Incantations, Spells, & Adjurations

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

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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.