Sunday 23 January 2022

368) Ramban and his surprising references to ‘necromancy’


Ramban's Commentary on the Torah form an edition printed in Lisbon in 1489
(Marsh's Library Exhibits, accessed January 23, 2022,


Ramban (Nachmanides 1194-1270), known as the ‘father’ of Kabbalah, was a Spanish born rabbi from Girona, whose Catalan name was Bonastruc ça Porta (Mazal tov at the gate). This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Reimund Leicht[1] from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as Professor Dov Schwartz[2] from Bar Ilan University, deals with Ramban’s unusual usage of the word נגרמונסיא, or ‘necromancy’, which occurs four times[3] in his Commentary on the Torah. “Necromancy” is defined as “the act of communication with the dead in order to discover what is going to happen in the future”.[4] Although Ramban does not necessarily follow this exact technical definition of the term, he has some very interesting views on magic, idolatry, demons and astrology.

Astral magic

Astral magic is related to the belief in the influence from the stars. Schwartz (2005:ix) explains that astral magic became widespread from the early twelfth century:

Astral magic is predicated on the assumption that individuals can utilize celestial elements for their benefit and advantage. Stars and signs release a constant and steady emanation known as ruhaniyyat [spirituality], which is also endowed with extraordinary forces. The quality of the emanation and the character of the supreme forces are determined by the influencing signs and planets and their location in heaven. The celestial emanation and the supreme forces can be absorbed and directed in the terrestrial world on condition suitable preparations are made, and their absorption is known as “drawing down” [horadah or hanahah]. The magician brings down this spirituality for practical purposes, such as changing the course of natural forces, predicting the future, or healing the sick.

The Jewish-Spanish world was very much occupied with astral magic with rabbis like Yehuda Halevi (1074-1141) and Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) involving themselves in its practice. Yehuda Halevi, for example:

relies on astral magic rather than on theoretical considerations to explain the view that the commandments are the vehicle to religious perfection…Just as in astral magic the preparation is what draws the emanation down, in Judaism observing the commandments leads to the realization of prophecy” (Schwartz 2005:xii).”

Maimonidean opposition to astral magic

Rambam (Maimonides 1135-1204) was opposed to mysticism and certainly to astral magic as he maintained it was not part of Judaism:

Maimonides’ authority deals a fatal blow to this young theology. Maimonides targets his attack on astral magic, denies it any value, and forbids it on religious grounds, presenting it as idolatry…Whereas the rationalists abandon any intensive concern with astral-magic theology during the thirteenth century, the kabbalists preserve these traditions and an entire school of Nahmanides’ disciples turns astral magic into a legitimate theology” (Schwartz 2005:xii).

Astral magic tradition preserved by Ramban (Nachmanides)

Despite Rambam’s opposition to astral magic, Ramban and his students pursued it and preserved it thus entrenching this belief firmly within the Jewish mystical tradition:

In the early history of Kabbalah, in thirteenth century Spain, Nahmanides was an authoritative key figure…He had several kabbalist-disciples, including Solomon b. Adret (Rashba), Isaac Todros and David Cohen, and some of them in turn had their own disciples. Toward the end of the thirteenth century and at the beginning of the fourteenth century, members of the second generation of this circle, mainly disciples of Rashba, wrote a series of works whose main intent was to explain the kabbalistic “secrets” included in Nahmanides’ commentary to the Torah” (Schwartz 2005:55).

We will now examine some of these Nachmanidean ‘secrets’:

The ‘secret’ of ‘necromancy’ in Ramban’s Torah commentary

Leicht (2011:253) investigates Ramban’s rather frequent usage of the term ‘necromancy’ in his Torah commentary. He suggests that although ‘necromancy’ in the original Greek means ‘divination by the dead’, Ramban uses it in a different sense. Nevertheless, he still chooses to use a Greek loanword rather than an abundance of Hebrew words describing a similar concept and idea, because his readers would have been familiar with it and its connotations within the popular culture.

Let us now turn to the four instances where Ramban makes use of the term ‘necromancy’.

a) Source 1 (Exodus 20:3)

One of the main differences between the mystical and rational schools of Judaism is their approaches to idolatry. Ramban the mystic, maintained that idolatry dealt with very real - albeit negative - energies, and therefore, monotheists were prohibited from participating in such practices. However, according to Rambam the rationalist, idolatry was based on a false perception that those energies were real, hence it was forbidden because it was regarded as nonsense.[5]

Exodus 20:3 reads:

לֹֽ֣א־יִהְיֶ֥͏ֽה־לְךָ֛֩ אֱלֹהִ֥֨ים אֲחֵרִ֖֜ים עַל־פָּנָֽ֗͏ַי׃

You shall have no other gods besides Me.”

Ramban, in his Torah commentary, uses this verse as an opportunity to explain his mystical perception of idolatry where although idolatrous energies are considered real, Jews are nevertheless prohibited from engaging in such worship because they can change the course of the Divine order of the world.

Ramban then goes on to explain the historical development of idolatry. It started, in his view, with the relatively mild acts of adoration of angels. Angels are sometimes referred to as gods or ‘elohim[6] or ‘benei elohim[7] even in the Torah. Leicht (2011:254) explains Ramban as follows:

Accordingly, angelolatry is far from being sheer nonsense and may be seen instead as an adequate form of worship for all peoples other than the Jews, because they are in fact subject to angelic power.”

The second stage in the development of idolatry was when people began to worship the stars and became involved in astrology. This was when astral cults began to emerge and astrology evolved into ‘astrolatry’. And again, Leicht describes Ramban’s view that “the astrological worldview is basically conceived as being correct, although astrolatry is not for the chosen people either”.

The third and final stage in the development of idolatry, according to Ramban, was when demons became the focus of the attention of the worshippers.

Ramban writes:

והמין השלישי בע''ז, אחר כך חזרו לעבוד את השדים שהם רוחות, כאשר אפרש בע''ה (ויקרא יז ז), כי גם מהם יש ממונים על האומות שיהיו הם בעלי הארץ ההיא להזיק לצריהם ולנכשלים שבהם, כידוע מענינם בחכמת נגרמונסיא, גם בדברי רבותינו ובזה אמר הכתוב (דברים לב יז) יזבחו לשדים לא אלוה אלהים לא ידעום חדשים מקרוב באו לא שערום אבותיכם, לעג להם הכתוב שהם זובחים גם לשדים שאינם אלוה כלל, כלומר שאינם כמלאכים הנקראים אלוה, אבל הם אלהים שלא ידעום, כלומר שלא מצאו בהם שום אלהות וכח שולטנות, והם חדשים להם שלמדו לעשות כן מחדש מן המצרים המכשפים, וגם אבותיהם הרשעים כתרח ונמרוד לא שערום כלל. ומזה מזהיר ולא יזבחו עוד את זבחיהם לשעירים אשר הם זונים אחריהם (ויקרא יז ז)[8]

The third kind of idolatry appeared afterwards when people began worshipping the demons which are spirits, as I will explain later on with G-d’s help. Some of them too are appointed over the peoples to be masters of their lands and to harm their beleaguered ones and those who have stumbled, as is known of their activity through the art of necromancy, as well as through the words of our Rabbis. . . . Scripture ridicules them, [i.e., the Israelites], saying they sacrifice also to the demons who are no gods at all. That is to say, they are not like the angels who are called eloha.”

Thus, humankind’s association with idolatry traversed from the worship of angels, through stars and then eventually sunk to the lowest levels of worshiping demons and spirits. And yet again, Ramban informs us that even this last level of demonology which was unknown to the original idolaters of old, has some basis in reality and that it can be studied in what he refers to as “hochmat nagarmunsia/ nigromancia” (נגרומנסיאה, נגרמונסיא) or ‘necromancy’.

b) Source 2 (Leviticus 17:7)

We can find more information on Ramban’s view on demonology by turning to his commentary on Leviticus 17:7:

וְלֹא־יִזְבְּח֥וּ עוֹד֙ אֶת־זִבְחֵיהֶ֔ם לַשְּׂעִירִ֕ם אֲשֶׁ֛ר הֵ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַחֲרֵיהֶ֑ם חֻקַּ֥ת עוֹלָ֛ם תִּֽהְיֶה־זֹּ֥את לָהֶ֖ם לְדֹרֹתָֽם׃

and that they may offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after whom they stray. This shall be to them a law for all time, throughout the ages.”

In this verse, the ‘goat-demons’ are referred to as se’irim’. Rashi comments that ‘se’irim’ refers to ‘sheidim’ or demons. Ramban again uses this verse to elaborate upon his views regarding demons.

Leicht (2011:255) sums up Ramban’s view as follows:

they were created at the beginning of the creation from air and fire and accordingly they possess a body, albeit imperceptible due to its delicacy. Since they are composed of two elements, they are also destructible and can die just like men and animals as a natural result of decomposition. Demons know the near future, and the lightness of the elements they are composed of allows them to fly, but they need food. This, Nahmanides tells us, we can learn from the practices of the necromancers (ba’ale nigromansi’ah), who offer burned sacrifices to the demons and thus help them to sustain their bodies.”

Ramban writes (on Lev. 17:7):

The matter of “eating” [mentioned above in connection with these creatures] means their deriving nourishment from the moisture of water and the odors of fire…This is the purpose of the burnings which necromancers perform to the demons.”

Once more we see that although this type of demon worship is forbidden, the practices and effects surrounding that worship are considered to be real.

c) Source 3 (Leviticus 16:8)

וְנָתַ֧ן אַהֲרֹ֛ן עַל־שְׁנֵ֥י הַשְּׂעִירִ֖ם גֹּרָל֑וֹת גּוֹרָ֤ל אֶחָד֙ לַיהֹוָ֔ה וְגוֹרָ֥ל אֶחָ֖ד לַעֲזָאזֵֽל׃

and Aharon shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel.”

In a third source, referring to the ‘sod ha’inyan’ or secret of the goat sent to Azazel on Yom Kippur, we again find reference to chochmat nigromansi’a (the science of necromancy) when it comes to ruchot or spirits.

Although the worship of angels, stars and demons are forbidden to the Jew, according to Ramban, there is one exception, namely, the goat sent to the wilderness or Azazel on the Day of Atonement. Ramban writes (on Lev. 16:8):

Now, the Torah has totally forbidden to accept them as deities, or to worship them in any manner. However, the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded us that on the Day of Atonement we should let loose a goat in the wilderness, to that ‘prince’ [power] which rules over wasteland, and this [goat] is fitting for it because he is its master, and destruction and waste emanate from that power, which in turn is the cause of the stars of the sword, wars, quarrels, wounds, plagues, division and destruction. In short, it is the spirit of the sphere of Mars, and its portion among the nations is Esau [Rome], the people that inherited the sword and the wars, and among animals the se’irim (demons) and the goats. Also in its portion are the demons called ‘destroyers’ in the language of our Rabbis…”

Clearly, Ramban paid heed to appeasing the “prince which rules over wasteland” and explains that the goat sent to Azazel is the one occasion we are permitted, even commanded, to “adopt” an occult-like practice! This shows, for the third time, Ramban’s absolute belief in the reality of demons and spirits, and how we sometimes even learn from such enterprises. Ramban continues:

Thus the matter is explained…how the spirits [are affected by] the offerings’—[influence upon the spirits] being known through the study of necromancy…”

Ramban’s attack on Aristotle (read Rambam[9])

Ramban continues (still on Lev.16:8) to launch an attack on rationalist Aristotelian philosophers, probably alluding to Rambam himself:

I cannot explain more, for I would have to close the mouths of those who claim to be wise in the study of nature, following after that Greek [philosopher Aristotle] who denied everything except that which could be perceived by him [through the physical senses], and he, and his wicked disciples, were so proud as to suspect that whatever he could not conceive of through his reasoning is not true!

d) Source 4 (Deuteronomy 18:9)

כִּ֤י אַתָּה֙ בָּ֣א אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֣ן לָ֑ךְ לֹֽא־תִלְמַ֣ד לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת כְּתוֹעֲבֹ֖ת הַגּוֹיִ֥ם הָהֵֽם׃

When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations.”

In the fourth and final source in which Ramban uses the term ‘nigromancia’ or ‘necromancy’, we get more insight into his view on astral spirituality:

And now, know and understand concerning the subject of sorcery, that when the Creator, blessed be He, created everything from nothing, He made the higher powers to be guides for those below them. Thus He placed the earth and all things that are thereon in the power of the stars and constellations, depending on their rotation and position as proven by the study of astrology…

Thus if the direction of the stars towards the earth be good or bad to a certain country, people, or individual, the higher dominions can reverse it of their own volition…

Therefore, the author of the Book of the Moon [Sefer haLevanah][10], the expert in [the field of] necromancy, said, “when the moon, termed ‘the sphere of the world,’ is, for example, at the head of Aries (the Ram) and the constellation thus appears in a certain form, you should make a drawing of that grouping, engraving on it the particular time [when this relative position appears] and the name of the angel—one of the names mentioned in that book— appointed over it. Then perform a certain burning [of incense] in a certain specified manner, and the result of the influence [of the relative position of the stars] will be for evil, to root out and to pull down, and to destroy and to overthrow.

And when the moon will be in a position relative to some other constellation you should make the drawing and the burning in a certain other manner and the result will be for good, to build and to plant.”…

This then is the secret of [all forms of] sorcery…Therefore, it is proper that the Torah prohibit these activities in order to let the world rest in its customary way, in the simple nature which is the desire of the Creator.

In this section of Ramban’s commentary, he quotes from the first Hebrew book on astral magic, entitled Sefer haLevana. He then points out than many of these practices are forbidden by the Torah, not because they are nonsense (as Rambam would have it) but specifically because they are considered to be real and may affect the future course of reality.


These four rich sources illustrate for us how Ramban very successfully brought back into Judaism concepts of astral magic and ‘necromancy[11] that had effectively been outlawed by Rambam. Rambam believed that these practices were forbidden because demons and spirits were indeed nonsense and did not exist in actuality. According to Rambam, angels also did not exist in reality but were instead merely perceived in the imagination of the beholders. Ramban, however, as we have seen, believed they were all extremely real and actual and for that very reason such idolatrous practices were forbidden so as to allow for the world to continuein its customary way, in the simple nature which is the desire of the Creator”.

It is remarkable and truly fascinating that on such fundamental theological issues, we find such a great divide between both ‘fathers’ of Jewish rationalism and mysticism respectively.


Further reading



[1] Leicht, R., 2011, “Nahmanides on Necromancy” in Studies in the History of Culture and Science, vol. 30, Brill, Leiden, 251-264

[2] Schwartz, D., 2005, Studies on Astral Magic in Medieval Jewish Thought, Translated by David Louvish and Batya Stein, Brill, Leiden.

[3] See Ramban’s Torah commentaries on Exod. 20:2, Lev. 16:8, Lev. 17:7; Deut. 18:9.

[5] See Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avodah Zarah, ch 1. Moreh haNevuchim, III:29 and 37.

[6] Genesis 32:31.

[7] Genesis 6:2 and Job 1:6.

[8] Ramban’s commentary on Shemot 20:3.

[9] Rambam is often criticised for being a devout follower of Aristotelian philosophy.

[10] Parenthesis mine.

[11] See further in Leicht’s article (from p. 260 onwards) how he develops an understanding of Ramban’s definition of ‘necromancy’ which doesn’t always tally with the Greek definition of “divination by the dead” and is sometimes, but not always, used as a mere synonym for astral magic.


  1. how would the Rambam explain the gemara about Baalam cursing the jews

    1. If I may add, lo qasha. Bilam, as a clear reading of the pesuqim show, wanted to curse us via HaShem. Rashi comments Bilam knew the opportune time when HaShem is "angry" during the day and would curse then. In other words, a form of tefilla which isn't much at all like the astrology Ramban subscribed to.

  2. I cant speak for Rambam but I would imagine the same way he would deal with all the Gemoras (particularly in the Bavli) dealing with magic, healing, medical practices, superfluous miracles, negel vasser, angels and demons.