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

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UNDERLYING the popular approach to medicine, and indeed, the entire body of magical and semi-magical procedures, was an intriguing misconception of the nature of the world and its inhabitants. Along with the idea of spirit causation went a great number of odd and often grotesque notions. While the Jewish material does not offer a complete picture of the medieval view of nature, it provides us with enough individual superstitions and conceits to suggest the outlines of that picture, and to help us the better to appreciate some of the oddities of medical—and magical—practice.


Heir to all the fantastic notions concerning the universe that were current in the ancient world, with equal title to the wild and wonderful tales that swept medieval Europe, it is a source of surprise not that Jewish literature laid claim to these ideas and stories, but rather that it made so little of them. Compared with the intense popular interest that was focussed upon the curious and weird phenomena of nature in the Europe they inhabited, the Jews may be said almost to have neglected the subject altogether—allowing for the circumstance that Jewish writings, with their juridical and exegetical orientation, did not fully reflect the state of popular credulity. None the less the "facts" that may be culled from them make strange reading enough.

The familiar fables of mythical lands and creatures are duly represented. There are regions in which all of nature is masculine, and others where only females thrive—and the explanation is profoundly "scientific": matter is composed of the four elements, earth, fire, water and air, upon the harmonious combination of which sex depends; the unbalanced atmosphere of these lands is inimical to the subsistence of one or the other sex. On the peak of a certain mountain

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is a miraculous spring; whoever speaks after drinking its water instantly falls dead. Or again, there exists a marvellous herb which produces intense hunger; one who touches it must eat immediately or die. And as to the creatures, the whole menagerie of monstrosities is on view: men with dog-heads, horns or beaks, with the bodies or heads of lions, or serpents, or oxen; two- and three-headed men, four-armed men—one authority vouches for the fact that there are 365 varieties of human monsters, though he makes no attempt to enumerate them. And of course, there are the serpents that spit fire, the prodigiously hybrid animals, and the fabulous phoenix, whose body shrinks to the size of an egg on its thousandth birthday, and is then reborn for another millennial lease on life. (Incidentally, the phoenix was often cited by Church Fathers and rabbis as conclusive proof of the resurrection of the dead.)1

A legendary creature which stirred up quite a fuss in medieval literature, both Jewish and non-Jewish, was the man-plant, the mandragora root, often pictured in illuminations as a human form with leaves growing out of its head, to which Shakespeare referred in Romeo and Juliet:

And shrieks like mandrakes’ torn out of the earth,
That living mortals, hearing them, run mad.

[paragraph continues] The Franco-German school of Talmud commentators adopted this prodigy to explain certain obscure terms in that work and in the Bible. R. Samson of Sens (second half of the twelfth century) cited R. Meir b. Kalonymos of Speyer as authority for this description: "A sort of long string grows out of a root in the ground, and to this string the animal called yadu‘a is attached at its navel like a gourd or melon, but the yadu‘a has the shape of a man in every particular, face, body, hands and feet. No one can approach closer than the radius of the string, for it uproots and destroys everything within its reach. One may capture it only by shooting at the string until it breaks, whereupon the animal dies." This account was followed by the later commentators.2

With regard to the more normal members of the animal kingdom we may glean a host of illuminating bits of information. The belief in spontaneous generation was as firmly rooted among Jews as among non-Jews. Mice, worms, insects are often the children of dust and mud and filth; gnats and flies are fathered by the atmosphere; man's

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sweat and body-heat produce some types of lice and worms, and a carefully differentiated species of louse springs full-blown from his head.

Most curious among the notions concerning spontaneous generation was the fable of the "barnacle-goose" (Branta leucopsis), which was universally accredited during the Middle Ages. It was believed that this bird was generated from the barnacle, a shell-fish growing on a flexible stem, and adhering to loose timber, bottoms of ships, etc., a metamorphosis to which many writers allude, and which is solemnly described in a good number of scientific works. This conception was accompanied, in Jewish literature, by other theories as to its place of origin: trees, from which the birds grow like fruit and hang by their beaks until they fall off, rotting wood, brine, etc. The determination of the true nature of this bird was of considerable ritual importance. Was it fowl, or fish, or fruit? Was it forbidden or permitted as a food? Did it require ritual slaughter or not? These questions were variously answered in accordance with the version of its origin which the authorities accepted. It is of interest that a similar problem agitated Christian ecclesiastics—was it permissible to eat these birds during Lent? Which again hinged on the issue as to whether they were fish or fowl.

The fable was turned to good account against the "obstinate" Jews by Church authorities. "Be wise at length, wretched Jew," wrote Gerald of Wales (twelfth century), "be wise even though late! The first generation of man from dust without male or female [Adam] and the second from the male without the female [Eve] thou darest not deny in veneration of thy law. The third alone from male and female, because it is usual, thou approvest and affirmest with thy hard heart. But the fourth, in which alone is salvation, from female without male—that, with obstinate malice, thou detest-est to thy own destruction. Blush, wretch, blush, and at least turn to nature! She is an argument for the faith, and for our conviction procreates and produces every day animals without either male or female." Jews needed no coaxing to accept the fable, but the argument failed to move their "hard hearts" to confess the truth of the Immaculate Conception.3

Animals that copulate during the daytime never bear their young at night. Ritually unclean animals which see at night, such as dogs, cats and mice, have no vision at all until they are nine days old. On the other hand, kosher animals, that is those which may be eaten,

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may be recognized by the fact that they cringe when a hand is passed over them, while unclean animals do not. We read that "many times" fowl are born and live without hearts, and that food remains in a dog's stomach for three days, so that it can go that long unfed. In our ignorance we may believe that dogs follow the scent of an animal upon the ground, but a "true investigation" revealed that it is not the odor but the breath of the animal upon the ground that the dog picks up; some bright hares are aware of this and outwit the dogs by keeping their snouts in the air as they race to their hiding-places. Certain shell-fish, when cut into pieces and thrown back into the river, reunite the severed parts of their body and nonchalantly swim away. Cows whose udders are unprotected while they are at pasture are likely to be milked by a species of leach (the French word sangsue is used).4

In an age when poisoning was an obsession, the following precaution was in high repute: "When a man finds himself among suspected poisoners and he is afraid they will tamper with his food or drink, he should procure a knife with a handle of snake bone, and stick it into the table. If there is any poison present the handle will quiver, for the snake is full of venom, and like attracts like." Popes Clement V and John XXII owned such knives, the handles being made of serpents’ horns.6


A detailed discussion of the singular physiology that passed for science among the masses would make a full treatise. Here a brief presentation of the popular ideas concerning procreation, always a favorite field of speculation, will furnish a typical illustration of the sort of biological knowledge with which the folk medicine operated.

It was widely believed that comestibles play an important part in the procreative process, not alone by arousing passion, but also more directly by "multiplying" or "decreasing the seed," and determining the character of offspring. Spicy or heavy foods heat and thicken the blood, which manufactures the sperm, according to this view, and thus increase the flow of semen; they are thus conducive to a quick temper and wit in children. Light or unseasoned foods cause the children to be dull-witted and simple. In consequence foodstuffs were divided into two broad categories, those which "chill" the body and therefore have a deleterious effect upon the

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procreative powers, and those which "heat" the body and awaken sexual desire. In the first group are mentioned salt and salted fish, such as herring, legumes, melons, etc.; in the second, spices, strong wines, eggs, milk-foods, boiled lentils, roasted garlic, and a "five-finned fish." The references to the sexual properties of foods usually imply that most people are already sufficiently well-informed and need no further instruction.

On the other hand, various devices for quenching passion, in addition to the consumption of "chilling" foods, were known. The man who felt himself being overwhelmed by an impure desire could conquer it by "pressing his big toes firmly into the ground and resting the entire weight of his body upon them without leaning against a wall; this will banish all sensual thoughts." But "there is nothing that destroys passion so effectively as cold water; sit in it until you have subdued your desire," a sovereign and familiar remedy.6

The ancient taboo against a menstruous woman persisted undiminished throughout the Middle Ages. Great pains were taken to avoid the slightest contact, even between man and wife. This policy was carried to such extremes at times that the rabbis found it necessary to scold "those who throw the key or coins into their wives' hands." Yet, it is not to be wondered at that such inordinate measures were adopted, for the whole traditional lore of Judaism served to emphasize and enhance the taboo, threatening those who broke it with the direst consequences, here and in the hereafter, for themselves and their children. The Talmud contains a charm against snakebite which illustrates perfectly the abhorrence with which the woman in menses was regarded; when a woman meets a snake on the road, it is enough for her to announce "I am menstruating" for the reptile to glide hastily away! There is even a theory that the very atmosphere is polluted by the glance of a menstruating woman, a theory which may be tested by a "true experiment": "If a woman at the commencement of her period stares fixedly into a bright metal mirror she will behold in it a drop of blood, for the demon that is in her glance creates an evil influence in the air which adheres to the mirror; verily she is like the viper that kills with its glances." To have sexual relations with such a woman was not alone to commit a mortal sin, but to jeopardize one's very health and sanity.7

Not all times were equally favorable for coition. It was believed that children conceived during the first three days of the week would be born on the Sabbath; therefore the "pious ones" exercised

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restraint on these nights. But Friday night was the most propitious for conception because the sacred associations of the Sabbath would inevitably condition the child's character. The first half of the lunar month was preferred above the second because the waxing moon shed a beneficent influence upon offspring. A conception that occurs in the middle of the night is the most promising; here the explanations traverse a wide range from the purely mystical to the grossly material. One view has it that during this time of the night the "forces of uncleanness" are dormant; a second, that voices in the street are then least likely to distract a man's thoughts to another woman, which would have a very deleterious effect upon his child; still a third, that in the first part of the night a man's system is overheated by the food he has consumed, while toward morning it is too chilled. A reason to suit every taste!8

The prohibition against cohabitation during the day or in an illuminated place goes back to the Talmudic apprehension that the demons who are driven off by light may also perversely be attracted by it. Therefore the warning is advanced that one who stands naked before a burning lamp at night will become epileptic, and children conceived before a light will be similarly stricken, the Hebrew word for epileptic, nichpeh, having the sense of "forced, or seized" by a demon. In consequence of this dread elaborate precautions were taken to exclude all light from a bedchamber at night. But the fear of epilepsy in children was restricted to the influence of artificial lights; the light of the sun was believed to produce white eruptions, the moon, scurfiness which finally develops into leprosy, the stars, stammering. Undoubtedly such ideas were originally advanced to enhance the virtue of sexual modesty, but the threats they embodied were just as surely accepted as literally true.9

Of a similar nature were the fearful consequences believed to follow abnormal and perverted methods of coitus, and impure thoughts at the moment of conception. This last matter loomed especially large in all considerations of the subject, for it was universally believed that the parents’ state of mind was directly transmitted through the seed to the infant, and intimately affected its character and its physique. Therefore parents were sternly warned not to have relations when they were on bad terms, and not to think of other individuals or of unpleasant and unworthy things, but to fix their attentions upon holy and pure thoughts which would have the best influence upon children. Some of the later mystics went to

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the absurd length of drawing up lists of appropriate subjects for concentration on such occasions: the great and pious figures of Jewish history. In short, "the embryo is formed in consonance with the thoughts and emotions of the parents," and "the greatest part of infant mortality is due to neglect of this principle." Indeed the delightful suggestion was offered in all seriousness that "most bastards are bright because the union of their parents is consummated in love and joy"!10

There existed a strong conviction that things seen before and during conception make so powerful an impression on the mind that their characteristics are stamped upon the offspring. This is, of course, a universal superstition. If, on the way home from the ritual bath to which she repaired after her period (a procedure preliminary to intercourse), "a woman encounters a dog, her child will have an ugly dog-face, if she meets an ass, it will be stupid, if an ignorant lout, it will be an ignoramus." "Anything she meets makes a vivid impression on her and she thinks about it at the time of coition so that the child is affected thereby. . . . Therefore she should return to the bath. . . . But there are two exceptions to this rule. If she meets a horse, she need not return to the bath, for even if she should think of it there would be no harm, for a horse is of a happy disposition, and so she may have a son whose heart will rejoice in the study of Torah. And if she meets a scholar she need not go back and repeat her ablution. On the contrary she should think about him all the time." To avoid the possibility of inauspicious encounters many women chose to be led home from the bath blindfolded "imagining meanwhile that a pious man was coming to meet them."

Then, too, there was the well-worn fable of the white king and queen who bore a black child, or conversely, the black parents and the white infant, which cropped up frequently in classical and Talmudic literature, and went the rounds during the Middle Ages; the explanation, bien entendu, was that the mother's attention during intercourse was focussed on a picture hanging on the wall. Which brings us to a point that was often made: the mother's thoughts, and not the father's, exert the decisive influence upon the child. The classic instance of this superstition, of course, is the trick that Jacob played on his father-in-law, Laban, when he set peeled rods in the watering-troughs so that "the flocks conceived at the sight of the rods, and the flocks brought forth streaked, speckled and spotted" (Gen. 30:37-39).11

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The Middle Ages were especially prolific of fertility potions, many of them concocted of parts of animals which were noted for their fecundity. Among these the hare and the fish were outstanding. Often, however, a wholly magical treatment, such as the recital of Biblical verses, was relied upon to cure barrenness. On the other hand, the Talmud mentions a "root-drink" which could produce sterility, and preparations to induce abortions were also known.

The problem of relieving the pains of childbirth found many solutions. Besides the purely magical treatments, already discussed, there were many folk remedies of a dubious character, e.g., the suggestion that the woman be fed mother's milk, the idea probably being that it may transmit to her another woman's success in surmounting the ordeal. Several prescriptions suggest primitive attempts at anesthesia; one such requires that a strong frankincense be burned before the parturient woman (but it must be in a "new clay bowl"); another, that she inhale the smoke of burning felt. The effect of this last, however, is thus naïvely described: "The woman will sneeze and expel her infant"!12

There were several interesting theories concerning the factors that determine the sex of the child. According to one, which owned Talmudic warrant, the sperm is male, the egg-cell female; whichever makes its entry second into the womb "subdues" the first and impresses its gender upon the offspring. Consequently the parent whose emission is delayed determines the child's sex. The same conclusion was also derived from a contrary premise, namely, that the will of the parent who first experiences an orgasm is paramount. This view, however, rather unreasonably insists that all men desire girl children, and all women, boys. Still a third opinion was based upon a remarkable anatomical fable. Within the womb there are seven sacs, three at each side and one in the center; if the spermatozoa enter those at the right, the child will be a boy, the left sacs produce girls, and the middle one, children who are sexless or hermaphroditic. Therefore the mother can control the sex of her child by lying either on her right or left side.13

There were manifold infallible ways of discovering the sex of the child prior to birth. The male lies face-down in the womb, the female face-up (the corpse of a drowned man or woman floats in the same manner) . At the instant when the child pushes its way into this world one can tell its sex by noting the direction in which its head is turned. But most of the prognostics did not necessitate

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waiting until they were no longer needed. The desired information could be obtained long before. Thus, if a pregnant woman drips some milk from her breast upon a board or rock, if it spatters the child will be a boy, otherwise, a girl; or, if the milk sinks in water, she will bear a girl, and if it floats, a boy; if her loins ache, she is carrying a boy, but if her belly pains, it is a girl; if she is quick about her housework and her spinning, she will have a son, while if she is sluggish and can barely get around, a daughter. The right- and left-motif was also prominent. A right breast fuller than the left betokens a male heir; the same is indicated if, on rising from her seat, a woman leans on her right hand; but if she feels the fetus knocking against her left side, it is a girl, and so on.

These signs were evidently drawn from non-Jewish folklore, for the medieval literature abounds with parallels. It is noteworthy, though, that the Jewish sources retail these investigations and experiments to satisfy no mere curiosity, however justified the thirst for knowledge may be in this case, but rather to meet a pious need. They are meant for parents who reside a considerable distance from the nearest performer of circumcisions. Should they wait until the child is born to determine whether or not they require his services, it would be impossible to initiate their son into the covenant at the prescribed time; therefore science is pressed into the service of religion, and the summons can go out, if the prognostication so indicates, long before the boy has opened his eyes to the light of day.14

This account may close with two interesting legends. The first, voicing the prevalent belief in the possibility of impregnation without physical contact, relates that the daughter of the prophet Jeremiah entered a hot bath soon after her father had left it, and there received her father's seed. The son of this unusual conception was named Ben Zera‘, "son of seed," but when he grew older and came to understand the significance of his name he was ashamed of it and changed it to Ben Sira, by which pseudonym we know him as the author of Ecclesiasticus.

The second tale is of a young scholar of the town of Enns, in Austria, who went off to a distant city to pursue his studies, leaving behind a young wife. Eleven months after his departure she bore a child and provided the good folk of the town with a tidy morsel of scandal. But the graybeards got together and agreed that in view of her unquestioned piety this event could not be regarded as suspicious, for a study of ancient literature revealed that such a delayed

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birth was not unheard of, though admittedly unusual. The arresting feature of this story is that the scholar's name was Shlumiel, which has become the colloquial epithet for all those bunglers whose enterprises invariably go awry.15


In a community in which learning was the most honored pursuit and a retentive memory the most prized attribute, we must expect to find superstition invading the precincts of scholarship itself. The Talmud contains a list of actions which induce forgetfulness: "eating what has been nibbled by a mouse or a cat, eating an animal's heart, eating olives, drinking water in which someone has washed, placing one foot over the other while washing them, and some add, using one's garments as a pillow." There follows then a series of ten things which are "bad for memorizing study."

There is ample evidence in the medieval writings that these admonitions were scrupulously observed, though the first group seems to have made the stronger impression. Thus we are informed that Meir of Rothenburg, Maharil and Israel Isserlein, leading lights in their generations, very carefully avoided sleeping on their clothes; Maharil, when on a journey, would prefer a hard saddle under his head to a soft bundle of garments. R. Meir went the Talmud one better and refrained from eating even the hearts of birds. To this day pious Jews avoid passing between two women, because the Talmudic passage warned that this is "bad for the memory." (Fear of brushing against a menstruating woman also enters here.) Another of these superstitions which is still widely observed is not to read an inscription on a tombstone. A commentator observes, "I have seen scrupulously pious men place a stone on the marker, with the explanation that this destroys the ill-effect of reading the inscription." Wiping one's hands on one's clothes, putting on two garments at a time, mending clothes while one is naked, these acts were believed to exert a similar debilitating effect upon the memory. An antidote for the last is to put a splinter of wood in the mouth. The modern version among East-European Jews, derived from German custom, is to keep a bit of thread in the mouth while mending garments that are on the body. A related idea was that drinking from narrow-necked flasks is bad for one's visual and aural faculties.16

The belief that there is an intimate connection between the

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demons and the finger-nails has some obscure relation to another of these superstitions, namely, that cutting the nails in the order of the fingers causes loss of memory. The ancient Persians made much of the dangers associated with the finger-nails and prescribed a specific order of paring them; from them this belief came over to the Mohammedans and Jews, but it was the latter who brought it and the memory into conjunction. The proper manner of cutting the nails, as given by the medieval writers, varies somewhat; the Zoroastrian order was accepted for the left hand only. The commonest version is as follows: left hand, 4, 2, 5, 3, 1; right hand, 2, 4, 1, 3, 5. One of the earliest references reads: "Left hand, begin with 4 and end with 1, right hand begin with 1 and end with 4. Paring any two nails in sequence causes forgetfulness." But this source insists that the operation must begin with 1 or 4. "To begin with 3 causes the death of one's children, with 5, poverty, with 2, a bad reputation." This superstition, however, was not universally respected; Meir of Rothenburg, for one, had the temerity to disregard it, as did the sixteenth-century mystic, Isaac Luria.17

Accompanying these superstitions were a good number of a reverse order, to preserve and strengthen the memory. Prominent among them was the above-mentioned invocation of the "Prince of Forgetting," Poteh or Purah, uttered on Saturday evening after Habdalah and on other appropriate occasions, such as the initial enrolment of a child in school. Other incantations were also prescribed. Biblical verses relating to the prophet Elijah were recited at the close of the Sabbath for the same purpose; "mentioning his name at this time is good for the memory and brings good luck during the week."

An interesting group of recipes is comprised under the name "small Baladur" (also written "Balazur") . The plant Baladur (Anacardia) was considered by the Moslems a potent memory strengthener and in this rôle it appeared in Jewish medicinal literature also. In time, however, the meaning of the term was forgotten, and all sorts of prescriptions came to be denominated "the small Baladur." So widely accepted was this term that in the end it was taken to be distinctively Jewish, and there was even a current proverb, allegedly quoted from the Talmud: "Review, review [your studies] and you'll have no need of Baladur." The word seems to have penetrated German Jewry from the South fairly late, but the recipes were probably known long before they were dignified with

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this title. Among the simpler ones are the following: eat hazel nuts for nine days, beginning with six and adding six more each day; eat pepper seeds for nine days, beginning with one seed and doubling the dose until it reaches 256 seeds on the ninth day, and each time, before you consume them, recite Deut. 33:8-11 and Ps. 119:9-16; grind cloves, long peppers, dates, ginger, galanga-root and Muscat nuts in equal quantities, beat them with olive oil into a paste, and eat a little every morning before breakfast. One may judge from the progressive complexity of these three recipes the extent to which ingenuity multiplied ingredients and mystification in others. But all, whatever their composition, were equally touted as the original "Baladur."18

Next: 13. Medicine