“When the Holy Blessed One gave the Torah to Israel, He gave it to them like grain from which to make finely sifted flour; and as flax from which to make fine linen” (Seder Eliyahu Zuta, p171).
Blogging one grain of Torah and unraveling the many garments made of it, "in those days and in our times". With a cultural eye and the assumption that "The Torah is a commentary on our lives, and our lives are a commentary on the Torah."
“If at a full moon you wish to seize and to bind a man and a woman
so that they will be with each other, and to annul spirits and blast demons and
satans, and to bind a boat, and to free a man from prison, and for everything – write on a red plate from תובר
תסבר until הע בשמהט.
And if you wish to destroy high
mountains and to pass through the sea
and the land, and to go down into fire and come up, and to remove kings, and to
cause an optical illusion, and to stop up a mouth, and to converse with the
dead, and to kill the living, and to bring down and raise up and command angels
to abide by you, and to learn all the secrets of the world – write on a silver
plate, and put in it a root of artemisia, from
תובר תסבר until הע בשמהט..
Excerpt from Harba de’Moshe,
The Sword of Moses, a Jewish magical treatise from 7-9 century
week’s parasha, VaEra, portrays the “Magicians showdown” between Moshe and
Pharaoh’s Sorcerers. It is part of God’s cultural war against Pharaoh’s
political-theological system, so that “the Egyptians shall know that I am
the LORD, when I stretch forth My hand upon Egypt, and bring out the children
of Israel from among them” (Shemot 7:5).
Biblical commentators saw this as a kulturkampf– the cultural
war between “real religion” over superstition, of miracles over trickery, of monotheism
over idolatry. Magic was synonymous with a culture of enslavement, inauthentic
power, charlatanism and idolatry.
But for some readers, like the
author of “Moshe’s Sword”, the magical user’s guide quoted above, the
Magician’s showdown is the founding moment of Jewish Magic – a rich tradition
which saw Moses as the ultimate sorcerer. This short, quirky book encourages Jewish
Magicians to follow in Moshe’s footsteps so that they too can wield the
powerful verbal weapon which is “Moshe’s Sword”. The book, which was recently
published in an updated
English translation by Yuval Harari is a fascinating case study for the
cultural wars within Judaism to this day. [For more links to the book and a longer
post on the “Sword” see the Text and the City website]
magical tradition, while esoteric and often polemical, was extremely popular
throughout Jewish history – until Protestantism came along. In a Kulturkampf
reminiscent of Moses and the Egyptian sorcerers, magic was exorcised from
Judaism in 19th century Western Europe as part of Judaism becoming a Protestant religion
(see Bronfman alum Michah Gottleib’s “Are we
All Protestants Now?”). If Orthodox and Reform Jews in Germany and
America could agree on one thing, it was that Jewish magic (and mysticism) was
a contamination of the “pure religion”, an irrational hunchback which grew on
the body of the otherwise rational and mature religion known as Judaism.
Nothing else would be befitting the Mothership of Monotheism which gave birth
this day many “Western Jews” are surprised by the prevalence of mysticism,
magic and other “superstitions” within mainstream Judaism. Tellingly, in
Eastern European (Catholic) and Arab (Mulsim) countries the Protestant “othering”
of magic never happened – mystical/magical/superstitious rituals are
commonplace to this day. In America it was through Yiddish literature that this
tradition was allowed to live on (think of the Dybbuk, the Golem
or Bashevis Singer’s demons); relegated to folklore and popular (i.e. low)
culture, magic had no hold on the rational adult religion which is Judaism.
be sure, belief in magic – aside from probably being wrong – has many morally
disturbing aspects, fascinating in their own right. Maimonides objected to magic
and astrology’s determinism which undermine moral responsibility. As the
incantations quoted above show, magic often involves a use of divine power for
self-interested and petty reasons, which are a desecration of the holy (in a
way as disturbing as the way people “desecrate” politics or religion with their
petty self-centered goals). Finally, there is an inherent violence engrained in
magic: it is about coercing divine powers to do the Magician’s will, an aggression
towards Divinity which implicitly justifies violence in other means.
all these, I believe telling the story of Jewish Magic is fueled with an
ideological urgency not unsimilar to the kulturkampf of old. Feminism
and critical race theory have taught us the importance of giving voice to
marginalized ideas which were sidelined by hegemonic powers over the ages.
Moses the Magician: Dumbeldore or Gandalf?
the Age of Reason in twilight, the Protestant assumptions about religion and
rationality do not hold sway as they used to. Rationality is being re-examined not
only in religion but in economics and psychology as well (see Daniel
Kahneman). Religious affiliation is declining (in the affluent North) and
being redefined (as fundamentalism?) the world over. Judaism is struggling to
grow out of the confines of being a (Protestant-style) religion.
is the alternative? Some see a pluralism of Jewish stories which is no more
than a mish-mash Jewish quilt where all Jewish phenomena are “celebrated” equally.
Personally, I’d rather see a world in which Jews in various situations fashion the
Jewish building blocks at their disposal into Moses’ Swords of a wide
variety, shaping Jewish visions and ways of life that further the issues they care
about, with each then “making battle” a healthy conflict of ideas. As Yeshayahu Leibowitz
once said: “The very thing fools fear is what we
desperately need, what in European political jargon is called Kulturkampf. The struggle is essential for intellectual
and moral health.” “Moses’ sword” is a powerful reminder of how
this idea has played out in surprising – and powerful – ways for centuries.
among the shreds saved from the Cairo Geniza, and deep within a tome of ancient
magical Jewish manuscripts, is a book known as “The Sword of Moses”
[חרבא דמשה]. One part disclaimers, two parts magical recipes, and a whole
lot of gibberish in the middle, it is a fascinating and loopy users guide for
becoming a Jewish magician of the most powerful type. We know very little about
the books author (is was probably written in the Land of Israel during the last
quarter of the first millennia) but the book has been recently re-published in an
academic Hebrew version and in an
English translation thanks to the work of Dr. Yuval Harari. Reading this short
book – which I recommend for people regardless of their skill at sorcery – brings
up fascinating issues about violence, self interest and the limits of human power
(in a separate blog post I reflect on the place of magic in contemporary Jewish
discourse). [Online you can find an un-annotated Hebrew version and an old english translation which censors most of the fun parts]
Harari writes: “The Sword of Moses is the largest and undoubtedly one of the
most important of all surviving texts from early Jewish magic literature. It
comprises three main parts: (a) the ritual for gaining authority over the
sword4; (b) the sword; and (c) the practical section.”
beginning of the book instructs the reader that in order to attain control of
the sword, three days of fasting and self-purification must be taken on. The
fasts are interlaced with rituals of commanding the thirteen archangels that
are “in charge of the sword which is delivered from the mouth of eje ef ej ef
ea the Lord of Mysteries, who is also in charge of the Torah.”
sword itself is a verbal weapon, comprising of 1,800 names of angelic
creatures, which read like long strings of meaningless syllables. Wielding the
sword promises the magician control over all these angels and all their powers.
does this magical control of divine forces work theologically? For this the
author of Harba de’Moshe has an elegant, monotheistic, solution: God –
according to Harba de’Moshe – has given Moses the power over all the angels,
through the word. Moreover, he has decreed that any subsequent person who
wields the sword will have the same powers as Moses did:
“Do not impede
any mortal who will appeal to you and do not treat him otherwise than my
servant Moses, son of Amram, for he appeals you by My Ineffable Names and it is
to My Names that you render honor and not to him. But if you impede him I will
burn you for you have not honored Me.”
series of words which, if mastered, gives the user the power of Moses himself?
This sounds like familiar Rabbinic ideas on speed. The Rabbis radically placed
words at the center of the universe: the world was created by words, it is
redeemed through words (of Torah) and can be destroyed through words (lashon
ha-ra). Whoever masters the words of Torah, like Rabbi Akiva, has the power to
almost redefine the meaning of the Torah, empowered by God himself (as in the
story of Moses in Rabbi Akiva’s beit midrash). In the hands of the magicians, however,
holy words are not just the building blocks of the universe, but can also be
inflicted back on divinity to force them to do your will.
is where magic, for all its quirky coolness, also become ethically questionable.
If for the Rabbis the Torah is a weapon for creating a just society or
implementing God’s vision for the world, for the magician this holy weapon
becomes a way of achieving goals that are both self-interested and petty. Here
are a few examples:
If at a full moon47 you
wish48 to seize and to bind a man and a woman so that they
will be with each other, and to annul spirits and blast-demons and satans, and
to bind a boat, and to free a man from prison, and for every thing,write on a
red plate from TWBR TSBR until H’ BSˇMHT.49 And
if you wish to destroy high ountains50 and
to pass (in safety) through the sea and the land, and to go down into fire and
come up,51 and to remove kings, and to cause
an optical illusion, and to stop up a mouth, and to converse with the dead, and
to kill the living, and to bring down and raise up and adjure angels to abide
by you, and to learn all the secrets of the world, write on a silver plate, and
put in it a root of artemisia, from TWBR TSBR until
a spirit that moves in the body, write on magzab52
from TWBR until MNGYNWN. For a spirit
that causes inflammation, write from MGNYNWN until
HYDRST. ’. For
a spirit in the whole body, write from HYDRST. ’ until
H’ BSˇMHT. For
a demon, write from H’BSˇMHT until Y’WYHW.
is another troubling aspect to the magic at hand: it is achieved through
violence. The Sword of Moses is a way of forcing divine powers to do your will.
The coercive premise at the core of magic was one of the things that troubled
Jewish philosophers throughout the generations, not only because of the way it
seems to undermine monotheistic perfection, but because of the violence and
coercion at its base, which show a deep disrespect and desecration of the Holy.
It is interesting to compare these two critiques
Names/incantations from Harba DeMoshe
these critiques of magic, it would be interesting to return to our own figures
of authority and ask: what is today’s charlatanistic authority; who today uses
power for petty and self-interested motives instead of furthering a vision of
good; and whose authority today is rooted in a basic violence which, while possibly
invisible, is quite troubling…
these criticisms of magic, reading Harba d’Moshe is a fascinating exercise in
the diversity of Jewish experiences, and how wide the net of Jewish texts,
ideas and culture can be spread. It is also a fresh midrashic light on Moses’
character – the all powerful sorcerer. One must go beyond the confines of Harba
d’Moshe in order to encounter the
boundary of what magic can do for you. A midrash describes how at the end of
his life, Moses – for all his amazing powers – is over-powered by God’s decree:
he will not enter the land. The midrash, which is clearly aware of the idea of
Moses’ power being “magical” while also hesitant about how overtly to
point this out (incantation is framed
here as prayer…) describes how Moshe uses all his powers to fight this decree.
His ability to coerce the heavens is feared in the higher registers of power,
and God has to protect himself from hearing Moses’ plea:
saw that the decree against him had been sealed, he resolved to fast, and drew
a small circle and stood therein, and exclaimed: “I will not move from here
until you annul that decree.” […] He donned sackcloth and rolled in the dust
and began to pray before the Holy Blessed One ...
summoned angels and commanded them: “Descend quickly! Bolt all the gates of
every heaven! For the voice of Moses’ prayer threatens to force its way into
heaven!” The angels sought to flee to heaven because of the sound of Moses
prayer, for this prayer was like a sword which tears without any delay, for his
prayer was of the nature of the Ineffable Name which he had learnt from
Zagzagael the Master Scribe of the children of heaven.
Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah 11:10
has been armed like no human before him: he has the power to tear through the
heavens with his powerful “sword”. Yet even the all-powerful Moses meets his
limitation: mortality. Moses’ tragic end is a reminder that even in the highest
echelons of power, limits exist. In this midrash, which might a polemic of
sorts with the “Sword of Moses”, wielding the sword of Moses does not save one
from the confines of mortal life – the opposite, it only strengthens the
gravity of human action.