Witches & Witchcraft

Throughout much of Jewish history, witchcraft has been viewed as a vice that virtually every woman will indulge in.

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Reprinted with permission from the Encyclopedia of Magic, Myth, and Mysticism (Llewellyn Worldwide).

In most cultures across the world, a witch or wizard is generally regarded to be a nefarious practitioner of magic. In Jewish culture, in contrast to both modern culture, which has reversed most images of evil creatures (vampires are now romantic figures, for example, instead of bloodlusting killers) and Christian culture, which sees them as virtually demonic, the Jewish attitude toward witches has varied considerably over time and geography.Witches

The German Pietists, for example, did regard them as quasi-demons. In the 17th century, Manasseh ben Israel of Holland expressed a view of witchcraft virtually indistinguishable from contemporary Christian demonologists (Nishmat Hayyim 232). The talmudic rabbis, on the other hand, while not approving of witches, blithely assume most of their own wives engage in at least some witchcraft practices (Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:4, 7:11). These differences may well reflect the attitudes of the surrounding cultures in which Jews lived. Mediterranean societies were generally more tolerant of witches than northern European societies.

In the Bible

The formal biblical attitude toward wizards and witches is severe, witchcraft being a capital offense (Exodus 22:17; Leviticus 20:27; Sanhedrin 45b). This seems to spring from its association with idolatry. Both men and women are portrayed as engaging in witchcraft, and contrary to the modern distinction made in academic circles between socially empowered sorcerers and socially marginal witches, witches in the Bible are often shown in positions of power, notably the wizards in the employ of the kings of Babylon and Egypt and the witches in the employ of King Manasseh. Queen Jezebel herself is a witch (Exodus 7: 11; Daniel 2:2; II Kings 9:22, 21:2).

Little is known about biblical witchcraft. There is an oblique reference to "voodoo-like" practices (Ezekiel 13:19), but the Bible almost universally opts to remain silent on the particular practices of the witch. The Woman of Endor, often identified as a witch in Jewish post-biblical literature, is not designated so in the Bible itself so it is not clear whether necromancy was considered a discipline of witchcraft, or a wholly separate offense (Deuteronomy 18:10-12; Isaiah 8:19-22, 19:3).

Women's Work?

Jewish sources offer several accounts of the origins of witchcraft. According to I Enoch, witchcraft was first taught by the fallen angels to their mortal wives. This presumably explains the special association between women and witchcraft that marks subsequent Jewish literature. In the medieval text Alef-Bet ben Sira, the first woman, Lilith, transforms herself into a demon/witch by the power of using the Tetragrammaton.

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Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis

Geoffrey Dennis is rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, TX. He is also lecturer in Kabbalah and rabbinic literature at the University of North Texas.