Jewish Curses

In Jewish thought and texts, curses exemplify the belief that speech can have tremendous power.

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Post-Talmudic Texts

In Hebrew magical texts of late antiquity, several aggressive or "binding" spells are to be found. Most are aimed at demons, but a few are directed against other human beings. Texts such as Sefer ha-Razim and Sword of Moses, which have moved beyond the constraints of rabbinic prohibitions, are the most flagrant in the kind of curses they record.

Sefer ha-Razim, for example, teaches that the "angels of Himah" (wrath) that occupy the second camp of the first level of heaven will carry out a variety of curses at the command of the properly prepared adept: they will inflict "combat and war and are ready to torment and torture a man to death." Specific curse formulae include capsizing a boat, collapsing a wall, sending someone into exile, breaking bones, blinding and/or laming, even undermining business dealings.

Medievals believed that even reading those portions of the Torah that recount God's curses against disobedient Israel (Deuteronomy 27-28) could result in those curses being realized, so those portions were read rapidly in a whisper, a custom still observed today in many congregations.

The exact mechanism of cursing varies. As noted above, a curse can follow simply because of an utterance. Jewish magical texts, however, generally require more effort. Sefer ha-Razim, aping Greek pagan magical practices, requires materia magica along with specific rituals and incantations. Timing and astrological influences can also increase or mitigate the power of a curse.

The practice of cursing is still with us. In a much publicized event during the 1994 Israeli elections, a Kabbalist put a pulsa denura (lashes of fire) curse on candidate Yitzhak Rabin because he supported territorial compromise with the Palestinians.

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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.