Early Jewish Magic

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR

By Yuval Hariri

Judaism has a rich tradition of magic going back over two thousand years. But what is magic really intended to do? Jewish magic is based on a belief in human power to affect reality and change it by means of words and rites. In that, it resembles the normative Jewish view, which places prayer rituals at the core of religious worship. Both are rooted in a worldview that acknowledges the creative power of words (“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light”) and their potential to be manipulated by humans. And both ritually use words to turn to supernatural powerful entities in order to attain desired changes in reality.

Until three decades ago, almost no insider, that is, Jewish, sources were known to scholars. Research on this significant facet of Jewish culture relied on mostly hostile outsider sources such the apocrypha, Josephus’ writings and rabbinic literature. But the large and growing number of magic artifacts and texts that have been found and published in recent decades dramatically changed this situation. Evidence from inside Jewish magic practices has become dominant and it is in this light that outsider sources are now re-read and re-interpreted. The ever-increasing interest in magic and esotericism is also well expressed in Jewish studies and dozens of recent articles and books touching upon Jewish magic.

Jewish Magic Before the Rise of Kabbalah

Magic is a practice and its language is performative: words are a form of action. Rather than describing reality, magical speech strives at generating a defined change. But it also is intended to communicate. The Jewish worldview ascribes high significance to various hidden entities in general, and in particular to their influence on human life. Foremost among these is the Lord. Subordinated to Him are the archangels, countless hosts of heavenly angels and other heavenly powers, such as the constellations and planets (once thought of as living entities). On earth, myriads of demons and other maleficent spirits dwell side by side with human society. At the margins exist the deceased. These entities are directly addressed by the magical oaths or adjurations, through which the practitioner tries to gain control over and then to enlist them at his service, or to expel them.

A she-demon bound with chains and surrounded by words of adjuration. Collection of Shlomo Moussaief. Photograph by Matthew Morgenstern.

Detail of demon in magic bowl, bound, chained, and encircled by adjurations. Fifth to seventh century. Collection of Shlomo Moussaief. Photograph by Matthew Morgenstern.

Magic adjurations contain typical phrases and are structured in a typical way. They commonly use the first person (for example: “I adjure you…”) and turn to a certain supernatural entity (or several) with a demand to act immediately and carry out a defined deed regarding a specific person. The demand is typically backed up by a declaration that the order is given “in the name of” a higher and more powerful entity: God himself, archangels, kings of demons, guardians of the deceased’s bones, holy knots and letters and so forth. Holy names of God, various illegible combinations of letters, charactêres (also known as “ring letters”), and other magic signs are thus an integral part of the Jewish written adjuration.

God, however, is generally excluded from the power of human magic. Only rarely do we encounter an attempt to compel him to act. He is, however, involved in two other aspects of Jewish magic discourse. First, God is considered to be the source of magic knowledge and the patron of its use by humans. This is explicitly demonstrated in the 6th-8th century CE (?) recipe book known as The Sword of Moses, which also says that God threatened the angels, declaring those who would dishonor him and ignore the adjurations would be burnt. Second, God is the addressee of the adjuration-prayers that were found in the Cairo Genizah (a Jewish document repository in use from the 9 through the 19th century CE), a genre that combines personal supplication with language typical of magical adjurations.

Pages from a trilingual (Aramaic, Hebrew, and Judeo-Arabic) book of magic recipes from the Cairo Genizah. On the right-hand page are two recipes for delivery difficulties. The top of the page says, “For a dead fetus in his mother’s womb,” and is meant to initiate the abortion of a dead fetus. The bottom of the page reads, “For a woman whose placenta tarries,” and is meant to extract the placenta from the womb after giving birth. On the left-hand page are two recipes related to aggression. The top of the page reads, “For releasing a bound person,” and is meant for releasing a person from a binding spell, apparently from impotence imposed on him by means of a curse. The bottom of the page reads, “For blocking one’s mouth,” and is used to prevent a rival from harming through witchcraft. Cambridge University Library, item T-S K1.91. Used with permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

Carrying out an adjuration was never done carelessly, but followed a well-scripted ritual. Hundreds of magical recipes were found in the Genizah and meticulously detail every aspect of the required ceremonies. The instructions touch upon preliminary ritual preparations (such as purification, abstention from women, meat and hot food, and wearing clean white cloths), the time and place of the rite, the materials and objects to be used throughout out the ceremony and the way to utilize them, the gestures required on part of the practitioner and the way to leave the magical space and to return to normal life.

These recipes always open with a statement of the desired goal or the problem to be solved, drawing a vivid map of human pains and hopes, grief and desires, fears and aspirations. They also attest to the professional self-perception of the practitioners, who surprisingly (or maybe not) appear to be highly pragmatic. Fantasies of the sort found in A Thousand and One Nights or Harry Potter are absent. Magical aspirations are commonly limited to objectives that can also be achieved without the proposed rituals, such as healing of body and life (especially from demons), protection from rivals, gaining grace and favor, love and sex, attaining social, military and economic success, harming enemies, improving study and memory, and receiving a message in a dream.

Whereas magic recipes attest the professional horizon of ancient magicians and the broad range of ritual solutions they could offer to their communities, the objects themselves are evidence of their techniques. These can be broadly split into two main groups: Babylonian incantation bowls, and metal (and rarely also clay) amulets from Palestine and its vicinity. Both types of objects, dated mainly to the 5th-7th centuries CE, were almost exclusively designed to heal and protect their beneficiaries from demonic interference with their bodies and live. Other goals, including cursing, imposing love on a woman, and subduing a certain community, are also mentioned.

Incantation bowl. This long adjuration, written in a spiral pattern, is accompanied by two circle lines (a visual element typical of bowls), in the center and along the rim. Remains of tar on the rim indicate that this bowl was one of a pair that had been sealed together facing each other. Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin, item VA 2416. Photograph by Yuval Harari.

Parts of two magic skulls covered with spells from Mesopotamia, probably Fifth to seventh century. Vorderasiatisches Museum, item VA 2458. Photograph by Yuval Harari.

An amulet for the healing of ’Ina, daughter of Ze‘irti. The (Aramaic) adjuration was engraved on a silver sheet measuring 4 cm × 11 cm, which was then rolled and put into a small copper container. The amulet was found in a tomb near Tiberias, and it was probably produced in the fourth to sixth century. Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Photograph by Gaby Laron.

The Genizah amulets (mostly from the 11th-13th centuries CE) expand the picture and show love, marriage, economic success, dream inquiry, protection from and harm to rivals were also common. The texts on both the bowls and the amulets show that they were prepared for a certain client, mentioned by his or her name and mother’s name, in order to bring upon a concrete and defined result. The two types of artifacts reflect a shared ideology and culture as well as relations with foreign practices.

Trilingual (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Judeo-Arabic) curse for “uprooting, chasing away, crushing, destroying, annihilating, Ali son of Nuḥ.” Found in the Cairo Genizah. Cambridge University Library, item T-S K1.42. Used with permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

The top of the page says, “Sending out re,” and is meant to harm a person. The bottom reads, “For grace and for governing,” which is used for gaining grace and favor in the eyes of others and for gaining control over them. Cambridge University Library, item T-S K1.117 (2r). Used with permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

A Cairo Genizah amulet for safeguard and protection “for the bearer of this writing.” The adjuration opens with a combination of charactêres (magic signs) and holy names and concludes with scriptural verses (Deuteronomy 32:39, 7:15; Exodus 15:26). Cambridge University Library, item T-S K1.137. Used with permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

Ancient literature of Jewish magic spread in medieval Jewish communities and its practice continued to expand and to develop in Europe, Byzantine and the Arab world. In the process it absorbed and appropriated practical elements from the neighboring Muslim and Christian cultures. Magic has also made its way to the modern era almost unaffected by the rise of the Kabbalah. In spite of its new title – “practical Kabbalah” (that is, the practical counterpart or theosophical Kabbalah) – traces of kabbalistic ideology, terminology, or ceremonial and visual patterns, can hardly be detected in medieval and early modern magic manuscripts or in printed books of adjurations, amulets, charms and healings (hashbaʻot, qemeʻot, segulot and refu’ot). Many of these books remained attractive to our day. They have been printed time and again in Israel during the twentieth century and are still in demand. Kabbalists and charms writers are also still active in Israel and serve a varied community of believers who wish to heal their bodies and to improve their life by means of ritual power. They have to compete, however, not only with modern physicians and psychologists but also with the increasing popularity of New Age agents of hidden knowledge and power.

Yuval Harari teaches at the Department of Jewish Thought and is Head of the Program of Folklore Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He is the author of Jewish Magic before the Rise of Kabbalah.


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