Sunday 1 September 2019



I have always been fascinated by the difference between superstition and religion – and by just where one delineates between superstitious or magical practices and genuine Halacha.

In this article, I have drawn extensively from the research of Professor Gideon Bohak[1] who is a specialist scholar of Jewish magic.

Professor Bohak writes:

“Jewish magic is thriving in present-day Israel, in spite of the supposed disenchantment of the modern world.”


In this discussion, the term ‘magic’ is used with reference to any ritualistic activity or folkloric belief - usually presented as a religious undertaking involving recitations or actions - which attempts to theurgically change the fabric of reality, without the individual actually trying to affect it by pragmatic endeavours.

Similarly, the term ‘Kabbalah’, in our context, refers to practical and particularly theurgical Kabbalah, and not to theoretical or theosophical mysticism.[2]



Gideon Bohak explains that Jewish magic, although a factor since “time immemorial”, only really becomes traceable from the second century BCE. We know this because of the proliferation of magical texts from that period onwards. 

These texts are regarded as ‘magical’ because they aimed at changing the world around them through the use of amulets, holy names of G-d, angelic and demonic powers. Some of these included the intention to harm or even kill opponents.

Bohak writes very tellingly that throughout Jewish history:

“...for every Jewish community for which we have reasonable amounts of written evidence, the evidence also includes extensive documentation of Jewish magical activities.”


Interestingly, as we move on to the 11th century when medieval rabbinic rationalists like Maimonides opposed many of these rituals and practices which had sometimes become indistinguishable from normative Judaism, these rabbis were aggressively challenged by many of their contemporaneous mystical colleagues.


Then, from the mid 15th century, with the invention of the printing press, Kabbalistic medicine, practical Kabbalah and mystical literature in general, received a boost and were quickly spread throughout the Jewish world.


One newly printed book was Shimush Tehillim (How to Use Psalms) which was published in 1551. It is an anonymous work from a much earlier time. The printed edition, in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, shows how to get practical benefit from the 150 Psalms:

According to this work, Psalm 1; - for example - could prevent an abortion. Psalm 2; could help with a headache and also saves from a storm at sea. Psalm 3; alleviates shoulder pain. Psalm 5; helps find favour in a governor. Psalm 16; helps with catching thieves. Psalm 54; helps with taking revenge on an enemy. And Psalm 124; helps find a runaway slave and gets him to return.


Books of Segulot (Kabbalistic amulets, remedies and recipes) became very popular particularly after Sefer Raziel was printed in 1701. This book became an amulet in itself as it suggested that even if one did not study from it but merely kept it in the home “together with his silver and gold” then the house would be protected from fire and evil spirits.


Sociologically, the popularity of these types of books had a huge impact because now the reader could simply open the book (some even came with indexes) and did not need to visit the Kabbalist or one of the Baalei Shem (medicine men).

This, in turn, led to a reaction from the Kabbalist practitioner who now felt aggrieved, and often tried to ban the publication of such works, claiming that the printing of various holy names amounted to a desecration of G-d’s name.

On the other hand, some Baalei Shem like Yoel Baal Shem (the Second) took advantage of the need for such works and used the technology of his day to actively produce even more books for wide dissemination.

Printed Segulot for newborn babies also became very popular as they were ubiquitous and cheap.


The proliferation of magical texts continued until the early 19th century when the Jewish Enlightenment Movement or Haskalah, declared a “war on magic” and tried, instead, to emphasise reason over folklore and magic. To some extent and in some circles the Jewish magical texts were then marginalised but certainly not eradicated.

“However, just as Maimonides and his followers had found out several centuries earlier, any attack on ‘superstition’ and magic in the Jewish world soon ran into the problem that the Jews’ sacred texts—and especially the Babylonian Talmud—are full of elements which the rationalists were wont to disparage.”

(These were issues that many of the post-Talmudic Gaonim[3] as well as the rationalist Rishonim[4] dealt and grappled with. See Angels in Rabbinic Literature, and A Newly Minted Chareidi Amulet.)

Although there were orthodox rabbis who embraced the Haskalah Movement [See Talmudic Commentators Who Embraced the Enlightenment], the Haskala is generally associated with reform. Unfortunately, opposition to magic was now seen as a reform innovation and an attack on the orthodox. This may have had the effect of strengthening the belief in magic in some of the more conservative orthodox circles.

Either way, the albeit partial marginalization of magic only took place in Europe but did not affect the Jews of Muslim countries who continued to practice a very traditional or “conservative” form of magic.


The Jews in Muslim countries were not generally exposed to the printed Kabbalistic texts published after the 15th century (as printing was strictly regulated in those countries) nor were they exposed to the influence of the Enlightenment Movement (opposing magic) which was predominantly felt only in Europe.

Even long after the emergence of the printing press, most of Middle Eastern, North African and Sefardic magic was still transmitted in manuscript form, and often assumed the format of a ‘recipe book’.


Bohak points out an interesting difference between the practical Kabbalistic literature developing in Europe as opposed to that which flourished in Muslim countries: In the European or Ashkenazi world, the numbers of such books rise during the 17th century, peak during the 18th century, dwindle in the 19th century (largely due to the Haskala), and all but vanish in the 20th century.

However, in the Sefardic countries, the numbers of such works rise continuously from the 17th century right up to and including the 20th century!

R. AVRAHAM HAMUY (1839-1888):

One particularly interesting Sefardic writer of Segulot was R. Avraham Hamuy who wrote over 50 books. Once, on a visit to the Moroccan city of Marrakesh in February 1881 - on a Thursday - he was asked by the Jewish community to end a drought that had plagued them for some time. 

He performed various rituals including writing out G-d’s name in circumcision blood, and by Friday evening the heavens opened up and the drought was assuaged. This gained him much admiration from Marrakesh’s Jewish as well as its Muslim inhabitants.


In 1942 some Jerusalem Kabbalists used various rituals to try and kill Hitler.[5]

They procured an airplane from the RAF to spray the blood of white roosters over the Land of Israel to protect it from the armies of Rommel.



With the establishment of the Jewish State in 1948, both European and Middle Eastern Jewish cultures confronted each other and the Ashkenazim tried to “disenchant” their Middle Eastern and North African brethren of their magical practices, but with little success.

“[Israel’s] founding fathers had little patience for demons, amulets, and Jewish magical beliefs and practices, and neither would the ‘new Jew,’ which they hoped to create.”

The ‘new Jews’ thus came into ideological conflict with the ‘old Jews’, also known as the ‘old yishuv’ (or old ‘establishment’) who had already been residing in Ottoman Palestine and after 1922, in Mandatory Palestine. The ‘new Jews’ were embarrassed about, and therefore opposed to, the superstitious and magical practices of the older communities.

David Ben-Gurion dreamed of Israel becoming a melting pot with new Israelis emerging who had let go of practices that he believed could only hinder them in the future.


This model proved to be effective for the first few decades until the 1980s when a push-back was expressed by - amongst other groups - the formation of the Shas party[6] which vowed to restore the ‘honor and glory’ of North African, Middle Eastern and Sefardic Jews, which had been ‘stolen’ from them by the Israeli state.

This restoration of honor and the holding on to traditional beliefs, also indicated to all that the magical and practical Kabbalistic tradition was never eradicated in Israel but, instead, remained alive and well. 


Then, during the 1990s with the advent of the Postmodern Era and its “cultural sensitivities and...New Age religiosities” (which brought with it a “suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology[7]), “the Jewish magical tradition is now more vigorous, and more visible[8] than ever imagined.


During the 1996 Israeli elections, the Shas party, comprised of Sefardic Orthodox Jews, distributed amulets which had the image of the ‘eldest Kabbalist’, R. Yitzchak Kaduri (1898-2006), and which were ‘blessed’ by him.

These amulets were greatly in demand but were only given to voters who promised to vote for the Shas party.

When the opposition got wind of this, they claimed it was election bribery and the matter went to adjudication. The distribution of amulets was dully halted by the law. This did not stop Shas gaining 10 seats.


As a result of previous electioneering with amulets, Israeli law now prohibits anyone using:

“...adjuration, curse, excommunication, ban, a vow, the dissolution of a vow, a promise to grant a blessing, or the giving of an amulet; in this regard, ‘an amulet’ includes any object that in the eyes of a part of the public has the power to grant it benefits or harm it.”    

The clause “any object that in the eyes of a part of the public has the power to grant it benefits or harm it,” is interpreted by Bohak as:

 “ honest admission by the Knesset that while some of the citizens of the modern State of Israel deny the efficacy of amulets, others certainly do not.”

And therefore:

“By the year 2000, when this clause was added to the law, the Jewish magical tradition was finally winning official recognition of its existence and wide appeal...”

However, even this legislation did not curb the continued (and illegal) use of amulets and even “aggressive magic” in election campaigning in a country that prides itself as one of the most technologically advanced in the world.


Gideon Bohak writes:

“The impact of this multifaceted and multidirectional shift is still in progress, and it is too early to tell where exactly it will lead, but one of its obvious features is that magic is once again in vogue...

In a postmodern world, modernity’s aversion towards magic and ‘superstition’ is being replaced by suspicion of the rationalistic discourse...”

If Gideon Bohak’s analysis is correct and if we are indeed living in a Jewish world defined by suspicion of the rationalistic discourse, then we need to know this. Those of us who are happy to remain in this state have every right to do so, but those who are not, need to sit up and take notice.


To end on a philosophical note, this is how R. Jonathan Sacks uses the biblical incident of the Golden Calf to describe magic:

“...the Israelites sought an oracle, something to tell them what to do and what to become. They were still in an age of magical thinking in which people do what the gods require and gods produce the outcome the people desire.

That is not what the biblical covenant is about...It is about the acceptance of responsibility. It is about being guided by the experience of history, not about having the responsibility for history taken from the people and assumed by God Himself.”[9]

[1] See: How Jewish Magic Survived the Disenchantment of the World, by Gideon Bohak.
[2] These definitions are mine.
[3] Rabbis during the period 650 to 1038.
[4] Rabbis from the period 1038 to 1500.
[5] See Three Charms for Killing Adolf Hitler, by Yuval Harari.
[6] Not wishing to go into the politics of the matter as it is a complicated affair because one of Shas’ main leaders was R. Ovadya Yosef (1920-2013) and he did try to wean his followers off some of the mystical practices of the Ben Ish Chai (1832-1909) of Baghdad.
[7] As Postmodernism is defined by Encyclopaedia Britannica.
[8] All quotations are from Professor Gideon Bohak unless otherwise indicated.
[9] Covenant &Conversations; Deuteronomy, p. 6. (I thank Ariel Elliasof for pointing this description out to me.)

1 comment:

  1. "without the individual actually trying to affect it by pragmatic endeavours" ... the problem with this sentence is that actually doesnt consider the fact that all is one, meaning that aboslutly everything is intertwined meaning that by "doing" or "having" amulets etc you are actully changing the reality, actually is a REAL pragmatic endeavour. hahah, its true.. the questions goes to what is kosher or not, etc