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Jewish Magic and Superstition, by Joshua Trachtenberg, [1939], at

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THE characteristic and distinguishing feature of medieval Jewish magic was the function which it assigned to the angels, the agents of God. The magical use of angels was of course predicated upon the assumption that the world is very thickly populated with them, and that they play a unique rôle in nature. The figures vary from a mere few hundred thousand all the way up to 496,000 myriads—and these are only partial estimates.1 We may readily believe this when we learn that every single thing on earth, animate or inanimate, from man through all of creation, birds and beasts, trees and brooks, even to the last blade of grass, owns its angelic representative above. This is the heart of the angel-lore. Houses and cities, winds and seasons, months and hours and days, each star above, each speck of dust underfoot, no thing in nature or in fancy exists independently of its memuneh, its heavenly "deputy" (literally, "appointed one").2 These "deputies" are the agents through whom the universe operates3—in fact, the activities that go on in the world are nothing more than reflections of their acts. "It is a well-known 'mystery' that no nation is destroyed until its celestial 'prince' has first fallen." This belief was coupled with the conception of astrology that each man is accompanied by a star which governs his existence, so that we have sometimes the cumbersome duplication, the angel, or "deputy" of a man's star, both charged with guiding and guarding him, the ultimate responsibility residing with the angel. "Every affair in which a man is engaged here on earth is first indicated up above by the angel of his star."4

These angels are both representatives and defenders of their earthly charges in the heavenly courts, as well as motivators of action below. The "deputy angels" of birds or animals or men who have been wrongly dealt with plead their cause before God and see just punishment meted out to the malefactors. Similarly, the angels who

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preside over "places, stones and wood" are held responsible if a man stumbles and falls because of them. "When the time comes for a righteous man to die, the deputy of the star which is ruling at the moment begs that he may not die just then, for that deputy will be held accountable for his death." If a man's prayers are to be answered, the angel of his star must have first offered them directly before the Throne of Glory. In like manner, good fortune in business results from the intervention of a man's deputy angel, who "enters men's hearts" and induces them to deal with him to his advantage. One must consider the habits of the "deputies" as well as of the demons in rebuilding a house, and be careful not to alter the position of doors and windows, else the wrath of both will descend upon his head. "This is one of those things which, though very similar to the forbidden 'ways of the Amorite,' is nevertheless permitted," we are assured by a thirteenth-century source. A later writer used this warning to account for the fear of inhabiting new homes.5

This idea constitutes the main theoretical basis of medieval Jewish magic. Ubiquitous and all-powerful, the "deputy angels" were the perfect medium through which the sorcerer, when he had acquired the requisite secret knowledge and skill, could influence man and nature to obey him. His charms and operations were intended to bring under his sway the particular "deputies" who could effect his will at the moment. "There are incantations which work on water but not on land, and others, intended for the deputies who preside over the land which have no effect on water." The long lists in such a work as Sefer Raziel are proof of the arduous training that the novice in magic must undergo if he would learn how to direct all the memunim of air, wind, date, time, place, etc., which control a situation at a given moment. Further, since a deputy's province is prescribed by his very nature, the sorcerer must know how to substitute another, better suited to his designs, and thus effect a change in nature itself.6

We have some detailed, if sometimes not too clear, explanations of just how this "deputy" magic worked. In the case of a man who by an incantation had succeeded in discovering the identity and whereabouts of a thief, we are informed, the memuneh who had been invoked disclosed them not by appearing in person to convey the information, but by concentrating on the facts and "mingling" his thought with the thought of the magician. If the identity of the thief was known, but the hiding-place of the booty was not, then it

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might be discovered more directly by invoking the thief's "deputy." The familiar device of fashioning an image of one's enemy out of wax, or of drawing his portrait on a wall, and by piercing it with pins or nails causing him to suffer in a corresponding part of his body, operated along similar lines. The magician's "deputy" transmitted the blow to the victim's angel, who in turn inflicted it upon his human charge; sometimes a third intermediary was introduced into the process, the "deputy" of the image or picture. Desired dreams were induced by the angel in charge of such dreams who had been invoked for this purpose. And so on through the entire repertoire of magic devices, all were consummated through the intermediacy of the angels, or "deputies," who were subjected to the sorcerer's will by his magic art.7

This system was a singular translation of Platonic idealism into the theosophical lingo of the early Kabbalah, though to call it a "system" is to dignify it with an order and logic it made no claim to possess. It took shape through incidental attempts to rationalize on a single plane the effects of nature and magic, on the basis of those philosophical and mystical concepts which were current in medieval Jewish thought; one might say in thirteenth-century German-Jewish thought, for it was during this century and in this locale that the conception was elaborated and attained its greatest popularity. Sefer Ḥasidim and the works of Eleazar of Worms display the influence of this doctrine on almost every page. The unparalleled luxuriousness of invention that characterized thirteenth-century Jewish angelology, sired by this theory, seems at first glance to have been a striking departure from traditional Jewish belief. But a brief review of the development of Jewish angel-lore discloses its thoroughly orthodox mystical antecedents.

Scripture knew the angels as ministers in the celestial court, serving and glorifying God, occasionally acting as messengers and agents to perform His will on earth. The writer of the late book of Daniel was the first to individualize angels and to endow them with names and titles. In the Talmudic period the Biblical angelology was elaborated and enriched in three directions: angelic ministration was frequently inferred in Biblical narratives which made no mention of it, thus broadening the concept of angels as intermediaries between man and God; the personality of the angels was more clearly delineated through an effort to describe them, to name the more important ones, and to accord them peculiar spheres of influence,

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so that we have "princes" of fire, of hail, of rain, of night, of the sea, of healing, and so on; and finally they were appointed man's guardians to accompany him through his daily routine. The Essenes were said to have possessed an especially well-developed angel-lore, and the Enoch literature, reflecting Gnostic sources, had much to say concerning them, and implied their control of nature, man, and the future.8 These two founts of mystical doctrine, while never formally admitted into Jewish thought and in fact frowned upon by rabbinic authorities, exercised a profound influence upon the extramural activities of the mystics. Their expanding doctrine was in no sense systematically organized during this period, and it remained in a fluid, uncoordinated state throughout its succeeding development. But the early literature contained ample seed for a rich later growth, which it experienced in the Geonic period, when a highly esoteric doctrine grew up, portions of which found literary expression in such works as the Hechalot, Otiot de R. Akiba, parts of Sefer Raziel, etc.

Along with this elaboration of angelology went its practical corollary, the utilization of angels in magic. The Talmud, though speaking often of angelic apparitions, knew nothing of the conjuration of angels as distinguished from the conjuration of demons. At most, there appears to have existed during the Talmudic period the practice of calling upon, or praying to the angels, as intermediaries before God, to intercede in a crisis.9 Even Geonic mysticism was reserved on this point, but evidently during this later period, which saw so marked a development of angelology, the Talmudic prayer had been transformed into a magical invocation, as the Aramaic Incantation Texts, published by Montgomery, and such a work as the Sword of Moses, edited by Gaster, indicate. This was the foundation upon which thirteenth-century German-Jewish mysticism built an imposing structure of angel-magic. The earliest reference to angelic "deputies" that I have encountered in rabbinic sources occurs in the late Midrash to Psalms,10 composed probably during the tenth century in Southern Italy. This work undoubtedly embodied much older material, but the absence of this concept in the Talmudic literature, and the fact that eastern Jewish mysticism entered Europe through the south of Italy at about this time, stamp it as a product of Geonic mystical speculation. The expansion of the memuneh doctrine in Germany, where it was introduced by the Kalonymides, into a veritable theosophy, embracing and crowning all the elements of earlier Jewish angelology, was the historically logical consequence

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of the Geonic development. But its emergence and popularization during the thirteenth century must be seen as one phase of the generally heightened superstitious atmosphere of contemporary Europe. The Gnostic-Manichæan heresies that had plagued the Church since the tenth century had sown widely and deeply in Christian circles the seed of ancient mystical lore. Jewish thought could not have been unaffected by such a heightening of mystical sensitiveness in such close proximity; the more so because it was already acquainted with a closely related doctrine. The wave that broke over Christian society inundated the Jewish community as well.


Despite this rich angelology northern Jewry raised few questions as to the origin of the angels, the elements of which they are constituted, their outward appearance—they were simply there, in the heaven above, clustered about the throne of glory, or all about one on earth, performing their heaven-ordained tasks, and no questions asked. The furthest that Eleazar of Worms would go in describing them was to say that they are "tenuous substance, as unsubstantial as the wind, which cannot be seen."11

This conception, however, created certain difficulties of a metaphysical and practical nature. If the angels are pure spirit, how can they be said to achieve the material effects which tradition ascribed to them, and magic demanded of them? Maimonides, the consistent and indomitable rationalist, denied altogether the possibility of the physical apparition of angels as well as the objective reality of the effects attributed to angel-magic, and dismissed them as self-delusion or optical illusions. So uncompromising a view, however, found few adherents. The Spanish philosophers Naḥmanides and Judah Halevi acknowledged the reality of angelic apparitions, but stipulated that they required a special perspicuity of vision on the part of the beholders. In the north of Europe even this last condition was excluded: angels possess the power to assume human (and animal) forms, and to appear in the society of man as completely physical beings, on a par with himself. In fact such transformations were common occurrences, the "prince of a man's star" frequently adopting the shape of his human charge and descending from on high to tread the earth. And if one demands an explanation of the process by which the transmutation of spirit into matter occurs, the

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answer is quite simple: "This is the great 'mystery' by which the holy angels appear on earth as men, or as other creatures, in accordance with God's will or by their own desire: they take some earth from beneath the heavenly pile, clothe themselves in a clod of this earth, and descend to eat and drink with men."12

One characteristic of the angels, in particular, merits attention both because of the frequency with which it was mentioned, and because of its practical consequences for religious and magical rites. Petitions were often addressed to heaven by way of the intervening angels. God, omniscient, comprehends all tongues, but the official language of the celestial court is Hebrew, and unfortunately the angels are monolingual (or, it may be, if they do have knowledge of foreign languages they choose to ignore communications addressed in them.) This principle was advanced in the Talmud, and since Aramaic was the spoken language of the people, the warning against praying in Aramaic was made especially emphatic. Only in the sickroom might one employ other tongues than Hebrew, for there the Shechina, the Presence of God, was believed to hover over the head of the invalid, and received the prayer directly.

This belief persisted in the Middle Ages and was utilized to explain, if weakly, the Aramaic prayers that are to be found in the ritual, and in particular, certain Aramaic lines in the Kaddish: they were couched in this language so that they might be unintelligible to the angels, for their contents were such as might annoy them, or arouse their envy of the superlative piety of the Jews. It was this belief too that made necessary the bestowal of a Hebrew name upon every Jew, in addition to his secular name, and the use exclusively of the Hebrew name in the course of a religious rite, for the angels certainly could not be expected to recognize an individual by any other. Even in the grave this principle still obtained. The Kabbalistic doctrine of Ḥibbut ha-Kever, which was familiar in Northern Europe, envisaged a three-day period, immediately succeeding burial, of interrogations and beatings by the angel of death, during which the deceased must identify himself by his Hebrew name. Woe betide him if it had slipped his memory!13

Of course, this idea met with frequent objections, and the retort of certain medieval commentators to the original statement in the Talmud should have permanently demolished it: "You say that even the thought hidden in a man's heart they know, and yet the Aramaic language is beyond their comprehension!"14 But the sarcasm

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made hardly a dent in the popularity of the notion, and the angels as linguists remained in bad repute. This conception was not limited, however, to the sphere of ritual. In the practice of medieval Jewish magic it assumed more than academic importance. The literature was sometimes written in the vernacular, the directions being given in Aramaic or in Yiddish, but the charm itself, the magical command, when intended for angelic ears, appeared usually in Hebrew. However unorthodox in principle, magic is perhaps the most tradition-bound of cultural forms. The Jewish sorcerer, no matter how far he may have wandered at times from the spirit of official Judaism, could not free himself from those orthodox traditions that bore directly on his technique. If in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century manuscripts the order appears occasionally reversed, the incantations proper being couched in Yiddish, these usually bear the earmarks of direct transference from the German.

Individual angels with peculiarly angelic functions and forms, of a sort, entered intimately into the life of the medieval Jew. The ancient norms remained fixed, except that angels appeared much more frequently in the pages of medieval authors. Their prime function was still the adoration and service of God, but that service brought them into more frequent contact with men.15 "The angels are the messengers of God; He impresses His will upon them and sends them forth to do His bidding," wrote Eleazar of Worms, and he explained that this work keeps them constantly occupied, for so many new tasks continually await them that they must rush to complete the present one. They can do nothing of their own will, he said, but act only upon God's command—a view which, while true to the traditional belief, cannot be reconciled with the part the angels were forced to play in medieval magic, for this implied a considerable degree of independence of God's will. Much closer to the prevailing opinion was the statement found in a Geonic responsum: "There are many acts which angels can perform of their own accord, without a special order from above. Therefore amulets are written and names spoken, to aid the angels in these matters." But when they are acting as messengers of the Lord, they carry out only one mandate at a time. Many of them have specific functions or fields of activity, and the orders which fall within their scope are of course assigned to them.16

God's will opens up to them His entire domain. Medieval Jews believed in an especially vigilant Providence which presided over

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the most intimate and minute details of human life, and which operated through the angels. They carried out the celestial orders and often appeared in human or animal form to exact the required punishment for transgressions of God's law, or, by "mingling" their thought with his, led man to make decisions which might run counter to his previously expressed intentions, and to perform acts out of keeping with his character and will."

Viewed in this light the angels were the mechanism through which God maintained a close contact with His universe. But these angelic intermediaries could carry messages both ways, and the ancient practice of calling upon the angels rather than God directly in prayer became very widespread during this period. Indeed, the whole force of the mystical movement which stressed the secret values hidden in the letters and the words of the liturgy was directed toward bringing into rapport the angels who could most effectively reach the ear of the heavenly court. Finally, the position of the angels in heaven made accessible to them the founts of mystic lore; they were the source of that secret wisdom to which the mystic aspired. To them he turned for inspiration, and if his piety and learning—and sometimes his skill in magic—warranted it, his quest was not unrewarded. The book Raziel is supposed to have been transmitted to Adam by the angel of that name; Eleazar of Worms, who, incidentally, had a hand in the concoction of that work, boasted of his intimacy with various angels; a few centuries later we learn of a Kabbalist, Samson of Ostropol by name, who "was visited daily by an angel who taught him the mysteries of the Torah." Many a great mystic was reputed to have sat at the feet of such celestial mentors.18

Yet we learn little more concerning individual angels than their names and their functions; our authors were not interested in the angel but in his availability for magical ends. Occasionally some information culled from the mystical tradition is passed on, but with an air of pedantic scholarship. Metatron, the demiurge of classical Jewish mysticism, was important only because his name is the mathematical equivalent of Shaddai, one of God's names. Sandalfon is "taller than his comrades by a distance of five hundred years," it is true, but his significance lay in his intimate attendance upon the person of God Himself.19 Dumah, who presides over the realm of the dead, the angels of destruction, others familiar from Talmudic times make their appearance. The Angel of Death retains his especial rôle in human affairs. The archangels still people the pages of

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medieval mystical lore, but their association with the planets obscures whatever individual characters they may have formerly possessed. The Name has swallowed up the Angel.

The position which the angel-deputy occupied in mystical speculation and magical practice made of medieval Jewish angelology so ambiguous and uncertain a field as to present peculiar problems of definition. In theory, of course, the memunim were angels, and as such inherited all the angelic attributes of form and character and function which had been delineated in the ancient literature. In fact, however, it may be questioned whether they were anything more to the medieval Jew than the mere names which served to identify them.

To set them to work the magician must know just which angels were involved in a specific set of conditions—which meant, in effect, that he must know the names of these angels, for the name was the controlling factor. The proliferation of angelic names, which accompanied the practice of medieval Jewish magic, tended to obscure the angelic personality, so that in the end the name itself became the prime consideration. Already during the Geonic period, writes Montgomery, "The angels came to be but plays on roots, invocations of the attributes or activities of deity, so that finally angel was merely synonymous with charm."20 The angel was the theory which explained the practice. The practice itself raises the question: when is an angel more than a mere name? It would be extravagant to assert that the endless procession of angelic names with which Sefer Raziel, for example, regales us had any real relation to the angels themselves, or that it evoked in its medieval readers visions of definite creatures. So far as these unnumbered hosts, often so fantastically denominated, were concerned, the impression gained from a study of the literature is that we are really dealing here with a dual category. The one comprised the true angels as tradition painted them, the other, a vast multitude of mystical names, designated as angels and in theory accepted as such—an angelic host in suspension, so to speak, capable of being precipitated into its individual angelic components—but actually significant only for the mystical powers inherent in the name itself.

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