Witches Get Stitches: Jewish Approaches to the Occult Through the Ages

Bronislaw Malinowski (20th century Polish anthropologist)

Magic is to be expected and generally to be found whenever man comes to an unbridgeable gap, a hiatus in his knowledge or in his powers of practical control and yet has to continue in his pursuit. Forsaken by his knowledge, balled by the results of his experience, unable to apply any effective technical skill, he realizes his impotence. Yet his desire grips him only the more strongly. His fears and hopes, his general anxiety, produce state of unstable equilibrium in his organism by which he is driven to some sort of vicarious activity.

(יז) מְכַשֵּׁפָ֖ה לֹ֥א תְחַיֶּֽה׃ (ס)

(17) Thou shalt not suffer a sorceress to live.

המכשף העושה מעשה חייב ולא האוחז את העינים ר"ע אומר משום ר' יהושע שנים לוקטין קשואין אחד לוקט פטור ואחד לוקט חייב העושה מעשה חייב האוחז את העינים פטור:

When it comes to a sorcerer, someone who actually practices sorcery is liable to be stoned, but not one who makes an illusion. Rabbi Akiva said in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua, There is a case where two people gather cucumbers with sorcery, and one isn't punished and the other is. The one who uses sorcery is punished, and the one who makes an illusion isn't.

מכשפה אחד האיש ואחד האשה א"כ מה ת"ל מכשפה מפני שרוב נשים מצויות בכשפים

When the Torah says not to let the "sorceress" live, it refers to either male or female. If so why does it say sorceress? Because mostly women are involved in sorcery.

אמר רבי יוחנן למה נקרא שמן כשפים שמכחישין פמליא של מעלה: (דברים ד, לה) אין עוד מלבדו

Rabbi Yochanan said, Why are they called K'shaphim (witches)? Because they uproot (machishin) the heavenly servants (familia). "And there is none but Him".

אמר אביי הלכות כשפים כהלכות שבת יש מהן בסקילה ויש מהן פטור אבל אסור ויש מהן מותר לכתחלה העושה מעשה בסקילה האוחז את העינים פטור אבל אסור מותר לכתחלה כדרב חנינא ורב אושעיא כל מעלי שבתא הוו עסקי בהלכות יצירה ומיברי להו עיגלא תילתא ואכלי ליה

Abaye said, The laws of sorcery are like the laws of work on Shabbat, in that, some actions get you stoned, some actions are exempt from punishment but forbidden, and some are allowed ab initio. The one who performs sorcery is stoned. the one who makes illusions is exempt from stoning but still did wrong. Things that are allowed are like the actions of Rav Chanina and Rav Oshaya, who would learn the laws of creation every Friday night and a young calf would be created for them and they would eat it.

Medieval and Modern Magics

Gedalyah Nigal: Magic, Mysticism, and Hasidism (20th century, Israel)

...[k]efitzat ha-derekh, [is] the miraculous "shortening of the way." It was assumed that by means of the "holy names," knowledge of which was essential for the activity of a baal shem, it was possible to shorten the traveling time of a journey and arrive at a faraway destination in a relatively short period of time. kefitzat ha-derekh also could take place at sea or in the air. In most instances, kefitzat ha-derekh was necessary in order to arrive in time before the beginning of the Sabbath, before the beginning of a holiday, or in time for a circumcision or wedding ceremony. The motif of kefitzat ha-derekh also entered the hasidic story, but in contrast with other supernatural motifs, it appears only in the first generations of Hasidism, before it disappeared entirely. The reason for this is quite prosaic: mankind's quest to shorten the journey was achieved, by means of fast trains and airplanes; the miracle had become everyday reality.

Yehudah HaHasid (12th century Ashkenaz)

One who engages in adjurations of angels or of demons or magical incantations—his end will not be well, and evils will befall him or his children all his days. Therefore one ought to distance himself from doing all of these, and also resist [engaging in] dream questions [e.g.,] in order to know what wife to take or in what matter he will or will not always succeed. And do not [use] bouquets that are called in the language of Ashkenaz wegerich [plantains], for adjuring the wegerich is forbidden, as it is written, “be simple with the Lord your God” (Dt 18:13), and [one should not adjure] with anything. For ultimately his situation will be irreparable—how many did [adjurations] and how many asked [dream questions] and were diminished or apostatized or fell seriously ill, they or their children? And one should not ask others to do so for him. Nothing is thus better for a person than to pray to the Blessed Holy One for all his needs. He is merciful and compassionate and repents of the evil [that he has decreed]. And how many prophets have been killed rather than adjure with a Holy Name? Rather they stood in prayer and said, “If our prayer is not heard, we will know that we were not worthy of being saved,” and they acted exclusively by means of prayer.

Yehudah HaHasid

If one were to ask: How can [God] be present everywhere, yet remain invisible to the eye? It is possible to respond that He created an example in His world... If one places hot ash on hot excrement, it will harm the one who produced [the excrement]. And although we cannot see any connection between the excrement and the person's body, nonetheless the body will be harmed by the power of the excrement. Thus, there must be some connection between the two which is too subtle to see... Just as [this connection] is real, even though it cannot be seen by the eye, so too our Creator, may his Name be blessed, is a real entity, whose power is in everything, even though we have never seen Him...If one were to ask: How are we to believe that [God] is omnipotent, since He cannot be seen? I will offer you an example: one can adjure a sword so that it will not cut him, or a piece of white-hot iron so that it will not burn him. And even though we see no boundary between the sword or the iron and the body, we know that there is something in the way, preventing the cutting or the burning, even though it is too subtle to see.

Yehudah HaHasid, as relayed by Israel Ta-Shma, 20th c.

The wondrous proof that God can cause the righteous to cleave to Him is the stone that attracts iron to itself, despite the fact that no one can see by what means it pulls it. It is intended to show that God knows those who trust in him—"He has created a remembrance of His wonders."...

...Now if one were to ask, "How will [the souls of the dead] be transported immediately [to Heaven or Hell]?" The stone that attracts iron can demonstrate this, for it attracts a needle to itself in an instant. And the captain of a ship can even use it to discern in which direction his ship is traveling. He brings the magnet in a bowl of water, and places a needle next to it, and asks his fellow: "Where should the ship travel?" If he answers, "east," and the ship is pointing west, the needle will travel round the magnet via a circular path...and if the ship is pointing east, [the needle] will remain straight. "He has created a remembrance of His wonders," so that we may believe that in an instant the soul can cleave to Heaven or to hell, via a straight or circular path.

When Magic and Law Collide

מתני׳ לא יצא האיש בסנדל המסומר ולא ביחיד בזמן שאין ברגלו מכה ולא בתפילין ולא בקמיע בזמן שאינו מן המומחה ולא בשריון ולא בקסדא ולא במגפיים ואם יצא אינו חייב חטאת:

MISHNA: A man may not go out on Shabbat with a spiked sandal... And he may neither go out with phylacteries, nor with an amulet when it is not from an expert, [but rather it was written by someone who has not established a reputation as an expert in writing amulets that are effective for those who carry them]...And if he went out into the public domain with any of these, he is not liable to bring a sin-offering.

Sefer Ha-Hezyonot (Haim Vital, 16th c. Tzfat), as relayed by Yossi Chajes, lecturer at U of Haifa

In Sefer ha-hezyonot, Vital describes a disagreement with a spirit that he was in the process of exorcising over his obligation to participate in communal prayer. In the midst of his negotiation with the spirit about who would participate in the exorcism, Vital abruptly declares, “I will go and recite the shaharit prayers.” The spirit responds, “This is more important than prayer.” “I do not miss the prayers under any circumstances,” Vital counters. “As for what will be thereafter, may God have mercy.”