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From Magic Wells to Practical Kabbalah: Analyzing Attitudes Towards Magic and Alchemy Among European

From Magic Wells to Practical Kabbalah: Analyzing Attitudes Towards Magic and Alchemy Among European Jews in the Second Millennium


Ever since Jews first inhabited Europe, they have been practicing and discussing magic, incorporating elements from their new environments into late antique traditions. A wide array of sources make it possible to trace how European Jewry’s attitudes towards magic and alchemy evolved across the second millennium, and how various developments impacted these attitudes: Yiddish folktales with ambiguous origins; the early medieval rise of Kabbalah; a first-hand account of the later middle ages from Venetian rabbi Leon de Modena; and finally, as the Enlightenment swept the continent during the mid-eighteenth century, the emergence of two opposing groups, the Hasidim and the Enlightenment-aligned Maskilim. This analysis of attitudes toward magic, mysticism, and alchemy not only reveals a chronic lack of consensus, but also illustrates how the factors that produced those divides can contribute to a greater understanding of the priorities and experiences of European Jews in the second millennium.

Early Roots: Yiddish Folktales

The rich collection of Yiddish folktales collected by ethnographers (the so-called “zamlers”) traveling through Eastern Europe during the 1920s and 30s have origins that are mostly unknown – but like fables of many cultures, they have been passed down orally through the generations, and are likely very old. Some tales, such as “The Trustees,” can be traced back through time in earlier and earlier volumes. Others find their sources in agodes, which folklorist Beatrice Weinreich defines as “stories and legends from the Jewish oral tradition that were written down some fifteen hundred years ago in Babylonia and Judea by the sages of the Talmud.” [1] “Wonder Tales,” known in the Ashkenazi tradition as tsjober majse, involve magic or superstitious elements and make up a prominent part of the bastion of Yiddish folktales. [2] The magic in these stories ranged from decidedly positive to unambiguously evil.

One wonder tale that unequivocally epitomizes the former category is called “The Orphan Boys,” and tells the story of Berele and Shmerele, two orphan children from a shtetl. [1] The impoverished boys subsist on scraps from do-gooders and live in the hegdesh (poorhouse) until they set out one day in search better fortunes. Walking through the forest, they cross paths with a radiant old man, “clearly possessed by the Divine presence,” who offers to help them after hearing their woeful story. The man gives Berele a stick, explaining that it will allow him to fly over an otherwise impenetrable gate into a grand palace, where a princess will meet him. He offers Shmerele a head of garlic, which he claims will heal a terribly ill princess in a large city, bringing the orphan great renown and acclaim. Finally, the man teaches each orphan a short spell to activate their objects at the appropriate moment. The boys tearfully part ways and fulfill the sage’s prophecy, living happily ever after.

This story is a prime example of a positive portrayal of magic in Yiddish folklore. The deserving boys are miraculously saved from lives of poverty by a literally “radiant” woodsman. Moreover, the protagonists remain humble and kind to the very end, curbing any hesitations about magic “spoiling” beneficiaries. The plot itself features earmarks of Jewish magic, such as the use of incantations to activate the materia magica, and the idea of miraculous transport. Known as kefitzat ha-derekh or “jumping the path,” the idea of instantaneous movement between disparate locations is well-attested throughout the tradition. One codex likely composed by a modern Italian intellectual in the seventeenth century contains four recipes for this explicit purpose, and Hayyim Vital’s seventeenth century compendium, “Practical Kabbalah and Alchemy,” includes a kefitzat ha-derekh recipe along with others “for the protection of travelers.” [3] These authors drew on earlier examples: Gerrit Bos testifies that this phenomenon is prominent across rabbinic literature “in connection with the Biblical figures of Eliezer, Jacob, and Abishay Ben Seruya,” in Islamic magical literature (where it is called tay al-ard, “the folding of the earth”), and throughout the mystical canon. [4] The garlic invokes another common trope, health restoration, which crops up everywhere from Babylonian incantation bowls, to Genizah fragments, to medical books (for one medieval example, see Abraham ibn Ezra’s Sefer Hanisyonot).

Another magical Yiddish folktale, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” tells of an impoverished father whose son becomes a sorcerer’s apprentice. [1] Three years later, when the father returns to retrieve his son, the sorcerer demands he pass a test proving he can distinguish his son (in dove form) from another. He picks correctly and the sorcerer releases the son under the condition that the child will perform no magic in the sorcerer’s lifetime. However, soon thereafter, the son breaks the contract in hopes of helping his father make money, and again ends up under the sorcerer’s abusive dominion, now in a horse’s body. Eventually, the son escapes and murders his former teacher. The boy happily marries the sorcerer’s daughter and replaces him in Odessa, where he worked performing tricks for poor folk. This tale takes a fairly neutral stance on magic itself. On the one hand, the original sorcerer is depicted as cruel and cutthroat.

On the other hand, the protagonist apprentice, undeniably a sorcerer in his own right, is painted in a positive light. Although he breaks the contract, it is only to improve his father’s financial situation. He uses his magical powers to orchestrate his escape, and eventually replaces his former master as the market entertainer. Magic is depicted here as a legitimate form of livelihood, and practitioners are perceived as neither universally good nor bad, but as individuals who must be considered on a case-by-case basis.

In a third story, “Of Nettles and Roses,”a jealous woman casts her beautiful and lovely stepdaughter away to wash clothes in a supposedly cursed river. [1] The water spirits take pity on her and give her three gifts: her breath smells good, her wash water turns to gold, and roses spring up behind her feet. The flabbergasted woman sends her own ugly daughter to the river hoping for similar results, but the rude girl receives only unpleasant curses. Many years pass, and the lovely stepdaughter marries a prince and bears a beautiful baby. Out of spite, the stepmother sends for a sorceress to kill the stepdaughter. The sorceress agrees and, using her magic, breaks into the girl’s bedroom and brutally quarters the baby, framing the stepdaughter by leaving the sharp, bloody knife in her hand. The innocent princess is widely accused, blinded, and cast away with only her baby’s carcass as company. However, her real mother appears to her in a dream, and directs her towards a magical well whose water restores her sight and revives the child. Eventually the girl reconvenes with the prince and all is well. The tale also incorporates Jewish magical traditions, namely oneiric communication with the dead, which was commonly used to locate lost inheritances. Those trying to unearth the treasure would perform some purification ritual before reciting incantations and going to sleep, hoping for the opportunity to question deceased relatives (see Genizah fragment JTSL ENA NS 12.5, a medieval finished product for the oneiric divinatory ritual She’elat Halom, which directly references Sefer ha-Razim). [5] In this story, although magic is not uniformly evil (the water spirits, oneiric vision, and well are good), the act of magic is indisputably negative, as the sole practitioner mentioned is the evil sorceress. Thus, Yiddish folktales present diverse views of magic, ranging from highly positive to highly negative.

The Early Middle Ages: Practical Kabbalah

One of the most significant developments in Jewish magic during the middle ages was the rise of Kabbalah, whose practical branch adopted many preexisting magical practices. As scholar Yuval Harrari explains, “The Kabbalah of Names” would invoke ancient magic traditions “from the land of Israel and Babylonia based upon holy names and adjurations.” Even the very first use of the term “Kabbalah” references the forty-two letters of “the Ineffable Name.” [7] Researcher Moshe Idel’s work on medieval Kabbalists R. Nehemiah ben Solomon and R. Baruch Togarmi demonstrates a staggering degree of influence by adjuratory practices and holy names, and shows that Ashkenazi magic and mystical traditions transferred to Spain shaped the development of “prophetic Kabbalah” by R. Abraham Abulafia (1240-1291).

Despite striking overlap, Kabbalists frequently sought to distinguish themselves from practitioners of traditional magic through careful branding. Magic was, after all, expressly forbidden by the Torah (“You must not allow a sorceress to live,” Exodus 22:17). To take one example, the Spanish Kabbalist Abraham Abufia hoped to distance himself from users of “books of names” by distinguishing between “true” holy names and their power, which lead to spiritual elevation and prophecy, and “false names that lack any true wisdom,” and merely mislead users. [6] In a later writing, Abufia invokes Maimonides to ridicule “the vain ravings of the writers of charms” and their “stupid books.” [8] He distinguished his practices, which were for holy and pure intentions, from those with “profane” objectives, such as erotic magic.

Scholars of Kabbalah have likewise drawn these distinctions: Gershom Scholem emphasized that intention formulae were never to be pronounced, as opposed to recited adjurations and incantations of “operative magic,” and R.J. Zwi Werblowsky similarly dismissed connections between verbal formulae used to facilitate divine energy flow to a Kabbalist (such as the Lurianic yihudim) and magical adjurations (hashbaʿot, or “Beschwörungen”). [9] Christian Renaissance intellectuals also embraced the traditional view of Kabbalah as the key to unlocking the secrets of cosmos, regarding it admiringly as a form of divine science associated with natural magic and alchemy, rather than taboo “black magic” or charlatanism. [10] Even today, websites devoted to Practical Kabbalah stress these distinctions-- one July 2000 article by Faye Levine features a subsection entitled, “Why Practical Kabbalah isn’t considered ‘Magic.’” [11] Emphasis on labels reflects chronic conundrums concerning legitimacy and definitions: contentious feelings toward magic fostered attempts to distance Kabbalah from magic, despite evidence of shared elements.

Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Italy: Leon Modena’s The Life of Judah

Venetian rabbi Leon Modena’s autobiography The Life of Judah, demonstrates how the interest in and ambivalence towards magic, alchemy, and astrology continued among Italian Jews into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Leon Modena was born in Venice in 1571. According to Mark R. Cohen and Theodore K. Rabb, the scholar’s ancestors “belonged to that familiar group of Ashkenazic ... moneylenders who ... abandoned the increasingly inhospitable lands of northern Europe to establish new homes in the credit-hungry cities of northern Italy.” [12] Modena practiced bibliomancy (seeking an omen by asking a child what biblical verse he had learned that day in school), and dabbled in amulet production, dream divination, and astrology. [12]

Nevertheless, Modena’s views on these subjects were far from uniformly positive. He reports that, around 1602, Roman physician Abraham di Cammeo “enticed” him to “pursue the vanity of the craft of alchemy,” on which he spent “much money.” Later, his son Mordecai turned to alchemy. [12] In November 1614, Mordecai began his practice with the priest Joseph Grillo, “a very learned man.” Mordecai’s efforts culminated in a supposedly successful experiment in which he “made ten ounces of pure silver from nine ounces of lead and one of silver.” Modena recounts how he verified the metal’s integrity with a thorough examination and then sold it for a great profit. This account reflects a society in which people staunchly believed in the reality of alchemical transmutation. While Modena was initially excited by the financial potential and success of Mordecai’s work, he soon came to regret it when his son’s health failed. In fall 1615, “Suddenly much blood flowed down from [Mordecai’s] head to his mouth, and from then on he ceased performing that work, for they said perhaps the vapors and the smokes of the arsenics and the salts that enter into it injured his head.” Medical complications caused by alchemical experimentation were not uncommon: five centuries earlier, Bahya ibn Paquda warned that “the smell and the smoke [can] kill [the alchemist] due to the constant work and the length of effort he devotes to [his work].” [13] In his book of secrets, Hayyim Vital likewise warns, “Everyone active in chemistry should be wary of the various toxic substances present when gold and silver are melted in the fire,” additionally mentioning the toxicity of nitric acid and mercury vapors. [14]

In his autobiography, Modena listed both his own and his son’s engagements with alchemy under a section entitled “Miseries of my heart in brief,” emphasizing this shift in attitude. [12] Modena seems to have experienced a similar journey with astrology: he admits to having had “a passionate desire to learn from the astrologers ... what would happen to [him] during the days of [his] life and how many they would be” as a youth, and did eventually consult astrologers to obtain this information, but ended up regretting the affair, “for man’s only proper way is to be pure before God, and he should not make such inquiries.” Thus, Modena’s experience with both alchemy and astrology illuminates some of the crucial factors, such as physical danger, expense, time commitments, and piety that contributed to people’s disdain for magic, alchemy, and astrology.

The Enlightenment and modern era: Roles of the Printing Press, Haskalah philosophy, and Hasidism in Perceptions of Jewish Magic

In the modern era, developments such as the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment significantly shaped perceptions of Jewish magic. In his article, “How Jewish Magic Survived the Disenchantment of the World,” Gideon Bohak identifies two key advancements that impacted the field: the printing of books of Jewish magic and the Haskalah’s war on Jewish magic. [15]

The rise of the printing press facilitated dissemination of a swath of Jewish magico-mystical literature, incorporating both recipe books and finished products. Some prime examples include books of segullot, which detail the occult properties of various substances; the Sod Yesharim, a Renaissance hodge-podge of one hundred table-tricks, medical recipes, practical advice, and miscellaneous riddles; the Sefer Berit Menuhah, a fundamental Kabbalistic book encompassing subjects of esoteric cosmology; and the Sefer Raziel, a volume first printed in Amsterdam in 1701 containing magical recipes, cosmological descriptions, and information on the use of divine names. [15] Bohak explains that the proliferation of printed books led to the rearrangement, simplification, and censoring of the contents of the Jewish magical tradition. [15] New thematic and alphabetical arrangements and the addition of a Table of Contents and Index made books more practical. Cheap, mass-produced amulets (often intended for the protection of newborns) also went on the market. Meanwhile, Yoel Baal Shem’s books of segullot helped develop the Do-It-Yourself genre of Jewish magical literature, which, as the name suggests, granted the reader unprecedented agency and contributed to the obsolescence of professional experts. Thus, the field shed some of its esotericism, and the censorship of texts, “so as not to print recipes which were deemed too sensitive” generally softened the perception of magic among laypeople.

However, the Haskalah’s war on Jewish magic heightened divisions. As Bohak puts it, “Modernity came upon the Jews from the outside.” [15] For the most part, Ashkenazi Jews were not involved in the intellectual advancements of early modernization. They were not even looped into more scientifically-oriented magico-mystical domains – namely, alchemy. Despite its current-day association with frivolous hocus-pocus, for centuries alchemy was tied closely to chemistry: involvement in the craft historically characterized a more modern worldview. A letter from rabbi, printing press editor, and scholar Jacob Emden (1697-1776) provides insight into eighteenth century Ashkenazi Jews’ lack of alchemical knowledge. [13] In response to a certain Wolf Ginzberg, Emden requests information on alchemy in general, and on Hebrew (or Jewish) alchemical writings in particular. He laments: “My soul ... yearns to know whether perchance somebody among us still possesses a [Hebrew] book [on alchemy].” As Raphael Patai, author of The Jewish Alchemists: A History and Source Book, attests, Emden was “an exceptional figure among the Ashkenazi Jews of the eighteenth century,” simply because of his interest in natural sciences. His Ashkenazi neighbors, unlike their Sephardi brethren, mostly devoted their attention to halakha and Talmudic study, leaving Emden frustrated by the resulting dearth of information. Patai explains: “[The] general silence [of Ashkenazi scholars] concerning alchemy indicates that they were, in all probability, unaware of its meaning, scope, tenets, and possibly of its very existence.” [13]

Nevertheless, the Enlightenment reached Jewish communities. Urban centers like Berlin saw the emergence of circles of Enlightenment-inspired Jewish intellectuals (the maskilim), who promoted a new ideology built on the contemporary Christian movement and the work of medieval Jewish rationalists such as Maimonides. [15] Like their Christian counterparts, these Jews had no tolerance for demonology, superstition, or magic. They soon realized the degree of reconstruction that would be required to purge Judaism of magic.

In his Autobiography, Solomon Maimon (who adopted Maimonides’ name out of admiration) railed against Practical Kabbalah for its inefficacy, recounting specifically its failure to make him invisible and the failure of the supposedly amuletic book Sefer Raziel to prevent a fire. [16] He also attacks particular practitioners, mocking their “Kabbalistic fooleries -- fumigations, conjurations, and similar practices.” Maimon singles out various Hasidic figures, accusing Rabbi Yoel Baal Shem (the Second) of merely coming up with “lucky cures which he effected by means of his medical acquirements and his conjuring tricks,” and describing the tsadik Rabbi Dov Baer’s clairvoyance as “a combination of spy-work and common sense.” Similarly, in his polemical tractate The Jealousy of Truth, Galician maskil author Yehudah Leib Mieses (1798-1831) refutes the existence of demons, pointing out multiple flaws in the logic. [17] He writes: “It is well known that among those Jews upon whom the light of wisdom has shone, such as in Berlin, there is no sign at all of the presence of demons and spirits, and only in the Land of Poland, and other countries in which the sons of Jacob walk in darkness -- only there are such fairytales wide-spread.” In this context, “the light of wisdom” can be understood to mean modern Enlightenment thought. In supporting his claim that demons are merely figments of the imagination, Maimon describes how accounts of demons and spirits only exist in places where “the sons of Jacob walk in darkness,” thus delineating the boundary between modern, urban, Haskalah-oriented Jews and their rural, superstitious counterparts, whose backwardness he almost seems to pity.

Turning our gaze to the opposing camp, the rise of Hasidism carried on the long tradition of magic in Judaism and formed a hub of Jewish magical activity during this era. [18] The movement’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov (whose formal name was Israel ben Eliezer, 1698-1760), was an acclaimed practitioner of magic in addition to an avid philosopher. [18] The profession of Baalei Shem originated long ago with ancient Palestinian wonder-workers, before spreading to southern Italy, and then to Central and Eastern Europe. These individuals claimed knowledge of the holy Names, with which supernatural actions, such as healings, exorcisms, and resurrections, could be performed. The Baal Shem Tov’s contemporary, Rabbi Naphtali Katz of Poznan, was a known practical kabbalist, who possessed a ring in which the holy Names were engraved, and which he probably used to exorcize spirits. Gedalyah Nigal of Bar-Ilan University claims that “it is inconceivable that the title ‘baal shem’ was given to someone who did not engage at all in magical activity, even on a temporary basis.” [18]

Hasidism was inextricably tied to the Jewish magical tradition. Nigal cites the doctrine of gilgul (transmigration or reincarnation) as “a classic example of a kabbalistic doctrine that was absorbed by Hasidism from the esoteric literature, especially from Lurian Kabbalah.” [18] According to one account, the Baal Shem Tov encountered a frog on his return from an unsuccessful attempt to immigrate to Eretz Ysrael. The frog held the spirit of a former rabbi, who was punished with this undesirable form for having failed to wash his hands properly according to ritual and then for having become a drunkard (because “one sin leads to another”). There was also an assumption that the tsadikim knew the transmigratory routes of particular individuals: for example, the Baal Shem Tov was supposedly the transmigration of Rav Saadiah Gaon, or that of Enoch, and Rabbi Nahman was a spark of the soul of Saul.

The Baalei Shem were thought to possess various supernatural abilities, such as the aforementioned kefitzat ha-derekh (the shortening of the way). [18] The miraculous transport occurred in sea or air and its motive was frequently to arrive in time for a certain place (for the sabbath, a holiday, a wedding, a circumcision, to rescue someone, etc). Examples of the use of kefitzat ha-derekh abound in the Hasidic narrative: Rabbi Judah He-Hasid supposedly imparted the gift to Rabbi Eleazar ben Amnon, so that the former would succeed in going from Regensburg to Mainz on the eve of passover; Rabbi Judah flew via a cloud in order to arrive in time for his wedding ceremony; and Rabbi Eleazar of Worms “would ride in the cloud shape which was appointed for this purpose” and arrive at distant destinations in order to fulfill religious duties. [18] It is said that Eleazar once fell from a cloud, “and from then on, he limped.” There are many accounts of the Baal Shem Tov himself employing kefitzat ha-derekh. Nigal writes: “When he was forced to flee from the ire of the large tenants in the city of Slutzk, he did so with the help of kefitzat ha-derekh: ‘And he went from there in half the night, by the shrinking of the earth by about 15 parasangs, until he left heir bounds for another kingdom.’” [19] As Nigal relates, tales of kefitzat ha-derekh often attempt to counter the issue of a lack of credibility: the travelers in these stories provide “proofs,” “such as the…the bringing of a certain object that exists only in a distant place, or the bringing of a receipt for an object purchased in a distant land.” [18]

These juxtaposing perceptions of Jewish magic persisted well into the twentieth century. Bohak asserts that even in the 1920s, many Jews, “especially among the Hasidim of Eastern Europe, but not only among them ... were convinced that demons do exist, that magic does work, and that Baalei Shem and tsaddikim have great powers.” [15] In his account of his 1924 visit to Poland, novelist Alfred Döblin describes his encounters with Kabbalists in Krakow, and offers direct citations from a long Hebrew amulet and various magical texts. From his writings, it seems he “could not help but feeling that the ‘superstitious’ Jews of Eastern Europe were far more Jewish -- and in some ways more endearing -- than the enlightened Jews he had known from birth, with their often unfounded sense of intellectual superiority.” [15] The skeptics and proponents that emerged in this arena represent a monumental divide in the opinions of European Jews, even as they demonstrate the unending controversy over magic’s status.


Throughout the second millennium, developments such as the rise of Kabbalah and the Enlightenment impacted the opinions of Jews towards magic, alchemy and astrology, but a consistent lack of consensus persisted through each epoch. Yiddish folktales reveal vastly variable attitudes toward magic. In the early middle ages, the rise of Kabbalah demonstrates how Jews stressed labels to distinguish and validate their practices. Leon Modena’s case clearly shows both the prevalence of magic, alchemy, and astronomy among seventeenth-century Italian Jews, as well as practitioners’ ambivalent and fluid opinions on these subjects. In the modern era, the emergence of two opposing groups, the maskilim and hasidim, accentuates a growing separation that persisted at least well into the twentieth century. The unceasing ambivalence towards magic reflects dangers (particularly relevant in the field of alchemy), inconveniences (such as money and time requirements), and doubts about efficacy (especially prominent among the skeptical Enlightenment Jews). Nevertheless, judging by the persistent popularity of magico-mystical practices, it appears the desired results were considered so spectacular as to compensate for these drawbacks. Ultimately, understanding the considerations that affected perceptions of magic sheds valuable light on the day-to-day lives of European Jews throughout the millennium.



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