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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Aside from this one story, witches in rabbinic literature are rarely portrayed as demonic creatures, though it is not clear exactly what they are. In a virtually indecipherable tale found in the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Hananiah pulls the head of a witch from flax (Sanhedrin 7:13a). In general, though, witchcraft is seen more as a vice that virtually every woman will indulge in. With few exceptions, it is regarded rather just as something inappropriate that women do.

In medieval Jewish literature of northern Europe, by contrast, the image of the witch as a purely malevolent entity comes to the forefront, perhaps reflecting the greater hostility toward witches found in Christian culture at that time (Nishmat Hayyim 232). In Sefer Hasidim, witches share attributes with werewolves and vampires: they shape-shift, fly, have bloodlust, and can become the undead (456, 465).

Yet despite this more alarming view of witches, there is no record of any large-scale witch hunts among the Jews of Europe to mirror the witch-hunting mania that seized gentile society. Perhaps the popular Christian notion of the Jew as a satanic agent made Jewish authorities leery of giving fuel to such talk with the spectacle of Jews trying other Jews on such charges.

Among the Jews of the Ottoman Empire, witches were viewed with more acceptance. Even an established kabbalist like Hayyim Vital would seek the expertise of such wise women (Sefer ha-Hezyonot 4,120).

If You're Worried…

The threat of a witch may be deterred by reciting the following curse (Pesahim 110a): "May boiling excrement in a sieve be forced into your mouth, (you) witches! May your head go bald and carry off your crumbs; your spices be scattered, and the wind carry off the new saffron in your hands, witches!"

Seven loops of knots (tied to the left side of the body) are also a good defense against illness caused by witchcraft (Shabbat 66b).

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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.