The Jewish Take On "Magic"
First Published: 2000-06-15
Last Modified: 2006-04-30
Yet though he tried every source, he could get no information about magic, for magic was forbidden to the Jews, God's chosen people. Isaac Ibn Sahula, Meshal Ha-Kadmoni (1281).
Throughout these essays "magic" or "white magic", when used to describe practical Kabbalah, will appear in quotes. I use the word "magic" only when I have to, and only for lack of a better term. The Jewish mystics who wrote about creating golems, exorcising evil spirits, creating amulets, and so on did not call what they were doing "magic", nor did they consider themselves "magicians."
Why Practical Kabbalah Isn't Considered "Magic"
"Magician", "witch", and "sorcerer" are typically titles Jewish writers assigned to adversaries who made use of unholy names, demons, other gods, or other harmful practices. In Exodus we find "Thou shalt not tolerate a sorceress to live." (22:17)
The practical Kabbalists' use of Names of God and divine invocation, on the other hand, was considered something of a higher class of action, for which there does not seem to be any specific name or single word. Occasionally I have seen the word "magic" used in a more positive light, but only in fairy tale-style stories. More often the writer simply describes what the Jewish mystic or kabbalist does, or may use broad phrases such as, "by means of the Kabbalah" or "by means of a holy Name".
Despite their view of themselves, accusations leveled against Jews in centuries past included sorcery and witchcraft. It's not so surprising, really. They often lived in a segregated community, spoke foreign languages (i.e., Hebrew, Yiddish), had special rules for eating, and different holidays and rituals not understood by the people living near them. One of the most common myths was that they would snatch Christian children and use their blood to make Passover matzot (unleavened bread). Another was their association with witchcraft (another misunderstood practice). This was completely unrealistic for a couple of reasons.
As far as using blood goes, no true Jew would ever think of such a thing. It defies kosher laws! Also forbidden is inappropriate use or handling of a corpse, human or animal. There were (are still?) rules concerning proper disposal of cut hair and fingernails!
Personally I know little about Wicca, Druidism, and the persecution of witches. Joshua Trachtenburg presents this scenario: Christians who persecuted witches would claim that witchcraft involved the worship of Satan, which supposedly centered around blasphemous parodies of Christian ritual (e.g., a black mass or upside-down crosses). Why would a Jew, he wrote, who has no interest in Christianity, carry on in this manner? If they have nothing to do with Christianity, how could they know to mock it so precisely? And why would it have any meaning to them in the first place? My very limited knowledge of true Wicca indicates that it has nothing to do with Christianity or Satanism in the first place, making it a long-misunderstood practice as well, and the entire "witchcraft is Satan-worship" claim invalid from the start.
In contrast to Christianity, it is the method of performing "magic", and not the act of doing it in the first place, which caused debate in Jewish circles. Assuming use of the practical Kabbalah was allowed at all within a Jewish community of a given time and place, rules were established and lines were drawn between what was forbidden and what was permitted.
- Any act which is performed without divine or related supernatural aid. In other words, any act which does not rely in some way on the power of God and/or His creations (e.g., angels).
- Anything which produces a material effect solely by means of "the performance of an act", such as transmuting one thing into another. (Moses' staff becoming a snake would in my mind be an exception, since that was a divine actGod made this happen, and personally directed Moses' actions, in an attempt to sway the Pharaoh.) This was also known as "manipulating the inner nature of a thing".
- Inappropriate use of the Divine to do harm, serve greed, or to blatantly defy nature. For example, the Ba'al Shem Abu Aharon was chastised for using Holy Names to make a lion turn his mill (after the lion ate his donkey), not because he used "magic" or called on God's power, but because it upset the natural order of things. A lion is not meant to do such a thing.
- The use of sympathetic magic; that is, affecting someone or something from a distance through the use of an image or effigy (like a doll). This would generally be considered manipulating the inner nature of a person or thing without divine aid (see above), which is forbidden. Though these practices seem to have been forbidden, I have found references to and examples of sympathetic "recipes" for love charms and so on, probably borrowed from non-Jewish sources. I have also encountered stories of hero-rabbis using a mirror to see evildoers or reflect their attacks back on them. There seems to have been a legitimate means of getting to someone via a divine third party; this was by calling on an angel known as the memuneh.
- That which creates an illusion, because illusions are the creations of demons.
- "Black Magic", necromancy, the use of unholy Names, etc. Knowledge of these matters was not forbidden (since it was sometimes necessary to combat the forces of evil), but practicing them was. Unfortunately,because information on the "black arts" was sometimes included in the same book as information on acceptable, practical Kabbalah, this contributed to the negative reputation of the practical Kabbalists.
- That which invokes God or other supernatural aid (e.g., angels).
- That which relies on the use of divine Names.
As you can see, what is "permitted" occupies a fairly limited scope which eliminates much what we would normally call "magic". (Still, we find some very creative applications within the boundaries.)
The point, and the most important thing to keep in mind, is that the power lies not with the mortal, but with God. It is the mortal's piety, virtue, and knowledge which allows him to call on this divine aidnot a small thing at all, when you think about it. As long as the process involved divine intervention for the right reasons, it was acceptable.
Many Jewish mystics also believed astrology to be a permissible "magic", since the stars were associated with the heavens. Moses Isserles called this the "scientific" branch of the "magical arts","by which a man can foretell the future, make talismans, and subdue the spirits and the powers of the stars..."
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 »
Newall, Venetia. Witch In History, The. Barnes and Noble, 1996. Full Listing »
Nigal, Gedalyah. Magic, Mysticism, and Hasidism. Jason Aronson, 1994. 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.