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

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


Wall, Western: (ltk/ha-Kotel). Alternately called the “Wailing Wall” or simply “the Wall,” this retaining wall to the platform of the Temple Mount created by King Herod is the last remaining remnant of the Temple in Jerusalem, the nexus point of communion between God and Israel (Ber. 32b). As such it is considered the structure closest to the Holy of Holies that a Jew can approach without being in danger of stepping on that most sacred ground, an act forbidden to all but the High priest. It is a place of great spiritual power in Judaism, drawing pilgrims who not only desire the merit of having prayed there, but who also leave prayer petitions, called kvitlakh, in the crevices in the hope that their supplications are more likely to get a positive outcome.

According to legend, the poor of Jerusalem originally built the Wall, the only contribution they could afford to give King Solomon’s project. The Shekhinah is intimately linked to the wall,

“Behold, He stands behind our wall.” (S of S 2:9). “Wall” refers to the Western Wall of the Temple which will never be destroyed. Why? Because the Shekhinah is in the west. (Num. R. 11:2. Also Ex. R. 2:2)

The Zohar and Moses Cordovero elaborate on this claim, even suggesting it is the Shekhinah physically manifest, nexus of the masculine and feminine energies (Zohar II:5b; 116a). On the ninth of Av, the anniversary of the day when the Temple was destroyed, a white dove will join those gathered in mourning; the Wall itself weeps. Supposedly, there is one stone with an idolatrous image carved into it made by King Manasseh and enchanted with a spell by King Jeroboam that hinders the redemption. It is no longer visible, and several legends relate that the cursed stone was removed by one or another spiritual genius, but no one knows for sure. Miraculous signs of God’s mourning for the destroyed Temple are sometimes reported (Hemdat Yamim, Rosh Chodesh 4a). It is the place where the Messiah will appear (S of S R. 2:22).

War Scroll: This Dead Sea Scrolls text, also labeled 1QM and 4QM, details an eschatological war that is to eventually be fought between the sons of Light and the sons of Darkness. SEE ANGEL; MANUAL OF DISCIPLINE.

Warrior, Divine: One of the most popular mythic ways to portray the God of Israel in the Bible was as a hero or warrior (Ex. 15; Pss. 2, 9, 24, 29, 46, 48, 98, 104; Isa. 34-35, 42-43; Zech. 9). This “divine warrior” motif usually follows a set literary pattern: threat, combat, theophany, victory, the salvation of Israel, and God’s universal reign. The order may vary according to the needs of the poet, with different elements being added or modified to reflect the historic circumstances or the mythic theme they wanted in the forefront. The appearance of the motif often has nothing to do with military threats to Israel, instead being used to highlight God’s capacity to bring rain, control nature, domesticate the wild, or bring moral order to a land in chaos (Jer. 5:22; Pss. 44:19-20, 104:26; Job 7:12, 38:8, 10-11, 40:25-29). This type of hymn has its roots in Canaanite-Mesopotamian hymns (Baal and Yamm, Enuma Elish).1

1. F. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), 91-111.

Wars of Adonai, Book of: (Sefer Milchamot Adonai). A lost book mentioned in the Bible, it evidently contained accounts of God’s victories over Israel’s enemies. Not to be confused with the famous medieval philosophic work of the same name by Gersonides. SEE WARRIOR, DIVINE.

Watcher: (60803/Ir). “Wakeful One.” A class of high angels, sometimes characterized as "archangels,” first described in the book of Daniel (4:10-14). Drawing on a single verse in Genesis 6:4, apocalyptic literature declare these are the fallen angels who have intercourse with mortal women, producing the race of giants:

In those days, when the children of man had multiplied, it happened that there were born unto them handsome and beautiful daughters. And the angels, the children of heaven, saw them and desired them; and they said to one another, “Come, let us choose wives for ourselves from among the daughters of man and beget us children.” And Semyaz, being their leader, said unto them, “I fear that perhaps you will not consent that this deed should be done, and I alone will become (responsible) for this great sin.” But they all responded to him, “Let us all swear an oath and bind everyone among us by a curse not to abandon this suggestion but to do the deed.” Then they all swore together and bound one another by (the curse) and they were altogether two hundred … (I Enoch 6:1-7. Also see I Enoch 7, 19, 64, 69; Jubilees 4, 7)

They subsequently corrupt humans with forbidden knowledge and ultimately rebel against God. In Gedulat Moshe, these angels perform the celestial music of the sixth heaven. They are central figures in the mythic theology of the Qumran priests (Community Rule II, IV; Damascus Document, II, III; War Scroll XIII). The belief that angels rebel against God and are the source of demons is utterly abandoned in Rabbinic literature, but has a short resurgence in some medieval Jewish sources, such as Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, perhaps because of new encounters with Christian myths. SEE ENOCH, BOOKS OF.

Water: (60807). Water occupies a central and complex place in Jewish myth and ritual, beginning with the words, “The Spirit of God hovers over the waters” (Gen. 1:2). From this passage, Jewish esoteric tradition derives the belief that water is a primordial force, a sign of divine energy, and a key component in encountering and invoking divine power (Chag. 12b). Functioning as a multivalent symbol in Judaism, water is also a symbol of Torah (B.K. 82a; Gen. R. 54:1), as well as a mechanism of purification.

Water is the visible manifestation of chaos. Order only emerges as God drives back and delimits the watery abyss (Ex. R. 15:22). God’s separating the waters into heavenly and earthly zones then permits the cosmos to appear (Gen. 1; Tan. 10a; Num. R. 18:22). With the appearance of dry land, God traps the primordial waters under the Earth and seals them in place with the Foundation Stone.

According to the Talmudic Sages, all the water of the universe is divided between the female tellurian waters and the male celestial waters. Their joining together fructifies the earth (Tan. 10a; Gen. R. 4:2-4, 13:11, 13:13). This is the rationale for the water libation service performed on Sukkot. There is a similar gender distinction made between rain and dew. This mythology of “gendered” waters plays a crucial role in mystical thought and theurgic practices (J. Ber. 9:3, 14a; Tan. 25b; PdRE 23). According to Azriel of Gerona, water was the primeval mother who gave birth to darkness. Water flowing from the heavenly Eden sustains life in the lower worlds (Zohar I:17b, 29b, 46a, 82b; Zohar III:223b).

Though God has tamed them, the waters still possess great and destructive power. Therefore, the appearance of supernal water while ascending through the palaces of heaven was considered a barrier and a danger to the living soul (Chag. 14b; Hechalot Ms. Munich 22d). When David attempted to move the Foundation Stone, he unwittingly unleashed the waters of the abyss, threatening to undo the world (PdRK 148b).

Water sources are also a favorite lurking place for spirits and demons , as exemplified by the incident of Jacob wrestling with a spirit being by the river Yabbok (Gen. 39. Also see Lev. R. 24.3; Pes. 112a), a belief that appears to be a hold-over from Pagan traditions (the Banyas rapids at the headwaters of the Jordan are named for the Greek god Pan and the ruins of a shrine to him are still visible there).1

By the same token, a body of water, because of its association with purity, is a place of revelation (Ezek. 1:3; Dan. 8:2, 10:4; III Baruch; I Enoch 13:7; MdRI Pisha 1; Eccl. R. 3:16). In the mystical book the Re’uyot Yehezkel, the prophet received his prophetic insights by gazing into the reflections on the river Chabar. From that time forward, water was a frequent component in rituals of power and protection.2 The kings of Israel are anointed standing over water (Hor. 12a). Studying Torah by a stream ensures that one’s memorization will “flow like a river.” Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:15 goes so far as to say that if one intends to use the name of God for theurgic purposes, one should do so only over a body of water. In a similar vein, Sefer ha-Shem and Sefer ha-Malbush teach that one may only transmit the knowledge of the proper pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton in a ritual while standing in or over water, based on psalm 29—kol YHVH al ha-mayyim (“the sound ‘YHVH’ is upon the waters”). 3

German Pietist would also perform theurgic rituals and transmit occult knowledge over water (Sefer ha-Malbush). Among the merkavah mystics, some rituals for drawing down angels required the summoner to be immersed neck-deep in living waters.4 Perhaps the image of the angel appears in the reflecting surface. Some Jewish divination techniques include studying the patterns of oil poured into a bowl of water (Sefer ha-Hezyonot 5).

Without question, the water that has the greatest power is mayim chayyim, “living water.” This is rainwater that has not yet been drawn from its source by human hands or by artificial conduit. All seas, natural lakes, rivers, and ponds are reservoirs of living water. A source of living water is also the necessary ingredient in a mikvah, or ritual bath. The potency of living water derives from the fact that it has fallen directly from the pure state of heaven. In fact, it serves as a kind of reservoir of the heavenly Eden here on earth, not unlike how we today think of the embassies in a country as being “foreign soil.” As such, immersion in it has the power to purify that which it contacts.

Living water of all forms has heavenly, even life-giving, energy. This belief is exemplified by Ezekiel’s narrative about the great life-giving river that will flow from the Temple Mount in the days of the Messiah (Ezek. 47:1-12).

For this reason living water is used in many rituals of power, such as constructing a golem, divination, ordeals, and the preparation of amulets. SEE MAGIC; MIRIAM; RAIN; RIVERS; SUMMONING.

1. T. Canaan, “Haunted Springs and Water Demons in Palestine” Journal of the Palestine Oriental Society, no. 1 (1921): 153-70.

2. Winkler, Magic of the Ordinary, 174-75, 227n.

3. Dan, The Heart and the Fountain, 104-5.

4. Lesses, Ritual Practices to Gain Power, 218-19.

Water Libation or Water Drawing Ceremony: ( 60824). When the Temple stood, one of the rituals of the holiday of Sukkot would be the Water Libation ritual. SEE SIMCHAT BEIT HASHOEVA.

Water of Bitterness: (60822/Mai ha-Marim). A solution of water, dust from the grounds of the Temple, and the divine name (written either in the dust or on a parchment and then dissolved in the potion) that was a critical element in the ordeal the Torah designated as a way to determine if a wife has been unfaithful to her husband (Num. 5; Sot. 8b-9a; Num. R. 9:9). If the woman is guilty, the ritual causes her to manifest her guilt through some unpleasant abdominal event, probably either a peritoneal rupture or a prolapsed uterus that renders her barren. SEE SOTAH.

Wax: Wax was sometimes used as a materia magica in Greek magical texts, such as in the making of magical figurines similar to the popular conception of “voodoo dolls.” There are not many parallel references to wax in Hebrew magical documents, Sefer ha-Razim being one of the few. In that book, wax is listed only as a method to seal the mouth of dead animals used in magical rituals. SEE MAGIC; SORCERY

Ways of the Amorites: (60831/Darkhei ha-Emori). The Amorites were a Western Semitic people related to the Israelites, who lived in the region of what is now Syria/northern Iraq, though it has been proposed that in the Talmudic age, the Sages use the term Emori in a deliberate metathesis of the word Romai, as an encoded way to offer criticisms of the Romans. Whatever the origins, “Ways of the Amorites” is a rabbinic expression for forbidden ritual practices, but especially magical and divinatory practices (Tos. Shab. 7, 8:4-12). It is often translated as “witchcraft.” As a rule, any method of healing, even if it is overtly magical, is exempted from this prohibition (Shab. 67a).1 SEE MAGIC; SORCERY; WITCH AND WITCHCRAFT.

1. Goldin, Studies in Midrash and Related Literature, 117.

Weapons: Tubal-Cain (Gen. 4:22) is credited by the Sages with being the inventor of weapons of war. Apocalyptic tradition claims they were introduced by the fallen angel (I Enoch 8:1-4).

There are several weapons of power mentioned in Jewish tradition. The cherubim posted to guard the way back to the Garden of Eden have a spinning fiery sword (Gen. 3). The sling stones used by David were miraculously enhanced because he inscribed them with the names of the Patriarchs. In flight, they formed a single, lethal mass (Mid. Sam. 20:106-8, 21:109).

In the Midrash, there is mention of God presenting Israel at Mount Sinai with supernal weapons inscribed with the Tetragrammaton (Mid. Teh. 36:8). (This Midrash interprets the Hebrew word for “ornaments” as “armaments”—other Midrashim interpret this same reference as “crowns.”) These weapons made them invulnerable, even to the Angel of Death. The weapons were taken back by God after the golden calf incident (Gen. 33:5; Targum S of S 2:17; Lam. R. petichta 24; Tanh. B. Vayera 5). The zohar suggests these same weapons first belonged to Adam and Eve, but for what purpose they needed them is not made clear (I:53b). In the War Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Children of Light will go forth to the great eschatological battle against the evil Children of Darkness wielding similar weapons.

In dealing with the contradictory statements in 1 Samuel, first that there were no weapons among the Israelites (13:19-20,22), but then that Saul and Jonathan had swords, the Midrash teaches that angels brought down swords from heaven for Saul and his son.

Though not technically a weapon, the miraculous rod of the Patriarchs still proved a potent tool against Israel’s enemies. So, too, is the Ark of the Covenant. SEE BOW.; SWORD.

Weather: The Bible assumes God takes a direct role in causing and shaping the weather (Lev. 26:4; Nah. 1:3; Jon. 1:4; Hag. 1:11; 1 Kings 17:1). Righteous action, and even the intervention of righteous men, can alter weather patterns, especially bringing rain that has been otherwise withheld (Tan. 23a, 24b). Divining by means of the weather or the interpretation of cloud formations is mentioned in the Talmud (B.B. 147a). Later traditions teach how to prognosticate on the basis of weather that occurs on certain days or in conjunction with certain astral phenomena. SEE ASTROLOGY; BRONTOLOGY; DIVINATION; SEASONS; RAIN; ZODIAC

Wedding: (60839/Nisuin, also Erusin; Kiddushin). The wedding is an important messianic ritual in Judaism, symbolizing a partial restoration of the Edenic ideal, a time when male and female were “one flesh.” Jewish tradition teaches that it is only as part of a couple that an individual becomes fully human as God intended (Eruv. 18a; Ber. 61a; PdRE 12; Sot. 2a). marriage is also an event of cosmic healing, with the linking of a man and a woman in these lower worlds initiating an analogous Tikkun in the Godhead (Zohar III:19a, 44b).

Many spiritual forces, both beneficent and malevolent, are in play around a wedding. The most propitious day for a wedding is Tuesday, the third day of the week, the day that God blessed twice (Gen. 1). Fish is a favored food at a wedding ceremony, signifying both blessing and fertility. Other foods regarded as imbued with the power of sexual potency, such as nuts, are also eaten or thrown at the couple. In Talmudic times the wedding procession would be led by groomsmen carrying a hen and cock. Seven blessings are recited over the couple during the ceremony, ensuring good fortune. Demons , the evil eye, and even the Angels of Death, are attracted by the positive energies of the festivities (Ber. 54b).

The state of marriage especially brings a state of spiritual protection to the man (Yev. 62b), but since at least the period of the book of Tobit, it has been believed that the bridegroom is particularly vulnerable to malevolent attack during the liminal period surrounding the wedding. For this reason, the groom often wears a kittel , or shroud robe during the ceremony in order to confuse the evil eye. Often, both bride and groom fast prior to the ceremony based on the same logic. It is also customary for the bride to walk in a series of protective circles around the groom before they enter under the chuppah (the wedding canopy) together. The skin of Oriental Jewish brides is decorated with red protective patterns made from henna.

It is considered bad luck to mention any future joyous occasion, such as the birth of children, during a wedding (Eccl. R. 3:2). It has been widely argued that the breaking of a glass after the ceremony also has an anti-demonic function, though there is no documented reference to this in traditional literature. SEE SEX; WOMEN.

Weeping: (60856/Bekhi). Jewish tradition has always valued weeping as a great tool for maintaining spiritual equilibrium. As the Yiddish proverb goes, “Tears are to the soul what soap is to the Body.” The tears of the Righteous have the power of Torah; in some cases, they even turn into words of Torah when they fall.1 Despite the disapproval of some Talmudic Sages (Shab. 30a), there is a well-developed element of Jewish thought that take the idea of tears cleansing the soul quite seriously (A.Z. 17a). weeping is a widely practiced mystical technique for inducing revelations and visions (II Enoch; Zohar I:4a; Zohar II:14; Zohar III:166b; Sefer ha-Hezyonot) and inducing God to respond to supplications (Ber. 34b; Zohar II:20a). In the Zohar we are told:

If a person grieves and sheds tears for the death of Aaron’s two sons, God declares, “Your sin has left and your iniquity has been atoned for” [Isa. 6:7] … all those that are pained from those righteous who have died, or who sheds tears for them, God proclaims over him, “Your sins are removed, your iniquities atoned for.” (Zohar III:57b)

The significance of weeping in Zohar is complex and wide-ranging, often being the necessary precursor to revealing a divine secret, a marker that the revealer is spiritual cognizant of the awesome nature of what he is about to do and appears in many phases of Jewish mystical tradition.2

Jews ritually weep and mourn for the destruction of the Temple, an act that comforts the Shekhinah and draws it down to the worshipper (Reshit Chochmah). Hasidic figures like the Kotzker Rebbe and the Seer of Lublin encouraged weeping as a spiritual discipline. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk emphasized the spiritual practice of “holy sadness” in his teachings and the Seer of Lublin encouraged ritual weeping at midnight.3

1. N. Polen, “Sealing the Book with Tears: Divine Weeping on Mount Nebo and in the Warsaw Ghetto,” Holy Tears, Hawley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).

2. E. Fishbane, “Tears of Disclosure: The Role of Weeping in Zoharic Narrative,” Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 11 (2002): 25-47

3. Idel, Kabbalah, 75-88.

Well: (60854). Wells are ancient symbols of life, wealth, fertility, salvation, and tellurian power. The Sages identify two miraculous well incidents in the biblical accounts: the well that appeared for Hagar (Gen. 21), and the mobile well that the prophet Miriam made manifest during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness following the Exodus (Avot 5:6; Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 3:53-54). One tradition claims these were actually the same well, a supernal creation made on the twilight of the sixth day. SEE WATER.

Well of Job: A small fountain in the Kidron Valley of Jerusalem. Like most water sources in the Holy Land, it is credited with miraculous powers. In this instance, its waters once healed Job of his boils, a miracle from which the spring derives its name.

Well of Miriam: This miraculous mobile well was one of the ten miracles on the twilight of the sixth day:

Ten things were created on the eve of Shabbat at twilight. These are: the mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korach]; the mouth of the well [of Miriam]; the mouth of [Balaam’s] ass; the rainbow; the manna; the staff [of Moses]; the Shamir; and the writing, the inscription and the tablets [of the Ten Commandments] (Avot 5:6).

Created in the form of a rock, the well provided Israel with water throughout their forty years in the wilderness. These waters also had the power to heal. At the end of each Sabbath, the well replenished itself for the week. Whenever the Israelites moved, Miriam would cause it to materialize in the new campsite (LOTJ III: 50-54; AdRN 5:6). When Miriam died, the rock lost its miraculous quality, precipitating the crisis at Meribah in which moss found himself in a confrontation with the children of Israel over the lack of water (Num. 20, 27).

In at least one thread of the tradition, the well actually has appeared in other times and places, particularly for Hagar and Ishmael (Gen. 21).

Well Poisoning: SEE POISON.

Werewolf: (πlwwrw). The Baal Shem Tov did battle with a demonic werewolf (ShB 4). Werewolves are most often mentioned in medieval writings as part of a complex of witche/vampire/shape-changing traditions, especially in Sefer Chasidim.

West: ( 60877). The direction from which fulfillment and redemption flows (Bahir 110-16). It also signifies the Shekhinah:

[The west] is the constant abode of the Shekhinah. As Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: Let us be grateful to our ancestors for showing us the place of prayer, as it is written, “The heavenly hosts bow to You [i.e., the heavenly objects ‘descend’ in the west].” (Neh. 9:6; B.B. 25a)

Wheels: (60894/Ofanim). SEE OFAN, OFANIM.


White Herb: A plant used in alchemy first mentioned by Maria Hebraea. It is probably Moonwort, botrychium lunaria. Alchemists find many medicinal and magical uses for this plant. A “white flower” is also an ingredient used in making incense for exorcisms, but it is not clear whether this is the same plant.

Wilderness: (60882/midbar). Talmud tractate Berachot identifies deserts, ruins, and other uninhabited areas as the places where demonic and unclean spirits like to frequent. This sense of the spiritually untamed wilderness may spring from biblical concepts of chaos as a force in opposition to God, as well as the Yom Kippur ritual of sending the scapegoat to Azazel. SEE DEMONS; GOAT.

William of Norwich: Supposed victim of Jewish ritual murder in England (1144). His was the first recorded case of the blood libel accusation. The boy’s head was allegedly shaven and wounds from a “crown of thorns” were found on his brow. The boy became an instant local martyr. Remarkably, little was done to the Jewish community of Norwich, apparently because the local constabulary judged the popular hysteria surrounding William’s death to be unfounded. At the same time, the populous (for once) proved too law-abiding to take matters into their own hands. Subsequent Jewish communities would not be so lucky.

Willow: (60879/Aravah). Willow is one of the four species that make up the lulav. In the ritual of the holiday of Hashanah Rabbah that follows Sukkot, the willow branch is separated from the other branches and is used to flog the Earth, for that is the day “the earth is judged for the water to be received.” As a plant that thrives near moisture, it is believed that using the willow in this sympathetic theurgic ceremony ensures the earth will be adequately watered. The willow is also seen as a talisman of fertility because of its link to the water ritual, and a Jewish couple may keep one under their bed to ensure conception (R.H. 1:2).

Wind: (60892/Ruach). Winds coming from the four compass points symbolize the whole, wide world. The winds originate in storehouses of heaven and emanate from the “corners,” or cardinal compass directions, of the earth (Jer. 49; Dan. 7:2, 11; Zech. 6). According to the Bible, winds are angels that fulfill God’s will (Ps. 104:4; Ex. 10, 14; Isa. 26:6; Deut. R. 9:3). Wind is a manifestation of divine Presence (Gen. 1; Isa. 11:2-3; Git. 31b; B.B. 25a).

The word ruach is also used to refer to several other phenomena, both natural and supernatural: human breath, the imminent presence of God, an evil or demonic entity and one aspect of the soul. SEE DEMONS; HOLY SPIRIT;UNCLEAN SPIRITS OR IMPURE SPIRITS.

Wine: (60905/Yi’in). The very existence of wine was an event of supernatural origins. A Midrash on Genesis 9:21 claims Satan introduced Noah to viniculture, with dire consequences (Tanh. Noah 13). Despite this inauspicious start, wine occupies a very positive role in Jewish thought. As a symbol of rejoicing and prosperity, wine is a frequent element in Jewish rituals. Not surprisingly, some theurgic meanings have been ascribed to this practice, and more overtly magical uses for wine have emerged.

The custom of dipping one’s finger in the wine cup and removing drops of wine while reciting the plagues at the Passover Seder may have its origins in a medieval theurgic ceremony. Rhineland sage Eliezer ha-Gadol taught that removing sixteen drops in this way would trigger the Sixteen-Sided Avenging Sword of the Almighty. This force would thwart the power of Dever, the demon of pestilence.1 Sometimes wine was poured on the ground at birth ceremonies and Weddings to satisfy the spirits who had been attracted to the joyous occasion.2 Havdalah wine smeared on the eyelids brings good luck in the coming week.

German Pietist believed reciting certain incantations over wine enhanced their memorization of Torah studies. Wine was also used by magical practitioners. Methods found in Hebrew magical texts include using wine to dissolve magical incantations and then drinking the solution to absorb their power (ShR).

1. Kanarfogel, Peering through the Lattices, 138-39.

2. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition, 166-67, 195.

Wisdom: (60910/Chochmah). Wisdom is one of the attributes Jews value most. Solomon is celebrated for his wisdom, and he in turn offers many paeans to it in the biblical book of Proverbs. Wisdom was the object most treasured by Solomon, and because he asked for it over gold and silver, those were given to him also, and more. His supernal wisdom allowed him to become a celebrated judge and the archetypal scholarly sorcerer (S of S R. 1:1).

In Solomon’s Proverbs, Wisdom is personified as a woman prophet who lives in a palace of seven pillars (1:20, 9:1-6). She is also described as a desirable bride. child-bearer, and life-giver (Prov. 3:16, 3:18, 3:22, and 4:13). In Hellenistic Judaism, Wisdom takes on a quasi-divine quality:

For in her there is a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle;

mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible,

beneficent, human, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful,

overseeing all and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent and pure and most subtle.

For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. (Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-24)

Arguments have been put forward that Wisdom is really a Pagan goddess refashioned for monotheistic sensibilities.1 There is little direct evidence for this. Proverbs 3:8 does characterize Wisdom as a “Tree of Life ,” which may be a link to the Canaanite goddess Asherah, who was sometimes symbolized by a sacred trees/totem pole. We also now have one piece of evidence, an ancient piece of graffiti, which refers to “YHVH and His asherah.” If one then returns to Proverbs starting at 8:22, there Wisdom is portrayed as a kind of consort to God. If one looks past the fact that Proverbs clearly designates Wisdom as one of God’s creations, those inclined to connect these dots can find an occult goddess tradition concealed within.

Personified Wisdom continues to appear in post-biblical Jewish writings such as II Enoch (30:8), and Dead Sea Scrolls texts. Jewish Gnostics made the female Sophia a central figure in their beliefs.

In rabbinic tradition the Sages fuse Wisdom with other hypostatic, semi-divine entities that they explicitly characterized as female. Torah:

Thus God consulted the Torah and created the world, while the Torah declares, “In the beginning God created,” “beginning” referring to the Torah, as in the verse, “Adonai made me [in the passage, this refers to ‘Wisdom’] as the beginning of His way.” (Prov. 8:22; Gen. R. 1:1)

and the Shekhinah (Job 28; Mid. Mish. 8; Gen. R. 1:1). In Kabbalah , Chochmah is one of the sefirot, the first emanation of Keter. It is the highest any human can hope to reach in devekut, mystical union with God.

1. Patai, The Hebrew Goddess, 98.

Witch and Witchcraft: (60914/Mechashef ). “Wizard, Mechashefah Witch.” In most cultures across the world, a witch or wizard is generally regarded to be a nefarious practitioner of magic, or “witchcraft.” In Jewish culture, in contrast to both modern culture, which has reversed most images of evil creatures (vampires are now romantic figures, for example, instead of blood-lusting killers) and Christian culture, which sees them as virtually demonic, the Jewish attitude toward witches has varied considerably over time and geography. The German Pietist , for example, did regard them as quasi-demons . In the 17th century, Manasseh ben Israel of Holland expressed a view of witchcraft virtually indistinguishable from contemporary Christian demonologists (Nishmat Chayyim 232). The Talmudic Rabbis, on the other hand, while not approving of witches, blithely assume most of their own wives engage in at least some witchcraft practices (M. Sanh. 7:4, 7:11). These differences may well reflect the attitudes of the surrounding cultures in which Jews lived. Mediterranean societies were generally more tolerant of witches than northern European societies.1

The formal biblical attitude toward wizards and witches is severe, being a capital offense (Ex. 22:17; Lev. 20:27; Sanh. 45b). This seems to spring from witchcraft’s association with idolatry. Both men and women are portrayed as engaging in witchcraft, and contrary to the modern distinction made in academic circles between socially empowered sorcerers and socially marginal witches, witches in the Bible are often shown in positions of power, notably the wizards in the employ of the kings of Babylon and Egypt and the witches in the employ of King Manasseh. Queen Jezebel herself is a witch (Ex. 7:11; Dan. 2:2; 2 Kings 9:22, 21:2).

Little is known about biblical witchcraft. There is an oblique reference to “voodoo-like” practices (Ezek. 13:19), but the Bible almost universally opts to remain silent on the particular practices of the witch. The woman of Endor, often identified as a witch in Jewish post-biblical literature, is not designated so in the Bible itself, so it is not clear whether necromancy was considered a discipline of witchcraft, or a wholly separate offense (Deut. 18:10-12; Isa. 8:19-22, 19:3).

Jewish sources offer several accounts of the origins of witchcraft. According to I Enoch and Testament of Reuben, witchcraft was first taught by the fallen angel to their mortal wives. This presumably explains the special association between women and witchcraft that marks subsequent Jewish literature. In the medieval text Alef-Bet of ben Sira, the first woman, Lilith, transforms herself into a demon/witch by the power of using the Tetragrammaton.

While Jews were generally regarded to be exceptional magicians and even some Rabbis use incantations, potions , and healing rituals, in rabbinic literature witchcraft is most associated with women. Though there is an explicit statement that both men and women can engage in witchcraft, the fact that Exodus 22:17 prohibits Mechashefah (the feminine form of the noun) is taken as a prooftext that witchcraft is a particularly feminine activity:

Our Sages learned: “witch” refers to both males and females. Why then does it [the biblical prohibition] state “witch” (rather than “wizard”)? It is because most women are involved in witchcraft. (Sanh. 67a)

And this is despite the existence of magical manuals such as the Sword Of Moses, which is clearly written with the assumption that the adept using it will be a man. Perhaps a distinction between learned sorcery (practiced mostly by men), and folk magic (practiced mostly by women) starts to emerge here. Several passages of Talmud make a point of linking witchcraft with women, though in context and purpose of these passages are less about the women then an effort to warn off men from certain behaviors around women, such as engaging in the then still legal practice of polygamy:

The more possessions, the more worry; the more wives, the more witchcraft; the more female slaves, the more promiscuity. (Avot 2:7; Also see Eruv. 64b; J. A.Z. 1:9)

In one citation, none other than Simon bar Yochai, a Sage who is reported to have once used the evil eye to slay a man, makes this linkage. The practice of witchcraft was considered so pervasive among women that even the children of great Sages could be involved (Git. 45a).

In general, witches in biblical and rabbinic literature are thought to be engaged mostly in malevolent activities, from interfering with fertility and healthy births to cursing rivals and killing the unsuspecting:

She was a gadabout woman who was considered by people to be a good person. But she was a witch who invoked witchcraft upon every pregnant woman in order to prevent her from giving birth. Then, when the woman’s labor pains were very great, this widow would come and say: “I will pray to God for you to give birth immediately.” She would then go to her home and take away the witchcraft, and the woman would give birth immediately. Thus people thought she was righteous and pious, and the pregnant women would go to her before they were due to give birth and entreated her to pray for them. One day, though, she left her home and left behind a young lad to guard her home. He heard a sound of movement within the house, and he saw nothing but merely heard a sound. He then went and searched and found a full barrel which was covered. He uncovered it, and found the witchcraft within the barrel, and her wickedness and disgusting behavior were exposed, and the witchcraft was annulled. From that day on, the women no longer needed her, and the people of the city banished her from their midst. (Otzer ha-Geonim, c.f. Sotah 11) 2

This stands in contrast with beneficent sorcery, such as healing rituals and amulet making, which Jewish tradition tolerates. While there are examples recorded of “witchcraft” that serves purely utilitarian purposes (the ability to stir a boiling pot with one’s bare hand, for example), in general it is assumed witchcraft is used mostly for nefarious ends. The motivation for such behavior is rarely explicitly stated in the texts, but can be inferred. Witches seem to be a source of the evil eye, indicating they are motivated by envy and jealousy. Others use their powers for personal profit.3

Witches are sometimes portrayed as having idiosyncratic powers: one may be able to materialize bread , another drink, etc. The Talmud recounts that Rabbi Simeon ben Shetah defeated a coven of eighty witches. First, he tricked them into demonstrating their powers, then he gained the upper hand by appealing to their lusts. He brought eighty men before them, each of whom lifted a witch from the ground, thereby robbing each of her power (a piquant detail linking ancient witchcraft with earth or, perhaps, underworld power). Enforcing the biblical penalty, ben Shetah eventually had all of them hung. While dramatic in scale, this incident is actually the only such capital punishment of witches mentioned in the entire vast rabbinic corpus, and given its particularly legendary features, many scholars have held the historicity of the story suspect.

Aside from this one story, witches in rabbinic literature are rarely portrayed as demonic creatures, though it is not clear exactly what they are. In a virtually indecipherable tale found in the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Hananiah pulls the head of a witch from flax (Sanh. 13a). In general, though, witchcraft is seen more as a vice that virtually every woman will indulge in. With few exceptions, it is regarded rather just as something inappropriate that women do.

In medieval Jewish literature of northern Europe, by contrast, the image of the witch as a purely malevolent entity comes to the forefront, perhaps reflecting the greater hostility toward witches found in Christian culture at that time (Nishmat Chayyim 232). In Sefer Chasidim, witches share attributes with werewolves and vampires: they shape-shift, fly, have bloodlust, and can become the undead (456, 465). Yet despite this more alarming view of witches, there is no record of any large-scale witch hunts among the Jews of Europe to mirror the witch-hunting mania that seized gentile society. Perhaps the popular Christian notion of the Jew as a satanic agent made Jewish authorities leery of giving fuel to such talk with the spectacle of Jews trying other Jews on such charges.

Among the Jews of the Ottoman Empire, witches were viewed with more acceptance. Even an established Kabbalist like Chayyim Vital would seek the expertise of such wise women (Sefer ha-Hezyonot 4, 120).

The threat of a witch may be deterred by reciting the following curse: “May boiling excrement in a sieve be forced into your mouth, [you] witches! May your head go bald and carry off your crumbs; your spices be scattered, and the wind carry off the new saffron in your hands, witches!” (Pes. 110a). Seven loops of knots [tied to the left side of the Body] are also a good defense against illness caused by witchcraft (Shab. 66b).

1. L. A. Homza, Religious Authority in the Spanish Renaissance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 176-209.

2. M. Bar-Ilan, “Witches in the Bible and in the Talmud,” Approaches to Ancient Judaism. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press (1993), 7.

3. Ibid., 1-12.

Women: (60921). Despite the clearly patriarchal nature of traditional Jewish culture, Jewish tradition provides a wide range of images of women: wives, mothers, daughters, harlots, warriors, prophet, leaders, entrepreneurs, witches, seductresses, and sages. In the Bible, women personify both wisdom and witchcraft. While women are often portrayed as especially devious, indirect, and manipulative, that quality is often used for godly purposes (Rebecca in Genesis, Yael in Judges, the Wise Woman of Tokea in 1 Samuel, and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel all being signal examples). Women are also a source of discord among men because of male lust— the first murder, Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer claims, was actually a fight over Abel’s twin sister (PdRE 21). It is also the case that some Sages show a marked misogyny (Gen. R. 18:2).

The Talmud identifies seven biblical women upon whom “the Holy Spirit rested” (i.e., they were prophets). Those were Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Channah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther. According to the Zohar, there are four women who have been translated living into heaven and each of them governs one of the seven heavenly palaces (other sources speak of six palaces for women). There the souls of righteous women are rewarded. The women are Yocheved, the mother of Moses, Miriam, his sister, and the prophetesses Serach bat Asher and Deborah. Other versions of this list of ascendant women include Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh, Moses’s adoptive mother (SGE; Zohar III:167a-b; Midrash Yashar).

Jewish women have functioned as folk healers throughout history. Generally excluded from the scholarly circles that produced “physicians” in the learned tradition, women nevertheless were the avid practitioners and teachers of folk healing, midwifery, divination, clairvoyance, and amulet making.1

Because of the monthly cycle of menstruation, women are considered a potential source for tamei, ritual impurity. At least one extreme sectarian Jewish group believed the ritual impurity of women was such that women should not be allowed permanent residence in Jerusalem, lest their presence undermine the holiness of the Temple (DSS Temple Scroll).

This was also a concern with women in theurgic and magical practices. Most handbooks of mystical-magical practices instruct the adept to avoid even talking to women for three days prior to performing a summoning or an ascent, apparently out of concern that even the most innocuous contact could trigger sexual arousal and seminal discharge.

In Jewish accounts of spiritual possession, women are predominantly (though far from exclusively) the hosts for possessing spirits, both beneficent and malevolent. Women could also be the targets of incubi, lustful spirits (Nishmat Chayyim 3:27). From the 16th century on, women became prominent mediums. Some, such as the daughter of Raphael Anav, were possessed by the spirit of a great sage with insight into the supernal realms (maggidor ibbur tov). Intriguingly, possession by such an ibbur granted the possessed woman an authoritative religious “voice” she might not otherwise have enjoyed in the Jewish community2 (Sefer ha-Hezyonot 23-24; Divrei Yosef 319-24). SEE MENSTRUATION.; POSSESSION, GHOSTLY

1. Chajes, “Women Leading Women (and Attentive Men),” 9-40.

2. Faierstein, “Maggidim, Spirits, and Women in Rabbi Hayyim Vital’s ‘Book of Visions,’ ” in Goldish, Spirit Possession in Judaism, 188-95.


Wood Offering, Festival of: A holiday on the fifteenth of Av mentioned in the Temple Scroll (23) of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is a holiday only vaguely attested to in later Jewish tradition and may have been simply part of an idealized, rather than actual, calendar featured in that text. There is some biblical basis for it, though (Neh. 10:34-40).


Words of Gad the Seer, the: (Divrei Gad ha-Chozen). A little-known manuscript, it purports to be the work of Gad, a prophet who served King David. In it, Gad describes an apocalypse of heaven and the End of Days granted him by God.

World: (60941/Olam). The word Olam is derived from the Hebrew root for “hidden,” and may have originally meant “horizon.” It has come to mean both “world” (in the planetary sense) and “universe” (the sum total of Creation). Olam also has both spatial and temporal connotations. Thus ha-olam is “the world,” while le-olam means “forever.” The word itself is derived from the root ayin lamed-mem, “hidden,” reflecting the mystical teaching that the universe is the “garment” of God. Like heaven and Gehenna, the material world is divided into seven levels (AdRN 37; Lev. R. 29:10-11). God created many worlds prior to this one (Gen. R. 37:9:2; Mid. Teh. 90:13)

It is a common locution to divide the universe into “Upper” and “Lower” Worlds, the celestial (Elyonim) and the terrestrial (Tachtonim). The lower universe is like a shadow cast by the upper world, and all things manifest below are reflections of higher, greater realities. SEE ADAM KADMON; CREATION; EARTH; FOUR WORLDS OF EMANATION; WORLDS, MANY.

World to Come: (60939/Olam ha-Ba; Alma de-Atei). A general term for those spiritual realms in which humanity will one day be a part, Isaiah 64:3 is occasionally cited as the biblical textual source for the concept. Sometimes it refers to a perfect reality that is temporally in the future (i.e., the messianic Kingdom of God), which will follow the advent of the Messiah, a period of interregnum between the advent of the Messiah and the end of the world (Pes.68a; Ber. 34b; Sanh. 91b). Its duration is indeterminate, with periods as short as forty and as long as a thousand years being proposed (Sanh. 99a). In this renewed Creation, ten things will change: The supernal light of first Creation will return, living waters that heal will flow forth from Jerusalem, fruit-bearing trees with healing powers will sprout from those waters, all the ruined cities will be rebuilt, Jerusalem will be completely rebuilt out of precious materials, harmony will reign in the animal kingdom and between animals and humans, suffering will be swept from the world, Death will be swallowed up, and all human beings will know wholeness and contentment (Ex. R. 15:2).

At other times the World to Come refers to a temporally current spiritual world that surrounds the material world and is the place of the afterlife (Shab. 152a; Tanchuma, Vayikra 8; Bahir 106; MT, Hilchot Teshuvah 8:8). In this interpretation, it is mysterious and beyond our ken (Ber. 17a; Ex. R. 52:3). In Zohar it emanates from the sefirah of Binah (3:290b). It is a place of unending bliss, though some contrary Sages express some dialectic tension over this. They apparently thought the World to Come was less interesting and rewarding than this world, since there will be little to do there and no commandments to fulfill (Ber. 17a).

Whatever its true configuration, the Righteous of every nation have a portion in the World to Come (J. Yev. 15:2; Ber. 17a; B.B. 75a; Shab. 152b; Sanh. 90a; Tos. Sanh. 13:12; MT, Hilchot Melachim, 8:11; Tiferet Israel, Yachin, Sanh. 10:2). SEE ETERNAL LIFE; HEAVEN; SOUL

Worlds, Many: The belief that this is not the first or only world, that God created and destroyed multiple creations prior to this one, is both well established and long-standing in Jewish tradition. The teaching that God created multiple worlds before forming this world first appears in Genesis Rabbah:

And there was evening [the Hebrew can be read to suggest “evening” refers to a prior reality]: hence we know a time order existed before this. R. Abihu said: This proves the Blessed Holy One went on creating worlds and destroying them until He created this one … This is Abbahu’s reason: And God saw everything that He made and behold, it was very good [comparatively] (Gen. 1:31). [God is saying] This pleases me, but those [worlds] did not please me. (3:7)

The rabbis actually cite multiple biblical sources they believed hinted as the existence of prior worlds: Genesis 3:7 and 9:2 and Isaiah 65:17, but most often Genesis 2:4:

Now these are the generations of the heaven and Earth when they [rather than “it”] were created.

The actual number of worlds is not specified, but the sages agree that they endured long enough to yield almost a thousand generations of souls ; a thousand according to one reading, based on Psalm 105:8; 974 according to another. The latter number is based on the biblical account that Noah was the twenty-sixth generation of [this] creation, and since the Sages teach that Solomon was referring to Noah when he wrote, “Only one man in a thousand have I found …”(Eccl. 7:28), they deduct 26 from 1000 and get 974 (Gen. R. 28:4). 974 becomes the working number for prior creations in many subsequent retellings of this legend:

R. Joshua b. Levi also said: “When Moses ascended on high, the ministering angels spoke before the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! What business has one born of woman amongst us?’ ‘He has come to receive the Torah,’ answered He to them. Said they to Him, ‘That secret treasure, which has been hidden by Thee for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created.’ ” (Shab. 88b. Also see Mid. Teh. 90:13)

Chagigah 13b also offers the piquant tradition that God did not jettison those earlier generations of souls, but continues to reincarnate them into the unfolding generations of this world.

The “many worlds” tradition continues to be reiterated and repurposed in various ways throughout the tradition (PdRE 3; Zohar I:24a-b; Or ha-Hayyim 1:12). In Hasidic tradition, the existence of prior worlds is revealed by the fact that the account of this creation begins with bet, the second letter of the Hebrew alef-bet (Gen. 1:1).1

This tradition of diachronic universes exists along-side synchronic traditions of multiple worlds, which also exists in Jewish tradition in the four worlds and seven heavens and the seven Earth (Lev. R. 29:11; SGE; LOTJ p15). SEE REINCARNATION.

1. Schwartz, Tree of Souls, 71.

Wunder-rabbi: (Yiddish). A term, sometimes used pejoratively, for a faith healer or Baal Shem.