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Adventures in Jewish Studies

The Association for Jewish Studies Podcast

Episode 26: Do Jews Believe in Magic?


Welcome to “Adventures in Jewish Studies”, the podcast of the Association for Jewish Studies. In every episode, we take you on an entertaining and intellectual journey about Jewish life, history, and culture, with the help of some of the world’s leading Jewish studies scholars. I’m one of your hosts this season, Erin Phillips, and today’s topic is literally spellbinding. We’re talking about magic in Judaism. But what exactly is “magic”? Is it something supernatural, something beyond human control? Or does magic have more in common than we think with things like blessings and rituals, elements that are central to the practice of Judaism?

At first glance, it might seem like magic and Judaism don’t mix. If you walked into a modern synagogue or yeshiva, they might even tell you magic is forbidden. And they’d have good reason to. The Torah outlines some pretty express prohibitions against sorcery. “You shall not tolerate a sorceress” says Exodus 22:17 while Deuteronomy 18:10-11 states “Let no one be found among you . . . who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits.” And yet, despite these prohibitions, Judaism has a rich and complicated history with what we might call “magic.” There are even many modern Jewish customs that are based on the historical works and influences of magicians. In this episode, we’ll explore definitions of Jewish magic; talk about angels and demons, look at rituals practiced by late antique, medieval, and modern Jewish magicians, and finally, look at the place of magic in Judaism today.

How should we define “magic”? Dr. Michael Swartz, Professor at the Ohio State University, explains that “magic,” like many English words, doesn’t have an exact match in Hebrew.

MICHAEL SWARTZ: From really, you know, biblical antiquity to maybe a couple of centuries ago, the people that we're talking about wouldn't have called themselves magicians and wouldn't have called what they do magic. They might have other words for it. But in fact, some of the words that might sound to us like Hebrew terms for magic, for example, the word kishuf, for example, or Mechashefot, which appears in the Bible, that would be translated as sorcerer or sorceress. Something like that – sorcery. Magic in modern Hebrew is the word magia, which is simply a lone word from the Greek and, you know, Western languages. So one thing that we begin with, is understanding that magic is very much a modern term.

Because of this, our modern term of magic can describe a few things. First, it can describe sorcery or rituals that were forbidden according to Jewish law. Second, it can describe socially acceptable magical rituals, such as the use of amulets in medicine. And finally, it can describe everyday religious practices we might not even think of as magical. Dr. Marla Segol, Director of Undergraduate Studies and Associate Professor for the University at Buffalo, explains that last one.

MARLA SEGOL: It all hinges on ritual, right? So Rebecca Lessees has this wonderful book called ritual practices to gain power. So many of the rituals that are performed in regular religious life, they are effective, they are meant to accomplish something, okay. And so the difference between that and magic really inheres in social structures more than it does in the particular actions that anybody does, right? So, what is prayer but magic, right? So, you say a thing to get something done. And sometimes the only thing that you want to get done is to enter into the Divine Presence, but just the same it's these invocations, and often, it's not just the invocations, but it's often a cultivated, affective state paired with those invocations that makes it happen.

With this definition, we could say then that many normative, everyday Jewish practices can actually be viewed through a magical lens. And this is less of a stretch than it may seem. Magic played such an important role in Jewish religion and culture for so many centuries, that many of those normative practices were likely shaped by magical ritual at one point. In fact, magic’s influence can be traced back to some of the earliest Biblical texts known to Jewish studies scholars. Here’s Dr. Swartz:

MICHAEL SWARTZ: In fact, the earliest copy of a biblical text that has ever been found, was found outside of Jerusalem in a place called Ketef Hinnom, and that was a couple of pieces of silver, on which were inscribed the Biblical verses from numbers which constitute the priestly blessing–may the Lord bless you and keep you etcetera, etcetera–versions of that, they were buried in a child's grave, which means that they were doubtlessly used as amulets.

It’s not so surprising, though, to find the Hebrew bible being used in such a way, if we actually look at the stories it tells. Dr. Sara Ronis, Professor of Theology at St. Mary’s University, explains:

SARA RONIS: So if we go back to the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrew Bible has various kinds of sorcerers. Certainly the Egyptians have sorcerers in the story of Exodus. There's a fantastic story where King Saul goes and visits a woman who is–it's usually translated as–either medium or a necromancer. So there's a number of things in the Hebrew Bible, some of which we might think of as normative, and others of which we might think of as weird.

But, Dr. Ronis also explains that it’s the later Rabbinic commentaries of the Talmud that give us the best picture of magic’s place in Mishnaic and late antique Jewish life.

SARA RONIS: So, by the time we get to the Babylonian Talmud, and that's the classic rabbinic text written in Sasanian Babylonia, which is now Iraq, from about the second through sixth centuries – though scholars debate the beginning and the end dates of that – we have a rabbinic text that is filled with angels and demons and various kinds of incantations, and men and women who perform what look an awful lot like magical spells to us. And then we have ideas like the evil eye and the evil inclination which, again, I think modern listeners might think, “That sounds a little magical,” whatever that term means.

The Mishnah and the Talmud also show us what the Rabbis considered appropriate magic and forbidden magic. Often, this depended on who was performing the magic, why, and how. Here’s Dr. Segol:

MARLA SEGOL: So like the Mishnah and the Talmud, they have the rabbis practicing magic that is alright for them but forbidden for other people. So definitions of magic are ambivalent from the very start. And they're contextual from the very start.

Dr. Ronis shares a story from Sanhedrin, a tractate of the Talmud, where two Rabbis appear to be casting spells.

SARA RONIS: We get this amazing description of Rabbi Chanina and Rabbi Oshia, who, every Friday, would study the laws of creation, presumably Creation of the Universe, and then created for them ex nihilo was a three year old calf, essentially for Shabbat dinner. That sounds an awful lot like magic.

The Talmud is so back and forth on magic, that it’s sometimes hard to determine why certain things are allowed or prohibited. Sorcery, kishuf, is forbidden, but it’s okay for Rabbis to conjure hamburgers out of thin air for Shabbat dinner? Dr. Swartz notes, these complex rulings may have served more of a social function than a religious one.

MICHAEL SWARTZ: There's this famous passage in rabbinic law, in the early texts of rabbinic law known as the Mishnah and then the Talmud, the commentary on the Mishnah, about what is known as the ways of the Amorites. And the ways of the Amorites are somehow prohibited. The problem is, we don't know, you know, the rabbis are speculating on what that means. So, for example, if you say something like, “to your health” after sneezing, right, or place a piece of iron among a brood of chicks to ward off thunder, right, those things are ways of the Amorites. But at the same time, okay, it is hard to see the difference between these kinds of actions and other kinds of actions that are considered to be permitted. Alright, so what's the function of those prohibitions? And some scholars believe that the idea is, basically to find certain kinds of types of behavior that can be distinguished between one group, an ingroup and outgroup, maybe between Jews and non Jews.

While the Talmud is a great resource for understanding popular Rabbinic attitudes towards magic, it’s a pretty poor source text for identifying the ways magic was actually practiced in the Mishnaic and late antique periods. We know Jewish magicians were probably not putting pieces of iron among broods of chicks to ward off thunder. But what were they doing? For that, Dr. Swartz explains, we need to look beyond the commentaries.

MICHAEL SWARTZ: One of the most interesting things about this field, about studying Jewish magic, is not as much studying about what the Bible has to say about it, or the Talmud has to say about it, because that is very cryptic, and the writers of those texts have their own agendas, but rather, looking at the texts that were written by the magicians themselves either for clients, that is for the people that they are, you know, hoping to help with their magic, and also handbooks that they wrote. There are some very interesting examples of this literature that we can actually date to the period of the Talmud to especially, the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh centuries of the Common Era. And some of those were found by archaeologists. A few of them were transmitted in manuscripts until the Middle Ages, and we have the manuscripts of those, especially the magical handbooks.

These magical handbooks and amulets give us a pretty good idea of what the typical magic Jewish spell looked like at the time. It had a few important elements.

MICHAEL SWARTZ: Magical rituals, and especially verbal rituals, involved the process of adjuration, the belief in these kinds of supernatural intermediates, angels, demons, sometimes even harmful angels, and the use of powerful and arcane Names of God as the source of a magician's authority. And then the third element is the use of these for what we might consider to be practical purposes. Okay. So the idea is that if you want to, you know, if you live in a pre modern culture, your medicine only goes so far, for example, and you want to heal your grandmother, then one of the things that you might do is have access to one of these incantations or one of these rituals, in which you might talk to the angels, know them by name, and tell the angels in the name of God, that they should go and heal your grandmother and expel all of those awful demons that are making her sick. And you do so, and this is the important part of it, you do so by means of certain kinds of magical names which are authorized by God.

These spells and amulets took the form of actual, physical objects. But what did they look like? To find out, let’s go on a trip to a Jewish magician’s shop in late antique Babylonia. We’re looking for this magician to help us become wealthy and famous. Most likely, they’ll make us an amulet that we’ll either bury somewhere, like under our house, or wear on our person, maybe around our necks. This amulet will do a few things: first, it’ll name an angel of prosperity, basically saying, “Hey, can we ask you for a favor?” Then, it’ll drop a powerful, secret name of God as a sort of password, to let the angel know we have what it takes to be wealthy and famous. And finally, it’ll make the ask – angel, please fill up our coin purses and bring us scores of adoring fans! Of course, using magic for such purposes would probably have been frowned upon by the Rabbis of the time, so our fame would likely have been short-lived.

In fact, while many used magic as a way to achieve mundane outcomes – love, protection from curses, etc. – there was one group of Jews who used it a bit differently. The Jewish mystics were thinkers and practitioners who sought direct personal experiences with the divine. They often used magic to bring them closer to God in this world and the next. Dr. Segol describes an early mystical text called the Sh’ir Qomah, which included instructions for certain rituals:

MARLA SEGOL: In this book, you're given the names of the parts of God's body and the measurements of God's body, and the reader is instructed to recite the Sh’ir Qomah as a mishnah. And if the reader does do that, they're guaranteed a successful life and a place in this world and a place in the world to come. So the text is literally, it's serving an apotropaic purpose, which is a protective purpose. And it's serving a salvific purpose. So it's assuring the reader of salvation in the world to come. So, those are really powerful. And as if that weren't powerful enough, it articulates a relationship between human and divine by the carving of letters and the wearing of amulets. So an amulet again is like a magical charm. But it says, the text says, that God wears Israel like an amulet on his arm so that Israel dangles like an amulet from the Divine arm. And so it shows God actually using amulets, and it provides instructions for human beings to use that text describing God for, you know, for magical purposes.

While the mystics were primarily using spells to get closer to the Divine, everyday Jews in the third to sixth centuries had many different uses for magic. And we actually know a lot about these everyday uses, thanks to a prolific type of magical artifact from this time period in Babylonia. Dr. Ronis explains:

SARA RONIS: At the same time as rabbinic literature is being produced in Sasanian Babylonia, we also have evidence from material culture of these Babylonian incantation bowls. These are bowls, like your classic clay bowl that you could buy at a market and then presumably you would take it to a ritual specialist who would write some kind of incantation, usually on the inside sort of spiraling out. And maybe you wanted an incantation to protect you from migraines or illness or envy from your neighbors. People clearly went to get these for all kinds of reasons. And we have evidence of bowls in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, but also in the language of the Christians at the time in the same region, also in Mandaean, which is another community at the time, and a couple even in Pahlavi. And we get a sense that this really is a shared technology across the communities for dealing with invisible dangers, including demons, but then also curses and the evil eye and various things like that.

Archaeologists have found, to this date, more than 2,000 of these simple magical incantation bowls. They were often buried under the thresholds, and sometimes the four corners, of late antique homes. And because they were a shared technology, they tell us a lot about how Jewish magic related to magic in other cultures and religions of the day. Here’s Dr. Ronis again:

SARA RONIS: We also have evidence because we have the names of the clients who paid for these bowls, or at least the people who the bowls were for whether they paid for them, or they were a gift, we don't know. But we have the name of the subject in the bowls. And very often they don't map on to the religious identities of presumably the scribe writing it. So we have Zoroastrians who are going to Jewish scribes. We have, you know, Mandaeans who are going to Christian scribes, and we get a real sense that in a world where invisible things cause harm, you go to the specialist who has the best record of success, not necessarily the one who's part of your religious tradition.

This mixing of traditions would probably have given the most pious Rabbis of the day a headache. But, there’s evidence to suggest it was wildly popular. And not just among clients purchasing incantation bowls, but among magicians themselves and across mediums. Dr. Swartz explains:

MICHAEL SWARTZ: The interesting thing about these amulets and these incantations, some of which were also transmitted in manuscripts, is that while they are going to be in Hebrew, or Aramaic, they resemble magical texts for the same kinds of purposes that were written throughout the Greco Roman world throughout the Mediterranean. So that there are many texts written on papyrus, for example, from ancient Egypt, from around the same time, third, fourth centuries, that contain some of these same kinds of formulas, although they might be addressed to pagan gods rather than the one God and the angels. And not only that, sometimes, those Greek, usually Greek incantations, some in the Coptic language, might actually refer to Jewish symbols and Jewish heroes, and use Jewish names for God. Jews seem to have had kind of a reputation in antiquity, you can see this as far back as Josephus, as magicians. And not only that, the Jewish incantations might also have some Greek names, like Dionysus, for example, right that will appear as a magical name for God. Right. In one of these magical handbooks, known as the book of mysteries, Sepher Ha-Razim, there seems to be a prayer to the sun god Helios, transliterated from Greek into Hebrew letters just kind of sunk into the that prayer and you know, it's probable that people who used that, you know, that incantation, or that formula didn't really know what it was.

While some of the crossover between magical traditions may have been accidental, there was also a lot of intentional borrowing. Dr. Segol explains how magicians might take ritual structures from other cultures and make them their own.

MARLA SEGOL: Whoever your neighbors are, right, there are things that they do that you say, Hey, that's a great idea. I'm going to do that in my house. Right? And then there are other things that they do and you say, oh, no, that just doesn't fit with the way we do things, just doesn't work. And so one of the things that is inherent in almost any religion is a ritual grammar. So, it's the way that rituals are structured. It's the way that they're understood to operate. And you can retain the structures of ritual grammar, and bring in all kinds of new vocabulary, and it will feel like it's yours, right? Because it makes sense with the way you do things.

Sometimes, though, magicians would borrow ritual elements, words, and names, not to make them their own, but to make their spells and amulets seem more exotic and mysterious. It may seem silly, but this serves an important purpose in magic. Here’s Dr. Swartz again:

MICHAEL SWARTZ: One of the ways that magic works is the concealment of what it's actually doing. As the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski called this the coefficient of weirdness – the idea that one of the things a magician does, is to as it were mystify the people around them, you know, mystify a client, or a customer or people listening, right? To assure them that what they're doing is not an ordinary piece of language. It's not an ordinary ritual. There is something that is deeply esoteric, there's deeply secret, and deeply mysterious about it. And that is likely to affect both the magician and the people around the magician in profound ways and make them feel that they're doing really something. So for the Greeks, the Hebrew names are very mysterious and exotic. And for the Jews, the Greek names are mysterious and exotic.

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One of the central ways Jewish magicians mystified ordinary people in the late antique period and beyond, is, as we discussed earlier, invoking the unseen forces of demons and angels. If you’ve been to a synagogue in the last couple decades, you’ve probably said prayers or sung songs about angels. They continue to be a part of Jewish theology and religious practice. Angels are depicted in Judaism, as well as in Christianity, Islam, and popular art and culture, as messengers and intermediaries for God. Dr. Swartz explains, that’s not far off from their original portrayal:

MICHAEL SWARTZ: Angels do appear in the Hebrew Bible. Angels are very often called malach, which means something like a messenger or perhaps a laborer, or somebody who does work, so that they are there to give messages from God, for example. And then later on in biblical times, by the time of Daniel and then by the time of apocryphal books, like the books of Enoch, the angels and who they are and their relationships – the demons get a lot more complicated – but in magic, angels are very often assigned to very specific kinds of roles. So there is an angel assigned to healing. There's an angel assigned to wisdom.

So, angels in Judaism and Jewish magic are pretty straightforward. Demons, on the other hand, as Dr. Swartz alluded to? Not so much. For starters, Jewish thinkers throughout history can’t even agree on where demons came from. Here’s Dr. Ronis:

SARA RONIS: So, Esther Eshel has noted that Second Temple Judaism has these two different trends, these two different discourses or conversations about where demons come from. One is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in Pseudo-Philo, where demons are described as part of God's initial creation. The other trend is found in Enoch and the books of Enoch and Jubilees, these books that didn't make it into the Bible, but are pseudo-epigraphical, apocryphal literatures that were also fabulously popular, right, these books like, you know, these were very popular in the Second Temple period. And these books describe demons as the unintended product of sexual sin.

Whose sexual sin creates the demons according to the books of Enoch and Jubilees? In fact, angels are the culprits here.

SARA RONIS: So the Hebrew Bible in Genesis 6:1-4 describes what are called, quote unquote, the sons of God, who see, who come down and see the daughters of man. And together they have offspring. The books of Enoch and Jubilees explained that those sons of God are angels who have sort of fallen away from heaven in this rebellion against God's plan and in their intercourse with human women create these horrible demons, or have children and then when their children die, they become horrible demons. Somehow, demons are a result of this sexual sin.

These two narratives – that demons were an original part of God’s plan, and that demons were the product of sexual sin – appear interchangeably throughout Jewish historical texts. Mishnah Avodah, in the second or third century, depicts God creating demons just before the Sabbath. Tractate Eruvin from the Talmud, meanwhile, depicts demons as the product of Adam and Eve’s sexual sin after leaving the Garden of Eden. But regardless of their origin story, demons in Judaism are not as we see them in modern horror movies. Dr. Swartz explains:

MICHAEL SWARTZ: Both Angels and Demons are under the command of God in most Jewish magic. It is not, as you find in other traditions, especially Christian traditions, where angels and demons are constantly doing battle.

So, whether demons were created by God or were the product of sexual sin, the texts are clear – they’re under God’s control. Which means, they can’t be all that bad. But, as we looked at earlier, there are hundreds of amulets and magical bowls we’ve discovered whose express purpose was banishing or protecting users from demons. So, what are they doing to cause so much harm? Dr. Swartz finds an answer in Tractate Berakhot of the Talmud:

MICHAEL SWARTZ: Abba Benjamin taught, if the eye were given permission to see them, no creature would be able to stand because of the demons. Okay. Abaye said, they are more numerous than we and they stand around us like piles of dirt around a furrow. Rav Huna said, every one of us has 1,000 at his left and 10,000 at his right. And this is one I really like. That wearing out of the garments of Scholars is because of their rubbing, because everybody knows that scholars don't do any physical work. So, you're basically kind of sitting in your office or your study all day, doing nothing but reading and writing. And you find by the end of the day, that your cuffs are frayed. Okay? Why is that? Well, it's very simple, the demons have been rubbing them. So, here you have a really interesting notion of these creatures who live around you, who may cause awful things like disease and madness and things like that, and mental illness, whatever. But they also are responsible for all those daily annoyances of life.

These nuances may be hard for us to grasp today because we’re so used to demons as unconditionally evil figures. But the way they’re talked about in the Talmud, and even the way they’re invoked in Jewish magic, doesn’t stand up to that overarching classification. Yes, magicians banish them and protect from the diseases they may cause. But, we also have some puzzling stories that seem to cast demons as contributing members of Jewish society.

SARA RONIS: So in Tractate Hullin, there is this story of these two porters who are carrying a heavy wine barrel, and it's so heavy, so they decide to put it down and they put it down under a rain spout. Now, as we all know, demons live under rain spouts. And there happened to be an Invisible Demon chilling under this rain spout. And when the porters put down their giant barrel of wine, they accidentally pin his ear to the ground. And he gets really mad, because who wouldn't? And so, he bursts the wine barrel. Now, at this point, the porters have now experienced this financial loss, right? They're liable for this wine barrel. So they take the demon to court. And the rabbinic court excommunicates him, right? And that word in English is a remarkable word because within the word excommunicate is the word community, right? You can't excommunicate people who aren't already a part of your community. So, that tells us something about how the rabbis see demons.

We tend to think of angels and demons as good and evil, but Rabbinic and magical texts treated them as much more complex and powerful. Demons, according to the Rabbis, were not out to cause harm to humans unless provoked. And, for the record,not all angels were good – some were known as harmful angels. In this more nuanced landscape, it was a magicians’ job to know which beings to call on for help and which ones to keep away.

And by all accounts, magicians did this pretty well. Their services continued to be popular, well into medieval times. But as magical amulets and rituals continued to proliferate over the centuries, we started to see prominent thinkers who doubted the unseen forces at play. In the eleventh century, Rabbi Isaac Alfasi claimed that demons, despite their presence in the Talmud, are not part of Jewish law. Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher and commentator, took this theory several steps further. Here’s Dr. Ronis:

SARA RONIS: He really railed against what he calls sort of the superstitious people who I'm going to quote now, “are seduced by talismanery with great folly, and with similar things, and think that they are real, which is not so” – right, don't don't think it's real – “and these are the things that have received great publicity among the pagans, especially among the nation which is called the Sabians and they wrote works dealing with the stars and witchcraft and incantations and calling upon spirits, and horoscopes and demons and soothsaying and all their forms.” Essentially, what he's saying is, it's all stuff and nonsense. It's not real.

Though Maimonides was widely respected in his time, his opinions on magic were not the dominant view. Nevertheless, rationalists like Maimonides began to lay the groundwork for a shift in Jewish thinking around magic. Following the medieval period, magic and magicians became more subtle, particularly as belief in demons and intermediary forces was downplayed. Here’s Dr. Segol:

MARLA SEGOL: I think it's a real function of the Haskalah or the Jewish enlightenment. And so I think that was an attempt to rationalize Jewish practice and in some cases to de-ritualize it based in philosophical systems that were current in the 18th century, and so you see, say, certain kinds of modern orthodoxy, and you see even like the beginning of the Reform Movement is a massive de-ritualization. And so, I think that's where we see also a demythologization, right. So, they're trying to strip away those elements of Jewish lore that don't fit their worldview at the moment.

Dr. Ronis explains that some of this de-ritualization and demythologization served a specific cultural purpose.

SARA RONIS: In the 19th century, there was a German, a movement of Jewish German scholars called the Wissenschaft des Judentums, which is translated to the scientific study of Judaism, which essentially was a series of scholars who were working to apply what at the time was cutting edge scholarly techniques to Jewish texts, techniques like source criticism, contextualization, things like that. Their ultimate argument, so most of these scholars were not associated, maybe none of them were, with German universities, because German universities didn't allow Jews. And so most of these scholars were essentially making the argument that Judaism deserves to be studied with the same degree of rigor and investment, as what in Germany in the 19th century, was Protestant Christianity. And in order to make that case, these scholars really downplayed the parts of Jewish tradition, which don't sound very Protestant, like demons and magic. And so in 1866, the Hungarian rabbi and scholar Alexander Kohut argued that rabbinic demonology is what he called, quote, “an alien product obtained through contact with the Persians and the Medes in the exilic period.” Right, so he couldn't get rid of it. But he wanted to argue that it wasn't Jewish, right? No, no, we don't really believe that. That was just, you know, we were in during the Babylonian exile, we were like with all these people, peer pressure is real. So it happened, but it's not really Jewish. Heinrich Graetz, the Jewish historian, argues that all of that, what I'm going to call weird stuff is, in his words, counter to the spirit of Judaism. And the whole reason that Jewish studies as an academic discipline sort of existed in the 19th century and into the 20th century and today is because scholars like Kohut and Graetz, were able to make their case relatively successfully, that Judaism was worth being studied in the academy. But in order to make that case, they had to cut a lot of what was real, embedded Judaism from the conversation, and that may well have been what needed to happen at the time.

While scholars and thinkers began to downplay and de-ritualize the rich magical traditions in Judaism, many of these traditions have continued to exist right up to the present day. In many ways, the Hasidic movement preserved Jewish magical traditions by making them a more normative part of everyday religious practice. Dr. Segol offers more examples of quote unquote “magical” practices that can be found in modern day New York, in the Hasidic Chabad Lubavitch communities.

MARLA SEGOL: But but now if you go to Crown Heights and you like you walk with the Lubavitchers, you're gonna see that the babies have pictures like they have amulets dangling down in their carriages, and they're meant to stare at those and they're meant to absorb, you know, the goodness of the, you know, of the amulet for the Rebbe. Or you see shiviti, like, the pictures of the hands in people's houses for good luck or for, you know, for protection of that household. So, I think the elimination of talk about demons and angels or, you know, angels are around or, you know, kind of practices that we would call magical from this particular time and place. I don't think they're eliminated across the board.

But we don’t just see magical traditions continued in Hasidism. Here’s Dr. Swartz again:

MICHAEL SWARTZ: And then you still have practices like keeping, you know, some kind of a good luck charm or amulet, and your house or shop. And some of these are based on very ancient tradition. There is a kind of Talisman, there's a kind of symbol called the Hamsa in Arabic. It’s also known in Arabic as the hand of Fatima, which is basically a hand usually with an eye in the middle of it, that you find all over the place. And I'll never forget, I was once in a coffee shop. And I saw one of those, it was I think it was a Hamsa with a little prayer for prosperity from that kind of magical tradition in the person's shop, and I asked him, Where did you get that? Right. And the person, you know, who owned the shop seemed entirely secular. Right? And he said, Oh, the Coca Cola company gave it to me.

Many of the magical traditions we’ve discussed – amulets, charms, incantations – simply became more normative over time. Some appear as folktales or superstitions. And some are now just accepted as everyday parts of Jewish culture and religious practice.

And our scholars agree, looking at the roots of these accepted practices does more than just enrich our understanding of Jewish magic. For Dr. Swartz, the study of magic also gives us insight on the actual lived experiences of Jews throughout history.

MICHAEL SWARTZ: I think when we look at Jewish magical texts and the history of Jewish magic, I think we learn a lot about people's everyday needs and fears. Right? So there's a sense in which if we look at angels, angels can tell us about what people need, right? Health, wisdom, love, right? They all find their ways into the personalities and the names of angels. Demons tell us about what people fear, right disease, forgetfulness, anger, madness. These are all things that we attribute that people in especially pre modern societies attribute to demons. So there's a sense in which angels and demons are a mirror of pre modern societies. There is a way in which looking at a lot of these traditions gives us much more sense of religion as a lived experience than we might get from the legal texts and the philosophical texts that are part of the you know, literary heritage of the people. It's not that those aren't absolutely important and central, but we don't always know how they affect ordinary people. I think it's important to understand our, you know, our subjects, our people as deeply as possible.

Magic, demons, angels – these unseen forces and mysterious rituals have been more central to Jewish history and culture than is often realized. Modern Jews feel and experience the remnants of these traditions around every corner. Whether or not you believe magicians can really cast magical spells, there is a sort of power in the knowledge of magical traditions – the power of more deeply understanding centuries of history, art, culture, and religion.

“Adventures in Jewish Studies” is made possible with generous support from The Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Foundation. The executive producer of the podcast is Warren Hoffman. I’m the lead producer for this episode.

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Episode Guests


Sara Ronis

Sara Ronis is Associate Professor of Theology at St. Mary's University, Texas. She is the author of Demons in the Talmud: Demonic Discourse and Rabbinic Culture in Late Antique Babylonia.


Marla Segol

Marla Segol is a Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University at Buffalo. She researches Kabbalah, Jewish Magic, Modern Esotericism, religious cosmopolitanism, and the history of the body and sexuality. Her most recent book is Kabbalah and Sex Magic: A Mythical-Ritual Genealogy.


Michael D. Swartz

Michael D. Swartz is Professor of Hebrew and Religious Studies in the Department of Near Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the Ohio State University. His research focuses on the cultural history of Judaism in late antiquity, rabbinic studies, early Jewish mysticism and magic, and ritual studies. His most recent book is The Mechanics of Providence: The Workings of Ancient Jewish Magic and Mysticism.

Episode Host


Erin Phillips

Erin Phillips is an audio producer, communications professional, and Jewish educator from Alexandria, Virginia. She has a BA in Social Innovation and Enterprise from George Mason University. Erin has produced thought-provoking stories for popular shows like Out There and the Duolingo English podcast, as well as local community radio.

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Adventures in Jewish Studies Masthead

Executive Producer: Warren Hoffman, PhD

Producers: Avishay Artsy and Erin Phillips