Author Archives: Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis

Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis

About Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis

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.

Urim and Tummim

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

The Urim and Tummim (“Light and Perfection” or “Perfect Lights”) was a method of divination that was worn as part of the priestly garments (Exodus 28; Numbers 27; I Samuel 28). Little is truly known about Urim and Tummim; even the name has been subjected to wildly different translations.

A Conduit for Messages

The Rabbis understood the Urim and Tummim to be part of the breastplate of the High Priest and that its oracular function came from light shining through the 12 gemstones mounted on the breastplate (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 38).

This was achieved by having a plate inscribed with the Tetragrammaton inserted behind the gemstone mounts. Supernal light radiating from the divine name would illuminate different stones. Since each stone was inscribed with the names of the 12 tribes, the Talmud teaches that it functioned as a kind of Ouija board, withm messages being spelled on the Urim and Tummim for the High Priest.

InPirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, it is taught that the stone representing a tribe would glow if the tribe was involved in a transgression, but then the diviner would have to discern the specifics himself (38). Some believe the Urim were the lights, while the Tummim was a device or code that helped in interpreting the message.

Other interpreters suggest that the Urim and Tummim were separate objects that were both kept in a pouch of the breastplate. In the Bible, one individual who made a counterfeit breastplate for his personal cult substituted terafim (small figurines representing gods or ancestors) for the Urim and Tummim (Judges 17-18; Hosea 3:4). This is a tantalizing but frustrating bit of data. Because we also know so little about the terafim, the association of the two objects does not shed much light either, no pun intended.

The best evidence is that the two may have both been made of light-reflecting stone: Mesopotamian sources also mention an elmeshu stone used by the gods for oracular purposes.

Jewish Curses

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

A curse is a verbal invocation pronounced to bring harm, evil, or detriment to another. More than a threat or a wish, a curse is assumed to have the power to make the desired harm a reality.

Two elements make up the logic of cursing: a magical/symbolic view of causality, and “formalism”–the belief that a speech-act has power, regardless of intention, justification, or authority. While some assume that the “power” of the speaker underpins the efficacy of the curse (Numbers 22:3), because of formalist assumptions in rabbinic thinking, even curses uttered unintentionally by ordinary people were believed to have the potential to be detrimental (Megillah 15a-b, 28a).

In the Bible

cursed ground

“The skies above your head shall be copper,
and the earth under you iron.” Deuteronomy 28:23

In the Bible, God has the power to both bless and curse Creation. Both powers are demonstrated in the first three chapters of Genesis. Humans also have the power to curse individuals and whole classes of people. Some biblical authors simultaneously try to limit the use of curses and undermine their formalist assumptions by claiming unjustified curses will have no effect (Proverbs 26:2).

Biblical curses can be absolute or conditional. An absolute curse is meant to be immediate (Genesis 4:11; II Samuel 16). A conditional curse only becomes efficacious when certain conditions are met or violated (Deuteronomy 27-28).

A notable form of conditional curse that appears in the Bible is the conditional self-curse (I Kings 19:2, 20:10). Often included in an oath, this curse was placed on oneself accompanied with a symbolic act of destruction–shattering a pot, chopping up an animal, or some other deed that signified what would happen to the one making the vow if he or she should fail. Even God uses a form of this when making a covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:7-21).

In Rabbinic Literature

The Sages elaborate upon these biblical beliefs (Makkot 11a; Eruvin 18b-19a; Terumah 3b-4a; Makkot 16a). Demons as well as human beings can utter curses. Using a curse can actually invite unwanted demonic attention on the person uttering the curse. The talmudic sage Rav reportedly had the power to curse others with sterility (Shabbat 108a).


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

"Who is wise? He who foresees the results of his deeds (Tamid 32a)."

Across human cultures, it has been widely believed that the gods and spirits close to them (the dead, for example) have privileged knowledge of what will unfold in the mortal realms. The ability to gain such supernatural insight has been prized by humans since (and probably before) the dawn of written history. All divination can be divided into the quest for one of two kinds of knowledge: knowledge of the future (manticism) and knowledge of present, but hidden, events (clairvoyance).

Jews are no exception in their desire for this knowledge, and throughout history many Jews have accepted the reality of divinatory events and experiences. Moreover, Jews have been practitioners of many different diviner’s arts across time and geography.

Starting with the testimony of the Hebrew Scripture, however, Judaism has manifested an ambivalent attitude toward divination and from earliest times Jews have struggled to distinguish between licit and illicit forms of divination.

In the Ancient Near East, three types of divinatory practices are documented: serendipitous omens, impetrated omens, and mediumistic divination. The first consists of the reading and interpretation of omens and prodigies in naturally occurring phenomenon, such as the weather, abnormal births, or astral signs. The second practice consists of asking questions by means of divinatory devices, such as casting lots or reading entrails, and the third involves the consulting of human oracles or divine forces channeled through a person, such as prophecy.

Manticism & Clairvoyance in the Bible

Within these general rubrics, the books of the Hebrew Scriptures make reference to myriad forms of mantic practices, both licit and illicit. The generic biblical words for divination are kesem and nahash. Among the accepted means of divination are prophets and seers of God (Deuteronomy 18:14-22; I Samuel 9:6; II Kings 3:11), one iromancy (dream interpretation; Genesis 37:5-9; Daniel), Urimand Thumim, the casting of lots (I Samuel 23:10-12), mic (II Kings 3:15), lecanomancy or hydromancy (reading patterns in liquid; Genesis 44:5), and word omens (I Samuel 14:9-10).

Jewish Healing & Magic

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.

Witches & Witchcraft

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

In most cultures across the world, a witch or wizard is generally regarded to be a nefarious practitioner of magic. In Jewish culture, in contrast to both modern culture, which has reversed most images of evil creatures (vampires are now romantic figures, for example, instead of bloodlusting killers) and Christian culture, which sees them as virtually demonic, the Jewish attitude toward witches has varied considerably over time and geography.Witches

The German Pietists, for example, did regard them as quasi-demons. In the 17th century, Manasseh ben Israel of Holland expressed a view of witchcraft virtually indistinguishable from contemporary Christian demonologists (Nishmat Hayyim 232). The talmudic rabbis, on the other hand, while not approving of witches, blithely assume most of their own wives engage in at least some witchcraft practices (Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:4, 7:11). These differences may well reflect the attitudes of the surrounding cultures in which Jews lived. Mediterranean societies were generally more tolerant of witches than northern European societies.

In the Bible

The formal biblical attitude toward wizards and witches is severe, witchcraft being a capital offense (Exodus 22:17; Leviticus 20:27; Sanhedrin 45b). This seems to spring from its association with idolatry. Both men and women are portrayed as engaging in witchcraft, and contrary to the modern distinction made in academic circles between socially empowered sorcerers and socially marginal witches, witches in the Bible are often shown in positions of power, notably the wizards in the employ of the kings of Babylon and Egypt and the witches in the employ of King Manasseh. Queen Jezebel herself is a witch (Exodus 7: 11; Daniel 2:2; II Kings 9:22, 21:2).

Little is known about biblical witchcraft. There is an oblique reference to “voodoo-like” practices (Ezekiel 13:19), but the Bible almost universally opts to remain silent on the particular practices of the witch. The Woman of Endor, often identified as a witch in Jewish post-biblical literature, is not designated so in the Bible itself so it is not clear whether necromancy was considered a discipline of witchcraft, or a wholly separate offense (Deuteronomy 18:10-12; Isaiah 8:19-22, 19:3).

Jewish Exorcism

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

Exorcism is a ritual of power performed in order to drive an evil spirit, whether demonic or ghostly, from a possessed person, location, or object. The Christian scholar Origen credits Jews with a special talent for exorcising demons (Against Celsus, book 4).

The first allusion to exorcism appears in the Bible, in the youth narratives of David (l Samuel). But while the biblical David seemed to be able to effect a temporary expulsion of Saul’s evil spirit using music, the book of Tobit contains the first explicit description of an (informal) exorcism. Josephus recounts incidents of possession and exorcism in his Antiquities of the Jews (2, 5, 8, 45-48). In his description, exorcism involved burning herbs and immersing the possessed person in water. The New Testament also reports Jesus to have performed numerous exorcisms of demonic spirits in first-century Palestine (Matthew 12; Mark 5, 6, 13; Luke 8).

The Dead Sea Scrolls include several exorcism incantations and formulae, mostly directed against disease-causing demons. The DSS Psalms collection in particular (11Q5) has “four songs for the charming of demons with music.” People who fell under the influence of false prophets and mediums were thought to also require the exorcism of possessing evil spirits (the false prophets and mediums themselves were subject to death, a sure cure for most possessions; see Zechariah 13).

The Midrash mentions the procedure, though at times in a tongue-in-cheek manner (Pesikta de-Rav Kahannah 1:4, Numbers Rabbah 19.8). An extended story in Leviticus Rabbah 24:3 tells of the exorcism of a well of water involving iron implements and shouted formulae. Shimon bar Yohai exorcises a demon that assists him in getting the cooperation of Caesar in lifting an oppressive decree against the Jews. In a medieval Midrash, Hanina ben Dosa is credited with exorcising an evil spirit haunting an old woman. Intriguingly, in the last two accounts, the Sages exorcise demons, even though each of the evil spirits actually behaved in a beneficial fashion. By the late Middle Ages, whole texts dedicated to demons started to appear.

Incantations, Spells, & Adjurations

Reprinted with permission from the Encyclopedia ofMagic, Myth, and Mysticism (LlewellynWorldwide).

An incantation or spell is a spoken word, phrase, or formula of power, oftenrecited as part of a larger ritual, which is recited in order to effect a magicalresult. Most cultures have some idea about words having supernaturalconstructive powers, but nowhere is this belief stronger than in Judaism.

Both the Bible and Jewish mysticism emphasize that God created the universe by meansof a series of “speech acts.” Humanity is the only one of God’smortal creations with the power of speech, implying that our words can, under certain conditions, have the same constructive (and destructive) power.

jewish spellsUnderlying Beliefs

Jewish belief in the efficacy of spells, or “constructive language,” ispremised on three assumptions:

1) There is special power inherent in the names of God.

2) There is special power in the words and phrases that God speaks, i.e., thewords of the Torah and the Hebrew Bible.

3) TheHebrew alphabet itself is supernatural in origin, which means that using Hebrewletters in certain combinations is a source of special power, even when it hasno semantic value to the adept.

Kinds of Spells

Spells may be either “theurgic” or “magical” in character. Usually,the belief underlying the use of theurgic spells is that God has in some waydelegated that power/authority to the adept.

Truly magical incantations, by comparison, are “autonomous”; they do notinvolve spiritual entities at all. Often a magical spell or incantation issimply addressed to the object to be influenced. Thus, a truly magicalincantation most closely parallels the word power of God Himself.

Incantation phrases are also a form of “heightened speech,” not unlike poetry. Assuch, there are a number of distinctive stylistic features present inincantations. These can include: repetition, rhythm, reversals, nonsense words, foreign words, and divine names of power.

Repetition,usually done three or seven times, or by another number symbolically relevantto the issue at hand, is the premier aspect of constructive words of power(Shabbat 66b). Thus we find a teaching in the Talmud, for example, that reciting a verse containing the phrase “Voice of the Lord” seventimes thwarts evil spirits at night.

Judaism & Numbers

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

The practice of gematria, or the spiritual interpretation of numbers, is an important hermeneutic technique for understanding sacred Scripture and tapping the powers.

The following are considered important symbolic and/or sacred numbers in Judaism:

1-One indicates unity, divinity, and wholeness, as exemplified by God.

3-Three signifies completeness and stability, as represented by the three Patriarchs and the three pilgrimage festivals–Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot (I Kings 17:21; Daniel 6:10).

3+1-This is a number cluster that signals the fulfillment of God’s plans (Amos 1; Daniel 7:25).

4-Four is a recurrent number in both exoteric and esoteric Jewish traditions. The Passover Seder isparticularly structured around fours: the Four Questions, the Four Sons, and four cups of wine. There are four cardinal directions and there are four Matriarchs. Four is also a common factor in esoteric interpretations: four angels surround the Throne of Glory, there are four kingdoms of the eschaton, and the famous four Sages who enter Paradise.

5-There are fivebooks of Moses and five divisions to the Psalms. Magical/mystical texts arealso sometimes separated into divisions of five. Five is the number of protection, as symbolized in the hamsa,the talismanic hand.

jewish numbers7-Seven is one of the greatest power numbers in Judaism, representing Creation, good fortune, and blessing. A Hebrew word for luck, gad, equals seven in gematria. Another Hebrew word for luck, mazal, equals seventy-seven.

The Bible is replete with things grouped in sevens. Besides the Creation and the exalted status of the Sabbath, the seventh day, there are seven laws of Noah and seven Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Several Jewish holidays are seven days long, and priestly ordination takes seven days. The Land of Israel was allowed to lie fallow one year in seven. The menorah in the Temple has seven branches. The prophet Zechariah describes a strange celestial stone with seven eyes (Chapter 4).