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