Attitudes Toward Jewish Magic

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jewish magicBut when medieval Christians were in need of healing, Jews were regularly called upon to perform magic and miracles. Jews were generally more effective medical practitioners because of their wide knowledge of languages, the availability of Arabic-Greek medical works in Hebrew translation, and their propensity for travel and study abroad.

Paradoxically, Jews' scientific training made them superior magicians in the popular view, and every triumph of Jewish medicine enhanced Jews' reputation for sorcery.

Ritual murder accusations, for example, appear to originate in the belief that Jews killed Christian children in order to use their bodies in medicinal and magical recipes. The belief that Jews used Christian blood for matzah baking was a later development.

Though historians have dispelled most of the allegations of nefarious Jewish sorcery, there is ample evidence that medieval Jews considered certain magical practices to be legitimate and embraced these wholeheartedly. Around the 13th century, Kabbalah (Jewish mystical literature) split into two branches: iyyunit (theoretical) and ma'asit (practical).

The Kabbalah ma'asit explained the mystical values of Hebrew letters and offered formulas for achieving closeness to God through meditation and name-recitation--all of which might be considered examples of Jewish incantations and spells. The rich demonological literature and elaborate angelology in the Kabbalah ma'asit further blurred the distinction between Jewish mysticism and Jewish magic.

In all parts of the modern Western world, popular belief in magic has declined, and Jewish arguments against magic have been strengthened by enlightenment and post-enlightenment thinking. But interest in the supernatural and the unknown never completely wanes. Some Jews continue to embrace notions of the evil eye, for example, and seek ways to avert or trick it. It's unclear whether these practices--such as wearing a hamsa or a red string--should be categorized as magic. The line between superstition and authentic religious expression is certainly open to debate.

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