B - The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism: Second Edition (2016)

The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism: Second Edition (2016)



Baal: (57915). “Lord/Master/Husband.” The chief active god of the Canaanite, Ugaritic, and Phoenician pantheons. A god of thunder and fertility, several biblical authors considered him YHVH’s chief rival for the loyalties of the people Israel. The Bible sometimes speaks of “baalim” in the plural. This may reflect the common custom of identifying a local spirit with Baal. Thus, in different places, the Bible mentions a Baal Hadad and a Baal Pe’or (“the lord god of Hadad” and “the lord god of Pe’or”).

Baal ha-Chalom: (57912). “Lord of Dreams.” Based on Job 33:14-18, Judaism identified an Angel of dreams (Otzer Geonim 4). The name of the angel varies from source to source. In the Talmud, it can also refer to a professional oneiromancer (Ber. 56a-b). SEE Angel And Angelology; Divination; Dream; Sar Ha-Chalom.

Baal ha-Sod: (57910). “Master of secrets.” A general, nontechnical moniker for a teacher of Jewish esoteric traditions.

Baal [Baalat] Ov: (57908). “Master [Mistress] of Ov.” A Necromancer. This term first appears in the Bible in a list of forbidden occupations (Deut. 18). An ov is a familiar, a term that may be derived from Akkadian. It is also possible, though less likely, that an ov is a dead ancestral spirit. In that case the word is being derived from the Hebrew avah, “father,” the Arabic aba, “return,” or aabi, Hittite for “grave.” 1 According to the Talmud, a Baal Ov is a medium who causes the dead to speak, either through his own Body or, in the Mesopotamian custom, through a skull (Sanh. 65b; Shab. 152b-153a; Josephus, Ant. 4:4). SEE Death; Divination; Ghost; Medium; Necromancer And Necromancy; Possession, Ghostly; Xenoglossia And Automatic Writing.

1. Schmidt, Israel’s Beneficent Dead, 150-52; Roth, Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 3, 114.

Baal Shem: (57928). “Master of the [Divine] Name.” An informal title given to wonderworkers and/or saints. From earliest Judaism it was believed that the Names of God, but most often the Tetragrammaton, could be manipulated for theurgic or magical purposes. The Talmud also teaches that truly Righteous persons have the power to bend God’s will to their own (M.K. 16b). Such people were sometimes called anshei ma’aseh, “men of [wondrous] deeds.”

The term “Baal Shem” for a wonderworker, however, is early medieval in origin. Though it was sometimes applied to religious poets, most people designated Baal Shems as either folk healers who used Segulah or Segulot cures, rainmakers, or the manufacturers of amulet. Some achieved fame as exorcists.1

Many writers used the term pejoratively, as synonymous with “quack” or “charlatan.” Even a marginal figure like Abulafia, Abraham looked down upon them. Some books of their cures and incantations, such as Miflaot Elohim (“The Wonders of God”), have been published in the modern era. The most famous of all Baalei Shem is Israel ben Eliezer, the founder of Chasidism.

1. Scholem, Kabbalah, 310-11.

Baal Shem Tov: SEE Israel Ben Eliezer.

Baaras: A location in Israel which yields a mysterious magical root uniquely effective in extracting demons, if one can overcome its lethal touch while harvesting it (War 7:180-185).

Baba Sali: Kabbalist and wunder-rabbi (Moroccan, ca. 20th century). He was famous for his healing powers. His gravesite in southern Israel is still a popular place of pilgrimage.

Babel, Tower of: SEE Babel, Tower Of.

Babylon: (57926). Derived from Akkadian: Bab-ilum, “Gate of Heaven.” An ancient city-state empire centered in what is now Iraq. Supposedly founded at the command of the god Marduk, this city became the place of Jewish exile after 586 BCE. Babylon was a culture permeated with supernatural beliefs and magical practices. Under its hegemony in the years following the destruction of Jerusalem, Jews became increasingly preoccupied with such matters. Astrology, divination, the use of amulet, and the practice of Magic in a variety of forms, all became more pervasive folkways among Jews living in Iraq and Persia. Referring to the country as Bavel or Shinar interchangeably, the Bible repeatedly ridicules the pretensions of the Babylonians, especially in the fable of the Babel, Tower of (Gen. 11).


The Gates of Babylon with guardian Lamassu

Bachya ben Asher: Mystical Bible commentator (Spanish, ca. 13th-14th century). A student coming out of the circle of Nachmanides, his works include many occult teachings and esoteric interpretations of biblical episodes. Bachya particularly believed in the theurgic power of the commandment—that their proper performance empowered God, while Sin weakened God’s power in the world.1

1. M. Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven, CT: Yale Press, 1988), 162-64.

Backwards: SEE Reversal (Magical).

Bahir, Sefer ha-: “The Book of Illumination.” This document is the most influential early book in what would become the classical Kabbalah of the Middle Ages. Though written in a Midrashic style and credited with great antiquity, it is more likely the work of early medieval Provencal mystics. Like the earlier Yetzirah, Sefer, the Bahir is deeply immersed in the supernal power of words and letters and wordplay and creative philology plays a major role in its esoteric oeuvre. The first description of the sefirotic Tree of Life appears in its pages. The concept of reincarnation is introduced in the form of cryptic parables. It is also one of the first works to treat the mundane nomina of the Bible as allegories for metaphysical realities. Thus, according to the Bahir, “Abraham” is really the divine attribute of love, and his saga recorded in Scripture is actually an Allegory for how God’s love functions in the created realms. It expounds on divine names and their magical uses, as well as how to theurgically activate divine power through the performance of commandments.1

1. Dan and Kiener, The Early Kabbalah, 28-31; A. Green, Guide to the Zohar (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 16-18.

Bakol: (57941). The daughter of Abraham. Her existence is derived from reading the verse, “And God blessed Abraham with 57943 [everything] (Gen. 24:1)” as a pun: how could he have everything if he didn’t have a daughter? (B.B. 47b, 16b; Gen. R. 59:7). The Bahir (78) regards her to be a supernal entity, either an angelus interpres, wisdom, or the Shekhinah, who grants Abraham insight into the cosmic order (Zohar I:223a. Also see Nachmanides’ and Bachya’s comments to Gen. 24:1).

Balaam ben Beor: Ancient gentile seer from Transjordan. An extended story about Balaam appears in Numbers 22-24. Balaam is summoned by the King of Moab to collectively curse the Israelites. Being on good terms with YHVH, Balaam initially refuses, but is eventually induced to go help the king. Riding on an ass to join the king, he is confronted by a Sword-wielding Angel. Once he arrives, rather than cursing Israel, he is instead possessed by God and pronounces four extended blessing oracles upon them.

Gnostics declared Balaam to be a Prophet of the High God of goodness, and an enemy of the God of Israel, whom they equated with the evil Demiurge. They interpret the conflict of these two deities as the cause of Balaam’s various reversals of fortune. In the Midrash, Balaam is described as everything from a magician to a prophet. Based on the verse, “he knows the mind of the Most High” (Num. 24:16), one legend even declares him the greatest of the seven prophets God sent to the non-Jewish Nations, the gentile counterpart to Moses (B.B. 15b; Num. R. 20:1), perhaps even his superior (Sif. D. end). He is generally, but not consistently, portrayed as a wicked conspirator against Israel; he is credited with giving Pharaoh the suggestion to drown the Israelite children. Another tradition treats him as the most evil practitioner of Witch; he even derived his power by bestiality—copulating with his donkey (Sanh. 105a-b; Zohar I:126a). It was commonly held in the Middle Ages that Balaam was also a master of Astrology. Renderings of him in illuminated manuscripts often showed him holding an astrolabe. Raziel, Seferclaims he knew the workings of the divine Chariot (B.B. 15b; Tanh. Balak; A.Z. 4a-b; Avot 5).

Baladan: (57967). “Not a Man.” A dog-faced demons mentioned in rabbinic literature (Sanh. 96a) and the Zohar, Sefer ha- (I:6b). The name is evidently derived from the biblical character, Merodach-Baladan (1 Sam. 39:1; 2 Kings 20:12). Isaac Safrin may also be referring to these same imps when he speaks of the “evil dog” who works against humanity (Megillat Saterim).

Balsam: (57965/Bosem). The juice of this plant is extracted for medicinal and perfumery uses. It may also have been an ingredient in the Incense burned in the Temple. In the World to Come, thirteen streams of balsam oil will flow for the pleasure of the Righteous (Tan. 25a; Gen. R. 62:2; Zohar I:4b; Zohar II:127a). SEE Herbs And Vegetables; Pharmacopoeia.

BaN: (57962). An acronym for “52,” a divine name appearing in Chayyim, Sefer ha-’s Etz Hayyim. The name is YHVH if each letter were given its full (malei) spelling: Yud H-H Vav H-H. It is sometimes used in a meditative permutation exercise.

Baneman: Yiddish, “changeling.” A wood-and-straw doll that demons substitute for a living infant. The parents are enchanted so as to perceive the doll as living, while the actual infant is taken and raised to serve infernal forces (Toldot Adam sec. 80). SEE Banim Shovavim.

Banim Shovavim: (57971). “Mischievous Sons.” Originally used to describe wayward children (Jer. 3:22; Chag. 15a), it took on a supernatural interpretation, being used to refer to changelings who are the offspring of human-demonic couplings. The concept can be seen in biblical interpretations of Cain that assume he had dual parentage through both Adam and the edenic serpent (Chochmat ha-Nefesh, 26c), whom the Talmud suspects copulated with Eve:

When Adam, doing penance for his sin, separated from Eve for 130 years, he, by impure desire, caused the earth to be filled with shedim, lilin, and evil spirits. (Gen. R. 20; Eruv. 18b)

Incubi and succubae presumably continue to haunt men and women, appropriating their procreative powers to replenishing the ranks in every generation.

There seem to be two threads to this tradition. One assumes that such demonoid beings are the seemingly normal people who reveal their hybrid natures when they engage in heinous acts, while the other envisions these “sons” as spirits. All these creatures are a threat to the moral children of their parent and the demonic offspring must be redeemed by means of a graveside ritual of incantations and magical Circle (Tikkun Shovavim).1 SEE Demons; Nocturnal Emission.

1. G. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (New York: Schocken, 1965), 154-56.

Banquet, Messianic: (57960). “The Meal of Leviathan.” Inspired by Job 41:6, one of the most popular mythic images of the reward awaiting the Righteous in the World to Come is the Seudah shel Livyatan, the messianic banquet (PdRE 10). There the great Chaos monsters, Ziz, Behemoth, and Leviathan, will finally be slaughtered for the enjoyment of all. In one version of this legend, there were originally two Leviathans. God killed the first in primordial times and salted away the meat for the banquet. The other sea monster will be served fresh (B.B. 74b; PR 16:4, 48:3; Mid. Teh. 14:7). The banquet appears in Akdamut, the 11th-century poem sung on the holiday of Shavuot:

And each righteous one under his canopy will sit,

In the Sukkah made from the skin of Leviathan,

And in the future

He will make a dance for the righteous ones,

And a banquet in Paradise,

From that Leviathan and the Wild Ox,

And from the wine preserved from the Creation—

Happy are those who believe and hope and

Never abandon their faith forever!

The subtext of this myth is that in messianic times the last forces of destruction, Chaos , and entropy will finally be swept away, and the world will achieve its perfect state.

Bar Hedya (or Hadaya): Talmudic oneiromancer (ca. 4th century). He is portrayed as a man of doubtful character whose interpretations depended on the amount of money paid him. The story of Bar Hedya also features a humorous episode about one of his predictions that came to pass: Rava was told by Bar Hedya that his dream signified he would be hit twice with a club. The Sage is in fact later attacked, but averts a third blow by declaring to his attacker, “Enough! I saw only two [blows] in my dream!” This suggestive story may help explain Bar Hedya’s maxim, “All dreams follow the interpretation.” In other words, dream interpretations are no more than self-fulfilling prophecies (Ber. 56a-b).

Bar Jesus: A Jewish magician mentioned in the Christian Scriptures (Acts 13:6-11).

Bar Nifli: ( 58000). “Son of the Clouds.” A messianic figure, based on the book of Daniel (7:13), described in IV Ezra, Babylonian Talmud, and Targum Yerushalmi. SEE Messiah.

Bar Yochai: (58002). A gigantic Roc-like bird mentioned in Talmud (Bik. 57a; Yoma 80a; Suk. 5a-b). Some stories of this bird overlap those of the Ziz.

Baradiel: (58011). “Hail of God.” The Angel of Hail (I Enoch). He is one of the “seven wondrous, honored princes” and governs the third Heaven (III Enoch).

Baraita de Yosef ben Uziel: This esoteric commentary on Yetzirah, Sefer, pseudepigraphically ascribed to the authorship of the mysterious Joseph ben Uziel, grandson of the prophet Jeremiah, was an important text created within the mystic Circle of the Unique Cherub.1

1. Dan and Kiener, The Early Kabbalah, 24; Also see Dan, The ‘Unique Cherub’ Circle, 59-79.

Baraita mi-Pirke Merkavah: “Tradition from the Chapters of the Chariot.” A book of Ma’asei-Merkavah.

Barakiel or Baraqiel: (57996). “Lightning of God.” The Angel of lightning (I Enoch, PdRE 8, Zohar II:252b). One of the “Seven Princes” of Heaven (III Enoch).

Barkayal: The Fallen Angels who taught Astrology to humanity (I Enoch 8).

Barminan: (57998). “Far from Us.” An expression meant to ward off the evil eye (think in terms of the Prayer of the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof: “God, bless and keep the Czar—far away from us!”). It can also be used as a euphemism for a dead Body.

Barnacle Geese: Fantastic Birds thought to metamorphose from Shell. Christians used this creature as an Allegory for Jewish conversion to Christianity (a humble shellfish can be transformed into a beautiful bird). Jewish versions of the barnacle geese legend have them growing on Trees (Zohar III:156).

Barrenness: SEE Fertility.

Baruch, Apocalypse of or Book of: A cluster of pseudepigraphic works, with different versions existing in Greek and Syriac, claiming to be Baruch ben Neriah’s firsthand accounts of the destruction of the earthly Jerusalemand his ascension to the heavenly Jerusalem. In one vision, Jerusalem is actually destroyed by angelic forces rather than Babylonians. Then the sacred vessels of the Temple are secreted away, after which the spirit of Prophecy seizes Baruch and he experiences eschatological visions. This is how the Syriac version ends. The Greek version picks up with Baruch ascending bodily into the Seven Heavens, where he sees fantastic visions of the past, the future, hell, and the celestial workings. Both versions, though evidently of Jewish origin, have been so heavily reworked by Christian writers that it is difficult to tell what is original and what has been superimposed on the text over time.1

1. Metzger and Coogan, The Oxford Companion to the Bible, 76-77.

Baruch ben Neriah: Secretary to the prophet Jeremiah (ca. 6th century BCE). Like many other peripheral characters that appear in Scripture, Baruch becomes a prominent figure in Jewish occult tradition. He becomes the protagonist of the Apocalypse of Baruch. The Rabbis identify him with the character Ebed Melech mentioned in the book of Jeremiah, making him an Ethiopian (PdRE 53). Counted as a Prophet by some Sages, later legends claim his Body experienced a saintly Death untouched by decay. His grave was a place of highest sanctity; like the Ark of the Covenant, those who touched it died. Other stories have him ascend bodily into Heaven, like Elijah. (Meg. 14b, 15a; Sif. Num. 99; II Baruch). SEE Righteous, THE.

Baruch She ‘Amar: ( 58021). A liturgical hymn recited on the Sabbath morning. Consisting of ten stanzas, Chayyim, Sefer ha- taught that one should contemplate the ten sefirot in sequence with the singing, an act of elevating the Soul through intention. The Prayer serves as a pivot point in Luria’s model of the four world worship, for it is the prayer that lifts the worshipper beyond the world of Asiyah into the higher state of Yetzirah (Sha’ar Kavvanot I). In time the Lurianic siddur, Nusach ha-Ari, adopted a thirteen-stanza version of the hymn, to mirror the thirteen divine attributes (Ex. 34).1

1. M. Hallamish, Ha-Kabbalah b’Tefillah, b’Halakhah, uv’Minhag (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2000), 33.

Bashert: (u58041). “Destiny.” A term for something perceived as inevitable, or meant to be. This term has a decidedly positive connotation, and is most often used in reference to a good Wedding match.

Bat: Not mentioned in the Bible, in rabbinic literature the bat is a shape-shifting creature that takes a number of forms over time but eventually morphs into a demons (B.K. 16a). SEE Animals.

Bat Kol: (58019). “Daughter of a Voice/[Heavenly] Echo.” A minor form of revelation described in Talmud and later Jewish literature:

Our Rabbis taught: Since the death of the last prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel; yet they were still able to avail themselves of the Bat Kol. Once when the rabbis met in the upper chamber of Gurya’s house at Jericho, a Bat Kol was heard from Heaven, saying: “There is one amongst you who is worthy that the Shekhinah should rest on him as it did on Moses, but his generation does not merit it.” The Sages present set their eyes on Hillel the Elder. (Sanh. 11a)

Not prophetic in the prescient sense, instead it proclaims God’s will, judgment, or in the above example, God’s regret (Ber. 3a).

It appears most famously in the miraculous duel between Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages (B.M. 59b; J. Ber. 2). It sometimes is heard extolling the Righteous at the time of their death, and will be heard by the newly resurrected when they arise from the grave (Zohar I:118a). By the Middle Ages, it becomes equated with attaining a mystical state of communion (Kuzari 3:11). SEE Prophecy And Prophets; Vision.

Batraal: A Fallen Angels mentioned in I Enoch, chapter 7.

Batya: (58038). “Daughter of Yah.” The daughter of Pharaoh, she adopted the infant Moses. Later she repudiates Idolatry and marries the Israelite Caleb (1 Chron. 4:15, 18). One interpretation concludes she had the spirit of Prophecy in her and knew she was raising an agent of God (Aggadat Yam Talmud). Others state she was at the river to treat her Leprosy and was moved by pure compassion to spare the child (Sot. 12b; Ex. R. 1:23). Regardless, this act of adoption meant God adopted her in return, earning her the name “daughter of Yah” (Lev. R. 1:3), and counted an Israelite (Meg. 13b). One oft-repeated tradition is that God miraculously extended her arm, ala Mr. Fantastic, to pull the child to safety. One claim puts her reach at 60 cubits (Bachya ben Asher’s comment to Exodus 2:5). She is one of the select few who ascended to Heaven without tasting Death. In Edenshe rules over one of the palaces of the righteous dead (Meg. 13a; Ex. R. 1, 18).

Beard: SEE Hair.

Beard of Faith: The beard that is described as adorning the “Ancient of Days” in Daniel. Since the “glory of the face is the beard” (Shab. 152a), the divine “beard,” whether assigned as an attribute to the Zeir Anpin or Atika Kadisha within the Pleroma, is part of the divine Glory and subject to elaborate, at time inscrutable, metaphysical speculation. It has thirteen locks (tikkunim), conduits for the thirteen divine attributes of Exodus 33 that stream into the material world, as well as the thirteen “rivers of balsam” that await the righteous in the World to Come (S of S 5:13; Zohar II:177a-b, 122b; Zohar III:130b, 139a-140b).1

1. P. Giller, Reading the Zohar: The Sacred Text of the Kabbalah (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 116-119.

Beelzebub: (58057). A demons. He is first mentioned as a Phoenician god in 2 Kings 1. His name probably derives from Ugaritic “Lord Baal,” though it is often translated as “Lord of Flies.” By Greco-Roman times he is a demon lord and he is mentioned in Christian Scriptures (Matt. 12:24-27). He may be the same as Belzebouel, who appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS).

Beer Shachat: (58059). “Well of Destruction.” A term derived from Psalm 55:24, it is one of the seven compartments of Gehenna, the destination of the “wicked Nations.” Kushiel is its principle Angel (Masechet Gehinnom).

Behemoth: (58065). A mythical beast mentioned in Job 40:15-24 and Psalm 50:10, which calls him the first of God’s creations. Other sources insist he was created on the sixth day (Mid. Konen). Behemoth drinks up all the waters that flow from Paradise (PR 16:4, 48:3). He is so big he sits on a thousand mountains (Ps. 50:10; Zohar I:18b). His bones are hard as tubes of bronze and his limbs are like Iron rods.

At the end of time he will do battle with Leviathan, a battle neither will survive. In the World to Come, he will be an entrée at the messianic banquet (II Esdras 6:52; B.B. 74b; Lev. R. 13:3, 22:10; PdRE 11). In Zohar, the beast sometimes symbolizes the Shekhinah (Zohar I: 223b). Behemoth is often portrayed in medieval Jewish illuminated manuscripts as an ox of gigantic proportions. SEE Animals.

Beinonim: (58055). “The In-betweens/the Doubtful.” Starting in Talmud (Ber. 7a; R.H. 16b) and highlighted in III Enoch, it is the designation for those who are neither pious, tzadikim, nor evil, rashaim. The bulk of humanity, the Beinonim, are those whose Fate in the afterlife is still in question. The condition and rectification of the Beinonim is the topic of the first chapter of the Tanya, and serves as the premise for the chapters that follow. (Tanya, Sefer Shel Beinonim).

Beit El Circle: This Jerusalem-based kabbalistic fellowship has been one of the most influential Jewish mystical movements among Sefardi and Hasidic Jews since its start under the leadership of the Yemenite mystic Shalom Sha’bari in the mid-18th century. The circle focuses on the teachings of Isaac Luria as recorded by Chayyim Vital. The academy that Sha’bari nurtured emphasized a curriculum of mixed Kabbalah, Talmud, and medieval philosophy. Arranged in around-the-clock “watches” so that study would be going on perpetually, the Beit El system cultivated in the adherents a vigorous lifestyle centered on study, Prayer, and contemplation. The adherents go so far as to wear two sets of tefillin simultaneously during daylight hours, in order to honor the differing practices of two famous sages. The circle continues into the 21st century.1

Prayer is the emphasized rite of the group, and the Beit El philosophy teaches the extensive use of kavvanot, ritualized concentration, in prayer, as well as contemplating divine names, as means to achieve devekut, union with God. The group has been usually preoccupied with the proper observance of the biblical system of shemittah and yovel, sabbatical and jubilee years.2

1. L. Jacobs, The Jewish Mystics (London: Kyle Cathie, 1990), 156-169.

2. Ibid.

Beit ha-Midrash, heavenly: SEE Yeshiva Shel Malah.

Beit Shean: This town at the south side of the juncture of the Jezreel and the Jordan valleys is the gate to Eden (Eruv. 19a).

Bela ben B’or: (58075). “Devourer Son of Consumption.” First of the eight Edomite kings who “ruled before there was a king in Israel” (Gen. 36:31-39). In the Lurianic creation myth, the “eight kings” are an Allegory, and Bela is Knowledge, the first vessel to shatter, releasing evil into the cosmos.

Beli Ayin ha-Ra: (58071). “No evil eye!” An adjuration against witchcraft.

Belial: (58073). “Worthless.” Belial is a demons mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), apocryphal books, and the Gospels. As is so often the case, the word appears in the Bible as an adjective, meaning “worthless” (1 Sam. 10:27) and/or rebellious person (Job 34:18), but in post-biblical tradition becomes reified as an entity, place, or supernatural force (see, for example, Abaddon and Ketev Meriri). Talmud Baba Batra 10a uses the word ambiguously, so that the reader could infer the term to mean either “worthlessness” or “devil.” Based on the Book of Jubilee’s description of him as the accuser and tempter (1:20. Also see Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, Reuben 2), Belial may be an alternative name for Samael, Satan, ha-Satan, or a conflation with both. In some medieval works, Belial gives birth to Armilus.

Belimah: (58095). A term that may or may not first appear in Job 26:7, where b’li-mah seems to mean “emptiness.” As used in Sefer Yetzirah to refer to the sefirot prior to their unfolding, it means either “containment/restraint” (the divine restraint that pre-existed the Emanation) or “Silence” (the cosmic silence that preceded God’s first words, “Let there be light”).1 Other interpretations referencing the passage in Job, divide it into two words, 58069/b’li-mah, “without whatness,” in the sense of “without substance.” Thus Belimah becomes associated with Keter, the first emanation.

Other works, such as Baraita de Yosef ben Uziel, understand it as a reference to the ten metaphysical concepts the average Jew is forbidden to investigate: what is before Creation, after the judgment, the reward of the righteous, the punishment of the wicked, and the remotest ends of what is up, down, east, west, north, and south. As this encyclopedia reveals, this prohibition is mostly honored through the breach.

1. Green, Guide to the Zohar, 54; A. Kaplan, Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Formation (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1978), 25-26.

Bell: Bells appear in a significant role only during biblical times, when the High priest was required to wear them on the hem of his Ephod (Seventy-Two of them according to the Talmud):

You shall make the robe of the ephod entirely of blue wool. Its collar shall be folded over within. It shall have a woven border around its opening … it may not be frayed. On its hem you shall make pomegranates of blue, purple, and scarlet wool, on its hem all around. Between them, there shall be gold bells all around … It must be on Aaron when he serves; so that its sound is heard when he enters the Holy before Adonai. (Ex. 28:31-35)

These bells served to placate or drive back the Guardian Angels (Sar ha-Panim) that surround the Ark of the Covenant when the high priest enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur (Az be-En Kol piyut). Lilith is compared to a “golden bell” that disturbs men in their Sleep (Gen. R. 18.4). Unlike Christian-based theurgic practices, bells do not appear to have been used much by Jewish practitioners.

Belomancy: The casting of arrows for the purposes of divination is well attested to in Semitic cultures surrounding Israel. Not only do Akkadian and Arabic documents refer to it, but archaeologists have found bronze arrowheads with the inscription chetz (arrow) on them. Since inscribing an arrow with the word “arrow” seems pointless, at least one scholar speculates that the word is meant as a pun of the Ugaritic word for “luck.” 1

The practice of belomancy is explicitly mentioned twice in Hebrew Scriptures, once with condemnation (Ezek. 21:26), the other as a legitimate way for a Prophet to discern the future (2 Kings 13:14-19). It is alluded to in another passage (1 Sam. 20:19-22). This third passage may be meant as satire, showing it (and the interpretation of word omen in general) to be nothing more than a sleight-of-hand trick to convey messages already known to the practitioner.

The methods of belomancy vary. According to Ezekiel, a bundle of arrows is shaken and then cast down, possibly in front of an Idol. The pattern in which they fall was presumably interpreted, I Ching fashion, by the baru (diviner). Arab sources suggest that arrows (usually three, just as described in the 1 Samuel passage) were shot, and the message then derived from the pattern of their landing.

1. Singer, The Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 2, 307; Roth, Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 3, 114-15.

Ben Azzai, Simon: Talmudic Sage and mystic (ca. 2nd century). Several sources report that when Ben Azzai expounded Torah, the flames of Sinai enveloped him:

Once, when Ben Azzai was interpreting Scriptures, flames blazed up around him, and when asked whether he was a student of the mysteries of the “Chariot of God,” he replied, “Like pearls, I string together words of the Torah with those of the Prophets; those of the Prophets with those of the Writings; and thus the words of the Torah rejoice as on the day when they were revealed in the flames of Sinai.” (Lev. R. 16; S of S R. 1.10)

He is one of the Four Sages who entered Pardes or PaRDeS. According to the account in Chagigah 14b, “He looked and died.” Genesis Rabbah takes this as a sign of his piety; for he is credited with saying that the pious see the rewards awaiting them in the moments before their Death. The Sages taught, “He who sees Ben Azzai in a dream is assured piety” (Ber. 57b).

Ben Stada: A practitioner of witchcraft mentioned in Talmud (B. Shab. 104b). He derived his knowledge from Egypt, one of the great sources of arcane knowledge (Sanh. 67a; Ka. 1:16).

Ben Temalion: A beneficent demon that helped a group of Jews, led by Simon bar Yochai, sent as emissaries to Rome. He did this by first possessing the daughter of Caesar, then allowing Bar Yochai to perform an exorcism on her. When Ben Temalion finally left her Body, Bar Yochai earned Caesar’s gratitude and his cooperation (Me. 17b). Among medieval Jews of the Rhineland, “ben Temalion” becomes an idiom for any mischievous spirit.1

1. Singer, The Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 2, 257.

Ben Zoma, Simon: Talmudic Sage and mystic (ca. 2nd century). He is one of the Four Sages who entered Pardes or PaRDeS. The experience drove him mad (Chag. 14b). Prior to this misadventure, Ben Zoma was noted for his obsession with Ma’asei-Bereshit, the mysteries of Creation. So powerful was his hold over the imagination of the Sages that the Talmud offers this promise, “He who sees … Ben Zoma in a dream is assured of wisdom” (Ber. 57b).

Bereshit: (58111). “When God Created …” This first word of the first book of the Bible serves both as the Hebrew name for the book Genesis and as an idiom for “Creation.” Because of its pride of position at the “start” of creation, as well as its uniqueness (the word never appears again in Scriptures), the word is subjected to intensive and varied exegetical analysis. Many, many meanings are derived from this one six-letter word.

Since the time of RaSHI, it has been widely understood that the conventional sequential translation, “In the beginning …” is inaccurate. Bereshit is a construct, not absolute form, so a temporal “When [God] began to …” is more accurate. So already on the merely syntactical level the word has its complexities. But Jewish tradition has also held the six letters contain secrets that the wise will understand. For example, by making a Notarikon (in this case, separating the word into two words, it yields:

58114 He created six [things] … (Gen. R. 1:4; MhG)

A secret is revealed—six critical entities preceded the actual creation of Heaven and Earth: The Throne of Glory [positive existence], Torah [the blueprint for existence], the ancestors [the righteous pillars that support existence], the concept of the Temple [the link between worlds], and the name of Messiah [redemption and rectification].

Although the Torah itself suggests that certain hylic entities coexisted with God at the beginning (water, darkness), by separating out the diacritical dagesh [it is the dot in the first letter] from the word and treating it as a metaphysical symbol, the exegete reads it as:

Beginning with a point … 58117/b’ reshit], (Zohar I:15a)

and from this the Zohar demonstrates the philosophic principle creation ex nihilo [from nothing] in the first word. The author of the Zohar also finds hints of the sefirotic structure in the first sentence, Bereshit bara Elohim:

With Wisdom [reishit = Chochmah, a claim based on Proverbs 8:22; 3:18], the Infinite [= Keter, the subject being implicit in the verb form bara] created Elohim [= Binah].

In a different vein, all Jewish mysticism takes very seriously the pathos (the caring) of God. Kabbalah emphasizes that God is driven by a “need” to create and relate to that creation, an idea scandalous to rationalist philosophy, which posits that God must be impassive. Rearranging the six letters yields a phrase that reveals that creation is a:

58123/A song of desire (Attributed to Isaac Luria)

and confirms the mystical premise of a deity longing for us.

These are just a few examples. Tikkunei Zohar alone has seventy d’rashot on the word Bereshit. But this kind of freeform interpretation creates other problems for the tradition. For example, Christians can play this game too. The six letters can be regrouped to spell out: father; son; fire [equaling the Holy Spirit, though the association seems tenuous]; fortunate daughter [i.e., the Virgin Mary]; even crucifixion on the sixth day. This last element is based on an alphabetically/morphological pun: the Hebrew Tav, the sixth letter in the word, is the equivalent of the Greek tau … which is cross-shaped (De Naturis Rerum, a commentary by 12th-century monk Alexander Neckham).

Christian exegetical demonstrations like this may in part explain the gradual Jewish shift to more contextual, plain-sense [Pashat] interpretations of the Hebrew Bible favored by later generations of commentators such as RaSHI, David Kimhi, and Sforno; contextual readings offer less chance of having one’s own hermeneutics used against one. SEE CHAOS; CREATION; MA’ASEI-BERESHIT.

Beriyah, World of: (58119). “Creation.” The second of the four worlds of emanation, this is the level in which positive existence emerges. It encompasses the “lower” worlds of Yetzirah and Asiyah. Some traditions associate this with the highest orders of Angels and the Throne of Glory. As the first world that is “created” rather than purely “emanated,” it is said to function as the first garment concealing the supernal shefa of God’s creative force. It is, nonetheless, a realm of pure intellect and the place from which human reason emanates. It is also the domain of pure law (Etz Chayyim). Jewish word mysticism also associates it with the first letter hay in the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of God.

Beruchim, Abraham: Kabbalist (North African, ca. 16th century). He advocated the mystical discipline of midnight study andPrayer. He was such a severe advocate of repentance that he was believed by many to be the reincarnation of the prophet Jeremiah.

Berudim: (58127). “Spots.” In the Lurianic cosmic-allegorical interpretation of Genesis 31:10, this refers to Yetzirah, the World of Emanation.


Bestiality: Sexual relations with animals are explicitly forbidden by the Torah (Lev. 18). Stories of inter-species intercourse do, however, appear in Jewish literature. The most famous of these is a Talmudic reference to Eve copulating with the serpent (Shab. 146a). There is also a more obscure tradition that Adam first gave vent to his libido with God’s other creations, a story that serves as an etiological rationale as to why God felt compelled to create a female partner for him. One Midrash claims that antediluvian people engaged in bestiality with all the land creatures, thereby contributing to the absolute corruption of all Creation, requiring the great Flood to purge the Earth of this obscenity (Gen. 6; Eruv. 18b). Interestingly, as in Greco-Roman religions, such tales of bestiality are mostly set in the mythic past.

Bestiality is closely associated in the Talmudic imagination with witchcraft, and the Sages believed that it was through intercourse with animals that Balaam gained his infernal powers (Sanh. 105a-b; Zohar I:126a).

Thus in Talmud, there are several apparently earnest discussions as to whether a Jew should let a Pagan serve as a bailiff for Jewish livestock, out of fear the animals will be used for immoral/infernal purposes. It would be easy to assume that these are simply cases of Jews stereotyping their neighbors, but the fairly frequent representation of human-animal coupling on Greek pornographic urns might suggest and explanation for the Talmud’s preoccupation with this issue.1

1. S. Deacy and K. Pierce, eds. Rape in Antiquity: Sexual Violence in the Greek and Roman Worlds (London: Duckworth, 2002), 69-96. Also see P. Mathieu, Sex Pots: Eroticism in Ceramics (New York: A & C Black, 2003).

Bet: (58129). Second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It has the numeric value of two. It is the first letter appearing in the Torah. According to Genesis Rabbah, the shape of the letter (closed above, below, and on one side, with only one side open) is meant to teach that a person should not engage in speculation about what is above, below, or precedes Creation; a lesson respectfully but more or less completely ignored by the author of this book. Based on its numeric value, it reveals that God created two worlds simultaneously:

Rabbi Yehudah ben Pazzi explained according to Bar Kappara: Why was the world created with a bet? To teach you there are two worlds: this world and the world to come. Another interpetation: Why [begin] with a bet? Because bet is the language of berachah/”blessing.” And why not with an alef? Because alef is the language of arur/”cursing.” (Gen. R. 1.9)

According to Deuteronomy Rabbah, the bet at the beginning of Torah (with its value of 2) teaches us about the inherent duality of Creation (2:31).1

1. Munk, The Wisdom of the Hebrew Alphabet, 43-54.

Beth (or Beit) Alfa: This archaeological site of an ancient synagogue (ca. 4th-5th century CE) is most notable for the richly decorated mosaic floor consisting of numerous Jewish motifs surrounding an elaborate zodiac at the center. The most puzzling element of this display is that Helios, the Greek god of the sun, is clearly represented there in the hub of the design.1

1. M. Avi-Yonah, The Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), 187-90.

Beth El: “House of God.” The location, near biblical Luz, where Jacob had his dream of a stairway to Heaven (Gen. 29). It would later become a sacred center for the early cult of YHVH. The story of Jacob’s dream may have been meant to provide an etiology for why the shrine was established at that location.

Betulah: (58146). “Virgin”/Virgo.” The zodiac sign for the month of Elul. This sign signifies the Earth, night, sensuality, materiality, and the feminine principle.1

1. Erlanger, Signs of the Times, 99-120.

Bezalel: (58148). “In the Shadow of God.” This Israelite craftsman, “filled with the spirit of God,” was primarily responsible for the construction of the tabernacle (Ex. 24-25). Bezalel was identified as a gifted artisan in the Bible, and legends of his fantastic skills multiplied.

So great was his insight into God’s intention that the Sages dubbed him the R’aiah, the Seer, along with other honorific names. Bezalel built the tabernacle according to a heavenly pattern shown to him. He could do this because he knew how to manipulate the Hebrew alphabet to unleash its supernal powers, just as God used them to create the universe (Ber. 55a; Zohar I: 9a). This legend is related to the widely held belief that the tabernacle was itself a model of the cosmos (Num. R. 12:13). The medievals credited his talent as a metallurgist to his knowledge of Alchemy.

Bible: (58152/TaNaKH also 58150/mikra). TaNaKH is an acrostic for the three divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures: Torah, Neviim, and Ketuvim (Pentateuch, Prophets, and Writings). This arrangement also roughly reflects the decreasing degree of divine inspiration credited to each book, with Torah being the most direct of God’s revelations and the Writings generally credited to the more modest influence of the Ruach Elohim, the “Holy Spirit.” The Hebrew Scriptures consist of thirty-nine canonical books (there are other methods of counting the collection, including treating the twelve minor prophets as a single book). The authoritative collection emerged out of a little-understood and mysterious process of canonization, a canonization not completed until at least the end of the 2nd century CE.

The Bible also mentions within its pages several other mysterious lost books. These include the Book of Jashar, the Book of the Wars of the Lord, and the royal chronicles of both Judah and Israel.

Like any other Jewish tradition, Jewish esoteric traditions look to ground themselves and justify their teachings in the authority and authenticity of Scripture. And certainly, the Hebrew Bible provides plenty of obvious examples of the fabulous: Angels, giants (Gen. 6), miraculous staves (Ex. 7), and monsters (Ps. 74). But the logic of the occult assumes that for all the wonders and forces that are visible and revealed, there are much more powerful things in the text which are concealed and must be detected. There are multiple proof texts for this premise, such as Psalm 62, “One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard,” and Proverbs 25:2: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is a glory of kings” (Also see Job 28; Prov. 25:11; Deut. 29:28). Thus, before the rise of Protestantism with its hermeneutic conceit that the meaning of the Scriptures was mono-vocalic, explicit, and self-evident, the Bible was widely regarded by both Jews and Christians to be a cryptic text: multi-vocalic, filled with layers of meanings, occult secrets, and powers that had to be extracted hermeneutically, or filled with teachings not meant for the masses. These secrets are concealed in the laws and stories by means of hints, allusions, allegories, and are even encoded into the very language itself. In fact, the more difficult the message was to ascertain, the more precious it was to be considered.1

This perception of the Bible as an exoteric text is illustrated in a famous legend that the Earth trembled when Onkelos the Proselyte and Jonathan ben Uziel first translated the Scriptures from the Holy Tongue (Hebrew) into popular Aramaic. When Ben Uziel further dared to make explicit the esoteric meanings embedded in Scriptures through his translations, a heavenly voice ordered him to stop (Meg. 3a; En Yaakov).

Evidence that the words of Scripture were held to have numinous and apotropaic powers already begins in biblical times, as indicated by the discovery of metal amulets inscribed with the Priestly Blessing (“The Lord bless and guard you …”) dating from the Monarchy period. Tefillin and mezuzahs, both of which contain biblical texts, were similarly credited with offering protection to their users (Ber. 23b; S o S R. 3:7; Num. R. 12). Reciting Psalm 91 came to be regarded as the first line of defense against demons. In the Middle Ages, a scroll or book of Scriptural verses would be placed at the head of a crib to protect an infant.

Despite the words of Rabbi Akiba, who declared that all those who use Bible verses for spells have no place in the World to Come (M. Sanh. 10:1), many biblical verses, such as Exodus 15:26, were used as healing incantations. In order to heal a seriously ill person, one might look in a book of Scripture, take the first word the eye falls upon, and add that word to the ailing person’s name. Biblical names, words, and phrases appear on virtually every inscribed amulet. Perhaps the most frequently used verses in a theurgic context are Genesis 49:18, Zechariah 3:2, and Numbers 6:24-26. Psalms were particularly popular in this regard. An entire book, Shimmush Tehillim, “Useful Psalms,” is devoted to cataloging verses for treating various conditions.

Passages would also be recited over crops to increase fertility and over property to protect it. According to Chayyim Vital, one can read and pronounce Scripture in such a way that it draws down an Angel that grants the summoner further revelations of secrets contained in the text (Sha’ar ha-Nevuah 2).

In classic magical fashion, verses were often read both forward and in reverse, or in permutations. Scriptures can also be used for purposes of divination. SEE BIBLIOMANCY; CODES; HEBREW AND HEBREW ALPHABET; PSALMS;TEMURAH; TORAH; TZERUF/Tzerufim.

1. J. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture (New York: Free Press, 2007), 14-16. Also see F. Talmage, “Apples of Gold: The Inner Meaning of Texts in Medieval Judaism,” in Jewish Spirituality, A. Green, ed., vol. 1 (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 313-355.

Bibliomancy: (58163 /Sheilat Sefer). Using sacred Scriptures as a means of divination. Above and beyond the familiar interpretative tradition that finds references to current events in the words of the Prophets. This kind of interpretation can be found in the pesher commentaries found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. And, of course, it is still a popular way to interpret the book of Revelations among some contemporary Evangelical Christians.

A verse can also be selected at random in the hopes of receiving an ominous message (Chag. 15a; SA Yoreh Deah 179:4). Some Sages believed in the mantic science of kleidon, treating the serendipitous overhearing of verses recited by school children as omens :

Says Rabbi Johanan, “It is clear that I have a Master in Babylon; I must go and see him.” So he said to a child, “Tell me the verse you have learnt.” He answered, “Now Samuel was dead.” Said [R. Johanan], “This means that Samuel has died.” But it was not the case; Samuel was not dead then, and [this revealed] only that R. Johanan should not trouble himself [to go]. (Chul. 95b; also see Git. 58a)

The Baal Shem Tov compares the Bible to the Urim and Thummim as a potential source of mantic knowledge (Sod Yakhim u’Vo’az).

Binah: (58161). “Understanding/Insight.” In the sefirotic system, Binah is the offspring and compliment to Chochmah. It is the dark receptacle of Chochmah’s light, the female counterpart to its masculine principle (Zohar III:290a), though in principle it also holds “masculine” qualities. It suckles the lower worlds. As such, it is also called Ima, “Mother,” and Heichal, “Palace.” It is the womb of God’s light, giving birth to all the “lower” sefirot.1 Binah is one of the root aspects of the Tree of Life. It is also, however, the beginning of judgment because it is the beginning of division (Bahir 186). In the context of Jewish ritual, Binah is associated with the Holy Ark, which contains the Torah. Removing the Torah from its concealment activates the divine flow from Binah to Tiferet (Or ha-Yashar).

1. H. Eilberg-Schwartz, ed. People of the Body: Jews and Judaism from an Embodied Perspective (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992), 119-120.

Binush, Binyamin, of Krotoszyn: (Polish, 1660?-1730). Wandering Baal Shem and author of two books: a magical manual, Sefer Amtachat Binyamin, and a collection of Lurianic healing Prayers, Shem Tov Katan. He was famed for his efficacious amulets, especially ones for the protection of women during and after childbirth.

Birds: (58173/Tzipor; Oaf ). Birds are a symbol of immortality and the Soul. Studying the behavior of birds was a form of divination most popular among the Hittites.1 Since biblical times, Jews have also regarded birds as portending the future. According to one strand of tradition, human souls take the form of birds in Heaven (Baruch Apocalypse 10; SGE). The Vilna Gaon, in his mystical interpretation of the book of Jonah, also teaches that a dove symbolizes the transmigrating human soul. SEE ANIMAL; HOOPOE; MILHAM BIRD; PHOENIX; ZIZ.

1. Hallo and Younger, The Context of Scripture, 206; Roth, Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 3, 114.



Birth Pangs of the Messiah: (58185/Chevlei ha-Mashiach). This refers to the various tribulations and disturbances—political, social, and cosmic—that precede the coming of the Messiah (Shab. 118a; Sanh. 98a).

Bitachon, Sefer ha-: This esoteric work by the little-known Iyyun Circle includes passages on the creation of a golem.

Bitter Destruction: (58182/Ketev Meriri). The demons of catastrophe is identified from biblical passages (Deut. 32:24; Ps. 91:6; Isa. 28:2). He is featured in a discussion of having a fortunate nature:

Abaye was walking. Rav Papa was on his right and Rav Huna was on his left. He saw Ketev Meriri approaching him on his left—he had Rav Papa and Rav Huna switch sides. Rav Papa said, “Why aren’t you concerned for me?” [Huna replied] “Your Mazel is good now.” (Pes. 111a-b)

His power is greatest between the seventeenth of Tammuz, the date when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans, and the ninth of Av, the day the Temple was destroyed. He is scaly and hairy and rolls about like a ball. His gaze brings instant Death (Num. R. 12.3, 7:9; Me’am Loez).

Bittul ha-Torah: (58215). “Nullification of (precepts) of the Torah.” In general, this is regarded as a bad thing, and Jews are forbidden to engage in any activity that is so distracting from engagement with Torah it effectively crowds it out of one’s life (A.Z. 18b; Tos. Shab. 7.5; Tos. A.Z. 2.2). In certain Haredi and Hasidic circles, this can be applied quite restrictively, effectively prohibiting any “secular” pursuit at all.

Bittul ha-Yesh/Bittul ha-Nefesh: (58178).“Nullification of the Ego/Selfhood.” This can mean a range of self-negating conditions from total submission to God’s will to ego-annihilation. Since the ego stands as an impediment between the Soul and God, Chasidic teachings encourage the spiritual seeker to sublimate or even overthrow the self in order to achieve devekut, unification with the true reality that is God.1

1. Rabinowicz, The Encyclopedia of Hasidism, 48; A. Green, Jewish Spirituality, vol. 2 (New York: Crossroad, 1986), 181-91.


Blasphemy: ( 58180/Birkat ha-Shem [euphemism]). While the Torah prohibits insulting God (Lev. 24:10-23), the exact parameters of this offense are unclear. In Jewish tradition the offense of blasphemy is limited to one who pronounces the Tetragrammaton (YHVH) for the purpose of profaning it (M. Sanh. 7.5; Sanh. 56a). In the Bible, the punishment could include Death, but that has been nullified since Talmudic times. The Mishnah statement on the matter, “Let YHVH curse YHVH,” makes the issue so puzzling, it becomes legally impossible to define or enforce. The Gospel accounts that claim Jesus was condemned by a Jewish court for “blasphemy” for calling himself son of God has no basis in any known Jewish law (M. Sanh. 7:5), suggesting the charge may be the Gospel writer’s own invention.

Blessed Holy One: (58217/ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu). A title for God popularized in Talmudic times, in Kabbalistic thought “The Blessed Holy One” designates the specifically male aspect of the Pleroma and it is identified with the sefirah of Tiferet. SEE NAMES OF GOD; SEFIROT.

Blessing: (58225/B’rachah). The capacity to bless something belongs foremost to God (Gen. 1, 12). A human may also bless, but with the understanding, either explicitly stated (“May it be Your will …”) or implied, that the power of blessing comes from the Deity. Because a blessing is the exercise of divine power, even if humans utter it, Jewish literature regards blessings to have real consequences (Gen. 28, saga of Esau and Jacob). Though Isaac intended the blessing he spoke over Jacob for Esau, once it was given, it could not be rescinded. In this sense a blessing is also more like an adjuration or decree of destiny than a Prayer. The fact that humans have the capacity to bless is a sign of our exalted status in the cosmos (Meg. 15a; Ber. 7a; Chag. 5b).

As is the case with so many other aspects of Jewish practice, the Zohar eroticizes blessing, claiming its existence only flow through the union of male and female forces (III:74b). The theme of drawing down blessing through the sefirot via the sexual act becomes a recurrent theme is later Kabbalistic teachings.1 SEE CURSE.

1. M. Idel, Kabbalah and Eros (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 122, 183, 205-206.

Blood: (58223/Dam). Blood is considered the essence of life, full of numinous qualities, and the handling of blood is of tremendous concern to God:

And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that eats any blood, I will set My face against that person that eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the meat is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your lives; for it is the blood in the living thing makes atonement [for consuming them]. Therefore I said unto the Children of Israel: No person of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourns among you eat blood. (Lev. 17:11-12)

For that reason, many taboos and laws concerning blood are found in Jewish law (Lev. 19:26; M. Ker. 5:1; Yad, Ma’achalot Asurot 6:2). The sprinkling of blood from the sacrifices upon the altar was an element in the rituals of atonement and purification, and blood resulting from slaughter for food had to be poured out on the ground and covered over (Lev. 17:13). The Torah expressly forbids the use of blood for divination (Lev. 19:26).

It is the first of the plagues God unleashes upon Egypt—every body of water , from the sacred Nile to the cooking kettles, was turned to blood and defiled. Blood also has protective power against numinous forces, as demonstrated during the Exodus from Egypt (Ex. 12:7, 12:22-23). Medieval physiology held that menstrual blood (niddah) was transferred/transformed into mother’s milk during and following gestation.

The Jewish awe regarding blood continued to have a paranormal aspect—the Zohar develops a dichotomous metaphysic around the symbolism of blood of circumcision (symbolizing purity) and blood of menstruation (symbolizing impurity). It also offers a contrast between the “blood of Jacob” and the “blood of Esau,” a polemical mirror image of the emerging Spanish obsession with limpieza de sangre, blood purity of lineage.1 Jewish men were particularly in awe of the weird and frightening power of menstrual blood, a fascination with a strongly misogynistic tone. One medieval tradition held that menstruating women who gaze into mirrors will leave blood marks on the glass.

As alluded to above, blood from sacrifices and food slaughtering must be poured out on the ground and covered, a means of legitimizing the taking and consumption of animal life through a rite of acknowledgment, “returning” the “life” to its maker and legitimate owner. Subsequent Jewish law requires that Jews go to great lengths to extract blood from animal carcasses, first hanging the animals for draining, then soaking and salting the flesh afterward to draw out any additional blood. This taboo about eating blood has meant that blood is not a regular materia magica used in Jewish magical formulae, rituals, or potions. Occasional exceptions appear in magical manuals such as Sefer ha-Razim, where we learn lion’s blood, mixed with wine and rubbed on the soles of the feet, gives one persuasive power over princes. Later religious authorities, usually drawing from non-Jewish sources, start to permit blood as an ingredient in therapeutic formulae (Shevut Yaakov II: 70).

Ironically, the Jewish attitude of aversion to blood may have inspired Christian anti-Semites to regard Jews as blood obsessed and even blood lusting. Among American folklorists, the custom of hanging slaughtered animals and draining the blood practiced among Hispanics of the Southwest is taken as evidence of Crypto-Jewish occult folkways.2 SEE BLOOD LIBEL.

1. D. Biale, Blood and Belief: The Circulation of a Symbol between Jews and Christians (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 106-107.

2. J. Neulander, “The New Mexican Crypto-Jewish Canon: Choosing to be ‘Chosen’ in Millennial Tradition,” Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review 18, no. 12 (1996): 140-58.

Blood Libel: The claim that Jews kill gentiles motivated by ritual/demonic impulses. While accusations of Jews engaging in ritual murder go as far back as the 1st century CE (Against Apion 2, viii 95), in what amounts to a remarkable disregard of all the evidence that Jews loathed the consumption of blood, medieval Christian superstition held that Jews, vampire-like, craved the blood of innocent Christians. This accusation, now known as a “blood libel,” enjoyed great currency in Christian circles from the Middle Ages until well into the 20th century, though it was sporadically debunked by Church authorities.1

Early versions of the libel claimed Jews would steal the consecrated host from church sacristies and then perform satanic rituals upon the bread in order to make it bleed. Because Easter was the time of Jesus's death, the rumor then arose that Jews ritually reenacted the death of Christ by killing an “innocent,” usually a child, and using the child’s blood for the making of matzah for Passover. The first such accusation occurred in Norwich, England, in the 12th century. A long series of similar accusations arose across Europe in the centuries that followed. The purported Christian victims were frequently beatified, while the Jews accused mostly met manifold gruesome ends, the manners of death being limited only by the local imagination.


Woodcut of the mass execution of Jews in Nuremberg, 1493

During the Black Death plagues of the 14th century, it was widely believed that Jews were spreading the contagion by poisoning the wells used by Christians, leading to numerous savage persecutions across Europe. Actual trials of Jews for ritual murder peaked during the 18th century.

A Russian clerk, Menachem Mendel Beilis, was the last Jew tried for the crime of ritual murder in 1911 (he was acquitted). In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Catholic newspapers revived the charge against Jews as part of a campaign to combat the liberal, socialist, and democratic ideas then sweeping Europe (Jews were seen as central players in these infernal ideologies). Partly as a result, accusations continued to arise in Catholic countries in the first half of the 20th century.2 Gleefully promoted by the Nazis in the 1930s-40s,the blood libel is enjoying a new life in the Arab world, where the media and leaders in Syria and Saudi Arabia periodically claim that demonic Jews are filled with (literal) blood lust directed at non-Jews.3

1. J. Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews (Philadelphia, PA: JPS, 1943), 140-58.

2. D. Kertzer, The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001).

3. “Top Hamas Official Osama Hamdan: Jews Use Blood for Passover Matzos,” MEMRITV, Clip No. 4384 (transcript), July 28, 2014, http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/4384.htm.


Body: (58237/Guf ). The body is both a precious vessel for the Soul and a mirror of higher realities (Lev. R. 34:3). Generally speaking, Judaism does not view the body as inferior to the soul, as did the Greeks, Gnostics, and some sects of Christianity.1 Nor do Jewish sources perceive sexuality as a “product” of the fall from Eden (RaSHI, comment on Gen. 3:1). Rather, all material things are, as God describes them in the first chapter of Genesis, intrinsically “very good.” Two millennia later, the anonymous 14th-century mystic who composed the Igeret ha-Kodesh, “The Holy Missive,” archly defends the intrinsic holiness of the body against the kind of popular perception that was current then among people under the sway of Greek-derived rational philosophy:

The matter is not as Rabbi Moses of blessed memory thought and believed in his Guide to the Perplexed, when he praised Aristotle’s statements … Heaven forbid! Matters are not as the Greek work states, since this work contains subtle traces of heresy. If that Greek had believed that the world is renewed by intent, he would not have said that. But we, who possess the holy Torah believe that the blessed God created everything as His wisdom decreed and created nothing shameful or ugly. For if we say that copulation is shameful, then the sexual organs are contemptible. But God, blessed be He, created them according to His word: “And you established them …” 2

Isaac of Akko likewise taught that the body is the necessary vehicle for human spirituality. But for the same reason, the management of the body is a major Jewish concern.

For this reason, the preeminent concept concerning the afterlife is that of resurrection, of having the body (perhaps in a more perfected form) reunited with the soul. Thus the body comes close enough to God’s ideal that we can expect to be reunited with it in the World to Come.

From Early Judaism onward, the Rabbis perceive all humans, regardless of differentiating features, as equally in the divine image, and actually encourage interracial procreation (Bek. 45b). The body is regarded as a microcosm, a replica of the universe in miniature (AdRN 31:3). According to many Sages, to study the human body is to gain insight into the nature of God. The body in certain ways concretizes Torah: The 248 positive commandments contained within it correspond to the 248 “limbs” of the human body (Mak. 23b; Targum Jonathan Gen. 1:27). Kabbalists find the sefirot manifest in the organization of the body, associating its limbs and members with each of the ten aspects of God’s emanations (Pardes Rimmonim, Sha’ar Hatzinorot). Illustrations superimposing the sefirotic Tree of Life on a human form are commonplace. Others, like Abraham ibn Ezra, see the human form as analogous to the Temple and its furnishings. Kabbalah articulates the principle that “limb strengthens limb”; human bodily performance of commandments strengthens the “limbs” (i.e., attributes) of God.3 All such comparisons only serve to highlight the sacred nature of the body, its status as a precious vessel of divine purpose, and as a potential receptacle of divine power. SEE ADAM KADMON; BONE; FINGER; TZORECHA GEVORAH.

1. A. Altmann, “Homo Imago Dei in Jewish and Christian Theology,” Journal of Religion 48 (1968): 235-259.

2. S. J. Cohen, The Holy Letter: A Study in Jewish Sexual Morality (New York: KTAV, 1976), 323.

3. Idel, Kabbalah, 184-185.

Boel: (58249). An Angel mentioned in Sefer ha-Razim, he is the principle angel who governs the “seventh camp of the first firmament.” He is probably a Judaized version of the Greco-Egyptian god Bouel.

Bone: (58247/Etzem). Rabbinic tradition identifies 248 bones in the human body, equaling the number of positive commandments found in the Torah. This number may be purely symbolic, or may be the result of actual empiricism. Counting teeth along with the 200+ bones classified by modern physiologists helps shrink the gap between what the Rabbis claim and what is known today.

In the Bible, God uses bone as the starting point in creating (or recreating) a living person (Gen. 2; Ezek. 37).

These last remains of the dead are regarded as having an enduring connection to the spirit. Joseph asks that his bones be brought up from Egypt to Israel, apparently not out of mere sentimentality, but in order than he might eventually dwell with the society of his dead ancestors (Gen. 50:25). This also may be the reason for the particular distress and pathos regarding the death of Rachel, whose bones must be left in a roadside grave, far from the ancestral tomb at Machpelah (Jer. 31:15-16).

Skulls were used to commune with the dead in Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian necromancy, but even the few incidents of necromancy reported in the Bible do not make mention of this practice. In the Midrash, however, the terafim mentioned in Genesis 30 are explicitly linked to this practice, claiming the terafim stolen from Laban were actually shrunken heads that spoke auguries (PdRE 36).


Ezekiel’s Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones by Gustave Doré

The Midrash speaks of a bone called the Luz that, like the soul, is indestructible. It is from this bone that God will resurrect the body (Lev. R. 18:1). It was believed that postmortem diagnosis of a person’s habits could be made by examining their bones (Gen. R. 89:2). One tradition goes further, claiming on the basis of Psalm 38:4 and Ezekiel 32:27 that the sins of mortals are inscribed on their bones (Masekhet Kallah Rabbati 3:1).

A late Kabbalistic tradition holds that after Death the bones that bear the marks of iniquity (see above) are transformed into demons (Kitzur Shelah). This is a variation on the idea that would emerge in Chasidism that Angels and demons are the byproduct of human moral actions.

In the priestly system of purity, human and animal bones are ritually impure. This severely curtails the use of bones in Jewish magic. An exceptional example found in the Talmud involves an incantation ritual for freeing a bone lodged in the throat by placing a similar (nonhuman) bone on the top of the head (Shab. 67a). Archaeologists have found finger bones buried beneath the thresholds of the Dura-Europos synagogue (ca. 3rd century) in Syria, evidently a prophylactic custom also attested to in neighboring pagan shrines. A magical text from the Cairo Geniza (T-S K 1.15) prescribes burying a dog or donkey shoulder bone under the houses of two people you want to alienate from each other. The bones of kosher animals could be incorporated into medical treatments (Shevut Yaakov III:responsum 77).

The fingernails, while not technically bones, play an important role in the Kabbalistic imagination, because they represent the kelipot, the “husks” of impurity that attach themselves to, and obscure, the divine nitzotz/spark (Zohar Shemot).Therefore it is customary in Kabbalistic/Chasidic circles for people to clip their nails on the eve of Shabbat as an act of purification. SEE BODY; BURIAL; FINGER.

Book of Formation: SEE YETZIRAH, SEFER.

Book of Illumination: SEE BAHIR, SEFER HA-.

Book of Jashar: SEE YASHAR, SEFER.

Book of Life: (58278/Sefer ha-Chayyim). The heavenly book in which the names of individuals are recorded for life in the coming year. Not being recorded in the book signifies that the person will die in the next twelve months. The names are written in the Book starting on each Rosh Hashanah, and the Book is then sealed on Yom Kippur>. The concept appears in the Bible in various guises; it may be related to the concept of the Tup Shimati the Mesopotamian “Tablet of Destinies” battled over by the gods (Ezek. 2:8; Zech. 5:1; Jer. 17:1; Mal. 3:16; Enuma Elish).

Exclusion from the Book means a death sentence in the coming year. The Book of Life is a major theme in the High Holy Day liturgy, a way of reminding the wayward to repent (High Holy Day Machzor; R.H. 16a; Ex. R. 45:6; PR 8).

Book of Radiance: SEE ZOHAR, SEFER.

Book of Raziel: SEE RAZIEL, SEFER.

Book of Secrets: SEE RAZIM, SEFER HA-.

Book of the Pious: SEE CHASIDIM, SEFER.

Book of the Wars of the Lord: SEE MILCHAMOT ADONAI, SEFER.

Book of the Watchers: SEE ENOCH, FIRST BOOK OF.

Bor: (58298). “Pit.” The Underworld. Going there is not a good thing (Ezek. 26:20). A biblical synonym for Sheol, in later Jewish literature it becomes the name for one of the seven levels of Gehenna. SEE BOR SHE’ON.

Bor She’on or Bor Sha’on: (58296). “Pit of Turmoil.” A term derived from Psalm 40:3. It is one of the seven compartments of Gehenna mentioned in the Talmud (Sot. 10a; Eruv. 19a).

Botarel, Moses: Sorcerer and failed Messiah (Spanish, ca. 15th century). Botarel was a magician who used amulets, sacred names, and angelic summonings. He wrote an eccentric commentary for Sefer Yetzirah. After a visitation from Elijah, he declared himself messiah, but the claim came to nothing.

Bow: (58276/Keshet). Biblical rhetoric often envisions God as a cosmic warrior with a bow (Zech. 9, 10). The rainbow, of course, is a sign of God’s peaceful intent toward the world after the Flood, God having “hung up” the bow (Gen. 9). Jewish children in traditional circles often include bow-and-arrow play on the holiday of Lag B’omer in commemoration of this promise, as well as the special association of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai with rainbows (Zohar I:72b). Starting in Talmudic times, the bow takes on a sexual association, becoming a euphemism for a penis (Gen. R. 87:7; Chag. 15a; Sanh. 92a; Zohar I:58a, 247a).

Bratzlav Chasidim: The so-called “Dead Chasidim” first formed around the charismatic and enigmatic Nachman of Bratzlav in the first decade of the 19th century. Unable to move past his death, they have been unique among Chasids for having no living rebbe to lead them. Their particular practices and outlook have provoked suspicion and hostility from other Jewish groups. They have even been suspected of being secret Frankist heretics.

Today they are among the most open, if undisciplined, of the Chasidic sects, attracting many seekers from the larger Jewish world.

Bread: (58292/Lechem). “Rabbi Isaac teaches that in the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, we find bread is food for the heart” (Gen. R. 48.2). Bread is the archetypal sustenance in Judaism. The use of bread for ritual purposes extends back to the beginnings of the people Israel.

In the biblical age, bread was one of the acceptable forms of offerings in the sacrificial cult. The afternoon offering was even coined minchah, meaning “meal offering.” Theurgic practices included the display of lechem ha-panim,Bread of the Presence or “shew bread,” twelve loaves that were set in the sanctuary of the Temple and replaced on a weekly basis. Unleavened bread, or matzah, also plays a central role in the rites and observance of Passover. Manna was the miraculous bread that fell from Heaven, feeding the Israelites for their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness.

Chief among the purely ritual uses of bread is challah. A small amount of it is pulled from the dough and burnt, in commemoration of the portion set aside for the priest. An additional ritual use is the ceremony of tashlich. Some say this custom is based on the notion that sins could be “transferred” to a substance which led to the custom of casting bread upon a natural water source.1 In authoritative interpretations this act is purely symbolic, but some apparently believed there was a metaphysical efficacy to this custom and that they were literally casting away their sins through the agency of the bread. Medieval customs included setting a loaf of bread beside a dying man, perhaps as sustenance for the Soul’s journey after Death.

Overtly magical traditions include the belief that bread and salt given to a newlywed couple or the family moving into a new house will deter the evil eye. Based on an interpretation of Exodus 23:25, it was believed that bread and water hung in a home would prevent the spread of disease (Ta’amei ha-Minhagim III:142). A wounded vampire could fend off destruction if she (Jewish tradition only mentions female vampires) could obtain and consume the bread and salt of her assailant (Sefer Hasidim 1466, Testament of Judah the Pious). Cakes decorated with magical incantations would be consumed by people to “absorb” the magical result (Machzor Vitry; Sefer Rokeach). This practice is most associated with magical methods for improving memory and the mastery of Torah texts (Sefer ha-Rokeach, Sefer Raziel).

The Hasidim develop many rituals around bread, especially bread that has been imbued with a measure of holiness because it was blessed or handled by a tzadik, a righteous person. SEE AFIKOMAN; MANNA; SUBSTITUTION; TISH;UNLEAVENED BREAD.

1. E. Frankel and B. Platkin Teutsch, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols (Philadelphia, PA: JPS, 2000), 24-25.

Bread of the Presence: (58302/lechem ha-panim). “Bread of Display,” “Bread of the Presence,” or in that quaint King James idiom, “Shew Bread” (Lev. 24:5-9). These twelves loaves were displayed as a symbolic offering for a week in the Mishkan, and later, the Temple sanctuary on a gold table and then given to the priests to eat—yum (Git. 60a).

With the end of the Temple service, as part of transforming the Jewish home a mikdash me’at, a small altar, Jews would have bread for Shabbat and festivals on their tables, usually two loaves of challah (bread with a token dedicatory offering removed from the dough before cooking), signifying something different, the lechem mishnah (the two portions of manna) received by the Israelites for Sabbath (Ex. 16:22).

Lurianic Kabbalah revived the twelve loaves, a custom preserved today in Chasidism (Mishmeret Shalom 28e). The practice is drawn not directly from the Bible, lest one be accused of engaging in nullified Temple ritual, but from the teachings of Isaac Luria, who insisted twelve should be obligatory. He noted that in the Zoharic phrase, “This is the table that is before God,” the word zeh (“this”) equals twelve in gematria —rendering it “12 is the table that is before God” (Pinchas 245). Twelve loaves ensured that God would be present at that gathering. These needed to be arrayed six on one side of the table, six on the other, just as the lechem panim were.

The Hasidic work Sha’arei Teshuvah proposes a different arrangement: four stacked double-decker on the right, left, and center (Sha’arei Teshuvah 274a). Some Hasidim don’t actually serve twelve loaves, but will bake large challot made of twelve parts (either braids or just twelve different dough samples) known as yudbeisnik.

Breaking of the Vessels: (58304/Shevirat ha-Kelim). The primordial dissolution of the cosmos. According to the cosmogonic theory of Isaac Luria, God is the totality of all things, and it is the nature of God’s abundant goodness to want to give. This divine desire to give immediately created a receptacle (the primordial universe) to receive that abundant goodness, in the form of light, flowing out from God. God created intermediate vessels to contain the supernal light emanating from Adam Kadmon. However, these vessels initially could only receive the divine overflow but not return it or discharge it, so they filled to capacity and shattered. The universe therefore suffered a cosmic disruption, or misalignment (Etz ha-Chayyim, Sha’arei ha-Melachim 5; Sha’ar ha-Gilgulim 3; Tanya 25).

In order to bring it back into balance, God reformed the structure of the universe into vessels that could both give and receive. Often this new structure is called the Partzufim. Therefore the universe now contains unevenly distributed areas of abundance and areas of lack, with nitzotzot, scattered divine sparks, which need to be gathered and given back so the original order can be restored. Those sparks of the divine light that fell deepest into Creation, however, were encased in kelipot (husks) of impurity, evil, and entropy. This then is the Lurianic rationale for the Torah and commandments: it is by the correct performance of these acts that we unleash the divine sparks trapped in every aspect of worldly existence and, in partnership with God, restore the divine order (Sha’ar ha-Gilgulim). Various Chasidic writers, such as Nachman of Bratzlav and Sh’neur Zelman of Laydi, have offered refinements and elaborations of this metaphysical model. This myth is perhaps the most overt expression of Gnosticism found in Jewish mysticism. SEE TIKKUN.

Breastplate: (58315/Choshen). The breastplate of the High Priest of the cult of YHVH. It had both symbolic and spiritual significance. It consisted of either a gold plate or gold threads interwoven with scarlet, purple, and blue fabrics and mounted with twelve precious and semiprecious stones, each one engraved with the name of a tribe, arranged in four rows across. There may also have been a pouch behind it, made from folded fabric. According to one rabbinic tradition, the engraving on the stones was done by the Shamir worm (Git. 68a-b).

One of the functions of the Hoshen was divining YHVH’s will, and as such it was sometimes referred to as the Hoshen mishpat, the “Breastplate of judgment.” If and how it was used, and its exact relationship to the Urim and Thummim, is unclear. Perhaps they were used in conjunction with each other. Or perhaps the title “Breastplate of Judgment” simply derives from the fact that the Hoshen held the Urim and Thummim when not in use. Others believe that the High Priest gazed into the gemstones and received oracles from the patterns of light refraction (lithomancy). Another tradition holds that it functioned like a Ouija board, with the priest scrying the letters in order to form word messages (Yoma 73b). SEE EPHOD; GEMSTONES; PRIESTHOOD AND PRIEST.

Breasts: (58319). Human breasts become a mystical symbol by virtue of Song of Songs 4:5, “your breasts are like two fawns,” and chapter 8, “We have a little sister whose breasts are not yet formed” (8:8) and “I am a fortress, my breasts are like towers” (8:10). Targum Song of Songs declare Moses and Aaron the two breasts. The Zohar finds divine powers allegorized in these verses (1:44b, 2:253a, 2:257a). The Hebrew word for breasts, shadiyim, is also recognized to be part of the biblical name for God, El Shaddai. Sefirah Binah “nurses” the lower worlds. In other texts, the Shekhinah suckles the righteous, and in turn the righteous deeds of the Jewish people are called the “breasts of the Shekhinah,” because they nourish the cosmos (Zohar II:80b).

Bride of God: (58321 or 58323). While the Bible gives no indication that the God of Israel has a divine consort, a piece of biblical-era graffiti reveals that there were people who held that YHVH was linked to Asherah. In the prophetic imagination, the people Israel are the bride of God (Jer. 2:2; Hos. 21:22).

Rabbinic and mystical literature amplifies this teaching until it becomes a major metaphor for the relationship between God and the Jews (Pes. 106b; Sanh. 7a; PdRE 41; MdRI 3; Deut. R. 3:12; PR 31:10; Bahir, 196; Sha’ar ha-Pesukim). The Zohar also speaks of the Shekhinah as the “bride of God,” though this may be a distinction without a difference, since the Shekhinah is regarded to be both the feminine side of the Pleroma and the collective Soul of Israel (Zohar I:120, 202a-203a; Zohar II:175b; Zohar III:74b). Mostly startling of all is the Zohar’s claim that during this time of exile and evil ascendant, Lilith has become God’s consort (II:118a-b; III:97a). SEE MARRIAGE;PHALLUS; SEX; ZIVVUGA KADDISHA.


Brontology: A method of divining the future from meteorological and astrological observations. A genre of writing very popular in late antiquity, there is one Jewish example, an Aramaic fragment (4Q318), which has been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q138).

Broshah: (58343). A child-stealing demoness.1

1. R. Eisenberg, The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2004), 6.

Burial: (58345/kevurah). The period immediately following death is regarded in many cultures as a liminal time in which the soul must be assisted by the living to find its way into the afterlife. The consequences of failing to properly do this include displacement of the soul as a ghost or other distressed spirit or the bringing of evil upon those living who did not fulfill their obligations to the dead.

Hints of this thinking are evident in the Bible, yet despite a few allusions to rafaim (ghosts), the texts tell us only the most minimal facts about how the Hebrews buried their dead. Specifically, we find the use of Caves for family/clan burial, or barring that, the construction of a cairn with an upright stone pillar. The desire of Joseph to have his bones transferred to Israel may reflect a belief that his spirit would be in a kind of afterlife exile unless he was buried alongside his kin (Gen. 50:25).

For several centuries Jews practiced secondary burial, which involved first allowing the soft tissue to decay away and then reinterring the bones in an ossuary or bone chamber with the bones of other family members (this is the process being performed in the Jesus burial narrative). While there is one mention of cremation in the Scriptures (1 Sam. 31:12), the burning of bodies is never accepted as normative and is forbidden in Jewish law.

In the more expansive rabbinic literature, however, many more beliefs and practices surrounding burial, including beliefs about the soul and its needs, are recorded. A Body without a soul is vulnerable to possession by an impure spirit, therefore the body needs to be interred before sunset (Deut. 21:23; Zohar III:88b). Bodies were buried with their feet directed toward Jerusalem, so that in the moment of resurrection they would arise facing the way home. Tradition mandates a body be buried quickly, for to leave it to decay is a sign of disrespect. On the other hand, the bodies of the Righteous do not decay (B.M. 84b; Zohar I:4a). According to Sefer Chasidim, those who die bearing a grudge will seek vengeance against the living after they are gone, so it is best to settle any disputes with a dying person (708).

Many customs relating to fear of the evil eye are written down during the Middle Ages. The formal existence of Chevraot Kadisha, communal burial societies, helped preserve many of these. Examples include not allowing a child to follow the coffin or even attend the funeral (there was already a prohibition that applied to the sons of priests based on the rules of priestly purity). Mourners in some communities shattered a pot in front of their door when they left for a funeral, evidently to frighten away the evil eye. Sephardic Jews were known to throw coins around the coffin of the dead in order to “pay off” evil spirits who might otherwise attack the vulnerable spirit of the deceased. A grave should not be left dug and empty overnight, lest the evil eye see it and cause another death. All the water in the house would be poured out, either because the dead soul may have used it to perform ablutions in preparation for its journey to the afterlife, or because the Angel of Death might have used the water to wipe clean the knife used to slay the deceased. Water would be poured over the threshold of a house in mourning to prevent the spirit of the newly deceased from entering his former abode. Those who accompany the body need to perform various rites, such as the Tikkun Shovavim, to protect against evil spirits drawn to the death. These might include ritual ablutions and interrupting the processional to and from the grave (SA Yoreh Deah 339-75; Ma’avar Yabbok).

Preparations of the body for burial have become increasingly elaborate, and entail complex symbolic and mimetic rituals to ensure the soul safely reaches God, or its next stage of reincarnation. Biblical verses are recited over the body, equating the deceased to a priest, the Ten Commandments, and other heirophanous entities beloved of God. The body is subjected to purification in water, a gesture meant to represent the purification of the soul.1 In some communities, shards of pottery are placed over the eyes of the dead. The thumb of the corpse is often bent to form the hand in the shape of the letter shin and bound in place with tzitzit. Some burial societies place a stick or a fork in the hand of the dead so that it may symbolically dig its way to the Holy Land for the resurrection.

The dread of burying a person alive does not seem to have preoccupied Jews. Thus when, as a response to this anxiety, European gentile authorities started requiring bodies be kept above ground for three days, many Jewish communities resisted. This was a controversy of metaphysical significance to those who believed a delay in burial meant the soul could not successfully transmigrate to its next incarnation.

The Baal Shem Tov was credited with being a kind of spirit guide to the disoriented souls of the newly dead, guiding them to their reward on the eve of the Sabbath. Pious Jews to this day will congregate into Chevra Tehillim, “Psalm fellowships,” reciting psalms post mortem in order to ease the transition for the dead. Many of the customs mentioned above, or variations of them, continue to be observed in various traditional communities. SEE BANIM SHOVAVIM; DEATH; GHOST; POSSESSION, GHOSTLY; SOUL; WORLD TO COME.

1. G. Dennis, “Purity and Transformation: The Mimetic Performance of Scriptural Texts in the Jewish Ritual of Preparing the Dead for Burial,” Journal of Ritual Studies, 26:1 (2012): 51-64.

Burning Bush: (58353/Senah). The fiery bush from which God’s Angel made himself manifest to Moses, and from which God gave Moses his commission to deliver the people of Israel (Ex. 3-4). It symbolizes both God’s concern for Israel and God’s presence in even the lowliest part of Creation. Exodus Rabbah 2:5 includes a debate whether the angel of the bush was Michael or Gabriel.

Despite the fantastic nature of this apparition, the burning bush has not received a great deal of esoteric interpretation. Whether the bush should be regarded as belonging to the motif of the “cosmic tree” found in both Pagan and Jewish cosmology is a matter of debate. St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai claims to have the original bush preserved in its courtyard as a holy relic.


Moses at the Burning Bush by E. M. Lilien

In a classic example of the magical application of paradox, the word senah can be recited over and over to combat fever (Shab. 67a). In more elaborate versions, a bush is actually cut down as part of a fever-combating ritual. SEEFIRE; TREE.

Burnt Offerings: (58351). SEE BLOOD; SACRIFICE.

Enoch. SEE UZZA.