Do you believe in magic?

Introducing a series on magical practices in Israel. In Part 1, we explore its relationship with Judaism, and the evil eye.

Tea and spice (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Tea and spice
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Growing up in an academic, British household of rational thinkers, superstition was reserved for my grandmother, who flinched at the prospect of purchasing a green car, and magic was reserved for the release of each new Harry Potter novel – when every family member would be allotted no more than 24 hours to read it before passing it on to the next person. Intellect and belief in sorcery were like oil and water as, I was led to believe, was the belief in sorcery and Judaism.
After living in Israel for a year, I was confused. Everyone seemed to buy into the fantastic, be it in the form of die-hard superstitions, anti-evil eye practices, regular visits to religious authorities who could predict the future or popping in to see local witch doctors. I have found that belief in sorcery spans the entire country, from the God-fearing to atheists, from young to old. The widespread nature of such beliefs and the fact that many have their roots in the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) or Jewish commentaries debunked the approach to the fantastic that I had been brought up with. Clearly, I had much to learn.
In a series of three articles, I will share the information I have garnered through investigating the sources, practices and experiences of magic among the diverse social groups in Israel. It turns out that divination, anti-evil eye rituals and witchcraft are abundant – if you know where to look.
Judaism and sorcery
The more I learned about magic (which I use as a general term for all things sorcery-related) in Israel, the more I found that many of the seemingly pagan practices had their roots in Jewish texts.
What is the Judaic perspective on magic? Deuteronomy 18:10-12 expresses a very clear view against it: “There shall not be found among you any one that makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that uses divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do, these things are an abomination unto the Lord.”
It is important to note that while this verse presents a firm stance against divination, witches, etc., it does not deny their existence.
Nowadays, it seems that most Jewish educators do not indulge in such topics. That is, they tend to place any magical-related discussion as irrelevant to the modern world, aligning it with folklore or myth. This may be a convenient approach in today’s rational, fact-driven society, but proves problematic when faced with the power of rabbinical authority, namely that of the talmudic rabbis, who discuss magic, demons and the occult to a great extent.
The Talmudic rabbis made a distinction between miracles – performed by the righteous who were awarded their power because of their devotion to God – and black magic, which is forbidden. Mishna Sanhedrin sentences practitioners of magic to death by stoning. Essentially, though, the difference between miracles and magic – the acceptable and the prohibited – is a matter of perspective. Despite this distinction, both are very much believed to be real and powerful.
The Talmud deals with all sorts of magic. For instance, Tractate Shabbat lists a variety of suspiciously potion-like cures, such as the tooth of a live fox to prevent sleep and that of a dead fox to cause sleep; a nail from the gallows where a man was hanged as a remedy for swelling. Astrology is also discussed. Rabbi Nahman ben Isaac dictates that one born under Mars “will be a shedder of blood,” which Rabbi Ashi expounds as a surgeon, thief, slaughterer or mohel. The most attention is given to demons, which we will discuss later.
This brief overview serves to demonstrate that the relationship between Judaism and magic is far from being like oil and water. Rather, the two often intermingle not only in the past but often in the present day as well.
The evil eye
The evil eye is arguably the most popular example of how a belief in magic can be found in the daily lives of Israelis. If you’ve heard the Hebrew phrase “bli ayin hara,” the Yiddish word “kinehora,” experienced someone spitting three times after saying something complimentary, bought a red string bracelet from a woman outside the Western Wall or purchased any item bearing the shape of a hamsa, then you have witnessed the belief in the evil eye.
Simply put, the evil eye is the opposite of “ayin tova” (good eye) – a desirable trait wherein one is satisfied and appreciative of one’s lot in life. Thus the evil eye encompasses a jealous outlook. The evil eye is attributed more power in the Talmud, which ascribes harmful force to an envious gaze, even one that does not intend any harm, such as the power to bring about deathly illness. While certain scholars, notably Maimonides, fought to dispute these beliefs, they remain ingrained in Jewish mind-sets and heavily influence customs and superstitions, such as the practice of not calling father and son to recite the Torah blessings consecutively.
My favorite manifestation of this belief is showcased at tea and spice stalls in markets around the country. Alongside the peaked mounds of za’atar and sumac, there is almost always an inedible, brightly colored mixture which varies slightly among vendors but almost always features bright blue stones and incense. The purpose of this mixture is to ward off the evil eye. The mixture is supposed to be scattered on a plate, the incense lit, and the plate paraded around one’s home to rid the air of jealousy, bad luck and evil juju. The mixture has its origins in ketoret, an offering of incense first referenced in Exodus 25:1, when God instructs Moses on how to create a sanctuary for Him so that He may dwell with the children of Israel. This offering was brought twice daily. Talmudic scholars say that the mixture consisted of balsam, onycha, galbanum, frankincense, myrrh, cassia, spikenard, saffron, costus, aromatic bark and cinnamon. Evidently, the meaning behind this mixture from sacrificial to anti-evil eye has shifted slightly but remains consistent with the belief that dabbling in the fantastic for the purpose of devotion to God is a positive activity.
Even after discovering the wealth of sorcery and superstition within Jewish culture, I wrote it off as a “Sephardic thing” – something exotic and worlds away from the Ashkenazi household I grew up in. It turns out, I was wrong again. This time, the magic was right in front of me. At my in-laws’ Shabbat table, when I complained about having trouble sleeping, my husband casually remarked, “Why don’t you ask my dad to do the anti-evil eye ritual?” Passed down through the generations, my very devout father-in-law held a firm belief in the effect of ayin hara.
Akin to talmudic beliefs, for generations this practice has been known to cure recurring headaches, aches and pains, insomnia and more. After popping an aspirin, it is considered to be the next logical step. It rests on the concept that others bring about the evil eye through talking about you, even with good intent. The first step in the process is to identify seven people who could be responsible. The main culprits are proud grandparents, though jealous work colleagues are also considered. Each individual is represented by a small piece of bread, which is placed in a glass of water with a knife inside. The glass is left for 10 minutes and then consulted. The pieces of bread that sink to the bottom are harmless; those that rise to the top represent the people who have brought on the evil eye. With those responsible determined, the ailment should be cured.
Once the bread rises or falls, do the ailments disappear? For the most part, yes they do. Take from that what you will. Personally, I take away the immense power of the placebo effect, that partaking in these rituals and believing in their powers will cure the problem. That the power of the mind is far stronger than we often give it credit for, that even in this day and age some people need the prospect of hope derived from magic and, as it doesn’t seem to be harming anyone, why not indulge them?
In Part 2, the writer will delve deeper into divination, examining the breadth of practices available, from tasseography to tarot cards.