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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While Jews were generally regarded to be exceptional magicians and even some rabbis use incantations, potions, and healing rituals, in rabbinic literature witchcraft is most associated with women. Though there is an explicit statement that both men and women can engage in witchcraft, the fact that Exodus 22:17 prohibits mahashefah (the feminine form of the noun) is taken as a prooftext that witchcraft is a particularly feminine activity (Sanhedrin 67a).

And this is despite the existence of magical manuals such as The Sword of Moses (a medieval Hebrew manual of theurgy), which is clearly written with the assumption that the adept using it will be a man. Perhaps a distinction between learned sorcery (practiced mostly by men), and folk magic (practiced mostly by women) starts to emerge here.

Several passages of Talmud make a point of linking witchcraft with women (Avot 2:7; Eruvin 64b; Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah 1:9). In one citation, none other than Simon bar Yohai, a sage who is reported to have once used the evil eye to slay a man, makes this linkage. The practice of witchcraft was considered so pervasive among women that even the children of great sages could be involved (Gittin 45a).

In general, witches in biblical and rabbinic literature are thought to be engaged mostly in malevolent activities, from interfering with fertility and healthy births (Otzar ha-Geonim, Sotah 11) to cursing rivals and killing the unsuspecting. This stands in contrast with beneficent sorcery, such as healing rituals and amulet making, which Jewish tradition tolerates.

While there are examples recorded of "witchcraft" that serves purely utilitarian purposes (the ability to stir a boiling pot with one's bare hand, for example), in general it is assumed witchcraft is used mostly for nefarious ends. The motivation for such behavior is rarely explicitly stated in the texts, but can be inferred. Witches seem to be a source of the evil eye, indicating they are motivated by envy and jealousy. Others use their powers for personal profit.

Punishment & Hostility

Witches are sometimes portrayed as having idiosyncratic powers: one may be able to materialize bread, another drink, etc. The Talmud recounts that Rabbi Simeon ben Shetah defeated a coven of eighty witches. First, he tricked them into demonstrating their powers, then he gained the upper hand by appealing to their lusts. He brought eighty men before them, each of whom lifted a witch from the ground, thereby robbing each of her power (a piquant detail linking ancient witchcraft with earth or, perhaps, underworld power). Enforcing the biblical penalty, ben Shetah eventually had all of them hung.

While dramatic in scale, this incident is actually the only such capital punishment of witches mentioned in the entire vast rabbinic corpus, and given its particularly legendary features, many scholars have held the historicity of the story suspect.

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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.