Jewish Healing & Magic

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

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In rabbinic writings the word for epilepsy, nikhpeh, means to be possessed. Exorcizing spells are therefore included along with other treatments. The Talmud regards demons as the cause of ocular diseases, food poisoning, and other ailments (Pesahim 111b-112a). Witchcraft, spiritual attack by another human being, was also an accepted explanation for disease. In the Talmud an opinion is recorded that "99 out of 100 die from an evil eye (Bava Metzia 107b)."

Myriad Methods

Rabbinic literature preserves a vast list of theurgic and magical methods of healing illnesses, whether or not such illnesses are ascribed to attack by evil spirits. Along with

conventional folk remedies involving diet, curative foods (Gittin 67b; Eruvin 29b; Gittin 69a-70a; Avodah Zarah 28a-b; Ketubot 50a; Yoma 83b-84a), exercise, and healthful practices, the Sages would prescribe the recitation of Scriptural verses (the Shema or Psalm 29, for example) and incantations, called refuot(healings). Talmud Shabbat 66b-67a and Gittin 67a-69a record examples of such healing incantations.

The very act of studying Torah serves as a treatment for illness, according to Rabbi Joshua ben Levi (Eruvin 54a). Rabbi Judah declares sacred study "a drug for the entire body."

Angels, or in a few cases demons, could be invoked to effect a recovery (Shabbat 67b; Sanhedrin 101a). Tractate Shabbat lists the names of the healing angels: Bazbaziah, Masmasiah, Kaskasiah, Sharlai, and Armarlai. Demons, presumably the sources of a given affliction, could be summoned in order that they might be adjured, bound, and/or exorcised.

Amulets and talismans were frequently used both as preventatives and as remedies (Shabbat 67a), though again, some sages strongly disapproved of such devices. Tractate Shabbat discusses whether one may go in public on the Sabbath with healing charms (one is permitted only to carry a limited number of things on the day of rest), including locust eggs (for an earache), fox tooth (for sleep disorders), or a nail from a gallows (for an inflammation).

Items imbued with kedushah, spiritual power, such as leftover wine from holiday Kiddush, or olive oil blessed for use in a Hanukkah menorah, were also felt to have extra medicinal power. This also raises the point that particular foods and herbs were often suggested to counteract illnesses. In rare instances, this even included non-kosher meats.

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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.