Jewish Healing & Magic

"Whatever is effective as a remedy is not witchcraft (Shabbat 67a)"--is that really the case?


Reprinted with permission from the Encyclopedia of Magic, Myth, and Mysticism (Llewellyn Worldwide).

Preventing and curing illness and disease is a universal human preoccupation. Jews have been tremendously influential in the history of Western medicine and their reputation as formidable healers reaches back into classical antiquity.

Who Creates Illness and Heals?

In the Bible, God is the most often identified source for disease and healing (Exodus 15:26), and the most common cause for God sending disease is sin (Deut. 28:27).

God flatly declares, “I wound and I heal (Deuteronomy 32:40).” It would have been logical, therefore, to conclude that human medicine and healing are actually contravening the divine will.

Jewish tradition does not accept this line of argument, however (Shabbat 82b), and instead argues that the human attempts at healing are analogous to the human cultivation of the earth: a necessary activity if human life is to thrive (Midrash Shmuel). The appropriateness of healing incantations is also debated, one side arguing that a variety of healing practices are de facto magic prohibited by the Torah, while others permit any remedy meant for healing or the protection of health (Horayot 13b; Shabbat 67a-67b; Tosefta Shabbat 7:21; Yerushalmi Shabbat 6:9).

Just as Jews believed that illness can have supernatural origins, it can likewise be treated via magical, theurgic, and other supernatural means. In practice, all this has meant that amulets, spells, exorcisms, and potions were a regular part of the healer’s arsenal of treatments.

In the Dead Sea Scrolls, evil spirits are regarded as the source of many illnesses, an idea that finds parallels in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ healing ministries. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, there exists a fragmentary text (4Q560) that is a collection of protective formulae for fending off demonic attack. Specifically, it deals with protection against fevers, tuberculosis, chest pain, and the dangers of childbirth. Other texts (4Q510-11; 11Q11) deal with the binding of disease-causing demons.

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Geoffrey Dennis is rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, TX. He is also lecturer in Kabbalah and rabbinic literature at the University of North Texas.

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