How Jerusalem Rabbis Used Kabbalistic Magic to Try to Defeat Hitler

May 3, 2019 | Yuval Harari
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In the 1930s, Jerusalem had become a major center for the study of Kabbalah, bringing together scholars from throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle East. As news of Adolf Hitler’s designs on the Jews arrived in the Land of Israel, some of these rabbis began to consider esoteric rituals and incantations to thwart those plans. Taking action began to seem all the more urgent in the summer of 1940, when German forces were moving across Egypt toward Palestine. Drawing on scattered evidence and sources, Yuval Harari describes these attempts, including the most dramatic and controversial, which took place in 1942:

The plan of the kabbalists, which may indeed have awakened reservations even at this time of great distress, [involved one] Rabbi Shimon Tsvi Horowitz, among the founders of the kabbalistic yeshiva Sha’ar ha-Shamayim in Jerusalem. [Two of the main sources] describe an attack against Horowitz at the synagogue accusing him of witchcraft and idolatry. . . .

Sent on the mission were Rabbi Horowitz and Ḥakham Tsaddok Yihiyah Cohen, who boarded a military airplane with four cocks “white as snow” as the plane circled over the borders of the Land Israel—north, south, east, and west. They read special prayers [composed by the great 18th-century Yemenite-Jerusalemite sage] Shalom Sharabi, slaughtered one cock at each point of the compass, spraying its blood from the air over the land. . . .

The planned circular route included a flight along the coast of Israel and Egypt up to Alexandria, southward along the Suez Canal, landing for refueling, onward to Aqaba, and northward to the Dead Sea along the Jordan River up to Jerusalem. Since the blood was meant to be sprayed along the route, the door of one of the plane’s loading docks was removed, a net was set in place to prevent falls, and the flight departed. The rabbis, who were covered in the fowls’ blood because of the air sucked into the plane, . . . recited psalms and prayers the entire time. . . . At the end of the flight, the rabbis gave the crew some money “for beer,” and that was the end.

By contrast, the distinguished Iraqi kabbalist Rabbi Salman Mutzafi stated that he had been approached by fellow Jerusalemites to pronounce a curse against Hitler, but decided against it after being warned in a dream against doing so. The German-born historian of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem, who also lived in Jerusalem during World War II, was likewise visited by local sages interested in learning magical secrets to use against the Nazis, but he demurred. In the fall of 1942, German forces in Egypt were defeated at the battle of el-Alamein, and Palestine was no longer in immediate danger.

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