Tag Archives: Mishpatim (parasha)

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)

How Long is a Long Life?

This week’s parasha, Mishpatim, presents the first extensive set of Torah laws. The list concludes with a blessing:

And you shall serve Hashem your God, and I will bless your bread and your water; and I will take sickness away from your midst; none shall miscarry or be barren in your land, and the number of your days I will fill. (Exodus 23:24-25)

God promises that He will fill the lifespan of one who observes His laws properly and sincerely. What does this mean? How long is a “full” lifespan? The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) comments that the gematria of amal’e (אמלא), “I will fill”, is 72, suggesting that a full life span is 72 years. He then quotes Psalms 90:10 as support: “The days of our years are seventy years, or in strength, eighty years…” The Ba’al HaTurim reconciles the figure of 72 years in the parasha with 70 years in Psalms by stating that the year of one’s birth and the year of one’s death don’t count. A newborn is essentially unable to do anything, much like a frail and presumably ill elder in their last year of life. Therefore, one who has reached the age of 72 should be satisfied with having had a “fulfilled” lifespan.

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Who is Metatron?

In this week’s parasha, Mishpatim, we read about a large set of laws that Moses received on Mt. Sinai following the Ten Commandments. While there, God tells Moses (Exodus 23:20-21):

Behold, I am sending an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Beware of him and obey him; do not defy him, for he will not forgive your transgression, for My Name is within him.

God sends an angel to guide the Israelites through the Wilderness to the Promised Land. This is a very special angel, for God says that He has placed His Name within the angel. The Torah does not identify the name of this angel, but the Talmud does (Sanhedrin 38b):

A certain heretic said to Rav Idit: “It is written: ‘And to Moses He said: Come up to God.’ [Exodus 24:1] The heretic raised a question: It should have stated: ‘Come up to Me.’” Rav Idit said to him: “This is Metatron, whose name is like that of his Master [God], as it is written: ‘…for My Name is within him.’”

‘Angel Appearing to Joshua’ by Gustave Doré. According to the Book of Zerubavel, this was Metatron, the same angel that led the Israelites through the Wilderness.

A heretic challenges Rav Idit by saying that God should have spoken to Moses in the first person, saying “come up to Me”, not “come up to God”. Rav Idit replied that the speaker was the angel Metatron, who was sent by God to be His representative, and has God’s Name within him, as the Torah clearly states.

How do we find God’s Name within the name “Metatron”? The Kabbalists pointed out that the gematria of Metatron (מטטרון) is 314, equal to the Name of God Shaddai (שדי). However, this is only on the surface level. In reality, God’s absolute Name is the Tetragrammaton, and we do not find these four letters (Yud, Hei, Vav, Hei) in Metatron.

Of course, we must remember that the names of angels were generally adapted from non-Jewish sources, as the Talmud affirms (Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah 6a). How could this be? The true names of the angels had to be concealed so that people would be unable to summon them. Metatron, therefore, is not the angel’s real name. This is pretty evident in itself because anyone who first hears the term “Metatron” would never guess it is a Hebrew word. It sounds foreign, perhaps Aramaic, or more likely Greek. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that “Metatron” comes from the Greek meta and thronos, meaning “near” or “after the throne”, ie. that Metatron is the angel that sits nearest to the Throne of God, or the one that has authority right after the Throne of God. This brings us to the second place in the Talmud where Metatron is mentioned, in one of the most perplexing and intriguing Talmudic passages.

Sitting in Heaven

The Talmud relates the famous story of the “Four Who Entered Pardes” (Chagigah 14b-15a):

The Sages taught: Four entered “the orchard” [pardes], and they are: Ben Azzai, and Ben Zoma, Acher, and Rabbi Akiva… Ben Azzai glimpsed and died, and with regard to him the verse states: “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His pious ones” [Psalms 116:15]. Ben Zoma glimpsed and was harmed, and with regard to him the verse states: “Have you found honey? Eat as much as is sufficient for you, lest you become full from it and vomit it” [Proverbs 25:16]. Acher cut the saplings. Rabbi Akiva came out safely.

…“Acher cut the saplings” [meaning, he became a heretic]. With regard to him, the verse states: “Do not let your mouth bring your flesh into guilt” [Ecclesiastes 5:5]. What was it [that led him to heresy?] He saw the angel Metatron, who was granted permission to sit and write the merits of Israel [some versions add: for one hour a day]. He said: “It is taught that in the world above there is no sitting, no competition, no turning one’s back to Him, no lethargy. Heaven forbid—there are two authorities!”

They removed Metatron from his place in Heaven and smote him with sixty lashes of fire, so that others would not make the mistake that Acher did…

In this esoteric narrative, four great mystics of the highest order are able to ascend to the Heavens. Ben Azzai died immediately, Ben Zoma lost his mind, and Elisha ben Avuya became a heretic, for which he was referred to as Acher, “the other”. Only Rabbi Akiva exited in peace. (For a deeper analysis of this enigmatic passage, see Secrets of the Last Waters.)

The Talmud relates what it was that turned Elisha ben Avuya into a heretic. He saw Metatron sitting in the Heavens, when it was taught to him that none but God sits in Heaven. He concluded that perhaps there is more than one god, and this led him to abandon the Torah. (We must remember that this was nearly two millennia ago, in a time when most of the world was still polytheistic.) Back in Heaven, Metatron was severely punished for not standing up when the Sages entered, causing Acher’s apostasy.

This narrative seems to support the Greek origins of the name Metatron. He was the angel that was permitted to sit in Heaven—like none other but God Himself—as if on a lesser throne, a throne next to God’s, meta-tron. So, what was his real name?

Becoming an Angel

The renowned scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, researched the origins of the angel and presented his findings in an essay, “Metatron”. He found that in the most ancient texts which mention the figure (such as the Apocalypse of Abraham) he is called Yeho-El (יהואל). This is precisely what we’d expect, for angel names generally have the suffix El, and Metatron is the one who carries God’s Name, the Tetragrammaton. His real name, then, is simply the Name of God with the angelic El appended to it. In some texts, he is even referred to as the “Lesser God” (יהוה קטן). Not surprisingly, these texts didn’t make it (for the most part) to the official corpus of Rabbinic literature. They did find their way into Gnostic and Mandean texts. (On that note, it should be mentioned that Christians revere Metatron, too, as do Muslims, who refer to him as Mitatrush.)

Scholem also presents alternative possibilities to the name Metatron. It may be rooted in matara, “keeper of the watch”, or metator, “a guide” (after all, Exodus says God designated him to guide the Israelites in the Wilderness). In some ancient texts, Metatron is an angel that preceded Creation and assisted God in bringing about the physical universe. Again, this is a dangerous idea that may lead to a belief in dualism or heresy, and is a problem for a monotheistic Judaism. Instead, Jewish texts generally present the origins of Metatron in a different way.

Cover for the popular 2011 video game ‘El Shaddai – Ascension of the Metatron’, released for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Gamers play as Enoch in defending the world, and are supported by angels like Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael. The game developers clearly did their research!

The Zohar draws from the apocryphal Book of Enoch in teaching that “Enoch is Metatron” (see, for example, Zohar III, 189a). Recall that Enoch was a descendant of Adam (seven generations down) of whom the Torah states “And all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty and five years. And Enoch walked with God, and he was not; for God took him.” (Genesis 5:23-24) Thus, Enoch never died, but was taken up to Heaven by God, where he was transformed into the angel Metatron. He is the angel that “walks with God”. The one that God sent to Earth to lead the Israelites. This is a fitting role for Metatron, for he was once a man of the Earth, too.

In Jewish tradition, there are two men who became angels, and two angels who descended into this world and became like men. The latter are Shemhazai and Azazel, while the former are Enoch and Elijah. Perhaps we can say that Enoch and Elijah filled the missing spaces of Shemhazai and Azazel. Enoch became the angel referred to as Metatron, while Elijah became the angel referred to as Sandalfon. Interestingly, if Metatron’s real name is Yeho-El, then we find that the names of the two angel-men share the same letters: יהואל and אליהו. In fact, the names are just reversed, and mean the same thing!

It should be mentioned that there were those in the past who rejected the notion that Enoch became an angel. For example, Onkelos translates Genesis 5:24 to say that Enoch was “no more” because God killed Enoch! This would fit with the alternate view that Metatron has nothing to do with Enoch and was already an angel before Creation. In more recent centuries, some Kabbalists even believed there must be two Metatrons, each with a slight variation of the name (מטטרון and מיטטרון). It is also possible that the two became one: an angel called Metatron existed before Creation, and when Enoch went up to God his soul was fused with that angel.

The notion of a fusion of different souls is supported by the teachings of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572). In one place, he describes how Enoch took the highest and purest soul of Adam, called zihara ila’ah, and fused together with it in becoming Metatron (Sha’ar HaPesukim on Beresheet). Elsewhere, the Arizal writes that any person who refines themselves to the highest degree, and fulfils all of their rectifications, is called a malakh, “angel” (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 39). The Arizal says this was the case with Elijah, for example, among others.

Scribing and Teaching

What is the angelic role of Metatron? We saw above from the Talmud that Metatron is the Heavenly Scribe, writing down the merits of Israel. Gershom Scholem argues that he is one and the same as the Sar HaOlam, the “prince of the world” mentioned in Rabbinic literature, appointed to watch over our Earth. The Talmud (Yevamot 16b) says that he is the subject of the verse: “I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.” (Psalms 37:25) This makes sense, for Metatron began his life as the earthly Enoch; born a baby, grew to adulthood, and was then transformed into an angel with everlasting life.

The Arizal agrees, teaching that Metatron is the “prince of the seventy nations”, the angel above all the lesser angels appointed to watch over each of the seventy root nations on Earth (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 31). In the same place, the Arizal confirms that Metatron is Enoch, who never died. He also reveals that he was the angel that came to Joseph and taught him all seventy languages in one night so that Joseph could present himself before Pharaoh.

In his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, the Ravad (Rabbi Avraham ben David, c. 1125-1198) says that Metatron was the angel that taught Moses. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 3b) states that Metatron teaches Torah to little schoolchildren. Not much else is known of him.

In the past, various critics of Judaism have used the notion of Metatron to suggest that Jews have strayed from monotheism. This is a false claim. From its first pages, the Torah speaks of angels that serve as God’s emissaries and assistants. Metatron is just another angel, albeit one imbued with more powers than others.

This brings us back to the first Talmudic passage cited above (Sanhedrin 38b), which continues with the heretic questioning Rav Idit: “If so, we should worship [Metatron] as we worship God!” Rav Idit replied: “It is written: ‘Do not defy [tammer] him,’ meaning ‘Do not replace Me [temireni] with him.’” In a classic play on words, Rav Idit explains that when God said not to rebel against His appointed angel, He also meant not to start worshipping him in place of God.

We mustn’t forget that there is only one God whom we pray to and turn to. The Jewish people have no intercessors or intermediaries. We are Israel (ישראל), or yashar-El (ישר-אל), “direct to God”. And Rav Idit concludes in the Talmudic passage that the ancient Israelites ultimately rejected Metatron as their guide, and requested that God Himself lead them, as it is written (Exodus 33:15): “If Your Presence go not with me, raise us not up from here.”