Making Sense of Ancient Jewish Magic

June 15 2017

While it may come as surprise to some, the Talmud is filled with information about demons as well as charms, incantations, and other advice about how to deal with them. There are also Jewish works such as Ḥarba d’Moshe (The Sword of Moses), which contains magical recipes of likely Jewish Babylonian origin, compiled by Jews in the land of Israel between the 6th and mid-8th centuries CE. In his recent book, Jewish Magic before the Kabbalah, the scholar Yuval Harari seeks to explain this lore from the Second Temple period until the 12th century CE. He discusses his research, and the question of why it matters in an interview with Alan Brill:

Magic recipe literature is a broad map of human fears and anxieties, distresses and needs, aspirations and desires. It is a practical literature that, focusing on the daily needs of the individual, slips beneath the radar of social supervision and reflects life itself in a fascinating way.

Second, magic is highly democratic. It focuses on the individual and . . . takes personal needs of all kinds very seriously. It supports the individual at times of crises and assists him or her in fulfilling personal wishes. [The anthropologist] Bronislaw Malinowski viewed magic as ritualization of human optimism and I thoroughly agree with him.

Unfortunately, power always involves potential aggression and the promise of magical power also has a destructive facet. Books of magic recipes reflect that facet with instructions of how to harm and abuse the other. Painful as it is, here too magic literature mirrors life itself. Finally, because of the vague borderline between magic and the power of “true religion,” magic discourse is political by its very nature. . . .

I . . . perceive rabbinic literature as a [heterogenous] corpus, which from the outset does not reflect monolithic thought, faith, or [positions on particular questions]. No wonder then that we find in it a prohibition against sorcery together with stories about rabbis who make perfect use of it. [Furthermore, talmudic rabbis lived in] a world where all peoples believed in and practiced magic.

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Read more at Book of Doctrines and Opinions

More about: ancient Judaism, Judaism, Magic, Religion & Holidays, Talmud

Hamas’s Deadly Escalation at the Gaza Border

Oct. 16 2018

Hamas’s weekly demonstration at the fence separating Gaza from Israel turned bloody last Friday, as operatives used explosives to blow a hole in the barrier and attempted to pass through. The IDF opened fire, killing three and scaring away the rest. Yoni Ben Menachem notes that the demonstrators’ tactics have been growing more aggressive and violent in recent weeks, and the violence is no longer limited to Fridays but is occurring around the clock:

The number of participants in the demonstrations has risen to 20,000. Extensive use has been made of lethal tactics such as throwing explosive charges and grenades at IDF soldiers, and there has been an increase in the launching of incendiary balloons and kites into Israel. At the same time, Hamas supplemented its burning tires with smoke generators at the border to create heavy smoke screens to shield Gazan rioters and allow them to get closer to the border fence and infiltrate into Israel. . . .

[S]ix months of ineffective demonstrations have not achieved anything connected with easing [Israel’s blockade of the Strip]. Therefore, Hamas has decided to increase military pressure on Israel. [Its] ultimate goal has not changed: the complete removal of the embargo; until this is achieved, the violent demonstrations at the border fence will continue.

Hamas’s overall objective is to take the IDF by surprise by blowing up the fence at several points and infiltrating into Israeli territory to harm IDF soldiers or abduct them and take them into the Gaza Strip. . . . The precedent of the 2011 deal in which one Israeli soldier was traded for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners has strengthened the feeling within Hamas that Israel is prepared to pay a heavy price for bringing back captured soldiers alive. . . . Hamas also believes that the campaign is strengthening its position in Palestinian society and is getting the international community to understand that the Palestinian problem is still alive. . . .

The Hamas leadership is not interested in an all-out military confrontation with Israel. The Gaza street is strongly opposed to this, and the Hamas leadership understands that a new war with Israel will result in substantial damage to the organization. Therefore, the idea is to continue with the “Return March” campaign, which will not cost the organization too much and will maintain its rule without paying too high a price for terror.

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Read more at Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs

More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security