Incantations, Spells, & Adjurations

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

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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.

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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.