Magic is often defined as the exercise of control over nature with the assistance of unseen powerful forces. Belief in magic was an integral part of daily life in Eastern Europe, among Jews and non-Jews alike. Magic was expressed in Jewish life in a variety of ways: there were experts in the use of magic, known as ba‘ale shem (masters of the [Holy] Name); objects infused with magical powers (amulets); magical entities (demons); and literature devoted to magic, such as folk-remedy and charm literature. There was almost no facet of Jewish life that did not include some aspect of magic; and in certain matters, mainly related to health issues, magic was particularly important.
Magic and magicians were never entirely absent from Jewish society, having roots in almost the entire Jewish literary tradition: the Bible, the Talmud, halakhic and kabbalistic literature, ethical works, folk literature, and even parts of the philosophical tradition (the categorical rejection of magic by the school of Maimonides was unusual in Jewish tradition). Elements of the practice of magic, including types of soothsaying, were prevalent from the time of the Talmudic sages until modern times, and sometimes influences from local magical lore also joined with ancient traditions.
On the whole, magic is more multicultural than ethnic, with numerous practices common to people of a certain region. Thus, there are many similarities between elements of Jewish magic in Eastern Europe and analogous manifestations in Christian society. Magical knowledge connected to healing and traditional herbal medicine, for example, was found among both Jewish and Christian women who were familiar with the traditions regarding the healing powers of local flora, and who combined this knowledge with incantations; their neighbors and Jews feared the evil eye (Yid., eyn hore; Heb., ‘ayin ha-ra‘). Moreover, among some Christians, belief in the special magical powers of Jews flourished.
The progressive percolation of Kabbalah into all aspects of East European Jewish culture from the end of the sixteenth century was accompanied by an intensification of interest in magic. No sharp distinctions were drawn between esoteric knowledge in general and knowledge of magic in particular. Magic was one dimension of esoterica—of Kabbalah. Indeed, the practitioners of magic were often called kabbalists. At the same time, there were competing norms that arose from the belief that magical manipulation of divine names was dangerous and to be avoided. The attaching of taboos to such praxis was characteristic of folk magic in general. Nevertheless, the desperation of people who were felt to be assailed by demons frequently pressed them to overcome these prohibitions. And the dangerous quality of magic was an integral part of its attractiveness.
Belief in magic was widespread among both the broad populace and the enlightened elite. It was not uncommon for distinguished halakhic scholars, such as Naftali ha-Kohen Katz (d. 1719) and Yonatan Eybeschütz (d. 1764), to practice forms of magic. Not only did most of the Jewish intellectual elite not object to magic, but it was they who preserved and passed down knowledge of it to succeeding generations.
Before the eighteenth century, the practitioners of magic in East European Jewish communities were most often certain rabbis who were reputed to possess shaman-like qualities. They were often known as ba‘ale shem, a term that had been in use for centuries. In the eighteenth century, ba‘ale shem underwent a process of professionalization and specialization. A ba‘al shem, or ba‘al shem tov (master of the good name)—the two terms were used interchangeably—knew the secret names of God and could manipulate them to serve his purposes. He was familiar also with the “other side,” and knew how to combat the demons and other evil forces that were resident there. He could see into the future and visualize what was happening far away. Often he was a healer who knew the power of certain herbs and other plants; he knew the magical arts of metoposcopy and chiromancy (reading the forehead or the palm to determine the state of a person’s soul). He could prepare amulets and charms that would make a person invisible, ensure that a barren woman would conceive, protect a woman in childbirth, cure the sick, or safeguard a traveler on a journey.
Newborns, who are the very embodiment of vulnerability, were particularly in need of protection from female demons such as Lilith, who might steal the infant and substitute a clay-and-straw doll. Eliyahu Ba‘al Shem of Khelem (Pol., Chełm; seventeenth century) was reputed to have defeated 100,000 witches in order to rescue an infant stolen in this way. The same Eliyahu was said to have created a golem in a legendary account associated much later with Maharal of Prague.
Ba‘ale shem often published books providing instructions based on their own esoteric knowledge and traditions and instructing readers in the recitation of incantations and the preparation of talismans and amulets. These books generated growing expectations and demands that could be met only by experts—that is, the ba‘ale shem themselves—and raised the status in society of the authors, the selfsame ba‘ale shem. Among the published works of this kind were Amtaḥat Binyamin (1716), Toldot adam (1720), Mif‘alot Elohim (1725), and Shem tov katan (1781). These books provided guidance, incantations, folk medicine recipes, and charms (segulot; sg., segulah) to deal with a variety of problems, dangers, and difficulties. Such segulot also appeared in other books, in a nonspecialized context. Thus, Sefer ha-ḥayim by Shim‘on Frankfurt (1703), a Hebrew–Yiddish book of prayers to be recited during times of illness and death, includes in the Yiddish section certain remedies that the author considered particularly effective for improving a man’s sex life.
Impotence, like barrenness, was understood as the consequence of demonic activity. An impotent man was called “one who is prevented from having intercourse”; what prevented him was witchcraft. Often the victim was a newly married groom, who was considered particularly vulnerable to demons. The multiplicity of magical solutions propounded in the literature of this period to solve the problem of impotence suggests that it was common indeed. Here is one segulah for the combating of impotence:
If a person is prevented from having intercourse, he should take a sword with which a man has been killed in that very year and a red apple. He should cut the apple in two with the sword, giving half to her and half to himself. This should be done at dawn on a Tuesday or a Friday. (Toldot adam, no. 38)
Going out at night, the time when demons are most active, is seen as an action fraught with danger:
If a man is out on the road at night and he sees an image of candlelight skipping from place to place, called in Yiddish parfir likhter, these are spirits. It is their way to mislead a person, causing him to go the wrong way. [To overcome this] he should say, three times: “And God said to Satan.” (Ya‘akov ben Mosheh, Minḥat Ya‘akov solet )
Magical means could also be used to combat dangers posed by other mortals, such as thieves and robbers:
Here is a great secret for travel, to see and not be seen by any person who is an enemy, a thief, or a violent man. It is tested and checked. I have myself tried it, with the help of God, in dangerous places several times, and it worked and is a great thing. (Shem tov katan, 24a)
This charm, attributed to Naḥmanides, is based on the recitation of certain verses in a fixed order.
The integral absorption of magic into Jewish daily life is reflected in its appearance in ethical literature. An especially popular book in this genre was Kav ha-yashar by Tsevi Hirsh Koidanover, printed in a bilingual Hebrew and Yiddish edition. This book vividly describes a demonic world in an attempt to warn the reader of the severe consequences of committing moral sins. In the ethical will Yesh noḥalin (1701) there is an instruction that Psalm 91, considered particularly effective in keeping demons away, be recited seven times by seven pious and learned men as the body is being lowered into the grave.
Demons were also mentioned in halakhic literature. In Shabetai ha-Kohen’s Sifte Kohen, for example, we find: “And it is known . . . that there is one angel called Shed [lit., “demon,” but also a Hebrew acronym for a guard of book pages], and he harms whoever leaves a book open” (Yoreh de‘ah, 277, paragraph A). References to demonic spirits within halakhic works did not need explanation or rationale for their inclusion.
At times, some halakhic practices may themselves have acquired magical meaning—as, for example, the ceremony performed after one experiences a bad dream, in order to prevent its coming to pass. In Eastern Europe, in accordance with age-old Jewish tradition, dreams were regarded as a means of communication with spiritual entities and with powers in the upper worlds, as well as with the dead.
A dimension of magic whose spread was aided by the Kabbalah was the concept of reincarnation of the soul: the belief that the souls of the deceased return to this world in different forms—as a human being, an animal, or an inanimate object. Kosher slaughter and eating in accordance with Jewish law (incorporating, e.g., washing of hands and recitation of blessings) acquired an additional magical aura because of the notion of reincarnation. Thus, if an animal were slaughtered according to the laws of kashrut, then the soul that had been reincarnated in that beast was set free and able to improve its spiritual level.
Another expression of the connection between the worlds of the present and the hereafter was the dybbuk (Heb., dibuk), the evil spirit of a deceased person who would take possession of a human body and communicate through it. In such cases, a professional who enjoyed halakhic authority would be summoned in order to cast out the dybbuk, and would do so by magical means—generally using oaths, incantations, and ritual ceremonial objects such as a shofar, candles, prayer shawls, or a Torah scroll. Sometimes this ritual would be performed in the synagogue. The world of the dead was, in general, one of the most important sources of the presence of magic in Jewish daily life; it was considered essential to follow customs intended to guard the space between the dead and the living.
Magic held a special place in the Hasidic movement. The founder of Hasidism, Yisra’el Ba‘al Shem Tov, was also an active magician and a practitioner of folk medicine. The Hasidic tsadik was understood to possess magical talismanic powers, and could advance the spiritual and material welfare of his disciples by bringing abundance to this world from the upper world. Rebbes often wrote amulets, and their followers turned to them for protection, for problem solving, and for information from divine sources regarding issues that were troubling them, including practical matters. The Hasidic court was often the site of magical doings, in addition to being a center for prayer and for spiritual and social activity. Magic is widespread in Hasidic tales about the wondrous deeds of tsadikim, from Shivḥe ha-Besht (In Praise of the Ba‘al Shem Tov) through the whole of Hasidic hagiographic literature.
Magic was one aspect of the traditional world that suffered particularly venomous criticism by followers of the Enlightenment. Manifestations of magic and demonology were mocked in the writings of maskilim, who considered magical beliefs a clear sign of the cultural backwardness of traditional Jews. On the other hand, Jewish ethnography was very interested in Jewish magic, and the An-ski Ethnographic Expedition uncovered magical practices as well as magical objects among Jews of the Russian Pale.
Avri’el Bar-Levav, “Magyah be-sifrut ha-musar,” Tarbits 72.3 (2003): 389–414; Immanuel Etkes, The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader, trans. Saadya Sternberg (Waltham, Mass., and Hanover, N.H., 2005); Matt Goldish, ed., Spirit Possession in Judaism: Cases and Contexts from the Middle Ages to the Present (Detroit, 2003); Moshe Idel, Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic (Albany, N.Y., 1995); Moshe Idel, “On Judaism, Jewish Mysticism and Magic,” in Envisioning Magic, ed. Peter Schäfer and Hans G. Kippenberg, pp. 195–214 (Leiden, 1997); Hagit Matras, “Sifre segulot u-refu’ot be-‘ivrit: Tekhanim u-mekorot ‘al pi ha-sefarim ha-ri’shonim asher yats’u la-or be-Eropah be-re’shit ha-me’ah ha-18” (Ph.D. diss., The Hebrew University, 1997), abstract in English; Gedalyah Nigal, Sipure dibuk be-sifrut Yisra’el (Jerusalem, 1983); Gedalyah Nigal, Magic, Mysticism and Hasidism: The Supernatural in Jewish Thought (Northvale, N.J., 1994); Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition (Philadelphia, 2004); Samuel Werses, “Tofa‘ot shel magyah ve-demonologyah be-aspaklaryah ha-satirit shel maskile Galitsyah,” in “Hakitsah ‘ami”: Sifrut ha-haskalah be-‘idan ha-modernizatsyah, pp. 353–384 (Jerusalem, 2001), also in Meḥkere Yerushalayim be-folklor yehudi 17 (1994/95): 33–62; Eli Yassif, Jewish Folklore: An Annotated Bibliography (New York, 1986).
Translated from Hebrew by Sharon Makover-Assaf