Israeli professor tackles the controversial topic in WSU Press book

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Advocating for the Torah, Rabbi Ben Bag Bag says, “Turn it over and turn it over, for everything is in it” (Mishnah Avot 5:22). When Jews try to view Torah from all perspectives, they usually open the Talmud, which really does seem to contain everything.

It has, famously, detailed debates about matters of ritual, competing analyses of biblical passages and hard moral questions, but also medical recommendations, recipes, tall tales, jokes and advice on how to protect yourself from demons.

My teachers would either skip the parts about demons or read them quickly, translating the words in a rapid whisper, trying to get through the embarrassment as fast as possible.

Yuval Harari, a professor of literature and Jewish folklore at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, takes the opposite approach. In his new study, Jewish Magic, Before the Rise of Kabbalah (Wayne State University Press, 2017), Harari presents a careful analysis of every passage about demons in the Talmud.

He supplements this with examples of magic manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah, sophisticated books of mystical lore, popular amulets, Babylonian bowls with Aramaic inscriptions designed to keep demons away and other magic paraphernalia from Roman Palestine, Persian Babylon and the Islamic Middle East.

But first, Harari deals with some tough problems in defining his terms. How does magic differ from knowledge (what we call “science”) and from religion?

For example, can invisible creatures make a person sick if the person eats with unwashed hands? A Talmudic rabbi believes they can. Is that science or magic?

If someone calls on higher powers to heal a patient or to deliver rain in a drought, does that count as a magical rite or as a pious prayer?

Jewish And Magic
Another problem of definition: What does “Judaism” mean? The Torah explicitly forbids forms of magic (Exodus 22:18 & Deuteronomy 18:10-13), and rabbinic literature formulates rules condemning magic, but many ordinary men and women practice their Judaism with a rich mixture of superstitions. Some historians insist that Judaism is what those sophisticated rabbis say. Other historians say we need to pay just as much attention to the Judaism of ordinary folks. Still other historians point out rabbis who themselves do just as much magic as the ordinary folks.

And what makes magic into “Jewish” magic? Jews always live in contact with other civilizations, and historians can assert that our magical ideas or practices come from our neighbors, each with their own traditional versions of magic. Certainly, though, some of the flow of ideas goes the other way, from Jews to gentiles.

The problems of defining precise limits does not stop Harari from considering examples of magic in Jewish sources. He settles on a common-sense definition: Any sort of adjuration, calling upon a supernatural spirit for help, counts.

For example, in analyzing the prohibition on magic, the Talmud records that the sage Abaye distinguishes between “tricking the eyes,” sleight of hand, which one should not do because it looks like magic, and using ritual or incantation to actually produce objects, which deserves the death penalty.

On the same page, though, the Talmud records that Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Oshaia studied the laws of Creation and regularly produced a heifer they ate on Shabbat (Sanhedrin 67b). What they did does not count as forbidden magic to the editors of the Talmud — but Harari includes it in his book.

Accusations of practicing magic define others as dangerous outsiders. Some medieval Karaites (members of a once-powerful Jewish group that observes Torah but rejects rabbinic authority) charged rabbinic Jews with believing in and trying to practice magic. Defenders of rabbinic Judaism had to distinguish between miracles, which can or could once happen, and forbidden magic, which should not happen and perhaps cannot.

Maimonides seems the first to absolutely reject magic — it is forbidden and it does not work; we should know from experience that it does not work and from logic that it cannot. Harari warns historians against identifying with Maimonides: We cannot understand the fullness of history if we persist in judging the past by our own criteria.

Books of Jewish law tell us how the authors thought Jewish life should be lived. Other materials tell us how life was lived. Harari examines the whole picture. He reads texts of recipes for getting spirits to help in mystical experience, in mastering Torah or success in love, or protection from disease or injuring enemies. He examines artifacts, bowls designed to make a house safe from demons and amulets to effect medical miracles.

Harari calls this book, even at 569 densely argued pages, a preliminary study. His book is peppered with invitations for further study. The book and the studies it aims to inspire invite us to do what my Talmud teachers could not: Look at the history of Jewish magic without judging it.

Ancient “demon trap” with Aramaic writing
Yuval Harari

Note: This Yuval Harari is different from Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli futurist who wrote Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

Eliezer (Louis) Finkelman
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