I don’t understand how I’ve been Jewish my whole life, a magic-obsessed nerd for 4/5 of it, and only just now learning a bunch of stories about Jewish magic. Jews, Jewesses, JewX, friends of Jews, I have finally found the stories I always wanted to hear about my people, and so can you. You’re gonna want to take a Dramamine before this deep dive into the magic stories they didn’t tell you in Hebrew school.
The Witch of Endor
In a classic “corrupt and hypocritical politician” bit, King Saul drove out/murdered all the people who practiced witchcraft and then searched for answers with the help of magic. In I Samuel 28, Saul tried to speak to God through prophets and the divination stones Urim and Thummim to gauge the success of an upcoming battle but learned nothing. Instead he decided to visit an actual witch for a little dip in the forbidden waters of male privilege… er, I mean magic.
Saul found “a woman of Endor,” which sounds hella Lord of the Rings-y, but ended up being a lot more like getting lovingly roasted by a grandparent. First, Madame Endor told Saul she sees the ghost of the prophet, Samuel, who anointed him as king. Then, the voice of Samuel, after kvetching about being awoken, continues to nag Saul for disobeying God and predicts that Saul and his whole army will perish. Saul is unsettled so the witch helped him the way bubbes have been helping their unsettled bubalehs since time untold — with a meal. The next day Saul’s entire army was destroyed and he fell on his own sword, so this sympathy feast was his last.
Moral of the story: Sometimes life kinda sucks, but at least your grandmother isn’t predicting your death and the death of all your friends, right?
Solomon and the Demons
You may have heard of Solomon, Temple builder and wannabe baby-slicer, but did you know that the famous Temple he worked so hard to create was allegedly made possible by demon labor? According to the pseudepigraphical Testament of Solomon, Solomon discovered a demon named Ornias vamping, sucking a boy’s vitality through his thumb. Solomon prayed in the Temple and asked God what to do when he was gifted a ring with the “Seal of God.” This ring had the power to control demons, and what better hobby for controlled demons to take on then iconic architecture?
Team Solomon used the ring to brand Ornias, bringing him under their command. The king instructed Ornias to also brand Beelzebub, the prince of demons, so he could have a wee bit more power. After Solomon snagged Beezy, he had all the demon power he needed to build a Temple. Is anybody else thinking of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style sitcom here? No just me? OK.
Moral of the story: It’s time to watch Buffy. Let’s make it a Buffy Summer(s). Also vampires are cool no matter what the culture or the time of year.
Rabbi Simeon ben Shetach and the coven
Typically, in Jewish literature, witches aren’t seen as evil demons, but that is not so in the case of the Talmudic story of Rabbi Simeon ben Shetach. In it, the Rabbi leads 80 young men to a cave in Ashkelon where he was told a coven of 80 witches were getting freaky. He and his gang showed up on a rainy day with hidden dry coats. Simeon strolled in first, and when the witches saw he was dry, they decided it was the perfect time to have a magic party with Simeon and his 80 friends. When the boys heard Simeon’s signal they lifted each witch off the ground, rendering them powerless and ready for the hangman’s noose.
Moral of the story: Ah, the patriarchy.
Rabbi Judah ben Bezalel Loew and his golem
The Maharal, an acronym for “Moreinnu Ha-Rav Loew” (“Our Teacher, Rabbi Loew”), is most famous for being a Talmudic teacher and a spiritual leader in Prague’s Jewish community during the 1500s. While there are a lot of myths about this guy, the most famous legend surrounding the Maharal is his golem, a being made of clay and given life by using some Kabbalistic mojo and an amulet.
According to a version of the tale from The New York Times, the Prague Jews were falsely accused of using the blood of Christians for rituals. Lowe instructed the golem he named Josef to use his golem-y powers like invisibility and spirit-chats to protect the Jewish people from all kinds of anti-Semitic shenanigans. As golems are wont to do, Josef went on a murderous rampage. His Dr. Frankenstein had to smear clay on the creature’s forehead, so it read “met,” the Hebrew word for death. Rumors say the lifeless golem is still napping in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue in Prague’s Jewish ghetto. Spooky.
Moral of the story: Sometimes Jews are picked on. So are a lot of people. Humanity can really suck.
The Baal Shem Tov and the werewolf
A Hasidic proverb states, “Someone who believes in all the stories of the Baal Shem Tov and the other mystics and holy men is a fool; someone who doesn’t believe them is a heretic.” With that in mind, get ready to suspend some disbelief as I describe the tale of the founder of Hasidism, a teenage Baal Shem Tov protecting the children of his town from a soul-less monster living in the woods near their village.
Storyteller Gerald Fierst’s version of the story speaks of a soul-less woodsman. As soon as the moon came out, he would begin all the standard werewolf procedures: long hair, wolf-like features, moon-howling, the waking up as a normal human naked, etc. At the same time that this lupine situation was going on, the BST, a young Yisrael Ben Eliezer, was leading students from the village to school every day. The werewolf lurking in the fields would have kept them from their Hebrew studies and maybe also eaten them, so Yisrael reached into the man-wolf’s chest and pulled out its cursed heart. He pitied the fragile heart, as he understood it’s pain and self-loathing, and let it rest in the earth where it was sucked into the depths.
Moral of the story: Everybody’s got their shit.
Gosh. It’s been quite the dive. If the pressure from getting so deep into the whacky stories of magic in Judaism is getting to you, I recommend drinking eight glasses of water today. You know, in addition to the Dramamine.