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Jewish Magic and Superstition

Joshua Trachtenberg

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Jewish Magic and Superstition is a comprehensive review of Jewish magic from the 10th to the 15th century. Many well-known Jewish traditions are explained in the book, as well as things like Golems, Succubi, the Lillim, other magical creatures, talismans, amulets, charms, and other curious magical objects. There are also chapters dealing with dream interpretation, medical beliefs, necromancy, and other forms of divination.

This book has 313 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1939.

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Excerpt from 'Jewish Magic and Superstition'

TO UNDERSTAND a people—and through it, humankind—is to see its life whole. This has been a peculiarly difficult task where Jews are concerned, for the vision of the world has been obscured by darkly bias-tinted spectacles. If, on the one hand, Christological and anti-Semitic prejudices have revealed only an infamous horde of blasphemers and parasites, on the other, a historical perspective limited by Scripture has disclosed an exalted band of prophets, hounded and persecuted as prophets must be for their vision and temerity. Between these two extremes—which have alike doomed Jews to the unhappiest of careers—a normal people, with all the faults and virtues of humanity, has pursued its normal course through history, however abnormal were the conditions against which it struggled. This is perhaps the greatest achievement of Jewry, that in the face of an environment as perennially hostile as any people has had to confront, it has still maintained its balance, it has remained a normal member of the human family—even to owning, along with its peculiar virtues and faults, the common aberrations of the human race.

The Jewish people did not cease to live and grow when the New Testament was written. The two thousand years since have seen a steady expansion and development of its inner life. New religious concepts were advanced, the old were elaborated, and always the effort has been to make these something more than concepts, to weave them into the pattern of daily life, so that the Jew might live his religion. This was the sadly misunderstood "legalism" of Judaism. But alongside this formal development there was a constant elaboration of what we may call "folk religion"—ideas and practices that never met with the whole-hearted approval of the religious leaders, but which enjoyed such wide popularity that they could not be altogether excluded from the field of religion. Of this sort were the beliefs concerning demons and angels, and the many superstitious usages based on these beliefs, which by more or less devious routes actually became a part of Judaism, and on the periphery of the religious life, the practices of magic, which never broke completely with the tenets of the faith, yet stretched them almost to the breaking-point. If we call these "folk religion" it is because they expressed the common attitude of the people, as against the official attitude of the Synagogue, to the universe.

The rabbis sought to eradicate these practices, or at least to transmute their offensive features. But their efforts met with only indifferent success, and they were often obliged to accord the elements of this folk religion a grudging recognition and acceptance. "Better is it that Israel should sin unwittingly than consciously break the law."

In this respect the history of Jewish thought runs parallel with that of all peoples. Everywhere the common folk has existed on an intellectual and spiritual plane all its own, and it is only in the most recent centuries that true science and religion have made inroads into folk conceptions of the universe and brought them closer—if only a little—to what we call our modern, rationalist viewpoint. In Jewish scholarship this phase of folk religion and folk science has been sorely neglected. The tendency has been to impute to the Jewish people as a whole the ideas of a few advanced thinkers, to investigate philosophy and mysticism and law, the cultural and religious creations of the intellectual élite—valuable studies which, however, provide no insight into the inner life of the people themselves.

This book offers a contribution to an understanding of folk Judaism, the beliefs and practices that expressed most eloquently the folk psyche—of all the vagaries which, coupled with the historic program of the Jewish faith, made up the everyday religion of the Jewish people. It must be emphasized, however, if that should be necessary, that it depicts but this one phase of Judaism, a not altogether legitimate phase; the other has been described in many competent and sympathetic works.

The material here presented is culled from the literature of Germanic Jewry (described in the Note About the Sources)—the Jewry of Germany, Northern France, England, Austria, Poland, which constituted culturally and historically a single community—from the eleventh century through the sixteenth. It is with reference to this period that the terms "medieval" and "Middle Ages" are employed throughout the book. The cultural history of North European Jewry began to unfold only in the former century, though the community was in existence long before, and it retained its medieval aspect through the sixteenth century, and considerably later in some places. However, the year 1600, or thereabouts, has been selected as terminus ad quem, for during the succeeding century the so-called Lurianic Kabbalah, emanating from Safed, introduced a variety of new mystical elements and emphases, and also at about this time the center of Jewish life was shifting toward the east, where it came increasingly under the influence of the Slavic cultures. Until about 1600 the North European community remained fairly homogeneous, and Germanic.

But we must perforce reach back to earlier periods for a complete presentation of the subject; the Bible, and predominantly the Talmudic and Geonic tradition, exercised a profound and determining influence upon medieval Jewish life. It would be vain to attempt an evaluation of medieval Jewish magic and superstition without according due weight to the older sources from which much of it derived. (It should be noted that the Talmudic period is usually considered to have closed at about 500 C.E.; the Geonic extended through the eleventh century.) And it may be added that the material here presented still possesses a certain contemporaneity. To quote Marvin Lowenthal, "Orthodox Jewry as the western world knows it today is to a great extent the heir, when it is not the creation, of German Jewry." A study of Germanic Jewry in the Middle Ages discloses the origin and significance of many present-day practices.

Biblical superstition and magic have been thoroughly investigated by a number of scholars; the Talmudic period also has been carefully, if not so intensively, examined; the Geonic period, unfortunately, has received much less attention. As for Northern Europe during the Middle Ages, a single pioneering chapter, very remunerative but necessarily limited, in Moritz Güdemann's Geschichte des Erziehungswesens and der Cultur der abendländischen Juden has had to suffice. The present work, I trust, will help to fill the gap in our understanding of the medieval Jew.

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