The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism: Second Edition (2016)
Cabala Mystica: “The Mysterious Tradition,” or sometimes referred to as “The Book of Sacred Magic.” An alchemical text composed by Abraham ben Simeon. Variant manuscripts survive in Hebrew, French, and German. It shows a broad knowledge of Jewish sources, but given its multiple references to Christian ideas, it is unclear whether the author is a Jew or a Christian. SEE ALCHEMY.
Cain: The first child of Adam and Eve. According to the Bible, Cain was exiled from his family after he murdered his brother, Abel (Gen. 4). God marked him so that all creatures would know not to kill him. According to one rabbinic legend, God marked Cain by giving him a horn growing out of his forehead. In old age, his vision-impaired grandson, Lemach, killed Cain when he mistook him for a game animal. According to another tradition, the letter vav (one of the letters of the Tetragrammaton) was inscribed on his forehead, granting him theurgic protection (Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:111). Post-homicide, Cain wandered not only the Earth, but the seven worlds, spawning monstrous offspring.
Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer 21 calls him a “spawn of Satan,” reflecting a tradition that Cain was actually the offspring of the coupling of Eve and the serpent, rather than with Adam:
The “Beasts of the Field” are the offspring of the original Serpent who had sexual intercourse with Eve … From them came forth Cain who killed Abel … (Zohar 1:28b. Also see Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Gen. 4:1; Shab. 146a; PdRE 13; Zohar I:34b, 54b-55a)
It was widely taught that all of his descendants, up to the time of Noah were, in some way, perverse. This tradition is also used to reframe Genesis 6:4, replacing the “fallen angel” interpretation:
Rabbi Hiyya Said: “sons of divinity” (Gen. 6:2-4) were the sons of Cain. For when Samael mounted Eve (Shab. 146a), he injected [semen of] filth into her, and she conceived and bore Cain. And his aspect was unlike that of the other humans and all those who came from his side [of the human family tree] were called “sons of divinity.” (Zohar I:37a, 54a)
Thus, the children of Cain are the “sons of divinity” because Cain was sired by an Angel. Another tradition that embraces the fallen angel thread claims it was Cain’s daughters whose allure ensnared the “sons of divinity” in the first place (Gen. 6), but his line ended with the bulk of humanity during the Flood, a tragedy which his progeny helped trigger (Wisdom of Solomon 10:3-4; Chochmat ha-Nefesh 26b).
In Kabbalah, Cain is most often held to be the personification of the fallen state of mankind, the symbolic representation of spiritual alienation between man and God, while Tubal-Cain, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham each signify a progressive restoration of the divine-human relationship. In continuity with earlier traditions of his demonic associations, he wandered the seven lower worlds, fathering monstrous and demonic children (Zohar 1:178b). The taint of Cain, passed down from his serpent-demon sire, persisted with humanity until the giving of the Torah. In the writings of Chayyim Vital , by contrast, as the first-born human, Cain possessed the spiritual authority of both “kingship,” (and therefore messianic potential) and “priesthood.” These qualities require that Cain’s Soul undergo multiple rectification to restore the original potential to the world, and maps the rectifying incarnations of Cain through Esau,Jethro, Nadav, Phineas, Samson, Samuel, Elijah, Johannan ben Zakkai, Akiba, and Joseph Caro, among many others. (Sha’ar ha-Gilgulim 34-35). Vital also believed he himself was the most recent reincarnation of Cain’s soul.
Cairo Geniza: A geniza is a repository for damaged or discarded texts that contain divine names, where they await eventual burial, like a human corpse. In the ancient synagogue of Fostat, Egypt, outside of Cairo, the Geniza there had not been emptied for some 1,200 years when Western scholars discovered its existence at the end of the 19th century. This collection of texts dates from as early as the 8th century CE. Along with biblical, rabbinic, and liturgical texts, the Geniza includes a number of astrological and magical documents such as the Testament of Solomon, Sefer ha-Razim, the Book of the responding entity, and the Book of Guidance, books which include incantations to invoke Angels and to control and expel demons. amulets, herbal preventatives, spells for combating illness, and mantic techniques, such as lecanomancy, are also found among the documents. A partial list of magical texts in the Geniza includes:
T-S K Oxford Ms. Heb. C 18/30: A fragment of Sefer ha-Razim. There are multiple fragments of Sefer ha-Razim found in the Geniza.
T-S K 1.15: A Hebrew-Arabic fragment of a magical handbook. It contains formulae for birth, love, and hate magic, and curses.
T-S K 1.19: A fragment of magical spells for fertility, for birth, “for opening everything closed …” for use against forgetfulness, and for protection against poison.
T-S K 1.57: A fragment of spells for winning the favor of powerful people and for protection against harm on a journey.
T-S K 1.58: A text of spells for silencing enemies and for protecting against scorpions and against witchcraft.
T-S K 1.80: A fragmentary text of adjuring spells for angels to subdue enemies, for augury, and for protection.
T-S K 1.91: A text of spells for healing, sleep, household tranquility, counteracting curses, silencing enemies, and preventing stillbirth and miscarriage.
T-S K 1.132: A fragment of incantations for divination, love, creating enmity, learning, and gaining influence.
T-S K 1.171: Spell text with formulae for learning Torah, protection from scorpions, creating divine fire, and influencing others.
There are many more magical texts among the Geniza collection, most little more than scraps of material, which have some magical, mystical, or occult purpose.
Calendar: (/Luach). Since biblical times, the Hebrew calendar has been based on the cycles of the moon, corrected to the solar year, with the moled, the “birth” of the new moon, signaling the start of each month. The Babylonians had a significant influence on the organization of the Hebrew calendar because of the Jewish exile in their midst. The current names for the months are all, in fact, Babylonian names. The year-numbering system is based on the years from Creation (PdRE 8).
The exact operation of the calendar has been a point of sectarian controversy throughout Jewish history. Some, like the priests who collected the Dead Sea Scrolls, adhered to an alternative solar calendar and despised the lunar system as an impure and wicked artifact of the fallen angel.1 At times the Samaritans, who also possessed an alternative calendar, even attempted to interfere with the announcement of the Jewish new moon, which was determined by direct observation and then publicized using hilltop beacons (R.H. 22a). In later Kabbalah, the calendar is a divine manifestation, a feature of Malchut/Zeir Anpin. SEE Enoch; Moon; Numbers; Sun; Zodiac.
1. Elior, The Three Temples, 54-57.
Candle: (/ner; nerot). Candles are a symbol of the human Soul (Shab. 31b-32a). Consequently, they have significant ritual and customary functions in Judaism. They accompany Jews from birth to Death and beyond. The linking of light to life cycle is probably inspired by the passage, “The lamp of Adonai searches the spirit of a man; it searches out his inmost being” (Prov. 20:27). According to the Talmud, a light shines above the head of a soul while it awaits birth in the womb and the illumination allows the soul to see from one end of the universe to the other (Nid. 30b).
Candles can have mantic functions, usually two to burn when a soul will be extinguished. According to tractate Horayot 12a, a person may divine whether he or she will live out the year to come by kindling a lamp in a draft-free location. If the lamp or candle burns until its fuel is utterly consumed, the person would live. If, for whatever reason, it gutted before the fuel was used up, that is a sign that death would come that year. Apparently, this belief became so widespread that a separate custom of lighting a candle for Yom Kippur> became conflated with this idea. In order to keep panic from sweeping a household, it was decided in eastern Europe that the synagogue sexton would tend all the candles together at the shul. That way, individuals would not know if any candles that extinguished prematurely among the multitude was their candle. For a Jew who had the misfortune to see their candle go out, it was said that if they made special supplications for the remainder of Yom Kippur and rekindled the light after the holiday, and it subsequently completely burned up, it was a sign that their repentance had redeemed them and the evil decree was repealed.1
Jews in Morocco had a variant belief. Two candles would be lit, one for each of a newlywed couple, and the first candle that went out would be an augury that that partner would die first. SEE LAMP; LIGHT.
1. D. Sperber, The Jewish Life Cycle (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2008), 359, 569-570.
Candlestick: SEE MENORAH.
Cannibalism: Accounts of cannibalism in Jewish literature are to be found in accounts of starvation during sieges and famines (Lam.). SEE BLOOD LIBEL; GIANTS; HIRAM.
Carmel, Mount: (). Mountain on the coast of northern Israel, where the city of Haifa now exists. In biblical times, Carmel was evidently regarded as a holy high place dedicated to the God of Israel. Elijah fought his wondrous duel with the prophets of Baal and Asherah there (1 Kings 27:30), winning the argument when a miraculous fire from Heaven consumed his offering. It was later, while hiding in Caves there, that he was able to destroy troops of King Ahab, also by means of a flame strike. SEE FIRE; MOUNTAIN; SACRIFICE.
Caro, Joseph: Legalist and mystic (Turkish, ca. 16th century). Caro authored the Beit Joseph and Shulchan Aruch, the two most influential digests of Jewish law in history. He also kept, over much of his adult life, a personal mystical diary in which he records his regular encounters with his maggid, or spirit guide:
No sooner had we studied two tractates of the Mishnah then our Creator smote us so that we heard a voice speaking out of the mouth of the saint [Karo], may his light shine. It was a loud voice with letters clearly enunciated. All the companions heard the voice but were unable to understand what was said. It was an exceedingly pleasant voice, becoming increasingly strong. We all fell upon our faces and none of us had any spirit left in him because of our great dread and awe.1
Caro sometimes identified this figure as the Mishnah personified. Other times he called it the Shekhinah. The maggid revealed its sod ha-Torah, its secret Torah, to Caro via xenoglossia. The authenticity of this mystical testimony, published after his death in the collection Maggid Mesharim, has been regarded as suspect. Many found it hard to believe that such an acute legal mind also had such a bizarre esoteric inner life. Still, given that there are independent accounts of Caro’s spiritual possessions written by his contemporaries, most scholars today accept the Maggid Mesharim as genuine eye-witness accounts of his mediumistic experiences. Caro also performed exorcisms. Some have argued his is the first recorded example of a Jewish exorcist who dealt with ghostly (as opposed to demonic) possession. SEE IBBUR; MEDIUM; VISION.
1. L. Jacobs, Jewish Mystical Testimonies (New York: Schocken Books, 1976), 123-51.
Carpet of Solomon: The collection Beit ha-Midrash includes a narrative of Solomon's magic carpet. Vast in dimensions, sixty miles by sixty miles, Solomon and his retinue of princes, animals, powerful djinns and soldiers in the thousands would sail across his lands. These adventures were occasions for the proud Solomon to learn humility.
Cat: Being domesticated rather late in human culture, and only in certain cultures, cats do not appear in Jewish literature before the Greco-Roman period. Attitudes towards cats (lucky, unlucky) varied from one Jewish community to another and may have been a reflection of how cats were viewed in the larger communities. One Kabbalist believed that the Soul of one who misuses the Divine name is reincarnated as a cat.
Offering menstrual blood to a cat, accompanied by the appropriate spell, can render a man impotent (Shab. 75b). Sprinkling the ashes of a female fetus of a black cat on one’s eyes makes demons visible (Ber. 6a). In medieval Jewish communities, cat’s blood was used for medicinal purposes (though was not in a potion to be consumed). Surprisingly, cats are never mentioned in Sefer ha-Razim, which provides one of the most exhaustive lists of Jewish materia magica preserved. SEE ANIMALS.
Caves: (/M’arah). Caves are archetypal symbols of the womb, Death, and the underworld. Several caves are mentioned in Scripture, including the caves where David hid himself from Saul (1 Sam. 24) and the cave where Elijah dwelt on Mount Horeb prior to his theophany from God (1 Kings 18). The cave most associated with supernatural events, however, is the Cave of Machpelah outside of Hebron, where Abraham’s family interred their dead (Gen. 23; PdRE 39).
The Sages describe Machpelah as a nexus point of power, or even as the entrance to Eden. Abraham stumbles upon Machpelah accidentally, only to discover the perfectly preserved and radiant bodies of Adam and Eve inside. This is what inspired him to buy the cave, despite the exorbitant price (Gen. R. 58:8; Mid. Teh. 92:6).
The most famous cave in rabbinic tradition is the cave where Simon bar Yochai and his son hid from the Roman authorities:
They went and hid in a cave. A miracle occurred for them: a carob tree and a spring of water were created. They sat up to their necks in sand. During the day, they sat and learned, and would cast off [their clothes]. At the time of Prayer, they got up and dressed, and covered themselves, and left, and prayed. Then they cast off [their clothes] again, lest they wear them out. They dwelt in the cave for thirteen years. (Shab. 33b)
Elijah finally appeared to them to announce the end of the Roman persecutions, but when they went outside, their gazes incinerated any impure thing they looked upon, whereupon God ordered them back to the cave for another year. They came out more reconciled to the flaws of the world, and Bar Yochai performed many miracles after that (Shab. 33b-34a; Gen. R. 79:6; Eccl. R. 10:9; PdRK 11:16). The Zohar, it is claimed, was written while Bar Yochai was in the cave.
Cemetery: (/Beit ha-Kevarot, also Beit Olam; Beit Chayyim). A communal repository for the dead. As the resting place of corpses, the cemetery is regarded as tamei, an “unclean,” or better translated, an “uncanny” place. As the abode of the dead, the cemetery is frequently regarded as a portal between this world and the next. As such, communion between the living and the dead is more possible there than in other locations.
In the Bible, the prophet Isaiah gives testimony to the practice of incubation, of people sleeping on a grave overnight with the goal of having a mantic or veridical dream (Isa. 8:19-22, 19:3). In rabbinic literature, the voices of the dead and/or actual ghosts are encountered there. It was also a place where demons and unclean spirits would lurk. Such traditions multiply in later Jewish writings. Eleazar of Worms (ca. 13th century) describes the lights of dead souls wandering around cemeteries at night, engaging in some of the same activities as when they were living, such as conversation, Prayer, and Torah study (Sefer Rokeach 313; SCh 35, 452). Shabbatai Horowitz (ca. 18th century) recommended reciting Psalm 91 to drive away demons before entering a graveyard.
Like their non-Jewish neighbors, Jews of antiquity consulted the dead for advice, effectively ignoring both biblical and rabbinic prohibitions. Sefer ha-Razim provides a ritual for ghost summoning in a graveyard. Like their German neighbors, Jews of the Middle Ages believed that herbs gathered from cemeteries had great medicinal powers. One ritual recorded involves gathering them while reciting Psalm 19.1 Ashkenazi women of the 17th and 18th centuries practiced the ritual of Kvorim Mesn, “measuring graves.” They would loop tombstones, or even the entire cemetery, with candlewick, while reciting prayers. Candles made from these wicks were believed to be imbued with holiness and were used and given as donations to friends and synagogues.2
There is little evidence that human body parts were used by Jews for medical or magical purposes, though archaeologists in one exceptional case have found human finger bones imbedded in the walls of an ancient synagogue in Dura-Europos. SEE BLOOD; BODY; BONE; DEATH; LAMP; NECROMANCER AND NECROMANCY; YICHUDIM.
1. J. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion. Philadelphia, PA: JPS, 1939), 207.
2. R. Weissler, “Measuring Graves and Laying Wicks” in Judaism in Practice: From the Middle Ages through the Early Modern Period, L. Fine, ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 61-73.
Census: SEE COUNTING.
Centaur: (). Centaurs were among the demonic offspring of the corrupt generations starting with Enosh. Centaurs were wiped out by the Flood (Eruv. 18b; Gen. R. 11:5, 23:6).
CHaBaD: (). Also known as the Lubavitch Chasidim, CHaBaD is the second largest Chasidic community in the world, after the Satmars. The word “CHaBaD” is an acronym derived from the Hebrew words Chochmah-Binah-Da’at (“Wisdom-Insight-Knowledge”), the first triad of the sefirot. CHaBaD espouses one of the most complex mystical theosophies found among the Chasids, which is largely enshrined in the Tanya, written by CHaBaD’s first rebbe, Sh’neur Zalman of Laydi. CHaBaD is also notable because, in contrast to most Chasidic groups, it maintains a strong culture of outreach to other Jews, making it one of the most accessible ways for nontraditional Jews to learn Chasidic teachings. In recent years, the group has become highly controversial because many of its members insist their deceased rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, will return from the dead as the Messiah. Some Chabadniks have even gone so far as to declare Schneerson a divine being, advocating a kind of quasi-Christian heresy.1
1. D. Berger, The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference (Oxford: The Littmann Library of Jewish Civilization, 2001), 104-5, 159-74.
Chafetz Chayyim: Rabbi and ethicalist (Israel, 1838-1933). Rabbi Meir Kagen, universally known as the Chafetz Chayyim, dabbled in the occasional spiritual exorcism.
Chalal: (). “Void.” One of several terms used in Lurianic writings to describe the vacuum created by God’s tzimtzum.
Chaldean: A Babylonian. Later Jewish usage rendered it synonymous with “astrologer.”
Challah: (). SEE BREAD.
Chalomot She ‘lot: (). “Dream Questions.” A divination ritual involving questioning Angels. SEE DREAM; INCUBATION.
Chamsa: (). “Five.” A hand-shaped amulet. SEE HAND.
Chanameel: Cousin of the Prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 32), a prophet in his own right, and a master of esoteric powers. He could adjure Angels. During the siege of Jerusalem, he summoned armies of them to fight the Babylonians. Since this contravened God’s will, God changed the angelic names. In response, Chanameel summoned the Sar Olam, the “Prince of the Universe,” to lift Jerusalem into Heaven, where it waits to be brought down with the coming of the Messiah (Eikah Zuta, Lam. R. 2).
Chanina ben Dosa: Mishnaic wonderworker (ca. 1st century). Called an ish ma’aseh, a “man of [wondrous] deeds.” Many miraculous stories of him revolve around his abject poverty. Because of his piety, God replicated the miracle of the manna just for him. When a shrewish neighbor sought to humiliate Ben Dosa’s wife because of their poverty, God filled her oven with savory bread (Tan. 25a). So poor he was able only to bring a polished rock to the Temple as an offering, God sent angelic porters to him, who then teleported him there instantaneously. In another legend, his wife prayed for some of his heavenly reward to come to them while they were still alive. A golden table leg miraculously appeared. But when Ben Dosa dreamed of a table in heaven with only three legs, he made her return it to its heavenly source (Tan. 24b).
Besides being a miraculous healer (Ber. 34b), he was invulnerable to reptile toxin (Ber. 33a):
Chanina never permitted anything to turn him from his devotions. Once, while thus engaged, a lizard bit him, but he did not interrupt his prayers. To his disciples’ anxious inquiries he answered that he had been so preoccupied in prayer as not even to feel the bite. When the people found the reptile, dead, they exclaimed, “Woe to the man whom a lizard bites, and woe to the lizard that bites R. Chanina b. Dosa!”
He once caused the beams of his neighbor’s house to grow by means of a magical incantation constructed from the person’s name. He had the power to stop and start the rain with a Prayer (Tan. 24b). He also made vinegar burn like oil (Ibid., 25a). Such was the power of his saintliness that he could overcome Igrat, a queen of demons (Pes. 112b). Other miracles are credited to him (Shab. 112b; B.K. 50a; M. Sot. 9.15; En Yaakov). It was said after his death that, “With his demise, men of wondrous deeds ceased to exist.” SEE RIGHTEOUS, THE
Chanina ben Pappa: Talmudic Sage (ca. 4th century). Demonic forces periodically tormented him. He was once confronted by evil spirits while delivering charity at night, but drove them away with words of Scripture. On another occasion, his Body spontaneously erupted into sores in order to fend off a seduction. When witchcraftwas used to cure them, he was forced to flee to maintain his modesty, only to end up in a haunted bathhouse (J. Pes. 8; Kid. 39b, 81a). He also received dreams that guided him in his teaching of the Torah. He was a close acquaintance of the Angel of Death, whom he was able to outfox for a month. Before he died, he was shielded by a pillar of fire and only died when he willingly acquiesced (Ket. 77b).
Chanina ben Teradion: Talmudic Sage (ca. 2nd century), he was one of the ten martyrs of the Roman persecutions. According to RaSHI, Ben Teradion knew how to use the power of the forty-two-letter name of God so well that he could obtain whatever he desired. Though a pious man, his martyrdom was punishment for abusing his occult knowledge (A.Z. 17b). Burned to death while wrapped in a Torah scroll, he told his watching disciples that he saw the letters of the text flying off to heaven (BhM 2:64-72).
Chanting: Chanting is a spiritual practice that has occupied a central place in Jewish worship from time immemorial. The Torah and the rest of Scripture are chanted when read liturgically, following an ancient method known as ta’amim. The merkavah mystics likely chanted divine names and word permutations to achieve an altered state of consciousness. Chasids also use chanting, especially the distinctive musical form of the niggun, a wordless melody, to achieve states of ecstasy. SEE CHASIDISM; MUSIC.
Chanukah: (). A minor Jewish holiday celebrated for eight days beginning on the twenty-fifth of Kislev. The centerpiece of the holiday is commemorating the miracle of oil, when a single day’s worth of olive oil burned for the eight full days required to rededicate the Temple, which had been desecrated by Israel’s enemies. This small wonder becomes the basis for many legends and folktales of miraculous events occurring at the Chanukah season. SEEMENORAH.
Chaos: ( /Tohu or Tohu va-Vohu). The primordial state of existence before the creation of the cosmos. In the Bible, God is the tamer of chaos, forcing it to conform to His will. God’s words reshape chaos, usually imagined as a watery void, into sky, oceans, and land (Gen. 1; Ps. 104; Job 38). In ancient Pagan cosmogonies, the gods must battle personified chaos in order to create the universe. Personified chaos creatures, represented by Leviathan, Rahav, and Behemoth, are still found in Jewish mythology, but they are both figuratively and literally domesticated, becoming yet another of God’s creations, and in some interpretations, God’s actual pets (A.Z. 3b). Still, some biblical passages hint that chaos is a constant threat, a power that lurks at the periphery of the cosmos, and there is a danger it can be unleashed again, as it was in the Noah epic (Gen. 6-9). Even if physical chaos is restrained, moral chaos is still a force in the world (Pss. 44, 74). Chaos is also the antipode of life, and is often associated with death, a form of chaos that humanity reintroduced into God’s universe (2 Sam. 22:5-6; Gen. 2-3). In the End of Days, God will finally and completely subdue all residual chaos, perfecting the world morally and defeating death utterly (Isa. 2, 25:8).1 SEE ABYSS; DEATH; EVIL; FOUNDATION STONE; WATER; WATER LIBATION; YETZER HA-RA.
1. J. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), 3-47.
Charba de Moshe: (). SEE SWORD OF MOSES.
Chariot: (/Merkavah). These vehicles of ancient elites were also envisioned as the transport of the gods. The Canaanites described Baal riding on a chariot of clouds. Astral cults envision the orb of the sun as being the wheel of a celestial chariot. Sometime in the 6th century BCE, a representation of a sun chariot was installed in the Temple in Jerusalem, a move condemned by the Prophets (2 Kings 23:11-12).
God also rides a supernal chariot (Hab. 3:8). Like Baal, it is sometimes envisioned as a cloud (Ps. 104:3). One passage suggests God maintains a fleet of vehicles (Ps. 68:18). Elijah is transported to Heaven in such a cosmic chariot.
In the most detailed, albeit confusing, biblical description of God’s celestial chariot, it appears to be made of numinous creatures: Chayyot, Ofanim, and Cherubim (Ezek. 1, also see chapter 10). Many of the features of Ezekiel's chariot correspond to the objects and colors found in the Temple sanctuary, suggesting that God’s chariot is the pattern for the figures and implements found in and around the Holy of Holies. A heavenly chariot, with Helios steering it, also appears in Jewish synagogue art. According to Talmud, a mighty Angel, Sandalfon, stands behind the chariot at all times, while Metatron stands beneath its wheels. Many of these traditions overlap with the Throne of Glory, and the relationship between the two divine conveyances is, at times, confusing. Many scholars simply speak of God’s “Chariot-Throne.”
Judean coin with winged chariot
In later Kabbalistic texts, merkavah takes on a more expansive meaning, becoming an idiom for the sefirot, the totality of the Pleroma, the celestial order, or divine providence.
Some Sages declare the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be the “chariot” of God, inspiring the mystical-ethical teaching that we likewise should strive to be God’s chariot in the world (Gen. R. 47:6). SEE ANGEL AND ANGELOLOGY; ARK OF THE COVENANT; CHERUB OR CHERUBIM; MA’ASEI MERKAVAH.
Charity: (/Tzedakah). Proverbs 10:2 declares “Charity saves from death.” Many Jews have taken this admonition quite literally and generous giving to the poor and needy is perhaps the single most frequently prescribed preventative and protective remedy in all of Jewish folklore. Generous giving in this world also ensures resurrection in the World to Come (PdRE 33).
The appearance of a beggar or poor person is even regarded as a “gift” to the person encountering him, for God is providing an opportunity for the donor to gain merit (R.H. 16a; B.B. 10a; Zohar I:104a; Sefer ha-Yashar 13). Based on Psalm 111:3, Isaac Luria taught that giving charity leaves an enduring mark on the soul. Chasidism celebrates self-sacrificing charity and has numerous stories praising Chasidic masters who lived charitably and died penniless. SEE COINS; RIGHTEOUS, THE.
Charms: SEE AMULET.
Chashmal: (). The mysterious substance or entity illuminating the heart of Ezekiel’s chariot vision (Ezek. 1). The Talmud treats the word as a notarikon, the division of which reveals two words, “words” and “quiet.” Thus the heart of divinity is a matrix of silence and speech from which Creation emanates (Chag. 14b).
According to Midrash Konen , Chashmal is the fiery substance that makes up the pillars on which the world rests. Noting that the Bible offers both a masculine and feminine spelling (Ezek. 1:4, 1:27, 8:2), some mystics think it signifies the masculine and feminine principle present simultaneously in divinity, as indicated by the existence of both masculine and feminine forms of the noun.1 gematria yields several different equivalences: ki zohar aish (“Like a fiery brilliance”), and kol minei zohar (“all kinds of brilliance”), neither of which are terribly edifying, though a third, dimyon tzivonim (“image of colors”), perhaps links it to the rainbow (Sodei Razaya, p. 13).
But even these cryptic analyses can only approximate the truth. Those who truly comprehend the significance of Chashmal place themselves in mortal danger (Chag. 13a). Hechalot Zutarti and Midrash Konen (2:25) attempt to resolve the confusion by designating Chashmal as yet another class of angelic being. In Tikkunei Zohar 7b, it is one specific angel, Metatron. In modern Hebrew, chashmal is the word for “electricity.” SEE CHARIOT; EZEKIEL; FACE OF GOD; VISION.
1. E. Wolfson, Along the Path: Studies in Kabbalistic Myth, Symbolism, and Hermeneutics (New York: SUNY, 1995), 2-3.
Chasidei Ashkenaz: SEE GERMAN PIETISTS.
Chasidim, Sefer: “Book of the Pious.” This 13th-century book of ethical, esoteric, and occult teachings was the main and most influential work of the German Pietist movement. It was written by Judah ben Samuel ha-Chasid. It includes many fabulous beliefs and tales of the paranormal, including descriptions of witches, vampires, and visitations from ghosts.
Chasidism: (). While the word “Chasid” can refer to any pious Jew, in the last 250 years chasidism has come to mean a pietistic movement within Judaism that was founded by Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, in 18th-century eastern Europe. It began among Jews who were reacting to the then domination of Jewish community life by an elite culture of rabbis and to the upheaval following the collapse of the messianic hopes raised by Shabbatai Tzvi. Chasidism stresses the superiority of religious enthusiasm and devotion over study and intellectualism. Many Jews found this message inspiring and the movement quickly spread through eastern and central Europe, especially among the poor and petty bourgeoisie.
The Baal Shem Tov taught largely through parables that stressed humility and purity of heart. He also drew heavily upon Jewish mysticism, particularly the teachings of Isaac Luria. He was also widely regarded to be an exceptional “wunder-rabbi,” performing many miracles and supernatural feats, as his title of Baal Shem suggests.
His immediate successors created a dynamic and charismatic movement of tremendous spiritual power and intensity, while later generations began institutionalizing these teachings. Divisions gradually arose, and leadership evolved into dynastic families, the heads of which were known as rebbes (“masters”) or tzadikim (“righteous ones”).
The Chasidic groups that survived the Holocaust (and many did not) differ in the degree to which they combine an intellectual emphasis with their spiritualism, which is now known as Chasidut. As the last truly pre-modern movement, they also hold to the accumulated supernatural and occult teachings of traditional Judaism. Most Chasidic groups today live in Israel and the United States.
While Chasidism is remarkable for its agenda of popularizing mystical/theurgic teachings and practices, perhaps the most unique feature of the Chasidic movement within Judaism is the exalted status of the rebbe, the charismatic leader of a Chasidic “court,” who is perceived as a kind of perfected human who serves as a conduit between the Chasids and God. The Chasids assume, as a matter of course, that such spiritual enlightenment is accompanied by a mastery of spiritual and miraculous powers. Many disciples of a rebbe will appeal to him for Prayer and spiritual intervention on their behalf, so the rebbe plays a shamanistic role for many of his followers.
Most Chasidic communities are rife with tales of miracles that follow a yechidut, a spiritual audience with a tzadik: barren women become pregnant, cancer tumors shrink, wayward children become pious. Many rebbes dispense segulah charms and healing folk remedies. The spiritual power of the tzadik is such that after Death in this world, the proper name of a tzadik can be treated as a quasi-divine name and has healing powers. Therefore, the name of Chasidic masters may appear on amulets.
There is an enormous library of Chasidic metaphysics, philosophy, and mystical speculation that has been produced, the vast bulk of which remains un-translated from Yiddish.1
1. Rabinowicz, The Encyclopedia of Hasidism, 188-95. Also see Roth, Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 7, 1383-88.
Chatom ha-Merkavah: “Seal of the Chariot.” A fragmentary text of merkavah mysticism found in the Cairo Geniza collection.
Chayyah: (). “Life-force.” In the later five-level configuration of the human Soul which developed in medieval Kabbalah, this refers to the fourth level, the higher moral consciousness.
Chayyei ha-Olam ha-Ba: “The Life of the World to Come.” A mystical/theurgic manual by Abraham Abulafia.
Chayyim, Sefer ha-: (). “The Book of Life.” Composed in the 13th century, this text includes mystical teachings on astrology, the divine chariot, and theurgic rituals, such as making a golem. Not to be confused with the celestial Book of Life, a legendary book which has the same Hebrew name.
Chayyot: (). “[Holy] Beasts.” Angelic entities that pull the divine chariot. Sporting four wings and formed of fire and light, they sing praises to God, but also have flaming breath that is a threat to other angels. According to Hechalot Rabbati, each day they dance and cavort before God at the times of Prayer. They can smell when a living human enters the precincts of Heaven. (Ezek. 1; Chag. 13b; Gen. R. 2:2; Ex. R. 47:5; Mid. Konen; Zohar I). SEEANGEL AND ANGELOLOGY.
Chelm: A mythical city of fools, not to be confused with the actual city of Chelm, Poland. Hundreds of Jewish parables, jokes, and short stories are devoted to the misadventures of the ironically dubbed Chelmer Chacham, “wise men of Chelm,” whose deeds, springing from daft premises, silly rationales, and logic run amok, serve as proverbial examples of how reason and wisdom are not synonymous.1
1. Frankel and Platkin Teutsch, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols, 32.
Chemai, Rabbi: This minor Talmudic Sage is the purported author of the mystical tract Sefer ha-Iyyun.
Chemdat Yamim: This digest of Kabbalistic practices, a kind of mystical Shulchan Aruch, promises its rituals will affect Tikkun both on Earth and in the Pleroma.
Cherem: (). “Ostracization/Excommunication.” This is normally a form of legal punishment, a form of social isolation, not to be confused with the biblical concept of karet, being spiritually cut off. Yet in esoteric circles it is a term often used in incantations directed against demons, in effect legally excommunicating them. It is the theurgic equivalent of a “restraining order” on evil spirits.1 SEE EXORCISM; GET; POSSESSION, DEMONIC.
1. Naveh and Shaked, Magic Spells and Formulae, 129.
Cherub or Cherubim: (/Keruv). “Mighty One.” A winged numinous being in the service of God. A common motif in both Israelite and Pagan iconography, a cherub is a hybrid creature with a human head, avian wings, and a beastly Body, usually that of a lion. Such was a stereotypical way of illustrating a supernal entity in the ancient Near East, much like the modern convention of showing a glowing halo around the head of a spiritually enlightened being.
An 8th century CE Israelite carving of a cherub
The Israelites may have regarded them as the animating spirits of winds and clouds (2 Sam. 22:11). Josephus declares that their exact appearance was no longer known in his time. In the Talmudic accounts their appearance is more varied and less stereotypical (Suk. 5b; Gen. R. 21).
Cherubim guard the entry to the Garden of Eden. They were a repeated decorative image on the curtains in the Temple (2 Chr. 3:14), and two statuary cherubim sat upon the Ark of the Covenant, their wings coming together to form a “mercy seat,” or throne, for God. The voice of God would emanate from there (Ex. 25-26). The fact that cherubim are associated both with Eden and the Temple suggests that the inner sanctum of the Temple was perceived, either symbolically or mystically, as corresponding to the primordial Garden. Cherubim also served as the steeds or chariot of God (2 Sam. 22).
Cherubim are incorporated into the elaborate and systematic angelology of Early Judaism. They played a prominent role in the priestly spirituality of the Dead Sea Scrolls sect (Song of the Sabbath Sacrifice; 4Q385).Ranked above mere angels, I Enoch assigns them to the sixth and seventh heavens.
According to Talmud, when Israel offered its Prayers, the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant moved in response. They would either turn to face each other or away from each other, depending on Israel’s state of sin (B.B. 99a). In Yoma 54a, Rabbi Katina goes even further, claiming the cherubim were actually sculpted in a posture of sexual union, signifying the mystery of God’s passionate love for Israel. Other Sages reject this legend. Still, the writings found among the Dead Sea Scrolls also hint at the idea that the paired cherubim on the Ark somehow signified life and fertility, perhaps even a hieros gamos (4Q405, frag. 19).
Intuiting the intention behind their hybrid appearance, the medieval Kabbalists described the cherubim as symbolizing the union of Heaven and Earth (Zohar, Tem. 2). The Zohar further teaches that the two cherubim on the Ark represent the masculine and feminine divine attributes.
The idea that the cherubim serve as the creatures that pull the divine chariot and/or guard the Throne of Glory is a major theme in Kabbalah. Some writers even regard the cherubim as synonymous with the chariot itself (Ezek. 1; Gen. R. 21:9; Yoma 54a). SEE ANGEL AND ANGELOLOGY CHARIOT; CHERUB, THE UNIQUE.
Cherub, the Unique: (/Keruv ha-M’yuchad). A medieval metaphysical concept of the Divine glory as forming a kind of anthropomorphic apparition visible to mortals. This was also the favored meditation technique, akin to creative visualization, practiced by the Circle of the Unique Cherub mystics. It consisted of forming a vision of deity (referred to as the “Unique Cherub”) during Prayer, to serve as a bridge to the true, invisible Godhead. This practice is unique, in that it is virtually the only example in Jewish tradition in which one is encouraged to imagine what God looks like. SEE CHERUB OR CHERUBIM; FACE OF GOD; GLORY OF GOD; PESEK HA-YIRA’AH V’HA-EMUNAH;REIYAT HA-LEV; VISION.
Chesed: (). “Love/Kindness/Devotion.” The fourth of the sefirot. Chesed is born out of Binah and is the principle of boundless divine mercy, grace, and blessing manifest in Creation. It is part of the “right side,” the masculine, positive divine energy. The limitless love of Chesed is balanced over against the power of Gevurah, God’s justice and power. An excess of either degrades reality and threatens the existence of the universe. It is especially linked to the Patriarch Abraham, who personified Chesed in the world of action. It is sometimes called Gedulah and is symbolized by the color white.
Chet: (). The eighth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It has the vocalic value of “kh/ch,” the guttural “h.” It symbolizes transcendence and grace.1
1. Munk, The Wisdom of the Hebrew Alphabet, 112-16.
Chibbut ha-Kever: ( ). “Torments of the Grave.” The individual who has not led an exemplary life can expect to find the separation of the Soul from the Body extremely painful (SCh 30). Some teach that this pain is the result of the soul (specifically the nefesh) remaining close to the body and being forced to experience its gradual decay and disintegration (Job 14:22; Ber. 18b). Others hold that punishments worse than what will be experienced in Gehenna befall the newly dead: floggings with whips of fire and iron, dismemberment by punishing angels and the like. Domah, the angel of the grave, comes to the soul to pronounce the judgment of chibbut ha-kever. Normally a soul can expect to be bound to the body for seven days (Zohar I, II). During this time the soul can also expect to revisit the episodes of its earthly existence (Tan. 11a). A medieval tractate, Masechet Chibbut ha-Kever, gives a detailed account of the process. SEE CEMETERY; DEATH; ETERNAL LIFE; JUDGMENT.
Childbirth: (). As the first commandment found in the Torah (be fruitful and multiply), procreation occupies a special place in Jewish thought (Gen. 1). Being a liminal time when forces of life and Death potentially conjoin, it has attracted considerable occult interest. According to the Torah, giving birth brings with it a state of uncanniness or weirdness (in the Old English sense of the word). That plus the ample amount of blood and other bodily fluids expelled meant that a woman was rendered tamei (“impure”) following childbirth, thirty-three days for a male infant, and twice that for a female (a blood-expelling event that yields a blood-expelling child). At the end of the period, sacrifices must be brought (Lev. 12:1-2). Beyond these, no other ritual or theurgic practices regarding childbirth are preserved in the TaNaKH. In the Scriptures, there are a number of births associated with miraculous circumstances, including the births of Isaac (Gen. 18-23) and Samson (Judg. 13).
By the time of the Rabbis, Angels, demons, and witchcraft began to be associated with birth (Ber. 8a; RaSHI on Sot. 22b; Zohar II:264b, 267b). In the face of the many threats to a woman in childbirth, there developed local theurgic customs and protective rituals. A copy of Leviticus might be put in the crib (SCh 1140), or circles drawn around the birthing bed, which would also be draped with amulets called kindbet in Yiddish (“child’s crib”), or chamsa in Arabic (“five [fingers]”). In Poland, there arose the custom of “womb blessing” in the presence of a Torah scroll. In some communities, a Torah might be brought into the room to ensure a safe birth.
Psalms or germane biblical passages (Gen. 21; 1 Sam. 1) would be recited.1 In an example of analogous magic, all the doors of the house would be opened and all the knots and bows of the woman’s garments would be undone to ease the birth process. Alternately, some women would wear a sash, amulet belt, or even a Torah binder around the abdomen.2
Mother- and/or child-protecting amulets and Prayers were often mass-produced in Europe after the advent of the printing press.
A printed childbirth amulet against Lilith
In Oriental communities, charms made of precious metals (silver in particular, including coins) still continued. Many of these contained binding incantations or pleas that protective angels or meritorious ancestors drive off the lilot and/or destructive demons attracted by the birth. Many Chasids still use a red string, either blessed by a living rebbe or taken to a dead tzadik’s grave, and then tie it on either the woman or the bed. Vigils called tachdid are still practiced by Oriental Jews in Israel to this day.
1. Klein, A Time to Be Born, 148-52.
2. Ibid., 111-15.
Children: Children are highly vulnerable to spiritual attack, so considerable thought and energy have been given in Jewish tradition to protecting children from demons and witchcraft through protective prayers, incantations, and amulets. Children can also be a source of mantic knowledge. The Talmud declares that Prophecy has been “given over to children” (B.B. 12b). While the Talmud probably meant this as a dismissive remark, some Jews have taken it seriously. Specifically, overhearing the biblical verses a student recites at his studies can be interpreted as omens (Chag. 15a; Git. 57a).
Likewise, from time to time there has appeared in Jewish literature the idea of child prodigies—that a child, either consciously or unconsciously, can have a special gift for prophecy. A child prophet arose in Spain during the 13th century, and another among the Jews of Poland in the 15th. SEE DIVINATION; EVIL EYE; KLEIDON; LILITH.
Children of Darkness: As described in the sectarian literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Sons of Darkness are the demons and their mortal minions of evil and impurity who work to undermine the authority of God. The priesthood in control of the Temple during the latter part of the Greco-Roman period was evidently the human side of this evil conspiracy. SEE WAR SCROLL.
Children of God: ( /B’nai ha-Elohim). A term for the heavenly host; Angels (Gen. 6; Job 1). The singular term, Ben Elohim, son of God, is also an honorific given to Israelite kings of the Davidic line based on 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 2. This is not to be confused with the Christian doctrine that Jesus is the “only begotten son of God.” The Children of Israel are also called God’s “firstborn son” (Ex. 4:23). SEE ANGEL AND ANGELOLOGY; DAVID; RIGHTEOUS, THE; SON OF GOD.
Children of Light: This term, which appears in the non-biblical materials of the Dead Sea Scrolls, refers to the good Angels and their priestly supporters who faithfully serve God and battle against the impure, demonic Children of Darkness. The conflict of the Children of Light and Darkness is a centerpiece of the dualistic mystical theology of the sectarian priests of Qumran. SEE WAR SCROLL.
Children of the East: Fabled magicians and astrologers. The phrase is based on 1 Kings 5:10 and Isaiah 11:11. This reflects a tradition about the legendary esoteric talents of the people of the “East” (Egypt, Babylon, and Persia). These skills included mastery of astrology, horoscopes, ornithomancy, and divination (PdRK 4). SEE EAST; NAMES OF IMPURITY.
Chiromancy: Palm reading. This form of augury first appears in Jewish circles in the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q186). Examples of chiromantic diagrams in Hebrew have been preserved.
Chitzon, Sefer: (). “Outside Book.” The rabbinic term for any book of antiquity that appears intended to be taken as authoritative, but is not included in the Jewish scriptural canon. These books include works that claim to be written by biblical figures (pseudepigrapha), such as the Testament of Levi or the Books of Enoch, as well as apocalyptic literature and those books that offer “revised” accounts of those found in canonical books, such as Jubilees, which reworks Genesis, and the Temple Scroll, a revisionist version of
Chitzonim: (). “Outsiders.” An alternative term for kelipot, the forces of evil.
Chiyya, Rabbi: Wonder-working Talmudic Sage (ca. 3rd century). He could make the wind blow and the rainfall by his Prayers. The Talmud hints that he could even raise the dead if he so wished (B.M. 85b).
Chochmah: (). “Wisdom.” The second of the sefirot, it emerged from the primordial power of Keter. It in turn is the source of Binah. It is the first “being” to exist “outside” of God. It is equated with Torah, the blueprint through which God makes the universe. It is also called Abba (“father”), reflecting the fact that it is the first expression of the binary/dualistic nature of Creation. SEE Wisdom.
Chok l’Yisrael: An 18th-century collection of verses—biblical, rabbinic, and Kabbalistic—that are believed to be able to effect divine Tikkun, repair of the cosmos. The work is credited to Chayyim Vital. Jews are encouraged to recite these verses daily.
Choleim Chalom: “Dream Diviner.” An oneiromancer, linked to false Prophets (Deut. 13:2). Yet based on the examples of Joseph and Daniel, in post-biblical Judaism dream interpretation is regarded as a respectable form of manticism. SEE DIVINATION; DREAM
Choni ha-Ma’agel: “Choni the Circle-Maker.” Wonderworker (ca. 1st century BCE). This rainmaker was famous for his close relationship with God. Several stories about his using magic circles to make rain appear in rabbinic literature. His contemporary, the great Sage and witch hunter Simon Ben Shetah, expressed his great displeasure with Choni’s theurgic antics, but in the end conceded that Choni had a unique relationship with his Creator. He once slept for seventy years (Tan. 19a, 23a). SEE RIGHTEOUS, THE.
Chozeh: (). “Seer.” This person may be synonymous with a roeh; someone who experiences premonitory or veridical visions. SEE FACE OF GOD; PROPHECY AND PROPHETS.
Christian Qabbalists: As part of the Renaissance project to recover the teachings of the classical non-Christian past, a number of 15th-century Christian scholars became interested in Kabbalah and studied it under Jewish teachers. The most famous of these men is Pico Della Mirandola, but this number also includes Johannes Reuchlin, Pietro Gallatius, Francisco Giogio, and Egidio da Viterbo. These men translated parts, even whole books, of Jewish mysticism for the use of Christian scholars, esoterics, and alchemists. Some even tried to use the doctrines of Jewish Kabbalah to prove the validity of Christian doctrine.1
Eventually these translated works were read and used by 19th- and 20th-century theosophists, influencing a variety of modern esoteric movements. Much of what is published under the rubric “Qabbalah” today is derived from these Christian Kabbalists. Such theosophical works are made up of metaphysical ideas stripped of their Jewish assumptions and teachings, often conflated with Christian and Hermetic teachings, and bearing little resemblance to the Jewish mystical tradition it purports to explain. SEE CHRISTIANITY.
1. Scholem, Kabbalah, 196-201.
Christianity: A religion emerging from Judaism in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. From very early on, Christianity and Judaism were faiths competing on similar ground. Ideologically, both shared in the heritage of Israelite religion and its texts and both participated in the esoteric traditions of Jewish apocalypticism. In the matter of esoteric praxis, both engaged in spiritual healing and both had traditions of demonic possession. Other parallels, whether obvious or subtle, meant that even as critical ideological differences drove them apart, certain affinities remained. Religious leadership on both sides sought to keep those attractive elements of the competing faith at arm’s length. Both groups regularly accused the other of engaging in magic, a term which already had a pejorative connotation in Roman times.1 Thus, for example, in the Talmud we have one incident of a rabbi who is criticized for seeking a healer among the Christian community.
Likewise, despite the obvious Jewish roots of the spiritual healings performed by Jesus, early Christian leaders despised Jewish remedies and faith healing and equated them with witchcraft and devilry (Dialogue with Trypho 85:3; Council of Laodicea, Canon 35-37). Joannes Chrysostomus, for example, railed endlessly at their Christian congregants who sought medical or spiritual help in the synagogues. Chrysostomus in particular carried on about the “synagogue of Satan” where demons found refuge (Homilies against the Judaizers 1:6). This attitude became so pervasive that medieval Christians became convinced that Jews in general were practitioners of sorcery, and even simple Jewish customs and protective acts, like opening doors at a time of Death, or casting Earth at a funeral, were perceived as malevolent witchcraft and could bring dire consequences.
For a brief period during the Renaissance, Christians showed a renewed interest in Jewish Kabbalah and theurgy.2 But that same heightened consciousness of Jewish occultism yielded a harsh backlash against Jews during the Reformation period, especially given the witch-hunting hysteria of the 16th and 17th centuries. This pervasive and often destructive Christian stereotype of Jews helped contribute to the collective decision in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Jewish community to distance itself from the bulk of Jewish esoteric traditions and practices. And it is only in the last half century, when Christian opprobrium has been muted, that many Jews have again shown renewed interest in their own mystical and occult heritage. SEE BLOOD LIBEL; CHRISTIAN QABBALISTS; HOST DESECRATION.
1. L. Levine, The Ancient Synagogue (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 274.
2. Langermann, “Magic and Astrology,” Encyclopedia of the Renaissance vol. 3 (New York: Charles Scribners & Sons, 1999), 3, 21, 23.
Chrysostomus, Joannes: Early Church Father and savage anti-Semite (ca. 3rd century). His anti-Jewish polemics proved very influential on subsequent Christian attitudes toward Jews and Judaism. Deeply offended by the good relations he observed between the Jews and Christians of his time, he authored a series of ferocious sermons directed at the Jews. Among the things he objected to, were the Christian use of Jewish faith healers and attendance of the Jewish holidays. Chrysostomus called the synagogue an “assembly of Satan” and declared Jews to be in the thrall of the demonic.1 SEE CHRISTIANITY.
1. Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews, 21, 58.
Circle: ( /Iggul/Ma’agel). As a symbol of centrality and infinity, images of circles appear frequently in Judaism—the Temple, Jerusalem, and Israel are concentric circles of holiness in the world (MdRI BeShallach). As a sign of protection, magic circles first appear in Jewish tradition in the Bible, when Joshua encircles Jericho seven times in order to collapse its walls.
They also appear in Talmud and Midrash with the many stories of Choni ha-Ma’agel, Choni the Circle-Drawer, a charismatic figure who could cause rain (M. Tan. 3.8). It is a matter of debate whether the “heave offering” described in the Torah involved waving the offering in a circle. Certainly the custom of kapparah involves waving a chicken in a circle before it can become a substitute bearer of the sins of the individual. The use of protective circles, so familiar in medieval sorcery, also starts to appear in Jewish practice. Such circles were also used to protect the birthing bed of pregnant women (Sefer ha-Chayyim 2.8). Smaller circles drawn around a wound or area of illness on a Body presumably exorcised the malaise-causing spirit.
The book Zera Kodesh (“Holy Seed”), written in the 16th century, describes making concentric circles on the ground (usually three or seven) with an iron blade, often with an inscription or the names of Angels added. The magical handbook Key of Solomon describes the use of magic summoning circles in some detail. The Baal Shem Tov once defeated a priest-witch by making a protective circle with his staff (Megillat Setarim).
Performative circles, created by walking or linking hands around someone to ward off the evil eye, came to be part of both Jewish Weddings and funerals. They are used in a variety of ways to treat illness.1 European Jewish women would circle a cemetery in a ritual of divination (Sefer ha-Chayyim; Ma’avar Yabbok).2 To animate a golem, an adept must circle the form 462 times while reciting the necessary incantations of animation (Pseudo-Sa’adia Commentary to SY).
1. Zimmels, Magicians, Theologians, and Doctors, 147.
2. L. Fine, Judaism in Practice: From the Middle Ages through the Early Modern Period (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 61.
Circle of the Special (or Unique) Cherub: A modern term for the largely anonymous School of mystics (ca. 13th-century Rhineland) who focused their esoteric teachings on Sefer Yetzirah. Only Avigdor ha-Tzarfati and Elchanan ben Yakar have been linked by name to this mysterious group. They devote a great deal of their esoteric speculation to the meaning of the cherub that supports (or is) the Throne of Glory and is the mechanism through which the Prophets and mystics experience visions of God in physical form. They are the likely authors of several mystical tracts, but most notably what is now known as the “Pseudo-Sa’adia” commentary on Yetzirah (it was mistakenly ascribed to the 10th-century-CE Babylonian philosopher Sa’adia Gaon).1 SEE BARAITA DE YOSEF BEN UZIEL; CHERUB, THE UNIQUE; PESEK HA-YIRA’AH V’HA-EMUNAH; PSEUDO-SA’ADIA.
1. Dan, The ‘Unique Cherub’ Circle, 56-75.
Circumcision: (/brit milah). The rite of circumcision, performed on a male child on the eighth day after birth, is regarded to be a “sign of the covenant” between Jews and God. It symbolizes the human role in perfecting God’s Creation. It renders the males who undergo it tam, “perfected” (Gen. 17).
The Bible credits circumcision with having a protective power. In at least one enigmatic biblical passage (Ex. 4:24-26), circumcision thwarts a supernatural attack. Moses had failed to circumcise his son, Gershom, and the Talmud explains that as a result Moses is all but swallowed up by an angelic/satanic force (versions vary: Satan, Uriel, Gabriel, and the team of Af and Chemah all are proposed in different texts) in the form of a serpent, but it is unable to go past “the sign of the covenant.” When his wife Zipporah sees that the creature cannot engulf Moses’s penis, she intuits the meaning of the attack. She immediately performs the rite on her son, and the attack ends (MdRI Yitro 1; Ex. R. 5:8; Ned. 31b-32a).
In the case of Abraham, circumcision overrides his fate as revealed in the stars (Ned. 32a). So awesome is the power of circumcision that in the World to Come, Abraham sits at the gates of Gehennaand does not allow any circumcised Jew to be taken there. Domah, the angel of the grave, is powerless to punish those who bear the mark of the covenant (and honored it in life by restraining their lustful impulses) (Gen. R. 48:8; Zohar I:8b). Since medieval times, when a brit milah is performed, a chair is set aside for Elijah, the “Angel of the Covenant,” who is believed to be present at every brit milah.
The Book of Jubilees calls the uncircumcised “sons of Belial.” In rabbinic literature, certain exemplary figures were born already circumcised, especially Adam and Noah.
The medieval mystics of the Rhineland found another rationale—that circumcision ensures entry into Eden in the World to Come. This they derive from a close reading of the Bible. For they take the wording of Deuteronomy 30:12, “Who among us will ascend into heaven?” and note that the first letter of each word in the phrase, , spells MILaH, (“circumcision”). So, “Who among us will ascend into heaven?” The verse, it is claimed, provides its own answer—those who have been circumcised (Eleazar of Worms, commentary on Deut. 30:12).
Not that those without the seal of the covenant (gentiles and women, for example) won’t eventually get to Eden. Brit milah, however, ensures one takes the shortcut. Thus the circumcised circumvent Gehenna (Gen. R. 21:9; Eruv. 19a). The same interpretation also discovers the Tetragrammaton, , in the last letters of each word of the same phrase. This in turn provides an explanation (beyond the shape of the letter) for why later Kabbalists associate the Hebrew letter Yud (the first letter of the Divine name) with the phallus.
The Zohar, not surprisingly, finds supernal secrets underpinning the rite of circumcision. Moses de Leon, its author, was deeply engaged, if not obsessed, with the numinous significance of circumcision. For example, de Leon, expanding on a Midrash appearing in Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer 29, posits that it is only through circumcision that a human is able to receive Prophecy and experience full unio mystica, mystical union with God (I: 97b-98a; also see Gen. R. 12:8; Tanh. Lech Lecha 20). Other sources interpret the “garment of skins” given to Adam and Eve when they are expelled from Eden to be a reference to the male foreskin and the female hymen. Therefore circumcision restores the male Jew to an Edenic level of access to God (Ma’aseh ha-Shem). In Lurianic thought, circumcision is a mimetic reenactment of divine sovereignty, and tikkun ha-nahash, the act that rectifies the sin of the serpent (disobedience to God) and facilitates the union of the male with the female dimensions of the Pleroma.1
More than that, in the Zohar and in subsequent Kabbalistic thought, the human penis is a reflection of the divine structure, the sefirot. This is based on the principle that what exists above is mirrored below. Thus God has a supernal “phallus,” of sorts, but this aspect of God actually is androgynous, encompassing both the male and female principle; it is in itself combined to make the hieros gamos, a schema that (more or less) keeps this mystical doctrine within the bounds of Judaism’s monotheism. While the shaft (Yesod/Tiferet) is male, the corona, as the phallic counterpart to the clitoris, is considered female (Shekhinah/Malchut). Therefore the act of human circumcision reveals the feminine aspect in the human male; brit milah, it seems, is an act of ritual androgynization (Mashiv Devarim Nekhochim 193-96; Zohar I:29b; Shekel ha-Kodesh 67). SEE PHALLUS.
1. E. Klein, Kabbalah of Creation: The Mysticism of Isaac Luria, Founder of Modern Kabbalah (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2005), 102-103.
Cloud, Clouds of Glory: (/Anan). As visible heavenly objects, clouds are often associated with supernatural phenomena. God rides upon the clouds (Ps. 104:3). Moreover, they serve as a mobile divine dwelling:
He made darkness His screen; dark thunderheads, dense clouds of the sky were His hut (sukkah) round about him. (Ps. 18:11-12; Also see Job 36:29)
When God becomes manifest on Earth, clouds obscure what is happening (Ex. 19-21; Job 22:13; Ex. 19; Lev. 16:2). Angels also manifest themselves as clouds, most famously the pillar of cloud that guided the Children of Israel during the day on the Exodus (Ex. 13:21, 14:19-24).
According to rabbinic tradition, a cloud is a sign of the Shekhinah, the feminine divine presence (Gen. R. 1:6, 1:10). Such clouds hovered over the tents of the Matriarchs (Gen. R. 60:16). Clouds (luminous shrouds called “Clouds of Glory” by the Sages) not only led the Israelites, but actually transported them, surrounding them on all sides and protecting them from the harsh desert environment, thus in the Tosefta we read concerning the Israelite’s time in the desert:
God gave to [Abraham’s] children seven clouds of glory in the desert, one to their right, and one to their left, one before them, and one after them, and one above their heads, and one as the Shekhinah that was in their midst. And the pillar of cloud would precede them, killing snakes and scorpions, burning brush, thorns and bramble, leveling hillocks and raising low places, and making a straight path for them, a straight continuing highway …” (T. Sot. 4:2; Also see MdRI Bo 14; PR 20; Targum Song of Songs)
A sign of Aaron’s prophetic merit, these clouds had supernal letters written on them, serving as banners for each tribe. Moses ascended into Heaven to receive the Torah wrapped in clouds (Men. 29b; Shab. 88b-89a).
A pillar of cloud became manifest over the altar of the Temple on Yom Kippur, and its appearance was an augury of the future (Yoma 21b). The presence of these clouds diminished and eventually disappeared due to the accreted sins of Israel. Bar Nifli, “son of a cloud,” is a title for the Messiah, who will appear riding one, according to the book of Daniel (7:13). Virtuosos of Kabbalah, such as Moses Cordovero, sometimes had pillars of cloud appear over or around them (Sefer ha-Hezyonot). In the liturgy, the worshippers invoke the “bright clouds” by which they mean, the sefirot (Shofarot, Musaf for Rosh ha-Shanah). The clouds of glory are most often understood to refer to the 10th Sefirah, Malchut/Shekhinah (Zohar I:18a-b).
Thus it becomes clear from all these images that the clouds of Glory are multivalent in their mythic significance; they symbolize divine presence (specifically the feminine divine presence), but also divine protection and favor, along with God’s love and salvation.
Cock: (/gever). Domesticated among Jews first during Greco-Roman times, roosters were a symbol of fertility. A cock would be carried before a newlywed couple on the way to the bridal chamber. According to some sources, the cock derives its knowledge of the sun's rising from the stirring of the phoenix, which, being a fellow avian, was detectable by the rooster. The cock is also the only animal that hears the cries of the Soul at Death (Tanchuma, Pekudei 3).
Given that one word for a cock is gever, which also means “man,” it is not surprising that roosters came to be used as magical substitutes. Thus a cock is used by a man to perform the substitution ritual of kapparah. A rooster can also be used for divination, by studying either the changes in its comb or the pattern of scratches it makes on the ground. It can also be used to make rain (Hor. 12a; Sefer ha-Raziel).
Codes: SEE ENCRYPTION.
Coins: Coins have several magical uses. They can be included in amulet bags (silver being repellent to evil spirits), made into magical rings, used as bribes for witches and even demons, or for divination (either flipping the coin or as part of more elaborate rituals). During the Middle Ages, Jews taught methods for using a divining rod to locate buried coins.
Color: Color has important symbolic meaning in Judaism. Most familiar are associations with the tabernacle (Ex. 25:2-8), such as purple (argaman) with royalty, deep blue (techelet) with heaven, crimson (shani) with sacrifice, white (lavan) with purity, and black (shachor) with mourning. Adam was created by the combination of dust of different colors—we are, in effect, a kind of animate sand painting (Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:55). In dreams, all remembered colors are a good omen, except for blue (Ber. 57b).
Colors have a more powerful role in Kabbalistic thought (Zohar III:138b). The sefirot each have assigned colors.1 Concentrating on colors was also a meditative Prayer device promoted by the German Pietist . Colors are incorporated into sympathetic rites of practical Kabbalah with the goal of activating those sefirotic qualities in the material world (Pardes Rim-monim, 32.2). Part of activating a particular divine attribute is imagining that particular color in one’s meditations, or even dressing in that color while performing the ritual (Kedushat Levi, Yitro). This is also part of making an efficacious amulet (Pardes Rimmonim, 10:1). All colors appearing in a dream, except blue, are a good sign (Zohar II:132b). Colors of particular significance include:
Black: In Kabbalah, it signifies Malchut/Shekhinah, the speculum “that does not shine.” It is the color of mourning.
Blue: The color of heaven is also the color of the Throne of God (Chul. 89a; Sifrei Num. 115), God’s glory (Ex. 24:10, 25:4; Num. R. 14:3), and Chochmah. It is the color of the special thread that is part of ritual fringes a Jew wears (Num. 15:38; Zohar III:138b). Blue was a featured color in the tabernacle. Blue appearing in a dream signifies judgment or a warning (Zohar II:152b; Zohar III:139a). Blue is a good luck color, and in the Mediterranean, Jews paint their doors and window frames blue as a defense against the evil eye entering.
Bronze: According to Zohar, this color combines gold and silver, the two most divine colors, so it represents “the All” (Zohar III:138b).
Gold: Gold symbolizes Din, the quality of divine judgment (Zohar III:138b). It is also a symbol of Jerusalem, the “city of gold.”
Green: This color is associated with Tiferet.
Purple: The color of royalty, purple was one of the colors God mandated be part of the tabernacle. It is the color of Chesed.
Red: As the color of blood, life, and alarm, red is often the preferred color in anti-demonic amulets. A scarlet cord hung in the temple on Yom Kippur >that turned white when Israel was forgiven. It is the color of Gevurah, God’s attribute of power.
Silver: A sign of purity, it also has anti-demonic properties. Symbolizes the right side of the sefirot, it is the color uniquely claimed by God (Zohar III:138b; Hag. 2:8).
White: The color of light, holiness, purity, compassion, and the moon. Kabbalists engaging in mystical ascents, summoning of Angels , or other rituals of power will don white as part of their preparatory purification rituals.2Likewise the shroud a corpse is wrapped in after purification rites are performed is white. It is the color of the sefirot Tiferet and/or Keter (Zohar II:152b).
1. Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, 103-11.
2. M. Idel, Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic (New York, SUNY Press, 1995), 198.
Comets and Meteors: Heavenly bodies that appear only irregularly, such as comets and shooting stars, are understood either as omens or as heavenly responses to events on Earth (Hor.; Ber. 58b). Rabbi Israel Isserlein, for example, took the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1456 to be a prodigy of God’s judgment against the Hapsburg kings. SEE Brontology
Commandment: (/Mitzvah). According to rabbinic exegesis, the Torah contains 613 commandments from God. These divine instructions are the structural framework of Jewish religious observance and morality.
Community Rule or Rule of the Community: A document of the Dead Sea Scrollsthat exists in several manuscript versions (4Q5; 1QRule; 1QS). Community Rule lays out the organization of the sectarian priestly group at Qumran. It also explains the group’s dualistic ideology, the community’s role at the End of Time, and teaches about the dual messiahs, the Aaronide and Davidic kings. SEE CHILDREN OF DARKNESS; CHILDREN OF LIGHT.
Conception: While a human Soul is waiting to be born, the Angel of conception, Lailah, teaches the soul all the Torah. The soul is also shown the full breadth of the universe, the Garden of Eden, and Gehenna. When the time for birth arrives, Lailah strikes the fetus on the upper lip. This creates the dimple beneath the nose. More importantly, all that the soul has learned enters the subconscious and is forgotten until it is relearned in the world. When that soul is ready to return, Lailah is the angel that escorts it back (Tanchuma Pekudei 3). The Tanya offers a different, very elaborate metaphysical model of conception in which the soul is a polypsychic entity composed of elements from different spiritual source points.
Copper Scroll: Found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Copper Scroll consists of three copper sheets riveted together, now broken into two. Inscribed upon it is a list of hidden treasures buried around Jerusalem. The treasures listed, taken together, amount to tons of gold and silver. Some theorize that it is a record of the Temple treasury, concealed for the duration (or such was the plan) of the Jewish Revolt in or around 66 CE. So far, none of the purported treasures it described have been located.
Cordovero, Moses: Ethicalist and Kabbalist (Turkish, ca. 16th century). A student of Joseph Caro, he is the author of Pardes Rimmonim, Tomar Devorah, and other works. He taught a comprehensive and, at times, obtuse mystical theology. He received visitations from Elijah and was said to be the biblical Eliezer reincarnated. He was a teacher of Isaac Luria, though Luria developed a very different mystical worldview. According to one account, a pillar of cloud or fire hovered over his Body during his burial.
Corpse: SEE BODY; BURIAL.
Countenance, Divine: SEE FACE OF GOD.
Countenance, Prince or Angel of the [Divine]: (/Sar ha-Panim or Malach ha-Panim). A Sar ha-Panim is an Angel, or angels, that either serve as a visible manifestation of God in the midst of people, or serve in the presence of God. The belief in this particular angel is based on Exodus 33:14, which, translated literally, has God telling Moses, “My Countenance will go [with you] but I will depart.” This angel is mentioned explicitly in Isaiah 63:9.
The Midrash describes four high angels who simultaneously attend at God’s throne and to watch over the Israelite encampment in the wilderness:
As the Holy One blessed be He created four winds and four banners, so also did He make four angels to surround His Throne—Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael. Michael is on its right, next to the tribe of Reuben; Uriel on its left, next to the tribe of Dan, which was in the north; Gabriel in front, next to the tribe of Judah, also Moses and Aaron, who were in the east; and Raphael in the rear, next to the tribe of Ephraim which was in the west … (Num. R. 2:10)
These four are not explicitly called Sarei-Panim, even as they fill the roles generally associated with an angel of the countenance.
Metatron is the angelic figure most associated with the ha-Panim title. Other angels, such as Suriel and Tzakadhazy, are also called by the title ha-Panim, leading to some confusion. Are all these angels actually different names for Metatron, as one tradition suggests, or are the ha-Panim really a whole class of angels, of which Metatron is only the most famous? There is no definitive answer. SEE SAR.
Counting and Census: The numbering of people is a sensitive issue in Jewish tradition. God repeatedly punishes the Israelites for taking any unauthorized census (2 Sam. 24; II Chron. 21). In later Jewish tradition, counting people invites the unwanted attention of the evil eye. In order to make sure a minyan (ten people) is present for a public service, it is customary to have each recite one word in a ten-word phrase, such as “Deliver Your people and bless Your Heritage, sustain them forever.” When there are enough present to complete the phrase, the service is ready to begin. Another solution is by simply reversing what one says, as in “not one, not two, not three …”
Covenant, Angel of the: SEE ELIJAH.
Creation: One of the principle cosmological teachings of Judaism is that the universe is created by God. Rabbinic teachings include much more information about the origins of the universe than are found in the biblical account.
Personified Torah is God’s “architect” in the design of Creation (Gen. R. 1.1). In the course of God reshaping the primordial chaos, some of the six days of Creation have special significance. The second day, Monday, is the only day of Creation that God does not bless. This is because God created Gehenna on that day (Gen. R. 4:6; 11:9). It is therefore a bad luck day. On the other hand, the third day is blessed twice by God, making it a propitious day, especially for beginning a new enterprise, like a marriage. According the Zohar, since the word for “light” in Genesis 1:14, me’orot, is lacking one letter, this reveals a deficiency in that light of the fourth day, signaling the emergence of evil in Creation (without the vav normally present, the word can be read as me’erot/“curses”) (Tan. 68b; PdRK 5:1; Zohar I:12a, 33b).
The waters of the abyss that preceded the Creation are now trapped beneath the Earth, held at bay by the Even ha-Shayitah, the Foundation Stone. God removed this stone for the great Flood of Noah’s time. The design of the tabernacle and the Temple that followed it are microcosms of Creation (Ex. R. 35:6; Num. R. 12:13). The human Body also embodies the entire universe in microcosmic form.
Mystical works such as Sefer Yetzirah, Midrash Konen, and particularly the teachings of Isaac Luria detail the intimate structure of Creation, the metaphysics of the divine speech that created the world, and the powers of creation that human beings can access.
The Chasidic philosophy of Tanya (219, 320) teaches a kind of subjective acosmism: while we experience the reality of Creation, from God’s perspective there is no beginning to the universe, as it were, and all distinctions made manifest through Creation are not “seen” by the Creator—it all remains undifferentiated “oneness.” 1
The mystical project is to restore to humans the capacity to see the world from God’s perspective, at which point Creation will reverse itself and all “being” will revert to “no-thing-ness.” SEE ADAM KADMON; EMANATION; MA’ASEI-BERESHIT; TWILIGHT.
1. Green, Jewish Spirituality, vol. 2, 160-63; Rabinowicz, The Encyclopedia of Hasidism, 74.
Crimson Cord: SEE SCARLET CORD.
Crown: (/keter also koteret; atarah). Crowns are a symbol of authority and power. There are four crowns in Jewish tradition: the crown of royalty, the crown of priesthood, the crown of Torah, and the crown of a good reputation (Avot 4:17).
Both the king and the High Priest wore types of crowns. In some Jewish communities, brides and grooms are crowned at the Wedding. The only fabulous crowns mentioned in the aggadah are the one million, two hundred thousand crowns placed on the heads of Israel (two for each male—God assumed they would share with the women) by Angels at Mount Sinai. Those crowns were taken back by God after the golden calf incident (Shab. 88a).
Crown of God: The crown of God is constantly being woven by the Angel Sandalfon from the Prayers of Israel. It bears the Tetragrammaton on its front. It is multihued, reflecting the many different prayers offered to God. There is one description of God wearing ten crowns, which the mystics take as a reference to the sefirot (Ber. 55a; Chag. 12a, 13b; Ex. R. 21:4; Mid. Teh. 88:2; Zohar I:132a, 168b). Based on their appearance in the Bible, and the using the principle that all biblical terms are allegories of the Pleroma, kabbalistic thought distinguishes two “divine crowns,” Keter (“crown”) and Atarah (“diadem”). These terms are applied to different aspects of the divine process, the application varying widely from author to author and system to system. One of the most common is to assign the term Keter to the primordial creative impulse, and Atarah to the generative aspect of the God, the divine phallus.
Crypto-Jews: Jews (mostly from the Iberian Peninsula) who, after coerced conversion to Christianity, secretly maintained Jewish practices.
Crystal: SEE GEMSTONES.
Cures: SEE HEALING.
Cures, Book of: A powerful tome of healing mentioned in the Talmud. King Hezekiah hid it away because of the impiety of his people (Pes. 56a; M. Pes. 4:9; RaDaK’s comments).
Curse: (). A verbal invocation to bring harm, evil, or detriment on another. More than a threat or a wish, a curse is assumed to have the power to make the desired harm a reality.
Two elements make up the logic of cursing: a magical/symbolic view of causality and “formalism,” the belief that a speech-act has power, regardless of intention, justification, or authority.1 While some assume that the “power” of the speaker underpins the efficacy of the curse (Num. 22:3), because of formalist assumptions in rabbinic thinking, even curses uttered unintentionally by ordinary people have the potential to be detrimental (Meg. 15a-b, 28a).
God has the power to both bless and curse creation. Both powers are demonstrated in the first three chapters of Genesis. Humans also have the power to curse individuals and whole classes of people (Ps. 35). Some biblical authors simultaneously try to limit the use of curses and undermine their formalist assumptions by claiming unjustified curses will have no effect (Prov. 26:2).
Curses can be absolute or conditional. An absolute curse is meant to be immediate (Gen. 4:11; 2 Sam. 16). A conditional curse only become efficacious when certain conditions are met or violated (Deut. 27-28). A notable form of conditional curse that appears in the Bible is the conditional self-curse (1 Kings 19:2, 20:10). Often included in an oath, this curse was placed on oneself accompanied with a symbolic act of destruction—shattering a pot, chopping up an animal, or some other deed that signified what would happen to the one making the vow if he or she should fail. Even God uses a form of this when making a covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15:7-21).
There are several psalms that are, or contain, extended curses. Psalms 35, 58, 137 all invoke hair-raising afflictions upon the writer’s and/or reciter’s enemy. Psalm 109 is the ultimate execration text:
May his days be few; may another take over his position.
Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.
Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg:
Let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.
Let the extortioner catch all that he has; and let the strangers spoil his labor.
Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favor his fatherless children.
Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.
Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with Adonai; and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out.
Let them be before Adonai continually, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth.
The Sages elaborate upon these biblical beliefs (Mak. 11a; Eruv. 18b-19a; Tem. 3b-4a; Mak. 16a). demons as well as human beings can utter curses. Using a curse can actually invite unwanted demonic attention on the person uttering the curse. The Talmudic Sage Rav reportedly had the power to curse others with sterility (Shab. 108a). At least one Sage, Joshua ben Levi, had the power to curse crops, though cursing people was another matter:
There was a non-believer who lived near Rabbi Joshua ben Levi. This heretic would harass the sage by challenging the validity of scriptural verses. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi was exceedingly agitated. One day he took a rooster and tied it between the feet of a bed. He [one can discern a moment of divine anger by the color of a cockscomb] waited, wide-eyed. He thought, “I will wait for the moment and curse him.” At the crucial moment, however, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi dozed off. Opening his eyes, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi concluded: “It is not proper to act so, to curse people, even if they are wicked. Moreover, it is written ‘His mercies are on all His handiwork’ (Psalm 145:9) and it is also written ‘For the righteous to punish is not good.’ ” (Prov. 17:26; Ber. 7a)
In the Jerusalem Talmud, tractate Chagigah, we read that the curse of Simeon ben Shetah’s son was considered so potent that eighty witnesses recanted their perjury rather than see his curse realized.
In Hebrew magical texts of late antiquity, several aggressive or “binding” spells are to be found, many favoring the wording of curse psalms like 109. Most are aimed at demons, but a few are directed against other human beings, similar to the defixiones tablets found in Greek magic. Texts such as Sefer ha-Razim and Sword of Moses, which have moved beyond the constraints of rabbinic prohibitions, are the most flagrant in the kind of curses they record. Sefer ha-Razim, for example, teaches that the “angels of Chimah” (wrath) that occupy the second camp of the first level of Heaven will carry out a variety of curses at the command of the properly prepared adept: they will inflict “combat and war and are ready to torment and torture a man to death.” Specific curse formulae include capsizing a boat, collapsing a wall, sending someone into exile, breaking bones, blinding and/or laming, even undermining business dealings.
Medievals believed that even reading those portions of the Bible that recount God’s curses against disobedient Israel (Deut. 27-28; 31:3; Ps. 109) could result in those curses being realized, so those portions were read rapidly in a whisper, a custom still observed today in many congregations. Chayyim Vital believed Psalm 109:6, “Appoint over him a wicked man and may Satan stand by his right hand …” allowed King David (and others) to afflict an enemy with a dybbuk (Sha’ar ha-Yichudim 16a).
The exact mechanism of cursing varies. As noted above, a curse can follow simply because of an utterance. Thus we read:
Moses is not mentioned in the portion [Tetzaveh] … The reason for this is that Moses said to God: “Wipe me out from Your book [Ex. 32:32]” and the curse by a righteous person is fulfilled, even if it is made conditionally. (Baal ha-Turim)
Jewish magical texts, however, generally require more effort. Sefer ha-Razim, aping Greek Pagan magical practices, requires materia magica along with specific rituals and incantations. Timing and astrological influences can also increase or mitigate the power of a curse. The practice of cursing is still with us. In a much-publicized event during the 1994 Israeli elections, a Kabbalist put a pulsa denura (lashes of fire) curse on candidate Yitzchak Rabin because he supported territorial compromise with the Palestinians.2
1. Lauterbach, “The Belief in the Power of the Word,” 287-89. Also see H. Brichto, The Problem of “Curse” in the Hebrew Bible (Philadelphia, PA: JBLMS 13, 1963).
2. D. Horowitz, ed., “Rabbis Placed Ancient Curse on Rabin,” The Jerusalem Report (Nov. 16, 1995).
Curtain: SEE PARGOD; TEMPLE.
Curtain of Heaven: Sometimes identified as the first of the seven Heavens, the curtain of heaven conceals the Throne of Glory from the sublunary spheres. According to the Talmudic Sage Resh Lakish, the curtain of heaven is drawn back at dawn and spread each evening, producing the effect of day and night. It is rolled up during the passing of comets, briefly revealing the firmament in all its glory. Angels, demons, and ghosts can hear the decrees and conversations of the divine court from behind the heavenly veil. SEE PARGOD; RAKIA.