A Jewish Monsters and Magic Reading List (in English)

I’ve been building a library of books in English on Jewish monsters and magic. Here are the books I come back to over and over again.

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 Nittel Nacht (December 24), 2022.

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.

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.

Ezra has great art and stickers available too. Check them out!

Articles on Magic

Fast Summaries

Essays

Articles on Monsters

Fast Summaries

Essays

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.”

Books

  • 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.

Folklore Collections

  • 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.

Legendary Figures

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)

Og, King of Bashan riding a Unicorn from Aunt Naomi’s Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends

Other Media

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.

Podcasts

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.

Websites

Pulling Threads – Rediscovering the forgotten rituals of Eastern European Jewish Women

Videos

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.”

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.”

The Evil Eye and You: Practical Defenses against Weaponized Jealousy

Last time, I wrote about Jewish magic amulets. There’s a lot of amulet lore to work through and I’m going to come back to it over and over again. There are a lot of practical tips that Jewish monster hunters need to know. But right now, I want to make an important point. Jewish magic isn’t just about about amulets or segulah (charms) written by the rabbis….who are highly trained, high status, and male (yeah…I went there)(1). Jewish magic is also a wide range of segulah, amulets, and ritual practices passed down and innovated by the women of the community (and non-rabbi men of the community). These practices sometimes get picked up and made cannon in the main rabbinic texts, but are often only available through family or communal traditions or the few decent folklore ethnographies out there. Understanding these practices is important for the apprentice Jewish monster hunter. This kind of magic is not only as demanding in terms of Jewish knowledge and faith, but is also highly tuned to local dangers, customs, and resources. And let’s face it, most of us aren’t rabbis and, like our foremothers and forefathers, need to work with what we’ve got to defend ourselves, our families, and our towns.

Jewish Henna for Lalla ‘Aisha, Fes. The eye motif, connected with the hand, is a power protection from the evil eye. (From Noam Sienna’s amazing Jewish henna blog “Eskol Hakofer”)(2)

The Evil Eye

The evil eye, or ayin hara in Hebrew, is a great place to dig in to this. The evil eye is a critical element of Jewish magical lore, causing disease, injury, insanity, death and mayhem. Cases of the evil eye were documented across all the major Jewish ethnic groups (e.g. Ashkenazi, Mizrachi, and Sephardic). It’s so serious that, Rav, one of the sages of the Talmud, is described as having looked at a graveyard and lamented the great cost of the evil eye:

Ninety-nine [have died] through an evil eye, and one through natural causes

Talmud Baba Metzia (3)

Fundamentally, the evil eye is weaponized jealousy. Frustration. Envy. Anger. Hate. That burning feeling we get when we want something that someone else has so badly that we’d take it away from them just so no one could have it. All that terrible emotion that we hold inside gets channelled through the evil eye, giving it power.

While that much is generally agreed on, there is some disagreement in the Jewish sources as to what exactly the evil eye is.

Some think of it as an evil omen, a spell of sorts that has the power to bring misfortune upon a person. Others think of it as a type of poison that the eye directs at things that it sees, casting them in an evil light. Yet others see it as a silent wish and prayer to Hashem (God) to pass judgment on a person or situation to judge them more strictly.

Ayin Hara. Torah Learning Project (4)

So, according to the Torah Learning Project, it’s some kind of personal magic or possibly an unworthy prayer. In other sources, including the Sefer Hasidim, the evil eye is described as a sheydim (demon) or evil angel called upon to take revenge (5). In each of these traditions, though, it is initiated by anger or jealousy, often employed unwittingly often by otherwise good people in their weakest moments. (I have them. Not proud.) The Polish Jewish ethnographer Regina Lilienthal, in her amazing 1900 study of Ashkenazi beliefs on the Evil Eye, observed that:

It is very difficult to take precautions and guard against the evil eye, people claim, because everyone has a moment during the day when he or she can set the evil eye on others. Even pious persons can do such a bad thing unknowingly and even against their will, that is, in a totally mechanical and unwitting fashion. Sometimes parents cast the evil eye on their children. This is why every person must resolve, early in the morning, that during the day he or she will not cast an evil glance on any person.

Regina Lilienthal, The Evil Eye. 1900 (6)

Because the evil eye is fueled by jealousy, it is particularly dangerous around
a community’s most life affirming moments, particularly birth and marriage. This isn’t surprising, right? Those moments are joyful specifically because someone has just gotten something wonderful, that maybe you don’t have and you want. This understanding about the connection between joy and jealousy has deeply influenced Judaism. There’s a long list of practices ranging from deflecting questions that might indicate your current joy (e.g. answering “how are you” with “Baruch Hashem (Praise God)” instead of answering (7) to deep spiritual and ethical practices. The Mussar (ethical) literature, for example, talks deeply about ways to over come timtum ha’leva (a “stopped-up heart.”) in order to avoid jealousy (8).

But we’ll stay focused. Aside from humility, there is a long list of practical techniques for avoiding the evil eye. Way too many to cover in this post. Right now, I’m going to focus on four techniques;

  • The shir ha’amalot amulet, an Ashkenazi and Sephardic technique for protecting children
  • The hamsa, a Sephardic and Mizrahi amulet for general evil eye protection
  • Henna tattoos, a Mizrahi technique for protecting the bride
  • And, in case the first three fail, a Sephardi healing ritual

The first technique is the shir ha’amalot amulet. A shir ha’amalot is a parchment with the text of Psalm 121, which emphasizes God’s protection. It opens saying, “My help comes from the LORD, maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot give way; your guardian will not slumber; See, the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps! (9). While the use of these amulets was once wide spread in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities, today only the Chabad Hassidic community still encourages their use. Chabad recommends that not only should they be used in the home, but they should also be placed in hospital rooms to reclaim the birthing room as Jewish space as well as to invoke divine protection (10). That means you can buy one online as Mikvah.org (11) or print one out from the Chabad site (12). It’s good to have a couple in your gear box. I do.

As Shir Ha’amalot card with Psalm 121, for protecting baby’s from the evil eye. They are often hung in hospital delivery rooms or baby’s nurseries. This one is available for purchase online from Mikva.Org (11)

The second technique is the hamsa amulet. A hamsa is a visual symbol of an open hand with a stylized eye in the palm. Hamsa is Arabic for five, which references the five fingers on a hand. With related gestures and verbal charms, it’s a common symbol of protection in Jewish and Islamic cultures, predating both, and has been integral to both Jewish Mizrahi and Sephardic cultures. Noam Sienna, in his essay Five in Your Eye: The Khamsa Image among Moroccan Jewry (13) gathered a number of ethnographic examples of how the hamsa was used to ward off the evil eye. According to Sienna, Moroccan and Tunisian Jews in the late 1880’s used hamsas made of silver, iron, coral, and blue stones with additional symbols of fish, salamanders, and birds. The use of the hamsa amulet was often accompanied by gestures or spoken charms. For example, Sienna notes a member of the Tunisian Jewish community, “when his children’s pictures or horses are praised, the Tunisian Jew extends his five fingers, or pronounces the number ‘five;’ he tries by this means to prevent the praise doing damage.” Other, similar, protective statements included “hamsa fi ‘ainek [five in your eye], hamsa ‘ala ‘ainek [five on your eye], hamsa ukhmissa [five and little five]”, or “hmames [the fives]. While these utterances, matched with the gesture of raising the hand, and the specifics of hamsa construction were specific to that community at that time, the practice can be adapted to any local area or community. Proper usage, though, also requires a keen sense of the moment the protection is needed.

Moroccan Hamsa Door Knocker. (14)

The third technique is henna tattoos, used by Mizrahi Jews as well as Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, and others. Henna is a natural orange-red or purple dye, made from the leaves of the henna plant. It is used throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia as the basis for body art that fades over time, but cannot be washed off. Applying henna tattoos is a common preparation for Mizrahi celebrations, including weddings and births. While henna tattoos can take on a wide variety of different cultural roles, one of the prominent ones is protection from the evil eye. Henna tattoos that protect against the evil eye can use hamsa symbols (see the Sienna’s Lalla ‘Aisha photo, above), eyes symbols, or a variety of other symbols.

But henna is not just a pigment. It’s a core part of the magic itself. Noam Sienna (yeah, same ethnographer who wrote the Hamsa essay), explains:

Much of henna’s importance came from the beliefs associated with the plant itself, which transmitted what is known in Hebrew as berakha, Arabic baraka — blessedness. This quality is essential not only in ensuring happiness and success but also in warding off negative forces and energies, variously understood as demons (Hebrew shedim, Arabic jnun) or the Evil Eye (Hebrew ‘ayin ha-ra‘). This protective quality is understood to be inherent in the plant material itself, as it is in other substances (for example: iron, the rue plant, the number five, or the colours blue and red).

An elderly Moroccan woman I interviewed explained that her father, a doctor and rabbinic scholar, taught her that “each plant has the name of an angel, an angel that tells it the job it has to do in the world. The angel of the henna plant is Mevi-Mazal [Bringer of Luck]. That is the job of the henna plant: to bring luck. That is why it was put in the world.”

Noam Sienna, Making Meaning Skin Deep: The Changing Valence of Henna in Jewish Culture (15)

I’ll write more about the role of protective angels in Jewish magic in later posts. For now, focusing on the henna tattoos, the practical implications are clear. First, as with the shir ha’amalot and hamsa amulets, it’s important to understand that events that bring joy bring envy and need protection. Second, Jewish amulets can take different forms, whether parchment, metal, or, in the case of henna tattoos, our own skin. Third, and finally, these amulets are beautiful, raising up the joyful moments they’re part of, even as they protect them.

MONSTER HUNTER PRO TIPS

1. Stay wary. The monsters are us. We buried the 99 in the graveyard, not demons, giants, or vampires.
2. Stay humble. Don’t draw attention to your actions. Jewish monster hunters are not big game hunters. We serve. We do not display trophies or brag at the bar.
3. Stay connected. Not just to the patriarch rabbis (1) who can create the amulets, but to the matriarchs who hold the community together. There is power, knowledge, and resources there.
4. Stay stocked. Keep your gearbox filled with a wide range of components that can be matched to local traditions, as needed. Learn how to use them and make them beautiful.

The fourth, and final, technique that I’ll cover in this post is healing rituals. Even with the best protective measures, the evil eye can still strike. How would you know? One description of the symptoms caused by the evil eye are “broken sleep, or loss of sleep, headache, constant yawning, buzzing in the ears, any kind of digestive pain or derangement, fever, depression, and general weakness. Even death may result.” (16) This list of symptoms comes from Derya Agis’ essay “Beliefs of American Sephardic Women Related to the Evil Eye, which is based on her interviews with and readings of autobiographies of, women who are either immigrants from the former Ottoman Empire or descendants or relatives of immigrants. According to Agis’ sources, healing these effects involved prayer and rituals that were generally performed by women. Agis’ essay includes a number of wonderful descriptions, including this one:

Cloves and lead for a Sephardic evil eye healing ritual
Cloves and lead for a Sephardic evil eye healing ritual. With materials from my gear box

Esther C from New York depicts the following cure against the pernicious effects of the evil eye: the performer of the ritual gathers fifteen cloves, divides them into groups of five by saying, “let the evil eye, all the evil talk go into the depths of the sea, five for the sea, five for the land, five for the people, let no badness affect X…”; this ritual is repeated three times; the performer of the ritual takes each group of cloves in her/his hand, and passes the cloves all over the body of the affected person fifteen times in total. Afterwards, the performer of the ritual gets an aluminum plate, and burns these cloves with a match.

In addition to cloves, lead is also used in rituals performed against the evil eye.

Derya Agis. Beliefs of American Sephardic Women Related to the Evil Eye (16)

Agis provides a variety of examples of evil eye healing rituals and others histories and ethnographies provide even more, including applying salt, breathing aromatic herbs, heating and popping black seeds, and melting bits of rubber or gum. Each of these methods uses local ingredients, but linked to common themes, such as purity (salt) or redirection (popping seeds) (17). One of my personal favorite redirection methods is smashing a glass at a wedding. At the moment the wedding couple is most joyful and most vulnerable, they smash a glass to inject a moment of surprise and whoosh…the evil eye is distracted and passes them by. (18)

Stomping the Glass (19)

A quick postscript: If you happen to live near Minneapolis, MN you can get Noam Sienna to do custom Jewish henna for you. Check out his shop at http://www.hennabysienna.com/. Also, in addition to his ethnographic work, Sienna also recently published A Rainbow Thread, an Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the 1st Century to 1969 which “collects for the first time more than a hundred sources on the intersection of Jewish and queer identities.” I haven’t read it yet, but it looks awesome. You can get more info at http://noamsienna.com/a-rainbow-thread/)

Notes and References
(1) I’m talking about the long history of Judaism. The “rabbis are a patriarchy” thing is definitely changing. The liberal Jewish movements have lots of wonderful women rabbis. Even the Orthodox communities are starting, tentatively, to accept women in the clergy as rebbetizin. See “The Contemporary Rebbetzin: What’s It Like to Be a Rebbetzin in 2017?” in Jewish Action, the Magazine of the Orthodox Union for some perspective. https://jewishaction.com/religion/women/contemporary-rebbetzin-whats-like-rebbetzin-2017/ Not so much in the Haredi or the Hassidim yet, as far as I’m aware.
(2) The Jewish henna image comes from the amazing blog Eskol haKofer. http://eshkolhakofer.blogspot.com/2014/08/henna-hamsas-and-eyes-oh-my-eye-as.html
(3) Talmud Baba Metzia https://www.sefaria.org/Bava_Metzia.107b?lang=en
(4) “Ayin Hara” pamphlet. Torah Learning Project http://www.torahonthego.org/curriculum/TLP_28_Ayin_Hara.pdf
(5) Joshua Trachtenberg “Jewish Magic and Superstition” https://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/jms/index.htm
(6) If you want the rabbinic lore, study the Talmud and commentaries. If you want the matriarchal lore you need to study the enthographies. Be wary of the biases of the ethnographer, though. Regina Lilienthal’s study, The Evil Eye, is an amazing catalog of Ashkenazi customs and beliefs circa the late 1800’s, but is also biased by her assertion that these beliefs are “naive” relative to the urbane Polish Jews that she associated with. It’s available online, translated into English from the original Polish, in Studia Mythologica Slavica Supplementa, Supplementum 2. http://sms.zrc-sazu.si/pdf/SMS_%20Supplementa_Suppl_2_2010.pdf (I haven’t found a more copyright-friendly print source yet).
(7) If you’ve never heard anyone do this, check out the Throwing Sheyd: Better Living through Jewish Demonology podcast, where Miriam is always teasing Alan by asking him how he’s doing, forcing him to say “Brauch Hashem.” https://anchor.fm/throwingsheyd
(8) Mussar is a set of Jewish spiritual and ethical practices that emerged in the 19th century Ashkenazi community. The literature is sprawling and wonderful. For a quick, and meaningful, article on timtum ha’lev, see “Through a Mussar Lens: Unblocking the Heart” By Alan Morinis https://mussarinstitute.org/Yashar/2014-06/mussar_lens.php
(9) Psalm 121, https://www.sefaria.org/Psalms.121?lang=en
(10) Dovi Seldowitz, writing for the website The CHABAD Sociologist, notes that “Chabad promotes these long-forgotten Jewish customs even in contemporary birth settings where Western medicine is typically placed ahead of all other alternative forms of healing. Sociologists have noted the contemporary trend towards the medicalization of childbirth. What was once a purely social and/or personal event now specifically takes place within a medical context. Chabad’s stance on placing a Jewish mandala in a hospital birthing room allows Jewish families to reclaim an increasingly medicalized event as their own personal moment, placing Western medicine alongside the traditional belief of divine protection.https://chabadsociologist.wordpress.com/2015/03/06/birth-in-chabad/
(11) Shir Ha’amalot card, from the Mikvah.Org online store. https://www.mikvah.org/mall/catalog/5_x_7_shir_hamaalos_birthing_card
(12). Shir Ha’amalot card, printable from the Chabad website https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/217669/jewish/The-Shir-Lamaalot.htm
(13) The use of the hamsa by Tunisian Jews was documented by Noam Sienna in the ethnograhic essay “Five in Your Eye: The Khamsa Image among Moroccan Jewry.” https://www.academia.edu/14908808/Five_in_Your_Eye_The_Khamsa_among_Maghrebi_Jews
(14) Moroccan Door Knocker photo. By Bernard Gagnon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5398822
(15) Making Meaning Skin Deep: The Changing Valence of Henna in Jewish Culture. Noam Sienna. https://www.academia.edu/8318380/Making_Meaning_Skin_Deep_the_changing_valence_of_henna_in_Jewish_culture
(16) Beliefs of American Sephardic Women Related to the Evil Eye. Derya Agis. https://www.brandeis.edu/hbi/research-projects/legacy-projects/workingpapers/docs/agis.pdf
(17) Pilot Study of a Multi-Ethnic Investigation of Traditional and Current Beliefs, Practices, and Customs in Relation to Respiratory Distress in Israel. Judith Issroff. http://www.priory.com/psych/asthma.htm
(18) The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols. Ellen Frankel, Betsy Platkin Teutsch. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00E5YSUDG/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1
(19) “Stomping the Glass” by Mpopp is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0