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Intro to Jewish Magic

Rabbi Amitai Adler


2012

How are we supposed to regard Magic as Jews?! ! A typical modern Haredi response:! !

Between God and this world of nature lies another bridge, which we shall call the "occult" or the quasispiritual. It has the ability to change and bend the rules of nature, through miracles, magic, etc. But this quasispiritual world, although it is more elevated than nature per se, is still not the Divine. It has its rules and laws of operation, and is perhaps more powerful than the physical world, but certainly not omnipotent. ... God does not desire that we make use of this world. God had intended for us to come to awareness of Him within the natural world, and through its phenomena. Someone who subverts the system of nature, by constantly using the supernatural world, is going against the will of God. ... If a person practices "occult rites" and the content thereof is a mumble of strange words, bizarre costumes, or strange rites, it is either bogus or evil. The great rabbis who performed supernatural acts, were using them to bring home a message about God. They enjoined people to recognize the Creator, develop their character, be kind to others, be honest and faithful, rein in their drives, etc.!

!
-Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky (Aish HaTorah)!

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TL:DR = Magic, when it does exist at all, is bad. Great rabbis can sometimes do miraculous things, but you arent them. Anything supernatural that you could do without becoming a great rabbi would be evil and forbidden.!

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The typical non-Orthodox response is usually even simpler, a direct product of Enlightenment rationalism: there is no such thing as magic or the supernatural. Therefore, we dont care about it. And anyone claiming to be able to do magic is either a charlatan or insane.!

! ! But wait! All non-Western cultures, and all pre-Enlightenment Western cultures have or had forms of
applied mysticism, ways of dealing directly with the supernatural, of channelling the natural energies of the body and the world around us, of using those energies to achieve numinous experiences. Why would this be bad?!
!

Examples:!

Intro to Jewish Magic

Rabbi Amitai Adler


2012

" And while were at it, what about the customs and items we still have that are magical, or stories we often
tell, but are usually told off as bubbe meises or decorative motifs or such, like these?!

! Are these things magical? Are they


mystical? Is there a difference between the two? Do they have to do with prayer? How is prayer different than magic, if we ever expect answers to our prayers?!

! ! ! ! ! # We dont always expect answers to our prayers-- or, at least, we dont always expect the answer will be
yes.!

! # Supplicatory prayer asks God directly for something, and may or may not request a direct answer-- but
doesnt necessarily presume the prayer will be directly granted. Magic may or may not involve God directly, and usually presumes the effectiveness of the magical ritual or item.!
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Intro to Jewish Magic

Rabbi Amitai Adler


2012

What is Magic, then?!

!
Magic is the idea that, given the proper circumstances and focused intent, one can accomplish through supernatural means what would otherwise be more or less impossible or extremely difficult, or can cause the conditions in a certain place or involving a certain person or object to change in ways they would otherwise be unlikely-- or even very unlikely-- to do so (remember that technically, nothing is truly impossible).!

!
Though all magic is essentially the externalization of the practitioners will, here are different ways that magic is said to work:!

Theurgy
(I will get God to do this for me)

Thaumaturgy
(I will do this all by myself, thank you very much)

Direct Theurgy
(I will compel God to do what I need)

Indirect Theurgy (I will compel beings or forces created by God to do what I need, in Gods Name)

Direct Thaumaturgy (I will accomplish this using my own energy as a power source)

Indirect Thaumaturgy (I will accomplish this using energy from outside myself as a power source)

In our tradition, we have usually shunned Direct Theurgy as theologically impossible. But we do (or did) use the other methodologies, and we often use strong supplicatory prayer, which is the distant cousin of theurgy. Think about it as kind of a spectrum:

Supplicatory Prayer

(Indirect)

Theurgy

Thaumaturgy

No problem within the tradition

Potentially Problematic

More Likely To Be Problematic

Intro to Jewish Magic

Rabbi Amitai Adler


2012

In both theurgic and thaumaturgic magic, the practitioner does rituals and/or employs magical objects to achieve his/her ends. Rituals usually involve spells, which are written or verbal descriptions of what the practitioner wishes to occur, usually embellished with imagery or poetic terminology. Often ritual items are used also (special cups or bowls, water or wine, salt, gems or crystals, special knives or swords, blood or other bodily fluids, icons or figurines, bones, sacrifices, etc.); and while sometimes the practitioner may believe that the items themselves hold some special significance or power, usually the ultimate power in the magical act-- ritual, spell, whatever-- is the intention of the practitioner him/herself. There are no such things as magic words or magic objects per se, but nearly any words or objects can be made magical if properly spoken or used by a qualified practitioner. In theurgic magic, the most common way to achieve ends is to call upon a supernatural power (God, semidivine beings, angels, demons, spirits, etc.), using a spell and/or a ritual, to get them to do what you want. In thaumaturgic magic, rituals usually involve what is called sympathetic magic. That is, the creation or the exploitation of a linkage of commonality between two things. The two things may be the ritual or spell used and the outcome desired (for example, a ritual to command rain may involve water) or they may be between a ritual object and another object like it (for example, the practitioner wishing to cure a person of blindness may create a magical amulet or talisman shaped like an eye, or decorated with eye imagery) or the link may be more direct (for example, the practitioner wishing to curse someone may obtain a small sample of their blood, and work the curse on that blood, trusting that even blood which has been shed from the body still contains something of a persons essential energy, which remains linked to them for some time). ! But why? Whats the problem? You shall not allow a sorceress to live. (Shemot/Exodus 22:17, Etz Chayim chumash/JPS translation) Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts and familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead. For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to the Lord, and it is because of these abhorrent things that the Lord your God is dispossessing them before you. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 18:10-13, Etz Chayim chumash/JPS translation)
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Intro to Jewish Magic

Rabbi Amitai Adler


2012

End of story? No. First off, bad translations. A slightly better English approximation might be: You must not allow a female hemomancer to live.
(Shemot/Exodus 22:17)

Let there not be found in your midst one who passes his son or daughter into fire for Molech, nor an extispicer, a nubilomancer, a colubromancer, or a hemomancer, nor a caster of binding spells, nor a consulter of Ov and Yidoni [a huckster who feigns conversing with spirits by using ventriloquism, or one who creates the illusion of raising spirits using hallucinogens or hypnosis), nor a necromancer. For all who do thusly are an abhorrence to YHVH, and because of this abhorrence, YHVH your God will drive them out before you: you must be pure, like YHVH your God. (Devarim 18:10-13) These Hebrew words are extremely specific-- not surprising, since their larger cultural context included the presumption of many kinds of magic-- but the English words of the traditional translation are all basically variations of person who uses divination and person who speaks with the dead: in short people who use magic. But that gross generalization is not at all what the text really says! So whats prohibited?? " Hemomancer: Hemomancy is the general term for rituals using blood as a key instrument. Most often it is divination using blood as a medium, but it hemomancy can also include binding spells, curses, healing magic, and love/sex magic. " Passing ones son/daughter into fire for Molech: Molech was a god worshipped by the Phoenicians, Assyrians, Carthaginians, and occasionally by Tyrians, Edomites, and Philistines-possibly by Canaanites as well. He was singularly unpleasant, and his worship demanded human sacrifice: it preferred child sacrifice, and ones own children were most preferable. " Extispicer: Extispicy is the art of divination by reading the entrails of a sacrificed animal (or human being). Practiced widely throughout the Ancient Near East and many other places as well. " Nubilomancer: Nubilomancy is the art of divination by reading patterns in the clouds. This was a popular methodology amongst the Midianites, Moabites, Edomites, and possibly Canaanites.

Intro to Jewish Magic

Rabbi Amitai Adler


2012

" Colubromancer: Colubromancy is the art of divining by reading the patterns left by snakes as they move over the ground, or of working various sorts of spells using the energy of snakes, or snakes as sacrificial animals. This kind of magic was widely used by the Egyptians. " Caster of binding spells: Binding spells are a kind of magic to control or restrict a thing. What is almost certainly meant here is magic used to bind another person to the will of the practitioner-think of it as kind of amped-up mesmerism or hypnotism, combined with an element of brainwashing. This kind of magic was endemic to the Ancient Near East. " Consulters of Ov and Yidoni: Even the Rabbis of the Talmud did not know precisely what these were, but they gave us their best guesses. My hunch is that the Rambam (Maimonides) is probably correct when he says that these are kinds of hucksterism-- along the lines of spiritists who claim to be able to communicate with the dead at seances, but use trickery and sleight-of-hand to produce the effects in order to fool the gullible into giving them money or valuables. This phenomenon is, unfortunately, endemic in all cultures, everywhere. " Necromancer: There are three kinds of necromancy: the first is simply any ritual that involves killing a person as a key part of the act; the second is a kind of magic that calls the souls of the dead to the practitioners presence from wherever they are, and compels them to either answer questions or obey other commands of the practitioner; the third is the magical re-animation of dead bodies. Its probably not too difficult to reason out why any and all of these would be forbidden to us. The third kind of necromancy is rare, if it has ever even been truly achieved-- probably rare due to the difficulty, if nothing else. The second kind was known in much of the ancient world, as was the first, which was the most common by far. # So it seems like not all magic was forbidden after all! But the tension between disapproval of magic and tolerance or embracing of magic remains present in the tradition. It might have something to do with context. The verse in Shemot/Exodus are followed by: Anyone who has sex with an animal shall surely be put to death; and it is forbidden to sacrifice to gods, save only to YHVH.
(Shemot/Exodus 22:18-19) 6

Intro to Jewish Magic

Rabbi Amitai Adler


2012

The verses in Devarim/Deuteronomy are prefaced by: When you get to the land which YHVH your God has given you, do not learn to act according to the abhorrences of the nations that are there. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 18:14)

$ So what seems fairly clear is that the Torah is forbidding these things not (only) because of any
intrinsic problems they pose, but because they are associated with avodah zarah-- foreign worship, idolatry (bestiality was also common to idolatry, hence its appearance in Shemot, and some sex magic rituals involved bestiality, so its not a non sequitur after all)! Yet even when foreign gods are not being worshipped as part of the ritual in question, the tradition retains uneasiness about magic, almost certainly rooted from the avodah zarah aspect, even when no avodah zarah is being done. Lets look at this tension in action! The tenth chapter of tractate Sanhedrin begins by discussing who does and does not have a share in Olam ha-Ba (the World to Come). The starting point in the Mishnah is that all the People Israel have a share in Olam ha-Ba, and then we get told about the exceptions to that rule. Among them we find the following: One who incants over a wound, saying [over it]: All the plagues which I put upon Egypt I shall not put upon you, because I YHVH am your healer. (Shemot/Exodus 15:26) Yet the Gemara on this mishnah is as follows:

Intro to Jewish Magic

Rabbi Amitai Adler


2012

One who incants over a wound, etc. Rabbi Yochanan said: (that is, one who incants over a wound) and spits into it; because we do not mention the Heavenly Name in the presence of spittle. It was stated that Rav said: even Nega tzaraat (Vayikra/Leviticus 13:9) [would be forbidden, because the issue is mentioning the Divine Name in a spell, not which particular verse is used]. Rabbi Chanina said: even Vayikra el Moshe (Vayikra/Leviticus 1:1) [would be forbidden, despite the absence of a Divine Name in the verse]. We may scry [divine, probably by oliomancy: inspecting patterns of oil upon water while in a trance state] and perform extispicy on Shabbat, and we may incant charms to ward off serpents and scorpions on Shabbat, and we may cover someones eyelid with a vessel on Shabbat [possibly for healing purposes, as in the hot cupping method of massage; or possibly for divinatory purposes-- perhaps a form of umbrascopy, or divination by watching shadows move]. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said: to what does this refer? To those vessels which may be handled on Shabbat; but those vessels which cannot be handled on Shabbat are forbidden (to be used for this purpose, either). And we may not summon demons on Shabbat. Rabbi Yosi said: even during the week thats forbidden! Rav Huna said: The halachah is not according to Rabbi Yosi. And even Rabbi Yosi did not say so except because summoning demons is dangerous. For example, once Rav Yitzchak bar Yosef (summoned a demon which caused him to be) swallowed up by a cedar tree; a miracle occurred on his behalf and the cedar spit him back out again. The Rabbis taught in a Baraita: we may scry and perform extispicy on Shabbat, but this is provided that one does not do so in ones accustomed way of doing so during the week. How would this be done? Rav Chama bar Rav Chanina said: scry first and then read entrails [presumably this means to try scrying, and if that fails, read entrails, because during the week, they felt it would be natural to try reading entrails first and scry only if the entrails yielded no result]. Rabbi Yochanan said: scry and read entrails simultaneously [presumably either two diviners would work simultaneously, or else the scry would be done not by oliomancy but by some other method-- perhaps scleromancy or opthalomancy, reading reflections or patterns in spilled blood or in the open eye of a sacrificial animal]. The Rabbis taught in a Baraita: it is permitted to perform oliomancy or ovomancy [divining by means of examining patterns in raw eggs] (on
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Intro to Jewish Magic

Rabbi Amitai Adler


2012

Shabbat). You may divine these ways, however (you are adjured to caution because) they are unreliable. (When it is not Shabbat,) we may incant over oil in a vessel (for the purposes of working spells with it), but do not incant over oil held in the hand (because this is ineffective). It is for this reason that one may divine using oil held in the hand (on Shabbat) but not using oil in a vessel (because this differentiates divinatory oil from sorcerous oil, which one ought not to make on Shabbat because magics not otherwise noted as exempt are melachot [forbidden acts of work] on Shabbat). Rav Yitzchak bar Shmuel bar Marta happened (to spend Shabbat) at a certain inn; they brought him oil in a vessel. He blew on it [to cause patterns which he could divine], and blisters erupted on his face. He went out into the shk [marketplace], and a certain woman saw him; she said to him: I see here that you are possessed of the demon Chamat! She did a deed (exorcised the demon) and he was healed.

VOCABULARY
# # Mishnah: First section of the Talmud, written in Israel, by the Tannaim, between about the turn of the Common Era and around 225 CE. A Tannas title was always Rabbi. Gemara: Second section of the Talmud, commenting on, expanding on, and debating the Mishnah, written mostly in Babylonia, by the Amoraim, between around 250 CE and around 550 CE. The title of most Amoraim was Rav, not Rabbi. Amoraim may not directly contradict Tannaim without Tannaitic supporting text or tradition. Baraita: A piece of Tannaitic text presented as a quote within the Gemara. Melachot: Usually translated as work, melachah is actually a complex set of categories constructed by the Rabbis, describing activities prohibited on Shabbat-- which may not always be what we today might envision as work. Muktzah: Objects which the Rabbis prohibit us from touching on Shabbat, because of the fear that handling them may lead to doing melachot. Shinui: A change. Something which is prohibited by the Rabbis to do on Shabbat, but which is not necessarily a melachah, should ideally not be done, but may be done if needed so long as it is done in a way unlike how one usually does it. Demons: Supernatural creatures which are comparatively negative in nature-- ranging from really evil to just annoyingly mischievous. There is no agreement how such creatures came to be (presumably God created them in some form or another, since God ultimately created everything), or even what their true natures are. But they are not, as in Christian mythos, fallen angels-- we dont believe in fallen angels, since we dont believe angels have free will. Kabbalah: The generic name for our various traditions of mysticism

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