Jewish Magic and Superstition, by Joshua Trachtenberg, , at sacred-texts.com
WE may well believe, as we go through this material, that people pay dearly for their superstitions. It is difficult, of course, to judge the emotional tone, the intensity of the terror which the medieval Jew experienced in braving such a demon-ridden world. Our sources are wholly impersonal; writing of an introspective nature was altogether unknown. We can only conjecture on the basis of the chance personal comments that wormed their way quite incidentally into a literature which was primarily legalistic and exegetical. It is significant, for instance, that a homely little book like the Yiddish Brantspiegel,1 intended for the intimate instruction of womenfolk, a book which certainly came closer to the folk psyche than did the more formal writing of the period, singled out as the foremost dangers to life and limb demons, evil spirits, wild animals and evil men. "All the while," ran the pious injunction, "that her husband is away from home the good wife should pray to God that He guard and protect him from all untoward events and dangers, whether they be from demons or evil spirits, wild animals or evil men." From such remarks in works of this type or in a book like Sefer Ḥasidim, in which a homely folk quality prevails, and from the anecdotes which frequently accompany them, it is apparent that no place, no time, and no man was exempt from the fear and the danger of spirit attack. The most compelling evidence lies, however, in the countless devices that were employed to ward off this danger, measures that entered intimately and often unconsciously into the least aspect of Jewish life during the Middle Ages.
Yet we must not imagine that this dread was so overwhelmingly oppressive as to paralyze man, whose adaptability has been his mightiest weapon in the struggle for survival. The invisibility of the demons was their most terrible attribute, but yet, as the Talmud
sagely observed, it is fortunate that we are blind to their presence, for if we should see them swarming about us, we must collapse from sheer terror.2 Like all the other dangers attending life, always implicit in the play of nature's forces, but fully realized only at rare and fragmentary intervals, man learned to take this one too in his stride, to accept it into his consciousness of the world, build his frail breastworks against it, and proceed about his affairs. Demons, in the practical business of living, were just one more uncomfortable feature of a far from easy life.
Occasional remarks seem to minimize the danger. Thus one writer informs us, "They are more God-fearing than men are . and should you ask why they do so much harm, they harm no one without good cause; if a man does not provoke them . . . he need have no fear." Prime provocation consisted in forcing them to do one's will, by means of conjurations, amulets, and the like. This was the strongest practical argument against demon-magic, and we hear it reiterated time and againthe man who enters into dealings with evil spirits will not escape them unscathed. Again there is the ingenious polemic according to which the non-monotheistic faith of "two certain peoples" lays them peculiarly open to demonic attack, "but unlike theirs is the portion of Jacob, who believe in the one God." But the implacable enmity of the spirits toward all mankind was an axiom of demon lore.3 Superstition supported this belief with a wealth of instance. Many anecdotes tell of unprovoked physical attacks by the spirits; the man who is dogged by ill-luck is the special prey of demons; the etiology of folk-medicine was primarily demonic. The harm done by ill-chosen words and curses was traced ultimately to the demons, as was the working of the evil eye. Demons were believed to be the active agents in malevolent sorcery. In these ways did folk-belief express its conviction that most of the evil that man suffered was the work of his mortal enemies.
Man was in constant peril. If he dared to promenade alone he took his life in his hands. But the risk was greater outside the bounds of a settled community, and the requirement to accompany a traveller part of the way on his journey was explained on this score. "One should not turn back until the wayfarer can no longer be seen," read the injunction; the act of escorting him and keeping one's gaze fixed on his retreating figure as long as possible represented a sort of symbolic extension of civilization to keep him company and protect him from "the beings that rule uninhabited places." Of similar import
was the charm recorded by Joseph Hahn; his father, it seems, would stick a splinter from the city gate into his hatband whenever he left on a journey. "No doubt it was a charm for protection," the son correctly surmised. The community accompanied him on his travels by proxy. The superstitious fear of interrupting a journey and returning home was no doubt based on an analogous line of reason: the forces of the outside world might thus be introduced into the home, and with them, ill-luck. Therefore, "once a man has set out, if he has forgotten something, he must not re-enter his house, but should stand outside and ask to have it handed out to him."
Night time in particular is spirit time. When the mysterious dim of the night settles over the earth the demons, dwellers in darkness, bestir themselves. Mazzikim and lilin, lutins and faes, all flutter out of their hiding places. Therefore, liquids left standing overnight must not be drunk, nor should one drink from a well at night, for the demons may have imbibed of them. Foods placed under a bed for safekeeping during the night are undoubtedly contaminated by evil spirits; to partake of them is to court trouble. Even a covering of iron (a potent anti-demonic agent) is no security against nocturnal invasion. Similarly garlic, or onions, or eggs which have been peeled and left overnight are no longer fit for consumption.
In the natural order of things man should be tightly wrapped in his bedclothes at night, or else engrossed in his studies. God's protection, which rests over all creatures during the day, is man's safeguard when the sun shines. But the man who reverses the natural regimen and devotes his nights to some unsanctified labor, from him is God's protection properly withdrawn. For night has been given to the spirits, but the day is man's and God's. So we read, "If anyone goes out alone before cock-crow his blood is on his own head." Even in the privacy of his own home a man was hardly safe. "R. Jacob Mölln said that a man should beware not to spend the night alone even in his bed-chamber; he himself used to keep a boy beside him at night. One shouldn't walk through his yard without a light, or, God forbid! the evil spirits will pounce upon him. Human alertness avails nothing against them." A popular writer on folk morality, attesting to the strength of this belief, essayed a word of comfort: "When a man arises during the night to study, let him not fear the demons; let him rather consider how many there are who travel alone at night and suffer no harm. If he trust in God he may arise and have no cause for fear." Enhancing the fear of demons at night
was the realization that man's vigilance is relaxed while he sleeps; even more, the soul having left the body, that both body and soul are peculiarly open to attack: "The body is like a house, the soul, its inhabitant; when the tenant leaves his home there is no one to look after it." Therefore most people fall sick at night, while they are asleep. Indeed, R. Jacob Weil confessed, "When I prepare for my afternoon nap I recite first the 'anti-demonic psalm'" for "all sleep is dangerous because of the demons."5
Great as the danger was every night of the week, on two nights especially was it heightenedthe eves of Wednesday and Saturday. At these times hordes of peculiarly devastating spirits were let loose upon the world. During the Talmudic period Friday night in particular was considered an unhealthy time to be abroad alone, and the rabbis required that no man be left behind in the synagogue to finish his prayers alone after the congregation had concluded the service and gone home. For then he must negotiate the distance to his home without a companion. Special prayers were instituted for the Ḥazan to recite, so that the congregation might be detained until its slowest member had caught up with it. In the Middle Ages this fear of being left behind on Friday night was not so pronounced. The commentators explained that the Talmudic synagogues were situated in the fields, where the spirits congregate, whereas medieval houses of worship were located in town, and the late homegoer was not in pressing danger. Nevertheless some medieval rabbis made it a practice to linger until the last man was through with his prayers, in order to accompany him home, even pretending to be engrossed in a book so that the laggard might not be embarrassed.6
Eternal vigilance was the watchword; the evil spirits were everywhere, impatiently awaiting the unguarded moment when they might seize one. But at certain critical stages of life, when man's resistance was undermined, or his attention was likely to have been distracted, or when his extraordinary joy unduly excited the envy and animus of the spirit world, the danger was heightened and the safeguards were correspondingly strengthened. These were the moments in the life cycle "when man's star is low": birth, illness, death, while marriage, man's happiest moment, was an especially perilous one.7 These were the moments of man's greatest vulnerability
when the struggle with the spirits grew intense. And just these were the occasions selected by the sorcerer as most propitious for his sinister work, the junctures when the curse and the evil eye took their greatest toll.
The moment of birth was a crucial one for mother and infant; all the evil forces of the natural and supernatural realms were concentrated upon extinguishing the faint spark of life that hovered between the two. Nor did the danger pass when the child was born. In Jewish belief the eight days after birth were equally fraught with peril. (The period varies among different peoples; in Germany, for instance, it ranged from nine days to six weeks following delivery.) This period was usually terminated by the initiatory rite, such as baptism or in Judaism, the circumcision. Originally of a composite social and superstitious character, circumcision came in Biblical times to assume a specifically national, and in the view of the prophets, a spiritual significance. In the succeeding period, with the development of clearly defined views about heaven and hell, this rite acquired a new value, in addition to the older ones. "God said to Abraham," according to the Midrash, "'because of the merit of circumcision your descendants will be saved from Gehinnom, for only the uncircumcised will descend thither.'" The corollary of this belief, that uncircumcised Jews would have no "share in the world to come" was exceedingly popular in the later periods, and was often voiced in medieval writings. So strong an impression did it make that in Geonic times there arose the custom of circumcising infants who died before their eighth day, at the grave, and there giving them a name. Because of the great importance attached to this rite it was feared that the forces of evil would exert their utmost powers to prevent its consummation. The night before the circumcision, therefore, was held to be the most dangerous for the male child.8
The dangers that beset the bridal pair were attributable to the savage envy and rage that man's joys aroused in the evil spirits, perhaps, too, to their desire to frustrate the act that is responsible for the propagation of human life. Gathering force throughout the period preparatory to the wedding, these dangers assumed their highest intensity on the bridal night and gradually tapered off afterwards.9
The especial susceptibility of the invalidhis ailment was probably itself merely a symptom of demonic attackwas self-evident. The dying man was pictured as surrounded by evil spirits waiting to pounce upon him; therefore his attendants were cautioned to see
to it that his limbs did not project beyond his bed, or he would come under the power of the demons. He was believed, too, to behold all around him the spirits of the dead come to welcome him to their midst. Death itself was caused by a spirit, or destroying angel. The widespread belief in the Middle Ages that at the moment of death a struggle ensues between the angels and the devil over the soul of the deceased was paralleled in Jewish thought by the notion that the demons seek to gain possession of the corpse while it is yet unburied. The corpse itself was also an object of fear. The dead had entered the world of the spirits, the soul hovered over its vacated shell, potentially capable of harming those who came near. For this reason contact with the dead was to be avoided, and the clothing of the deceased was not to be used again, "because of the danger." Indeed, fear of the soul and the spirits, and apprehension that the demons might do harm to the deceased, was the explanation advanced for the prohibition to leave a corpse unburied overnight. The sooner the body was out of the way the better for the living and the dead. But the process of burial was not the least perilousthe corpse was closely accompanied by a spirit retinue during the procession to the grave, the cemetery was infested with spirits, the journey home was made hazardous by the possibility that the spirits had not been left behind, that the ghost itself was an unseen member of the company. And when finally the funeral was over and the period of mourning commenced the danger had not yet been entirely obviated, the spirit of the deceased might still linger for a while about familiar places. As Samter summed up this most fearful episode for the living and the dead, "The dying man must be protected against evil spirits and all sorts of magic, perhaps in the last analysis against death itself; the corpse, on the other hand, brings the living into mortal danger, partly through the enmity of the evil powers which cling to it yet a while, partly through the desire of the soul to draw others along with it to the beyond."10 The measures adopted to counteract the dangers implicit in death and burial provided for every one of these apprehensions.
So long as the perpetual warfare between mankind and the demon world remained in a sense objective, that is, man's problem was to fight off attack from without, man, as we shall see, did not
necessarily occupy the losing side of the struggle. He had ready at hand a host of magical weapons which could effectively protect him; he might even acquire the mystical learning that would enable him to lord it over his mortal enemies, bending them to his will. But the demons, too, were not altogether resourceless, and when they had recourse to what we have come to know in a more vital contemporary sphere of human conflict as "boring from within," man's plight became desperate. Spirit possession rendered the poor victim the physical "vessel" through which the demon operated and only extreme measures could avail to free him from the fiend.
This terrifying belief was especially widespread in later Jewish life. Popularized by the Lurianic Kabbalah it became a characteristic superstition of East-European Jewry. But it is found full-blown among German Jews at a time when the Lurianic concept could not yet have gained any wide popular acceptance. The initial appearance of a dibbuk is in a story included in the Maaseh Book,11 which was first published in 1602, and which contains material whose origin is considerably earlier than that date. In this story the spirit which took possession of a young man was the spirit of one who in this life had sinned egregiously, and which could therefore find no peace. It had entered the youth's body after having been forced to flee its previous abode, the body of a cow which was about to be slaughtered. It is this form of the belief, possession by the restless spirit of a deceased person, which gained such popularity in later times. In essence this represents a version of the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, gilgul, which the older Spanish Kabbalah developed.
In earlier times we find a purer form of the belief in the possibility of spirit possessiona form familiar in Christian legend12that is, that the demons proper may make their homes in man's body. This view found its rationalization in the legend that the demons, created on the eve of the Sabbath, are bodiless. Since all creation is engaged in the quest for perfection, all things striving to attain the next higher degree of being, the demons, too, are perpetually seeking to acquire the body of man, their greatest desire being for that of the scholar, the highest type of human. This is why scholars in particular must be careful not to be out alone at night. But just as woman, in herself imperfect, seeks perfection through union with man, so the demons seek to unite themselves primarily with woman, who represents the next degree of creation above them. This is why
women are more prone to sorcery than are men; the sorceress is a woman through whom the demon that has possessed her operates, or one who through close association with demons has acquired their malevolent attributes.13
Demons who have taken possession of a human body exercise such complete control over it that the personality and the will of the victim are extinguished. They can be expelled only by the most powerful exorcisms. This was the method of liberation employed in the story from the Maaseh Book mentioned above. We have a most circumstantial account of such a proceeding in Nikolsburg, in the year 1696,14 a date beyond the close of the period we are studying, when the Lurianic ideas had already gained wide popularity, but shedding light none the less on the procedure which was universally employed. The spirit in this instance proved extremely recalcitrant and was finally dislodged only upon its own conditions and after repeated efforts by the rabbi and congregation.
The need of the spirits to find completion in the body of man was also utilized to explain the curious belief in sexual relations between man and demon. That the demons propagate their own kind we have already seen. It is to be expected that man's fertile imagination should lead him to speculate on the possibility of an unnatural union between the human and the spirit worlds, and upon the condition of the offspring of such a union. Just as in antediluvian days "the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives, whomsoever they chose" (Gen. 6:2), so in the Middle Ages it was not unknown for a lesser order of spirit beings to choose for themselves earthly mates. The lore of the incubus and the succubus finds its counterpart in medieval Jewish folklore.
The Jewish belief took its cue from the Midrashic legend about Adam's siring a demonic brood, and the assertion of the Zohar, sourcebook for all the mystic science of medieval Jewry, that even now the propagation of the species continues by virtue of the union of men with spirits in their sleep.15 As to the manner of such union, it was generally agreed that man's nocturnal emissions often result from the efforts of the demons to arouse his passions, and that these provide the seed from which the hybrid offspring are born.16 This takes place, of course, without man's knowledge or volition; the
spirits, lacking bodies, have no means of achieving physical union with man.17 However, in the guise of man or woman a demon may successfully pass itself off upon an unsuspecting human as a being of his own kind, and thus achieve its purpose.18
As to the children of such a union, they retain an essentially demonic nature, but in the kingdom of the spirits they rank very high indeed, occupying the positions of rulership. This is one of the reasons why demons are so avid for union with human beings.19
This belief created some interesting moral and legal problems. Was a man or woman who had been seduced by a demon to be regarded as an adulterer? And if so, was such a woman to be "forbidden" to her husband? If, today, the issue strikes us as grotesque it is only because we have lost faith in the realities of the medieval world. Isaac b. Moses of Vienna, in the thirteenth century, considered this question at length and solemnly concluded that a person who had been seduced by a spirit was not to be held guilty of fornication. In substantiation of his decision he recalled a legend of a pious man who was sorely grieved because a demon in human shape had enticed him into an indiscretion. The prophet Elijah appeared to him and consoled him: since this was a demon he had committed no offense. "If he had been guilty," R. Isaac deduced, "Elijah would not have come to him, nor spoken with him, nor would he have acquitted him." Three centuries later a Polish rabbi was consulted in the case of a married woman who had had relations with a demon which appeared to her once in the shape of her husband, and again in the uniform of the local petty count. Was she to be considered an adulteress? this rabbi was asked, and was she therefore to be "forbidden" to her husband, since she might have had intercourse with this demon of her free will? The judge absolved her of all guilt and "permitted" her to her husband.20
Finally, as a fitting climax to the story, we have the most unusual spectacle of a lawsuit between the inhabitants of a house and the demonic offspring of a former owner, a lawsuit argued by the contestants in strictly legal fashion before a duly constituted court, called into special sitting to hear the case. This occurred in Posen at the end of the seventeenth century. The account bears extended retelling, both for its intrinsic interest and for the light it sheds upon the beliefs of that and the preceding centuries. In the main street of Posen there stood a stone dwelling whose cellar was securely locked. One day a young man forced his way into this cellar and was shortly after
found dead upon the threshold. Emboldened by this act the "outsiders," who had killed the intruder in their subterranean haunt, entered the house itself and began to plague the inhabitants by casting ashes into the pots of food cooking on the hearth, throwing things off the walls and the furniture, breaking candlesticks, and similar pranks. Though they did no harm to the persons of the inhabitants, these were so distressed and frightened that they deserted the house. A great outcry arose in Posen, but the measures taken by the local savants (including the Jesuits) were not sufficiently potent to oust the interlopers, and the foremost wonder-worker of the time, R. Joel Baal Shem of Zamosz, was sent for. His powerful incantations succeeded in forcing the demons to disclose their identity. They contended, however, that this house was their property and demanded an opportunity to substantiate their case before a court of law. R. Joel agreed, the court was convoked, and before it a demon advocate, who could be heard but not seen, presented his argument. We may still sense in this graphic account of the trial the dramatic tenseness of the scene, the earnestness of the advocate's plea, the solemn attentiveness of the three bowed gray heads on the bench, the open-eyed wonder, spiced with a dash of terror, of the audience. The argument ran in this wise: The former owner of the house had had illicit relations with a female demon who, appearing to him as a beautiful woman, had borne him children. In time his lawful wife discovered his infidelity and consulted the great rabbi Sheftel, who forced a confession from the guilty man, and obliged him, by means of an amulet containing fearful holy names, to break off this union. Before his death, however, the demon returned and prevailed upon him to leave her and her offspring the cellar of his house for an inheritance. Now that this man and his human heirs are all dead, contended the advocate, we, his spirit children, remain his sole heirs and lay claim to this house. The inhabitants of the house then presented their case: we purchased this house at full value from its owner; you "outsiders" are not called "seed of men" and therefore have no rights appertaining to humans; besides, your mother forced this man to cohabit with her against his will. Both sides here rested, the court retired for a consultation, and returned to announce that its decision was against the "outsiders." Their proper habitat is in waste places and deserts and not among men; they can therefore have no share in this house. To make certain that the decision was carried out R. Joel proceeded to deliver himself of his most terrifying exorcisms,
and succeeded in banishing the intruders from cellar as well as house, to the forests and deserts where they belonged.21
The "evil eye," one of the most widely feared manifestations of demonic animus, is not always what the term implies; it comprehends two distinct types of supernatural phenomena, only the first of which should properly be so denoted.22 This superstition affirms that certain baneful potencies are inherent in the "evil" eye itself, that they are natural properties of such eyes. Not a few unfortunate men are born jettatori, shedding rays of destruction about them with every glance, frequently themselves unaware of their dread influence. Some jettatori may be recognized by the peculiar and striking cast of their eyes; others pass unnoticed until sad experience unmasks them. They are to be found in all stations of life. Pope Pius IX, for one, was reputed to be possessed of the evil eye, and the women, while kneeling for his blessing as he passed, would make a counteracting sign under their skirts. This belief arises from the natural reaction of simple people to the arrestingly piercing and vital qualities that often illumine the eyes of men of strong personality, and is a response just as much to the personality as to the eye itself. There are baleful glances, just as there are malevolent men, and the superstitious imagination tends to run away with itself.
The second is the type the Germans denote with the words berufen or beschreien. Its root is the pagan conviction that the gods and the spirits are essentially man's adversaries, that they envy him his joys and his triumphs, and spitefully harry him for the felicities they do not share. "Just as hope never forsakes man in adversity, so fear is his constant companion in good fortune, fear that it may desert him; he apprehends equally the envy of the gods, and the envy of his fellow-menthe evil eye." The attention of the spirit-world is cocked to detect the least word or gesture of commendation. Demons are like men, Menasseh b. Israel wrote; "when a man receives praise in the presence of his enemy, the latter is filled with anger and reveals his discomfiture, for envy consumes his heart like a raging fire, and he cannot contain himself."23 A glance that expresses approbation is as eloquent as a speech, and just as likely to arouse their malice. Such words and glances, in themselves perhaps innocent, constitute the evil eye, which brings swift persecution in its wake. We may say
that this belief is a hypostatization of the evil which man discerns in invidiousness, a translation of a profound poetic truth into the language of superstition.
Rabbinic Judaism was acquainted with both aspects of the evil eye.24 Several rabbis of the Talmud were accredited with the power to turn men into "a heap of bones" with a glance, or to cause whatever their gaze fell upon to burst into flames. But the second aspect was predominant. As has been pointed out by several scholars, the jettatura proper seems to have been introduced into Jewish thought by those Talmudic authorities who came under the influence of the Babylonian environment. The Palestinian sources, and in particular the Mishna, know the evil eye only as an expression of the moral powers of envy and hatred. The Palestinian view prevailed in later
Jewish life, though the other was not unknown." In order to counteract the "moral" version of the evil eye it has become customary over a very wide area to append a prophylactic phrase, such as "May the Lord protect thee," "no evil eye," "Unbeschrieen," to every laudatory remark. Medieval Jewry pursued not only this practice, but also the equally well-known device of expressing its approbation in highly unflattering terms: "A man will call his handsome son 'Ethiop,' to avoid casting the evil eye upon him," said Rashi. Any act or condition that in itself may excite the envy of the spirits is subject to the evil eye; taking a census or even estimating the size of a crowd, possession of wealth, performing an act which is normally a source of pride or joyall evoke its pernicious effects. A father leading his child to school for the first time took the precaution to screen him with his cloak. Members of a family were reluctant to follow each other in reciting the blessings over the Torah before a congregation. A double wedding in one household, or indeed, any two simultaneous marriages were avoided for this reason. Even animals and plants were subject to the evil eye; a man who admired his neighbor's crop was suspected of casting the evil eye upon it.26
The early Jewish literature was little concerned with the explanation or the theoretical basis of this phenomenon. Even in the Middle Ages speculation on the subject was very much circumscribed, despite the example set by classical and Christian students who devoted much thought to the question whether fascination operates naturally or with the aid of demons. Thomas Aquinas, for example, accepted the explanation that "the eye is affected by the strong imagination
of the soul and then corrupts and poisons the atmosphere so that tender bodies coming within its range may be injuriously affected." Of a similar nature is the opinion of R. Judah Löw, who attained a great reputation as the alleged creator of the Golem of Prague: "Know and understand that the evil eye concentrates within itself the element of fire," and so flashes forth destruction. On the other hand there is the view of Menasseh b. Israel, previously cited, which reflects Christian opinion, and is matched by the statement in Sefer Ḥasidim, "The angry glance of a man's eye calls into being an evil angel who speedily takes vengeance on the cause of his wrath." The same work rings in an interesting innovation on this belief. There are glances that heal, as others harm: "When a wicked man casts the evil eye upon someone, to do him damage . . . a pious man must immediately counteract it by bestowing upon the victim a glance that sheds beneficence. . . . Even if the first man has not expressly uttered a curse, but has merely said, 'How nice and plump that child is!' or has regarded him without saying anything, the pious one should bless the child with a glance."27 Protection against the evil eye was essentially a matter of repelling the demons and evil spirits and practically all the anti-demonic measures were effective safeguards.
Gregory the Great, in his Dialogues, relates that a priest once jocosely called out to his servant, "Come, devil, take off my shoes!" whereupon his shoes were whisked off by an invisible force, and the poor fellow was almost frightened out of his wits. Luckily he had the presence of mind to shriek, "Hence! vile one, hence!" and saved himself from further diabolic accommodation.28
The Talmud put the matter succinctly: "One should never open his mouth to Satan," that is, evil talk is nothing less than an invitation to the demons. But this was a counsel of perfection, which men could do little more than aspire to. Our speech is richly peppered with words whose connotation is unpleasant; how open our mouths at all without letting slip out such invitations to Satan? The danger is ever-present, but human ingenuity has devised several means of getting around it. One of these is the euphemism. One says "the enemies of Israel" instead of "Israel," "my enemies" instead of "myself," and people are not addressed directly, but in the third
person, when some unpleasant eventuality is mentioned. To lead the demons astray, the true nature of a disease is hidden, as when the ailment "mal malant" is known as "bon malant." The one subject of conversation that is most ardently to be shunned, naturally, is death, and so when Joseph, in Egypt, asked his brothers concerning the welfare of their father and grandfather, they replied, "Thy servant, our father, is well, he is yet alive," and Joseph understood at once that his grandfather, Isaac, was dead. During the Middle Ages fear of publicly proclaiming the news of a death was pronounced, and the custom of pouring out the water in a home where a death had occurred was explained and accepted as a mute announcement. To this day in Eastern European villages, where the sexton calls worshipers to the morning service with three knocks upon the door, he omits the last rap when a member of the congregation has passed away overnight, the missing knock telling its own somber story. Instead of saying "so and so is dead," one says "so and so lives," and the cemetery is called "the house of life." Similarly, references to mourning must be avoided. The "Great" treatise on "Mourning" (Ebel Rabatti) has become the tractate "Rejoicing" (Semaḥot), mourning formularies are entitled "The Book of Life," and the concluding words of a rite connected with dreams, "Eat thy bread with joy" (Eccl. 9:7), are transposed because the initials of the Hebrew words spell "mourner." Again, news of a serious illness is withheld for three days lest the spirits make a premature end of the invalid when they hear people talking about his infirmity; the secret is not guarded any longer, if the illness continues, for fear that the patient may be deprived of the benefit of public prayer. When a person is sick one must not gossip about his sins.29
There is also a second method of cozening the spirits, namely, to nullify the possible effect of a remark with such formal comments as "God forbid," "may it not occur to you," "may God protect you," etc. Similar phrases are in use all over the world.30
If such simple devices impute to the spirits a degree of naiveté which does little credit to their vaunted cunning as man's antagonists, the explanation must be sought in man's unshakable belief in his own superior intelligence. When he sets himself to the task none of God's creatures is his peer in wisdom and shrewdness!
The medieval literature is full of warnings against "opening one's mouth to Satan," but warnings do not suffice and the lesson is driven home by frequent tales of the grievous consequences of such
incaution. When women gossip about an invalid in the presence of children, the ailment is promptly visited upon the young ones; to scold a boy with the word meshummad (apostate) is to foredoom him; a man who said of his books "they are fit only to be burned" was privileged to witness that fate befall them; another man who misrepresented the state of his health was speedily stricken with disease. A scribe must not end a page with an ominous phrase, nor a scholar his studies, nor should a book be left open at such a place; one man who was so unwary as to neglect this admonition and left his studies at the words "And satyrs shall dance there" (Is. 13:21) awoke to find a demon disporting himself in his chair. There are dozens of such anecdotes. And sometimes the spirits performed holy labors too, as when they impressed upon R. Israel Isserlein a due respect for the words of the Talmud. While conducting a class he came across the plaint of a long-departed sufferer that "Podagra is as painful as the thrust of a needle in live flesh" (San. 48b); himself afflicted with gout, and therefore an authority in his own right, he took issue with this dictum. "We had not yet completed that tractate," writes his Boswell, "when he let out a series of groans such as I had never before heard from his lips, and neither before nor since have I seen him in such excruciating pain. 'In the future,' said the teacher, 'I'll put a bridle on my tongue.'"31
Vows and curses were especially singled out in this connection. A vow, let us say, sworn by the life of a child, is a serious matter, for at the least sign of backsliding the spirits are delighted to exact the penalty. And a curse is even more fraught with danger; it is a direct invitation, nay, a command to the spirits to do their worst. According to Jewish tradition, "the curse of a sage, even when undeserved, comes to pass"; in fact, "even the curse of an ordinary person should not be treated lightly." Demons are not the ones to draw invidious distinctions between persons or motives. Among Christians, as among Jews, an execration, whether seriously meant or not, was believed to bring dire consequences in its wake. "Sprenger [a German writer of the fifteenth century] tells us that if an impatient husband says to a pregnant wife, 'Devil take you!' the child will be subject to Satan; such children, he says, are often seen; five nurses will not satisfy the appetite of one, and yet they are miserably emaciated, while their weight is great." Parallels are to be found aplenty in the Jewish sources. Malisons take effect indiscriminately, sometimes on the curser, sometimes on the cursed, or even on their childrenand
in at least one instance we are informed that an innocent bystander paid the price. This is why, Sefer Ḥasidim counsels, one should not live among people given to cursing. "We know of many such cases," wrote one man, "but we do not wish to burden the reader with them." Well he might not, for his readers could have matched case for case. The power of the curse extended even beyond the gravethe soul of the deceased was made to suffer if his memory was reviled. It is on this basis that we can comprehend the peculiar dread that attached to the formal rite of excommunication which called down upon the head of the guilty one a most terrifying catalogue of maledictions.32
So strong was this fear that it was forbidden to repeat in direct discourse an overheard conversation which had included a curse, for however innocently spoken it might still take effect on the company present. Even the imprecations in Holy Writ evoked dread; Sefer Ḥasidim tells of a student who fell suddenly ill and died while studying a portion of Jeremiah calling down bitter maledictions upon Israel, and in the synagogue this superstition created a peculiar problem. The weekly reading of the Torah involved from time to time public recitation of such ominous selections, and the congregation feared the spirits might interpret them as directed against its members. For this reason communities were warned to make sure that the precentor was universally acceptable and befriended, or these curses might descend upon the heads of his enemies. Even so, individuals were hesitant about ascending the pulpit to recite the blessings over these portions, especially when Deut. 28 was read, for its malisons are penned in the singular person and present tense. In one synagogue, it is reported, "on a Sabbath on which the 'chapter of maledictions' was to be read, the Scroll of the Torah was shamefully permitted to lie open for several hours, because no member of the congregation was willing to come up to the pulpit."33
Some writers attributed the random effectiveness of curses to astrological factors"not all times are equal," they explained; at intervals a man's star relaxes its vigilance, and a curse that is uttered in his presence at that moment will find in him its victim. But the pious Brantspiegel warned the irascible wife against scolding her husband because "die mazzikim stehen un sehen das sie zornig is un shelt ihren mann un freuen sich un nehmen die kelalot [execrations] un heben sie auf bis zu der zeit das Gott auf den menschen zirnt. da brengen sie die kelalot auch un sie gehen selten lehr aus.
un es wird ihr selbert der nach leid." According to either view, whether man's defenses be weakened by the defection of his star or the anger of God, the executers of the curse are the demons.34
Since the consummation of a curse may remain temporarily in abeyance, the threat hung over one's head like a poised sword. Some way out of this dilemma was ardently desired, and a formula was devised to meet this need:35 "With the consent of the heavenly and earthly courts, of our sacred Torah, of the great and small Sanhedrins, and of this holy congregation, we release N son of N from all the curses, maledictions, oaths, vows . . . uttered in his home, or directed against him or any member of his household, be they his own curses or the curses of others against his person, or curses that he uttered against others, unwarrantedly or deservedly, in a moment of wrath or with malice prepense, intentionally or unintentionally, whatever their occasion or character. With the consent of God and of His celestial and terrestrial ménage, let them all be null and void, like unto a clay vessel that has been shattered. . . ." Solemnly pronounced by the religious authorities before the congregation, this formula provided the necessary psychological reliefnow that God Himself had taken a hand in the matter the demons need no longer be feared.