Ancient Jewish Magic by Isidore Singer, Cyrus Adler 1904
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MAGIC: The pretended art of producing preternatural effects; one of the two principal divisions of occultism, the other being DIVINATION. The effects produced may be either physical (as a storm or death under conditions insufficient to explain its occurrence, or any phenomenon impossible in the ordinary course of nature) or mental, and the latter either intellectual (as preternatural insight or knowledge) or emotional (as love or hate arising or disappearing in obedience to the arbitrary will of the magician). The methods of producing these effects include on the one hand actions of various sorts, and on the other incantations, invocations, and the recitation of formulas. Even in the Talmud the act and the results produced by it are regarded as the criteria of magic, and these two factors appear in all forms of witchcraft as essential characteristics. Closely connected with magic are SUPERSTITION and DEMONOLOGY. In so far as gods are invoked (demons frequently being degraded gods), magic is akin to idolatry, and, in a certain sense, to ASTROLOGY.
Jewish magic is mentioned as early as Deut. xviii. 10—11, Where various classes of diviners, astrologers, and exorcists are named, their ceremonies being forbidden as idolatrous (comp. II Kings xxi. 6; II Chron. xxxiii. 6). Nor is there any doubt expressed as to the actual potency of magic, and the magician, who may misuse it, is accordingly feared and abhorred (Micah v. 11 [A. V. 12]; Jer. xxvii. 9; Ex. xxii. 17-28: at al.). The commonest form of magic was the love-charm, especially the love-charm required for an illicit amour. Such magic was practised especially by women, so that magic and adultery frequently are mentioned together (II Kings ix. 22; Nah. iii. 4; Mal. iii. 5). The law (Ex. xxii. 17 [A. V. 18]) which punishes sorcery with death speaks of the witch and not of the wizard. This was correctly interpreted by the Talmud (Sanh. 67a) as implying that magic was practised chiefly by women, and the context of the passages in Exodus which mention sorcery clearly shows that it was associated with sexual license and unnatural vices. The frequency of allusions to it in the Bible indicates that the practise of magic was common throughout ancient Israel.
More abundant information is found in post-Biblical literature, especially in the Babylonian Talmud, where the great number of the passages alluding to magic furnishes incontrovertible evidence of its wide diffusion. lt was, however, only the practise of witchcraft which was prohibited, for a knowledge of magic was indispensable to a member of the chief council or of the judiciary, and might be acquired even from the heathen. The most profound scholars were adepts in the black art, and the Law did not deny its power. The people, who cared little for the views of the learned, were devoted to witchcraft, though not so much as the Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. “Adultery and sorcery have destroyed everything" (Sotah ix. 13); the majesty of God departed from Israel and His wrath came upon the world when the “wizards” became too numerous (Tosef., Sotah, xiv. 3); Simon b. Shetah hanged eighty witches in a single day (Sanh. 45b); Ecclesiasticus(Sirach) xlii. 9—10 is quoted in Sanh. 100b with the addition of the words “When the daughter grows old she will probably deal in magic.”
This ingrained belief in magic infected even the scholars; for although they did not practise witchcraft for gain or for unlawful ends, they occasionally counteracted black magic by white. They were even able to create a calf when they needed food. Healing by means of white magic is not condemned except when the means employed are pagan or idolatrous. Many scholars consumed men with a glance, or reduced them to a heap of bones, but since this magic was regarded as a punishment for sins which had been committed, the passages of the Talmud which mention it take no exception to it. Exorcism also flourished, although not as widely as in Judaeo-Christian circles (Acts viii. 9, xiii. 6-9). Jesus was regarded in the Talmud and by the ancient world generally as a magician (Sanh. 106b; Sotah 47b). The Greco-Roman world regarded the Jews as a race of magicians.
The means adopted in witchcraft were manifold. The most potent was human speech, to which all peoples attribute invincible power. “Open not thy mouth for evil" (Ber. 19a and parallels). Those words of the magician are all-powerful which he utters at the right time and place and under proper conditions. Since official Judaism bitterly opposed black magic, there was a constant stream of prohibitions against it, and from these the existence of various forms of witchcraft can be inferred. The secret Jewish name of God was a powerful factor in incantation, as is shown by the Egyptian magic papyri written in Greek, in which heathen and Jewish names of the Deity are frequently found in juxtaposition or combination, termed “union” by the Talmud (ib. pp. 117—146).
In addition to the magic word and the magic formula there were various magic objects which were used to avert the Evil Eye. Women and children, and even animals, as being weaker and less capable of resistance, were protected by Amulets and Talismans. These charms consisted either of natural objects or of papers with writing on them. Copies of the Bible had protective power and were carried especially on journeys, while the tefillin, as their Greek name, PHYLACTERIES, implies, were also regarded as preservative, at least in Hellenistic circles, as were the slips of paper (“mezuzot”) attached to the door-posts. Ludwig Blau has edited, translated, and explained two Hellenistic exorcismal formulas, one of which was found in a grave in Hadrumetum (in the ancient Byzacium), in the Roman province of Africa.
In addition to the official sources from which the data given above are derived, the Apocrypha, in view of its antiquity, deserves attention in connection with the subject of magic. The general picture which it presents is the same as that given by the Bible and the Talmud. According to the Book of Enoch (ix. 7), the angels taught the daughters of men “incantations, exorcisms, and the cutting of roots, and revealed to them healing plants” (comp. viii. 1 et seq. with vii. 6, ix. 8; x. 7—8 with xiii. 2, xvi. 8, and lxix. 12 et seq.). The heart, liver, and gall are magic agencies, and the blind Tobit recovers his sight when his eyes are anointed with the gall of a fish (vi. 4 et seq., viii. 2, xi. 10; see Sibyllines. iii. 220 et seq., discussed in “Alter Orient," iii. 41; ‘Ascensio Isaiae, ii. 6; Syriac Apoc. Baruch, 1x. 1, where the muttering of the incantations of the Ammonites is mentioned; see Kautzsch, “Apokryphen,” ii. 435, note). Noah's book of healing (Jubilees, x.) was magical in character, as were the writings of Solomon and Moses, mentioned elsewhere.
In the Middle Ages, as in antiquity, the Jews were regarded as magicians, and many of them doubtless profited by the general delusion. In the ninth century a Jewish magician named Zambrio is found in Italy and Sicilian sorcerers flourished even a century earlier. The Arabic author Mas‘udi speaks of a Jewish magician. The Jews were considered sorcerers in Germany also. In times of drought, during the Middle Ages, the people turned to the Jews, who were supposed to be able to cause rain, and they are still regarded by some peoples as magicians.
The diversity existing within ancient Jewish magic and the essential contradiction between witchcraft and monotheism are in themselves evidences of foreign influence on the system. The scholars of the first centuries of the present era refer frequently and unanimously to Egypt as the original home of magic arts. In the Bible the real homes of all varieties of witchcraft are given as Egypt and Babylon (Isa. xlvii. 9-15). It is very probable that in this respect both countries influenced Israel, and their political power and high civilization made it inevitable that that influence should be deep, although the lack of historical data renders it impossible to determine its extent or trace its course. The influence of Egypt admits of no doubt as regards post-Biblical Judaism, which was for a long period under the control of the Ptolemies both in its civilization and its government. The Egypto-Hellenistic syncretism influenced first the Hellenistic Jews, especially those of Alexandria. and through them the Jews of Palestine. The Jewish and Judaic-Christian view as to the source of Hebrew magic is confirmed by the Books of Hermes and by the recently discovered Greek and Coptic magic papyri, in which the Jewish element is no small factor; and Jacob (“Im Namen Gottes”) has recently proved that the belief in the almighty power of the name of God is Egyptian in origin. Although Assyro-Babylonian and other elements are not lacking, they are for the most part astrological and divinatory in character. Egypt, therefore, gave ancient Judaism its magic and Babylonia gave it its divination, while Hellenism served as the connecting-link.
In view of the authority which the Talmud possessed for posterity the magic in it could not but influence later generations. There is no doubt that the majority of the theurgic and magic elements in the post-Talmudic literature which Jellinek collected in his "Bet ha-Midrash," date from Talmudic, and in part even from pre-Talmudic, times. This may he assumed also for the magical portions of the geonic literature in general. especially as the Geonim lived and worked in Babylonia. This ancient magic, blended with Hellenistic and medieval European elements, was incorporated in the “practical Cabala." At the close of the Middle Ages the CABALA influenced the Jewish and the Christian World alike. The “Nishmat Hayyim” of Manasseh ben Israel, chief rabbi in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, is filled with superstition and magic, and many Christian scholars were deluded. The evil deeply and widely infected the people, and is still active, especially among the Hasidim.