Jewish magic amulets

In last week’s post about the Adne ha-Sadeh I talked briefly about necromancy, which is magic for speaking with the dead. The Torah is pretty clear, this is bad stuff. But the objection isn’t a rationalist one, the Torah is absolutely clear that necromantic magic works (1). Jews are just supposed to keep away from it.

There are other kinds of magic, though, that have thrived within the Jewish tradition. For the Jewish monster hunter, the place to start is with protective amulets. Amulets are written texts, sometimes cast or scribed in metal but more typically written on parchment, that include one of God’s names, or one or more angel names, or some permutation of these names, along with bits of psalms, prayers, halachic (legal) writings, and pleas for some specific form of assistance. (For a primer, see Trachtenberg‘s write up (2)).

Right now, there are a variety of amulets available from Jewish auction houses and from scribes around the world (3). This week, for example, the latest auction catalog from the Kedem Auction house in Jerusalem (4) was released. Lot 6 from the catalog is a Birkat Kohanim amulet from 18th or 19th century Italy, which is intended for the “Protection from Evil Eye and for a Mother and Her Newborn.” (5)

18th Century Jewish amulet with the text of the Birkat Kohanim (Priestly Blessing)
Birkat Kohanim Amulet – Italy, 18th/19th Century – Protection from Evil Eye and for a Mother and Her Newborn. From Kedem’s Auction Catalog 65 “Rare and Important Items, including items from the of collections of Prof. Shlomo Simonsohn and Uzi Agassi.” (5)

The Kedem auction house describes the amulet as follows

Amulet containing the verses of the Birkat Kohanim (Priestly Blessing) “May God bless you and protect you…” and a 22 letter Holy Name, derived from the verses of the Birkat Kohanim.

Kedem Auction Catalog 65 (5)

The Kedem auction catalog is worth a read. It justifies the validity of the amulet in critical two ways. First, it spends time explaining where in the Talmud Birkat Kohanim amulets were described. This is intended to show that an observant Jew can carry such an amulet. Second, it shows that the power of the amulet is “proven” by telling the story of a similar amulet. I put quotes on the word proven because it’s a loaded term in Jewish amulet lore. According to the Talmud (Shabbat 61 A) only amulets that are proven can be carried on Shabbat. There are specific rules for proving an amulet, which typically involve three demonstrations of the amulet’s power (6).

R. Kalfon Moshe HaKohen Rabbi of Djerba (Tunisia) once wrote the verses of Birkat Kohanim on a plain piece of paper, and gave it to his granddaughter as an amulet for an easy birth. The residents of Djerba regarded it as a proven amulet, and would use it as a segulah for easy birth and recovery….

Kedem’s Auction Catalog 65 (5)

This description of R. Kalfon writing the amulet talks about R. Kalfon creating a segulah. A segulah is a charm, the text that gets put on the amulet. A segulah can be used without putting it on parchment, though amulets are usually how they’re applied. Having a holy sage put the words on parchment gives it its power.

MONSTER HUNTER PRO TIPS

1. Having a connection to a holy sage who can scribe amulets is a practical necessity. If possible, a Jewish monster hunter should have amulets against demons, curses, and the evil eye.
2. Keep an amulet kit handy, in order to repair or improvise a new amulet if needed. Improvised amulets will work better if you’re taking your mitzvot (commandments) seriously and have some scribe training.

A
My personal amulet making kit, including kosher parchment, quills, Torah ink, and scraping tool. I am completely unqualified to use this kit, but maybe someday!

Amulets such as the Birkat Kohanim offered by Kedem aren’t that rare. They come up at auction regularly. The last few Kedem auctions have included amulets and the current auction from the Ishtar auction house has a lot of 45 of them being auctioned together. (I really really wish I could afford to bid on this!)

Lot of 45 amulet scrolls, on paper, parchment, and leather.
Large lot of approx. 45 amulets, mostly Jewish, written on paper, parchment and Gvil (leather sheet). Including amulets against the Evil Eye, curses, protection for pregnant women and the sick and more. Various sizes and conditions, overall good condition (stains, tears, wear and worming to some items). Ishtar Auction 76, Lot 105. December 5, 2019 (7)

These amulets are part of the family and religious life of Jewish communities around the world. This past spring, I was able to visit my daughter in Israel where she was studying for a semester (8). While there I visited the Israel Museum on a tour with the parents of some of the other students. At one point one of the parents, an American Jew of Persian descent and truly lovely person, got very excited and started pointing to one of the displays. Specifically, she was pointing to a metal amulet in a display on child birth. Her family had a very similar amulet and she had given birth to both of her children with the amulet on her chest. After her successful deliveries, the amulet was re-claimed by her mother who was ready to pass it along to other family members.

Sterling Silver Childbirth Amulet. Replica. Persia. 18th-19th Century
Replica of an 18th Century Persian Jewish amulet intended to ease childbirth. The inscription is taken from the Psalms and includes the name of Jochabed, the mother of Moses, Miriam, and Aaron. From the Israel Museum’s collection. The replica is available from the Judaica Web Store (9)

Notes and References
(1) The story of the Woman of Endor, in First Samuel, for example, clearly shows necromantic magic in action. First Samuel tells of how King Saul, despite the bans on necromancy, finds a woman who can summon the spirit of the dead king Samuel. The summoning went fine…but Saul was cursed for doing it. https://www.sefaria.org/I_Samuel.28?lang=en
(2) For a more thorough overview of Jewish amulets see Tractenberg’s 1939 book, Jewish Magic and Superstition. https://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/jms/jms12.htm#page_132
(3) I’ll write more about Practical Kabbalah, and PK amulet makers in a later blog post. But if you can’t wait, Itzhak Mizrahi is a good place to start. https://www.p-kabbalah.com/seals-incantations-and-virtues/the-amulet/
(4) Kedem Auction 69.While this auction will be over on Dec 3, 2019, Kedem has historic Judaica auctions on a regular basis and they’re always fascinating. https://bidspirit-uploads-1.global.ssl.fastly.net/kedemauctionDocs/458/catalog/catalog_69_-_web.pdf
(5) Birkat Kohanim Amulet – Italy, 18th/19th Century – Protection from Evil Eye and for a Mother and Her Newborn https://il.bidspirit.com/ui/lotPage/source/catalog/auction/7839/lot/152251/Birkat-Kohanim-Amulet-Italy?lang=en
(6) Shabbat 61 A https://www.sefaria.org/Shabbat.61a.14?ven=William_Davidson_Edition_-_English&lang=en
(7) Ishtar Auction Catalog 76, Lot 105. https://bidspirit-uploads-1.global.ssl.fastly.net/ishtarauctionDocs/140/catalog/Ishtar_76.pdf
(8) She was a high school Junior, participating the URJ’s Heller High program. Which was amazing. https://hellerhigh.org/
(9) Persian amulet replica, available from the JudaicaWebStore. https://www.judaicawebstore.com/-sterling-silver-childbirth-pendant-replica-persia-18th-19th-century-P4613.aspx

Benjamin is a Predatory Wolf

There are a lot of stories about werewolves within the Jewish tradition. In most cases that I’m familiar with Jewish werewolves were Jewish men who were cursed to take a wolf form. (1) And not a super-scary wolf-man, just a dog with big teeth. While you had to protect yourself against them, you didn’t want to hurt them if you didn’t have to. I’ll write more about this kind of werewolf later. Recently, though, I was pointed to a story of werewolves cited within in the Torah itself (H/t to the fine Jewish educators on the JEDLab Facebook page). My best contemporary source on this is Natan Slifkin, who writes about it in his book Sacred Monsters (2) and his blog Rationalist Judaism (3). I’m borrowing heavily from Slifkin here, as well as from Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein’s shiur (Talmud lecture)“Parashat Shemot: Werewolves in the Parasha” (4).

The story is anchored in the Torah in Parshat Vayech, Genesis 49 (5). Jacob has come to Egypt, been reunited with his son Joseph, and is dying. It is time for him to give his final blessings. As the last of the patriarchs, and the guy who wrestled an angel, his blessings are a big deal. They are prophecies, not just parental bequests. Jacob does it in grand style, saying “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come…..Reuben, you are my first-born, My might and first fruit of my vigor, Exceeding in rank And exceeding in honor.” Ok, pretty great so far. Simeon and Levi, though, get a head smack. Jacob says “Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness….For when angry they slay men, And when pleased they maim oxen.” (Hey, Levi….want to go cow maiming? Sure Simeon, I’m in!) Jacob goes through each of the brothers, and Joseph’s two sons in turn. The last of the brothers was Benjamin, who was blessed (or cursed?) with the statement “Benjamin is a predatory wolf; In the morning he consumes the foe, And in the evening he divides the spoil.”

Jacob’s statement is typically understood as a prophecy about the bad behavior of Benjamin’s decedents (e.g. Judges 19 (6)). But Rabbi Ephraim ben Shimshon, one of the Tosafists (early commentators on the Talmud), took it more literally. If Jacob said that Benjamin was a wolf, then he must have been a man who could turn into a wolf. A werewolf.

Another explanation: Benjamin was a “predatory wolf,” sometimes preying upon people. When it was time for him to change into a wolf, as it says, “Benjamin is a predatory wolf,” as long as he was with his father, he could rely upon a physician, and in that merit he did not change into a wolf. For thus it says, “And he shall leave his father and die” (Gen. 44:22)—namely, that when he separates from his father, and turns into a wolf with travelers, whoever finds him will kill him.

(Rabbi Ephraim, commentary to Genesis 44:29, Translation from Slifkin (4))
The Werewolf Howls
Werewolf in woodland at night. (7)

According to R. Ephraim, not only was Benjamin a werewolf but he killed his mother Rachel. Rachel, the beloved matriarch, dead by werewolf attack! In his commentary, R. Ephraim quotes a “writer from Ashkenaz”, saying

There is a type of wolf that is called loup-garou (werewolf), which is a person that changes into a wolf. When it changes into a wolf, his feet emerge from between his shoulders. So too with Benjamin—“he dwells between the shoulders” (Deuteronomy 33:12). The solution for [dealing with] this wolf is that when it enters a house, and a person is frightened by it, he should take a firebrand and thrust it around, and he will not be harmed. So they would do in the Temple; each day, they would throw the ashes by the altar, as it is written, “and you shall place it by the altar” (Leviticus 6:3); and so is the norm with this person whose offspring turn into wolves, for a werewolf is born with teeth, which indicates that it is out to consume the world. Another explanation: a werewolf is born with teeth, to show that just as this is unusual, so too he will be different from other people. And likewise, Benjamin ate his mother, who died on his accord, as it is written, “And it was as her soul left her, for she was dying, and she called his name ‘the son of my affliction’ ” (Genesis 35:18). (Commentary to Genesis 35:27)

(R. Ephraim, commentary to Genesis 44:29, Translation from Slifkin (4))

MONSTER HUNTER PRO TIPS

1. Werewolves are afraid of fire. Take a firebrand and thrust it around and you’re good.
2. Check that newborn for teeth. It might be a werewolf.

R. Ephraim and “the writer from Ashkenaz” (who was probably R. Eleazar ben Judah of Worms or a member of his circle) were writing in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Ashkenaz (German and France) and had a lot to say about monstrous creatures. They, and other Ashkenaz pietists of the time, wrote extensively about the acts and processes of physical transformation and applied them to answering challenging halachic (Jewish legal) questions. For example, R. Eleazar wrote about the transformation of the serpent in Genesis, saying :

The serpent [in the Garden of Eden] walked upright and somewhat resembled a man. Know that those that those who know how to change the form of a man into a wolf, or cat, or donkey – the eyeball does not change. Similarly the snake that changed [when it lost its legs] did not have its eyes change. Thus one who miscarries in the form of a snake is impure as if she had given birth for the eyes [of the snake] resemble those of a human.

R. Eleazar of Worms, Sefer Hasidim (8), quoted from David Shyovitz ‘s 2014 essay “Christians and Jews in the Twelfth-Century Werewolf Renaissance”(9)

R. Eleazar is wrestling a deep question that is still highly contentious today… what is a fetus? Is it human? If it is, then we must mourn with her for the loss of a child and we must wait for her until she once again is ritually pure. R. Eleazar comes to a conclusion by connecting werewolves, who change from man to wolf and back but whose eyes don’t change, to the serpent of Eden, to a miscarried fetus that looks a bit snake-like but has rudimentary eyes. It’s the eyes that mark it as human. While this logic is a bit Monty Pythonesque (“So, logically– – If she weighs the same as a duck, she’s made of wood, and therefore is a witch?)”, this was serious stuff.

Moving on to a more practical, monster hunting, perspective, all of this raises fascinating questions about Benjamin and his tribe. How did R. Ephraim and R. Eleazar believe that Benjamin became a werewolf? Was it a curse of some kind? Did the tribe of Benjamin inherit the curse? Were there more Jewish werewolves running around in contemporary 13th century Ashkenaz? The answer… yup. There were. But that’s for a later blog post.

Notes and References
(1) Yes, werewolves in the Jewish tradition were usually men. And vampires, called Estries, were usually women. I don’t know why.
(2) Sacred Monsters, Natan Slifkin https://www.biblicalnaturalhistory.org/product/sacred-monsters/
(3) Rationalist Judaism “Was Rachel Imeinu Killed By A Werewolf?” http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2011/12/was-rachel-imeinu-killed-by-werewolf.html
(4) Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein “Parashat Shemot: Werewolves in the Parasha” (Video). https://www.torahanytime.com/#/lectures?v=24754 (FWIW, this video is in English, but it’s really in Yeshivish. Yeshivish is English with a lot of Hebrew and Yiddish terms mixed in. It’s common in the Orthodox Yeshiva (Torah school) world. As an outsider to that world, it’s great fun to listen to and to try to keep up with. I do ok but get lost sometimes.)
(5) Genesis 49 https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.49?lang=en&aliyot=0
(6) Judges 19 https://www.sefaria.org/Judges.19?lang=en
(7) Werewolf in the Woodland at Night. Main illustration for the story “The Werewolf Howls.” Internal illustration from the pulp magazine Weird Tales (November 1941, vol. 36, no. 2, page 38). Creative Commons License. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WeirdTalesv36n2pg038_The_Werewolf_Howls.png
(8) Sefer Hasidim, https://www.sefaria.org/Sefer_Chasidim.1?lang=en
(9) “Christians and Jews in the Twelfth-Century Werewolf Renaissance,” David Shyovitz. https://www.academia.edu/8882537/_Christians_and_Jews_in_the_Twelfth_Century_Werewolf_Renaissance_Journal_of_the_History_of_Ideas_75_4_2014_521-43