November 29, 2016
Throughout pre-modern history, death was a familiar visitor in the home. Even as late as the 18th century, poorer families in Europe could expect that at least half of their children would not survive childhood. Accustomed to loss, religious Jews developed a range of beliefs that explained the tragic onset of illness or the sudden death of one’s loved ones, and many of these had to do with fears of witchcraft.
While foreign concepts to Jews today, our medieval ancestors believed in a host of supernatural forces both malignant and benign. Legions of angels fought against armies of demons for the possession of every person, and between our world and the other stood practitioners of magic who could intercede. Where many saw the sages of our tradition as the mystical representatives of God, through whom divine beneficence flowed to earth, they also recognised the existence of wizards and witches who intervened for the forces of evil.
The Talmud and the midrashim are saturated with references to such sorcery: how it was performed, who was responsible for it, and what the pious Jew might do to protect herself from its curse. Our literature speaks of mind-readers and necromancers, people who converse with animals and people who predict the future from innards and dreams. It speaks of incantations, amulets, potions and magical rites, all designed to ameliorate the ill effects of the satan’s power and of his wicked emissaries on earth.
We are told of how to prepare mystical ointments that might be rubbed on the eyes to reveal the presence of demons. We are informed of how to properly write an amulet that we may protect ourselves from the mumbled curses of a nearby witch. We are warned, on frequent occasions, of where we should and should not travel in the evenings, and we are enjoined to place certain biblical verses beneath the pillow of a woman in labour.
People might shrug such passages off as idle superstition, but they were as present a part of pre-modern Jewish life as any other, and their reverberations are felt even today. The mezuzot that we fix upon our doorposts have their origins as amulets. The prayers that we recite before going to bed were originally meant to protect us from the power of demons. The shofar that we blow in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah was intended to confound the satan, the constant study of Torah was supposed to forestall death and the song that we sing on Friday evening (Shalom Aleykhem) was to ensure the continued company of ministering angels.
In the 12th century, Maimonides courted controversy with his conservative contemporaries by disparaging such beliefs as illogical and absurd, and by providing more “rational” reasons for Jewish custom and law than those that are presented in the Talmud. But one need not be a mystic to feel moved by stories of the supernatural, nor to find wisdom in such tales. However rational or scientific we may be, we should be careful not to forget the colourful origins of so many of our traditions. Fairy tales, after all, are some of the most pregnant vehicles of cultural truths.
Author: Education Officer, Dr Simon Holloway.