In 1951, Adam came to Rabbi Kadoorie and asked him to help him find his son, who had fought in the Irgun during the War of Independence and had been missing for 31 months. Rabbi Kadoorie, in response, performed a "question in Mendel" - a kind of technique of interviewing demons: he took a glass glass, filled it with water, poured olive oil into it and called out the names of angels and demons. When the demons arrived following the summons, the rabbi received a detailed answer: The son, he said, had been taken prisoner by the Syrians. He is being held in Syria in an area and in a specific prison cell. All these he recorded in one of the hundreds of diaries he wrote. Later it turned out that the answer was incorrect. According to the Yizkor website, the same son was killed in battle in Jaffa and is defined as a martyr whose burial place is unknown.
This case is just one of many who have made pilgrimages to Rabbi Kadoorie over the years. And this is not a new phenomenon, and certainly not one that concerns multi-ball alone. In fact, Jewish magic is as old as Judaism itself. Even today, in the third decade of the 21st century, people are still searching for solutions to their problems with spells and amulets, so much so that it seems that the practice of magic and mysticism has never been more popular, with dedicated Facebook groups, multi-participant workshops that touch on just that, going to rabbis and prostrating on the graves of the righteous.
"The world of witches' images is drawn from the Christian world. In the Jewish world there are relatively few stories about witches, because the whole subject of witchcraft and magic is deep within Jewish culture and the religious and rabbinical establishment."
"People ask me quite a bit how magic hasn't disappeared in the modern world, with all the scientific discoveries," says Prof. Gideon Bohak, 62, who chose to devote his life to the study of magic, Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, and serves as a professor in the Department of Jewish Philosophy at Tel Aviv University.
"The answer is that people turn to magic when other frameworks don't provide them with the answers they need. Magic has limited itself to areas where science does not know the answers. In the Middle Ages, for example, it was possible to find magical prescriptions for eye problems. On the other hand, if you came to a multi-pill with cataracts - he would have ancient prescriptions for it, but he would send you to Hadassah, because modern medicine is much better than what he knows how to do, which is to drip a lemon into the eye and say spells. He might still blind you and sue him, so he knew he had nothing to deal with beforehand.
"The Da Vinci Code". "Jewish magic would be irrelevant to someone studying Aboriginal magic in Australia or Christian magic,"
"On the other hand, in fertility treatments, for example, people won't go to Magicon instead of doctors, but when the doctors say there's nothing they can do, or when the same people have been on rounds of treatments for years after a huge expense and terrible suffering, they will go there. On other issues like matings, which science doesn't even pretend to answer, you can see 1,500 years of continuity using those ancient prescriptions."
And it's not just about filling gaps in the scientific worlds. People turn to magic, it turns out, even when established religion does not know how to offer solutions. "The usual Jewish answer to suffering is, 'Be righteous, give charity, pray, and God will be with you' – but when you have a sick child with a fever of 41 degrees that doesn't go down, or when a couple hasn't been able to have a child for ten years, that answer isn't satisfactory – and that's where magic comes in."
"A witch will not live"
Bohak was born and raised in Rehovot to a father who was a scientist at the Weizmann Institute and a mother who worked at the Institute as a secretary. After his studies at Tel Aviv and Hebrew universities, he embarked on a doctorate at the prestigious Princeton University. There he was exposed to the field of magic research in the ancient world. "My interest in Jewish magic stemmed from the fact that at the time it was a relatively new field of research, and also because from this angle it is easy to see phenomena of intercultural contacts and transfers of knowledge, and this is a phenomenon that intrigued me."
When magic is actually witchcraft?
"It's a complicated question and touches on the conceptual system we use. ' Magic in English is a term used a lot in the study of religions, when obviously my definition of Jewish magic would be irrelevant to someone who studies Aboriginal magic in Australia or Christian magic. Witchcraft, on the other hand, is an intra-Jewish halachic term, and when the Mishnah prescribes stoning of a sorcerer, it is already a religious-legal category.
Rabbi Kadoorie: Kept meticulous documentation of thousands of his visitors, Photo: AFP
"In general, the world of images of witches is drawn from the Christian world. A witch hunt, how to identify witches, is taken from there. In the Jewish world, however, there are relatively few stories about witches. In the Bible we see the story of the necromancer as a kind of generation, who is not defined as a witch, although we know that the Bible recognizes this term, with the book of Exodus stating "a witch shall not live." In the story, she comes out as a pretty positive character who helps Saul, and at the end of the story she is not executed. There is mention of Isabel's fornication and sorcery, for example, but there is no detailed description there either.
"In rabbinic literature there is a very picturesque story, about how Shimon ben Shetach, who lived in the first century BCE, caught and hanged 80 witches at once. It's a fantastic story and mostly quite rare, and the reason, in my opinion, is that the whole subject of witchcraft and magic is deep within Jewish culture, and more than that, also deep within the Jewish religious establishment, and certainly deep in rabbinical society. So the question of who is a sorcerer and how we define sorcery is problematic."
"Take, for example, the Golem from Prague created by the Maharal, or even Rabbi Kadoorie, the elder of the Kabbalists, who dealt with practical Kabbalah. Rabbi Kadoorie, for example, had thousands of pages of prescriptions that he copied and used, such as love prescriptions and love returns. He blessed oil and wine for a wife to give to her husband in order to return his love, and created amulets. He had dozens of such practices."
How do we know this?
"Rabbi Kadoorie kept a meticulous record of everyone who came to ask him for help. Look, I grew up in a completely secular home. I am Ashkenazi, completely rationalist, very far from the world of people like Rabbi Kadoorie, and I still have an appreciation for him because I can see from reading the texts that the man took very seriously what he was doing, had a deep belief that it worked - and also treated, advised and helped thousands of people.
"But Rabbi Kadoorie didn't just deal with love talismans, he also wrote hate talismans. He wrote, for example, an amulet designed to separate spouses: 'In the name of these are the names that will become the medicine (and here he gave the name of the intended victim) from the evil inclination, and the Gentile will leave, and she will be black in his eyes like coal and like a ragged villain, and she too will no longer be able to see him and will hate him and leave him, and will marry a good and kosher Jew.' That is, he was explicitly engaged in what we would call aggressive magic.
Once I took a taxi and the driver, hearing that I was practicing Jewish magic, said I had to congratulate him because he couldn't find a wife. I told him I was a researcher, not into it, but he drove my mind crazy until I congratulated him to find a match and be happy. About three years later I ordered a taxi from the same station and I had the same driver, who remembered me and said that he had since married
"The original story of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz talks about how the Evil Witch of the East wanted to separate a lumberjack from a girl he fell in love with. So she bewitched the axe that would cut pieces of his body and turn them into a trash can—and so he became a tin man. And here we are, Rabbi Kadoorie doing exactly the same things, because, according to him and his understanding, the goal of preventing assimilation justifies the means. Still, if I were to call a rabbi a sorcerer, he would be deeply offended and deny it, as would his followers. They would say, 'How come sorcery is forbidden, he's not a sorcerer and even fights sorcerers.' That's why they call it 'virtues,' 'practical acceptance,' or other names."
And while in the Bible we see references to magic, when it comes to physical evidence of magical practice, the situation is different. "There are very few findings outside the biblical text. There are two talismans found on Hinnom's shoulder, written on silver tablets in ancient Hebrew script, probably from the sixth-fifth century BCE," says Bohak. "Besides, Egyptian-style figurines and talismans were found, but it is very difficult to know whether it was the Israelites who used them or gentiles who lived in the land. When you go to the period of the Mishna and the Talmud, there are suddenly many more talismans and thousands of shiva bowls. These are clearly Jewish magical objects. They are written in Aramaic and Hebrew and have lots of verses from the Bible, with references to the name of God and angels - but they are not part of the established religion. In the Middle Ages the quantity is already enormous, and in modern times even more."
"There's a phenomenon in magic that I call 'the neighbor's magic is always stronger.' There is a study of Jews who went to Arab-Muslim healers near Jenin, because the perception was that Muslims do it better."
What sits in the gray area - is the mezuzah.
"Some people say that the mezuzah is also a kind of talisman. In rabbinic literature, they are aware that the mezuzah protects them and are even proud of it. In other words, attributing supernatural powers to a mezuzah is an idea that is very deeply rooted in Jewish culture, and we see it to this day in customs such as kissing a mezuzah, or if a disaster happens, they say to check if the mezuzah is damaged."
So how is it different from a talisman?
"The mezuzah is a halachic object that must be placed, and as such, it is very policed and orderly. Each mezuzah is written the same, unlike any talisman that says something else. Talismans are part of Jewish magic – because they are not something forbidden by halacha, but they are also not governed by halacha."
Is there any similarity in magical uses in the ancient world versus today?
"The most common type of use of magic is for medicine, in its broadest definition, including fertility and childbirth. In the past, we saw magic for protection from demons, which according to the Talmud the whole world is full of, protection from storms at sea, thefts and the like. Another type that is still very common today is love and mating - in all their possible combinations. And alongside that lives the aggressive magic - kill people, hurt people, silence enemies who want to sue you in court."
Prescription for catching thieves from the Book of Prescriptions of Rabbi Kadoorie, Kadoshat Yitzchak, Jerusalem, 5772, vol. 1, pp. 1872, photo: Gideon Bohak
In many books of antiquity one can find very creative graphic descriptions from the world of magic. Thus, in the Book of the Razim, a Hebrew book of magic from the fifth century CE - whoever wants to "forbid a woman's heart to him" must take a new glass vessel from the sweat of his face, write the names of angels on it, say words of shiva and bury the vessel at the entrance to her home. Whoever wishes to "tilt the king's opinion in his favor" will have to try a little harder: he must slaughter a lion cub with a copper knife, uproot his heart, mix his blood with wine that has aged for three years, and write the names of the angels in liquid. In the same book, by the way, there are also recipes designed for less mundane needs, such as a prescription to ensure that the horse you bet on in the race wins, and a prescription to prevent another person's bathhouse from warming up.
You have to remember that many of the problems that people come up with are, ultimately, psychosomatic problems. Sometimes instead of going to a psychologist who will take 500 shekels an hour from you, you go to the Kabbalist – and if he is good at treating people, he may help you
"Magicons are practical people," he explains. "They use what works, or what they think works. By the way, another interesting thing: there is a phenomenon in magic that I call 'the neighbor's magic is always stronger.' There is, for example, a study of Jews in Israel who went to Arab-Muslim healers in villages near Jenin. They had similar services close to home, but the perception was that Muslims were doing it better. And the same phenomenon happened two thousand years ago, with completely pagan talismans, for example, bearing the names of the Jewish god."
To what extent can we really know who the people who practiced magic were?
"The later the period, the easier it is to know. For example, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism: Baal Shem is a profession, and in his time there were many itinerant people who offered, among other things, protection from thieves, accidents and demons, who were responsible for everything from infant mortality to impotence. There were cases in which community rabbis engaged in writing talismans and exorcisms. Sometimes these were professional writers. In Jewish shiva bowls from Babylon from the Talmudic period - we find formulas from divorce regimes, with which the demon is expelled in the same terms as divorcing a woman. There are also cases where it appears that these are doctors. In the Middle Ages, a Hebrew gynecology book was written called 'The Book of Women's Love,' which also includes magical prescriptions."
One of the first questions that comes up when it comes to magic is why people believe it works. Bright, who describes himself as a "complete rationalist" who has never gone to Kabbalist or Magicon, warns against judging. "The solution that everyone is stupid is probably not the right solution, and you also have to separate the explanation of things – demons, angels, the neighbor cast a spell on you – from the question of whether it works."
And does it work?
"Listen, they say that even a broken clock is twice as accurate. If someone got a talisman and suddenly her son was cured, of course it could happen. Second, there's a placebo effect that modern science recognizes as well—just feeling treated helps. You have to remember that many of the problems that people come up with are, ultimately, psychosomatic problems. Sometimes instead of going to a psychologist who will take 500 shekels an hour from you, you go to the Kabbalist – and if he is good at treating people, he may help you. At the same time, if you were given a prescription for mating and you got married seven years later, who can say it's not because of the virtue you received?"
Here, glare also has its own experience. "Once I was riding in a taxi and the driver, hearing that I was practicing Jewish magic, said I had to congratulate him because he couldn't find a wife. I told him I was a researcher, not into it, but he drove my mind crazy until I congratulated him to find a match and be happy, something generic like that. About three years later I ordered a taxi from the same station and I had the same driver, who remembered me and said he had since gotten married. I joke that if they throw me out of university, I could start a second career as a practitioner of practical admissions."
The discussion of Jewish magic is often on the agenda in political contexts. Thus, the Central Elections Committee was often asked whether the Shas party was entitled to distribute talismans as part of the election campaign – or whether it was a bribe. In 2015, artist and publicist Yair Garbuz made headlines when he spoke about "amulet-kissers, pagans and prostrate themselves on the graves of martyrs," in what was interpreted as a racist remark against Mizrahim.
"It's a point that's definitely sensitive," Bohak admits. "I really don't want my research on modern Jewish magic to reinforce the stereotypes that identify Mizrahi communities with superstition. Here we must remember that not only members of the Mizrahi communities, but also Ashkenazim, have dealt with this throughout history. So yes, my dear grandparents wouldn't have thought of going to a Jewish magicon, but my Galician grandparents grew up in a world where they definitely went to the Rebbe to write down all sorts of things. Also, these are not superstitions – Jewish magic is a body of Jewish folk knowledge that has been passed down from generation to generation for many, many years."
There is a feeling that Jewish magic has been repressed from the discourse, and is now returning.
"Without a doubt, this is an area that has been repressed and ridiculed in Western-secular-rational discourse, and today it is much more accepted. Here, too, Rabbi Kadoorie is a good example: when he passed away, the State of Israel issued a stamp and medal in his memory. What other country in the world has issued a medal in memory of Magicon? It's something that would never have happened in the '50s."
And the return of magic to contemporary discourse sometimes occurs in surprising ways. "Once, after a lecture I gave, someone who lives in Ramat Aviv III came up to me and said she thought she had been bewitched. I asked her why, and she said someone had thrown things at her front door. She sent me pictures, I have no idea what it was, but there is no doubt that they were witchcraft: someone mixed a red liquid - it's not clear if blood, dye or beet juice - with all sorts of other substances, and poured it on her door. It's not like sticking gum in the lock hole, obviously there was a whole ritual here.
"The fact that modernity came out against belief in magic is not because they did experiments and were convinced that it didn't work, but because the whole worldview changed: as soon as they stopped believing in demons and angels, the whole thing seemed to modern man like a relic from the Middle Ages that had to be fought. We didn't lose faith in magic because we tried for two thousand years and it didn't work, but because our whole perception of reality changed. Still, it is easy to find hundreds of people in Israel today who engage in practical Kabbalah. Some of them are complete charlatans who are there just for the money, but there are people who really want to take care of people, and really, in the end, help them."
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