Incantations, Spells, & Adjurations

Some traditional Jewish sources indicate belief in the efficacy of spells.

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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.

Backwards Reduction

An incantation meant to undo the effects of a given event or phenomenon will ofteninclude elements of reversal, reciting a word or phrase backwards in somefashion. An example would be this one for dislodging a bone in the esophagus:"One by one, go down, swallow/swallow, go down, one by one."

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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.

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