Sunday 14 November 2021

358) Why the Insatiable Need for Magic?



At what point does religion end and magic begin? Many of the magical activities and beliefs of some of the sages are, as we shall see, quite surprising. Have some religious practices become inherently magical, or is something declared “magic” only when performed (or believed) by the “other”, even if it is identical to ours? This article is extensively based on the research by Professor J H (Yossi) Chajes[1] who has opened up important vistas into the extent of Jewish magic.


There are many references to magical activities in the Babylonian Talmud and far less in the Talmud Yerushalmi. The Bavli presents a rather ambivalent picture of its attitude toward magic, comparing it to the laws of Shabbat and describing certain acts as “patur aval asur”, not punishable but nevertheless forbidden.

Abbaye said: The laws of keshafm [magic] are like those of the Sabbath. Certain actions are punished by stoning; some are exempt from punishment, yet forbidden; others are permitted in the first instance. One who carries out an act is stoned; if he creates an illusion, he is exempt, yet it is forbidden; and there are those that are permitted in the first instance, such as was performed by R. Chanina and R. Oshaia, who spent every Sabbath eve studying the Laws of Creation, by means of which they created a third-grown calf and ate it.”[2]


References to kishuf or magic are astounding considering the Torah’s prohibition in Deuteronomy (18:10-12):

לֹֽא־יִמָּצֵ֣א בְךָ֔ מַעֲבִ֥יר בְּנֽוֹ־וּבִתּ֖וֹ בָּאֵ֑שׁ קֹסֵ֣ם קְסָמִ֔ים מְעוֹנֵ֥ן וּמְנַחֵ֖שׁ וּמְכַשֵּֽׁף׃

Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer,

וְחֹבֵ֖ר חָ֑בֶר וְשֹׁאֵ֥ל אוֹב֙ וְיִדְּעֹנִ֔י וְדֹרֵ֖שׁ אֶל־הַמֵּתִֽים׃

one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead.

כִּֽי־תוֹעֲבַ֥ת ה כׇּל־עֹ֣שֵׂה אֵ֑לֶּה וּבִגְלַל֙ הַתּוֹעֵבֹ֣ת הָאֵ֔לֶּה ה אֱלֹקיךָ מוֹרִ֥ישׁ אוֹתָ֖ם מִפָּנֶֽיךָ׃

For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to the Lord, and it is because of these abhorrent things that the Lord your God is dispossessing them before you.

According to this, magic is practised by the “other” and Jews are to have no association with it in any form. This being case, one would expect the rabbinic tradition to shy away from magical practices, yet the sources reveal a very complicated attitude and position towards magic.

Reflecting as far back to Moshe Rabbeinu, for example, he is said to have killed the Egyptian using, not a real sword as the plain meaning suggests, but with the Divine name as the Midrash in Shemot Rabbah suggests, referred to as the Charba deMoshe or Sword of Moses.[3] This expression later became the title of an ancient text on Jewish magic. Lavan (in Vayeitze, Genesis 30:27) on the other hand, is openly described as actively using (“nichashti”) divination, but he represents the “other”.

Rav Hai Gaon

Already in the eleventh century, the rabbinic world was confronted with Ba’alei Shem (plural for Baal Shem) or Masters of the Name. These were often itinerant magicians and healers who used magic and amulets. In a question posed by the Jews of Kairouan (Tunisia) to Rav Hai Gaon (1004-1038) in Pumbedita (Fallujah) concerning the activities of these Ba’alei Shem, including their alleged ability to travel long distances in a short time (kevitzat haderech), Rav Hai Gaon responded with scepticism which was typical of some of the more rationalist Gaonic rabbis. He regarded these Ba’alei Shem as charlatans involved in deception. But Rav Hai Gaon was more of a rabbinic exception to the rule which generally endorsed and even admired such activities.[4]

Defining Ba’alei Shem is very difficult because some came from scholarly backgrounds and others not. The practitioner (or Kabbalist in later times) is frequently raised to a status higher than any other within Judaism, while other times he (or she) is denigrated and despised. Women were often associated with witchcraft going back to Talmudic times where Abaye recommends healing techniques he had learned from his mother.[5] Sometimes gender and class were the reasons for looking down upon these magical practitioners, but it seems that more often than not, they were elevated to almost iconic status.

R. Pinchas Katzenellenbogen (1691-1765/7)

R. Pinchas Katzenellenbogen officially condemned magical practices, yet at the same time, he exhibited a leaning towards them. He wrote about a magical technique that he had learned from R. Yosef of Jerusalem, a travelling Baal Shem whom he had met and hosted back in 1720. It called for a most dramatic and cruel practice of grinding the gums of a child stricken by witchcraft, on the stones of the wall surrounding the house. He had learned this technique from R. Yosef who taught it to him after “women witches” had allegedly caused a number of children to die in the town. The only reason why R. Katzenellenbogen refrained from performing this rite personally was because “It was beneath my dignity to do this myself, by my own hand.”[6] Chajes (2011: 66) explains:

Thus Katzenellenbogen sought another rabbi to carry out the technique he knew perfectly well but was loath to perform himself.”

Yet, R. Katzenellenbogen copied instructions to make a magical ring to treat epilepsy into his ethical will, which he took from the ethical will of his grandfather. This pattern of official disavowal of magic practices followed by occasional forays into the realm of magic, was not uncommon within the rabbinic world.

R. Chaim Vital (1543-1620)

Some rabbis, like R. Chaim Vital, made no attempt to hide their involvement with magic, sometimes just changing the terminology, where forbidden “magic” became redefined as permissible “mysticism”. Chajes cites R. J. Z. Werblowsky, where R. Vital posited an “unprecedented and original distinction between ‘magic formulae’ [hashba‘ot] and ‘mystical formulae’ [yihudim].” In this instance, changing the lexicon was enough to bring hitherto questionable practices within the rubric of Jewish mysticism.

R. Chaim Vital, the student of R. Yitzchak Luria (the Arizal), engaged in much Kabbalah ma’asit (practical Kabbalah). Chajes (2011:63) explains how the Ari did not involve himself with overt magical procedures, even when they paralleled some of his own spiritual innovations which included the use of holy names and which became a primary component of Lurianic Kabbalah. Instead, he sent his young student to perform rites such as exorcisms.[7]

R. Vital was happy to consult with women, Jewish and gentile, who were often associated with clairvoyance and oil divination.  He also associated with gentile men in the same field. Chajes (2011:66) explains:

Collaboration seems to have been a preferred method of surmounting the countervailing pressures on rabbinic authorities to remain disengaged from praxis and its indignities without shirking expectations that their esoteric know-how would benefit their communities.

R. Vital, in turn, had a rabbinic associate, R. Yehoshua Albom[8], with whom he performed various treatments, often with amulets. On one occasion, R. Vital instructed R. Albom to fashion an amulet for a young girl to prevent her from being repossessed after the alleged spirit had been exorcised. According to R. Vital’s account of the episode, the spirit complained that R. Albom did not ‘play by the rules' because he did not use “techniques in the book in his possession”. Nevertheless, the spirit complimented R. Albom for his skill in adjurations and spells. This skill he had learned from his teacher R. David Mughrabi who apparently was “of crippled hands and lame, a skilled scribe who wrote tefillin, mezuzot, and Torah scrolls with his mouth.”[9]

Anyway, the young girl they treated later went on to “master the spirits” and became a leading oracle in her community. R. Vital also records that that R. Albom and this girl were able to draw down angels which were visible only in mirrors.

This is the type of activity that was going on in the mystical circles of the seventeenth century.

R. Vital writes about a journey he undertook to Salahiyya, north of Damascus to consult with a non-Jewish sorcerer (mechashef), Sheikh ibn Ayyūb, who specialised in healing those whose illnesses were said to be caused by demons. R. Vital hoped the Sheikh could help him with an eyes condition from which he suffered. R. Vital describes the Sheikh using “seven demon kings” to assist him. However, R. Vital writes that the demons were unable to remain in the same room as him because of his “extreme holiness”, so he was not able to be cured.

Synagogues and ‘laboratories’

During the sixteenth century, most of the exorcisms took place in the houses of the people possessed. But later, the ceremonies moved to the synagogues. The exorcisms became public events, with a minyan of ten men required to make up the quorum. The minyan was necessary to place the spirit under a Cherem or Ban.[10] These events became, according to Chajes (2011:67), “a kind of sacred theatre… and perhaps even consciously designed, to reinforce rabbinic authority.”

R. Leon Modena (1571-1648)

The seventeenth-century Venetian R. Leon Modena writes in his autobiography, Chayei Yehudah, how magical activity took place in what one may call ‘laboratories’. This was also because the practices sometimes involved experimentation with alchemy. He describes how his son Mordechai became the apprentice of the priest Joseph Grillo. After serving out his apprenticeship, Mordechai “arranged a place in the Ghetto Vecchio and with his own hands made all the preparations needed for the craft”.[11]

R. Samuel Falk, the Baal Shem of London (1708–1782)

R. Yakov Emden wrote vehemently in his Sefer haHitavkut against R. Samuel Falk, known as the Baal Shem of London.  [See Kotzk Blog: 179) THE BAAL SHEM OF LONDON:] He also ridiculed another Baal Shem, Moshe David in his Megillat Sefer. Yet, R. Emden made a gold ring with a name engraved in it to try and heal a sick girl.

Like the Arizal and R. Katzenellenbogen, R. Falk did not have a hands-on approach to his spiritual activity but instead relied on collaboration, which according to Chajes (2011:67) meant that he used rabbis who “were of a lower social and intellectual profile” to perform the mechanical aspects of the administering the magic. Commonly, one of these tasks was the recitation of psalms.

R. Falk had an assistant, R. Tzvi Hersh, and they had a dedicated space which they rented space on London Bridge for their magical work. They treated this space with reverence and conducted lengthy ceremonies there. R. Tzvi Hersh and other associates were expected to remain awake all night, reciting psalms, to keep demons from filling the void were they to leave. Chajes (2011:68) writes:

The positioning of a magical laboratory in such a central public location also made it easily accessible to clients, not an insignificant consideration for a ba‘al shem whose livelihood depended on providing services to a wealthy clientele. The notebooks of Falk and his assistant indeed shed considerable light on the economics of magical activity, providing a window into the financial dimension of running a “magic business.”

Chajes emphasises that proficiency in magic, often brought authority to the mystical rabbi, who would have been greatly respected for his ability to heal and exorcise.

R. Yehuda heChasid (1150-1217)

R. Yehuda heChasid also starts out by warning people not to practise magic because of its inherent danger. Chajes (2011:69) explains that often mystical rabbis who indulged in such activities were regarded as heroes because they were unafraid to face the dangers. Because of the danger, R. Yehuda heChasid writes in his Sefer Chasidim:

Therefore one ought to distance himself from doing all of these, and also resist [engaging in] dream questions [e.g.,] in order to know what wife to take or in what matter he will or will not always succeed…how many did [adjurations] and how many asked [dream questions] and were diminished or apostatized or fell seriously ill, they or their children? And one should not ask others to do so for him. Nothing is thus better for a person than to pray to the Blessed Holy One for all his needs.[12]

However, R. Yehuda heChasid himself wrote an amulet that he claimed could revive the dead. Furthermore, he is described as defeating the bishop of Salzburg, who had come to Regensburg to kill him. Encouraging the bishop to look out of a window:

R. Judah, by means of mystic names, made the window grow longer and narrower so that he could not get his head out again and was nearly strangled.[13]

Chajes (2011:78) explains this dichotomy between what seems to be two different approaches of R. Yehudah heChasid:

The principled anti-magical stance of R. Judah in Sefer Hasidim may reflect his historical personality, but it seems certain that the R. Judah of hagiography acts in a manner that the R. Judah of Sefer Hasidim would have had to condemn.

It is sometimes very difficult to separate fact from fiction and objective history from hagiography, the latter being an idealised and exaggerated account of the life of a rabbi or tzadik.

R. Yehuda heChasid’s successor, R. Eleazar of Worms, though, seems not to object even officially against manipulating “names” and “energies”, and he even composes berachot or blessings serving those ends. He writes in his Sefer Hashem:

The [name] is transmitted only to the meek, who do not get angry, and to the God-fearing, who perform the commandments of their Creator. It is transmitted only over water, as it is written, “the voice of the Lord is over the waters” (Ps 29:3). Before the master teaches his disciples, they should bathe in water and immerse themselves in [the ritual bath that measures] fo[rty][14] se’ah. They should don white clothes and fast on the day he will teach them [the names], and they should stand in the water up to their ankles [thighs][15].

Then the master opens his mouth in fear and says, “Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, king of the universe, Lord, God of Israel, you are one and your name is one, and you have commanded us to conceal your great name, for your name is awesome. Blessed are you, Lord, who reveals his secret to those who fear him, the one who knows all secrets.”[16]

Maimonides the rationalist: There are no such things as magic, angels or demons

Rambam (1135-1204) takes an almost lonely stand against magic and against rabbis involving themselves with it. He simply states that it is prohibited by the Torah, and anyway is not real and does not even exist! Maimonides also maintains that angels only exist in the imagination of the beholder and that demons did not exist at all. These concepts are, in his view, at variance with basic monotheism. (Some have similarly suggested that “monotheism” has, in a sense, been subverted to a form of what may be described as “monolatry”).

Maimonides was persecuted for his rationalism and in late fourteenth century Spain, a (forged) letter was circulated in his name, claiming that he had given up his rationalism and embraced mysticism and magic. The letter, allegedly to his student, in a style that resembles his authentic letter that introduced the Guide for the Perplexed, explains how he had a change of heart and that he now recants all his previous rationalism. The letter goes on to expound on his newfound belief in the power of the Divine names. Clearly, whoever wrote the pseudo-Maimonides letter extolling the virtues of magical pursuits, knew exactly who Maimonides was and what he thought, as it mimics his writing style.

Poignantly, yet distressingly, Chajes (2011:79) sums up this need to frame rationalist rabbis as mystics who master the magical arts, buy showing the belief in the popular mindset that without the ability to do magic, the rabbi has no enduring stature:

It is nothing if not a sign of unease with the prospect of leaving a cultural hero’s posthumous image devoid of the mighty charge of magical prowess.

Knowledge, intellect, learning and understanding pale into insignificance if a great rabbi cannot be perceived by the people as being able to change the natural order of reality for their benefit.

Further reading


[1] J. H. Chajes, J. H., 2011, ‘Rabbis and Their (In)Famous Magic: Classical Foundations, Medieval and Early Modern Reverberations,’ in Ra’anan S. Boustan, et al., eds., Jewish Studies at the Crossroads of Anthropology and History: Authority, Diaspora, Tradition, Penn Press, Philadelphia, 58-79.

[2] B. Sanhedrin 67b.

[5] b. Shabbat 66b.

[6] P. Katzenellenbogen, Yesh Manchilin (Jerusalem, 1986), 97.

[7] J. H. Chajes, 2003, Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism, Philadelphia, 71–85

[8] M. Benayahu, 1967, Toldot haAri, Jerusalem, 299–306.

[9] Shtober, S., ed., 1994, Sefer Divrei Yosef le-R. Yosef Sambari, Jerusalem, 414.

[10] Nigal, G., 1994, Dybbuk Stories in Jewish Literature, Jerusalem, 51. (Hebrew)

[11] Mark R. Cohen, M. R., ed. and trans., 1988, The Autobiography of a Seventeenth-Century Venetian Rabbi: Leon Modena’s Life of Judah, Princeton, N.J., 108.

[12] Margalioth, Sefer Chasidim, 194, §205.

[13] Gaster, Ma‘aseh Book, 370, §174.

[14] Parenthesis mine.

[15] Parenthesis mine.

[16] Eleazar ben Judah of Worms, Sefer ha-shem (Jerusalem, 2004), 1. The translation is from E. R. Wolfson, Through a Speculum That Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism (Princeton, N.J., 1994), 239.

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