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

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THE line that separates magic from religion is exceedingly tenuous, and the magician is never loath to step across it to appropriate for his own purposes purely religious objects and beliefs. Or perhaps I should put it the other way ’round—certain religious elements acquire in time an aura of sacredness and power which clothes them, in the eyes of superstitious people, with magical properties, and they thus offer themselves spontaneously to the sorcerer. In practice, the process involves not so much a deliberate act of appropriation on the part of the magician, who is himself a member of the religious group, as it does a utilization of those tools that lie at hand. The superstitious belief must exist in the mind of the people before it can be put to magical use. We have seen how the spirits, and even God, came to serve the magician. But the best illustration of this process is the rôle which sacred Scriptures play in magic the world over.

Today we may treasure Bibles for the profound religious and moral truths they reveal; historically, however, their virtue has consisted primarily in their divine origin. Scripture is sacred not only for the wisdom it teaches, but even more for its close association with the person of the deity who revealed it. It speaks in the voice of God, and therefore says more than one who runs may read. It possesses something of the personality and attributes of deity. And so there grow up schools of mystical and esoteric exegesis which profess to discover the hidden inner significance of the Word. And it is more than it appears to be: not only is it the word of the Lord, it is the Lord himself, an emanation from His being, a particle of His essence. God has revealed Himself to man, and by so doing has in a measure placed Himself within man's reach, to be aspired to as Ideal, to be prostituted as Power. Many men have searched earnestly

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and devoutly in Scripture for a vision of eternal truth. But many, many more have been content to capitalize Scripture for professional ends. Priest and magician, and the credulous masses upon whom they imposed, have been equally guilty of using the word of God for personal profit and power.

The Vedas among the Hindus, the Avesta and the Tao-Teh-King, Homer at the hand of the Greeks, the Old and New Testaments in Christian lands, the Koran in Mohammedan—for some men they have been storehouses of wisdom—for the masses, to whom through many centuries their contents were directly unknowable, they have been rather sacred works regarded as much with superstitious awe as with reverence, used as often for magical as for religious ends. Illiteracy, an obscurantist clergy which sought to make these books its private property, the position of the books in the ritual, often itself semi-magical, the mystical haze thrown around them, and, most of all, the superstitious credulity of the people—these factors combined to make of such scriptures tools in the hand of the magician as well as of the priest. The Bible, though perhaps better known to the Jewish masses in post-Biblical times than these other works have been to their own peoples, was similarly impressed into magical service. The very intensity of Jewish study of the Bible, and the centrality in Judaism of the doctrine of direct revelation, facilitated the subjection of this book to the fate of the others. It was drawn upon extensively for the formation of the cryptic names which constituted the heart of magical activity. In its totality, as well as in its major and minor divisions, its books and chapters and verses, it was directly employed in the magical science.

The Sefer Torah, the Scroll of the Torah, was a holy object, which must be treated with respect and veneration. A body of rules was developed regulating one's conduct in its presence: one must not lean on it, place anything upon it, touch it with unclean hands, kiss it immediately after kissing wife or child, have intercourse in its presence—admonitions which perhaps indicate also a measure of fear of the power of the book to retaliate and punish disrespect, a vestige of ancient taboo. But when an infant was ill and could not sleep, or a woman was convulsed in labor pains, the Scroll was brought in and laid upon the sufferer to alleviate the pain. Of course the religionists clamored against such impiety; some were willing to permit such practices only in case a life was in danger; others permitted the Scroll to be brought only to the entrance of the chamber

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in which a parturient woman lay "that the merit of the Torah may protect her," but not as a magical healing-device—and by such concessions acquiesced in popular superstition. Some there were who forbade these practices altogether: "It is not enough to brand people who do this as sorcerers and conjurers; they pervert the fundamental principle of Torah in making it a healing for the body when it is intended only for a healing of the soul." But such voices did not carry far. The curious womb-exhortation illustrates the popular attitude toward the Bible: "Baermutter [womb] lie down! With these words I adjure thee, with nine Torahs, with nine pure Sefer Torahs!"1

The report that the book of Leviticus was placed under the head of an infant in its cradle is too reminiscent of the above-mentioned use of the Torah, and of the prescription of a Latin physician of the third century that the fourth book of Homer's Iliad be placed under a patient's head to cure him of the quartan ague, to credit the explanation that this was done solely because the child's education would commence with a study of Leviticus. The Kabbalists made quite a to-do over certain portions of the Pentateuch to which they attributed a very deep mystical significance. Whoever reads the chapter about the manna (Ex. 16) daily will be insured against lack of food; a daily perusal of the verses which describe the composition of the incense (Ex. 30:34-38), with proper concentration on their esoteric meaning—"if people knew how important these verses are they would cherish each letter as though it were a crown of gold upon their head"—protects man against magic and evil spirits and plagues, even postpones death by warding off the attack of the Angel of Death. Most efficacious of all, in this respect, were the portions of the Torah which describe the sacrificial offerings; regular study of them in their mystical sense, which constitutes an effective substitute for the actual sacrifices, produces wondrous rewards.'

The words of holy writ were the most potent charms against the forces of evil. Upon all critical occasions, when spirit attacks were feared, such as prior to a funeral, or the night before circumcision (the Wachnacht), or indeed all the eight nights after birth, or the nights of holydays which are momentous for the fate of the individual, such as Yom Kippur and Hoshana Rabbah, studying the Bible and other holy writings was a common prophylactic. "As soon as a man has ceased his preoccupation with the words of Torah Satan has permission to attack"; this was the general principle.'

The use of "words of Torah" for specific magical purposes goes

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back to a hoary antiquity. The injunction of Deut. 6:9, "And thou shalt write them upon the doorposts of thy house and upon thy gates," whether originally meant altogether literally or not, was so understood, and the mezuzah from earliest times until today has been looked upon as an amulet to protect the home against demons. The utility of Biblical verses as charms was not unknown in the Talmudic period. If one dreamt of a stream, he was advised to recite Is. 66:12, "I will extend peace to her like a river" immediately upon waking, lest the words "distress will come in like a flood" (Is. 59:19) occur to him first; Ps. 29:3-10, containing seven references to "the voice of God," was suggested to protect one who must drink water on a night when the evil spirits are particularly active; the words of Nu. 23:22-23, beginning with "El" (God) and ending with "El," ward off the ill effect that results from a dog or a woman passing between two men. A sixteenth-century authority, R. Ḥayim b. Beẓalel, attempted to negate the obvious sense of such devices: "The Talmud advises us," he wrote, "that when a man recites the sentences beginning and ending with 'El' he cannot be harmed by any enchantment or sorcery; the point of this is that the man who believes wholeheartedly that God is first and last and besides Him there is no other god is certainly impervious to such harm." With due deference to the worthy and pious intention of this writer, the point is that the mere recital of these words has the indicated effect.4

In Talmudic times Biblical verses were often employed to heal wounds and diseases, despite rabbinic opposition to this practice. Even stronger was the prohibition against expectorating in the course of such a charm—spitting is a universally recognized magical act, and the authorities sought at least to eliminate this most objectionable feature; it was an act of irreverence unworthy of the Jew, they explained, avoiding the true reason. In later centuries this prohibition was drawn to a fine point, to get around its common transgression. It was limited to those verses in which the name of God occurs, and further "this is forbidden only when the verse is recited after expectorating, for it makes it appear that the name of God has been coupled with that act, and only when the charm is couched in Hebrew. If the name of God is uttered in another tongue, this prohibition does not apply at all." Even the effort to prevent such practices on the Sabbath was unsuccessful. Human need overrode the law, and in cases of serious illness the rabbis consented to be deaf and blind. In such matters law beats futilely against the iron

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wall of mass will; official Judaism was obliged to bow to popular superstition and accept practices which it would gladly have seen destroyed. These concessions are a tribute to the deep-rooted persistence of superstitious ways of thought and action.

One rabbi of the Talmud had gone so far as expressly to forbid all such medicinal use of the Bible; "It is forbidden to heal by words of Torah," he insisted, "though it is permitted to use them for protection." His prohibition was disregarded, as we have seen; his permission recognized an ineluctable state of affairs which persisted throughout the centuries. Biblical verses were recited to ward off all sorts of dangers, imagined or real, danger from demons or snakes, from robbers and from "acts of God." Sabbath or week-day, the Bible performed functions for which its inspired creators had never intended it.5

One other purpose for which Biblical texts were employed was that of divination, which again is paralleled by similar usages among other peoples. I shall have more to say on this subject in a later chapter devoted to the divinatory arts.


The verses chosen for magical use were of two sorts: those which because they contained the name of God or spoke of His power and His mighty deeds, had come to be regarded as themselves possessed of power; and those which seemed to have a more or less direct bearing (allowing for mystical interpretations) upon the immediate situation in which they were to be employed. Examples of both these may be discerned in the instances cited above from the Talmud. In ancient times these verses were used directly and simply, as themselves imbued with occult force, to effect the desired result. But the Middle Ages departed from traditional usage; now the names that were hidden in each sentence of the Bible were responsible for the magic powers. Here again we find the effect of that sophistication which we noted in connection with the merging of the magic word into the magic name. We have seen how these names were pried out of the text and used independently. The texts were also employed, but rarely without the instruction, "Recite this verse with its name . . ." or the note, "the name that comes from these words is . . ." and the implication that were it not for this name the utterance of the verse would have no effect.6

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The book Shimmush Tehillim, "The (Magical) Use of the Psalms," the most popular work on this subject, opens with the words, "The entire Torah is composed of the names of God, and in consequence it has the property of saving and protecting man." This little work—frequently reprinted in pocket size, and translated into several European languages—achieved the distinction of being placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum of the Catholic Church. The Psalms, in general, were very highly regarded for their potency, as well as for their beauty and religious fervor. Tehillim were read upon all critical occasions in the life of the people or of the individual; the entire book of Psalms was read through each week as a part of the ritual. In fact, a late work has it that this weekly recital constitutes the most effective protection of a community against harm. This same work reports a tradition that when a city is endangered it may be saved by reciting in order all those Psalms whose initial letters spell out the name of the city. Shimmush Tehillim is a medieval compilation of the uses to which individual psalms and verses may be effectively put; it promises the satisfaction of an extended miscellany of physical and psychic desires and needs, and sheds an interesting sidelight upon the life of the medieval Jew, and the hazards to which he was exposed. Grunwald has listed these "uses of the Psalms" in the Jewish Encyclopedia (III, pp. 203-4); I may mention a few of them here: prevention and cure of all sorts of ailments, protection against dangers, especially attack by evil spirits, highwaymen, and wild animals, to find favor with the authorities, against imprisonment, against compulsory baptism, and to escape arrest by the night watchman!7

Other portions of the Bible were also extensively drawn upon for similar purposes. The magical literature is replete with directions for the use of such quotations. Grunwald has published selections from manuscripts in German-Jewish folklore periodicals, and utilized some in his above-mentioned compilation for the Jewish Encyclopedia. As an illustration of this type of material I shall list here the prescriptions found in a fourteenth-century manuscript work, Sefer Gematriaot,8 which, true to its title, consists of mathematical speculations and permutations on the text of the Bible, but is yet strikingly similar to Shimmush Tehillim in its listing of the magical uses of Biblical verses and the stress it lays upon the name which gives each verse or group of verses its peculiar virtue.

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For a newly circumcised infant: Gen. 48:20

For protection at night: Gen. 49:18

To drive off demons and evil spirits (should be recited immediately before retiring, or over an infant's cradle): Nu. 6:24-27; Deut. 32:10-12

To counteract magic: Ex. 22:17 and Is. 41:24; Lev. 1:1; Nu. 23:21-23; ten verses which begin and end with the letter nun, in the following order: Lev. 13:9, Nu. 32:32, Deut. 1.8:15, Cant. 4: 11, Prov. 7:17, Prov. 20:27, I Chr. 12:2, Jer. 50:8, Ps. 78:12, Ps. 77:21

To win favor: Gen. 46:17 and Nu. 26:46; Cant. 6:4-9

To gain a "good name": Cant. 1:15-16

To win credence in a dispute: Deut. 32:1-2

To have one's prayer answered: Ex. 34:6-7; Ex. 15:2

For a sweet voice: Ex. 15:1; Cant. 1:1

To strengthen the voice: Gen. 44:18

For the leader of prayer: Cant. 6:10-7:11

To arouse love: Cant. 1:3

At a betrothal: Cant. 4:1-5:2

For a newly married couple: Gen. 27:28; Nu. 24:5-7; Cant. 3:9-11

To maintain peace between man and wife: Cant. 8:5

To cure sterility: Deut. 7:12

To halt menstrual flow: Lev. 15:28

For a fever: Nu. 12:13; Deut. 7:15

For consumption: Lev. 5:19

For success: Gen. 39: 2; Ex. 15:11

For profitable trade: Gen. 31:42; 44:I 2

To fatten fowl: Deut. 22:6 and Is. 10:14

To make flocks thrive: Gen. 32:15 and Prov. 27:26-27

On beginning a piece of work: Ex. 36:8

On entering a new home: Gen. 37:1; 47:27; Ex. 40:2

For safety on a journey: Ex. 15:13; Nu. 10:35-36; Cant. 7:12

To be saved from an impending danger: Ex. 6:6-7

In a time of trouble: Cant. 2:14; 5:2

Against an enemy: Ex. 15:5; 15:6; 15:9; 15:19; Deut. 22:6, Is. 10:14 and Prov. 1:17

To cause an enemy to die: Nu. 14-37

To be invisible: Gen. 19:11

To cause an enemy to drown: Ex. 15:70

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To be victorious in war: Ex. 15:3; Deut. 21:10

To cause the strength of an opposing army to wither away: Deut. 4:24

Against pursuers: Ex. 15:4

Against wild beasts: Deut. 18:13

Against a highwayman: Ex. 15:14

Against robbers: Ex. 15:15; Deut. 11:25; Cant. 2: 15; Gen. 32:2-3

Against slander: Ex. 15:7

To cause a man who has sworn falsely to die within a year: Ex. 15:12

To calm a raging river: Ex. 15:8

To dissipate a mirage or a hallucination: Ex. 15:16

For intelligence: Deut. 33:3-4

For good health after a fast: Lev. 26:42

To cause a curse to take effect: Lev. 27:29

For dream divination: Deut. 29:28; Cant. 1:7

Against the evil eye: Nu. 21:17-20

It will be instructive to examine some of these citations and see why they were chosen for their appointed tasks. The first and second, "And he blessed them that day" (Gen. 48:20) and "I wait for Thy salvation, O Lord" (Gen. 49:18) were obviously selected for the pious sentiment they express, and for their appropriateness. "Thou shalt not suffer a sorceress to live" (Ex. 22:17) suggested itself immediately as powerful counter-magic; reciting the three Hebrew words which comprise this verse in their six possible permutations, as the author proposes, and adding the words of Is. 41:24, "Behold, ye are nothing, and your work a thing of nought; an abomination is he that chooseth you," makes this a potent prophylactic against sorcery. The next verse suggested as counter-magical, Lev. 1:1, "And the Lord called unto Moses and spoke unto him out of the tent of meeting, saying," seems in itself to be altogether inappropriate for this purpose. But it is the opening verse of the Levitical code, the book devoted to rules of ritual cleanliness and sacrifice, and as such possesses the character of the entire book. In addition, it was to be read in its usual order, then each word was to be read backwards, and finally the entire verse was to be read backwards, these last two versions constituting mystical names. To cite another example, Ex. 6:6-7, which was to be recited in moments of danger, contains four "names," which are the Hebrew words translated

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[paragraph continues] "I will bring you out," "I will redeem you," "I will deliver you," "I will take you to Me"—what better choice could be made for such a purpose? Most of the verses are similarly suggestive of their possible uses. The "Song at the Sea" (Ex. 15) and the "Song of Songs" were especially favored in the above list, and for good reasons as the reader will see if he checks up some of the citations. "yhvh is a man of war, yhvh is His name" (Ex. 15:3), prescribed for victory in war, does not in itself promise such a result, but its emphasis on the name of the Lord and His warlike character rendered it a means of aligning God on the side of the reciter. Not all, however, are so obvious. Lev. 26:42, to be recited after a fast, was chosen because it contains sixty letters—but the manuscript does not tell us what the connection is (perhaps the "threescore mighty men" of Cant. 3:7). Why verses which begin and end with nun are counter-magical (these verses in themselves have no connection with the subject) is also not clear. Lev. 5:19, for consumption, was selected for the obscure names that were derived from it, rather than for any direct connection between the text and its use. Deut. 7:12, for sterility, again is more important for its name ‘Akriel, angel of "barrenness," than for its simple sense, though the word berit, which occurs in this verse, is often understood to refer to the genitalia. And so it goes.

The manner of employing these quotations varied. Most often they were recited as they are to be found in the Bible, with the addition of the mystical names. Sometimes, as we have observed, the recital was complicated by reversing the usual order, or transposing words, or repeating them a given number of times. The words might be "whispered" over a cup of water, or written down and dissolved in a liquid, which was then drunk, or worn on the person in the form of an amulet, or traced on the skin of an apple and then eaten, etc. In other words, every device known to magic which was calculated to cause a certain effect to occur upon or within an individual, was called into play to bring out the occult forces inherent in the verses of the Bible.9

The most popular selection from the Bible thus used was the so-called Shir shel Pega‘im, commonly interpreted the "anti-demonic psalm." The Talmud, in which this title was first employed, records variant opinions as to just which Psalm it designated, with the honors divided between Ps. 3 and Ps. 91. The latter was preferred by the weight of tradition, and during the Middle Ages Ps. 91 was

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employed at every opportunity, as well as at certain stated times, to obviate the ever-present danger from the evil spirits. Possibly as a result of a statement by Rashi the Shir shel Pega‘im came to be denoted by the opening words of the final verse of Ps. 90 (Vayehi No‘am), whether because Ps. 91 began with this sentence at that time, as indeed it does in several old manuscripts, or because the two were read in conjunction. This selection was officially accepted by Jewish authorities as the charm par excellence "to protect man against demons; nor is this usage to be included in the forbidden category of magical cures"; and it was inserted in the liturgy to serve this purpose. The traditional explanation of its effectiveness was twofold: it contains mystical names of God; it comprises 130 words (the final verse was repeated to make up the total), corresponding with the 130 years during which Adam had relations with demons while he was separated from Eve. We need not seek so far for an explanation, however; the plain sense of the psalm indicates such an obvious employment. It was recited nightly before retiring, to keep the demons from disturbing one's rest, and such famous rabbinic authorities as Meir of Rothenburg and Jacob Weil made it a point to speak these lines even before taking a nap during the day. It appeared frequently in magical formulas intended to drive off demons and to counteract magic, and was recited at funerals, when the spirits were unusually active, and upon all other such critical occasions.10

Such employment did not exhaust the potentialities of the psalm. Because the letter zayin is not to be found in it, it was believed to serve as a protection against all weapons (also zayin in Hebrew—puns were often turned to magical use), and itself to serve in place of a weapon when one was needed. A magical recipe to gain release from prison prescribed its daily recitation 72 times, along with other Scriptural selections. When one is riding across a bridge it is well to repeat these verses to forestall any accident (for Satan is always on the alert to take advantage of an opportunity to do harm). We have a report that during a Rosh Hashanah service in the city of Frankfort the shofar refused to function; the remedy employed was to breathe the words of the Shir shel Pega‘im three times into the wide opening of the ram's horn, whereupon its hoarse notes were restored. Satan had seated himself inside the horn and had impeded its call until dislodged by the charm!11

Next: 9. The Magical Procedure