Jewish Folk Religion: Magic and Ritual Power

Jewish Folk Religion: Magic and Ritual Power
Fall 2011

In the ancient and medieval worlds, Jews were reputed to possess much knowledge about magic: amulets and spells to heal from sickness or harm one’s enemies, mystical incantations to ascend to heaven or bring angels down to earth, and information about the beneficent angels who assisted humans in their fight against the demons of illness and madness. Jewish magic has been part of folk Jewish knowledge and elite rabbinic practice in many cultures. This course examines the Jewish magical tradition from antiquity through the Middle Ages, and investigates how it survived and underwent transformation in the modern world.

The term “magic” is problematic, because it has generally been used to describe the religious and ritual practices of people whom the speaker disapproves of. Other suggested terms are “folk religion” and “ritual power.” The course begins by examining these terms and whether they can replace the word “magic.” We will read a variety of historical and anthropological approaches to these terms, in order to discover their histories and the ways they have been used by modern researchers since the 19th century. We will then turn to different Jewish definition of magic and ritual power to see how ancient and medieval Jewish authorities judged magic – was it an acceptable activity, or wholly outside normative Jewish practice? The course then gives a survey of Jewish magical texts and practices that range from the Bible to medieval stories and amulets. We will consider the use of amulets and other magical techniques for healing, and explore the relationship between magic and Jewish mysticism. The course will finish with an examination of possession and exorcism in the early modern world, and the ways in which the Jewish magic tradition still exists in the modern era.


J. H. Chajes, Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).

COURSE READER - articles are marked on the syllabus with an asterisk (*).

Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion, published by Forgotten Books (originally published in 1939). To access it, go to Google Books. It is also available on Sacred - Jewish Magic and Superstition.


Wednesday, Aug. 31: Introduction
What is the course about and why is the topic important? What is magic? Popular notions of magic. Doesn’t the Bible forbid magic? Samples of Jewish magical texts and rituals.

Monday, September 5 – No class, Labor Day

Unit 1: How to think about folk religion, ritual power, and magic

Weds., Sept. 7: What is folk religion? What is “domesticated Judaism”?
As you read both of these articles, think about how Yoder’s and Sered’s definitions can be applied to Jewish or other religious practices. Do you think these are useful concepts? For Sered’s article: What is the important content of the religious lives of the women she studies? What do they believe and what do they do? Post a response to these questions (or a response to another student’s posting) in the Sakai forum thread on “What is folk religion?”
• CR #8 – “Toward a Definition of Folk Religion” by Don Yoder (pp. 86-93).
• CR #9 – “The Domestication of Religion: The Spiritual Guardianship of Elderly Jewish Women” by Susan Sered (pp. 94-109).

Mon., Sept. 12, and Weds., Sept. 14: What is ritual power?
• CR #1 – “Theories and Controversies” by Fiona Bowie (pp. 1-19)
• CR #5 – “Ritual Theory, Rites of Passage, and Ritual Violence,” by Fiona Bowie (pp. 55-68)
• CR #6 – “The Abominations of Leviticus” by Mary Douglas (pp. 69-77)

Mon., Sept. 19 & Weds., Sept. 21: What is magic? Anthropological and historical theories about magic and ritual power
• CR #2 – “The Meanings of Magic” by Michael Bailey (pp. 20-41)
• CR #3 – Selections from Magic, Science, and Religion, by Bronislaw Malinowski (pp. 42-44)
• CR #4 – “Baseball Magic” by George Gmelch (pp. 45-54)
• CR #7 – “Magic and Miracle” by Mary Douglas (pp. 78-85)

Sept. 21: Topic #1 (definitions of magic) paper due.

Unit 2: Magic in the Bible and Talmud: definitions and prohibitions, demons, angels, and healing

Mon., Sept. 26: Magic in the Bible: definitions
How do these definitions interrelate with modern ones? What is the biblical connection between magic/sorcery and idolatry?
• CR #10 – Biblical sources on magic, witchcraft, and divination (pp. 110-121)
• Handout on Bible and Talmud

Weds., Sept. 28: No class, Rosh Hashanah begins this evening

Monday, October 3: Magic in the Talmud: definitions and prohibitions
How do the talmudic definitions differ from what’s found in the Bible? Are mostly women magicians?
• CR #11 – Categories of magic in the Babylonian Talmud (pp. 122-133)

Weds., Oct. 5 & Mon., Oct. 10: Demons, magic, and medicine
• CR #12 – Amulets and medical remedies in the Babylonian Talmud (pp. 134-141)
• Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition, pp. 30-42 (on the powers of evil, especially demons)
• CR #13 – Demons in the Babylonian Talmud (pp. 142-146)

Unit 3: Material culture and the study of ancient ritual

Weds., Oct. 12: Aramaic Incantation Bowls
• CR #14 – Aramaic Incantation Bowls (pp. 148-152)
• CR #15 – “Image and Word: Performative Ritual and Material Culture in the Aramaic Incantation Bowls” by Rebecca Lesses (pp. 158-186)

Mon., Oct. 17: Metal amulets in Byzantine Palestine and the use of the Bible in magic
• CR #14 – Metal Amulets from Israel (pp. 153-157)
• Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition, pp. 106-116.

Weds., Oct. 19: Women in ancient Jewish magic
• CR #16 – “Exe(o)rcising Power: Women as Sorceresses, Exorcists, and Demonesses in Babylonian Jewish society of Late Antiquity” by Rebecca Lesses (pp. 187-203)

Unit 4: Jewish and Greco-Egyptian magic

Mon., Oct. 24: Jewish and other ancient magic: the Greek magical papyri
What is the relationship between Jewish practices of ritual power and those of other peoples? What was borrowed back and forth? Can we make a distinction between Jewish practices and those of other peoples: Greeks, Egyptians, Romans?
• CR #17 – Greek Magical Papyri (pp. 204-218)

Weds., Oct. 26: Sefer ha-Razim, “the Book of the Mysteries”
A Jewish handbook of ritual power from late antiquity, comparable to the Greek magical papyri. What is the relationship of Jews in antiquity to “pagan” beliefs and practices?
• CR #18 – Selections from Sefer ha-Razim (pp. 219-258)

Mon., Oct. 31: “Black” magic in Sefer ha-Razim
• CR #19 – “Sefer ha-Razim and the Problem of Black Magic in Early Judaism” by Philip Alexander (pp. 259-271)

Unit 5: Ritual Power in Early Jewish Mysticism

Wednesday, November 2: Introduction to the Hekhalot literature
• CR #21 – “Introduction to the Hekhalot Literature” by Rebecca Lesses (pp. 282-293)
• CR #20 – “Jewish Magic Literature in Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages” by Peter Schäfer (pp. 272-276)

Mon., Nov. 7: Hekhalot texts of ritual power
• CR #23 – Hekhalot adjurations (pp. 303-312)
• CR #22 – “Adjurations as Performance” by Rebecca Lesses (pp. 294-302)

Unit 6: Medieval Jewish Magic

Weds., Nov. 9: Amulets from the Cairo Geniza and northern Europe
• CR #24 – Hebrew and Aramaic Incantation Texts from the Cairo Geniza (pp. 313-335)
• CR #25 – The Legend of Lilith (p. 336)
• CR #26 – The Adjuration of Katviel (p. 337)
• Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition, pp. 140-154 (medieval European amulets, use of mezuzot as amulets)

Mon., Nov. 14: The power of the divine name and the making of the Golem
• Trachtenberg, “In the name of…”, pp. 81-105.

Unit 7: Dybbuks and Exorcists in Early Modern Judaism

Weds., Nov. 16, Mon., Nov. 28, and Weds., Nov. 30: Dybbuks and Exorcists
• J. H. Chajes, Between Worlds
  • pp. 1-31 – Introduction and Emergence of Dybbuk Possession
  • pp. 32-56 – The Dead and the Possessed
  • pp. 57-96 – The Task of the Exorcist
  • pp. 97-118 – Dybbuk Possession and Women’s Religiosity
  • pp. 119-140 – Skeptics and Storytellers
Unit 8: Contemporary Jewish Magic

Monday, December 5 & Weds., Dec. 7: Jewish magic in Israel
• CR# 28 – “Pulsa De-Nura: The Innovation of Modern Magic and Ritual” by Zion Zohar (pp. 355-382)
• Other articles from the Israeli press, to be handed out in class

No comments: