Jewish Magic and Superstition, by Joshua Trachtenberg, , at sacred-texts.com
Although this book is concerned primarily with the Jewish Middle Ages (c. 1000-1600), * it has been necessary to pay considerable attention to source material originating in earlier periods, particularly to the Talmud. This encyclopedia of Jewish law, customs and beliefs was accepted as the final word on all matters appertaining to Judaism, and Jewish life was deliberately patterned after its dicta. It would therefore be impossible to comprehend any phase of medieval Jewish life without giving due weight to the influence of the Talmud in shaping it.
The same is true, to a lesser degree, of the Geonic writings, especially the responsa, which were frequently accepted as authoritative. Still another type of material originating in the Geonic period is of importance for us, namely, the mystical and magical literature and inscriptions which have been edited by such scholars as Gaster, Montgomery, and others. The Sword of Moses has a great deal in common with the Aramaic incantation texts derived from magical bowls. This material represents the transition between Talmudic and medieval magic and superstition, and is extremely useful in tracing the process of development. Incidentally, the interesting problem of how the transference of the Greek-Egyptian magical tradition, the influence of which this material clearly displays, occurred by way of Babylonia rather than Palestine warrants investigation.
So far as the medieval sources themselves are concerned, it must be said at the outset that very few indeed have any direct bearing upon our subject. There is hardly any Jewish literature in the north of Europe devoted specifically to magic. Sefer Raziel, probably compiled in the thirteenth century and containing much Geonic mystical material (so potent were its contents considered that mere possession of the book was believed to prevent fires), and the anonymous Shimmush Tehillim, "The (Magical) Use of the Psalms," were
all, besides some of the works of Eleazar of Worms and his school, such as Ḥochmat HaNefesh, which contain more or less pertinent material. In recent years several scholars, most notably Professor Max Grunwald of Vienna, have published extracts from manuscript works dealing with this subject, which lead one to believe that additional material of this nature is hidden away in European libraries.
A good deal of information is disclosed by the popular works on ethics and manners, of which the thirteenth-century Sefer Ḥasidim, attributed to Judah the Pious, is the best and most fertile example. It is a veritable mine of folklore and superstition. Other such books, as Orḥot Ẓadikim, Moses b. Ḥanoch's Brantspiegel, the several versions of the Vrauen Büchlein, etc., though less important, have proved informative. Collections of legends and folk-tales (e.g., Gaster's translation of the Maaseh Book, and N. Brüll's collection in the Jahrbücher) also reveal many beliefs and practices of the period.
Again, there are three works whose primary purpose is legalistic, but which have a degree of personal orientation, so that it is possible to glean from them much valuable information. These are Samson b. Ẓadok's Tashbeẓ, the Maharil, and Joseph b. Moses Leket Yosher, which attempt to present the opinions and decisions and practices, with much personal comment, of three leading authorities, Meir b. Baruch of Rothenburg, Jacob Mölln, and Israel Isserlein, respectively. The last contains a great amount of personal and biographical material, and is therefore the most interesting and most useful for our purpose.
Most of the literature, however, is legalistic or exegetical, attempting to codify and interpret Jewish law and precepts. We may distinguish among these: 1. the large number of codes and expositions of customs (Minhagim), which contain many personal reminiscences and observations on current usage (such works as Isaac b. Moses Or Zarua, Eliezer b. Nathan's Raben, Moses b. Jacob's Semag, Eliezer b. Joel's Rabiah, and Tyrnau's Minhagim, are outstanding in this respect); 2. works such as Eleazar b. Judah's Rokeaḥ, and HaḤayim, by Ḥayim b. Beẓalel, which combine ethical and legalistic subject-matter; 3. the commentaries on Bible and Talmud (notably Rashi, the Tosafot, Isaac b. Judah's Paaneaḥ Raza, Ẓiyuni); 4. the glosses and notes on Codes, such as Solomon Luria's Amude Shlomo on Semag and the very important additions of Moses Isserles in the Shulḥan Aruch, as well as Mordecai Jaffe's notes thereto; 5. the codifications of matter pertaining primarily to the ritual, such as
[paragraph continues] Siddur Rashi and Maḥzor Vitry, the latter being especially useful; 6. and finally, the vast responsa literature, containing rabbinic decisions and opinions upon a great variety of disputes and queries relating to law, ritual, custom, morals, etc.
These works contain a great deal of valuable information, though it is far from a simple task to ferret it out. Naturally, the direct references to contemporary conditions are most significant. But they present also a perplexing problem, namely, to distinguish between mere recapitulation of old legislation and tradition, and reporting of contemporaneous practice. The mere fact that Talmudic prescription was baldly quoted is no indication that it was still observed. It is necessary, therefore, to weigh carefully internal evidence; these works, after all, were composed primarily for public use, they were not mere encyclopedic compendia. Therefore the fact that certain Talmudic material is included, while other is omitted, that certain matters are gone into in some detail, and others glossed over, that a degree of freedom is evidenced in discarding time-worn practices with the observation that they are no longer observed because of altered circumstances, that disputes arise concerning proper observance and occasional notes and anecdotes illustrate differences in observance of old customs, all help us the better to evaluate what might otherwise appear to be merely mechanical repetition of Talmudic injunctions. It must be noted, moreover, that many of the superstitious practices enumerated in Talmudic and Geonic literature are still observed today, so that we may not doubt that reference to them in the Middle Ages represents a true reflection of current observance.
There is little material of a more general nature which is of help, but the anti-Maimonidean polemic of Moses Taku, Ketab Tamim, the Disputation of R. Jeḥiel, and a few other works, contain interesting information.
I have also used some material later in date than 1600, such as the writings of the Horowitz family, the commentaries on the Shulḥan Aruch, and Menasseh b. Israel's Nishmat Ḥayim, as well as a few books emanating from Southern Europe (Solomon Almoli's Pitron Ḥalomot, Levita's Tishbi, Ẓedekiah b. Abraham's Shibbole HaLeket, Kol Bo, Menaḥem Recanati's works) because they reflect more or less directly upon the period and region we are studying.
Unfortunately, none of the interesting pictorial material to be found in periodicals and the encyclopedias can be definitely ascribed to our period, and I have therefore refrained from using it.
The Bibliography of Hebrew Sources includes all the Hebrew source material which has been utilized; the Bibliography of Modern Literature contains only the material which is more or less directly relevant to the study of medieval Jewish magic and superstition. Other literature referred to in the notes is fully indicated there.
315:* See S. W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, N. Y. 1937, III, 116; and Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, Introd., for a discussion of the application of the term "Middle Ages" to Jewish history.