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."

In Pesahim 112b, we read that one afflicted with an ocular disease should recitethe word shabriri (blindness) repeatedly in the phrase "My motherhas cautioned me against shabriri.With each repetition, the speakershould reduce one letter from the word: shabriri, shabrir, shabri, shabr,shab, sha…The magical ritual of reducing the word is intended to yield aparallel reduction in the severity of the illness.

Speaking "Nonsense"

Spells can include rhymed or nonsense phrases that have minimal or no semantic value (vocesmysticae). Rather, rhythmic meaningless arrangements of words and phrasesare used for the illocutionary or mantralike effect, or for a sympathetic result, or because these words are understood to be meaningful to heavenlypowers, if not the adept.

For example,to fend off an evil water spirit, the Talmud recommends intoning this: "Lulshafan anigeron anirdafon, I dwell among the stars, I walk among thin andfat people (Pesahim 112a)." While the second clause of this spell is strange enough, the first clause of the spell is neither Hebrew nor Aramaic; byall indications it is just gibberish. This feature, common to Greco-Romanmagic, emerges in Jewish circles in late antiquity.

Akin to nonsense phrases, incantations often include nomina barbara, the useof foreign words and phrases. This feature of Jewish spells goes back to theBabylonian tradition of using archaic Sumerian words in their incantations, and becomes characteristic of Jewish incantations by the Greco-Roman period. Withthe later decline of Hebrew and Aramaic as a spoken language, these languages themselvesbecome lingua magica for many spellcasters, both Jewish and gentile. Rashiexplains that an integral part of spellcasting involves reciting words that maybe incomprehensible to the enchanter (commentary to Sotah 22a).

What's In A Name?

The use of names of power is a pervasive aspect of all Hebrew/Jewish spells. Thenames of God, angels, the righteous dead, even one's mother, are consideredcritical to giving an incantation efficacy (Shabbat 66b). Often the names areencrypted in atbash form (an ancient letter substitution code,"mirroring" the Hebrew alphabet) or in other occult methods.

Spells from late antiquity are often promiscuous in the powers they invoke, freelymixing Jewish and pagan entities. One Greco-Egyptian spell calls upon"First angel of (the god), of Zeus, Iao, and you Michael, who rule heaven'srealm, I call, and you, archangel Gabriel. Down from Olympus, Abrasax,delighting in dawns, come gracious who view sunset from the dawn."

Rabbinic Views

Magical incantations that appear in the Talmud (and are therefore presumably sanctionedby at least some sages) mostly serve the functions of healing and protection. InTractate Shabbat 67a-b, one sage gives explicit sanction to the use of magic ifit is done solely for the purposes of healing. Outside the talmudic/midrashictradition proper, there are spells for summoning angels, love spells, and"binding" spells intended to curse or thwart a rival in love,business, or other personal matters.

While rabbinic authorities have never endorsed the latter forms of incantations, theyare more tolerant of spells that enhance goals the sages endorse, such ashealing, or spells meant to enhance the learning of Torah. These latter two types are perhaps the most common in Jewish literature.

Tolerance for the use of spells can also be regional. The Babylonian Talmud preservesseveral examples of spells (see especially tractates Pesahim, Shabbat, andBerakhot), while the Palestinian Talmud has virtually none. We know that at least some Jews in Palestine engaged in spellcasting, because we have magicaltexts from that region and period.

Evidently, the difference between the two Talmuds reflects something of the respective"official" attitude among the sages of those regions towardspellcraft.

Spells in Medieval Judaism

The types of incantations recorded continue to expand in number and variety ofpurpose throughout the Middle Ages. In theurgic manuals like the Book of theResponding Entity, there appear an increasing number of spells based on astrological power (what Renaissance adepts would dub "naturalmagic").

In expressly magical texts, like Sefer Raziel, there appear incantations to"receive all desire." These spells often completely parallel gentile magic,involving magical materials, fire and water, invoking the names of governing angels, and throwing something of value with magical names and phrasesinscribed on it into the proper element (fire, seas, etc.). Treasure-locatingspells also appear in medieval magical manuals.

What status many of these spells had in "normative" Jewish circles is hardto judge. Again, spells recorded in the works of later religious authoritiestend to be limited to the same areas tolerated by talmudic authorities:incantations for better memorizing Torah, invoking an angel or ibbur (a usually beneficent spiritual possessionof a living body), and for protection against medical or supernatural misadventure.

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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.