Sacred Texts  Judaism  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

Jewish Magic and Superstition, by Joshua Trachtenberg, [1939], at

p. 11




THE LEGEND of the Jew as sorcerer supreme was of Gentile making, fashioned after the latest pattern of the up-to-date thaumaturge, but like most ready-made fables it fitted the truth none too closely. For if Jews were not the malefic sorcerers that Christian animosity made them out to be, they still possessed an ancient and honorable tradition of magic which had been solicitously nourished until in the Middle Ages it reached its highest stage of development. Sheltered from Christian eyes by secrecy and the impenetrable wall of a strange tongue and an even stranger mystical vocabulary and method peculiar to itself, there flourished in Jewish circles a magic lore as extensive and potent as any known to the non-Jewish world, yet markedly different in character and technique.

The Biblical allusions to the practice of magic indicate a widespread acquaintance with its manifold forms at an early time, but this can hardly be called "Jewish" magic. It was merely a reflection of the superstitions of the Canaanites, re-inforced by importations from Babylonia and Egypt. Even the Talmudic period, reaching to about 500 C.E., did not yet produce a distinctive amalgamation of the various strands of tradition that led into it, duplicating in large measure the eclecticism of Hellenistic-Gnostic magic, which it itself influenced. Thus we find ensconced in the Hebrew lore beliefs and practices emanating from the entire Mediterranean world: representatives of ancient Babylon and Egypt nestled against Græco-Roman specimens, newer Egyptian developments, entering by way of the Hellenistic recension, hobnobbing with the latest Chaldaic doctrine, as exemplified in the Babylonian Gemara. Not until the Geonic age, which succeeded the Talmudic, do we find the beginnings of a definitely Jewish magic. It was in this period that Jewish mysticism, influenced to a considerable degree by Gnostic thought,

p. 12

took shape, though its origin undoubtedly goes back to the earlier period.

"Theosophy has always evinced a strong affinity for magic," wrote Prof. George Foot Moore. Searching out the secret springs of the universe, the mystic brings to light awesome and puissant truths, which his more practical and brazen confidants feel promptly impelled to profane for their own greater glory and might. Geonic mysticism opened the portals to a higher wisdom—and a more potent magic. Combined with the older eclectic lore this evolving theurgy bloomed luxuriantly in the Germanic lands, whither its most secret mysteries were transported and incautiously revealed to the gaze of initiate and tyro alike. This magic may properly be denominated "Jewish"; for all its more or less assimilated foreign elements, and its general similarity to the Gnostic-Jewish system imperfectly known to non-Jews as the Ars Notoria, it remained distinctive in its basic emphases. To be sure the details of magical practice are too hoary and universal to admit of fundamental modification. Only in its general tone, the impression left by the whole, can a system of magic be distinguished from others; its details are the lingua franca of superstition. In this sense we may characterize medieval Jewish magic as distinctively "Jewish." Its fundamentals were indigenous. But the intensification of superstition among non-Jews that accompanied the attack of the Church upon sorcery was not without its influence in bringing to fruition the latent potentialities of this Jewish mystical-magical lore. "Wie es sich christelt so jüdelt es sich auch." German-Jewish magic attained its richest proportions in the thirteenth century, with the school of Judah the Pious. At the same time many beliefs and practices, as well as technical terms, were assimilated from French and German folklore, making a strong impression without, however, affecting the essential quality of the Jewish doctrine.1


Who was the Jewish magician? What sort of person engaged in this profession, if profession it was? We can do no better, to gain our first impression of the craft, than to inquire into the character of its practitioners.

The orthodox picture of the sorcerer discloses some malevolent, dark creature, shunning the ways of men, haunting the black hours

p. 13

of the night, poring over his foul brews and his infernal paraphernalia, consorting with weird, frightful spirits, forever plotting mischief and destruction. Or the night-riding witch, associate and consort of demons, reveling in lewd satanic orgies, blighting man and beast and herb with her evil glance and her fiendish spells, cannibalistic murderess of innocent infants. Such are the conceptions that our western literature and tradition have popularized. The late medieval witch-craze, fostered by the heresy-hunting Inquisition, helped to fasten this picture upon the popular imagination, so that the word inevitably conjures up the image.

Though there is not a single unequivocal report of a professional Jewish sorcerer or witch, thus defined, in Jewish or Christian records, we may safely assume that some Jews did not hesitate to emulate the accepted model. The sources indicate that Jews were at least acquainted with methods of inducing disease and death, of arousing and killing passion, of forcing people to do their bidding, of employing demons for divinatory and other purposes. The belief existed, among Jews as among Christians, that sorcerers possessed the power of altering their shapes and roaming the woods and alleys in the form of wolves, or hares, or donkeys, or cats, and of transforming their victims into animals. We find accounts of the magician's power to project his soul to far-distant places, there to perform an errand, and then return to his comatose body. The common medieval beliefs that magicians (and their bewitched victims) may be recognized by the fixed, immovable stare of their eyeballs, and that their power remains with them only so long as their feet are in contact with the ground, are to be found in Jewish writings as well. Indeed, one Jewish author suggested without a smile that for this reason the only way to deal with sorcerers is to "suspend them between heaven and earth"!2

The popular notion of the witch, which was in the making as early as the eleventh century, is likewise reflected in the Jewish sources, but the use of such terms as lamie, broxa and estrie to describe the witch and her activities indicates the non-Jewish origin of the concept. We read in thirteenth-century works of witches with disheveled hair who fly about at night, who feed on the blood and flesh of infants and adults, who are accompanied and aided by demon familiars, who assume animal forms to carry out their nefarious designs. A story in Sefer Ḥasidim is a replica of dozens found in non-Jewish works: a man was attacked by a cat which he fought off;

p. 14

the next day a woman appeared, badly wounded, and asked him for bread and salt to save her life. In 1456 the German, Johann Hartlieb, told a similar tale of a cat which attacked a child and was driven off and stabbed by the child's father; a woman was later found with a wound in the same place. Jacob Sprenger related as a recent occurrence in a town in the diocese of Strasbourg, that a laborer, attacked by three enormous cats, beat them off with a stick, and was subsequently arrested on a charge of brutally beating three ladies of the best families in town. Menaḥem Ẓiyuni, in his commentary on the Bible written in 1430, displayed his knowledge of the full-blown witch doctrine: "There are men and women," he wrote, "who possess demonic attributes; they smear their bodies with a secret oil . . . and instantly fly off like the eagle over seas and rivers and forests and brooks, but they must return home before sunrise; their flight follows a predefined course from which they cannot deviate. Anyone who trespasses upon their meeting place is likely to suffer grave harm. . . . They transform themselves into various animals, and into cats." These are typical details of the medieval witch-cults. Menasseh b. Israel favored the explanation that witches can change their forms because Satan, whom they worship, "fashions around their bodies the simulated forms of animals . . . the proof lies in the fact that when the paws of a pseudo-wolf are amputated the witch or magician appears minus hands and feet." His comment that "it is well known that all sorcerers and witches make a compact with the demons and deliver their souls over to them" is the leit-motif of medieval sorcery.3

Though these ideas, taken over bodily from Christian superstition, occur from time to time in Jewish works, most writers make it clear that they have not Jews in mind when they advance them. "There are men and women" who do these things, but not Jews specifically. Yet some writers were prepared to admit that Jews, too, might be engaged in such activities. If the precentor prays for a sick witch, one should not respond "Amen"; if certain women are suspected of cannibalism a warning of the punishment that will be meted out for such crimes should be pronounced when they are present in the synagogue; when an estrie who has eaten children is being buried one should observe whether her mouth is open, for if it is she will persist in her vampirish pursuits for another year unless it is stopped up with earth. These remarks imply that Jewish communities suspected the presence of witches in their midst.4

But a study of the Hebrew sources, and of the factors that influenced

p. 15

the development of Christian magic, creates the conviction that this picture of the witch and the sorcerer was an exotic graft on the main stem of Jewish tradition, that the Jewish magician was of another sort altogether. For one thing, the literature paints Jewish magic and its practitioners in totally different colors. But even more telling is the fact that the peculiar characteristics attributed to European magic effectively prevented the enrolment of the Jew in its service, while the availability of an equally potent yet respectable Jewish technique rendered it unnecessary to turn elsewhere.

Jews were ab initio excluded from the medieval fraternity of sorcerers and witches because these were commonly branded as members of heretical anti-Christian sects. In their organized form the witch-cults employed various blasphemous burlesques of Church rites in their own ritual, blasphemies to which sorcerers were also addicted, and which in themselves were accredited with magical potency. These could have no meaning for Jews. Further, medieval witchcraft and sorcery were based upon a perverted worship of Satan, according to popular belief, and individual warlocks were supposed consciously to accept the suzerainty of the Power of Evil and to operate through an appeal to his aid. Jewish magic, to the contrary, functioned within the framework of the Jewish religion, which naturally excluded any such association, real or fancied, with the arch-opponent of God. This reputed central feature of European magic, from which it derived its special character, was entirely foreign to the Jewish mentality, not only on theological grounds, but even more on folkloristic, for the figure of Satan as a distinct personality was very faint, almost non-existent, in Jewish folklore. The entire literature does not disclose a single instance of a magical act which depended upon submission to the devil himself, or his intercession, for its execution.

The primary principle of medieval Jewish magic was an implicit reliance upon the Powers of Good, which were invoked by calling upon their names, the holy Names of God and His angels. This simple dependence upon names for every variety of effect obviated resort to all the other magical acts with which the non-Jewish tradition has familiarized us. The magician who could produce wonders by the mere utterance of a few words had no need of the devious "business" of his non-Jewish colleague. It was the absence of the satanic element and the use of these names, that is, the employment of God's celestial servants, which stamped Jewish magic with

p. 16

a generally far from malevolent character, for the angels could not be expected to carry out evil commands and thus contravene the essential purpose for which their good Lord had created them. And it was this principle, too, which kept Jewish magic securely within the bounds of the religion, and prevented it from assuming the rôle of an anti-religion, as its Christian counterpart did. Magic was proscribed by the Church, and hunted down by the Inquisition, not because it was magic, but because it made a mockery of the Christian faith, and became a powerful anti-Christian force. It was a rival of the Church, with its own peculiar doctrine and ritual. Jewish magic during this period never strayed from the fold, observing closely the tenets of the faith, merely extending and elaborating certain accepted principles, so that, as we shall see, the magician remained a pious and God-fearing Jew.

There were, of course, deviations from the general rule. Demons as well as angels were sometimes called upon to do the Jewish sorcerer's will, both were ordered to do harm, and presumably obeyed, and many of the devices employed universally in magic were used by Jews along with the evocation of spirits. But these were deviations and not the customary procedure, and their infrequency and subordinacy tend to prove the strength of the rule. The deep impression which the Kabbalah made upon later Christian magic is indicative of the distinctive character of the Jewish theory and praxis, for it was recognized and touted as a novel and profound departure from earlier methods.

Now to revert to our original question: Who was the Jewish magician? According to ancient Jewish tradition, which was heartily seconded in the Middle Ages, women are inordinately prone to the pursuit of the magical arts.5 Yet, however true this dictum may once have been, their activity in magic proper was now narrowly restricted by virtue of the esoteric and learned base of that magic.

Man asserted his supremacy by relegating to himself, along with all the other prized pursuits of this life, the big-game of magic. Knowledge of the names, through which Jewish magic worked, was inaccessible to women, for it required not only a thorough training in Hebrew and Aramaic, which most of them lacked, but also a deep immersion in mystical lore, from which they were barred.

Evidently what the authorities had in mind was that women were the spearpoint of the forces of superstition, that it was they who propagated the bizarre notions upon which the popular imagination

p. 17

fed, that they were the fountainhead of all those household recipes and remedies and whispered charms with which medieval Jewry was plagued—or saved. In this respect they were undoubtedly correct, for learned rabbis did not hesitate to sit at the feet of ancient crones when a pain in the eyes or head gave them no rest, and many of the prescriptions retailed by the popular literature make a bow of acknowledgment to womankind. We must regard women, then, as the folk-magicians, healers of wounds, prescribers of love-potions, but in no sense "witches." Jewish women never attained an importance in magic at all commensurate with the prominence of their sisters in the witch-cults.

Nor was Jewish magic the exclusive skill of the "magician"—it is hazardous to assert even that there were such people as magicians, by profession. One may define the Jewish magician as a scholar by vocation, a practitioner of the mystical-magical arts by avocation. Every mystic, properly trained, could practice magic as a side-line. Indeed, the dangers of invoking the spirits without an adequate education in mysticism were frequently stressed, and the possessor of esoteric traditions and writings was sternly counselled to keep them hidden from the common glance, lest they be misused, and to pass them on only to a select circle.6

Early mystical and magical lore was successfully guarded by a limited oral transmission. The secret lore of the German school, founded by the Kalonymides, who removed to the Rhineland from Lucca in the tenth century, was first written down in the thirteenth by the followers of Judah the Pious, among whom Eleazar of Worms was outstanding both for his prolific pen and the depth of his learning. Jewish life had turned more and more inward, as relations with the Christian world grew more difficult, and intensive study of the Talmud had become almost its sole intellectual pursuit. The result was that religious emotion, stifled by an exclusive emphasis upon hair-splitting technicalities in interpretation and observance of the law, finally burst its casuistical bonds, as has so often happened, and sought a free and ecstatic outlet in the luscious green fields of theosophy. This inner need was the prime incentive for the popularization of mystical doctrine that began at this time, concurrently in Germany and in Spain. But the German Kabbalah never attained the theoretical depth of its Spanish counterpart, nor did it exert so much influence.

A word about the Kabbalah and its relation to the subject-matter

p. 18

of this book: Properly used the term denotes the vast theosophical system elaborated in Southern Europe during the Middle Ages on the basis of ancient tradition. The so-called German Kabbalah, essentially a Ḥasidic or "pietist" doctrine, had intrinsically little relation to this system, being rather a short-lived excursion from the main line, and in the brief space of a century it was overwhelmed and lost in the intricacies of the greater doctrine. Two broad types of Kabbalah have been distinguished in Jewish tradition, the "theoretical" (Kabbalah ‘Iyunit), which is the Kabbalah, and the "practical" (Kabbalah Ma‘asit), which is really a misnomer, for the magical practice that it denoted had little enough to do with Kabbalah, even in its purest form, the invocation of names, and moved farther and farther away as it embodied a hodge-podge of ancient and medieval, Jewish and foreign elements. While Kabbalists themselves limited the term to name-invocation, in popular usage it was generic for the entire corpus of Jewish magic.7

"The Germans, lacking in philosophical training, exerted all the greater influence on the practical Kabbalah, as well as on ecstatic mysticism." Their school stressed the inner significance and higher mystical values of Hebrew words and letters—going to the extent of counting the words in the prayer-book so that none might fall out or be altered—and the rôle of Kavvanah, a profound concentration upon these inner values, in bringing to fruition their mystical promise.8 Here we have the heart of the teaching concerning magical names, which, while adumbrated in the Talmud and developed in the Geonic period, reached its choicest and richest flowering in the doctrines of this school. What was put in writing became the common property of all who could read—and many who did not understand professed to be able to perform miraculous deeds by the bald repetition of what was written. The common fate of popularizations befell this mystical learning: the would-be experts flourished, oblivious of the bitter censure of the truly learned. So we may say that every Jew whose desire led him thither essayed a little magic in a small way. But it was generally recognized that only a minor portion of the mystical lore had found its way into books; much of it still remained private, jealously guarded property. The keepers of this treasure were the great magicians of the Middle Ages, in the public imagination at least, not because they were magicians, which is an unavoidable paradox, but because they were the supreme masters of the learning of which magic was an incidental offshoot. This

p. 19

is why such figures as Samuel, father of Judah the Pious, Judah himself, Eleazar of Worms, Eliezer b. Nathan of Mainz, heirs of the Kalonymide lore, and even such non-mystics as Rashi and his grandson R. Tam, Yeḥiel of Paris and his pupil Meir of Rothenburg, renowned for their Talmudic scholarship, stand out in the legends as the greatest miracle workers of the period.9


It is this paradox, and the generally legalistic approach to the subject, which make medieval Jewish discussions of magic so unprofitable. The medieval writers sought to hew close to the Talmudic line, and adhered to the rabbinic classification at a time when it was essentially obsolete. As a result the generic terms usually applied to the magic arts, kishshuf and laḥash, occur in a dual sense, sometimes to record the condemnatory verdict of the ancient law books, and again to designate the less reprehensible contemporary forms. The purpose of the medieval observations on the magic arts, we must bear in mind, was not to describe them, but to determine the degree of guilt attached to them, in accordance with Talmudic law. In conformity with the usual legal propensity for rehearsing precedents, the Talmudic definitions and distinctions were usually repeated verbatim, shedding little or no light upon the current varieties and forms.

The Bible had pronounced an unqualified condemnation of sorcery. The Talmud, while maintaining this fundamental attitude, pursued its customary function of clarifying and classifying Jewish law, and so broke up the all-inclusive category of sorcery into several divisions, establishing varying degrees of guilt. Two main types of forbidden magic were distinguished: that which produces a discernible, material effect, by means of "the performance of an act," and that which only creates the illusion of such an act or its effect (aḥizat ‘ainayim, "capturing the eyesight"); or, as a further observation defined them, the one operates without the aid of demons, the other requires their assistance. The practitioner of the first type merits the Biblical penalty of death; the second is forbidden but not so punishable. Still a third kind of magic, "permitted from the start," involved the use of "the Laws of Creation," a term which was later interpreted to signify the mystical names of God and the angels.10

So stated, the distinction between the first two is far from clear

p. 20

and precise, and was hardly understood by the medieval writers. As Eliezer of Metz wrote, "I questioned my teachers about this but they gave me no satisfactory reply." They spoke often of a forbidden "magic" in the narrow and technical Talmudic sense of the performance of an act, "taking hold of a thing and manipulating it," or the performance of "enchantments." Yet this proscribed "magic" did not include the other forms: the "invocation of angels," the "invocation of demons," and the "employment of names," which they regarded as distinct divisions, at the least more acceptable, and by some, expressly permitted and even employed. About the permissibility of employing names and angels there was no question, for the Talmud had legalized their use, but the invocation of demons was generally considered less praiseworthy. Jeroḥam b. Meshullam wrote: "The codifiers differ with regard to demon-invocation. Ramah [Meir b. Todros Halevi Abulafia] wrote that it should be categorized as forbidden 'magic' and some of the other jurists agree with him but still others consider it permissible as in nowise belonging to the category of 'magic' acts." R. Eliezer of Metz held that "invoking the demons to do one's will is permitted from the outset, for what difference is there between invoking demons or angels? . . . An action may not be characterized as 'magic' unless it consists of taking hold of a thing and manipulating it, that is, if it is the performance of a deed, or an incantation that does not include an invocation of spirits, but invoking demons is permitted ab initio."11 It is evident that medieval authorities regarded the category of "magic" as altogether distinct and different from the others, and correctly so, but I know of only one clear-cut statement of the principle of difference, by Moses Isserles. The counterfeit type of magic also appeared often in the discussions.12 It provided a convenient dodge to get around the legal difficulties and cast a halo of respectability about the current forms, whose effects were described as not real at all but entirely illusory. But this road, too, was not quite smooth, for the Talmudic explanation that illusory magic is the work of demons arose to crowd angel-and name-magic off the right-of-way. In short, the Talmudic classification plagued the efforts of medieval codifiers to bring the law into relation with contemporary procedures. Yet, from a practical standpoint, they succeeded in effectively excluding from the proscribed magic" all the forms current among Jews.13

Moses Isserles brings us closer to an understanding of what the

p. 21

forbidden "magic" was. "The roots of the [magical] arts are three," he wrote, "God, science, and nature. . . . From God comes . . . the power to invoke the heavenly princes by means of the holy names; the scientific root may be illustrated by astrology, by which a man can foretell the future, make talismans, and subdue the spirits and the powers of the stars and the like; on natural elements depends the effectiveness of the various types of magic, all of which consist in bringing out the inner nature of things, whereby an expert may perform deeds strange in appearance. . . ." This classification is not definitive, for Isserles failed to include the demonic "root" of magic; his inclusion of astrology, however, which was well known in Talmudic times but did not enter into the central discussions of magic, is significant of the place of that science in particular and the divinatory arts generally in medieval magic. But it is his last category that interests us particularly here. The "inner nature of things" is one way of describing the most primitive and widespread subject of magical activity. It is universally believed that all things are endowed with occult virtues and powers, that they possess mutually sympathetic or antipathetic qualities, and that it is possible to "step up" magical currents from the particular to the general, and down again from the general to the particular, by the simple manipulation of natural objects, which is the commonest form that magic takes. Frazer, studying the practices of primitive peoples, classified them under two heads, homoeopathic or imitative, and contagious; "both branches," he wrote, "may conveniently be comprehended under the general name of sympathetic magic, since both assume that things act on each other at a distance through a secret sympathy." And again, "This belief in the sympathetic influence exerted on each other by persons or things at a distance is of the essence of magic."14

It is characteristic of magic that with the advance of religious thought and the recognition of a spirit world, it tends to move closer to religion, and to depend increasingly upon the spirit forces of religion for its effects. The rabbinic authorities set their face against all practices that smacked of Israel's heathen origins, and prominent among these was "the performance of an act" without resort to supernatural aid, which was for them the forbidden "magic" to be punished by death. Their opposition was not to magic generally, but to this particular "idolatrous" form; the use of angels, names, and even demons, involving an appeal to the supernatural and a recognition

p. 22

of the supremacy of God, was admitted past the barrier on sufferance, but the first type was rigorously excluded. It was this distinction which the medieval writers sensed and voiced negatively, without fully comprehending it, for the ancient bitter struggle against "idolatry" had long since been won, and the distinction had lost its force. Medieval Jewish magic depended almost entirely for its success upon the spirits and names; sympathetic devices persisted, as we shall see, but their rôle was regarded as secondary and incidental to that of their theologically more acceptable successors. Here we have a striking difference between Jewish and Christian magic in the Middle Ages. While the latter frankly recognized and employed the occult forces inherent in nature, recipes employing these forces slipped into Jewish practice by the back door, so to speak, disguised as bona fide invocations of the spirit world.

Now we can understand why such categories as good and bad, white and black magic are foreign to Jewish thought. These distinctions are concerned with the purpose of the magic act, while Jewish discussion centered around the method, and the legal attitude toward it. I do not mean, of course, that rabbis had no interest in the ends toward which magic was pursued, that a "legal" technique could be used criminally with their approbation. They often expressed disapproval of even the legally recognized methods just because they might be harmfully applied, and strenuously objected to placing mystical information in the hands of people who were not to be trusted with it. But the scholarly and pious character of the student of mysticism and the essentially religious nature of Jewish magic ensured a minimum of misuse of this lore. There was never any question that the immoral practice of magic was not countenanced by Judaism and therefore the discussion could remain on a legal plane. However, Jews were acquainted with this prevailing non-Jewish classification, as is indicated by the effort of Menaḥem Ẓiyuni and others to interpret the word necromancy: "'Nigromancia' is a combination of two words, nigar [Hebrew], 'gathered together, collected,' like water that has been stored up, and mancia, the name of the incense that magicians burn to the demons; but I have heard another explanation, that nigre means 'black,' and this is why the Germans call it Schwarzkunst." As an example of nigromancia he cited "those who offer up their sperm to the spirits or demons with appropriate incantations."15

p. 23


The popular attitude toward magic and superstition, leaving aside the legalistic approach, recalls an incident that illustrates it perfectly. A teacher of mine, out for a stroll, was suddenly confronted with a black cat from which he shied away nervously. One of his students, observing this, twitted him, "You're not really afraid of a black cat, Professor!" "No," he replied indignantly, "of course I don't believe in such nonsense. But there's no harm in being careful." He might have been quoting Sefer Ḥasidim:16 "One should not believe in superstitions, but still it is best to be heedful of them." This qualified skepticism was the farthest advance toward the modern spirit on the part of the religious authorities; the masses, if we may judge from the innumerable superstitions that were cautiously honored, took that qualification earnestly to heart.

The Zeitgeist overpowered even the most rationalistically inclined of the rabbis. The Jewry of Southern Europe owned several daring spirits who uncompromisingly stigmatized magic and superstition as "folly" and "untruth," but in the Germanic lands none dared go so far, though a few singled out one or another phase of magic for their contempt, or proved themselves free of one or another superstition by their actions. The authorities, whose religious convictions and position obliged them to voice at least half-hearted disapproval, could do no more than threaten the practitioners of magic with disaster. They would be punished for their acts, whether by the spirits whom they had momentarily enslaved, or by the wrath of God. According to some, it was the prevalence of superstition and magic among the Jews that delayed the redemption of Israel from exile. One opinion had it: "If you see a Jew who apostatized neither because of love nor through compulsion, you may know that he or his parents engaged in sorcery."17 Sometimes the rabbis sought to counteract the influence of traditionally received techniques by arguing that they were no longer applicable, "for it is known that nature varies from place to place and from time to time," or on the ground that the requisite skill had been lost. Often they tried to soften the impact of superstitious practices by re-interpretation, by injecting religious meaning into them.18 But the validity of superstition and magic was universally accepted, and the very rabbis who deprecated them were often obliged to condone them also. Moreover no matter

p. 24

how violently they condemned popular misapplication of mystical teachings they were obliged to admit that the "permitted" categories of magic, especially the invocation of godly and angelic names when practiced by adepts whose learning and piety could not be doubted, were in consonance with the religious tenets of Judaism and could not be denied. It was this acknowledgment that underlay the fatal inconsistency of religious opinion; the camel's nose once inside the tent, its entire hulk could no longer be excluded. One can hardly blame the masses for their unhesitating acceptance of the truth and power of magic. Whatever faith in an all-powerful God may have taught them to the contrary, the common people believed in the might of the magician and stood in awe of him. "If anyone quarrels with a sorcerer he has brought his death on himself."19 The addiction to superstition and magic of the German pietists and mystics became a byword in the south of Europe and scandalized more than one pious Spanish-Jewish writer.20

Yet we meet at the same time, recognition of a profound psychological truth, far in advance of the spirit of the age: "Superstitions can harm only those who heed them."21 It requires more courage and skepticism than the Middle Ages could lay claim to (or than we can boast even today, for that matter) to be free of the yoke that superstition and magic saddle upon the credulous masses. The material gathered in this book is the most telling evidence of the inadequacy of mere proscription to countervail ignorance and the blind "will to believe."

In the succeeding chapters we shall examine first the beliefs concerning the spirit world (Chapters III-VI), which were fundamental to superstition and magic, and the powers ascribed to what we may designate as the magic word, namely, the names of God and the angels, and the word of God enshrined in Scripture (Chapters VII-VIII), which were the most potent tools of magic. Chapters IX-XIII contain a description of the various elements that constituted the actual practice of magic, including a discussion of medicine. The concluding chapters (XIV-XVI) are devoted to an examination of the divinatory arts, among the most popular of magical exercises.

Next: 3. The Powers of Evil