From Jewish Mysticism to Magic

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Reprinted with permission from Magic & Superstition in the Jewish Tradition (Spertus Institute of Judaic Studies).

Jewish mysticism can be divided into devotional or practical Kabbalah, with emphasison direct communion through prayer, and intellectual or speculative Kabbalah, which seeks to find links between the Creator and the universe.

Sefer Yetzirah

The earliest systemic treatment of the Jewish mystical doctrine is found in SeferYetzirah, where it is believed that creation is accomplished by means of the mystic combination of and the power inherent in the letters of the divine name. Since this power could be used for further creation, it did not comeunder the ban on witchcraft.

The book is believed to have been written by the second century CE, when the influences of Babylonian, Egyptian, and Hellenic mysteries were strong. It describes theprocess of number formation and refers frequently to the merkavah, orchariot mystery, of the prophet Ezekiel (chapter 1).

mysticism and magicThe book is concerned with the formation of the world in 32 ways of wisdom, represented by the 22 letters of the alphabet and the ten sefirot, or emanations of God.

Sefer Yetzirah contains original expositions of letter and number mysticism as well as astrological divisions. Its complexities made interpretation necessary,and by the ninth century a commentary had already been written. Furthermystical development followed the paths of Jewish settlement, and centers ofmystical study appeared from the eleventh century on in Germany, Provence,Spain, North Africa, Safed, and Eastern Europe.

The development of originally mystical and visionary material into more magical practical usage was given impetus with the introduction of Sefer Raziel in about 1230. The book was attributed to Eleazar of Worms (1176-1238).

Theoretical & Practical Kabbalah

During the 13th century Jewish magic developed further with the separation of the Kabbalah into the iyyunit (theoretical) and the ma'asit (practical).The ma'asit was subdivided into inner religious activity and external magical activity and is of greater importance in our understanding of Jewish magic than the iyyunit.

Although most Jews today are unaware of the existence of Jewish magic, many Christians in medieval times believed that Jews were sorcerers. They were accused of spreading the Black Death of 1348 and of causing cholera epidemics in later years. Jewish life at that time turned inward to intensive talmudic study, due to the difficult relations with the Christian world.

Religious emotion turned to the Kabbalah ma'asit and to books explaining the mysticalvalues of Hebrew letters. The rich demonological literature and elaborate angelology offered a means of coping with the uncertainties of the times.

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