Attitudes Toward Jewish Magic

Judaism has had a long and tenuous relationship with magical beliefs and practices. Lists of prohibited magic appear at various junctures throughout the Bible, for example (Deuteronomy 18:10-11): “There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer.”

Yet in other biblical contexts, practices that would seem to be similarly questionable–interpreting dreams, using magic staffs, reciting blessings or curses, and referring to oracles–figure prominently as suitable behaviors for Israelite heroes. Moses and Aaron, for example, are celebrated for performing tricks that the Egyptian magicians could not match. The supernatural actions of Israelites–whose source of power is God–are welcomed; the actions of outsiders–whose power comes from sorcery–are derided.

magic quizThe rabbis in the Talmud make a similar distinction. They oppose some magic as the “ways of the Amorites” (Mishnah Shabbat 6:10) while describing other magical acts with wonder and pride. In one talmudic story, the prestige of a sage is significantly enhanced when it becomes apparent that hisTorah knowledge gave him supernatural powers that stopped a house from collapsing (Yerushalmi Ta’anit 3:11).

An anti-magic current in Jewish thought continued in the Middle Ages, and was expressed most strongly by the great rationalist Maimonides. Though he accepted that astrology has the ability to influence human behavior he declared that it, as well as other forms of magic, was an out-of-bounds and dangerous superstition, explicitly forbidden by Leviticus 19:26, “You shall not practice augury or witchcraft.”

Yet Jews continued to be associated with magical practices. In the Middle Ages, Christian beliefs about Jewish magic led to persecution and violence. Jews were occasionally charged with performing black magic, in allegiance with Satan, and this charge made them targets of the Inquisition. Certain Jewish customs, such as washing hands upon returning from a cemetery, aroused suspicion and provoked some bloody scenes. This even led Jews to abandon some religious practices and customs. In Provence, for example, the ritual cleansing of the public oven in preparation for Passover was neglected because it provoked suspicion of sorcery.

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