The Use of Scripture in Practical Kabbalah
First Published: 2000-06-15
Last Modified: 2006-04-28
Given the immese power and lifeforce attributed to the Torah and the Hebrew alphabet, it is no suprise that psalms and other Biblical passages were widely used in practical Kabbalah to protect people from harm, defend against demons, perform exorcisms, and, occasionally, for personal gain or to attack an enemy.
Psalms in particular were popular in practical Kabbalah, and were used to ward off evil, drive away demons, and in amulets used in protection and healing. This section contains an overview of uses; for additional information and examples, see the sections on demonology and amulets.
Psalms 91: Widely regarded as the "Anti-Demonic Psalm", it was often recited at night and before sleeping. Said with other Biblical selections 72 times, it was supposed to deliver one from prison.
Psalms 85:2: This verse was used in the expulsion of demons from a place. Personally I find Psalms 85:1-8 particularly graceful in its hopeful appeal for mercy.
Psalms 10: Recited multiple times in a procedure to expel a demon from a person.
Psalms 121 and 126: These two Psalms were used, particularly on amulets, to ward off Lilith, Queen of Demons. Psalms 121 eventually became the favored choice.
Psalms 3: Another anti-demonic Psalm, though not as popular as Psalms 91.
A book called Shimmush Tehillim ("On the Use of Psalms"), was very popular and widely translated, even in Christian circles, though it was banned by the Catholic Church.
The Shema, V'Ahavta, and the Mezuzah
The Shema is regarded as the most important phrase in Jewish liturgy. It is Deuteronomy 6:4:
Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.
Shema Yisroel, Adonai Elohainu, Adonai ekhad.
The Shema is an affirmation of faith, and it was often recited by martyrs who chose death over revocation of Judaism or conversion. It does appear on some amulets, and it is also used with other Biblical passages in the mezuzah, an object which has been viewed as one with protective power.
The mezuzah (lit., "doorpost") is small fixture (a sort of box, locket, or similar container) attached to doorposts containing a piece of parchment with the Shema and other verses. What follows the Shema is often referred to as V'Ahavta ("And you shall love"), the opening word to the first of these verses, Deut. 6:4-9. Following these are Deut. 11:13-20 and Numbers 15:37-41. The word Sheddai, a Name of God meaning "Almighty", is written on the reverse of the parchment. The mezuzah verses not only state that one should be devoted to God and carry out and remember His commandments, but also teach this to one's children, and display one's devotion in various physical ways, including the marking of the doorpost.
At times the mezuzah was believed to protect the home. In the medeival period, in some countries, extra verses or charms were added for further protection, and they were believed to be powerful devices; I have read one account, quoted in two sources, of a bishop asking for one for his home! Mezuzot should be checked periodically to make sure the parchment is intact and in order; in centuries past this was very important, especially if one wished to keep evil out of their home. Today, some Jews wear a miniature mezuzah as a charm on a necklace, as an affirmation of faith. Although I'm not certain, the custom of wearing a mezuzah as jewelry may have gained popularity during World War I, when some Jewish soldiers attached them to their watch-fobs for luck and protection, and "...to deflect bullets," as Trachtenberg noted in 1939.
Some scholars consider the mezuzah an amulet or talisman, or at least feel that in certain eras it should be classified as such. To support this theory they relate examples of medieval mezuzot which contain extra materials, such as extra Names of God, angel names, and even magic symbols. Others disagree, insisting it is simply the fulfilment of a commandment and an affirmation of faith, regardless of additional "enhancements" made by the superstitious.
In my personal experience, it's been mostly the latter, but with a hint of the former. One incident comes to mind: When I moved out of my parents' house, my father, who is a well-educated and rational person, said, "Make sure you get a mezuzah." I replied I was thinking of taking the one from my bedroom door, since the room would be empty once I was gone. "No," he said, "Get a new one for the new place. Besides, it's good luck."
The Priestly Benediction
I feel special mention needs to be made of the Priestly Benediction or Priestly Blessing, Birkhat Kohanim, which is Numbers 6:24-26:
The Lord bless you and keep you, The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious unto you, The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and grant you peace.
This blessing was originally to be said Aaron and his sons of the Israelites; it was later said by the Kohanim (priests) over the people. Today it has been worked into the liturgy. The speaker(s) of the blessing hold their hands up to the congregation in a particular fashion while reciting it. The best way I can describe it is this: imagine holding both of your hands in the Vulcan "live long and prosper" position. Before anyone accuses me of being silly or disrespectful, you should know that this is where Leonard Nimoy got the idea in the first place!
The Priestly Benediction was used in popular application not only for blessing, but for protection against the Evil Eye. One Name of God used in Practical Kabbalah is derived from it; for more information see the section on the Names of God.
I have in my possession a small "prayer token" made of bone, supposedly dating to the early 1900s, which contains the first line of the Priestly Benediction around its circumference, with the Shema at its center. It was probably intended as a sort of good luck charm.
Other Biblical Verses Used in Practical Kabbalah
There were many, many uses for Biblical passages. Verses were believed to have power either by virtue of containing one or more Names of God, or because they applied to the situation at hand. A Tzaddik or Ba'al Shem, by virtue of his righteousness, could draw on the power of these words, but ordinary people also included specific verses in their prayers. It was even said that a truly pure and righteous person could kill with combinations of verses and certain Names of God.
One book on this topic was Sefer Gematriot, a book of numerology which evaluated and compared Biblical verses based on their numerical value (see Names of God). It also contained a list of appropriate Biblical terms for use in wards, charms, curses, blessings, etc.
There are far too many uses for me to list here, so below is a short list of interesting and particularly useful examples. In many cases each word and the entire verse was to read forward and backward. For an entire chapter on the use of the Bible in practical Kabbalah and folk practice, see Joshua Trachtenburg's Jewish Magic and Superstition.
- To counteract magic, recite the following verses, which all begin and end in the Hebrew letter nun, in the following order: Lev. 13:9, Nu. 32:32, Deut. 18:15, Song of Songs 4:11, Prov. 7:17, Prov. 20:27, I Chron. 12:2, Jer. 50:8, Ps. 78:12, and Ps. 77:21. You may also recite Ex. 22:17 and Is. 41:24; Lev. 1:1; or Nu. 23: 21-23.
- Exodus 30:34-8: When meditated on properly, protects against magic, plagues, and demons, and can postpone a visit from the Angel of Death(!).
- For protection from sorcery: Numbers 23:22-33
- For general protection at night: Genesis 49:19
- Recite before bedtime and over infants for protection from demons: Numbers 6:24-27, Deuteronomy 32:10-12
- To have a prayer answered: Exodus 34:6-7, Exodus 15:2
- For love: Song of Songs 1:3
- To dispel a fever: Numbers 12:13; Deuteronomy 7:15
- For success: Genesis 39:2; Exodus 15:11
- For safety on a journey: Ex. 15:13; Numbers 10:35-36
- Salvation from impending danger: Exodus 6:6-7
- Against an enemy: Ex. 15:5-6, 15:9, 15:19; Duet. 22:6; Is. 10:14, Prov. 1:17
- For the death of an enemy: Numbers 14
- For invisibility: Genesis 19:11
- For victory in war: Exodus 15:3; Deut. 21:10
- Against wild beasts: Deut. 18:13
- To dissipate illusions, mirages, and hallucinations: Ex. 15:16
- For divination in dreams: Deut. 29:28; Song of Songs 1:7
If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more, I recommend:
Scholem, Gershom. Kabbalah. Keter Publishing House Jerusalem, Ltd., 1974. Full Listing »
Trachtenburg, Joshua. Jewish Magic and Superstition. Atheneum, 1987. Full Listing »
For more titles on this and other topics, you may also wish to browse my annotated biblography for listings of all of my source texts, including descriptions and brief reviews.