Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion

Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion

Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion

Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion


Alongside the formal development of Judaism from the eleventh through the sixteenth centuries, a robust Jewish folk religion flourished—ideas and practices that never met with wholehearted approval by religious leaders yet enjoyed such wide popularity that they could not be altogether excluded from the religion. According to Joshua Trachtenberg, it is not possible truly to understand the experience and history of the Jewish people without attempting to recover their folklife and beliefs from centuries past.

Jewish Magic and Superstition is a masterful and utterly fascinating exploration of religious forms that have all but disappeared yet persist in the imagination. The volume begins with legends of Jewish sorcery and proceeds to discuss beliefs about the evil eye, spirits of the dead, powers of good, the famous legend of the golem, procedures for casting spells, the use of gems and amulets, how to battle spirits, the ritual of circumcision, herbal folk remedies, fortune telling, astrology, and the interpretation of dreams.

First published more than sixty years ago, Trachtenberg's study remains the foundational scholarship on magical practices in the Jewish world and offers an understanding of folk beliefs that expressed most eloquently the everyday religion of the Jewish people.

Joshua Trachtenberg (1904-59) served in the American rabbinate for nearly three decades. He is the author of The Devil and the Jews.

Moshe Idel is Professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His numerous publications include Kabbalah: New Perspectives, Messianic Mystics, and Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic. He received the Israel Prize for excellence in the field of Jewish philosophy in 1999.


The author of Jewish Magic and Superstition: a Study in Folk Religion, Joshua Trachtenberg (1904–1959), was a reform rabbi active on the eastern coast of the United States for most of his career. He studied at Columbia University—and this book represents an advanced form of his Ph.D. thesis—and served as a rabbi in communities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. in turning his attention to the neglected field of magic, he was indubitably inspired by Lynn Thorndike’s classic series on this subject. Thorndike, also a Columbia scholar, was one of the readers of this book. However, it should be mentioned that a generation beforehand other rabbis contributed to the study of both magic and folklore. Moses Gaster, the father of another Columbia University scholar, Theodor H. Gaster, was an eminent scholar with whose writings Trachtenberg was well acquainted. Rabbinic studies and involvement in educating rabbis were the background of two older contemporaries of Gaster’s, Moritz Guedemann, who was active mainly in Vienna, and Ludwig Blau, who was active in Budapest. Both were authors of significant books that dealt with Jewish magic and that played an important role in Trachtenberg’s book. in our generation, two scholars in particular have addressed the subject. David Ruderman, a Reform rabbi, devoted an important study to magic in the Renaissance. Daniel Sperber, an Orthodox rabbi, devoted many studies to magic in rabbinic literature. Recently, another Orthodox rabbi, Menachem Hacohen of Jerusalem, who serves also as the chief rabbi of Rumania, edited an entire issue of the semi-popular journal Mahanaim, a review for studies in Jewish thought and culture, entitled “On Jewish Magic.” Another interesting phenomenon was the critical edition of the most important Jewish book of magic, the Sefer haRazim of late antiquity, which was compiled by R. Mordekhai Margoliot in order to show how different the Rabbis were from their contemporaries who dealt with magic.

More than in the many other fields of Jewish studies, it is in the domain of magic that the comparative approach flowered, as all the . . .

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