Sunday, October 20, 2013

About Jewish Magic

I'm writing this because no one has done it yet that I know of. But it's long past time. If you're Jewish and you live in the U.S., chances are you grew up either Reform or Conservative. This means, more or less, that your rabbi likely left out all the coolest parts of Judaism. Not just kabbalah, but earlier mystical and magical traditions that most modern-day kabbalists might not even know about. Outside of academia, the existence of hundreds of ancient Jewish amulets and incantation bowls seems to be mostly unknown. I'd like to ask that you please pass this post along to any friends you think might want to know about it. Judaism needs to evolve as it always has, and this is my attempt to start a revolution from within. Tell your friends.

As a result of our incomplete Jewish education, a lot of us have looked elsewhere. I certainly did. It took exploring many other traditions before I stumbled upon the parts of Judaism that really resonated for me. And when I've run into other Jews at pagan events, they're usually even more excited than I was to learn that there is indeed such a thing as Jewish folk magic. Rabbis have usually been against it, but not always; even the Talmud says that if an amulet has been shown to be effective for at least three people, Jews are allowed to carry it on Shabbat. No less a personage than the Baal Shem Tov made and sold amulets.

But first, I'd like to address some of the most obvious questions about how Jewish magic can work at all. Torah prohibits specific types of necromancy and divination, but even these are normally understood as being more about idolatry than about the practices themselves. The sense is more like, "Don't do these things in the ways of the other tribes around you, because you might accidentally worship their gods." How else could we understand King Saul consulting a witch to speak with the ghost of the deceased prophet Samuel? Yes, that does appear in the Jewish bible, but you might not have learned about it in Sunday school.

That brings us to the issue of idolatry itself. The First Commandment (of the Ten) seems fairly clear on this, but is it really? Depending on your translation, it says "you shall have no other gods before me" or "beside me". Notice what's left out there. A close reading reveals the implication that as long as you honor God first and most highly, other gods aren't really a problem. Now, I would personally recommend avoiding the gods associated with the enemies of the ancient Israelites, because it seems to me they might still hold a grudge. And mixing foreign elements into Jewish ritual is something I also wouldn't recommend for kosher reasons. But separate rituals to someone else shouldn't be an issue, as long as it's clear in your mind that (in polyamory terms) YHVH is your primary partner and the other god is a secondary or tertiary partner. If you're also into mysticism, this comparison will be particularly apt.

I don't personally choose to work with other gods, because it seems to me that it might be possible to transgress the First Commandment accidentally by thinking one of my other gods is cooler than YHVH for a split second. It's a wall around a commandment, which is pretty traditional in Judaism. I don't do necromancy at all, either, for the same reason. But these are my own personal practices based on my own reasoning and comfort levels. I have friends who are very into transgressive magic for its own sake, and that's what works for them. It just seems to me that there's so very much available working within the rules, it should really not be necessary to step outside them. I do work in other paradigms sometimes - working with fictional entities in a chaos magic context, for example - but I've been very happy with my results working only with bible verses, angels, and the various names of God.

Those are the main elements of Jewish magic, which (like the religion itself) is highly literary. I like this because it makes helping others with my magic simple: I make them an amulet and I give it to them. I'm still fairly new to amulet-making because I've been spending time studying it first. Since the actual process of inscribing it should take place in trance, the more information you've absorbed about how the texts are written, the more your unconscious mind will have to draw on when the time comes. Amulets can be made of paper, metal, or clay, and you can use for them for charming, cursing, protection, luck, wisdom, or really whatever your goals are. They're particularly effective for driving away demons, which could often include those that cause nightmares or sleep paralysis. If you work with the kabbalistic Tree of Life also, I suggest using polymer clay (Sculpey or Fimo) in whatever colors match the sephirot you're working with (or the ones associated with the angels you're using).

You might be asking, "What about that pesky business of 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live'?"  I'm so glad you asked. In his excellent book Magic of the Ordinary: Recovering the Shamanic in Judaism, Gershon Winkler explains it as follows: "...literally it translates: 'You should not sustain a witch,' meaning don't get into the habit of supporting the livelihood of the village magician; don't let some guy with a lot of supernatural power drain you of your savings through fear and intimidation. Let him get a job like everybody else, and perform his magic out of the goodness of his heart and in recognition of the sacred gift he possesses. Another translation of the exact same Hebrew wording would be: 'From sorcery you should not live,' as in don't base your entire life and all of your affairs on the powers of sorcery, or, don't make a living from it." Don't take this to suggest that I have any kind of problem with people who are lucky enough to be able to make their living solely from being competent magicians. All I'm saying is that Torah probably forbids it for Jews. We have a lot of other ritual prohibitions too, so that's a pretty minor one. If you're Jewish, how you choose to interpret any of the commandments is your own business; I'm just here to provide information and context.


  1. Excellent and informative insight Jason. I too agree with your perspective. Keep it up because I'll follow!

  2. Hi, this is excellent and well document. I have some feedback for you and some small corrections of the Hebrew spellings. Can you drop me a line to yakhef at yahoo dot com?