Tag Archives: Elijah/Eliyahu

Mysteries of the Haggadah

The Passover Haggadah is one of the most ancient compilations of Jewish text. Its core goes back to the Mishnaic era (1st-2nd Century CE), and it came to its final version, more or less as we know it today, about 1000 years ago. The Sages filled the Haggadah with profound secrets and mysteries, giving people both young and old much to meditate and reflect on. In fact, we read in the Haggadah at the very beginning that although “we are all wise, discerning, sage, and knowledgeable in Torah”, it is still a mitzvah for each person to plunge into the Exodus story and uncover its secrets, and to share one’s thoughts and interpretations with others. Not surprisingly, the Sages embedded many such secrets and mysteries in the Haggadah itself. A small sample of them are presented below.

The Sefirot of Mochin above (in blue) and the Sefirot of the Middot below (in red) on the mystical “Tree of Life”.

The statement that we are all wise [chakhamim], discerning [nevonim], and knowledgeable [yodi’im], is a clear allusion to the upper three Sefirot of Chokhmah, Binah, and Da’at. The same verse also says we are all zkenim, literally “elders”, which is strange because obviously not everyone around the seder table is an elder! What does this really mean? We must remember that Da’at is only the inverse and the application of the highest Sefirah, Keter. There are, in fact, four mental faculties: Keter, Chokhmah, Binah, and Da’at, or willpower, information, understanding, and applied knowledge, respectively. (The Arizal actually teaches that these four are the reason the head tefillin has four compartments!) Now we can understand the purpose of inserting zkenim in the Haggadah: The highest Keter reflects the “face” of God known as Atik Yomin, the “Ancient of Days” (a term that comes from Daniel 7:22). This is the “elder” zaken in the Haggadah’s phrasing. All four mental faculties are stimulated at the seder, just as the tefillin stimulates all four.

The Haggadah continues by saying it is a mitzvah for us to lesaper, speak at length about the Exodus. Speech corresponds to the bottom of the Sefirot, Malkhut. And what of the six Sefirot in the middle? The Haggadah goes on to tell us that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon were all celebrating Pesach together one year. The teachings of these Mishnaic sages formed the core of the Haggadah text itself. They can be said to correspond to the six middle Sefirot (which are collectively called Zeir Anpin, and parallel the realm of Yetzirah, literally “formation”). You might ask: but wait, that’s only five rabbis—where is the sixth? The Haggadah itself answers: “Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said to them: ‘Behold, I am like a man of seventy years, but I never merited to understand why the story of the Exodus is told at night until Ben Zoma expounded…’” The great Shimon ben Zoma is hiding here, too!

Recall that Ben Zoma is a contemporary and colleague of these wisemen, and even ascended up to the heavenly Pardes alongside Rabbi Akiva (Chagigah 14b). An amazing chiddush (that belongs to my wife) is that we can parallel the “Four Who Entered Pardes” with the Four Sons of the Haggadah: The wise one is undoubtedly Rabbi Akiva—the only one able to enter and exit Pardes in peace. The wicked one is, of course, Elisha ben Avuya who became the apostate Acher and traitorously joined the Romans. He totally separated himself from the Jewish community, so he said: “‘What is this service to you?’ To you and not to him.” The Passover service was no longer relevant to him. Hak’heh et shinav, Acher needed to have his teeth blunted! Then we have “the simple one” or “innocent” one, Ben Azzai, the bachelor who never married, and simply “gazed” at the Divine Presence only to immediately perish, his soul never returning back to Earth. Finally, the one who doesn’t know how to ask is Ben Zoma. Recall that upon his return from Pardes, Ben Zoma was thought to have gone “mad”, unable to converse with regular human beings or keep up a discussion with the Sages. Ben Zoma, quite literally, could no longer “ask”!

The Sages of the Haggadah were deeply contemplating the past redemption of Pesach, but also the future redemption of Mashiach. We find that much of the seder is centered around not ancient events, but forthcoming ones. This is, of course, evident from the concluding part of the seder with a wish for next year’s Pesach to be in a rebuilt Jerusalem, with a rebuilt Holy Temple, where we can properly bring a korban pesach. It is the deeper meaning behind reciting dam esh v’timrot ‘ashan, “blood, fire, and columns of smoke”—spilling a drop of wine for each—which actually comes from the prophet Joel’s vision of the End of Days (Joel 3:3). We are not talking here about the past miracles and plagues in Egypt, but the future signs and miracles that we await! The same goes for pouring a fifth cup for Eliyahu, with a prayer that Eliyahu returns speedily to usher in the Messianic Age. And this is the secret meaning behind those cryptic words we recite: sh’fokh hamatcha el hagoyim asher lo yeda’ukha! “Spill Your wrath upon the nations that don’t know you!” (Psalms 79:6)

Redemption & the War Against Rome

To fully understand the Haggadah, we have to keep in mind that its core was composed in the Mishnaic era, and the undisputed adversary and oppressor of the Jewish people at the time was the Roman Empire. In fact, Rabbi Akiva would end up being martyred at the hands of the Romans. And this connects to an incredible idea that has been proposed to explain that strange episode in the Haggadah where the five chief rabbis are getting together on Pesach. We must ask: why are the rabbis sitting together all night? Where are their families? The Torah commands that one must celebrate Pesach with family, and make sure to instruct one’s children and grandchildren. It seems here in the Haggadah that the five rabbis are alone, confined to a room until the morning when “their students came and said: the time for the morning Shema has arrived!” Even their own disciples were not with them at the seder. What’s going on?

We must remember that Rabbi Akiva’s generation lived at the time of the Bar Kochva Revolt. Rabbi Akiva himself supported Bar Kochva, and believed the latter to be the potential messiah of the generation:

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught: “My rabbi, Akiva, used to expound that ‘A star shall emerge out of Jacob…’ [Numbers 24] is Bar Koziva… when Rabbi Akiva would see Bar Koziva, he would say: ‘He is the King Messiah!’ Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta would say to him: ‘Akiva, grasses will grow out of your cheeks and still the Son of David will not come!’” (Yerushalmi Ta’anit 24a)

Bar Kochva did indeed get very far in the war, managing to expel the Romans (albeit temporarily), re-establishing a sovereign Jewish state (and minting his own coins), even clearing the Temple Mount and starting to rebuild the Beit haMikdash. This would not have been possible without Rabbi Akiva’s support. Unfortunately, the war ended in disaster, with 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students killed, along with Rabbi Akiva himself.

Coins minted by Bar Kochva

When exactly did Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues make the decision to support the revolt against Rome? This certainly would not have been an easy call to make. It would require all the chief rabbis of the time to get together and deliberate carefully. And, according to Rabbi Dr. Ronald Eisenberg (Essential Figures in the Talmud, pg. 16) this is precisely what they did on that Pesach night where they were all together. Confined in a room with no one else around, they stayed up all night to come to a verdict. The students arrived in the morning and said: Time’s up! Do we revolt or not? And what did the rabbis answer? They quoted that last part of the Haggadah: sh’fokh hamatcha el hagoyim asher lo yeda’ukha! “Spill Your wrath upon the nations that don’t know you!” This was the signal to go to war against Rome. And we do know that the main part of the war subsequently took place between Pesach and Shavuot (Yevamot 62b), which is why we still observe a mourning period during this time today. All the puzzle pieces add up neatly to explain this Haggadic mystery.

The Sh’fokh verse in the Darmstädter Haggadah (c 1430)

Bar Kochva wished to throw off the oppressive and idolatrous Roman yoke. In supporting him, the rabbis were hoping to usher in the Messianic Age. It was Nisan, the month of Redemption; and Pesach, the holiday of geulah. And those same Sages taught: b’nisan nigalu, u’b’nisan atidin liga’el, “In Nisan we were redeemed, and in Nisan we are destined to be redeemed again.” (Rosh Hashanah 11a) This was the maxim of Rabbi Yehoshua—the very same Rabbi Yehoshua of the Haggadah, sitting and deliberating with his colleagues all night on that fateful Pesach. It seemed the time was ripe for redemption. The Vilna Gaon taught (as relayed in Kol haTor) that Bar Kochva really was the potential messiah of the generation (otherwise, Rabbi Akiva surely would never have supported him!) Unfortunately, the potential wasn’t realized.

Nonetheless, that same potential exists in every generation, just as there is a potential messiah in every generation. The power to bring the Redemption is in our hands. It takes two things: proper Torah observance and true repentance on the one hand, as well as a collective “Mashiach mass-consciousness” on the other. Rabbi Akiva’s generation had the former, but not the latter. This is evident from the Yerushalmi passage above, where Rabbi Akiva was constantly declaring publicly that Bar Kochva was the messiah—to spread that “Mashiach mass-consciousness”—yet other rabbis were quashing people’s hopes and telling them to stop dreaming, as Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta did.

In this difficult time that we are currently in—where all of the prophecies have already been fulfilled and there are none left to await—let’s make sure we do both, and finally bring about the Geulah.

Wishing everyone a chag Pesach kasher v’sameach!

Ushpizin & Anti-Ushpizin

Over the course of Sukkot, we are graced with the spiritual presence of the “Seven Shepherds of Israel”: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David. These Heavenly guests are commonly known as the ushpizin. Interestingly, the root ushpiz or oshpiz, “guest”, actually comes from the Latin hospis, as in the English “hospitality”! What is the origin of the notion of Seven Shepherds? Where did the practice of inviting the ushpizin come from? And who are the mysterious “anti-ushpizin” that oppose the Seven Shepherds?

Origins of Ushpizin

‘Micah Extorting the Israelites to Repentance’, by Gustave Doré

The idea of Seven Shepherds of Israel comes from the Tanakh, from the prophet Micah. The fifth chapter of his book begins by telling us that an ancient soul of Judah, mikedem mimei olam, will emerge out of Bethlehem of Efrat to be moshel b’Israel, a ruler of Israel. The next verse tells us it will come at a time of great desperation for Israel, following a series of “birth pangs”. This leader will be righteous, and serve in the name of God. We might think this is referring to Mashiach, but the chapter continues to warn that Assyria will invade and drive Israel into exile. It’s quite clear that Micah is speaking about the near future, and the Judean leader he envisions is the righteous Hezekiah, who drove away the Assyrian invasion and miraculously saved Jerusalem. Indeed, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98b) records an opinion that all of the Messianic prophecies of the Tanakh were referring to Hezekiah!

Nonetheless, this chapter of Micah is seen as a “double-level” (or “dual-fulfilment”) prophecy, one that spoke of the near future in Micah’s own days, and also cryptically referred to a future time at the End of Days. This is how Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai read it, for instance, and saw “Assyria” here as secretly referring to Persia at the End of Days, who will invade Israel in the final apocalyptic war (Eichah Rabbah 1:41). Whatever the case, Micah 5:4 says that God will raise up “seven shepherds and eight princes of men” against the invaders. Again, the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:1) wonders if this means there will be seven or eight messianic figures in the End of Days, and concludes that there will actually be four:

There is a great debate with regards to how many messiahs there will be. Some say there will be seven, as it is said “then shall we raise against him seven shepherds…” (Micah 5:4) And some say there will be eight, as it is said, “and eight princes of men.” And it is neither of these, but actually four, as it is said, “And the Lord showed me four craftsmen…” (Zechariah 2:3)

And David came to explain who these four craftsmen are [Psalms 60:9 and 108:9, where God declares: “Gilead is mine, Menashe is mine; Ephraim also is the defence of my head; Judah is my sceptre”]: “Gilead is mine” refers to Elijah, who is from the land of Gilead; “Menashe is mine” refers to the messiah who comes from the tribe of Menashe… “Ephraim is the defence of my head” refers to the Warrior Messiah who comes from Ephraim… “Judah is my sceptre” refers to the Great Redeemer, who is a descendant of David.

That said, the seven shepherds must refer to other figures. The Talmud (Sukkah 52b) explains: “Who are these seven shepherds? David is in the middle; Adam, Seth, and Methuselah are to his right; Abraham, Jacob, and Moses are to his left. And who are the eight princes among men? They are Yishai, Saul, Samuel, Amos, Zephaniah, Zedekiah, Mashiach, and Elijah.” The Sages seem to suggest that alongside Mashiach and Eliyahu, the souls of thirteen other great figures of the past come back to help them. Glaringly missing from the list of seven shepherds is Isaac. Why is he the only one of the Forefathers not included? Any why include Seth? Are there not greater figures of that era, like Noah and Enoch?

Some would explain Isaac’s omission from the shepherds by pointing out that, well, Isaac wasn’t really a shepherd! The Torah describes him digging wells and irrigating farms, his blessed crop producing me’ah she’arim, hundred-fold yields. A deeper explanation is given by the Arizal, who says that Itzhak (יצחק) is an anagram of ketz chai (קץ חי), “lives at the End”, as he will come back at the End of Days in the form of Mashiach ben Yosef, the “Warrior Messiah” mentioned above. The name Itzhak itself is in the future tense, meaning “he will laugh”—in the future when he is victorious in battle. The Arizal even proves it mathematically, as the value of Itzhak (יצחק) is 208, equal to Ben Yosef (בן יוסף)! (See Sha’ar haPesukim on Lech Lecha, for instance, and also the Ba’al haTurim on Deuteronomy 7:21.)

Noah was not a shepherd either, but a farmer. Enoch was a scribe and scholar, and transformed into an angel. That leaves Adam, Seth, and the longest-living Methuselah to represent the pre-Flood generations. Aaron was not a shepherd in Egypt, and served as high priest after the Exodus. Joseph was a shepherd-in-training in his teens, but did not return to that profession in Egypt. Instead, he oversaw all of Egypt’s farming operations and granaries. That leaves us with David, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses.

The lower 7 Sefirot correspond to the 7 Shepherds of Israel

The Zohar (III, 103b) comes in and tells us that holy figures of the past visit us on Sukkot, and this is the source for ushpizin. However, the Zohar only states “Abraham and five other tzadikim”. It doesn’t say who the five are directly, but does quote David, Isaac, and Jacob speaking. The whole passage itself comes from the mouth of Ra’aya Mehemna, the “Faithful Shepherd”, who is Moses. Right before this, Aaron is mentioned in passing, for it was in his merit that the Clouds of Glory—which the sukkah is likened to—appeared in the Wilderness. The only one missing is Joseph. However, the Zohar always parallels such things to the Sefirot, and the six righteous figures are meant to correspond to the six Sefirot of Zeir Anpin, from Chessed to Yesod. The figure that always stands in for Yesod is Yosef haTzadik. David, meanwhile, is always paralleled to the seventh Sefirah of Malkhut. In this way, we find our Seven Shepherds, as we know them, in the Zohar.

The Anti-Ushpizin

Elsewhere, the Zohar (Sitrei Otiyot on Beresheet) says that the world endures in the merit of these Seven Shepherds of Israel. Opposing them are seven shepherds that stem from the “Left Side” or “Other Side”, the Sitra Achra. They seek to shepherd Israel away from God and towards idolatry. This is the meaning behind Jeremiah 15:9 which reads “She who bore seven is forlorn, utterly disconsolate; her sun has set while it is still day, she is shamed and humiliated. The remnant of them I will deliver to the sword, to the power of their enemies—declares God.” The Zohar lists the “anti-ushpizin”: Jeroboam, Ba’asha, Ahab, Yehu, Pekah, Menachem ben Gaddi, and Hoshea ben Elah. Who are these people?

Recall that Yerovam ben Nevat, “Jeroboam”, was the first king of the northern Kingdom of Israel after the split following King Solomon’s reign. Afraid to lose his throne and grip on power, he set up roadblocks so that his Israelites wouldn’t go to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festivals. Instead, he built two idolatrous temples with golden calves. For this, the Sages say he has no share in the World to Come (Sanhedrin 10:2).

Ba’asha ben Achiya was the third king of Israel. He spent his reign at war with the Kingdom of Judah, and even allied with Aram at one point. He continued the wicked ways of Jeroboam, so God declared he would obliterate Ba’asha just as he did Jeroboam (I Kings 16:3). King Ahab is well-known, being the husband of the wicked idolatrous Queen Jezebel, and the tormenter of Eliyahu. His dynasty was destroyed by Yehu ben Nimshi, originally a military general. Yehu was used as an instrument by God to carry out Ahab’s punishment. However, Yehu went a step too far and bloodily massacred countless people in the Valley of Jezreel. Although God initially rewarded him with a multi-generational dynasty, He did declare that He would eliminate Yehu’s dynasty for the cruelty at Jezreel (Hosea 1:4). Amazingly, we have archaeological evidence clearly confirming Yehu and his story, from the Assyrian Black Obelisk.

King Yehu of Israel giving tribute to King Shalmaneser III of Assyria, on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III from Nimrud (circa 827 BC), currently in the British Museum.

Menachem ben Gaddi was another such general-turned-king. We know little about him. So was Pekah ben Remalyahu. He allied with King Rezin of Aram to attack Jerusalem. The Judeans were terrified, and it was in the context of this that Isaiah relayed his famous prophecy about the miraculous birth of a saviour child (Isaiah 7). Although it is abundantly clear that the passage is speaking about Hezekiah—who did go on to save Judea and Jerusalem as a young, righteous ruler—Christians infamously interpreted the prophecy to refer to the birth of Jesus (reading the word almah, a “young lady”, as “virgin”). Their argument that this, too, is a “double-level” or “dual-fulfilment” prophecy speaking about both contemporary times and future times cannot be the case. A double-level prophecy must not give a specific time, in order to allow interpretation for the present and the future. This prophecy clearly states the events are supposed to happen “in 65 years” (Isaiah 7:9). A specific time is given, leaving no ambiguity. The Tanakh continues to relay how the prophecy was fulfilled.

Pekah was assassinated by Hoshea ben Elah. The Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser III then appointed Hoshea as the new (and final) king of Israel. An Assyrian inscription confirms this, too, stating that the Israelites rebelled and “overthrew their king Pekah and I placed Hoshea as king over them. I received from them 10 talents of gold, 1,000 talents of silver as their [tri]bute and brought them to Assyria.” Hoshea didn’t last long. One of Tiglath-Pileser’s successors soon destroyed the northern Kingdom of Israel and exiled the tribes.

The souls of these seven idolatrous kings stand in opposition to the souls of the holy Seven Shepherds. We find that the Seven Shepherds of Israel were all about unity, bringing people together to serve God and inspire righteousness. The anti-shepherds, meanwhile, were power-hungry and vindictive, instigators of division and civil war, propagators of idolatry, and collaborators with Israel’s enemies. On Sukkot, we welcome in the spirit of the righteous ones as we bring people together in our huts. And we hope to expel the spirit of idolatry and divisiveness, of the wickedness stemming from “the Left Side”. This is all the more important to keep in mind and meditate on as we see what is happening all around us today in the Holy Land and the world at large.

Chag sameach!


More Sukkot learning resources:

Medicinal Properties of Arba Minim
Russia, Iran, and Gog u’Magog
What is Happiness?

Witches and Wizards in the Torah

In this week’s parasha, Mishpatim, the Torah prescribes capital punishment for a witch, stating that “A sorceress shall not live” (Exodus 22:17). Rashi explains here, citing the Talmud in Sanhedrin 67a, that although the phrasing is in the feminine, the law applies to a sorceress or a sorcerer. Both female witchcraft and male wizardry are forbidden. The reason that the Torah phrases it in the feminine is simply because sorcery is more common among women. The Zohar (I, 126b) explains why it is that women are more drawn to witchcraft than men:

It all goes back to the Garden of Eden, where the Serpent approached Eve and “injected into her a zuhama”, a spiritual impurity. Although this zuhama went on to “infect” all mankind that descend from Eve, women are more prone to its effects, and more drawn to the “Other Side”, the Sitra Achra. However, the Zohar also states elsewhere (such as in III, 230a, Ra’aya Mehemna) that women are more attracted to all faith in general, and it is easy to see how women today and throughout history were a lot more dedicated to their faith than men. Women are naturally more drawn to matters of faith, belief, and mysticism—whether good or bad.

Now, what actually constitutes witchcraft or sorcery? The Sages derive that there are 10 types of sorcery, based on Deuteronomy 18:10-11, which states “Let no one be found among you who consigns a son or daughter to the fire; or an enchanter who enchants, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer; one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead.” The first in the list of ten is an “enchanter” (קסם), and then the term “who enchants” (קסמים) implies two more distinct types of enchantments. (In Modern Hebrew, this root term is used for a magician or illusionist.) Then we are given seven more practices.

A me’onen (מעונן) is one who predicts ominous times and seasons, from the root onah meaning a “season” or period of time. The same root here implies wasting seed, like Onan son of Judah in the Torah (Genesis 38). Thus, the Sages suggest that a me’onen is a person who performs sorcery using semen, or involving some other sexual perversion (see Sanhedrin 65b). Next comes a menachesh (מנחש) who “divines” and, literally, “guesses” the future through various means. For instance, in the Torah we read how Joseph would be menachesh using his special silver goblet (Genesis 44). The Talmud (ibid.) adds that a menachesh uses omens and derives meaning from all kinds of random events, or even from the activity of birds, fish, and other animals.

Then comes the mechashef (מכשף), this time phrased in the masculine, for a generic sorcerer. A chover (חבר) is translated as one who “casts spells” but that definition seems more fitting for the sorcerer. A literal reading of chover implies someone who connects and brings things together, lechaber, perhaps one who brews potions, reminiscent of a witch’s cauldron. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 65a) adds here that a chover is one who burns different concoctions of incense to idols or demons. The purpose may be to summon or gather those demons. Another possibility is that what a chover brings together is animals, for example snakes, scorpions, or insects. A chover, therefore, might include a malicious snake charmer.

The final three in the list of ten all seem to be about contacting ghosts and spirits. First is a person who inquires of ov (אוב). Based on the root, it may be a person who channels their dead ancestors (avot). Another is one who inquires of yidoni (ידעוני), translated as a “familiar spirit”, perhaps the ghost of someone famous and well-known like a great historical figure. The last is a medium who contacts the souls of the dead directly. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b) suggests that a person who practices ov may get possessed by a ghost and speak in their name. Often, this is done by the use of a skull. A yidoni, meanwhile, uses the bone of a certain animal called yadua to contact the dead. Finally, the generic “necromancer” is a person who fasts and then goes to sleep in a cemetery to collect information from dead spirits.

Biblical Warlocks

The Zohar (I, 166b) states that history’s greatest sorcerer was Laban, father-in-law of Jacob. In fact, when Jacob complains that Laban flipped his wages ten times, aseret monim (Genesis 31:7), the true meaning here is that Laban used all ten types of wizardry (outlined above) against Jacob! So, when Jacob later told Esau that he lived with Laban, im Lavan garti—that he lived with the infamous sorcerer and escaped his clutches—he meant to tell Esau that just as he escaped all forms of Laban’s sorcery, he would similarly withstand Esau.

The Zohar here says that the next great warlock of the Torah, Bila’am, learned his sorcery directly from Laban, who was actually his grandfather! The Talmud, meanwhile, has an opinion that Bila’am was one and the same person as Laban (Sanhedrin 105a). The Arizal reconciles the two by teaching that Bila’am was the reincarnation of Laban. Thus, he was both Laban’s descendant on the one hand, and at the same time literally Laban because he was his reincarnation (see Sha’ar HaPesukim on Balak).

The Tanakh (Joshua 13:22) actually calls Bila’am a kosem, the first type of sorcery on the Torah’s list. The verse here says that the Israelites killed Bila’am and his disciples el halaleyehem (אל חלליהם). The standard translation is something like “with their corpses”, but this reading doesn’t make much sense. The Zohar explains that halaleyehem really refers to their flying crafts, because Bila’ams team of sorcerers knew how to fly using magic! (In Modern Hebrew, a halalit is a spacecraft.) Today, flying on a broomstick is associated with witches. Where did this notion come from?

Talmudic Witches

The only woman directly called a “witch” in Tanakh is Jezebel, the wife of the wicked Israelite king Ahab (II Kings 9:22). Jezebel is the one that relentlessly persecuted the prophet Eliyahu, but was ultimately defeated. The Talmud suggests that Ahab was such a wicked king only because he was bewitched by Jezebel (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:2). Another Biblical figure thought of as a sorceress is the “Witch of Endor”, although she is not addressed this way in Tanakh (I Samuel 28). It was this necromancing woman that Saul went to in order to summon the soul of the prophet Samuel. The Tanakh makes sure to note there that Saul had previously banned all forms of necromancy, but when he himself needed the council of his now-deceased prophet Samuel, he hypocritically resorted to a ba’alat ov, a woman who practiced the ov form of necromancy.

Nikolai Ge’s “Witch of Endor” (1857)

The Talmud says much more about witches, and recounts multiple stories featuring them. In the most famous such incident, Shimon ben Shatach (early 1st century BCE), president of the Sanhedrin in his day (and brother of Queen Salome Alexandra), managed to execute eighty witches in Ashkelon at once. In fact, when he ran for president, Shimon ben Shatach’s campaign promise was that he would eliminate witchcraft from Israel. The Talmud says he initially failed to keep his promise, but when things got out of hand, he gathered a group of eighty men and headed to the cave in Ashkelon where the witches were headquartered. Through a clever ruse, he managed to capture all eighty of them, and had them all hanged.

The Talmud Yerushalmi mentions this in its exploration of the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 6:6) which teaches that it is forbidden to try two capital cases in one day. Yet, Shimon ben Shatach tried and hanged eighty. Presumably it was necessary in that situation, since the witches were highly dangerous and had to be eliminated immediately. The Talmud also mentions this story because the Mishnah presents an opinion that women were never hanged at all, only men were subject to hanging, yet here we have proof that Shimon hanged eighty women. Again, it was probably an exceptional case. (The Talmud Bavli also speaks about this incident briefly in Sanhedrin 45b).

In the Shimon ben Shatach story, the witches are able to conjure items at will, seemingly speaking them into existence. One conjured bread, another conjured a food, and a third produced wine. Some of the Sages were also described as being able to conjure, however not through black magic, but rather white magic, as taught in Sefer Yetzirah and other ancient mystical texts. Rav Oshaya and Rav Chanina had made a calf, while the sage Rava had bara gavra, produced a human-like golem (Sanhedrin 65b). Some say the magical incantation of “abracadabra” comes from Rava bara gavra, while others derive it directly from the Hebrew-Aramaic evra k’dibra, “I will create as I speak”. I have not heard a theory regarding the origins of the final word of the magical formula, “alakazam”, but my own conjecture is that it comes from al hakesem or al hakosem, through the powers of the kosem, the first of the Torah’s ten types of sorcery, the same term used to describe Bila’am.

As a general requirement, the Talmud teaches that a sage who sat on the Sanhedrin actually had to be knowledgeable in witchcraft and wizardry (Sanhedrin 17a). This is so that, like Shimon ben Shatach, the Sanhedrin would be able to properly apprehend and try witches and wizards. Relatedly, in Shabbat 81b we read how Rav Chisda and Rabbah bar Rav Huna were once on a ship and a witch wanted to sit with them but they refused, so she uttered a spell and the whole ship stopped in the middle of the sea! The rabbis uttered something of a counter-spell of their own, and the ship started moving again. The witch soon gave up, noting that the rabbis’ righteous conduct prevented her from harming them. In Pesachim 110a-b, the Sages teach a formula to recite in order to keep witches away, a lengthy phrase that includes statements like “may your hair fall out” and “may your spices scatter in the wind”.

Witchcraft Symbolism

The Zohar (II, 185a) explains that the Torah prescribes sacrificing a se’ir, a particular type of hairy goat, as a way to counter the powers of witchcraft. This is because the goat is a major symbol of witchcraft and sorcery. This symbol is often combined with a pentagram, a five-pointed star. The six-pointed star of Judaism, meanwhile, is something of a “one-up” over the pentagram, to subdue the wicked powers of the Other Side. It is interesting to point out that a se’ir goat was offered on Rosh Chodesh in particular, as a “sin offering” (Numbers 28:15). This was partly a sin offering for the sins of witchcraft, since Rosh Chodesh is considered a feminine holiday, traditionally observed more stringently by women, whose bodies similarly follow a lunar-like cycle.

An 1856 depiction of the goat-headed “Baphomet”, with the moon on the side and a prominent pentagram.

Modern-day “Wiccans” and witches still use the pentagram as their main symbol, as well as the goat-headed “Baphomet”, among others. And what of the classic image of a witch wearing a pointy hat, brewing in a cauldron, with a black cat, and a flying broomstick? Historians believe this image actually emerged in the 15th and 16th centuries as a smear campaign against women who had, until then, dominated the beer-brewing industry:

Since ancient times, it was women who made and sold beer. During the Protestant Reformation in Europe, this was discouraged and women were expected to stay home, while men should engage in business and go out to the marketplace. Women who brewed beer were depicted as witches, their cauldrons holding poisons and potions instead of beer. In those days, beer-brewing women did indeed have cats with them, to keep rats and mice from eating their grains, and they did wear long, pointy hats to be more visible in the marketplace. The broomstick, too, probably came out of a need to always sweep the dust and grain chaff in their breweries. Thus, its only in recent centuries that the image of a typical female beer-brewer—with cauldron, broomstick, cat, and pointy hat—turned into the image of a typical witch!

Finally, and most importantly, we must ask the big question: is witchcraft and wizardry actually real? Might it only be an illusion or a set of false beliefs and superstitions? Perhaps the effects of witchcraft are only placebo-like, and harm only those who believe in them? The Talmud and Zohar certainly make it seem like witchcraft and sorcery are real and potent. Yet, the great rationalist Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1138-1204) was among those who held that witchcraft is nonsense. He argued that the Torah forbids it not because it has real power, but because it is just meaningless, idolatrous drivel. One should stay away from any such beliefs or ideas. It is worth concluding with the Rambam’s eloquent words:

The masters of wisdom and those of perfect knowledge know with clear proof that all these crafts which the Torah forbade are not reflections of wisdom, but rather, emptiness and vanity which attracted the feeble-minded and caused them to abandon all the paths of truth. For these reasons, when the Torah warned against all these empty matters, it advised [Deuteronomy 18:13]: “Be of perfect faith with Hashem, your God.”
(Sefer HaMadda, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 11:16)