Sunday, 2 February 2020


A spindle with a whorl wheel (left) with the distaff (right) for producing thread.


I have again[1] drawn from the research of Professor Gideon Bohak, a specialist in Jewish magic in Antiquity and the Middle ages, as well as in the textual fragments from the Cairo Geniza. He is a professor in the Department of Jewish Philosophy and Talmud at Tel Aviv University.

In this article, we are going to look at one area of Bohak’s work; a fragment which was found in the Cairo Geniza [See Cairo Geniza – 1000 Years of Torah on African Soil] which deals with how to catch a thief. We will look at the surprising origins of this text and briefly examine the relationship between Jewish magic and mysticism.


The object of our investigation is a 12 X 16.5cm single sheet of paper in the Cambridge University Library on a shelf marked Taylor-Schechter K1.115. It is perfectly preserved apart from a small piece missing from the top right-hand corner.

On the recto (front main side of the sheet) is a Latin text transliterated in Hebrew characters (Judeo-Latin). According to the Oriental semi-cursive script it has been dated from around the 12th or 13th - century.

On the verso (back side of the sheet) is a short Hebrew blessing followed an Aramaic recipe for Kefitzat haDerech (a shortening of the road, ‘path jumping’ or teleportation). [2]

This is the Latin text in Hebrew characters, followed by a representation in actual Latin:

The Latin text in Hebrew characters.
The same text in Latin.

As can be seen, parts of the transliterated Latin text are missing so it is difficult to completely reconstruct the original Latin which is clearly a form of prayer.

Bohak needed to know more about the provenance of the Judeo-Latin text and he began searching.


Through a series of coincidences and great detective work, Bohak and a colleague were able to find a similar transliterated Latin text in another manuscript - which was located in the microfilm collection at the Institute for Hebrew Manuscripts of the National Library in Jerusalem.

What made this new manuscript[3] so interesting was that it was part of a Tosafist work from Ashkenaz (from the German cities of Worms, Mainz and Koln) and also dated from around the 13th-century.

The text opens with instructions in Hebrew followed by a similar Latin prayer or adjuration in Hebrew characters and then concludes with more Hebrew instructions:

Tosafist work showing similar matching Latin text with Hebrew instructions before and after.

Essentially a spindle rod (a long straight stick) with a whorl stone (a weighted disk to maintain rotational speed) is placed in a Book of Psalms (Psalm 51 in this case) and allowed to rotate freely in mid-air. Certain Latin words in Hebrew characters are then recited three times and if the Book begins to rotate the suspected thief is declared guilty.

Bohak writes:

“The presence of a magical recipe for detecting thieves in a mostly-halakhic collection from the world of the Tosaphists is of great interest, and certainly supports recent claims that there was quite an interest in mysticism and magic even in medieval Ashkenaz, and even among some of its most halakhically-minded rabbis.”

[For more on this, see Mystical Forays of the Tosafists.]

More scholarly research revealed that the Latin prayer was part of what is known as an Ordeal. An Ordeal is technically defined as follows:

Trial by ordeal was an ancient judicial practice by which the guilt or innocence of the accused was determined by subjecting them to a painful, or at least an unpleasant, usually dangerous experience. The test was one of life or death, and the proof of innocence was survival.”[4]

In this case, the Ordeal was not that severe, as it only involved placing a spindle in the Book of Psalms, reciting a Latin prayer and waiting to see if it rotated.

However, what is startling is that the use of a prayer in Latin reveals its origins as a form of Christian Ordeal, which is surprising for a work of the Tosafists.


Fascinatingly, Bohak then discovered a third parallel text[5], with a similar transliterated Latin prayer, inserted in the margins of a 14th-century Ashkenazi Halachik work, Sefer haTerumah, by R. Baruch ben Yitzchak:[6]

The text found inserted in the margins of  Sefer haTerumah.

This time it is Psalm 16 which is referenced. A spindle is similarly to be placed in the Book of Psalms, hanging from a distaff (the rod on which wool is wound before spinning), and a similar Latin prayer, or spell, in Hebrew characters is recited three times. Again the assumption is that if the thief is guilty, the book will spin.


Because parts of the Latin texts were missing, Bohak searched for the original version of this Ordeal. This turned out to be a 12th-century Christian manuscript:

“To make a judgment with a Psalter [Book of Psalms][7]. Take a piece of wood with a knob, and place it in a Psalter, on this verse ‘Righteous are you, Lord, and right is your judgment’ (Ps. 118.137). Close the Psalter and bind it tight, with the knob protruding outside [towards the top][8]

Then take another piece of wood, with a hole, and place in it the knob of the first piece[9], so that the Psalter hangs upon it and can revolve. And let two people hold the piece of wood, with the Psalter pending in the middle.

And have the suspect stand in front of them. And let one of those holding the Psalter say to the other three times like this, ‘He has that thing.’ And the other shall respond three times, ‘He does not have it.’

Then the priest should say, ‘May Him by whose judgment the heavens and earth are governed be willing to reveal this to us...’”[10]

The Ordeal proceeds to make overt Christian references to Jesus, Mary and the Holy Ghost.


Bohak then explains:

“[T]he Jew(s) who first borrowed this prayer from its Christian users certainly knew enough Latin to omit all the blatantly-Christian elements from the original Latin prayer, and to insert the Hebrew word ploni, ‘so and so,’ in the right place.

 Whether the scribes who wrote down this prayer in Paris 326 [i.e., the Tosafist manuscript] and JTS RABB 1077 [i.e., from the margins of Sefer haTerumah][11] still had some idea of what it meant is hard to say, but the Egyptian Jew who wrote it – without the instructions which originally accompanied it – in his collection of spells and recipes [which was found in the Cairo Geniza][12], probably had no idea whatsoever about the original meaning of all these strange words.

As voces magicae [i.e., magical formulae usually in the form of incomprehensible syllables][13], however, they must have sounded quite impressive.”


Bohak reconstructs the historical chain of events leading to this Christian prayer practice becoming part the Jewish magical tradition:

It seems that a 12th-century Jew, probably living in the Rhineland, was aware of a Benedictine Ordeal and decided to adapt it for Jewish use. Essentially, he retained the actual ritual technique but consciously removed all the overt Christian references adding ploni (the reference to an anonymous person) at the appropriate places.

The Tosafist text with the word ploni shown highlighted. 

Additionally, although Bohak does not mention this, the Chassidei Ashkenaz who influenced the Tosafists were known to have borrowed some folk mystical practices from the populace and possibly even from the monks. [See Chasidei Ashkenaz – These are Not Superstitions.]

Nevertheless, in its Judaized form, the Christian Latin Ordeal for catching thieves was circulated in Ashkenazi circles and eventually found its way into Tosafist Halachic manuscripts; and then it moved on to Arabic speaking Cairo where it was again copied and then finally placed into the Cairo Geniza where it lay for centuries until its discovery in the late 1800s.

The Christian Lateran Council of 1215 officially banned all Ordeals and levied heavy penalties on priests who performed such practices. Although this ban went largely unheeded, there was an official condemnation of such practices, yet ironically these texts found their amended way into aspects of the Jewish magic tradition.


While many fields of Jewish endeavour have been well explored, Bohak informs us that the scientific study of Jewish magical texts has been seriously neglected by scholars in the past:

 “[T]he number of unedited and even uncharted primary sources for the study of Jewish magic is staggering, and...these sources must serve as the starting point for any serious study of the Jewish magical tradition....”[14]

Bohak explains why it was that the study of Jewish magic has been neglected:

“Until recently, most scholars in Jewish Studies were quite willing to accept Balaam’s famous claim, ‘There is no divination in Jacob, and no augury in Israel’ (Num. 23.23), and to ignore the existence of a rich and variegated Jewish magical tradition which is continuously documented at least from late antiquity and all the way to the twenty-first century.”

Many have always taken and continue to take Jewish ‘magicians’ (some may prefer a more eloquent nomenclature for the practitioners of this art) very seriously:

“The Jewish magicians and their patrons believed that they possessed the ability to exorcise demons, slay enemies, heal a wide range of ailments, assist in matters of fertility and childbirth, cause a certain person to love or hate another, to send demons or bad dreams upon a person they desired to harm, and to act in a wide variety of other realms.” [15]

The use and the origins of magic within Jewish traditions are far more widespread than many would care to admit. To what extent Jewish magic overlaps with Jewish mysticism is subject to a fierce debate:

In the search for the point where mysticism stops and magic begins, the student can adopt one of three different approaches.

Bohak writes quite outspokenly:

The study of Jewish mysticism will make an important step forward when it finally drops both Gershom Scholem’s understanding of Jewish magic as the ugly stepdaughter of Jewish mysticism and Moshe Idel’s view of much of Jewish religion and almost all of Jewish mysticism as suffused with magic, and would become more acquainted with the Jewish magical texts themselves and more accustomed to seeing the Jewish magical tradition as a sister—sometimes an older sister, sometimes a younger sister, and mostly a distant sister—of the Jewish mystical tradition.”

Bohak thus takes the interesting position that Jewish magic is not an ugly offshoot of Jewish mysticism (as per Scholem), nor is it inextricably bound together with mysticism (as per Idel) but, rather, it maintains a somewhat distant relationship to it.

Either way, mysticism still cannot divorce itself entirely from some relationship to magic - and whichever position one takes would remain subjective because the technical boundaries (between theosophical mysticism and theurgical magic) remain ill-defined.

[2] The Latin text on the recto is followed by a space and then a text in Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic in Hebrew characters). This page would have originally been left blank and it is assumed that the Latin and Judeo-Arabic text were added later. The verso is quite standard for Geniza magical texts but the Latin transliteration on the recto is unusual. Because of the various different languages it seems that the texts may have divergent origins. 
[3] Paris BN Heb. 326.
[4] Wikipedia.
[5] JTS Rabb. 1077
[6] Apparently, using margins and blank spaces for additional related or unrelated material was quite a common practice at that time.
[7] Parenthesis mine.
[8] Parenthesis mine.
[9] Or rather, first place the upwards facing knob in the hole which will then act as a kind of bearing and then insert it into the Psalter?
[10] Codex Latinus Monacensis 100, fol. 132–133.
[11] Parentheses mine.
[12] Parenthesis mine.
[13] Parenthesis mine.
[14] Gideon Bohak, Prolegomena to the Study of the Jewish Magical Tradition.
[15] Gideon Bohak, Khamsa Khamsa Khamsa: The Evolution of a Motif in Contemporary Israeli Art.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Gershon. You made an interesting observation and I pressed delete instead of publish. Please send again if this reply is not adequate:
    There were two Baruch ben Yitzchaks. One lived from 1140-1212.
    The other (a student of R. Yitzchak of Dampiere) wrote Sefer haTerumah which was apparently written in the early 1200s but only published much later. Perhaps that is why it is referred to as a 14th-century work.