Jewish Magic and Superstition

Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion

Foreword by Moshe Idel
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 392
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    Jewish Magic and Superstition
    Book Description:

    Alongside the formal development of Judaism from the eleventh through the sixteenth centuries, a robust Jewish folk religion flourished-ideas and practices that never met with wholehearted approval by religious leaders yet enjoyed such wide popularity that they could not be altogether excluded from the religion. According to Joshua Trachtenberg, it is not possible truly to understand the experience and history of the Jewish people without attempting to recover their folklife and beliefs from centuries past. Jewish Magic and Superstition is a masterful and utterly fascinating exploration of religious forms that have all but disappeared yet persist in the imagination. The volume begins with legends of Jewish sorcery and proceeds to discuss beliefs about the evil eye, spirits of the dead, powers of good, the famous legend of the golem, procedures for casting spells, the use of gems and amulets, how to battle spirits, the ritual of circumcision, herbal folk remedies, fortune telling, astrology, and the interpretation of dreams. First published more than sixty years ago, Trachtenberg's study remains the foundational scholarship on magical practices in the Jewish world and offers an understanding of folk beliefs that expressed most eloquently the everyday religion of the Jewish people.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0833-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xxvi)
    Moshe Idel

    The author of Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion, Joshua Trachtenberg (1904–1959), was a reform rabbi active on the eastern coast of the United States for most of his career. He studied at Columbia University—and this book represents an advanced form of his Ph.D. thesis—and served as a rabbi in communities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In turning his attention to the neglected field of magic, he was indubitably inspired by Lynn Thorndike’s classic series on this subject. Thorndike, also a Columbia scholar, was one of the readers of this book. However, it should...

    (pp. xxvii-xxxii)
    (pp. 1-10)

    The anomalous position of the Jew in the modern world is but a latter-day version of the fate that has dogged his footsteps ever since he wandered forth among strange and hostile peoples. In no time and place, however, was his status—and his plight—so manifestly unique as in medieval Europe. The essence of that uniqueness lay in his ambiguous relationship to the Christian society in which he led his precarious existence, on the one hand influenced by all the objective forces which molded his environment, on the other, shut off from that environment by insurmountable walls of suspicion...

    (pp. 11-24)

    The legend of the Jew as sorcerer supreme was of Gentile making, fashioned after the latest pattern of the up-to-date thaumaturge, but like most ready-made fables it fitted the truth none too closely. For if Jews were not the malefic sorcerers that Christian animosity made them out to be, they still possessed an ancient and honorable tradition of magic which had been solicitously nourished until in the Middle Ages it reached its highest stage of development. Sheltered from Christian eyes by secrecy and the impenetrable wall of a strange tongue and an even stranger mystical vocabulary and method peculiar to...

    (pp. 25-43)

    At the basis of Jewish magic lay the belief in a vast, teeming “middle world,” a world neither of the flesh nor altogether and exclusively of the spirit. Demons and angels, to be counted only in myriads, populated that world; through their intermediacy the powers of magic were brought into operation. The most frequently employed terms for magic were hashba‘at malachim and hashba‘at shedim, invocation and conjuration of angels and demons. The peculiar rôle of the angels, heavenly counterparts of all earthly phenomena, as well as the direct servants and emissaries of God, closest to His ear, rendered powerful indeed...

    (pp. 44-60)

    We may well believe, as we go through this material, that people pay dearly for their superstitions. It is difficult, of course, to judge the emotional tone, the intensity of the terror which the medieval Jew experienced in braving such a demon-ridden world. Our sources are wholly impersonal; writing of an introspective nature was altogether unknown. We can only conjecture on the basis of the chance personal comments that wormed their way quite incidentally into a literature which was primarily legalistic and exegetical. It is significant, for instance, that a homely little book like the Yiddish Brantspiegel,¹ intended for the...

    (pp. 61-68)

    The ties that bind man to his home and his associates are insoluble—even death cannot part them. Long after the body has departed this life, the spirit still frequents its ancient haunts, maintaining a shadowy connection with the world it knew and loved. This is the conception of death that has prevailed since man first had ideas on the subject, and it persists to this day more or less overtly. Among Jews it was never completely ousted by the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. After all, according to the prevailing polypsychism of the Middle Ages, man is...

    (pp. 69-77)

    The characteristic and distinguishing feature of medieval Jewish magic was the function which it assigned to the angels, the agents of God. The magical use of angels was of course predicated upon the assumption that the world is very thickly populated with them, and that they play a unique rôle in nature. The figures vary from a mere few hundred thousand all the way up to 496,000 myriads—and these are only partial estimates.¹ We may readily believe this when we learn that every single thing on earth, animate or inanimate, from man through all of creation, birds and beasts,...

  11. 7 “IN THE NAME OF . . .”
    (pp. 78-103)

    Outstanding among those beliefs that are universally characteristic of the religion of superstition is the conviction that “a man’s name is the essence of his being” (one Hebrew text says “a man’s name is his person” and another, “his name is his soul”). This doctrine elevated the process of naming a child into one of major importance. The name carried with it all the associations it had accumulated in history, and stamped the character of its earlier owners upon its new bearer, so that the choice of a name was fraught with grave responsibility. But the desire to bless a...

    (pp. 104-113)

    The line that separates magic from religion is exceedingly tenuous, and the magician is never loath to step across it to appropriate for his own purposes purely religious objects and beliefs. Or perhaps I should put it the other way ’round—certain religious elements acquire in time an aura of sacredness and power which clothes them, in the eyes of superstitious people, with magical properties, and they thus offer themselves spontaneously to the sorcerer. In practice, the process involves not so much a deliberate act of appropriation on the part of the magician, who is himself a member of the...

    (pp. 114-131)

    A magical performance was rarely a simple act, such as the recital of a Biblical verse or of a series of names. It was usually determined by such considerations as the qualifications of the magician and the attendant auspices, called into play the magic potencies of numbers, and comprised a variety of actions, such as the recitation of an incantation composed after certain rules, the performance of one or several of a number of traditionally accredited acts, and the application of sympathetic devices. An examination of these elements, which were variously combined in practice, is essential to an understanding of...

  14. 10 AMULETS
    (pp. 132-152)

    One of the most popular of magical devices was the amulet, worn upon the person or attached to objects and animals (the Hebrew word for amulet, kame‘a, has the root meaning “to bind”). Even in our supposedly non-superstitious age the good-luck charm is still quite familiar, apologetically displayed on watch-chain, or carried furtively in the recesses of pockets and purses—the rabbit’s foot, the horseshoe, lucky coins, rings engraved with Chinese or Hebrew letters, animal molars. How much more common, then, are such objects in societies which unashamedly and openly accept them for what they are, whether in the less...

  15. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
    (pp. 153-180)

    It is erroneous to assume that magic is practiced exclusively by professionals, or that it represents always a conscious, deliberate act. As Karl Goldmark once said, “Civilized people lose their religion easily, but rarely their superstitions.” There is an anecdote of a well-known actress who, when asked by a zetetic reporter what was her favorite superstition, replied, “Thank Heaven, I have none!”—and unconsciously “knocked wood” as she spoke. How many of us still “knock wood” when we hear or utter a word of praise, without in the least being aware that we are repeating an age-old magical act whose...

    (pp. 181-192)

    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...

  18. 13 MEDICINE
    (pp. 193-207)

    Medieval medicine was a curiously indiscriminate compound of science and such superstition as we have been describing. The Greek-Arab-Jewish tradition, itself well freighted with a large residuum of early magic, provided none the less a fairly “scientific” foundation upon which the European peoples superimposed their own ancient folk notions and nostrums until the whole made a most imposing and fearsome structure. The medieval “theriac,” a mélange of a thousand and one weird and exotic medicaments, is probably at once its aptest example and metaphor. So darkly obscured was his science that the physician was often a powerful exponent of magic...

    (pp. 208-229)

    The thorny problem of free will, which has defeated greater philosophers than German Jewry produced, came no nearer a solution than where the rabbis of the Talmud had left it. The rabbinic authorities of Northern Europe were not distinguished for their concern with metaphysics; the problem interested them only in its more immediate and practical aspects. Is man’s life foreordained? Is there any point in trying to live the good life? Do sincere repentance and piety affect the course of a man’s career? Is it possible to discover future events? These were the questions that engaged their attention—and to...

  20. 15 DREAMS
    (pp. 230-248)

    In the long pre-Freudian centuries, before the mystery of the dream was reduced to all too human terms, when men still listened for the voice of God in the still of the night, dreams played a greater rôle in shaping ideas and actions and careers than it is easy for us today to believe. If we have come to look upon these nocturnal visions as the products of experience, we have simply reversed the older, though not yet altogether discarded, view which made of them initiators of experience. The supernatural world communicated with man through the dream, and spoke words...

  21. 16 ASTROLOGY
    (pp. 249-259)

    We Possess no one body of doctrine that describes so pervasive and dominant a pattern in the fabric of modern life as did the “science” of astrology in the medieval. According to one of the foremost students of the Middle Ages, Prof. Lynn Thorndike, “Astrology is the most widespread, as it is the most pseudo-scientific of any variety of the magic arts. Indeed, it has ceased to be merely one method of divination and claims to study and disclose the universal law of nature in the rule of the stars, by which every fact in nature and every occult influence...

    (pp. 260-264)
  23. APPENDIX II MS. SEFER GEMATRIAOT, pp. 43a–44b, ON GEMS (Notes on pp. 267–268)
    (pp. 265-268)
    (pp. 269-270)
  25. NOTES
    (pp. 271-314)
    (pp. 315-332)
    (pp. 333-334)
  28. INDEX
    (pp. 335-357)