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

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



Xenoglossia and Automatic Writing: (60953/Shem ha-Doresh; 60955/Shem ha-Kotev). Xenoglossia is the phenomenon of alien spirits speaking through or out of a possessed person while in a trance; “channeling.” Such experiences may have been part of some prophetic trances, though evidence for this in the Hebrew Bible is sparse and elliptical at best. The first explicit accounts appear in the Christian New Testament, where there are descriptions of both demonic spirits addressing Jesus and seizure by the Holy Spirit resulting in people “speaking in tongues.” Later Jewish sources also equate automatic speech with Prophecy (Sha’ar ha-Gilgulim). Xenoglossia is a defining characteristic of ghostly and angelic possession in most Jewish reports after the 15th century. Joseph Taitazak provides the first detailed account of this phenomenon.1 Perhaps the most famous Jew to experience it was Joseph Caro.

A parallel phenomenon is that of “automatic writing,” composing while in an altered state of consciousness. This phenomenon is sometimes thought to be inspired by the incident in Daniel of the “writing on the wall,” though the biblical account doesn’t actually describe a spiritual possession.

Moses de Leon is a notable example, as there are indications he wrote parts of the Zohar while in a trance.2 Post-Zohar, medieval mystics describe it as the shem ha-kotev, “the writing Name.” This divine name can be invoked, sometimes through the angels Gabriel and Michael, to trigger the trance-induced writing (Sha’arei Tzedek). Sources mention the practice, but do not record the actual “name,” though Taitazak provides some details:

The secret of this supernal writing is the secret of the descent of the power of God in His glory … the secret included in this writing should be believed by everyone … for it is prophecy and will come true fully … you shall understand the secret of the “writing name,” guided by an angel, whenever you wish it … It should begin by two days of fasting, and on the third day should be performed. The person doing it should not drink any wine and he should eat on that day only after performing the practice. Before that he should eat three eggs, to give him the power for the Names. It should be performed in the morning and after midnight … 3

This description of ritual preparation is almost stereotypical of Jewish rituals of power, with parallel features (fasting a number of days, but especially the eggs) that appear in Hechalot texts and in magical texts as well. Samson Ostropoler also described the Shem ha-Doresh, the “Name of Inquiry,” a form of automatic speech.4 SEE DEVEKUT; IBBUR; MAGGID; MEDIUM; POSSESSION

1. Patai, “Exorcism and Xenoglossia Among the Safed Mystics,” 314-25; also see Bilu, “Dybbuk and Maggid,” 255-57.

2. Matt, The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, vol. 1, lxxv, xxiv.

3. Dan, The Heart and the Fountain, 177-180.

4. Twersky and Septimus, Jewish Thought in the Seventeenth Century, 221-55.