From Jewish Mysticism to Magic

Reprinted with permission from Magic & Superstition in the Jewish Tradition (Spertus Institute of Judaic Studies).

Jewish mysticism can be divided into devotional or practical Kabbalah, with emphasison direct communion through prayer, and intellectual or speculative Kabbalah, which seeks to find links between the Creator and the universe.

Sefer Yetzirah

The earliest systemic treatment of the Jewish mystical doctrine is found in SeferYetzirah, where it is believed that creation is accomplished by means of the mystic combination of and the power inherent in the letters of the divine name. Since this power could be used for further creation, it did not comeunder the ban on witchcraft.

The book is believed to have been written by the second century CE, when the influences of Babylonian, Egyptian, and Hellenic mysteries were strong. It describes theprocess of number formation and refers frequently to the merkavah, orchariot mystery, of the prophet Ezekiel (chapter 1).

mysticism and magicThe book is concerned with the formation of the world in 32 ways of wisdom, represented by the 22 letters of the alphabet and the ten sefirot, or emanations of God.

Sefer Yetzirah contains original expositions of letter and number mysticism as well as astrological divisions. Its complexities made interpretation necessary,and by the ninth century a commentary had already been written. Furthermystical development followed the paths of Jewish settlement, and centers ofmystical study appeared from the eleventh century on in Germany, Provence,Spain, North Africa, Safed, and Eastern Europe.

The development of originally mystical and visionary material into more magical practical usage was given impetus with the introduction of Sefer Raziel in about 1230. The book was attributed to Eleazar of Worms (1176-1238).

Theoretical & Practical Kabbalah

During the 13th century Jewish magic developed further with the separation of the Kabbalah into the iyyunit (theoretical) and the ma’asit (practical).The ma’asit was subdivided into inner religious activity and external magical activity and is of greater importance in our understanding of Jewish magic than the iyyunit.

Although most Jews today are unaware of the existence of Jewish magic, many Christians in medieval times believed that Jews were sorcerers. They were accused of spreading the Black Death of 1348 and of causing cholera epidemics in later years. Jewish life at that time turned inward to intensive talmudic study, due to the difficult relations with the Christian world.

Religious emotion turned to the Kabbalah ma’asit and to books explaining the mysticalvalues of Hebrew letters. The rich demonological literature and elaborate angelology offered a means of coping with the uncertainties of the times.

Jewish Magic

While European magic, because of its heretical worship of Satan and the forces ofevil, had no meaning for the Jew, many so-called “strange” Jewish customs were misinterpreted as magical acts against Christians and considered cause for attack. In actuality, Jewish magic was merely an extension and elaboration of the accepted principles of Judaism. A Jewish magician strictly utilized the Powers of Good by invoking the names of God and his angels.

There were two types of Jewish magicians: the folk magician and the scholar. The folk magician was a man or woman who dealt in therapeutic remedies and segullot, in love potions and charms. The scholar was always male and dealt primarily withthe proper words and texts required for amulets. He was called when exorcism was needed.

Exorcism became a form of Jewish magic only after the development of the idea of transmigration of souls in the sixteenth century by the Lurianic school of Kabbalah. In Jewish folklore the dybbuk was the soul of one forced towander to atone for sins, which sought refuge in the body of a living individual. It represented a psychological possession by something beyond the individual’s control.

The possession occurred for a purpose not usually demonic, perhaps for a redemption that had notbeen possible during the life of the dybbuk,or perhaps to help the living. Once the purpose was achieved, the dybbuk would usually leave voluntarily. Exorcism became necessary either if the dybbuk were an evil spirit, or if it refused to leave.

Exorcisms were to be performed only by morally blameless and skilled mystics. They could take minutes or days and followed a specific formal procedure. The dybbuk would be threatened with damnation and excommunication by the use of amulets, charms,and spells. If these proved insufficient, the dybbuk was placed under a ban of excommunication and condemned to dwell in a specific place such as a well ordesert, or else to wander eternally. The victim had to wear an amulet to prevent re-entry.

Accounts of exorcism continue to our own day, many of which are attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, and to the Zadikim (righteous men), the leaders of different hasidic groups.

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