Jews Have Been Magic for Thousands of Years

A Brief Survey From The Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem Whets the Appetite for More

By Dan Friedman

Published May 19, 2010, issue of May 28, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

We all believe in magic. Despite 300 years of industrial and social revolution, as well as unparalleled explanation of the natural world through the scientific method, we still throw salt over our shoulders, put up hamsas in our homes, wear lucky shirts to job interviews and run through tested game-day rituals, whether we are playing or watching. The new exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem, “Angels & Demons: Jewish Magic Through the Ages,” (open for a year from May 5) shows us how deep-rooted and complex those beliefs are.

The majority of the exhibition, which displays artifacts from North Africa, Byzantium and other locales more geographically appropriate for a museum based on the Bible lands, is of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” order of magic. Items and procedures that the rabbis might not condone, but would probably not go out of their way to condemn; spells to cure disease, charms to protect new mothers or newborn children and amulets to ward off evil or infestation were not religiously countenanced, but did little harm. In fact, the most recent amulet on display (placed next to the most ancient item, from the 8th century BCE at the exhibition’s entrance) is a text with specific instructions for use. This text, written in 1992, cured the owner who every day for a week drank water in which the parchment had been steeped and then wore it in a silver holder until the problem was resolved.

Of course, hamsas and other general amulets for warding off the evil eye have always been balanced by specific prescriptions. Most unexpected, at least to this Northern European Jew, were the inverted clay bowls inscribed with spells and, often, pictures that were placed under the threshold of the house to deter spirits and beasts from entering. These, too, varied between the general (fire, rats) and the specific (the angel Sarfiel orders two demons to be exorcised from the household of Kafnay, son of Imma, and his wife, Immay, daughter of Anay).

Black magic that bends others to your will, only plays a small part in the exhibition. But, enticingly hidden behind a black curtain, are the forbidden tools of manipulative magic: potions, curses and poppet dolls. The details of magical coercion are exotic, but the intentions are almost always banal: Hurt your enemies, and seduce objects of desire. In a rare twist, a carved voodoo doll with bound limbs from the Hellenistic Period in Israel (332 C.E. — 37 BCE), is labeled “probably used in erotic magic practices,” suggesting that some people were aiming to kill two birds with one stone.

  • Image 1
  • Image 2
  • Image 3
  • Image 4
  • Image 5
  • Image 6
  • Image 7
  • Image 8
  • Image 9
  • Image 10
  • Image 11
  • Image 12
  • Image 13
  • Image 14


Obviously, magical objects are going to look a little strange from the context of the Jewish mainstream. But even beyond this strangeness, the widespread use of pictures and, in some cases, figures gives these Jewish objects the aura of the pagan. Less so for the illustrated magic books collecting recipes, spells and procedures for mitigating a variety of situations. For a people so obsessed with the divinity of the book, the power of letters is second nature even when it is, strictly speaking, prohibited.

One virtue of magicians is that they, like novelists, have a vested interest in making the unknown seem graphic and terrible. Demons are not cute cartoon characters, but rather furious forces of nature to be dealt with in specific ways. In the magical worldview, Lilith is not a powerful feminist icon but a vicious, vengeful demon who devours newborn babies and spitefully kills their mothers. Specific adjurations need to be crafted, alluding to myths describing her weaknesses and previous promises. The anime-sounding Suni, Susuni and Snigli are in fact powerful angels. By a number of different names alluding to the same myths (in other texts they are called Sanoi, Sansanoi and Samangalof), they have the hex on Lilith and are thus the specific spirits charged with protecting houses with babies and mothers in them.

In the end, the main drawback of “Angels & Demons” is its logistical limitations of space and scope. It’s a shame that such a suggestive exhibition couldn’t be spread out more. The surface of the prevalence, pattern and practice of Jewish magic and its context in the larger world of Mediterranean mythology is barely scratched by this worthy introduction. Samangalof and friends come from an entirely alternative mythical system that would surely enrich our understanding of midrashic traditions. The museum is running a series of events that allows collectors, users and current practitioners of the magical arts to shed light on this marginal but very Jewish narrative. Perhaps, with intervention from either side of the black curtain, such a show might become possible in the future!

Dan Friedman is the Forward’s arts and culture editor.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.