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

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THE THORNY problem of free will, which has defeated greater philosophers than German Jewry produced, came no nearer a solution than where the rabbis of the Talmud had left it. The rabbinic authorities of Northern Europe were not distinguished for their concern with metaphysics; the problem interested them only in its more immediate and practical aspects. Is man's life foreordained? Is there any point in trying to live the good life? Do sincere repentance and piety affect the course of a man's career? Is it possible to discover future events? These were the questions that engaged their attention—and to all they resolutely answered "yes." For rabbinic Judaism straddled the issue of free will by positing a thoroughgoing determinism which, in some mysterious manner, still left men free to exercise discretion. While the general course of man's life is laid out for him at birth, the choice of good or evil rests with him—thus ran the unfathomable enigma. But "theirs not to reason why"; the solution had been advanced in Talmudic times and medieval Jewry didn't pry into its mechanism. As one man put it in astrological terms: the tenor of his life, which is conditioned by his "general" star (mazal hakelali), can hardly be influenced by a man's merit; his discrete acts, and the separate events of his life, which are imposed upon him by "particular" stars (mazal perati), only slightly more. Yet, "It lies within the power of each to do the good or the evil deed, and no external compulsion or restraint is exerted upon him. . . . To quote the rabbis, 'Everything is in the hand of God, except the fear of God' [Ber. 33b]. If the quality of good or of evil were implanted in his very nature, it would be as impossible to turn man from good to evil, or from evil to good, as it is to alter the natural tendency of matter to fall or of fire to rise." In other words, though a man's activities are predetermined, he alone is responsible for their moral complexion.

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The theological issue does not concern us here. What does is the deterministic view of life which governed the masses. Granting the credit value of good deeds and repentance on the celestial balance sheet of a life, it was none the less the general view that "nothing ever happens to a man except at God's command"; "He decrees who shall be a scholar, and how much and for how long he shall study, and whether he will compose one, or two, or three books" and "just how many steps he will take in his lifetime, and how many men his eyes will behold."1 Essentially this was a thorough fatalism, though the rabbis were careful not to permit it to dominate the religious view of life.

The corollary of this conception is obvious. What is already decreed in Heaven ought in some way be ascertainable by man. The universe is one close-meshed unit; heaven and earth, animals, plants, angels, demons, man, all are creatures of God, manifestations of His will, all so sensitively intertwined that each reacts immediately to the slightest alteration in the composition of the whole. (This doctrine is summed up in the elaborate comparisons between man and the world, between microcosmos and macroanthropos, which are to be found in Talmudic and medieval Jewish literature. Such treatises adduce parallels between the human body and the universe in the most minute detail.2) Events predetermined in the mind of God impinge upon one or another aspect of His universe long before they reach the final stage of occurrence on earth; the superior sensitivity of certain parts of the world, and even of parts of man's immediate environment and body, makes them responsive to what is yet to be long before it is. Upon this theory is reared the great science of divination—perhaps the most important single division, practically speaking, of the magical technique. Man's task is to discover means of recognizing and reading the signs which a generous nature spreads before his eyes. And to this task, however the theory may have been phrased, man has devoted himself from earliest days. One may venture to say that human curiosity about the world and study of natural phenomena in the long pre-scientific millennia were fostered as much by this one motive as by any other. Even the elementary search for food and shelter did not require and produce the detailed knowledge of our environment that the search for the future did. Paradoxically, seeking to learn what will be, man came to know what is. We need recall only the immense debt which our knowledge of the heavens owes to the astrological interests of our

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ancestors, or the anatomical studies pursued originally only for divinational ends.


The simplest and most direct means of discerning the future is through the ability to interpret the natural omens which point it out. Most often such interpretation indicates merely the advisability or inadvisability of following a certain course; again, at times the world about us has a more elaborate story to tell. The ancient literature of the Jews shows their acquaintance with the art of reading omens—though they were amateurs at it compared with other peoples, the Babylonians, or the Romans, for example. The Talmud frowned upon the conscious and deliberate practice of this art, but acknowledged that one could not avoid heeding those signs that thrust their lessons under his nose. "Although one may not deliberately divine by them [that is, purpose in advance to employ them for such ends], a house, an infant and a woman may be regarded as prognostics." This cryptic remark is amplified by the commentators in the Gemara: if after one has erected a house, or married a wife, or fathered a child, his affairs are successful or the reverse on three separate occasions, he may consider these to be portents of good or bad fortune. This passage was construed in later times as granting carte blanche to pursue the art, and to expand it.3

During the Middle Ages, taking omens from bodily phenomena was a very popular pastime among Christians and Jews. The following passages, from thirteenth-century works, seem to have been lifted from non-Jewish sources. One opens, "Just as the astrologers foresee events from the stars, so there are some who can foretell the future from human signs. If the flesh under one's armpit quivers, they will be broaching a match to him soon, and if it is the flesh at his loins, his wife will be unclean, or he will sleep alone; if his eyelids quiver, he will be seeing corpses and graves, and if the skin of his neck, he will soon be involved in a quarrel. Similarly every part of his body can presage coming events." The department of "itches" was especially well developed. "If the sole of one's foot itches . . . he will be journeying soon to a strange place; . . . his ears, he will hear news; his eyelids, he will behold a novel sight or read an unfamiliar book; his tongue, he will speak of new things; his eyebrows, he will behold men or women whom he has not seen in a long while;

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his forehead, people are looking for him and want to see him; his palm, he will hold in his hand gold or silver; his nose [he will be angry]; under his eyes and near his nose, he will weep. Itching in any part of the body is an omen. . . . God apprises man, through bodily phenomena, of what will transpire."4

Sneezes also were regarded as in some degree portentous. According to primitive views sneezing is the work of the spirits, and this is why, the world over, a sneeze is met with the customary pious response calling down the blessing of God on the sneezer. Jewish legend has it that before the time of Jacob people died suddenly without any warning, in the nature of illness, of their impending demise; they simply sneezed and fell dead. The sneeze, then, was an omen of death; hence the blessing which was intended to negate its prophecy. Various responses have been used by Jews: "Health!" "God bless thee!" "God help thee!" etc., while the one who sneezed quoted Gen. 49:18, "For Thy salvation I wait, O Lord." The ominous nature of the sneeze is not mentioned in medieval Jewish literature, beyond the recital of this legend, but the masses were probably alive to it. Several writers repeated the contrary Talmudic statement to the effect that sneezing during prayers is a good, and letting wind, a bad sign.5

Animals, too, were closely watched for signs of the future. The disconsolate howling of a dog is a certain indication that the angel of death is strolling through town. If a dog drags his rump along the floor in the direction of the door, this too is a token of approaching death. The starling shrills when it observes in the stars that a guest is about to pay one a visit. Birds in general, ancient standby of the augur, presage the future by their cries and the manner of their flight. One of the medieval mystics has an interesting theory as to how they gain the information which they thus pass on. It seems that there is a type of spirit that flits about in the upper atmosphere listening in surreptitiously on the conversations of the "princes of the stars," who of course are aware of what is to transpire on earth, and indeed are responsible for earthly events. These spirits gossip about what they have overheard, and the birds, flying among them, pick up the bits of information which they unwittingly disclose to men. The snail, or the mole, which is noticed burrowing in a house and casting up the earth behind, is proclaiming that an adulterous act is soon to be committed there. The admonition that one should keep a rooster indoors to be warned when God is angry

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becomes clear when we connect it with the instruction to kill immediately any goose or cock which upsets a dish or any other vessel. This is a sign of bad luck which the death of the fowl may help to avert. One of our authors grudgingly apprises us that "there are wise men who can foretell the future by means of trees and herbs," and then drops the subject without going into detail.6

"No superstition," wrote Grimm, "struck deeper root throughout the entire Middle Ages than those omens comprised under the terms aneganc, widerganc, widerlouf. Every animal, human being or object which one unexpectedly encountered the first thing in the morning, indicated good or bad fortune, and admonished either the continuance or the abandonment of the day's enterprise." The Talmud knew of this type of augury, but its prohibition did not prevent the Jew from aping his neighbor. "If he meets an ugly person, or cattle, or a beast, or a bird," scolds the Brantspiegel, "or he hears a cross word, or a curse, he says, 'This is a bad omen.'" (In certain German districts it was believed that if one beholds a Jew in the morning it is a very unlucky sign, and if the Jew peers through the window, the entire week will be ruined.) In the same way, it was considered unlucky to begin a day, or a week, or a year with an act that involved some loss, for it was feared that the succeeding period would take its character from that act. If the tax-collector was making his rounds, or a friend was so thoughtless as to try to collect an old debt, they were put off until the next day. Why make bad enough worse?7

A bucolic environment and interest are displayed in the prediction of weather from the omens. For instance, one list cites the following phenomena as indications of protracted heavy rains: If the pigs or goats are in rut and are unsated, if after they have wallowed in mud they return for more, if the cattle in grazing bury their muzzles into the earth, or stretch their necks toward the north, if the dogs paw holes in the ground, if the cattle dip their lips into the water when they are not thirsty, if spiders’ webs fall off of themselves when there is no wind to blow them down—all these are certain signs of the coming floods.8

Among other such superstitions I may mention the following: A seminal pollution on the Day of Atonement was generally believed to token death within the year, though the Talmudic authorities differed as to its interpretation. It was a widespread custom to enter upon a period of fasting when a Pentateuch fell to the ground,

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which was construed as an ill omen; as a sixteenth-century writer said, "I haven't seen any support for this custom in any book, but 'I haven't seen it' is no proof." If anyone who has performed a regular religious duty for years, such as leading the prayers on a holiday, is unable to do so one year, this may be taken as an indication that some disaster will visit his household. An error in prayer also betokened misfortune. An interesting belief in the Rhineland was to the effect that when the flames on the hearth leap unusually high, a guest is about to arrive. If one should douse the fire with water, the visitor will be drowned; "this is true and irrefutable, for many men have tested it"! German Christians also held this view, and the idea met with in medieval Lorraine, that by covering the fire a girl could rid herself of a persistent suitor, is explicable only on the basis of the same conception.9

Foodstuffs were on occasion regarded as tokens of good fortune. If eggs were not to be eaten on Saturday evening, the beginning of the week, because they were associated in folklore and custom with mourning, the New Year dinner included a variety of foods that were suggestive of prosperity and happiness: the head of a lamb, "that He may put us at the head and not at the tail-end" of things, fat meats, and sweets such as apples dipped in honey, "that the new year may be prosperous and happy," pomegranates, "that our merits may be as numerous as its seeds," fish, which are proverbially symbols of fruitfulness, and others. A fish called Barben (the barbel, Barbus vulgaris) was served "because its name suggests 'mercy'" (in mhd. the Barbe was called barm, which could be interpreted as a form of erbarmen, "to be merciful") . Still other suggestive foods were excluded from this meal; most notable, as an indication of the extreme tenuousness of some of these associations, was the avoidance of nuts, because egoz (nut) is arithmetically equivalent to ḥet (sin). In some communities it was customary to set the table for this meal completely with new linens and utensils, "as a good omen."9a

The portents which were read out of, or into, the accidents of life, were no doubt vastly more numerous than the literature discloses. Every individual could, and probably did, have his private stock of superstitions, in addition to those that were generally accepted. There were some who were better trained in this science than others, and these set up as experts. The degree of skill that was attainable is disclosed by the statement that "there is a science by which a man, by looking at a cut of meat, can tell whether the

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butcher had intercourse the night before"!10 This may not be foretelling the future, which is, after all, not so difficult if the alibis are prepared in advance, but it does involve a much rarer skill, discovering what happened last night, which, as any historian can testify, is no easy job.


A passive interpretation of omens did not satisfy the lust for knowledge. The quest proceeded to an active creation of signs and portents. In common with the foremost non-Jewish thinkers, religious and lay, the rabbis were forced into the difficult position of forbidding on moral and religious grounds practices whose efficacy they could not deny. Try as the Church and Synagogue did to stamp out what they regarded as a vice, their more or less open admission that this "vice" could bring results served to advertise its usefulness to the masses. Whether deriving from the Jewish background, which had had occasion to assimilate much from the Oriental and the Græco-Roman cultures, or from its Christian contemporaries, medieval Jewry was acquainted with and employed a wide variety of the methods of divination commonly resorted to everywhere. The Germans, in particular, were devoted to this science—divination had been a prominent feature of the ancient Teutonic religion and maintained its popularity in Christian times—and the Jews who inhabited the Germanic lands were strongly subjected to this influence."

Some of the forms of divination involved merely the application of a superstitious principle, with no additional magical apparatus. One such was to set a lighted candle in a place where there was no draught to extinguish it, during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If the light went out, it signified that the individual would not live through the year; if it burned down to the end, it meant he could count on one more year of life, at the least. These ten days are traditionally accepted as the period during which the fate of each man is determined in heaven. Light is universally regarded as a symbol of life. The association is logical and obvious, if we accept the premises.12

Even more intimately bound up with the human being than light is man's shadow, which among primitive peoples is regarded as a part of the body, or a projection from it. We are acquainted with

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the belief that one may harm an individual by treading on, or striking, or stabbing his shadow. On the night of Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of the Feast of Tabernacles, when it was believed that the decision concerning men's fate during the new year, which had been reached by Yom Kippur, was finally and irrevocably indited in the celestial book of records, the practice became widespread among medieval Jews to go out into the moonlight and observe whether the shadows they cast were by some ill chance devoid of heads. The lack of a head was an unmistakable sign that the decree which had already been executed upon the shadow would before long be visited on the body. The colophon of a sixteenth-century manuscript contains these words by the scribe: "On the night of Hoshana Rabbah, 5315 A.M. [1556 C.E.] I saw the shadow of my head in the moonlight; praised be God, for now I am assured that I shall not die this year." This belief was and is to be found throughout the Christian communities of Northern and Eastern Europe, the particular seasons at which it is observed being, of course, derived from the Christian calendar: Christmas eve, New Year's eve, Epiphany, etc. The earliest Jewish reference to it with which I am acquainted is by Eleazar of Worms; a short time later we find it mentioned by the famous Spanish commentator and philosopher, Naḥmanides. I should add that the Jewish basis for this custom was adduced from a rendering of Nu. 14:9 which gave the sense "their shadow is removed from them" to words which are usually otherwise translated. This custom was repeatedly mentioned by later German-Jewish writers.13

A related belief was that the reflection of a man who is doomed to die will show him with his eyes and mouth closed, even though he has them wide open. According to our sources (Eleazar of Worms, again, is the first to speak of it), on a certain night of the year the Gentiles would peer into a basin of water with eyes and mouth gaping wide, to discover their fate. In time, we learn, this practice (oil occasionally being used instead of water) was transferred by Jews to the night of Hoshana Rabbah, though some observed it on Yom Kippur.14

Of a similar nature was the belief that if one saw his image with a halo encircling his head, this too was a token of imminent death; when God has finished His daily stint of signing decrees, runs the explanation, He wipes His pen on the hair of a worthy man, whom He is about to take unto Himself, and thus is bestowed upon him

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the nimbus which his reflection boasts. This was the Midrashic explanation of the "beams of light" that emanated from Moses’ head, and in the Middle Ages, it seems, God still clung to His ancient ways. It is, further, "well known in medicine" that when a man has been bitten by any virulent animal, such as a mad dog, "if he beholds the image of the dog when he looks into water, the bite will be fatal."15

The familiar use of Scripture in divining (Bibliomancy) was not unknown to Jews. The Romans had thus employed Vergil; the Bible was already put to this use by Christians before the eighth century; in medieval Germany hymn- and prayer-books served the same purpose. But Jews did not have to borrow this device from their neighbors. In Talmudic times it was a common practice to ask children what verses they had studied that day in school, and to accept them as good or bad omens, an expedient that persisted throughout the Middle Ages. The more usual procedure of opening the Bible at random and taking the first word or sentence that strikes the eye as a portent, was also followed. Similarly, "if, upon awakening, one recalls a Biblical verse, this is to be regarded as a 'minor prophecy,' and if it is an ominous passage, one should fast."19

These methods required no special skill and could be readily applied by anyone. Many of the more highly reputed techniques, however, were not available to the uninitiated. Among these were the rather technical skills of Anthroposcopy (divining by the features) and Chiromancy (by the hand), still as widely pursued today as ever. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries works on these subjects were very popular in Christian circles. I know of no extended discussion of them in Jewish literature, but they were undoubtedly familiar to Jews. The Zohar distinguished four primary facial types, corresponding to the creatures which appeared in Ezekiel's vision: the man, the lion, the ox, and the eagle. The formation of the head thus indicates the character and temper of the man, for "Physiognomy does not consist in the external lineaments, but in the features which are mysteriously drawn within us. The features of the face change according to the form which is peculiar to the inward face of the spirit." Physiognomy was employed not only to distinguish the true character of a man, but also to prognosticate his action in the future. The art of interpreting the lines which appear in the soles and palms, and on the forehead (Metoposcopy), more properly divinatory, is mentioned in Geonic literature and crops

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up occasionally in the medieval period. One writer went so far as to explain the rite of examining the finger-nails by the light of the Habdalah candle on this ground: "We are accustomed to study our hands in the light because the wise man can read in them our fate and the good fortune which is about to befall us."17

Casting lots (Sortilege) was a common divinatory practice during the Middle Ages. Though such simple devices as tossing a coin, throwing dice, etc., were employed, the procedure even in these cases was complicated by rules specifying when the operation might be performed, and just how the lot was to be held, and how to interpret the results, as well as by the recitation of prescribed prayers or charms. A form of lot which the Jews learned from "Esclavonia" utilized a piece of wood from which the bark had been peeled on one side; the smooth side was denominated the "woman," the rough, the "man." It was tossed into the air twice. If the "man" fell uppermost the first time, followed by the "woman," this was a good portent; the reverse betokened ill luck, and two of a kind was taken to be non-committal. There were also Hebrew "Books of Lots" which, like their Christian counterparts, were of Arabian origin; the Jewish versions appear to have been composed mainly in Southern Europe and in the Orient. They were probably used in the North as well, but there is no such work which can definitely be traced to Northern Europe. These works comprised sets of rules for finding answers to specified questions by means of the twelve signs of the Zodiac, the twenty-two letters of the alphabet, the names of the twelve tribes, animals, birds, cosmic phenomena, etc.18

A man's name, the matrix of his character and personality, was also useful in deciphering his fate (Onomancy). One method, employed to determine which of two competitors would triumph, was to calculate the numerical values of their names, and divide them by nine. If the two were of the same type, that is, both were Jews, followed the same trade or profession, possessed the same degree of learning, etc., the one whose name after the operation left the larger balance, was the superior. If they were dissimilar in type, then the smaller balance denoted the successful one.19

Geomancy, which, Thorndike says, "seems to have been nearly as popular in the medieval period as the ouija board is now" (or was in 1923, when he wrote these words), was well known to Jews as well as Christians. Thorndike describes it as "a method of divination in which, by marking down a number of points at random

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and then connecting or cancelling them by lines, a number or figure is obtained which is used as a key to sets of tables or to astrological constellations. The only reason for calling this geomancy, that is, divination by means of the element earth, would seem to be that at first the marks were made and figures drawn in the sand or dust. . . . But by the Middle Ages, at least, any kind of writing material would do as well." Our sources tell us of "diviners who use sand and stones," and one refers more specifically to those who "make dots on paper or in sand." The reference is unmistakably to practitioners of geomancy.20

These instances involved not merely the divinatory process itself, but also certain magical acts to which was attributed in the end the success of the venture. Tossing a coin or dice, after all, has significance only if some supernatural power who knows the future is directing their fall. The operation of the magic is manifest in these prescriptions: To discover the identity of a thief, one should knead little balls of clay, write the name of a suspect on each, and drop them into a pot of water. Then Psalm 16 is to be recited a number of times, along with its mystical names, and the command, "Disclose to me the man who stole these objects." We are solemnly assured that the ball bearing the right name will promptly rise to the surface. A variation is to write the names upon stones, heat them in a fire, and then drop them into a hole in the ground. This, of course, is to be accompanied by the appropriate charms. The stone that is marked with the thief's name will be the first to steam. The same device was employed to find the answers to other problems. A fifteenth-century manuscript gives this version: write "yes" on one leaf and "no" on another, roll two pills out of virgin earth and place the leaves in them (or the pills may contain several possible replies to a given question) . Draw some water secretly from a spring, pour it into a bowl, slip the pills into it silently, and then say, "I conjure you by the Lord, who created heaven and earth, to reveal to me what is true, to conceal what is not true; I conjure you by the staff with which Moses divided the sea"; etc. Conclude with Ps. 4, 12, 15, 31, 55. The pill which first breaks open and permits its leaf to float to the top gives the answer to the question propounded. Still another, to discover the month in which one is destined to die, requires that the names of the angels who preside over the months be incised on twelve golden discs, which are to be dropped into oil, over which the charm is recited. The oil is then to be set out under the stars,

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in a new glass vessel, for seven nights, care being taken that at no time during this period is it exposed to the rays of the sun. On the seventh night, at midnight, the proper disc will rise to the surface. The oil and the discs are to be preserved, for the former now possesses miraculous healing powers, while the latter make potent amulets against evil spirits and the evil eye. These receipts indicate clearly the intimate connection between magic and divination.21

Other methods, equally well known in Christian Europe, were to interpret the shapes assumed by drops of oil or melted wax floating on the surface of a basin of water, and to suspend a ring of pure gold over a goblet of water and divine by the sounds it makes as it strikes against the sides of the goblet (departments of Hydromancy) . Plants were also utilized (Botanomancy): "On Monday evening, after sunset, go into a field and find the yellow, broad-leaved mallow, face the east and dig a hole there, bow, encircle the spot once, bow again toward the east," and recite a charm which concludes, "If my venture is to prove successful, then you must remain in bloom; if not, then must you droop to the earth." Return in the morning and learn how your undertaking will turn out.22


The most prevalent form of divination practiced by Jews, if we may judge from the frequency with which it is mentioned—it is often cited as the type of the magical act—was well known in oriental and classical antiquity, and was frequently resorted to by medieval Christians. It was carried out with the aid of a polished or reflective surface—crystal, finger-nail, wax, sword, arrow- or spearhead, mirror, water, the palm of the hand smeared with soot and oil, all of these, and more were used—into which an innocent child was made to gaze fixedly until he beheld the figures that disclosed the desired information. John of Salisbury, who died in 1181, writes of his own experience as a boy, when his instructor, a priest, after performing various adjurations and sorceries, had him and a companion look into polished basins or finger-nails smeared with holy oil or chrism and report what they saw. The other boy saw some ghostly shapes but John thanks God that he saw nothing and so was not employed henceforth in this manner. He adds that he has known many specularii and that they have all suffered loss of sight

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or some other evil. Even the holy patens "daruf man Got in der mess handelt and wandelt" were used by unscrupulous priests for this purpose.23

This technique was known to Jews in Talmudic times: "It is permitted to enquire of the 'princes of oil' and the 'princes of eggs,' but [one does not do so because] they lie." It may even be that Joseph's divining cup (Gen. 44:5) was similarly employed.24 During the Middle Ages the Talmudic terminology was retained, and we read of "princes" of glass, the thumb-nail, etc. The "princes" were the figures that appeared upon the polished surfaces, and though "they lie" medieval Jews were nothing loath to take their chances on what they might reveal.

The procedure seems to have been fairly well fixed. Several medieval German accounts parallel closely the following instructions from a fifteenth-century manuscript:

"First take some flax and make a candle wick out of it; then roll the candle, a span or more in length, from virgin wax. With a finger-nail incise seven rings around the candle and set it on the ground. Draw seven circles around it with a sword, and seat yourself in the center, with the boy on your lap. The lad should not be older than nine years, and should be short. This operation should be performed on a Saturday or Monday or Thursday night. The boy grasps the candle in his hand, and you say into his right ear, 'Adam Ḥavah Abton Absalom Sarfiel Nuriel Daniel,' and say nine times, 'Gerte, I conjure you with these seven names which I have mentioned, to appear in the wax of this candle, carefully prepared and designated for this purpose, and to answer me truthfully concerning that which I shall question you.' Then ask the boy, 'What do you see?' If he says, 'I see a woman' and if she is dressed in black, order the boy to command her, at his master's wish, to be clothed in white and to jump and dance. As soon as the boy sees her he is to say, 'Thy coming be in peace,' and after the jumping, 'Gerte, I conjure you in the name of my master, that you show me the hiding-place of the property stolen from N son of N and where it may now be found, and that you show it to me in such a way that I may recognize it.' And if he doesn't recognize it, then the boy is to direct the woman, in his master's name, to write the location of this place clearly, in large letters and with the vowel points, so that the boy may be able to read it. Don't be dismayed and confused if you try this procedure two or three times and she doesn't appear; she may

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be asleep. When she departs the boy should say to her, 'Go in peace, and come again when my master wishes.'"25

The details differed for the various materials employed, but the general outline of the performance was in all cases as it is here given. So widespread was the use of this device that it was accepted as entirely proper by pious Jews, and was permitted even on the Sabbath. A case is recorded in which the plaintiff, evidently a professional diviner, sued his client, who had appealed to him to discover the whereabouts of some stolen property, for the stipulated fee, one mark, which had not been paid him. The defendant claimed that he owed this man only "his hire for his labor," but R. Isaac b. Samuel (twelfth century) decided for the diviner on the ground that "in such matters it is customary to pay more than merely enough to cover the labor involved"—that is, he recognized the professional status of the plaintiff. It is significant that not a word of condemnation or censure was expressed in this decision.26

While this means of divination seems to have been most often used in cases of theft, it was also employed to disclose events that were yet to occur. The "princes" whom the diviner conjured were bound to reply to any question put to them, provided, of course, that the sorcerer had the power to make them respond.

What was the nature of the "princes," and in what degree were the visions that the boys reported real? In the fourteenth century a French writer contemptuously dismissed these phenomena with a skepticism that rings quite modern: "Magicians are especially prone to employ as their mediums children who are credulous and impressible, and who, influenced by tales heard from old wives, are ready to see a demon in every shadow." There were others who accepted the occult significance, if not the objective reality of such visions, adopting Plato's explanation that "the soul of the gazer is thrown back upon itself by the luminosity of the object seen and then exercises its latent powers of natural divination," thus arguing that one may behold the future while in a hypnotic trance. But by far most of the medieval and ancient writers, and the masses too, did not for a moment doubt that these images were real enough, honest-to-goodness demons, though some few, like the priests who used their patens as crystals, "hetten glauben das allein die hailigen engel darin erscheinen möchten and chain tewfel." Dr. Hartlieb had no patience with such a notion; "dieselben haben gar vast geirret," he wrote.27

The same questions agitated Jewish minds. In general the

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[paragraph continues] "princes" were held to be evil spirits, minions of the "power of uncleanness," and the technique was usually denominated "divining by the invocation of demons." This was the sole field in which the demons were privileged to function in behalf of the Jewish magician. Eleazar of Worms, however, insisted that they were angels, the memunim or celestial deputies, who could be compelled to appear in the shape of their earthly doubles by the proper invocations. The memuneh of a thief, summoned to show himself in a polished surface, thus gave away the identity of the malefactor, and re-enacted his actions at the time of the robbery. But R. Eleazar was not prepared to admit that the child actually beholds these "princes" in physical form, which was the view of one school of "philosophers." Other philosophers hold, he wrote, that these visions are hallucinations, with which demons and angels have the power to delude men. Still a third group maintains that the angels penetrate the minds of men and so shape their thoughts as to create a true picture, which, although it is not perceived through the senses, possesses nevertheless subjective reality. This last corresponds to his own view of the matter.28


The ancient art of calling up the spirits of the dead for divinatory purposes was well known in Biblical and Talmudic times. Though forbidden by the Law of Moses, Saul resorted to this means to consult with his deceased mentor, Samuel, through the medium of the famous witch of Endor. Talmudic strictures were hardly more effectual, for Rab, one of the leading authorities, among others, questioned the dead. Similarly in the Middle Ages, while the rabbis maintained the traditional doctrinal opposition (striking, besides, a note of compassion at times: "The dead speak only with great difficulty, therefore it is forbidden to force them by incantations and other means to reveal the future"), the sources disclose that various methods were known and employed. However, judging from the comparatively few references, this mode of divination played only a minor rôle in Jewish magic, due to the consistently condemnatory judgment of the leaders of Jewish thought, and the deeply ingrained sentiment of mingled fear and respect and affection for the dead.

Medieval writers repeated the meager traditional lore. We read

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that the deceased may be interrogated only during the first twelve months after death, when their bodies remain intact in the grave while their souls ascend and descend. The ghost, when called upon by name, rises feet first from the grave. On the Sabbath, however, when the spirits of dead and living celebrate the day of rest, the necromancer too must perforce call it a holiday. And finally, it is noted that "the questioner hears, but sees nothing, the questioned sees, but hears nothing, and others present neither see nor hear."29

The Talmud knew two kinds of necromancy, one in which the dead is raised by naming him, the other in which he is questioned by means of a skull. During the Middle Ages these two types were often mentioned, but it is questionable whether they were still employed. The references to them do not carry conviction. Other methods seem to have been more popular, such as the practice of two friends covenanting that the first to die will return to reveal the secrets of the celestial realm to the other. He might do so in a dream, but he could also appear during waking hours. "The deceased requests of his deputy angel that his intangible spirit be clothed in and united with matter so that he may carry out his part of the compact." In so far as the agreement contemplated such an apparition it may presumably be included among the necromantic arts.

There are several legends reporting such a transient visit from the grave; one tells of a R. Benjamin b. Zeraḥ who, on his deathbed, promised to warn the members of his congregation if any disaster impended. A short while after his demise he appeared in the synagogue and divulged that at the instant of death he had seen a heavenly decree inflicting a persecution upon them. Some writers, however, refused to consider this method necromantic. They made a distinction between "questioning the immortal spirit," which they claimed included such compacts as well as an appeal to the spirit of the dead, and is permitted, and "questioning the corpse" directly, which is forbidden. But such fine hair-splitting need not concern us, as it didn't medieval Jews in general. In common with their German neighbors, of whom Michael Behaim of Sulzbach (fifteenth century) wrote:

Auch wirt unglaub do mit bewert,
Das man eins toten sel beswert
Und zwingt das sie erwider vert
Und sagt wie ir beschichte

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they invoked the dead, spirit and body, to gain the information they sought. Indeed, not only the spirit, but actually the body was believed to rise from the grave, for we are told that "if one were to open the grave while the necromancer is conversing with the dead it would be found empty."30

Other methods described in the sources comprise: 1. "incantations" at the grave, which were apparently not favored, for the word laḥash usually denotes a forbidden type of magic; 2. spending the night on the grave, clothed in a distinctive garment and burning spices and incense while waving a myrtle wand, "until one hears an exceedingly faint voice from the grave responding to his questions, so faint that it seems hardly to be sensed by the ear, but rather to exist in his thoughts"; this method was also frowned upon for it was included in the forbidden category of magic which depends solely upon "the performance of an act" for its results; 3. "A man and a woman station themselves at the head and foot of a grave, and on the earth between them they set a rattle, which they strike while they recite a secret invocation; then while the woman looks on the man puts the questions, and the deceased reveals the future to them"; 4. a method which seems to have been acceptable, for it invoked the dead by means of angelic names: "Stand before the grave and recite the names of the angels of the fifth camp of the first firmament, and hold in your hand a mixture of oil and honey in a new glass bowl, and say, 'I conjure you, spirit of the grave, Neḥinah, who rests in the grave upon the bones of the dead, that you accept this offering from my hand and do my bidding; bring me N son of N who is dead, and make him stand erect and speak with me without fear, and have him tell me the truth without fear, and I shall not be afraid of him; let him answer the question which I shall put to him'; and the deceased will immediately appear. But if he doesn't, repeat this invocation a second time, and if necessary, a third. When he appears place the bowl before him, and converse with him. Hold a myrtle wand in your hand."31


One of the peculiar beliefs that were epidemic during the Middle Ages, especially in Germany, was in the presence of hidden treasure in the earth. The folk-tales of Northern Europe have familiarized every child with the ghostly blue flame that sometimes flickers on the

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ground above the hiding-place of a hoard. But only too rarely were such fitful markers to be encountered, and people were not content to await patiently the stroke of luck which would make them rich. The divining-rod (Rhabdomancy) provided a surer means of uncovering the riches of the earth. There are some today who still insist that the forked stick can disclose hidden springs—of water, not of wealth (I have myself seen the rod incline toward the earth in the hands of credulous country-folk, but it refused to work for me)—but just as the object of the search has become prosaic and trivial, so has the technique degenerated. A modern water-diviner could never hope to find any more solid treasure than he seeks; the magic has evaporated, the quest has literally lost its charm.

Several fifteenth-century Jewish formulas for making and using a divining-rod, which adhere closely to the texts of German recipes, have been printed. The Yiddish-Deutsch in which the spells are couched, the names employed in them, the very belief on which they are based, clearly indicate that they were borrowed from German originals. The following directions given in one text are characteristic of the entire genre: "On midsummer night, after sunset, go to a year-old hazel tree and select four rods which grew that year; bind them together and grasp them in your left hand, while you pass the right, in which you have placed gold and silver coins, three times around them, and recite this: 'May these rods be as successful as our father Jacob's were, for when the flock beheld them, they bore young in their likeness; may these rods as surely reveal to me hidden treasures, whether of coin, or valuable objects, or jewels. I conjure you by the name of El Shaddai, the rock of ages, by the name I Am That I Am, by the name of Him who knows the future, by the name of Michael, of Kutiel, of Luel, by the name of Luel, of Kutiel, of Michael.' Leave the silver and gold there, and in the morning, before sunrise, go to these rods and cut them, in the direction of the sun, and in the direction of the four cardinal points, east, west, north, south, and as you cut each rod, say, [the preceding is in Hebrew, what follows, in Yiddish-Deutsch]: 'Liber Gott, ich bitte dich, dass du gebst Macht zu diesen Ruthen, dass sie mich müssen weisen auf die Statt die Rechtfertigkeit, so da liegt verborgen Silber oder Gold, gemünzt oder ungemünzt, es sei verborgen oder es sei sonst dar kommen, es sei ober der Erden, es sei unter der Erden, in Gottes Namen Amen.'" There follows an adjuration of the rods by various names and natural phenomena. Then slits are cut and they are set into

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each other to make two forks, while another spell calling on El, Eli, Eloa, Agla, Adonai, Sabaot, Tetragrammaton, is recited. Two boys carry these forks into the open fields and the diviner follows them, muttering fearful spells which make no sense at all in Hebrew but are really transliterations from the Latin. The invocation ends finally, "I conjure you by the living God, I conjure you, rods, by the true God, by the holy God, that from this moment you bend toward the spot where this treasure is concealed," etc. When the rods have fulfilled their destiny (or should one say "if"?) and the digging begins, there is another hocus-pocus jumble of words, in which "hocus-pocus" makes its debut in literature. And then comes the grand climax, the glitter of gold and jewels through the broken earth. But at this juncture the treasure-hunter is apparently struck dumb—or else it is left for him to find the words which can adequately close his profitable adventure.32

The device was used not only to discover buried wealth, but also to obtain sought-after information. The rods were prepared in the same way, but the invocation was adjusted to suit one's needs. This one is typical: "I conjure you, hazel rods, by the Creator, and by the Patriarchs . . . that you reveal to me my request concerning my friend. If he has done it, then go upward; if he has not done it, then remain still. By the almighty God, Amen." There follows a series of other conjurations, by "the three who were ready to die for the truth" (Dan. 3:19ff.), by the Torah, by the Tetragrammaton, and by other, less comprehensible names, intended to impress upon the forked stick its owner's insistence upon a truthful reply.33

There were also other methods of tracing hidden treasure. One of them required that a certain "holy and pure" name be inscribed on a small gold plate "which has been refined seven times," and bound with a blue thread on the neck of a male white dove, which was then to be set loose. The spot on which it alights conceals the hoard. One must circumambulate the place seven times before beginning to dig, "and if it is in the daytime, speak the name of the sun in that season, and if at night, the name of the moon." Another instructed: "When something is concealed in a house or in a room, and you don't know where, dig a pit in the center of the place, a man's height deep and as wide as you please; dry the sides of the pit as well as you can, and kindle a fire in it. Then put dung or the like on the fire, cover it with a tub, and damp it well so that no smoke can come out. Then you will see the smoke issuing out of the ground

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in the spot where the hidden thing lies."34 It must be a mighty precious "thing" to warrant such heroic measures to recover it!


The ordeal is not usually thought of as a divinatory device, but this is its essential character. It constituted an invocation of supernatural aid, an appeal to the immediate judgment of God, an elaborated mode of sortilege. During the Middle Ages various forms of the ordeal were popular, and were sanctioned by Church and State; indeed special liturgical formularies were drawn up for its application, and it was conducted directly under the ægis of the clergy. Jews also occasionally resorted to the ordeal. The best-known Biblical example is the procedure employed in the case of a woman suspected of adultery (Nu. 5:11-31), which was abolished before the year 70 C.E. A privilege issued by Henry IV to the congregation of Speyer in 1091, providing that "Jews could not be compelled to undergo ordeals by fire and water," might be construed as a concession to an active Jewish aversion to ordeals. But medieval Jews were not opposed to ordeals per se; they merely refused to submit to tests which had been endued with a sectarian character. In fact they forbade bathing in "unclean water" upon which priests had invoked the name of their God preparatory to using it for the water-ordeal. This form was not employed by Jews because its popularity with Christians had stamped it as "heathenish," but other acceptable forms were recognized. When some hot-headed young men proposed the immediate execution of certain suspected sorceresses, "the sage" reproved them with the words, "Israel is not in his own land!" and suggested instead that an announcement be made in the synagogue, at a time when the suspects were present, that if any children were harmed "the teeth of these women would be ground with the stones that surround the well, and the guilty ones will die within the hour."35

A popular medieval belief which was accepted by Jews was that the wounds of a murdered person begin to bleed again in the presence of the murderer—the so-called "trial by blood" or "ordeal of touch." The Jewish sources note two curious variations on this theme, which are apparently unique: if a man who has just had some soup draws near, the corpse will spurt blood (therefore one should always consume a piece of bread after soup), and also if one

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approaches it with a knife to which particles of food adhere. A cognate belief, met with in the folklore of several peoples, is embraced in the "kinship ordeal," according to which the body of a father possesses an affinity for the blood of his son. A story is told of Saadia Gaon, and again, of Solomon, before whom two claimants to an estate appeared, each maintaining he was the true son and heir. The judge had a bone from the dead man's body placed successively into two bowls containing blood drawn from their veins; the bone absorbed the blood of the real son, but rejected the blood of the impostor.36

Israel Isserlein's biographer relates an incident which, while it did not constitute an actual ordeal by fire for judicial purposes, involved a challenge reminiscent of Elijah's contest with the priests of Baal. A preacher and miracle-worker (probably the well-known Franciscan, John Capistrano, the fifteenth-century scourge of heresy) came to Wiener-Neustadt, Isserlein's home, and launched a vitriolic attack upon Judaism. The rabbi publicly offered to follow the cleric through a bonfire, to test the relative merits of Judaism and Christianity, but "the priest went his way and nothing came of the matter."37

The trial by combat, or duel, was another form of the ordeal carried out under ecclesiastical auspices, with the aid of the prescribed ritual. In theory at least, it was not a test of strength and skill, but of righteousness, and its special character derives from the faith of the combatants that God would sustain the arm of the just man. Despite its superimposed Christian features, however, Jews are to be included among medieval duellists, though it is possible that the more objectionable parts of the rite were eliminated when the contestants were Jewish. Otherwise it is difficult to understand how pious Jews could have subjected themselves to a trial which involved the invocation of the Christian deity. At any rate, Frederick I of Austria, in 1244, issued a privilege to the Jews which provided that if the murderer of a Jew could not be convicted by direct proof of the commission of the crime, but strong circumstantial evidence fixed the deed on him, then the relatives or friends of the Jew could appoint a champion to meet the accused in a duel. This privilege, which was incorporated in statutes issued by various Central European rulers, contemplated the appearance of Christians in the lists in behalf of Jewish litigants. But Jews themselves also took up the sword or lance to settle a dispute with the aid of God. On

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[paragraph continues] November 28, 1194, the royal court in London issued the following order: "A day is fixed for Chermin the Jew and Samson, brother of Brin, for the plea by duel on the octaves of St. Hilary. . . . Let them come prepared for that duel at Totelle." The English "Fine and Oblate Rolls" for the years 1204-1206 record that "Elyes Blund, Jew of Lincoln, gives 200 marks and 2 marks of gold that the duel pledged against him at Nottingham, in the sixth year, may remain." Nor was it unknown for Jews on the continent to fight duels, relying upon the supernatural to judge the merit of their cause.38

Next: 15. Dreams