Jews are the People of the Book, right? So it figures that if you want to learn about about Jewish monsters and magic then you might want to grab a few. Over the last couple of years I’ve shared a few versions of a starter list. Over time it’s grown into this list here.
Two things about this list. First, the focus here is on books and articles written or translated into English. There’s lots more great stuff out there in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, and Judeo-Arabic but I’m not able to cover that. I can’t do much past basic prayerbook Hebrew. Someday I’m going to fix that.
Second, the folks who’ve asked me for reading lists have done so for their own, and often very different, reasons and have needed very different lists. These have included:
- Jewish fiction writers, artists, and game designers wanting a better basis than what our synagogues or pop culture have delivered
- Jewitch practitioners, looking at Biblical divination methods, Sephardi protection charms, or Ashkenazi folk healing methods to add richness to their daily lives
- LGBT Jews and others with a complicated relationship with Judaism who approach Judaism with a deep love and a DIY attitude
- women who realized that their grandmothers, or great-great-grandmothers, had a ritual life that never got handed down to them
- others, like me, that are just nerds for this stuff and find our lives and Judaism enriched by it
Regardless of why you’ve found this list, I hope that you find resources that are useful. If you want a bigger list, I’ve got a LibraryThing list of all the books in my library. All sorts of wild stuff. For the articles, I’m only listing stuff that is easily available free online. Some of my favorite articles aren’t on the list beause they require JSTOR access. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, or want some help finding the right resource leave a comment on the page, or message me on twitter @adnesadeh and let me know what you’re looking for.
Some of the articles I list are posted on Academia.edu. Free registration is required. In most cases the books are easily available wherever you buy books. Most of my links will be to Bookshop.org, which helps you buy new books from local stores, or Alibris, which is a good used-bookstore aggregator site. In some cases, though, your best bet is to go right to the publisher. Some of these are kinda pricey academic books. But most aren’t.
I’m sure I’m going to update this occasionally. So check back. This version is dated April, 18, 2023, one night before the funeral of my father Dr. Joseph Zaientz ז״ל.
Update 1. Dec 26 2022. Added two books on legendary figures (the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Ya’aqov Wazana), Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book on Jewish Meditation, and a video of the Moroccan Tahdid sword ceremony for a brit milah.
Update 2. Dec 30 2022. Added essays on Jewish astrology, Jewish “superstitions” in the 1920’s, ruach ra’ah, the “last” Jewish demon (still actively included in Jewish ritual). and an amazing essay on the anti-demon aspects of Jewish weddings which includes a summary of the three main Jewish anti-demon strategies; fight, bribe, and conciliate them.
Update 3. Small update adding Dr. Sara Ronis’ article on Ashmedai, demon king and sometime Torah scholar, and Rabbi Elli Fischer’s video presentation on how smoking pipes was used to replicate temple incense and used to fight plagues.
Jewish Magic and Monsters 101
Super Fast, Super Fun Intros
Check out Ezra Rose’s one page print & fold zines. They’re free or pay what you want.
- SHEYDIM: an introduction to Jewish demons
- DYBBUK: the possessing spirit in Jewish folklore
- MALACHIM: a pocket guide to Jewish angels
- GOLEM: a legendary Jewish magic automaton
Ezra has great art and stickers available too. Check them out!
Articles on Magic
- From Jewish Mysticism to Magic at MyJewishLearning.com
- Magic Bowls – Ancient artifacts reveal Jewish attitudes toward incantations, demons, and the supernatural at MyJewishLearning
- Jewish Exorcism at MyJewishLearning
- How Jewish Magic Survived the Disenchantment of the World by Gideon Bohak for “Aries – Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism.” Archived at Academia.edu
- Practical Kabbalah in Israel 2010 by Yuval Harari. Archived at Academia.edu
- Three Charms for Killing Adolf Hitler: Practical Kabbalah in WW2 by Yuval Harari for Aries – Journal for the Study of Western Esoericism.” Archived at Academia.edu
- Childbirth Magic in Amulets and Recipes from the Gross Family Collection by Chen Avizohar-Hagan & Yuval Harari from the book “Windows on Jewish Worlds: Essays in Honor of William Gross.” Archived at Academia.edu
- Magic, Mysticism, and Popular Belief in Jewish Culture (1500-1815) by J.H. Chajes in the “The Cambridge History of Judaism, vol. 7: The Early Modern World.” Archived at Academia.edu
- Some Observations on Jewish Love Magic: The Importance of Cultural Specificity by Ortal-Paz Saar in the Societas Magica Newsletter. Archived at Academia.edu
- Beyond Dreckapotheke, Between Facts and Feces: Talmudic Recipes and Therapies in Context by Lennart Lehmhaus in “Collecting Recipes. Byzantine and Jewish Pharmacology in Dialogue.” Archived at Academia.edu
- Five in Your Eye: The Khamsa among Maghrebi Jews by Noam Sienna. Archived at Academia.edu
- Popular Beliefs and Customs among the Yiddish-Speaking Jews of St. Louis, Mo. 1925 essay by Leah Rachel Yoffie (z’l) that describes all the magical beliefs that Ashkenazi Jews in the US had 100 years ago. Archived at JSTOR (free download). Yoffie was a school teacher who published work on Jewish folksongs, the lovely poetry collection Dark Altar Stairs and the essay “Yiddish Proverbs, Sayings, etc., in St. Louis, Mo.”
- The Reception of Astrology in Medieval Ashkenazi Culture by Reimund Leicht. Archived at Academia.edu
Articles on Monsters
- Monsters, Demons, and Other Mythical Creatures in Jewish Lore at MyJewishLearning.com
- Demons, Dybbuks, Ghosts, & Golems: Do Jews believe in demons? at MyJewishLearning.com
- Do Jews Believe in Angels at MyJewishLearning.com
- They Might Be Giants – Parshat Devarim by Rabbi David Kasher for ParhsaNut.com
- Wrestling with Demons by Rabbi Natan Slifkin. From Slifkin’s ZooTorah website.
- Dybbuk by J. H. Chajes in Encyclopedia of Jewish Folklore and Traditions. Archived at Academia.edu
- How the Golem Came to Prague by Edan Dekel and David for the Jewish Quarterly Review. From the Hebew University of Jerusalem.
- Christians and Jews in the Twelfth Century Werewolf Renaissance by David Shyovitz for the “Journal of the History of Ideas.” Archived at Academia.edu.
- Angels by Daniel Ben-Amos and Menachem Kallus for the The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. From UPenn.
- Gendering Heavenly Secrets? Women, Angels, and the Problem of Misogyny and Magic by Annette Yoshiko Reed in “Daughters of Hecate: Women and Magic in Antiquity.” Archived at Academia.edu
- The Lives of the Dead in Medieval Ashkenaz by Miri Fenton. From the Hebew University of Jerusalem.
- The Giant in a Thousand Years: Tracing Narratives of Gigantism in the Hebrew Bible and Beyond by Brian Doak. From George Fox University
- From Demoness to God’s Partner: The Astonishing Career of the Worlds First Feminist, Lilith by Felicia Waldman. From Central European Univerisity
- The Ceremony of Breaking a Glass at Weddings. 1925 essay by Rabbi Jacob Z. Lauterbach. Describes three strategies for countering demons (fight, bribe, and conciliate them) and how many modern Jewish rituals have anti-demon origins or aspects including, you guessed it, breaking a glass at weddings.
- The last Talmudic demon? The role of ritual in cultural transmission. by Richard Sosis. “I briefly survey the historical trajectory of demonic beliefs across Jewish communities and focus on one demon, a ruach ra’ah, that has survived the vicissitudes of Jewish history and maintained its relevance in contemporary Jewish communities.”
- A Demon for the Ages – Sara Ronis. A short history of Ashmedai, demon king and Torah scholar
Sources in Translation
Seferia.org – “Sefaria is home to 3,000 years of Jewish texts. We are a non-profit organization offering free access to texts, translations, and commentaries so that everyone can participate in the ongoing process of studying, interpreting, and creating Torah” While not everything at Seferia is translated into English, a lot is. I pretty much live there. Tanakh, Talmud, later writings, dictionaries. Everything crosslinked to commentary. So many wonderful texts. Also check out their Source Sheets, which Seferia users put together on interesting topics. To get you started, here are 5 sources.
- Deuteronomy 3.11 – “Only [the giant] King Og of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaim. His bedstead, an iron bedstead, is now in Rabbah of the Ammonites; it is nine cubits long and four cubits wide, by the standard cubit!”
- Sanhedrin 65b – “Indeed, Rava created a man, a golem, using forces of sanctity. Rava sent his creation before Rabbi Zeira. Rabbi Zeira would speak to him but he would not reply. Rabbi Zeira said to him: You were created by one of the members of the group, one of the Sages. Return to your dust.”
- Chagiga 16a – “The Gemara returns to discussing the heavenly beings. The Sages taught: Six statements were said with regard to demons: In three ways they are like ministering angels, and in three ways they are like humans.”
- Berakhot 6a – “In another baraita it was taught that Abba Binyamin says: If the eye was given permission to see, no creature would be able to withstand the abundance and ubiquity of the demons and continue to live unaffected by them.”
- Otzar Midrashim 2c (alternate version of the Alphatbet of Ben Sira) – “He said to him, “The angels appointed for healing: Sanoy, Sansanoy, Semangalof. When the Holy Blessed One created the first Adam alone, They said, (Genesis 2:18) ‘It is not good for this Adam to be alone.’ They created for him a wife out of the Earth like he had been, and called her Lilith. Immediately they began to challenge each other.”
- Jewish Magic and Superstition by Rabbi Joshua Tractenberg. Written in 1939, Jewish Magic and Superstition is still the best starting point. It focuses on 13th century Ashkenazi Jewish lore which is as wild as it comes. It’s inexpensive and easily available. JMS is also online at Sacred-Texts.com. Highly recommended.
- The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism by Rabbi Geoffry Dennis. Exactly what the title describes. Encyclopedic in scope, but very short descriptions. A great gift and great for finding things of interest, but you’ll want more if you want to understand something with any depth
- Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism by Harold Schwartz. So good. Mostly covers legends up to the Talmudic period and some Zohar. Wonderful writing and great commentary.
- Sacred Monsters by Rabbi Natan Slifkin. A thoughtful, well sourced, book on Jewish monsters written by a rationalist Orthodox rabbi looking to debunk them. While the concept is a bit ironic, and a bit frustrating for monster fans, it’s a must read book. You’ll get a better price buying Sacred Monsters directly from the publisher, Gefen.
- Magic, Mysticism, and Hasidism: The Supernatural in Jewish Thought by Gedalyah Nigal. Nigal describes the Baal Shem “wonder rabbis” and their amulets, holy name magic, kefitzat ha-derekh (“shortening of the path” or Jewish teleportation), transmigration of souls (reincarnation), and demonic possession. This one’s harder to get. As of today Alibris has a reasonably priced copy.
- Ritual Medical Lore of Sephardic Women: Sweetening the Spirits, Healing the Sick by Isaac Jack Lévy and Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt. An amazing exploration of prekante, or charms, in the Sephardic community. If you want to be ready to handle the evil eye, this is the book. Also, this is a must read if you want to learn more about Jewish women’s rituals.
- A Frog Under the Tongue: Jewish Folk Medicine in Eastern Europe By Marek Tuszewicki. Serious discussion of folk medicine in the Ashkenazi community, a tradition that is more magical than medical to our modern sensibilities.
- Ashkenazi Herbalism. “Deatra Cohen and Adam Siegel add a new dimension to our picture of everyday life in the Pale of Settlement with a highly readable portrayal of folk healers, herbs, and medicinal practices.” Great book for a modern practitioner to draw on but its presentation of Askhenazi medical lore is way too sanitized for me. Where are the cures based on wearing a mouse around your neck or eating fried sawdust? Where’s the horse teeth and lead?
- Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid by Moshe Idel. This is the definitive book on the history of golem in Jewish religious thought.
- A Remembrance of His Wonders: Nature and the Supernatural in Medieval Ashkenaz by David Shyovitz. “Analyzing a wide array of neglected Ashkenazic writings on the natural world in general, and the human body in particular, Shyovitz shows how Jews in Ashkenaz integrated regnant scientific, magical, and mystical currents into a sophisticated exploration of the boundaries between nature and the supernatural.” The werewolf article, above, became a chapter in this book.
- Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism by J. H. Chajes. This is the best academic book on dybbuks. A great analysis of how dybbuks fit into Jewish theology and life.
- Women’s Divination in Biblical Literature: Prophecy, Necromancy, and Other Arts of Knowledge by Esther Hamori. “Hamori examines the wide scope of women’s divinatory activities as portrayed in the Hebrew texts, offering readers a new appreciation of the surprising breadth of women’s “arts of knowledge” in biblical times.” Very readable. Love it.
- On My Right Michael, On My Left Gabriel: Angels in Ancient Jewish Culture by Mika Ahuvia. “Angelic beings can be found throughout the Hebrew Bible, and by late antiquity the archangels Michael and Gabriel were as familiar as the patriarchs and matriarchs, guardian angels were as present as one’s shadow, and praise of the seraphim was as sacred as the Shema prayer” Fantastic discussion of angels in Judaism.
- Demons in the Details: Demonic Discourse and Rabbinic Culture in Late Antique Babylonia by Sara Ronis. “The Babylonian Talmud is full of stories of demonic encounters, and it also includes many laws that attempt to regulate such encounters. In this book, Sara Ronis takes the reader on a journey across the rabbinic canon, exploring how late antique rabbis imagined, feared, and controlled demons.”Another book that as academic in depth but very readable.
- Amulets and Magic Bowls: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity by Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked. “Amulets and magic bowls are part of a long-standing tradition of magic in the Near East. They were used to protect the home and inhabitants of the home from evil and disease as well as to arouse love. Texts taken from these items provide insight into the society, religion, and culture of pagans and Jews during the early Christian era which corresponds to that of the Talmudic period.”
- Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. “Students of mediation are usually surprised to discover that a Jewish mediation tradition exists and that it was an authentic and integral part of mainstream Judaism until the eighteenth century. Jewish Meditation is a step-by-step introduction to meditation and the Jewish practice of meditation in particular.” He’s an amazing writer who was deeply involved in the meditative aspects of Kaballah. And yeah, this is the same person who wrote a commentary on the Serfer Yetzirah (see below)
- Jewish Astrology, A Cosmic Science: Torah, Talmud and Zohar Works on Spiritual Astrology by Yaakov Kronenberg. I haven’t put much time into Jewish astrology yet so don’t really have the context to evaluate this book. I’ve had it recommended to me by a few folks so want to include it.
Jewish Grimoires and Spellbooks
- Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan translation. The Sefer Yezirah describes the mystical process by which God created the universe and is traditionally, the text that rabbi’s studied to learn how to make golems. Kaplan’s translation is tiny part of the book, it’s his commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah that makes this a must read.
- Sword of Moses. Yuval Harari translation. As Harari notes, of the “two Jewish magical treatises – the other being the Sefer ha-Razim (The Book of Mysteries) – that have survived from antiquity in many respects [the Sword of Moses] is the more significant one. It presents a broad assortment of magical practices for accomplishing various goals, all based on the use of a magical ‘‘sword’’ of words, which Moses brought down from heaven.” The link is to a downloadable .pdf from Academia.edu
- Sefer ha-Razim, The Book of Mysteries. Michael Morgan translation. The Sefer-ha Razim is a “Jewish magical text supposedly given to Noah by the angel Raziel, and passed down throughout Biblical history until it ended up in the possession of Solomon, for whom it was a great source of his wisdom and purported magical powers.” (quote from Wikipedia)
- Shimmush Tehillim (Magical uses of the Psalms). Attributed to Rav Hai Goan, document by Reuven Brauner. Describes magical uses of the Psalms for protection from demons, protection from miscarriage, and a lot more. The link is a downloadable .pdf from Halakhah.com
- The Aleph-Bet Book by Rebbe Nachman of Bresolv. Not a spellbook, per se, but tucked in with the Rebbe’s aphorisms on how to live a good Jewish live are a wonderful assortment of segulah (charms).
Beliefs about Death
Jewish Views of the Afterlife by Simcha Paull Raphael. “Jewish Views of the Afterlife is a classic study of ideas of afterlife and postmortem survival in Jewish tradition and mysticism. As both a scholar and pastoral counselor, Raphael guides the reader through 4,000 years of Jewish thought on the afterlife by investigating pertinent sacred texts produced in each era.” Another must read.
Final Judgement and the Dead in Medieval Jewish Thought by Susan Weissman. “Through a detailed analysis of ghost tales in the Ashkenazi pietistic work Sefer Hasidim, Susan Weissman documents a major transformation in Jewish attitudes and practices regarding the dead and the afterlife that took place between the rabbinic period and medieval times.” Ghosts. The walking dead. Here it is folks.
- Lilith’s Cave: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural selected by Harold Schwartz. Great collection from around the Jewish world. Includes stories about Lilith and “The Finger,” one of the inspirations for the Tim Burton film “The Corpse Bride.”
- Mimekor Yisrael: Classical Jewish Folktales collected by Micha Joseph Bin Gorion, translated [from the Hebrew] by I.M. Lask.
- Yiddish Folktales translated by Beatrice Weinreich. Includes stories about early modern Jewish monsters including shretelech, who are sprites that, if shown respect and given gifts, will protect the house.
In Praise of Baal Shem Tov (Shivhei Ha-Besht: The Earliest Collection of Legends about the Founder of Hasidism) – “In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov is the first complete English translation of the tales surrounding the Besht, a rabbi and kabbalistic practitioner whose teachings bolstered the growing Hasidic movement in the eighteenth century.” He also fought with sorcerers and werewolves, wrote amulets and recommended healing practices.
Without Bounds: The Life and Death of Rabbi Ya’aqov Wazana. “Without Bounds illuminates the life of the mysterious Rabbi Ya’aqov Wazana, a Jewish healer who worked in the Western High Atlas region in southern Morocco and died there in the early 1950s. Impressed by his healing powers and shamanic virtuosity, Moroccan Jews are intrigued by his lifestyle and contacts with the Muslim and the demonic worlds that dangerously blurred his Jewish identity.”
Late Modern period (mid-18th century to the 1920’s)
- The Jewish Dark Continent: Life and Death in the Russian Pale of Settlement by Nathaniel Deutsch. “Just before World War I, a socialist revolutionary and aspiring ethnographer named An-sky pledged to explore the Pale. He dreamed of leading an ethnographic expedition that would produce an archive—what he called an Oral Torah of the common people rather than the rabbinic elite—which would preserve Jewish traditions and transform them into the seeds of a modern Jewish culture. … Consisting of 2,087 questions in Yiddish—exploring the gamut of Jewish folk beliefs and traditions, from everyday activities to spiritual exercises to marital intimacies—the Jewish Ethnographic Program constitutes an invaluable portrait of Eastern European Jewish life on the brink of destruction.” No one every answered any of An-sky’s questions, but the questions themselves are a portrait of Ashkenazi Jewish beliefs.
- The Dybbuk and the Yiddish Imagination: A Haunted Reader. Edited by Joachim Neugroschel. The Dybbuk was first a play written by S. An-sky, then later a movie. Amazing. This is a fantastic collection, but The Dybbuk is the must read.
- The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague by Rabbi Yudl Rosenberg. Published in 1909 in Yiddish, this is the definitive modern telling of the Golem of Prague. Rosenberg attributes the book to manuscript that he found in the main library in Metz. While that’s not likely to be true, the book has been accepted as authoritative in some corners of the Jewish world and rejected in others. To understand the debate from inside the Traditional Jewish world, see SeforimBlog articles “The Letter of the Maharal on the Creation of the Golem: A Modern Forgery,” “Shnayer Leiman: Did a Disciple of the Maharal Create a Golem?,” “More on story fabrication – The Golem” and “The Golem of Prague in Recent Rabbinic Literature.”
- Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends by “Aunt Naomi” (Gertrude Landa) Free online at Sacred-Texts.com. You can also get cheap print-on-demand copies. If you poke around, early 20th century hardback copies sometimes pop up for sale.
Og, King of Bashan riding a Unicorn from Aunt Naomi’s Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends
There’s a lot of great material out there and a lot of weird stuff that I stay away from. Here are a few bits I know about and want to share. This list is also really short on rabbinic material. I need to fix that. I’ll cover Jewish monsters and magic artists in another posts.
Jewitches – “Talking about all things Jewish witchcraft, mysticism, folklore, magic, and practice. Bi-weekly deep dives into all things magical & Jewish, hosted by Jewitches.com”
Throwing Sheyd – “Better living through Jewish demonology”. 48 episodes deep dive into Jewish demons filled with warm and wisdom. Alan a nd Miriam are great hosts.
Pulling Threads – Rediscovering the forgotten rituals of Eastern European Jewish Women
Jewish Monster Hunting – A practical guide to Jewish Monster Hunting. This is my channel. Only one video so far, but it’s a fun one.
Demons in the Talmud and Demons and the Four Cups of Wine at the Passover Seder Sara Ronis
10 Historic Jewish Women Mystics You’ve (Probably) Never Heard of “Are there any Female Jewish Mystics or is Jewish Mysticism just a Boys Club? Join us as we explore ten incredible women Mystics, Martyrs, Mothers, Messiahs, masters of Kabbalah, Educators, Oracles, Patrons, Prophets, Poets and Philosophers who left an unforgettable mark on Jewish History.”
Plagues – Rabbi Elli Fischer. When smoking a pipe became a ritual substitution for burning incense to ward off plague.
Reigning Cats and Dogs: Angelic Animals in the Jewish Mystical Tradition – David Shyovitz
Angels in Ancient Jewish Culture and On My Right Michael, On My Left Gabriel: Angels in Ancient Jewish Culture – Mika Ahuvia
Great Myths and Legends: The Queen of Sheba in History and Legend and Great Riddles in Archaeology: The Ark of the Covenant: Lost, Found, or Forgotten? – Annette Yoshiko Reed. I haven’t watched these yet but they’ve been on my list.
An Expert Explains – How to Make a Golem – Alana Vincent. I havent watched this one either, but it’s been on my list.
The Dybbuk: The Full Original Film and Story
Tahdid Sword Ceremony for the Brit Milah in Morocco. Posted by the Jewish Learning Channel. A lot more info is provided by the website https://yalalla.org.uk/ in the article “Jewish Saharans Singing To Birth”
“The word Tahdid comes from hdid, metal, in Arabic, bringing in technologies of metallurgy to protection rituals. The women used to hold the mother and baby ‘hostage’ in the room and barter jokingly with the men who were knocking at the door and begging to come in. Joking negotiations back and forth in Judeo-Arabic were meant to make everyone laugh and ensure that everyone knew where the real power was! Once allowed into the mother’s room, the men sang liturgical poetry in Judeo-Arabic and Hebrew, lightly tapped ritual swords against the walls of the four corners of the room, on the baby’s crib and on the four cardinal points, all the places where the evil spirits are said to hide. They then continued singing mystical poems and murmuring prayers in Hebrew and the women finished with loud yuyus of celebration. Afterwards there is a feast for everyone gathered. This Tahdid, from July 2013, was led by the paytan Jacob Wizman, a student of the famous Rabbi David Bouzaglo. Filmed in Casablanca by Ron Duncan Hart.”