IT IS erroneous to assume that magic is practiced exclusively by professionals, or that it represents always a conscious, deliberate act. As Karl Goldmark once said, “Civilized people lose their religion easily, but rarely their superstitions.” There is an anecdote of a well-known actress who, when asked by a zetetic reporter what was her favorite superstition, replied, “Thank Heaven, I have none!”—and unconsciously “knocked wood” as she spoke. How many of us still “knock wood” when we hear or utter a word of praise, without in the least being aware that we are repeating an age-old magical act whose purpose is to distract or frighten away the jealous spirits? Fear of the supernatural has been productive of the greatest number and variety of magical protective devices, and just as the fear has vividly colored man’s consciousness of the universe, so these devices have become automatic responses to it. In this sense magic was, and still is, an integral pattern in the fabric of social usage, having influenced profoundly not alone folk-habits, but equally as much religious ceremonial and rite.


The methods of warding off the spirits fell into three general categories: 1. to drive them away, or at least to render them powerless by the application of certain approved means; 2. to buy them off with gifts, to bribe them and thus conciliate them; 3. to deceive them by disguising their intended victims, or by pretending that the situation was other than it actually was. Each of these methods, and often two or all three of them combined, was known and employed by Jews and even found expression in special ceremonies which have become part and parcel of Jewish ritual.

The first category comprised by far the greatest number and variety of procedures. Foremost among these is the power of the

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religious life to protect the individual. Piety and personal purity constitute a coat of armor which no demon or magic can pierce. The merit of one’s ancestors also serves as a protection. From among the multitude of anecdotes that point this moral, the following perhaps best illustrates the apotropaic and remedial virtues of piety: A certain righteous and pious Jew was about to die when a man came to him with a story that his wife had been rendered barren by sorcery, and requested that so soon as the righteous one enter heaven he repair to the throne of God and beg Him to release her from the spell. The sage promised to do so. Within the year the spell was removed and she bore a child. Not only is the truly religious man himself secure, but his merit carries sufficient weight up above to shed security upon his descendants and friends. The man whose life had been devoted to a holy occupation sometimes bore with him to the grave testimony of that fact, instanced in the custom of burying with the performer of circumcisions the foreskins which he had severed, “to drive away from him every demon and destroyer.” The practice of fashioning the coffin of a scholar out of the table at which he had pursued his studies probably had a similar purpose.1

Various religious acts and occasions were believed to bring immunity against the powers of evil. “Satan is powerless” on Yom Kippur; the blowing of the shofar at the conclusion of the day “drives off evil spirits” and confuses and confounds the devil. Indeed, the later Kabbalists surrounded the ritual of shofar blowing on the High Holydays with a series of Biblical readings whose inner mystical significance and whose “names” furthered this end. Some held that on the Sabbath “we need no other protection” than the merit of the day itself, for “we are all engaged in fulfilling religious duties.” On the basis of the interpretation of a Biblical verse (Ex. 12:42) Passover, too, was regarded as “a night of protection” from the demons. This belief aroused an unwonted sense of security, and led to the suspension of certain customary protective measures. It was permissible to employ even numbers, such as the four cups of wine; the prayers recited before retiring were very much abbreviated, passages intended to protect the sleeper being omitted; the doors of houses and rooms were left unlocked overnight as a mark of confidence; when the holiday fell on a Sabbath, the evening prayers inserted in the service to enable late-comers to catch up with the congregation were omitted; if a death occurred immediately before

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[paragraph continues]Passover, when water had already been drawn for the preparation of Maẓẓot, there were some who held it unnecessary to pour this water out, for “it is a night of protection” and the spirits can do no harm.2

Study is a uniquely Jewish form of worship; one of the chief features of the religious life is a scholarly regimen. Study therefore was another form of protection. The Bible in itself possesses anti-demonic virtues, as we have seen. The regular reading of the Bible in the synagogue service was believed to protect Israel from the wiles of the devil. “So long as Israel studies the Torah Satan has no power over them,” and therefore, it was explained, immediately upon the reading of the last verse of Deuteronomy the first verse of Genesis is read, on the holiday of “Rejoicing over the Torah,” so that the rehearsal of God’s law may not be interrupted even for a moment, and Satan get his chance. It was believed that a man should expire with “words of Torah” on his lips, obviously not only as a passport to the heavenly regions, but also as a safeguard on the road. The protective power of study was not limited to the Bible, but extended to all works of Jewish religious import, particularly the Talmud. There is a legend of two demons who were frustrated in their attempts to attack a certain R. Benjamin because his perpetual immersion in his studies rendered him immune. It was this belief in the security of the scholar which gave rise to the notion that the demons accept the challenge and are ever on the alert to distract his attention from his studies and thus pierce his guard.3

As the most important single feature of worship we may expect to find prayer singled out as especially powerful in this respect. The destroying angels, among whom is included the angel of death, have no power over those who have participated in the three daily prayer services, or who have recited the prayer Yoẓer Or, the “Eighteen Benedictions,” or the grace after meals. As evidence of this fact attention was called to the absence of the letter peh in the titles of the services, and in the prayers mentioned, for this letter distinguishes the names of the destroying angels; its absence implies their absence, too.4

When a man believes himself to be threatened by demons, or by magic of one sort or another, an appeal to God should win him safety. In an extremity he can resort to extemporaneous prayer. The most direct method is recommended in dealing with a demon who unexpectedly confronts one: “Don’t run, but drop to the

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ground before him; so long as you are prostrate he will not harm you; and pray in the name of God that he do you no hurt.” However, the provident man fortified himself with one or another of the many petitions especially composed for such needs—prayers which brought protection against demons, illness, magic, the evil eye, the whole catalogue of perils that beset the superstitious—prayers that concentrated on only one of these dangers, or, more often, lashed out against all of them together, in long-winded, iterative supplication. The Kabbalists, toward the close of the period, were especially prolific of such prayers. Already in the pages of the Talmud we read that “the demons keep away from everyone who recites the Shema‘ before retiring.” There grew up an increasingly elaborate scheme of prayer around this nocturnal recitation of the Shema‘, to reinforce its protective powers, and coupled with straightforward pleas for deliverance from “the terrors that threaten by night” were potent Biblical verses and Psalms, magic names, appeals to the angels, three- and sevenfold repetitions, prayers with obscure mystical connotations, etc. There was no attempt to disguise the purpose of this prayer-service; it was frankly admitted time and again that “it exists only because of the demons.”

This night-prayer offers an interesting illustration of the tenacity of magical and superstitious forms. One of its constituents invokes the protection of the angels: “at my right Michael, at my left Gabriel, before me Uriel, behind me Raphael.” This is nothing more than a Jewish version of the ancient Babylonian incantation, “Shamash before me, behind me Sin, Nergal at my right, Ninib at my left,” or, “May the good Shedu go at my right, the good Lamassu at my left,” etc.5 And across millennia and continents Ireland provides us with a doggerel Catholic version:

O! Holy Mary, mother mild,
Look down on me, a little child,
And when I sleep put near my bed
The good Saint Joseph at my head,
My guardian angel at my right
To keep me good through all the night;
Saint Brigid give me blessings sweet;
Saint Patrick watch beside my feet.
Be good to me O! mother mild,
      Because I am a little child

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While it is difficult to dissociate the religious from the superstitious in such pious practices as fasting and charity, which as expiatory measures served to avert the evil consequences of sin, there can be no doubt that they were believed to exert a certain degree of compulsion upon the supernatural powers. The words of Prov. 10:2, “Charity delivereth from death,” were reiterated with enough insistence to lead one to believe that some degree of literalness attached to them. We read that “God forgives all the sins of everyone who fasts on three consecutive days and nights, four times a year, namely, before the tenth of Tebet, before the seventeenth of Tammuz, before Rosh Hashanah, and during the ten succeeding days of Penitence.” In an unavailing effort to avert assault during the First Crusade, the Jews of Trier, we are informed, distributed almost all their possessions to the poor. This was a fairly common practice in the Middle Ages, individuals sometimes stripping themselves even of their clothes and giving them away, to gain relief from serious illness and other afflictions. Private fasts and almsgiving were recommended in a host of situations: before undertaking a journey, to cure an ailment, to change one’s luck, to remedy barrenness, to counteract an omen of death, or an ominous dream, and so on. Communal fasts were also decreed on occasion: for rain, when a pogrom impended, when an unduly heavy tax burden had been laid upon the community, etc.6


Of course, the most obvious means of protection was to post a guard over the threatened individual. This was the purport of the warning against going out at night unaccompanied. The well-known German-Jewish institution of the Wachnacht, celebrated with feasting and prayer and study all the night preceding a circumcision, constituted a close watch against demonic attacks. Speaking of people whose condition renders them an easy prey to the spirits, one writer says, “I have known many to observe a meticulous watch over them, in particular over a pregnant woman and a mourner, who are not left alone for a moment, and who are not permitted to go out of doors unless accompanied by an adult or at least by a child.”7

But a physical guard was not of itself warranted to relieve all fear, and most often supernatural forces were set into operation. The demons must be met on their own ground. Prominent among

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the anti-demonic measures was the method of magic, the exorcism. All the familiar devices were resorted to—invoking the angels and the holy names, reciting Biblical verses, magical numbers, etc. Most potent among the protective names was Shaddai, “Almighty.” It was inscribed on the outside of the mezuzah; the phylactery straps were so knotted that in combination with the letter shin on the head-box they spelled it out; it was uttered prior to departure on a journey; Kohanim (descendants of the priestly caste), while offering the Priestly Benediction, spelled it out with their fingers; one did the same to fend off an anticipated assault by a thug; even the dead were afforded its protection, for in some places the fingers of a corpse were bound in such a way as to form the three letters of this name.’

The following spell was prescribed to expel demons from a place which they were believed to infest: “Measure off the spot in the four cardinal directions, and mark its borders with strings. Stretch another string the length of the area, alongside one of the borders, and have ten men carrying a Scroll of the Torah walk along this string to its end; then move the string a trifle, so that their footprints will touch the impressions made on the first line, and have them follow this second line; repeat this until the entire area has been covered. On each line, the Torah preceding them, they should recite the following: the Priestly Benediction (Nu. 6: 24-26), the ‘anti-demonic psalm’ (Ps. 91), Lev. 26:42, Ezek. 45:12, Deut. 11:12, Is. 62:4, Is. 45:18, Ps. 85:2, Ps. 67:2, Deut. 28:8. They must recite these on each line, and they must tread the entire plot of ground thoroughly. When this has been done they should say, ‘With the consent of God, and with the consent of the Torah, and of Israel, who guard it, may it be forbidden to any demon, male or female, to invade this place from this time forth and forever.'” Incantations and charms of this sort are to be found aplenty. Before setting out on a journey it was a common practice to invoke the protection of angels. To free a demoniac of his unwelcome visitant one should “fill a new pot with freshly drawn water, pour in some olive oil, and whisper Psalm 10 over it nine times, with the mystical names that appertain to that Psalm, and then bathe the patient with the liquid.” Scriptural verses, universally employed against the evil eye, were frequently recommended in Jewish literature for this purpose. Outstanding among these verses were the Priestly Benediction and Gen. 49:22.9

Furthermore, Jewish superstition was conversant with the fairly large class of things and actions which have been universally credited

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with anti-demonic virtues. Here a brief summary of the extensive material may suffice.

Light was one of these protective agents, due, no doubt, to the circumstance that demons shun the light, and also because of the purificatory and expiatory virtues of fire, the source of light. In the Talmud we read that “carrying a torch at night is as good as having a companion (to keep the demons away), while walking by moonlight is equivalent to having two companions.” Sefer Ḥasidim advises that “anyone who is threatened by demons and approaches fire before uttering a word about it, will not be harmed nor die.” This belief partly explains the ubiquity of lights at religious and semi-religious exercises, especially those associated with moments of crisis, although it would be absurd to deny that lights were used also, and perhaps more frequently, because of other significances, symbolic, ritual, superstitious, attached to them.10

Water is as potent a cleansing and piacular medium as fire, and consequently it possesses similar protective virtues. If a man who has been bitten by a snake reaches a stream first, the snake dies, but if the snake gets there first, the man dies. Running water neutralizes a magic act, and destroys the magical properties of things; it dispels mirages created by demons, and drives off the spirits themselves. To bar the demons from entering one’s home, one must pour water, prepared according to a magic recipe, over the threshold. Many prescriptions for expelling a demon from a possessed person require bathing in water. It was also a common ingredient of superstitious medicaments.11

The most powerful liquid, as we have seen, was supposed to be spittle, especially the sputum of a fasting man. Therefore it was suggested that one may protect himself in unclean places, which the spirits haunt, by spitting three times, and even evil thoughts, which are the work of demons, may be dispelled in the same way.12

A form of frontal attack upon the spirits is practiced by some peoples, who resort to throwing things or shooting into the air to drive them off. While such practices were not altogether unknown among Jews, the noise that usually accompanies warfare was substituted for the physical encounter. In Talmudic times it was customary to rattle nuts in a jar to scare away the demons that frequent privies, and a precautionary measure against swallowing evil spirits along with some water was to strike the vessel sharply before drinking. Medieval Germans believed that the crack of a whip and the

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ringing of church bells have the same effect; on the Polterabend, preceding a wedding, the demons that threatened bride and groom were driven off by setting up a great clamor and breaking pottery; the same custom is preserved in the “bellin’” that still accompanies a wedding in the Kentucky mountains. Noise-making also figured at Jewish weddings as a measure of protection, as we shall see.13

As among other peoples, metals, and iron, in particular, were the most frequently used anti-demonic objects. Eleazar of Worms suggests an explanation which has been favored by modern students of superstition; for protection against demons and witches one should strike a tool made of “acier,” he wrote, “for metals are the products of civilization,” and thus evidently antipathetic to the spirit masters of primitive pre-metal society. However, this is only one of the explanations advanced nowadays. The magic circle was to be drawn with a knife or sword; a piece of iron suspended in water protects it against demonic contamination during the Tekufah; iron was put into a hen’s nest to guard the chicks against suffocation and fright during a thunderstorm; pregnant women kept a knife with them when alone; the key to the synagogue was placed under the pillow of the dying man.14

Salt was another such substance which figured prominently in the folklore of European peoples. Thus it was believed that salt is never found at the witches’ Sabbat feast, and the Inquisitor and his assistants at a witch-trial were warned to wear bags containing consecrated salt for protection against the accused. Jewish folklore credited salt with an equally high potency. In Ezek. 16:4 we learn that new-born babes were rubbed with salt, a practice still current in the Orient. According to medieval authorities, salt must be set on a table before a meal is begun “because it protects one against Satan’s denunciations.” The Kabbalists were more outspoken: “It drives off the spirits,” they wrote, “because it is the mathematical equivalent of three YHWH’s; therefore one should dip the piece of bread over which the benediction is recited, three times into salt.” “After each meal eat some salt and you will not be harmed.” For this reason salt was used in many rites connected with birth, marriage and death, and in medicine.15

Very often salt and bread were jointly prescribed to defeat the stratagems of spirits and magicians. When a witch assaults a man, he can bring about her death by forcing her to give him some of her bread and salt. Murderers ate bread and salt immediately after

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their crime to prevent the return of their victim’s spirit to wreak vengeance upon them. Schudt reports that a Jewish woman advised him to hang bread and salt on his daughter’s neck to protect her from harm; “she had done this to all her children and in consequence they had all prospered.” The common practice of bringing salt and bread into a new home before moving in, usually explained as symbolic of the hope that food may never be lacking there, was probably also in origin a means of securing the house against the spirits.16

Along with salt, sharp herbs and condiments in general have been widely regarded as anti-demonic, and have had an important place in religious rites of purification. This is not true, however, of Jewish practice to any appreciable extent, though such ingredients were occasionally prescribed in medicaments, where their power to expel spirits may have been their recommendation, along with their more natural medicinal properties.17

Among the most widely used anti-demonic devices in Europe is the gesture called “to fig” (in German, die Feige weisen, in French, faire la figue, in Italian, far la fica, in Spanish, hacer el higo), recognized as a sign of defiance and insult in ancient and modern times. It is made by closing the fist and inserting the thumb between two fingers. Its peculiarly obnoxious character, to men and spirits alike, derives from the fact that it is meant as an obscene representation of the sexual act. Menasseh b. Israel was correct both in his explanation of the intent of this gesture, and his association of it with the Talmudic recommendation that to protect oneself against the evil eye one should place his right thumb in his left fist and his left thumb in his right fist. While this gesture differs in form, its significance is the same. In the Middle Ages, however, Jews were acquainted with the authentic “fig”: “If a demon confronts a man he should bend his thumb between his fingers,” or, more explicitly, “When a man encloses his thumb in his fist he simulates a pregnant woman, and they [the spirits] do not harm him.” People who employed this gesture were warned that it infuriates the demons at the same time that it renders them harmless; therefore, a weak person, “especially one who is dangerously ill,” should forbear to use it, for the spirits may subsequently take vengeance on him. Variations on this theme were also employed: For safety on a journey one should place the little finger of the right hand in the left fist and recite a charm formula. The fingers were used as phallic symbols

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to the same end, and we learn that a witch is transfixed when one raises his index finger and thumb and recites the name “Uriel” seven times, or that an “evil impulse” may be vanquished by pressing the thumbs on the ground, repeating “Pipi” nine times, and spitting.18


These methods constitute the arsenal employed in the war against the spirits—weapons of more or less direct attack. But strategy knows more devious means of disarming a foe. The gift—or bribe, depending on the viewpoint—has been proven easily as effective in conciliating demons as men. “If a sorcerer or a witch demands anything of you,” we read in Sefer Ḥasidim, “don’t hesitate to give them a coin or two, so that they shall not bewitch you, just as you would make a present to the demons, or to a maniac, to forestall their doing you some harm.” In magic, as we have observed, the offering played a conspicuous and often deliberate rôle. Countless customs among all peoples have cunningly preserved the good-will offering to the spirits, so that to this day Jews and non-Jews innocently continue to tender their gifts of peace to the unseen powers. The harsh building-sacrifice, once universally observed, which involved originally the immolation of a human being to secure the stability and safety of a structure, was in time mitigated into an animal sacrifice. Medieval Germans still felt the need of protecting their homes by burying a fowl or an animal in its walls; I know of no analogous Jewish practice during the Middle Ages.

Offerings to the spirits made their appearance in many guises. When a beast or fowl upset a dish or some other utensil this was taken to be an ill omen; one must kill the offending creature at once. The sacrifice of the animal may appease the spirits. In a sense the offering represents a substitute for the intended victim, which the spirits are ready to accept even when it is proffered accidentally and not by design. “When an angel is dispatched to take a man’s life, if another born under the same planetary influences chances to die, the first is spared.” When the angel of death comes to town the dogs are immediately aware of his presence and freeze in their tracks; if a dog’s master should push him forward, the animal will drop dead; “the dog then serves as a substitute for the man whom the angel of death has been sent to kill.”19

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A superstitious dread of unnatural behavior manifested itself in a summary destruction of the offender. A cow which bore twins, or a hen that laid two eggs in one day, was executed; a tree which produced fruit twice in one year was cut down. In one instance, when a child was born with two sets of teeth and a rudimentary tail, its life was barely saved by the vigorous intercession of a “wise man.” Although the Talmud condemned the practice of killing a crowing hen as “heathenish superstition,” fear that this aberrant behavior betokened misfortune persisted, and the unlucky fowl met a speedy death. It has been argued that the references to this practice are merely a figurative expression of the male conviction that woman should keep her place—if she attempts to usurp her husband’s authority she becomes dangerous. An Italian proverb employs the same figure: In Quella casa none è Mai pace, dove la gallina Ccanta ed il Gallo tace. But ingenious though this supposition is, it pays little regard to the plain sense of the texts. There can be no doubt that the practice was observed quite literally and that the execution was regarded as a means of appeasing the powers that had decreed the impending bad luck. The observation that “the hen’s head is chopped off at the threshold of the house” can indicate nothing else than that it was an offering to the spirits.20

The Kapparah rite is an interesting version of the famous “scapegoat” offering, which occurs in various forms among many peoples. It was first mentioned in early Geonic times, and probably originated toward the end of the Talmudic period. The following account, quoted by Rashi from a Geonic source, describes a form of this rite which was no longer followed during the Middle Ages: two or three weeks before Rosh Hashanah the head of the family planted beans in little baskets, one for each member of the family; when these sprouted on the eve of the New Year he would circle the head of each individual with his basket seven times, saying, “This is in place of this person, this is his surrogate, this is a substitute for him,” and throw it into the river.

The procedure that prevailed in the Middle Ages, also mentioned in Geonic writings, differed. It involved the slaughter of a cock for the male, a hen for the female, on the eve of Yom Kippur (in Geonic times a ram, or lamb, or goat might also be used), after the following ritual: the fowl was passed three times around the head of the subject, while various Biblical passages were recited; the announcement was then made, “This fowl is my substitute, this is my surrogate,

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this is my atonement.” Some old texts significantly add, “May it be designated for death, and I for life.” According to one account, after the fowl was slaughtered, “the entrails were thrown on the roof for the birds of heaven”; the usual procedure was to present the entire fowl to the poor “as an act of charity in accordance with the words ‘Charity delivereth from death,'” but some of the rabbis frowned upon this method of disposal, favoring rather the distribution of the money value of the bird, “for when it is given to a poor man, he says to himself, that man has transferred his sins to the cock, and I seem to him of so little worth that he sends it to me.” In Spain, the rite did not meet with the approval of several of the leading authorities. R. Solomon b. Adret (thirteenth century), who stated specifically that it was observed without objection in Germany, was himself poorly acquainted with it and confused it with another local superstitious custom. The earliest editions of the Shulḥan ‘Aruch, the authoritative law code of modern Jewry, contain the opinion of its Palestinian author, Joseph Caro, that this is “a silly custom” and its observance “should be checked”; under the influence of the sixteenth-century Polish annotator, Moses Isserles, the first words were eliminated from later editions. It is possible that the rite was not observed in Angevin England, for the author of the only code composed there introduced his description of it with the words, “I have found in the Seder of R. Amram that . .,” implying that he was not acquainted with it from his own experience.

The intent of the rite was to transfer the sins of the individual to the fowl, and by offering this substitute to the supernatural powers save oneself from the punishment decreed in heaven. The various features of the ceremony accentuate its superstitious and even magical character. Fowl are closely associated with the spirits in Jewish and non-Jewish lore and are the commonest oblation to them. The Hebrew term for “rooster,” gever (a word which, it should be noted, attained fairly wide currency only in post-Talmudic times), also means “man,” making the one a palpable substitute for the other. The cock is employed to represent a man, the hen, a woman, in many magic rites. The circles which are described the head of the individual, and the numbers three and seven, are well-known magical elements. The words which effectuate the substitution have all the earmarks of a typical incantation. In the earlier texts, the words “this is my atonement” are not present; they were added later so that the initials of the Hebrew terms might form the word

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[paragraph continues]Ḥatach, “which is the name of the angel appointed over this.” The belief that evil spirits roost on roofs occurs often (the Talmud places them under the eaves), and many folk-customs, including the German, display instances of placing offerings to the spirits on a roof. In view of this, the requirement that the entrails be thrown on a roof acquires special significance. Thus analyzed there can be little doubt of the true meaning of the rite, which is still observed today. It is probably the most blatantly superstitious practice to have entered Jewish religious usage, for where the significance of other such practices has long been lost sight of, the purpose of this one is too apparent to escape even the dullest wits. However little meaning the details of the rite may convey to the uninformed, the substitution of fowl for man is unescapable.21

Not unrelated is the rite of Tashlich, observed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which derived its name from the words of Micah 7:19, “Thou wilt cast (tashlich) all their sins into the depths of the sea.” The first direct reference to it in its modern form is by R. Jacob Mölln (Maharil, d. 1425), and the general impression has therefore been that it originated not earlier than the fourteenth century, with the German Jews. Professor Lauterbach, however, has shown that this ceremony represents merely the latest version of a complex of superstitious practices centering about the belief in the existence of spirits in bodies of water, which reaches back to remote antiquity. Maharil’s comment is suggestive of a connection with the first form of the Kapparah rite, for he speaks of people “throwing bread to the fish in a river.” This apparently was the essential feature of the ceremony, for in later times Tashlich was postponed if the first day of the New Year fell on a Sabbath, on the ground that carrying bread was a violation of the Sabbath rules.

Whatever its origin, the explanations varied widely. Maharil viewed it as a symbolic affirmation of faith: according to a Midrashic legend, when Abraham was on his way to fulfill God’s demand that he sacrifice Isaac, Satan flung a swift-flowing stream across his path, but the patriarch pressed forward, confident that God would respond to his plea for aid. Mölln, then, stressed the mere act of visiting a river as paramount, and in fact, opposed the practice of throwing crumbs into it. Others suggested that since the limitless deep saw the beginning of Creation, visiting a body of water on New Year was the most impressive reminder of the Creator’s might; or that man should emulate the river, endlessly renewing

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itself, forswear his evil ways and return home a new man; or that the fish which devour the crumbs illustrate the plight of man, who is “as the fishes that are taken in an evil net” (Eccl. 9:12), and arouse him to repentance; or, again, that the fish, whose eyes never close, symbolize the Guardian of Israel who slumbereth not. These explanations only too patently evade the main issue, the bread offering to the spirits. Under Kabbalistic influence, an attempt was made to limit the rite to shaking one’s clothes at the river-side (“to dislodge the klippot,” the clinging demons of sin) and reciting various prayers and Biblical selections “whose secret significance is very profound.” What the popular conception of the purpose of this rite was may be gleaned from the rabbinic animadversions against “those men, with as little sense as a woman, who say, ‘I am going to the river to shake off my sins,’ and grasping the edges of their garments shake them violently and imagine that in this way they can slough off a whole year’s transgressions.” However, it is with this meaning for the masses that the ceremony has survived.22

Less formal food offerings were also fairly common. The Talmud cites the opinion of R. Eleazar b. Pedat: “He who leaves crumbs on the table is to be regarded as a worshiper of heathen gods,” and from the discussion, it would appear that not only “crumbs” but sometimes whole loaves were set on the table at the conclusion of a meal. Other usages of the same nature were popular in Talmudic times; try as they might the rabbis could not root them out. They compromised by forbidding the leaving or scattering of food “that may spoil,” thus accepting the practices but obscuring their purpose. In the Middle Ages the Talmudic custom was sedulously observed; crumbs, “but not morsels of bread,” were left on the table, the explanation offered to be that this was a symbolic expression of hospitality to the wayfarer and the needy. Still, we find that on certain occasions, notably on the eve of a circumcision, a table was set especially for the delectation of the spirits.

On Friday nights, too, a loaf of bread and a cup of wine were set aside during the meal or left standing overnight. Some advanced the dubious rationalization that this was “in commemoration of the manna” which fell in a double portion on the eve of the Sabbath, but there were rabbis who saw through the shallow evasion and did not hesitate to categorize it as “setting a table for the demons.” Yet it continued to be done, sometimes with the frank admission that “it extends fullness of blessing over the entire week.” During the Passover

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[paragraph continues]Seder a cup of wine is filled expressly for the Prophet Elijah, who is believed to visit every Jewish home on that occasion, and the door is opened for him to enter—this time the offering is to a good spirit, rather than an evil one. But during the same service there is a late custom, which arose in German-Jewish circles, to pour out a drop of wine at the mention of each of the ten plagues, possibly to placate the evil spirits, who may be impelled by the reference to so many disasters to visit some of them upon the celebrants. Israel Isserlein’s biographer wrote of him, “He always spilled some of the water from his cup before drinking,” thus observing a universal Jewish custom going back to Talmudic times. The explanation then given was that the water might have been contaminated by a demon —but obviously merely spilling some of it doesn’t purify it all. The intention was to induce the demon to neutralize the possible ill effect of the water by making him a libation.

On Saturday evening, during the Habdalah ceremony which marks the beginning of the new week, another libation was offered to the spirits, as part of the ritual. Some of the wine was poured upon the ground “as a good omen for the entire week, to symbolize good fortune and blessing,” for was it not written in the Talmud, “A man in whose home wine does not flow like water is not among the truly blessed”? This custom was not mentioned earlier than the Geonic period; the Talmudic support was wholly arbitrary, for the plain sense of the words is the reverse of the interpretation here given them. The Talmud speaks of overflowing wine not as a symbol of blessing to come, but as a token of blessings already enjoyed. The Geonim admitted that the custom was not altogether respectable when they included it among a list of superstitious practices. Centuries later we come across a recognition of its true significance which shows the retentiveness of the popular memory. Moses Mat in the sixteenth century wrote that this practice is intended to “give their portion to the company of Korah,” namely, to the powers of evil. And that portion was not inconsiderable. As one rabbi in Silesia remarked, “If I had the wine that is poured upon the ground in Austria during Habdalah it would suffice to quench my thirst for a whole year!” This custom of pouring out some wine over which a blessing had been recited, which appears again in the wedding ceremony, may have been considered by some people not as an offering to the spirits, but as a means of driving them off. Christians in those days believed that consecrated water had such power, and Jews may

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also, have believed that the wine of the “cup of blessing” would have the same effect.23

The final weapon in the anti-demonic strategy is that of deceit. It figures prominently in the initiation, marriage and burial rites of primitive peoples and not a few examples has been collected from European folk-customs. Medieval Jews, however, resorted to this device only rarely. Apart from several instances connected with birth and marriage, to be cited later, it was most commonly employed in changing an invalid’s name so that the spirits who might be charged with effecting his death would be unable to locate him. This deception was also practiced by individuals who had suffered a run of bad luck; just as criminals adopt aliases to evade the police, so medieval Jews embraced new names to give their spirit harriers the slip. Changing one’s residence, or moving out of a city altogether, was another way of confusing and eluding the demons; this remedy was suggested to people whose fortune had soured, to couples whose children died young, to men who had lost their peace of mind through the operation of love charms.24


Birth, marriage, illness, death—these were the moments when a pall descended upon man—not only upon the individuals directly involved but upon all those who were in their vicinity. It was in such moments that the whole battery of anti-demonic weapons was trained upon man’s mortal enemies, that we find a massing of all those superstitious devices which from time immemorial have been accredited with potency to counteract magic, curses, the evil eye, to cure disease, to shatter the onslaught of the evil spirits.

A brief enumeration of the customs associated in Jewish life with these critical moments, which display either singly or in combination the anti-demonic measures described, may astound many Jews familiar with some of them as a respectable part of Jewish ceremonial. The Jewish propensity for re-interpreting ineradicable primitive usages and endowing them with religious values has successfully masked their true significance, at least in the western world. In Eastern Europe and in the Orient, where more primitive attitudes still prevail among the masses, an awareness of the real import of such customs still persists, albeit along with a doctrinal acceptance of the

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rationalizations which the rabbinic purifiers of Judaism have promulgated. This was the case during the Middle Ages—most teachers struggled valiantly to uproot the superstitious ideas, if not the actual practices with which they were associated, but many comments reveal the ineffectuality of their efforts. Not all of these practices were employed collectively, nor were they of the equal moment; the selection varied from place to place and from time to time, often according to individual predilection, and was frequently accompanied by the recital of Biblical verses, amulets, etc.


  1. The woman in childbirth was closely guarded; men were stationed in the house who prayed for her and her child, and recited various Psalms that were believed to be effective against the spirits. They were warned, however, on no account “to gossip about any sins that she might have committed.” After the birth of her child she was not permitted to stir out of the house alone until after the circumcision.25
  2. The Scroll of the Torahand phylacteries were placed on her bed, or at least brought to the door of her room.26
  3. Candles were lit in her behalf.27
  4. During the last days prior to delivery she would keep a knife with her when she was alone. According to a late report, which probably reflects an earlier usage, the key to the synagogue was placed in her hand during labor; in isolated country places and villages where there was no synagogue the key to a church was borrowed for this purpose.28
  5. A circle was drawn around the lying-in bed, and a magical inscription (reading “Sanvi, Sansanvi, Semangelaf, Adam and Eve, barring Lilit”) was chalked upon the walls or door of the room.29
  6. I know of no record of an actual offering to the spirits at this time, though it was customary among the Germans, and occurs in Oriental Jewries. However, a prime protective amulet bore the figures of fowl, which may be taken to have been a refinement of an earlier offering.30
  7. It was suggested, to ease labor pains, that a woman should wear an article of her husband’s clothing, such as his doublet, trousers, or belt.31
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  1. The rite itself must be considered as in some degree a measure of protection against the forces of evil. It is significant that the heightened danger which threatens both mother and infant during the eight days prior to the operation subsides immediately afterward. Circumcision ushers the child into the community of Israel and at the same time evokes the guardianship of the powers of good. Certain incidental usages illustrate the potency attributed to circumcision. A Geonic source is cited as authority for this practice: the bloody foreskin was placed in a bowl containing water and spices, and each member of the congregation, as he left the synagogue (where the rite used to be performed), would bathe his hands and face. A late work suggests, as a “wonderful charm,” that during the days preceding the rite the foreskin of a child previously circumcised be put into the mouth of the infant who is about to undergo the operation. In a thirteenth-century manuscript we read: “Why was it ordained that the cloth [upon which the circumciser wipes his blood-stained hands and mouth] be hung at the door of the synagogue [during and after the operation]? My uncle, Ephraim of Bonn, said that the sages explained it thus: Israel was redeemed from Egypt because of a double blood merit, the blood of the Paschal lamb and the blood of circumcision; and Israel ‘shall take of the blood and put it on the lintel’ of their houses (cf. Ex. 12:7) as a token that the Destroyer shall not have power over their homes, to do them harm. . . .”32
  2. The child was very carefully guarded during these eight critical days.33
  3. “The essence of protection is to remain awake nights and study Torahuntil the circumcision.” The writer might have added, and to recite mystical prayers and Psalms, for these were included in the vigils. This should be done “particularly on the night before the circumcision, because the spirits are most incensed then,” or, as another writer put it, “because Satan strives to harm the child and to prevent it from experiencing the religious rite of circumcision, for he is very much provoked that Jews should keep the commandment by whose merit they are saved from Gehinnom.” This is the Wachnacht, during which an unremitting watch was maintained over the child, eked out with prayers and study. The occasion of a circumcision was celebrated in ancient times with a feast on the night before,
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or on the day of the performance of the rite. In the Middle Ages both feasts were observed, or rather the one was begun in the evening and continued on the following day. The special Wachnacht custom developed out of this. How early this happened we cannot say; the references to it go back no further than the sixteenth century, and the name itself was not used until later. One sixteenth-century writer did record that in Elsass the name used was Gitot Nacht while in other parts of Germany and in Metz it was called Wazinacht, but these transliterations are not very helpful. They have been variously interpreted as Gottesnacht and Weizennacht, as French and German versions of Wachnacht, and as Güets Nacht and Waizen-Nacht. Whichever of these translations may be correct, the suggestion of Güdemann that the terms signify Spuknacht may be accepted as essentially faithful to the temper of the observance.34

  1. It was customary, in some places, “to set a table with varieties of food on the night before the circumcision, with the explanation that they are doing this for the child’s star” (or “to bring him good luck”) . The rabbis pointed out that this was nothing else than an offering to the spirits.35
  2. The custom of setting aside a chair for the Prophet Elijah during the circumcision goes back to early times, and was connected with a legend that God had rewarded the prophet for his zealous defense of this rite with the promise that he would be present at every circumcision. In origin, this custom was of a piece with the offering to the spirits, to bribe the evil ones, and to entertain the good ones, and is analogous to similar practices among the Romans. It was not merely a symbolic gesture; something of Elijah’s presence was actually believed to inhabit his chair. During the Middle Ages it was customary for the assembled guests to rise before the ceremony, and to greet the unseen visitor with the words, “Blessed be he that cometh.”36
  3. “This also is a protective measure,” we read: “the house should be full of light” on the days before the circumcision, and candles were lit in profusion, especially while the circumcision was being performed. The purpose was not to obtain light, for the rite was performed during the daytime. The variety of explanations indicates uncertainty about the real reason, or a desire to obscure it. “The commandment is a lamp and the Torahis light” (Prov. 6:23) was cited as Scriptural basis for the practice; or it was explained as “an expression of rejoicing and honor”; or again, as a notice to
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[paragraph continues]Jewish passersby that the ceremony was in progress, originating in an ancient proscription against circumcisions which consequently had to be performed in secret. In more recent times it was customary to light thirteen candles, ostensibly to correspond with the thirteen occurrences of the word “covenant” (berit) in the Biblical chapter (Gen. 17) which speaks of circumcision, or with the thirteen tribes (including the half-tribes of Ephraim and Menasseh), or with the twelve tribes plus one for the child, this last candle being permitted to burn itself out.37

  1. The Hollekreisch, which has already been described, was a measure to drive off evil spirits during the ceremony of naming the child, by shouting and tossing the infant in the air.38


  1. Both bride and groom (in some places only the groom) fasted on the wedding day. A variety of far-fetched explanations was offered for this custom; one, which attained the height of absurdity, was that the groom might not be suspected of inebriety during the ceremony!39
  2. The groom was escorted from his home to the synagogue by attendants; “just as a king is surrounded by his guards, so the attendants surround the groom,” was the significant parallel. Sometimes the entire congregation accompanied him. For a while before and after the wedding the groom was forbidden to venture out-of-doors alone.40
  3. The wedding procession, in broad daylight, was preceded by young men bearing lighted torches or candles, which were sometimes thrown into the air. Loud and often discordant music characterized the procession.41
  4. The custom of breaking a glass at the wedding, which, according to some, goes back to Talmudic times, was a regular feature of the medieval ceremony. The groom would step on the glass, or dash it on the ground, or shatter it against the north wall. The explanations generally account for this practice as a token of sadness which should leaven all rejoicings, or more commonly after the fourteenth century, as a sign of mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem; but some of the very rabbis who advanced these explanations were aware of their artificiality. There are indications that the real purpose of the custom had not been forgotten, as in the comment that it was
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intended “to give the accuser [Satan] his due.” The demons were believed to come from the north, and therefore the detail that the glass was thrown against the north wall has special significance in this connection. The custom combined an attempt to frighten off the demons with noise, and a direct attack upon them.42

  1. The wedding ceremony contained several instances of presenting gift-offerings to the spirits. Some of the wine over which the marriage blessings had been recited was poured on the ground. A special feature of this practice, mentioned in one source, namely, to scatter the wine over the entire house, may perhaps be accounted for as due to the belief that the “wine of blessing” drives away the demons. In Talmudic times it was customary to strew food, such as wine and oil, parched corn and nuts, fish and meats, before the bridal pair; during the Middle Ages the practice usually was limited to scattering grains of wheat over and around them, just as we do today with rice. In some places gold coins were mingled with the wheat; in others, salt was scattered over the couple. The Talmudic custom of carrying a hen and rooster before the bride and groom was transmuted in the Middle Ages to flinging a pair of fowl over their heads. The commonest explanation of these practices was that they were symbols of fertility and prosperity. But as Samter has shown after a study of similar usages all over the world, such fertility symbols are at bottom offerings to the spirits to gain their good-will. The presence of the gold coins, which may be viewed either as bribes, or as an anti-demonic use of metal, and of salt, which certainly was intended to drive away the demons, emphasizes the general nature of these customs.43
  2. An effort was made to introduce a note of mourning into the ceremony, ostensibly over the destruction of Jerusalem. Bride and groom wore white shoes, ashes or dust was strewn upon the heads of both, or of the groom alone, or a strip of black cloth was wound around their heads, they were clothed in funereal garb, the bride wearing a shroud called a sarganes, the groom, a hooded cloak, or mitron, “as mourners do in the Rhineland.” The custom of crying and wailing at weddings has remained prevalent to this day, especially among the Jews of Eastern Europe and the Orient. The real purpose of all this doubtless, was to delude the demons into imagining it was a sorrowful and not a joyous occasion, and thus to avoid arousing their envy and hatred.44
  3. During the ceremony the groom’s mitron, or his prayer-shawl,
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was spread over the head of the bride, and immediately after the wedding he “placed in her bosom” his doublet, girdle and cap. These may have been vestiges of an ancient exchange of clothes between the two, a custom frequently encountered among other peoples. The widespread custom of covering the bride’s face with a veil, which prevailed throughout the Middle Ages, was originally intended to hide her from the spirits.45

  1. In some places the groom carried a piece of iron in his pocket during the ceremony. Toward the end of the Middle Ages it became customary to march the bride three times around her mate, apparently a version of the magic circle. And finally, to point the moral, no sooner was the ceremony over than “they would rush the groom off to the wedding chamber before the bride, by way of rejoicing.” A strange “way of rejoicing” indeed! The mad dash was only to get him to the bridal chamber before the demons, recovering from the bombardment to which they had been subjected, prevented him from enjoying his newly won connubial happiness.46


The same motifs are repeated in the customs connected with death. A dying man was on no account to be left alone. Mystical prayers were prescribed to be read in his presence, notably the prayer Ana Bekoaḥ, which contains an acrostic of the powerful 42-letter name of God. Candles were lit beside his bed, quite frankly, “to drive away the demons.” It was suggested that a loaf of bread be placed beside him “to straighten his limbs,” in other words, to ease his final moments. Chicken feathers, no doubt because of the relationship that existed between demons and this fowl, were believed to prolong the death-agony, and therefore bedding containing such feathers was removed from beneath the dying man. Such practices were intended to repel the demons, who, in their struggle for the body of the departing one, were held responsible for the anguish that he suffered. But death itself is the work of spirit forces, and the very measures that oblige the demons to keep their distance, and thus make death easier, have the same effect upon the angel of death, and upon the soul preparing timidly for its exit from the body, and therefore delay the end. This was undoubtedly in the mind of many folk who resorted to these measures. However, believing that death is an inherent phase of life, and that it is decreed

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by God, the rabbis strongly opposed such efforts to delay its coming. Thus, they forbade shouting at a dying man, or engaging in any noisy occupation, such as chopping wood, for noise prevents the soul from leaving the body. Similarly, salt delays death, and one should not put any upon the dying man’s tongue for that purpose; but it was permissible to remove salt if it had coagulated upon his tongue. It was also customary to place the key to the synagogue under his head, though this too was forbidden by the authorities.47

THE CORPSE. The rules for preparing the corpse for burial were compiled in early post-Talmudic times, and comprise practices such as closing the eyes, placing metal or salt on the body, setting a light at its head, etc., which were undoubtedly originally intended to confound the spirits and the ghost of the deceased, both of which the survivors feared. While it was forbidden to place a Scroll of the Torah on the coffin, as seems to have been done at times, it could be set near the body. The Talmud lamely explained the watch over the corpse as intended to protect it from rodents and other such marauders, but later writers confessed that it was meant as a protection against attack from the spirit world. A ritual of study and prayer for this watch was developed during the Middle Ages. The Polish Kabbalist, Isaiah Horowitz, wrote, “I have received a tradition that those who watch the corpse from the moment of death until it is covered with earth should gather around it so closely that not a breath of ‘outside’ [a term often applied to demons] air can seep past their guard; they should constantly repeat this prayer without an instant’s pause, even a thousand times”; the prayer is the acrostic of the 42-letter name of God. Another late medieval custom was to march seven times around the corpse and to recite “certain Biblical selections which drive away the spirits so that they may not seize the body.” The belief that a clenched fist, the “fig,” is anathema to demons, led to the practice of bending the fingers of a corpse so that even in the grave their depredations might be forestalled. The rabbis inveighed against this “heathenish” custom, and insisted that the fingers must be straightened out before burial, but the practice persisted. In later times it was modified and the fingers were bent in such a way as to form the name Shaddai, again arousing rabbinic displeasure. Finally, those who had prepared the corpse for burial were instructed to wash in salt and water, and to beware even of turning over the board upon which the body had lain lest

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they incite the ire of the deceased and “some one die within three days.” 48

BURIAL. Funeral rites reflect in a dozen ways the ever-present fear of the supernatural, temporarily heightened as the demons and the ghost of the deceased hover in uncomfortable proximity to the living. Several times the warning is repeated not to set a coffin containing a corpse on top of another, and not to leave a grave open overnight, “or someone will assuredly die in a few days”; one source has it “within nine days.” The numeral is indicative of the cause of apprehension; the spirits are touchy about such things, and make speedy reprisal. This explanation is not given in the sources, but as an illustration of the tenacious popular awareness of the purposes of superstitious acts I may note that in recent times, among Russian Jews, when a grave had been dug and was not used promptly, it was filled in overnight and a rooster was buried in it!49

  1. The custom of pouring out all the water in and near a house in which a death has occurred is not mentioned in Jewish sources earlier than the thirteenth century, and is evidently a medieval innovation. It was observed by Christians in Germany and France at a still earlier date, and was no doubt borrowed from them. The Jewish practice, which does not follow the more usual and simpler procedure of pouring water across the threshold after the corpse has been removed, to bar the way to the homesick ghost, is susceptible of several explanations. In Christian France, where the same custom existed, these three explanations were offered in the fifteenth century: the soul of the deceased might drown if all the vessels were not emptied; the water reflects the struggle between the soul and the demons, which human eyes may not behold; the soul bathes in it thrice before leaving for the other world, and it may not therefore be used.

The contemporaneous Jewish explanations differed: spilling the water constitutes a silent annunciation of a death, which it is dangerous to mention aloud; the angel of death, who according to Talmudic legend fulfills his mission with a sword steeped in poison, might let a drop of the deadly fluid fall into the water, and thus render it unfit to drink. The fact that all the water in and near the house was spilled exposes the first explanation as an obvious rationalization; the second sounds more “realistic,” according to medieval standards. In modern times Jews in Eastern Europe set a glass of water and a towel beside the bed of a dying man so that the angel

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of death may cleanse his sword and wipe it. But this same custom also prevails among non-Jews, their explanation being that the soul bathes and dries itself before departing on its long journey. This is the likeliest interpretation not only of this late custom but of the earlier one also; it emerges quite explicitly from the many examples of this and related practices which scholars have collected from all over the world. Fear that the immersion of the soul would contaminate the water for the living was responsible for all of it being poured out, to make sure the danger was averted. Even food prepared with water was suspect. Interestingly, a sixteenth-century Inquisitorial “Edict of Faith” posited the following as an unmistakable mark of Marranism (adherence to Judaism while professing Christianity): “Pouring water from jars and pitchers when someone has died, believing that the soul of such persons will come and bathe in the water.”

We must recognize, however, that such customs are rarely simple in their motivation and meaning, but rather come in time to represent a perplexing maze of folk-notions. This usage was observed for any or all of the reasons advanced—or for none at all, except the apprehension that something terrible would happen if it weren’t. There is a possibility, even, that the water was also intended as a libation to the spirits or to the soul of the deceased, for “if one who is about to drink water and has already said the blessings, hears that someone has died in town, he should sip a little and pour out the balance.” And yet this provision may merely be the result of a desire to maintain the custom, without understanding its meaning, under special circumstances, namely, when a blessing, which requires that some of the water be drunk, has been said. So complex do the motives behind these observances become that it is well-nigh impossible to single them out with any assurance. It may be of interest to recall that we have in English a colloquial expression which commemorates this widespread custom of pouring out liquids—when a person dies we say he has “kicked the bucket”!50

  1. There was considerable difference of opinion in Talmudic and medieval literature as to whether mourners should precede or follow the coffin out of the house. The view that “no man should go out first” was predicated on the belief that “the spirits roam the universe to learn what is decreed above concerning the living,” and beholding a condemned sinner before their attention is absorbed by the coffin and its occupant, may pounce upon him. More simply,
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the demons await the exit of the corpse, but are prepared to seize a living victim if he makes his appearance first. It was generally agreed, moreover, that women should walk apart from men in the procession, because the spirits display a marked partiality for womankind; “the angel of death and Satan dance before them,” it was explained, or, again, “the spirits of uncleanness cling to them.” This caution was observed especially on the return from the cemetery, and “in Worms the men turn their faces to the wall when the women walk by” on their way home.51

  1. On the way to the cemetery, and after the body had been interred, it was customary, at least toward the end of our period, to recite the “anti-demonic psalm” a number of times, “to drive away the demons.” Shabbetai, the son of Isaiah Horowitz, instructed his sons in his testament, “While my body is being lowered into the grave have seven pious and learned men repeat Psalm 91 seven times.”52
  2. The custom of tearing up some grass and earth, after the conclusion of the funeral rites, and tossing it behind one’s back, cannot be traced earlier than the eleventh century. Eliezer b. Nathan, in the twelfth century, did not know, or pretended not to know, the origin of this usage; he introduced his explanation with the words “it seems to me,” and went on to base it on three Biblical verses, Ps. 103:14, Ps. 72:16, and Job 2: 12, which speak of earth, grass, and sprinkling dust upon one’s head as a token of sorrow. Later writers, citing this explanation, describe the action as an expression of faith in the resurrection of the dead. Eleventh-century rabbis, quoted in later works, said it was done in order “to mark a separation between the mourners and death.” But in the thirteenth century one writer, Samson b. Ẓadok, indicated that its real purpose was not altogether forgotten. “This is the reason why they throw it behind and not in front,” he wrote: “I read in a Midrash that the soul accompanies the body of the deceased to the grave, and is unable to leave that spot until it receives permission from the congregation; throwing the earth and grass behind one is a sign that the permission is granted, meaning, in effect, ‘Go in peace.'” We have here undoubtedly a borrowed custom. It is met with in medieval Germany and France, where along with the general belief that throwing things to the rear repulses the demons who lurk at one’s back, there are specific instances of this device being used after a funeral to drive away the spirits, or the soul itself, which may follow the mourners home. The superstitious intent of this usage is enhanced by the fact that a manuscript source
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dating from the thirteenth century mentions that the action is to be repeated three times. It was this custom that was responsible for a charge of magic levelled against the Jews of Paris in the twelfth century; luckily R. Moses b. Yeḥiel demonstrated to the satisfaction of the king that it was not intended “to cast a magic spell over the Gentiles, to kill them,” but to signify the Jew’s belief in the resurrection, and averted a disastrous outcome to this venture in Gentile superstition.53

  1. In Talmudic and Geonic times, it was customary for the funeral procession, on its return from the cemetery, to stop and sit down seven times. Although several medieval authorities maintained that this practice had been dispensed with altogether, it persisted in some places, seven or three sittings being observed. Toward the end of our period these halts were coupled with the recitation of Ps. 91 to verse 11, which comprises seven words, one word of that verse being added at each stop. It was frankly admitted that this was intended to confuse and shake off “the evil spirits which follow them home.” After the service the chief mourners passed between a double line of people and were then escorted home by the entire company.54
  2. The custom of washing the hands after a funeral is very widespread; it seems to have made its way into Judaism in the early post-Talmudic period, and was generally observed during the Middle Ages. Before entering their homes all those who had visited the cemetery bathed their hands, and some, their eyes and face also. In certain mystical circles the lavation was performed three times. Efforts were made to find a Biblical precedent for this act, but along with such pious endeavors there was a general admission that it was done “to dispel the spirits of uncleanness” which cling to one’s person, these being “the demons that follow them home.”55
  3. Mourning rites were most stringent during the seven days after interment, when the soul was believed to suffer intense agony on being parted from the body, and to wander disconsolately back and forth between its former home and the grave. (The earlier distinction between a three- and a seven-day stage of mourning found no practical expression in the Middle Ages.) The ensuing periods of a month and a year represented a gradual weaning away of the soul from the body, and a commensurate easing of the mourning rites. Many of the observances and customs which applied during the first period indicate a desire to protect the mourners against the
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soul of the departed, and also a suspicion that the mourners themselves are or may be contaminated by contact with the spirit world. Thus, people forbore to drink out of a glass that had been used by a mourner, or to borrow anything from him during the seven-day period. The mourners were forbidden to leave their homes, except on the Sabbath and holidays, when, in some communities, they were escorted to the synagogue by the members of the congregation. Yet there are instances of refusal to permit mourners to join in the synagogal service, even on the High Holydays, and some would deny mourners the privilege of officiating at services throughout an entire year after their bereavement. It was customary to keep a candle burning in the death chamber during the week after burial; one report has it that each night of the week a small wax candle and a cup of water and salt were set on the spot where the head of the deceased lay when he died. “When I read my account of this custom to R. Israel Isserlein,” wrote Joseph b. Moses, his disciple, “he shrugged his shoulders, but he didn’t tell me to cross it out.” The practice of “wrapping the head” in a mourning cloth was perhaps originally intended to disguise the mourners; if so, its significance was lost sight of in the Middle Ages, when we find that in some places it was dropped altogether “because the Gentiles laugh at us,” while in the Rhineland it led to the adoption of a distinctive mourning costume with a cowl, the mitron. Of similar import were the customs of letting the hair and beard grow, of changing one’s seat in the synagogue, and the like.56


UNDERLYING the popular approach to medicine, and indeed, the entire body of magical and semi-magical procedures, was an intriguing misconception of the nature of the world and its inhabitants. Along with the idea of spirit causation went a great number of odd and often grotesque notions. While the Jewish material does not offer a complete picture of the medieval view of nature, it provides us with enough individual superstitions and conceits to suggest the outlines of that picture, and to help us the better to appreciate some of the oddities of medical—and magical—practice.


Heir to all the fantastic notions concerning the universe that were current in the ancient world, with equal title to the wild and wonderful tales that swept medieval Europe, it is a source of surprise not that Jewish literature laid claim to these ideas and stories, but rather that it made so little of them. Compared with the intense popular interest that was focussed upon the curious and weird phenomena of nature in the Europe they inhabited, the Jews may be said almost to have neglected the subject altogether—allowing for the circumstance that Jewish writings, with their juridical and exegetical orientation, did not fully reflect the state of popular credulity. None the less the “facts” that may be culled from them make strange reading enough.

The familiar fables of mythical lands and creatures are duly represented. There are regions in which all of nature is masculine, and others where only females thrive—and the explanation is profoundly “scientific”: matter is composed of the four elements, earth, fire, water and air, upon the harmonious combination of which sex depends; the unbalanced atmosphere of these lands is inimical to the subsistence of one or the other sex. On the peak of a certain mountain

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is a miraculous spring; whoever speaks after drinking its water instantly falls dead. Or again, there exists a marvellous herb which produces intense hunger; one who touches it must eat immediately or die. And as to the creatures, the whole menagerie of monstrosities is on view: men with dog-heads, horns or beaks, with the bodies or heads of lions, or serpents, or oxen; two- and three-headed men, four-armed men—one authority vouches for the fact that there are 365 varieties of human monsters, though he makes no attempt to enumerate them. And of course, there are the serpents that spit fire, the prodigiously hybrid animals, and the fabulous phoenix, whose body shrinks to the size of an egg on its thousandth birthday, and is then reborn for another millennial lease on life. (Incidentally, the phoenix was often cited by Church Fathers and rabbis as conclusive proof of the resurrection of the dead.)1

A legendary creature which stirred up quite a fuss in medieval literature, both Jewish and non-Jewish, was the man-plant, the mandragora root, often pictured in illuminations as a human form with leaves growing out of its head, to which Shakespeare referred in Romeo and Juliet:

And shrieks like mandrakes’ torn out of the earth, 
That living mortal, hearing them, run mad.

[paragraph continues]The Franco-German school of Talmud commentators adopted this prodigy to explain certain obscure terms in that work and in the Bible. R. Samson of Sens (second half of the twelfth century) cited R. Meir b. Kalonymos of Speyer as authority for this description: “A sort of long string grows out of a root in the ground, and to this string the animal called yadu‘a is attached at its navels like a gourd or melon, but the yadu‘a has the shape of a man in every particular, face, body, hands and feet. No one can approach closer than the radius of the string, for it uproots and destroys everything within its reach. One may capture it only by shooting at the string until it breaks, whereupon the animal dies.” This account was followed by the later commentators.2

With regard to the more normal members of the animal kingdom, we may glean a host of illuminating bits of information. The belief in spontaneous generation was as firmly rooted among Jews as among non-Jews. Mice, worms, insects are often the children of dust and mud and filth; gnats and flies are fathered by the atmosphere; man’s

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sweat and body-heat produce some types of lice and worms and a carefully differentiated species of louse springs full-blown from his head.

Most curious among the notions concerning spontaneous generation was the fable of the “barnacle-goose” (Branta leucopsis), which was universally accredited during the Middle Ages. It was believed that this bird was generated from the barnacle, a shell-fish growing on a flexible stem, and adhering to loose timber, bottoms of ships, etc., a metamorphosis to which many writers allude, and which is solemnly described in a good number of scientific works. This conception was accompanied, in Jewish literature, by other theories as to its place of origin: trees, from which the birds grow like fruit and hang by their beaks until they fall off, rotting wood, brine, etc. The determination of the true nature of this bird was of considerable ritual importance. Was it fowl, or fish, or fruit? Was it forbidden or permitted as a food? Did it require ritual slaughter or not? These questions were variously answered in accordance with the version of its origin which the authorities accepted. It is of interest that a similar problem agitated Christian ecclesiastics—was it permissible to eat these birds during Lent? Which again hinged on the issue as to whether they were fish or fowl.

The fable was turned to good account against the “obstinate” Jews by Church authorities. “Be wise at length, wretched Jew,” wrote Gerald of Wales (twelfth century), “be wise even though late! The first generation of man from dust without male or female [Adam] and the second from the male without the female [Eve] thou darest not deny in veneration of thy law. The third alone from male and female, because it is usual, thou approvest and affirmest with thy hard heart. But the fourth, in which alone is salvation, from female without male—that, with obstinate malice, thou detest-est to thy own destruction. Blush, wretch, blush, and at least turn to nature! She is an argument for the faith, and for our conviction procreates and produces everyday animals without either male or female.” Jews needed no coaxing to accept the fable, but the argument failed to move their “hard hearts” to confess the truth of the Immaculate Conception.3

Animals that copulate during the daytime never bear their young at night. Ritually unclean animals which see at night, such as dogs, cats, and mice, have no vision at all until they are nine days old. On the other hand, kosher animals, that is those which may be eaten,

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may be recognized by the fact that they cringe when a hand is passed over them, while unclean animals do not. We read that “many times” fowl are born and live without hearts, and that food remains in a dog’s stomach for three days so that it can go that long unfed. In our ignorance we may believe that dogs follow the scent of an animal upon the ground, but a “true investigation” revealed that it is not the odor but the breath of the animal upon the ground that the dog picks up; some bright hares are aware of this and outwit the dogs by keeping their snouts in the air as they race to their hiding-places. Certain shell-fish, when cut into pieces and thrown back into the river, reunite the severed parts of their body and nonchalantly swim away. Cows whose udders are unprotected while they are at pasture are likely to be milked by a species of leach (the French word sangsue is used).4

In an age when poisoning was an obsession, the following precaution was in high repute: “When a man finds himself among suspected poisoners and he is afraid they will tamper with his food or drink, he should procure a knife with a handle of snake bone, and stick it into the table. If there is any poison present the handle will quiver, for the snake is full of venom, and like attracts like.” Popes Clement V and John XXII owned such knives, the handles being made of serpents’ horns.6


A detailed discussion of the singular physiology that passed for science among the masses would make a full treatise. Here a brief presentation of the popular ideas concerning procreation, always a favorite field of speculation, will furnish a typical illustration of the sort of biological knowledge with which the folk medicine operated.

It was widely believed that comestibles play an important part in the procreative process, not alone by arousing passion, but also more directly by “multiplying” or “decreasing the seed,” and determining the character of offspring. Spicy or heavy foods heat and thicken the blood, which manufactures the sperm, according to this view, and thus increase the flow of semen; they are thus conducive to a quick temper and wit in children. Light or unseasoned foods cause the children to be dull-witted and simple. In consequence, foodstuffs were divided into two broad categories, those which “chill” the body and therefore have a deleterious effect upon the

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procreative powers, and those which “heat” the body and awaken sexual desire. In the first group are mentioned salt and salted fish, such as herring, legumes, melons, etc.; in the second, spices, strong wines, eggs, milk-foods, boiled lentils, roasted garlic, and a “five-finned fish.” The references to the sexual properties of foods usually imply that most people are already sufficiently well-informed and need no further instruction.

On the other hand, various devices for quenching passion, in addition to the consumption of “chilling” foods, were known. The man who felt himself being overwhelmed by an impure desire could conquer it by “pressing his big toes firmly into the ground and resting the entire weight of his body upon them without leaning against a wall; this will banish all sensual thoughts.” But “there is nothing that destroys passion so effectively as cold water; sit in it until you have subdued your desire,” a sovereign and familiar remedy.6

The ancient taboo against a menstruous woman persisted undiminished throughout the Middle Ages. Great pains were taken to avoid the slightest contact, even between man and wife. This policy was carried to such extremes at times that the rabbis found it necessary to scold “those who throw the key or coins into their wives’ hands.” Yet, it is not to be wondered at that such inordinate measures were adopted, for the whole traditional lore of Judaism served to emphasize and enhance the taboo, threatening those who broke it with the direst consequences, here and in the hereafter, for themselves and their children. The Talmud contains a charm against snakebite which illustrates perfectly the abhorrence with which the woman in menses was regarded; when a woman meets a snake on the road, it is enough for her to announce “I am menstruating” for the reptile to glide hastily away! There is even a theory that the very atmosphere is polluted by the glance of a menstruating woman, a theory which may be tested by a “true experiment”: “If a woman at the commencement of her period stares fixedly into a bright metal mirror she will behold in it a drop of blood, for the demon that is in her glance creates an evil influence in the air which adheres to the mirror; verily she is like the viper that kills with its glances.” To have sexual relations with such a woman was not alone to commit a mortal sin, but to jeopardize one’s very health and sanity.7

Not all times were equally favorable for coition. It was believed that children conceived during the first three days of the week would be born on the Sabbath; therefore the “pious ones” exercised

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restraint on these nights. But Friday night was the most propitious for conception because the sacred associations of the Sabbath would inevitably condition the child’s character. The first half of the lunar month was preferred above the second because the waxing moon shed a beneficent influence upon offspring. A conception that occurs in the middle of the night is the most promising; here the explanations traverse a wide range from the purely mystical to the grossly material. One view has it that during this time of the night the “forces of uncleanness” are dormant; a second, that voices in the street are then least likely to distract a man’s thoughts to another woman, which would have a very deleterious effect upon his child; still a third, that in the first part of the night a man’s system is overheated by the food he has consumed, while toward morning it is too chilled. A reason to suit every taste!8

The prohibition against cohabitation during the day or in an illuminated place goes back to the Talmudic apprehension that the demons who are driven off by light may also perversely be attracted by it. Therefore the warning is advanced that one who stands naked before a burning lamp at night will become epileptic, and children conceived before a light will be similarly stricken, the Hebrew word for epileptic, nichpeh, having the sense of “forced, or seized” by a demon. In consequence of this dread elaborate precautions were taken to exclude all light from a bedchamber at night. But the fear of epilepsy in children was restricted to the influence of artificial lights; the light of the sun was believed to produce white eruptions, the moon, scurfiness which finally develops into leprosy, the stars, stammering. Undoubtedly such ideas were originally advanced to enhance the virtue of sexual modesty, but the threats they embodied were just as surely accepted as literally true.9

Of a similar nature were the fearful consequences believed to follow abnormal and perverted methods of coitus, and impure thoughts at the moment of conception. This last matter loomed especially large in all considerations of the subject, for it was universally believed that the parents’ state of mind was directly transmitted through the seed to the infant, and intimately affected its character and its physique. Therefore parents were sternly warned not to have relations when they were on bad terms, and not to think of other individuals or of unpleasant and unworthy things, but to fix their attentions upon holy and pure thoughts which would have the best influence upon children. Some of the later mystics went to

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the absurd length of drawing up lists of appropriate subjects for concentration on such occasions: the great and pious figures of Jewish history. In short, “the embryo is formed in consonance with the thoughts and emotions of the parents,” and “the greatest part of infant mortality is due to neglect of this principle.” Indeed the delightful suggestion was offered in all seriousness that “most bastards are bright because the union of their parents is consummated in love and joy”!10

There existed a strong conviction that things seen before and during conception make so powerful an impression on the mind that their characteristics are stamped upon the offspring. This is, of course, a universal superstition. If, on the way home from the ritual bath to which she repaired after her period (a procedure preliminary to intercourse), “a woman encounters a dog, her child will have an ugly dog-face, if she meets an ass, it will be stupid, if an ignorant lout, it will be an ignoramus.” “Anything she meets makes a vivid impression on her and she thinks about it at the time of coition so that the child is affected thereby. . . . Therefore she should return to the bath. . . . But there are two exceptions to this rule. If she meets a horse, she need not return to the bath, for even if she should think of it there would be no harm, for a horse is of a happy disposition, and so she may have a son whose heart will rejoice in the study of Torah. And if she meets a scholar she need not go back and repeat her ablution. On the contrary she should think about him all the time.” To avoid the possibility of inauspicious encounters many women chose to be led home from the bath blindfolded “imagining meanwhile that a pious man was coming to meet them.”

Then, too, there was the well-worn fable of the white king and queen who bore a black child, or conversely, the black parents and the white infant, which cropped up frequently in classical and Talmudic literature, and went the rounds during the Middle Ages; the explanation, been entendu, was that the mother’s attention during intercourse was focussed on a picture hanging on the wall. Which brings us to a point that was often made: the mother’s thoughts, and not the father’s, exert the decisive influence upon the child. The classic instance of this superstition, of course, is the trick that Jacob played on his father-in-law, Laban, when he set peeled rods in the watering-troughs so that “the flocks conceived at the sight of the rods, and the flocks brought forth streaked, speckled and spotted” (Gen. 30:37-39).11

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The Middle Ages were especially prolific of fertility potions, many of them concocted of parts of animals which were noted for their fecundity. Among these the hare and the fish were outstanding. Often, however, a wholly magical treatment, such as the recital of Biblical verses, was relied upon to cure barrenness. On the other hand, the Talmud mentions a “root-drink” which could produce sterility, and preparations to induce abortions were also known.

The problem of relieving the pains of childbirth found many solutions. Besides the purely magical treatments, already discussed, there were many folk remedies of a dubious character, e.g., the suggestion that the woman is fed mother’s milk, the idea probably being that it may transmit to her another woman’s success in surmounting the ordeal. Several prescriptions suggest primitive attempts at anesthesia; one such requires that a strong frankincense is burned before the parturient woman (but it must be in a “new clay bowl”); another, that she inhaled the smoke of burning felt. The effect of this last, however, is thus naïvely described: “The woman will sneeze and expel her infant”!12

There were several interesting theories concerning the factors that determine the sex of the child. According to one, which owned Talmudic warrant, the sperm is male, the egg-cell female; whichever makes its entry second into the womb “subdues” the first and impresses its gender upon the offspring. Consequently, the parent whose emission is delayed determines the child’s sex. The same conclusion was also derived from a contrary premise, namely, that the will of the parent who first experiences an orgasm is paramount. This view, however, rather unreasonably insists that all men desire girl children, and all women, boys. Still, a third opinion was based upon a remarkable anatomical fable. Within the womb there are seven sacs, three at each side and one in the center; if the spermatozoa enter those at the right, the child will be a boy, the left sacs produce girls, and the middle one, children who are sexless or hermaphroditic. Therefore the mother can control the sex of her child by lying either on her right or left side.13

There were manifold infallible ways of discovering the sex of the child prior to birth. The male lies face-down in the womb, the female face-up (the corpse of a drowned man or woman floats in the same manner). At the instant when the child pushes its way into this world one can tell its sex by noting the direction in which its head is turned. But most of the prognostics did not necessitate

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waiting until they were no longer needed. The desired information could be obtained long before. Thus, if a pregnant woman drips some milk from her breast upon a board or rock, if it spatters the child will be a boy, otherwise, a girl; or, if the milk sinks in water, she will bear a girl, and if it floats, a boy; if her loins ache, she is carrying a boy, but if her belly pains, it is a girl; if she is quick about her housework and her spinning, she will have a son, while if she is sluggish and can barely get around, a daughter. The right- and left-motif were also prominent. A right breast fuller than the left betokens a male heir; the same is indicated if, on rising from her seat, a woman leans on her right hand; but if she feels the fetus knocking against her left side, it is a girl, and so on.

These signs were evidently drawn from non-Jewish folklore, for the medieval literature abounds with parallels. It is noteworthy, though, that the Jewish sources retail these investigations and experiments to satisfy no mere curiosity, however, justified the thirst for knowledge may be in this case, but rather to meet a pious need. They are meant for parents who reside a considerable distance from the nearest performer of circumcisions. Should they wait until the child is born to determine whether or not they require his services, it would be impossible to initiate their son into the covenant at the prescribed time; therefore science is pressed into the service of religion, and the summons can go out, if the prognostication so indicates, long before the boy has opened his eyes to the light of day.14

This account may close with two interesting legends. The first, voicing the prevalent belief in the possibility of impregnation without physical contact, relates that the daughter of the prophet Jeremiah entered a hot bath soon after her father had left it, and there received her father’s seed. The son of this unusual conception was named Ben Zera‘, “son of seed,” but when he grew older and came to understand the significance of his name he was ashamed of it and changed it to Ben Sira, by which pseudonym we know him as the author of Ecclesiasticus.

The second tale is a young scholar of the town of Enns, in Austria, who went off to a distant city to pursue his studies, leaving behind a young wife. Eleven months after his departure she bore a child and provided the good folk of the town with a tidy morsel of scandal. But the graybeards got together and agreed that in view of her unquestioned piety this event could not be regarded as suspicious, for a study of ancient literature revealed that such a delayed

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a birth was not unheard of, though admittedly unusual. The arresting feature of this story is that the scholar’s name was Shlumiel, which has become the colloquial epithet for all those bunglers whose enterprises invariably go awry.15


In a community in which learning was the most honored pursuit and a retentive memory the most prized attribute, we must expect to find superstition invading the precincts of scholarship itself. The Talmud contains a list of actions which induce forgetfulness: “eating what has been nibbled by a mouse or a cat, eating an animal’s heart, eating olives, drinking water in which someone has washed, placing one foot over the other while washing them, and some add, using one’s garments as a pillow.” There follows then a series of ten things which are “bad for memorizing study.”

There is ample evidence in the medieval writings that these admonitions were scrupulously observed, though the first group seems to have made the stronger impression. Thus we are informed that Meir of Rothenburg, Maharil and Israel Isserlein, leading lights in their generations, very carefully avoided sleeping on their clothes; Maharil, when on a journey, would prefer a hard saddle under his head to a soft bundle of garments. R. Meir went the Talmud one better and refrained from eating even the hearts of birds. To this day pious Jews avoid passing between two women because the Talmudic passage warned that this is “bad for the memory.” (Fear of brushing against a menstruating woman also enters here.) Another of these superstitions which is still widely observed is not to read an inscription on a tombstone. A commentator observes, “I have seen scrupulously pious men place a stone on the marker, with the explanation that this destroys the ill-effect of reading the inscription.” Wiping one’s hands on one’s clothes, putting on two garments at a time, mending clothes while one is naked, these acts were believed to exert a similarly debilitating effect upon the memory. An antidote for the last is to put a splinter of wood in the mouth. The modern version among East-European Jews, derived from German custom, is to keep a bit of thread in the mouth while mending garments that are on the body. A related idea was that drinking from narrow-necked flasks is bad for one’s visual and aural faculties.16

The belief that there is an intimate connection between the

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demons and the finger-nails have some obscure relation to another of these superstitions, namely, that cutting the nails in the order of the fingers causes loss of memory. The ancient Persians made much of the dangers associated with the finger-nails and prescribed a specific order of paring them; from them, this belief came over to the Mohammedans and Jews, but it was the latter who brought it and the memory into conjunction. The proper manner of cutting the nails, as given by the medieval writers, varies somewhat; the Zoroastrian order was accepted for the left hand only. The commonest version is as follows: left hand, 4, 2, 5, 3, 1; right hand, 2, 4, 1, 3, 5. One of the earliest references reads: “Left hand, begin with 4 and end with 1, right hand begins with 1 and end with 4. Paring any two nails in sequence causes forgetfulness.” But this source insists that the operation must begin with 1 or 4. “To begin with 3 causes the death of one’s children, with 5, poverty, with 2, a bad reputation.” This superstition, however, was not universally respected; Meir of Rothenburg, for one, had the temerity to disregard it, as did the sixteenth-century mystic, Isaac Luria.17

Accompanying these superstitions were a good number of a reverse order, to preserve and strengthen the memory. Prominent among them was the above-mentioned invocation of the “Prince of Forgetting,” Poteh or Purah, uttered on Saturday evening after Habdalah and on other appropriate occasions, such as the initial enrolment of a child in school. Other incantations were also prescribed. Biblical verses relating to the prophet Elijah were recited at the close of the Sabbath for the same purpose; “mentioning his name at this time is good for the memory and brings good luck during the week.”

An interesting group of recipes is comprised under the name “small Baladur” (also written “Balazur”). The plant Baladur (Anacardia) was considered by the Moslems a potent memory strengthener and in this rôle, it appeared in Jewish medicinal literature also. In time, however, the meaning of the term was forgotten, and all sorts of prescriptions came to be denominated “the small Baladur.” So widely accepted was this term that in the end it was taken to be distinctively Jewish, and there was even a current proverb, allegedly quoted from the Talmud: “Review, review [your studies] and you’ll have no need of Baladur.” The word seems to have penetrated German Jewry from the South fairly late, but the recipes were probably known long before they were dignified with

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this title. Among the simpler ones are the following: eat hazel nuts for nine days, beginning with six and adding six more each day; eat pepper seeds for nine days, beginning with one seed and doubling the dose until it reaches 256 seeds on a ninth day, and each time, before you consume them, recite Deut. 33:8-11 and Ps. 119:9-16; grind cloves, long peppers, dates, ginger, galanga-root, and Muscat nuts in equal quantities, beat them with olive oil into a paste, and eat a little every morning before breakfast. One may judge from the progressive complexity of these three recipes the extent to which ingenuity multiplied ingredients and mystification in others. But all, whatever their composition, were equally touted as the original “Baladur.”18



IN THE long pre-Freudian centuries, before the mystery of the dream was reduced to all too human terms, when men still listened for the voice of God in the still of the night, dreams played a greater rôle in shaping ideas and actions and careers than it is easy for us today to believe. If we have come to look upon these nocturnal visions as the products of experience, we have simply reversed the older, though not yet altogether discarded, view which made of them initiators of experience. The supernatural world communicated with man through the dream and spoke words of counsel and command which he felt impelled to heed. Galen, in 148 C.E., at the age of seventeen, turned to the study of medicine because of a dream; in 1244 Ludwig IX took up the cross for a like compelling reason. How many such instances might be adduced to indicate the vital decisions that turned upon such a motive!

The dream was not less potent an incentive in Jewish life; for instance, at about the time of Ludwig’s venture, Moses of Coucy wrote, “At the beginning of the sixth millennium [1240 C.E.] there came to me the command in a dream vision, ‘Arise, compose a book of religious instruction in two parts!'” which was the genesis of his Semag. Two centuries later, a certain Gershon b. Hiskiya, who was in prison in France, was led by a dream to write a book on medicine. Two centuries later again a dream prompted the composition of Manasseh b. Israel’s Nishmat Ḥayim.1

Even legal and ritual problems of some moment were decided at the instance of “the master of dreams.” The very day on which the Tosafist, Efraim b. Isaac of Regensburg, permitted the consumption of sturgeon as a kosher fish he was obliged to reverse himself because in a dream “they” had made clear to him that he was in

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error. R. Meir of Rothenburg admitted that a dream had caused him to change his opinion in a matter affecting wages, despite contrary precedents, the rulings of his French colleagues, and his own previous decisions. In fact, there lived in the thirteenth century a man, Jacob Halevi of Marvège, who gathered in a volume a series of responsa which had been handed down to him in dreams, relative to such ritual issues as shaving the beard and cutting the hair, how and when tefillin should be worn, when certain blessings should be recited, whether milk foods may be eaten after meat, ritual slaughter, etc.—matters that can seem trivial only to those who are insensitive to the demands which an ardent piety makes upon devout people. He did not limit himself to these questions; sometimes his queries were in a lighter vein. It is reported that he once asked “the master of dreams” whether Jesus and Mary are hinted at in the Bible, and received the reply that the words “the foreign gods of the land” (Deut. 31:16) are mathematically equivalent to those two names. It is a pity that he didn’t convey to us the reply to his question as to how soon the Messianic era may be expected. Others, too, merited heavenly edification. In the same century an anonymous writer asserted that dreams had cleared up many difficulties in Maimonides’ Guide for quite a few puzzled students, and Isaac b. Moses of Vienna, who was very much concerned about the correct spelling of the name “Akiba” had that too straightened out for him by the obliging “master of dreams.” Heaven was more co-operative in those days than it is today.2

The dream thus constituted a very real factor in medieval life—even the line that separated physical reality from the more tenuous spirit world which was supposed to rule dreamland was not too precisely and permanently drawn. In Havre, in 1637, the city court declared a child legitimate when the mother swore that her husband, missing for four years, had embraced her in a dream. To such fantastic lengths Jewish belief did not go. Yet a vow or a decree of excommunication pronounced in a dream was held to be real and binding, even more so than one uttered during waking hours, for the latter could be voided before a court of three men, while the former required a full congregation of ten, the idea being that since the deity had somehow been involved in the dream action, only a minyan, over which the Shechinah presided, had the power to release the dreamer.3

But the greatest force that the dream exerted was as a prognostication

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of, and guide to, the future. In this conviction the leaders of Church and Synagogue were at one; Thomas Aquinas found himself in the company of the rabbis of the Talmud and the Middle Ages. “Dreams are a sixtieth part of prophecy” ran an old adage; the mathematics may have been correct once upon a time, but since the gift of prophecy had been withdrawn from the world, the proportion must be raised considerably to do justice to the medieval view. It was in dreams that the supernatural world communicated directly with the natural; its knowledge of the future could most readily be transmitted to men through this medium. “Not a thing transpires on earth,” wrote one authority on the subject, “without having first been announced in a dream.” Another wrote, “Nothing happens to a man, good or ill, before he has beheld some intimation of it in a dream.” How seriously this dictum was taken we may judge from an anecdote: a man dreamed that he would marry a certain woman, but when he sought to fulfill his destiny, she refused him. Now he was in a dilemma; if he married someone else, which he was quite ready to do, it would be tantamount to dooming his wife to an untimely death, for his dream must undoubtedly come true. Though “the sage” whom he approached with his problem quoted Talmud to refute Talmud: “dreams neither raise nor lower,” that is, “disregard them and follow your own inclination,” it was no easy matter to convince him that he need not wait until his dream-mate changed her mind. Instances of this sort could be cited in great number. And the reports of dreams that came true are legion. After relating one such true dream which R. Israel Isserlein had, his biographer wrote, “And I know many more dreams of his that came to pass.” There are still many people who can testify in a like vein concerning themselves or their friends. Solomon Almoli, in his Pitron Ḥalomot (“The Interpretation of Dreams”), proved logically that this was no superstition. Jews and Gentiles agree, he wrote, that portents occur during waking hours; there can be no doubting that they come from God, for they show themselves in time to be veracious intimations of the future. Nor can one for a moment question God’s power to introduce them into our dreams. Indeed they can the more readily appear at night because “then our physical energies are weakened and the mental strengthened.” After this compelling argument it was hardly necessary to adduce, as he did, “proofs” from Gentile literature and from Jewish, as well as on rational and sensational grounds.’

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Not all dreams were of supernatural origin nor possessed equal significance. Corresponding to a variety of causes, various types of dreams commanded respect in differing degrees.

It was recognized that many, if not most, dreams are produced by physical stimuli. Heavy, rich foods “cause a vapor to rise into the brain” which during the night disposes of itself in fantastic images. Physical needs and desires, or sensations, such as heat and cold, experienced during sleep, similarly affect the mind, so that one’s dreams bear a close relation to one’s physical state. Manasseh b. Israel wrote, “When one is overheated at night he may dream that he is warming himself before a fire, or enjoying a hot bath; if he is cold, he dreams of ice and sleet and snow.” Such dreams are unworthy of attention, they “speak folly” and are “vain and idle conceits.”5

Another common source of dreams is man’s thoughts during the day. “When a man concentrates on certain ideas for a long time, the power of thought to conjure up definite images remains active at night.” Dreams that can be traced back to such a cause are no more credible than the first category. But another sort of dream, produced by “the vigor of the soul” (ḥozek handfish), merits consideration on the part of the dreamer, for it is a “prophecy in miniature.” Menaḥem Ẓiyuni described the process thus: “The imaginative faculty refashions at night the perceptions which have been impressed upon one’s fancy during the day; during sleep when the senses are idle, this faculty overpowers him so that the vision seems as real as though he were beholding it in actuality. Such a dream is reliable in proportion to the vividness of his powers of analogy; it comes to him without his having thought of its subject matter at all, which, in fact, is often quite unconventional. These dreams constitute the ‘miniature prophecy’ of which the rabbis said that it is bestowed particularly upon imbeciles and infants because they are not graced with intelligence and their apperceptive powers are undeveloped. Therefore what the imagination makes of sense perceptions during waking hours is clearly visioned while asleep, for it conceives of things that are true and that comes to pass.”6 The psychology of dreams as expounded by Ẓiyuni has a modern ring; it was not his own, however, for he confessed that he had cribbed it from non-Jewish “theologians.” Apparently, the unexpressed theory behind this dissertation is one we have met before, namely, that the

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soul, untrammeled by the physical universe and left to its own resources, possesses the power to apprehend the future.

What is probably the most primitive and universal theory is also met with in Jewish dream-lore. While the body is asleep, the spirit, or soul, leaves its corporeal prison and wanders over the face of the earth, reporting back its experiences to the sleepless mind. When one dreams of meeting a friend who is far distant, it is the souls of the two, annihilating space, which has made contact. Some men, of a higher spiritual capacity, behold these visions clearly and well defined; for most men, they are confused and obscure. We dream of the dead because their immortal souls are still capable of haunting the earth and meeting ours. “But animals have no soul, therefore a man cannot dream of an animal that has died or has been slaughtered.” Reports of the dead appearing in dreams are numerous. The teacher and father-in-law of Eliezer b. Nathan, R. Eliakim b. Joseph, visited him one night to correct a misconception which had led to an erroneous ritual decision; R. Meir of Rothenburg once helped an earnest student, who had never met him in life, to unravel a badly snarled Talmudic passage; Rashi disclosed to his grandson Samuel the correct pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton; according to the popular legend, on the third night after he had been tortured to death, R. Amnon of Mainz appeared in a dream to his teacher, R. Kalonymos b. Meshullam, and dictated the solemn Unetanneh Tokef hymn which he had composed while writhing in pain. These are a few of the more notable visitations. Visions of the lot that deceased ancestors are enjoying, whether in Paradise or Gehinnom, disclosures of hidden treasure, exhortations to repay debts contracted by the visitant, such is the burden of most dreams about the dead.7

Those dreams, then, that derive from natural causes, physical or mental, are not the stuff out of which the shape of time to come can be pre-constructed. Dreams that result from the peregrinations of the soul may or may not be thus used, depending upon the presence of the one factor that stamps them as truly portentous, the supernatural. All really significant dreams come ultimately from God. (In practice, of course, the definition worked the other way around—those dreams which the expert branded as significant were ipso facto God-born.) A Talmudic sage quoted God’s assurance, “Although I have hidden my face from Israel, I will communicate

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with him through dreams.” Such direct communication was in effect during the Middle Ages, as well as in ancient times, according to some writers. Manasseh b. Israel distinguished two degrees of deistic dream inspiration: the first, vouchsafed to all men alike, he termed “providential,” the product of God’s solicitude for His creatures. Such dreams are devoted to the minor concerns of human existence; evil men are warned against the deeds they ponder during the day, good men receive mildly prophetic or admonitory visions. He testified that he himself had had such dreams foretelling the death of acquaintances, which came true. The imagery and symbolism of these dreams are usually beyond the comprehension of the ordinary man. The second degree is the “prophetic,” in which direct communion with God is experienced only by rare, blessed spirits.8

Most of the medieval writers who discussed the subject, however, inclined toward the view that God-sent visions are transmitted through the intermediacy of angels. Sometimes we read of an angel especially appointed over this department, “the master” or “dispenser of dreams,” sometimes it is the memuneh, man’s deputy angel, who molds his sleeping thoughts to apprise him of the will of God. At times this angel does nothing more than direct the drama of man’s waking thoughts on the stage of his dream, and “since not all thoughts are true, not all dreams are true.” But when the angel introduces his own plot onto the stage, the vision assuredly has some peculiar and significant meaning.9

There is still a further possibility—the dream may be the work of a demon. As Sefer Ḥasidim says, “When a man suddenly beholds in his sleep a woman with whom he has never had relations, and whom he may not even have consciously desired, such a dream is caused by a demon or spirit. . . . The demon does not actually penetrate his thoughts but whispers into the depths of his aural cavity,” The demons seem to be responsible mainly for dreams of passion, though there are cases in which it is impossible to determine whether an evil spirit or an angel is to be held accountable.10


The cardinal feature of portentous dreams, as we have observed, is obscurity. Graphically, “What is shown a man in a dream is as

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though he were to find himself in the midst of a strange people whose tongue he doesn’t understand so that they can only suggest things to each other in sign language, as one does with a deaf person.” And just as today it requires a trained psychoanalyst to decode the dream cipher, so in the past, the dream was taken to an expert to be read aright. The basic principle had been laid down in the Talmud: “All dreams follow their interpretation,” that is, as the dream is interpreted, so will it come to pass. Indeed the Talmud went a step further to the logical corollary of this principle: “An uninterpreted dream is like an unread letter,” having neither good nor evil implication, as though it had never been experienced. The rabbis sought to give recognition to these statements to the psychological impact of a favorable or unfavorable prediction, and were subtly implying that it might be best not to seek the meaning of a dream. But, in Talmudic times and later, these words were taken literally. The wise followed the better counsel, and refrained from courting trouble—”One should not relate his dream to any man, and especially not his wife,” Sefer Ḥasidimadvised, for so long as it was his own secret its effect upon his career remained nil. Those who could contain their curiosity, however, were few. The Gemara tells a tale of one man who got several different interpretations of his dream—and all came true. But Maḥzor Vitry specified that the first interpretation is binding on the dream, and this became the generally accepted rule.11

The author of a widely read dream book, Solomon Almoli, refused to accept the Talmudic view, for, he argued, it would destroy the whole science of dream interpretation. If it were so, one need either not bother about dreams altogether, or secure only favorable interpretations. It is impossible that God’s will, disclosed in a dream, can be nullified by such naïve methods. We may ascribe this denial of the traditional view to professional jealousy, but in effect the tradition did no harm to the interpreter’s business.

There was some difference of opinion as to the qualifications of the dream expert. Some maintained that his skill must be innate—his star must have determined at his birth that this should be his forte. This was the reply that Jacob Halevi of Marvège received when he put the question to “the dispenser of dreams.” But Almoli would have none of this. If it were a matter of fate, he wrote, some people would be infallible interpreters, and there were none such. Skill in this field is the result only of intensive training. Some interpreters

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rely upon dream books and can decipher particular dreams, but the true expert is one who has high intelligence and an understanding of the principles of the science. He must know how to evaluate the circumstances and environment of the dreamer, and to differentiate the fine shades of meaning of dream symbolism, to reject the inconsequential elements of the dream and to single out those that are significant. Amateurs can only blunder upon the true meanings. A typical professional point of view!

Along with their reputed skill as magicians, Jews owned a high reputation as dream interpreters and were sought out by Christians for this purpose. Because of the tradition that “dreams follow the interpretation”, it was feared that the Jewish expert might be held responsible in heaven if he translated the dream of his Christian client in terms of Christian worship—he might be the cause of his client’s “sin” in pursuing Christian practices. For instance, if he told a priest that his dream signified that he was destined to become a bishop, the priest would apply himself more assiduously than ever to his clerical duties. But the ready rejoinder was to the effect that the Christian would continue in his error regardless of the dream, so the interpreter was really not accountable. “Even though the expert refuses to interpret the dream,” it will come true, it was admitted, with the reservation, however, that if a Jew’s dream points to some evil act the interpreter should not disclose it, for “one who tells a Jew that his dream signifies that he will sin is to be regarded as causing him to sin.”12

The general public was acquainted with the professional methods through a host of dream books, many of them attributed to Joseph or Daniel. These books, popular among Christians, Jews, and Mohammedans, had much in common and were in essence versions in different tongues of a common fund of tradition. One such book, already mentioned, the Pitron Ḥalomot of Solomon b. Jacob Almoli, first published in Salonica about 1515 (under the title Mefasher Ḥalmin), republished in Constantinople in 1518 and 1551, in Cracow in 1576, and many times after, was the outstanding Jewish work on the subject. Almoli was a Turkish Jew, who flourished at the beginning of the sixteenth century; he collated all the older Jewish material, and made extensive use of the non-Jewish, admitting his indebtedness to the Gemara, to Hai Gaon, to works ascribed to Rashi, Joseph, Daniel, as well as to translations from non-Jewish sources. Among those he quoted were Ibn Sina, Ibn Roshd, Aristotle

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and Plato. Though his book was written toward the end of the period it represents the information current throughout the earlier centuries. Some of the passages on dreams in the German-Jewish literature, in Eleazar of Worms’s Ḥochmat HaNefesh, for example, or in the manuscript work Eẓ Ḥayim, by Jacob b. Judah Hazan of London, both thirteenth-century writers, display a close affinity with Amoli’s later compilation. We have no such extended work from Northern Europe, but there can be no doubt that German Jews were acquainted with most of the subject matter which Almoli presented. His book became very popular and in 1694 was translated into Yiddish, in which form it still has a wide circulation among the Jewish masses.13

Since this work contains the only systematic organization of the material, it may not be amiss to summarize it here. It is divided into three parts, the first dealing with the classification of dreams and the general principles of interpretation, the second constituting a full glossary of dream symbols, the third devoted to an elucidation of the methods of counteracting the effects of ominous dreams. Part I comprises eight “gates”: 1. defining the dream and its various types; 2. whether or not to rely on dreams; 3. distinguishing between reliable and unreliable dreams; 4. describing the customary and the extraordinary elements of dreams; 5. three basic principles which the interpreter must follow; 6. the interpretation must take into account the client’s profession or trade, and his circumstances; 7. whether or not the interpretation is the determining factor in the effect of a dream, containing a “great investigation” into this subject; 8. the time when dreams may be expected to materialize. Part II contains five “gates”: 1. divided into five sections, on the symbolism of inanimate matter; 2. five sections, on flora; 3. six sections, on fauna; 4. four sections, on humans; 5. three sections, on “higher beings,” such as “the planets and stars, thunder, and books”! A perusal of Part II leaves one wondering what natural phenomena Almoli could possibly have neglected; he was careful to include all the derivatives, such as objects made of wood and metals, etc., wine and oil, eggs and honey and cheese and milk, cooked dishes, clothing. Part III, consisting of three “gates,” discusses the “dream-fast” and the ritual devices of “turning a dream to good” and “releasing” one from the effects of a dream. Almoli covered the field thoroughly; his erudition explains his scorn of those who would rely on the stars, or on a hastily digested smattering of data to qualify as experts.14

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The Bible offers several classic examples of dream interpretation, symbolical in the case of Pharaoh’s dreams, allegorical in that of Nebuchadnezzar. In Talmudic times puns often provided the key, e.g., dreaming that something will occur in the month of Nisan means one will suffer no temptation (nissayon). If the dream could be brought into connection with some Biblical verse, that verse indicated its significance, e.g., to behold a camel (Gamal) means that the dreamer’s death has been decreed in heaven, but he will be delivered from his fate, because Gen. 46:4, in which the words gam ‘aloh occur, contains the reassuring promise, “I will go down with thee into Egypt, and I will also surely bring thee up again.” During the Middle Ages these methods remained in use, but the most favored was to interpret by analogies, or by antitheses. Very often the association is obscure, though it no doubt derives from one of these methods or from an ancient, well-authenticated tradition. It is interesting to notice how frequently the interpretations of dreams in Christian sources correspond with the Jewish.15

The following excerpts from thirteenth-century Jewish works16 provide some idea of the manner of interpretation. From Eẓ Ḥayim: “All liquids are of good omen, except wine, if the dreamer is an uncultured person; all fruits are auspicious, except the date, and all vegetables, except turnip-heads, but the root indicates wealth; . . . wheat signifies peace; barley, atonement for sins; laden vines, his wife will not miscarry; white grapes are a good omen; black grapes in season are good, but out of season they indicate he will soon be praying for mercy; . . . a white horse is a good omen; a red horse is bad, he will be hounded and pursued; a donkey, he may be confident of salvation; . . . if he dreams he has lost his property, an inheritance will soon come his way; . . . if he is on a roof he will achieve greatness; if he is descending, he will be humbled”; etc. Eleazar of Worms offers these: if a man dreams he has a pain in one eye, a brother will fall ill; in both eyes, two brothers will be ill; if a tooth falls out, a son or some relative will die; if he sees a king, or a groom, or a wedding ceremony, or any celebration, he will soon be a mourner; dividing meat indicates a quarrel; fire in an oven signifies evil events; snow in summer, a fire; a vineyard, his wife is or will be pregnant; grapes, he will be blessed with a child; carrying a bird or a fish in his bosom means his wife will bear a child; if an

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unmarried person has this dream, he will soon be wedded; a group of people partaking of delicacies indicates they will all have cause to weep; an angel in the moon means war; a snake-bite indicates prosperity; and so on.

It will be more instructive, however, to examine the principles by which the interpreter made his decisions.17 It was first necessary to evaluate the credibility of the dream, which required a study of the stars, of the dreamer’s character, of the foods he had consumed before retiring, both in their planetary relationships and their potentiality for inducing spirits in the body, and his thoughts on the preceding days. The day of the month and the week, the hour, the land in which the dream was be held also help to determine the degree of reliance which is to be placed upon it. Similarly, if the dream images are clear and vivid and leave the dreamer moved or agitated, the dream is trustworthy. If the dream leaves little impression, it may be disregarded. One of the rules frequently advanced is that a dream which occurs in the early night, before the process of digestion has started, either has no significance or concerns the past; a dream which comes in the middle of the night, while the food is being digested, may or may not have importance; but most dreams that occur in the early morning, when the process of digestion has been completed, come true.

Similar criteria were employed to determine how long a period may elapse before the dream comes to pass. A man’s character, for instance, helps decide this, for the righteous person is forewarned long before an event is to occur so that he may have ample time to prepare for it, while the wicked are not given many warnings. The general rule is that most dreams are speedily realized, usually on the same or the next day; occasionally realization of a dream may be delayed, but never longer than twenty-two years (this is based on a Talmudic remark).

As to the actual process of interpretation, there is no substitute for a knowledge of the dream language, Almoli writes, but there is one rule that must constantly be kept in mind, namely, that the same symbol may have different connotations for different men. As an example, he cites the case of a man who dreamed that his horse was able to negotiate a turbulent stream only with great effort. If the dreamer is a scholar, then the horse signifies wisdom, and the dream indicates that his learning will carry him successfully through some very difficult situations; if he is not a scholar, the horse means

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strength and the dream implies that he will be engaged in a physical struggle from which he will emerge victoriously. Quick-wittedness has always been the fortune-teller’s most precious endowment.


The gold that the fates pour into a man’s lap serves only to whet his greed. The effort to induce divinatory dreams succeeded upon the realization that dreams could be put to such a use. Saul tried and failed. If countless others failed too, inevitably there were some who could claim success, and “nothing succeeds like success,” especially in the field of magic. In Talmudic and Geonic times the techniques of asking a “dream question” were familiar to everyone. During the Middle Ages, this proved a popular form of divination, though it hardly met with the approval of the religious authorities. Sefer Ḥasidim contains the statement, “If a man decides, I will put a ‘dream question’ to find out which good wife I shall take, he will never be successful,” yet the same work tells of a pious Jew who asked the prince of dreams “who will sit beside him in Paradise? And they showed him a young man in a distant land.” An interesting anecdote concerns a man who inquired how long he would live and received the reply in French, mil ans, which he interpreted literally, but his life was ended at eighty, for mil in Hebrew transliteration equals eighty. One of the questions put by Jacob Halevi of Marvège was whether it is proper “to invoke, by means of the 42-letter name of God, the angels who are appointed over learning and wealth and victory and favor,” and the reply came, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, and He Himself will provide all your needs.” As we have seen, Jacob Halevi solved many rituals and legal problems in this way, and the fourteenth-century R. Jacob b. Moses Mölln (Maharil), or his father, resorted to the same device to resolve at least one ritual question.18

In consonance with the prevailing conception of the origin of dreams, two agencies were mainly invoked to serve divinatory purposes: the dead, and the spirits generally or the genius of dreams in particular. As we have noted, one way of ensuring a nocturnal visit from the beyond was to make a dying man take an oath that after his death he would return and answer any questions put to him. Or two friends might make a mutual vow that the first to die would come back in a dream to paint for the other a picture of the next

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world. Such practices were common among Christians as well as among Jews, as this verse from Hans Vintner’s Blumen der Tugend (1411) discloses:19

So send denn ettliche
wenn sy sechend ain liche
so raunent sy dem totten zu
und sprechend ‘kum morgen fru
und sag mir, wie es dir dort gee

Another course was to stretch oneself on the grave of a pious man and beseech him to answer one’s questions in a dream. There is a story of a young student who adopted this procedure to learn whether certain ascetic practices he wished to adopt would be considered sinful or meritorious in heaven; that night the deceased came to him and carried him off to Paradise where he beheld the rewards that would be showered on him for his piety.20

The dead, however, were not always willing to obey the summons of the living, and in such a case force could be applied. This required the services of a professional sorcerer. A woman who was on bad terms with her son died without leaving a will disclosing the hiding place of her money. The son employed a sorceress to wring her secret from her. The woman “performed her sorceries with a knife” and then went to sleep, whereupon a demon appeared to her in a dream with the knife piercing his heart. She refused to be moved by his entreaties and extract the blade until he produced the information she sought. He returned with the mother and forced her to reveal her secret. The son got the money, but a few nights later his mother came to him in a dream and apprised him of the price he would have to pay: “In proportion to the suffering you brought upon me by your vile act will reverses and torments be heaped upon you.”21

On the other hand, angels and spirits could be invoked to appear in dreams by the usual methods. Jacob Halevi who, it is reported, induced his divinatory dreams by putting himself in a trance, used a simple request: “Oh, supreme king, great, mighty and revered God, guardian of the covenant and fount of grace for Thy followers, preserve Thy covenant and Thy grace for us, and command Thy holy angels who are appointed over the replies to ‘dream questions’ to give a true and a proper answer, unqualified and specific, to the question which I shall ask before Thy glory,” etc. It is interesting that sometimes the answer came that in heaven itself there was a

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division of opinion, which, by a strange coincidence, usually corresponded with a like division among the rabbis here on earth; and sometimes the first reply that Jacob received was unsatisfactory so that he had to repeat his question two and three times, insisting upon a clearer response. Certain Biblical selections were also useful toward this end. Ps. 23 and 42, each recited seven times with its “names,” were guaranteed to produce dream replies. If one writes Deut. 29:28 and its “names” on his hand and sleeps with that hand under his head the angel of dreams will favor him.22

Direct invocation of angels was also resorted to, with the usual preliminary rites of ritual cleansing and fasting. One simple invocation runs as follows: “‘I conjure you, Duma, prince of dreams, in the name of the Almighty God, that you come to me this night and answer my question. And when you wish to indicate good or evil, show me for evil: priests and churches, wells, cisterns, caves, and graves; but for a favorable sign show me: schools, synagogues, open books and scholars studying them; and let me not forget the apparition.’ Then go to sleep. But speak to no man concerning this. It should be done only on Sunday night, and only in urgent matters. Do not make sport of this!” Sefer Raziel has a much longer charm, heavily weighted with angel names, which concludes with a series of Biblical quotations. The same work contains other prescriptions for a “dream question”; one advises writing a name upon “ruled parchment” and placing it under one’s head after reciting a spell; another, “tested and tried,” suggests washing the hands thoroughly and anointing the left hand with “water of lilies,” after which an invocation is to be written on it, then, “sleep on your right side, and you will see and be astounded!” Still another prescribes a more complicated procedure: secure two white doves and slaughter them with a two-edged copper knife, one edge for each dove, extract their viscera, knead them together with three shekels of wine, some fine frankincense, and some pure honey into a thick paste, and cut it into small cakes; on the three days preceding the new moon, before sunrise, perform the prescribed purificatory rites, put on a white garment but no shoes, and burn some of these cakes on the hearth, while reciting the names of the angels who are in charge of the new month; on the third day let the house fill with smoke, lie down on the floor, recite the angel names and then sleep. “And the angels will appear and tell and reveal everything you may ask, in a clear vision, not in parables. You need have no fear.”23

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Since unfavorable as well as favorable dreams come true, and the event, therefore, came to be regarded as the consequence of the dream, it was believed that if one could somehow nullify the dream itself in advance its effects would be obviated. Thus, in the prayers to be recited at night before retiring there is a specific request to “save us from evil dreams,” while some writers make it a point to note that some of the Biblical verses included in these prayers, such as Cant. 3:7-8, and Nu. 6:24.-26, “have the property of counteracting evil dreams” (the first because it speaks of “threescore mighty men” gathered about a bed, the second because it contains sixty letters—and a dream is “one sixtieth part of prophecy”), and that Ps. 128, also part of these prayers, contains references to vines and olives, which, according to the Talmud, are favorable dream symbols. Indeed there arose toward the end of the medieval period the custom of boldly announcing before going to bed, in the manner of “to whom it may concern,” “I hereby proclaim that whatever unpropitious dream I may have this night, I shall not tomorrow observe the customary fast,” which declaration, we are assured, “is a preventive of evil dreams, but, God forbid! should one nevertheless behold such a dream, he must on no account fast, or the angels of dreams will be very much provoked.”24

Once the dream has been experienced, however, other means must be adopted to forestall its consequences. As in the case of an illness, a dream may be sold and its effect transferred to the purchaser. An instance of such a transaction is recounted in Sefer Ḥasidim, with perhaps a sly dig at the interpreter who had no faith in his own interpretation; a certain Gentile who had dreamt he was riding a red horse was overwhelmed with despair when the interpreter told him this presaged his imminent death. The interpreter offered to purchase the dream “for the price of a drink,” a proposal which his client accepted with alacrity. The next day the interpreter was dead—though the narrator does not consider that the drink rather than the dream may have been responsible for his sudden demise. Again we learn that a literal acting out of the dream may destroy its symbolic significance. When a person who is married dreams he is carrying a bird in his bosom, this signifies the birth of a child, but if the bird flies away it portends disaster. To save himself he should fast and distribute charity among the poor, the customary procedure, but he

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should also place a fowl in his bosom, a cock if the dreamer is a man, a hen for a woman, and then permit it to fly off. Now that the dream has been scrupulously enacted, the apprehensive dreamer may breathe easily again. Still a third method is to recite, immediately upon waking, a Biblical verse suggested by the dream, which contains a promise of good. If one dreams of a well, he should say, “And there Isaac’s servants digged a well” (Gen. 26:25); of a river, “Behold I will extend peace to her like a river” (Is. 66:12); of a bird, “As birds flying so will the Lord of hosts protect Jerusalem” (Is. 31:5); of a dog, “Against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog whet his tongue” (Ex. 11:7); of a mountain, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger of good tidings” (Is. 52:7); of a shofar, “In that day a great shofar shall be blown” (Is. 27:13); of a bullock, “His firstling bullock, majesty is his” (Deut. 33:17); of a lion, “The lion hath roared, who will not fear?” (Amos 3:8); of shaving, “Joseph shaved himself and changed his raiment and came in unto Pharaoh” (Gen. 41:14); and so on.25

The most widely used methods of counteracting the effect of a bad dream, the “dream fast” and the rite of “turning a dream to good,” were instituted in Talmudic times. These, coupled with the usual expiatory acts of prayer, charity and repentance, were held to be effective devices, and were observed not alone by the common people but also by some of the outstanding rabbis of the Middle Ages, such as Meir b. Baruch of Rothenburg and Israel Isserlein. Indeed they came to be regarded as the inevitable sequel of every bad dream, and of every dream whose significance was in doubt, so that their observance became almost automatic, though their true purpose was never lost sight of. They are observed by some pious Jews even in this day. A third device, the “release” from an obligation incurred in a dream, such as a vow or an excommunication, has already been described.

The Talmudic basis of the Ta‘anit Ḥalom, the “dream fast,” is the following passage: “Rab said, ‘Fasting is as effective against evil dreams as fire against shavings;’ R. Ḥisda added, ‘One must fast on the same day on which the dream occurred;’ and R. Joseph added, ‘Even on the Sabbath.'” These dicta raised three issues, concerning the first and second of which there was fairly general agreement. Fasting, the accepted rite of penitence and expiation, was believed to carry great weight with the heavenly council. The dream constitutes not a final and irrevocable judgment, but rather a warning of impending doom, which may be postponed and perhaps altogether negated by

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pious deeds and a righteous life, of which the fast was the first installment. “It seems to me,” wrote Almoli, “that this fast is to be regarded practically as an obligation upon the dreamer, and not as a voluntary act which he need not observe if he so pleases.” We may judge how important it was considered by the fact that even on those occasions when facts have forbidden an exception was made in favor of the Ta‘anit Ḥalom. During the month of Nisan, for instance, when even the Jahrzeit fast in commemoration of the death of a father or mother was not permitted, this “dream fast” was the only one allowed. And not only the dreamer felt bound to observe this fast, but if his dream seemed to carry an ominous message for a second party, that person too observed it.28

The requirement that the fast must follow the dream on the same day was explained on the ground that the adverse decree might be intended for immediate execution; or, as one writer put it, each day has its own angels who are charged with carrying out the heavenly decisions. A delay of even one day may make the fast ineffective. Any other voluntary fast but the Ta‘anit Ḥalom may be postponed.27

The only difficulty was with regard to the observance of this fast on the Sabbath and on holidays. Some medieval rabbis felt that R. Joseph had gone too far in his endorsement of what was essentially a superstitious practice, though it had introduced a religious element into the belief concerning dreams. They did not state their objection, originally voiced by R. Kalonymos (in the twelfth century) and often repeated, in so many words, but got the Talmudist’s opinion with the qualification that “nowadays one should not observe the Ta‘anit Ḥalom on the Sabbath, because we are no longer expert in the interpretation of dreams.” The subterfuge was no more successful than if they had roundly denounced the institution or expressly forbidden it on the Sabbath without apologies. As it was they left a convenient breach through which the more superstitious could clamber. Obviously, Jews were still dream experts, so far as the masses were concerned. Maharil wisely wrote, “It is better that a man fasts on the Sabbath because of a dream, than that his heart be troubled; he’ll derive more pleasure from the fast than from his food.” Others tried to soften the objection to the Sabbath fast by offering minor concessions. R. Meir permitted it if the same dream had been repeated three nights in succession, while some harked back to a tradition associated with the name of Hai Gaon, who had allowed it after three particularly ominous dreams, namely if one beheld a Torah scroll

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burning, or the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service, or his teeth or the beams of his house falling. The list was, as may be expected, extended; dreaming of any part of the Yom Kippur service, of reading in the Torah, of getting married, of being kissed by a deceased person, equally warranted a fast on any occasion. But Isaiah Horowitz, the sixteenth-century Polish mystic, who himself “usually advised people not to fast on the Sabbath,” admitted, “I have known many people to make light of these restrictions, and fast on the Sabbath whenever their spirits were depressed by a dream.”28

To appreciate the full moment of this dream fast we must further consider that it entailed a second day’s fast immediately after, to atone for the desecration of the holyday—two days of fasting in succession! This duplicate fast was scrupulously kept. True, sometimes permission was granted to infirm or sick people to postpone it, if a double fast might prove too arduous for them. But otherwise, there were no slackers. And to bring home more sharply the high regard in which this remedy for ill-omened dreams was held by the people, they did not refrain from observing it even on Rosh Hashanah, if necessary, when a Ta‘anit Ḥalom on the first day of the holiday entailed not only fasting on the next day also, but on both days of Rosh Hashanah in every succeeding year! (If, however, an occasion for fasting arose on the second day, then only that day’s fast was repeated annually.) Nor did they hesitate to keep this fast on the eve of Yom Kippur, the most trying day in the Jewish calendar. It required great faith, indeed, to produce such stanch devotion!29

When the fast was completed, the final remedy was resorted to, the Hatavat Ḥalom, the rite of transforming an ominous dream into a favorable one. As recorded in the Talmud, it was performed as follows: The dreamer gathered three friends and said to them, “I have beheld a good dream!” and they responded, “Verily, it is good, and may it be good, and may God make it good.” This was repeated seven times (but, following the precedent attributed to the twelfth-century rabbi Isaac b. Samuel the Elder, the number of repetitions was reduced to three, “the usual number of times an incantation is recited,” as later writers explained) . Then the dreamer recited three verses in which the word “to overturn” appears (Ps. 30:12, Jer. 31:12, Deut. 23:6), three verses containing the word “redeem” (Ps. 55:19, Is. 35:10, I Sam. 14:45), and three which speak of “peace” (Is. 57:19, I Chr. 12:18, I Sam. 25:6) . This prescription was followed in the Middle Ages, and was extended to include Hab. 3:2,

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[paragraph continues]Ps. 121, Nu. 6:22-27, Ps. 16: 11, concluding with the words of Ecc. 9:7, “Go thy way, eat thy bread in peace.” To avoid the slightest unlucky intimation, moreover, the order of these last words was altered, for their initials spell the word avel, “mourner.” If the purport of the dream had been forgotten, the Talmud provided a prayer which was warranted to ensure that no harm would befall the dreamer.30 Thus fortified he could throw off the oppressive weight of his dream and “eat his bread in peace”—until another night visited another evil vision upon him.

Next: 16. Astrology


WE POSSESS no one body of doctrine that describes so pervasive and dominant a pattern in the fabric of modern life as did the “science” of astrology in the medieval. According to one of the foremost students of the Middle Ages, Prof. Lynn Thorndike, “Astrology is the most widespread, as it is the most pseudo-scientific of any variety of the magic arts. Indeed, it has ceased to be merely one method of divination and claims to study and disclose the universal law of nature in the rule of the stars, by which every fact in nature and every occult influence in magic may be explained”; it is “the fundamental doctrine of the medieval Weltanschauung.” Just as among Christians barely a murmur of opposition was heard, so Maimonides was the sole Jewish authority of prominence who dared raise his voice against this superstition. “Know ye, my masters,” he wrote to the congregation in Marseilles, “that all those matters that appertain to astrology in no wise constitute a true science, but are wholly folly. . . .” He was “a voice crying in the wilderness.” Manasseh b. Israel once more expressed the prevailing view when he scornfully waved aside the Maimonidean strictures with a series of citations from Jewish and non-Jewish literature. “And now, since the God-given Torah and the words of our rabbis prove the truth of this science, who can deny it?” he challenged. “In all periods there have been great astrologers among our people, and most notably in the land of Spain.” It is true that astrology produced its foremost Jewish exponents and practitioners in the south of Europe—many a court, lay and ecclesiastical, in the Provence and Spain, boasted its Jewish astrologer; the northerners were amateurs by comparison. I have found not a single trustworthy reference to a recognized Jewish astrologer in Germany and France—an instance, perhaps, of typical northern parochialism which rigorously excluded the Jew from court attendance, or, again, a commentary on the inferior

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quality of his skill. But, however short he may have been on theory, the German Jew was by no means unacquainted with the practical utilities of the science.1 Though the literature is not as informative as one might wish, we may derive from it those general rules which were the basis of the astrological science.

The debate over the determining rôle of the stars in the life of man, broached in the Bible and heatedly argued in the pages of the Talmud, continued unabated through the succeeding centuries. The issue was hardly at all whether the stars influence men but rather just how vital and irremediable their influence is. It was generally accepted that every man has his star in heaven (often regarded as complementary to his “deputy” angel), whose history is conterminous with his own, that the special character and position of that star at his birth determine the general outline of his career, that the heavenly constellations at any given moment control earthly events and human acts, and that therefore a study of the heavens can disclose the future. Both their tradition and the example of their neighbors inclined medieval Jews to acknowledge such doctrines as axiomatic. But the tenets of Judaism obliged them to subjoin an important qualification: the stars determine human actions, but they too are creatures of God, established by Him to perform this special function, and therefore the influence they exert is subject to His will. Repentance, prayer, piety, charity, good deeds—the religious virtues—are the instruments by means of which man can induce God to alter His decrees, and consequently to modify the fate that is “written in the stars” for him. This is the purport of a mass of medieval Jewish discussion of the subject; once granted, there was no check upon the utilization of astrology for divinatory ends. Several writers expressly excluded this science from the forbidden category of “magic,” and practically all German-Jewish writers tacitly or openly admitted its aid in guiding man’s footsteps.2

The close association that was posted between the angels and the heavenly bodies also served to foster this divinatory science. The seven archangels, in particular, were believed to play an important part in the universal order through their association with the planets and the constellations. There is some variation, in the different versions, of the angels assigned to the planets, and even the names of these angels are subject to sudden change on a single page. The five lists I have collated3 (containing some variant readings and some

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omissions) give the following result. The numerals represent the number of times a name appears on these lists.

Sun Raphael (4), Michael (2)
Moon Gabriel (4), Aniel (or Anael) (1)
Venus Aniel (4), Ḥasdiel (1)
Mercury Michael (2), Ẓadkiel (1), Barkiel (1), Ḥasdiel (1), Raphael (1)
Saturn Kafẓiel (3), Michael (1)
Jupiter Ẓadkiel (4), Barkiel (1)
Mars Samael (4), Gabriel (1)

[paragraph continues]I might have included additional lists, but they would only have raised the numerals without altering the preponderance of votes for the angels in the first column. It is interesting to compare with these results a set of these associations which entered medieval Christian thought by way of the Moslem philosopher Averroes: the Sun and Michael, the Moon and Gabriel, Venus and Anael, Mercury and Raphael, Saturn and Cassiel (Kafẓiel), Jupiter and Sachiel (Ẓadkiel), Mars and Samael. This conception probably derived from the Gnostic mysticism of the beginning of our era, which in its turn was unquestionably influenced by such ancient notions as the Babylonian seven planetary spirits and the seven Amshaspands of Persia.

Some of the archangels also found themselves bound up with the twelve signs of the Zodiac and consequently with the months, with new ones invented or borrowed from ancient sources to make up the required number. Here, too, there is no permanency about the association; an angel may be divorced from his stellar charge without notice, and another substituted. The following is a fair sample of these alliances: Aries-Michael, Taurus-Gabriel, Gemini-Raphael, Cancer-Uriel, Leo-Guriel, Virgo-Nuriel, Libra-Yeshamiel, Sagittarius-Ayil, Capricornus-Ubaviel, etc.4 It must be remembered, also, that these names change according to the season of the year, so that there are four shifts supervising the heavenly bodies.

The usual primitive interpretation of eclipses and comets as portents of disaster is encountered. Eclipses of the moon were taken to be especially ominous for the Jewish people. Eclipses of the sun which occurred on October 26, 1147, and September 4, 1187, threw German Jewry into consternation; later it was learned that on these days the

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[paragraph continues]German Crusaders had suffered serious reverses in Palestine. In 1456 there occurred one of the periodical appearances of Halley’s comet which was noticed by almost all the Christian chroniclers of the time and was variously interpreted as an omen of great earthquakes, of pestilence (both of which visited Southern Italy in that year), etc. Not to be outdone, Israel Isserlein, in Wiener-Neustadt, mounted a tower which stood in “the street of the Jews” and examined the comet at close range, and then portentously announced, “Its tail points toward Vienna!” “In the same year,” comments his biographer, “the ‘King of Vienna’ [Ladislaus VI Posthumous], whose father had initiated anti-Jewish persecutions, was poisoned in Prague [by George of Podiebrad], and the Hungarian king [Ladislaus Corvinus] was murdered in his capital.”5

The idea that the planets and the fixed stars rule over the affairs of the material world was an ancient dogma which had received the sanction of the foremost astronomer recognized in the Middle Ages, Ptolemy. The influence of his exposition had made itself felt in Jewish thought even before his Tetrabiblos reached Western Europe in Latin translation during the twelfth century. Eleazar of Worms, who could not have been directly acquainted with the astronomer’s work, advanced his explanation that the properties and powers of the heavenly bodies were consequent upon their composition out of one or more of the four elements, earth, air, fire, water, and their possession of one or more of the four elemental properties, hot, cold, dry and moist. But these theoretical considerations were of secondary import; the human utility of astrology occupied the major part of Jewish interest and attention. The planets and the stars were studied with an eye to their expediency in various divinatory exercises: genethlialogy, or the casting of nativities or horoscopes; elections, or the selection of favorable hours for beginning contemplated enterprises; and the so-called judicial astrology, obtaining answers to specific questions. To these ends tables were set up delineating the fields of influence of the heavenly bodies. Saturn governed poverty, wounds, illness, death; Jupiter, life, peace, joy, wealth, honor, sovereignty; Mars, blood, the sword, evil, war, enmity, envy, destruction; Venus, grace, beauty, passion, conception, fertility; Mercury, wisdom, intelligence, learning, trades and occupations; the sun, daily activities, and sovereignty; the moon, growth and decay, good and evil. Then there were more detailed tables, giving the planets and

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stars which rule each hour of the day and night and the nativities and elections of these hours, on this order:

Second [i.e., Sunday] night

1st hour Jupiter propitious for setting out on a journey or taking a bride; one born in this hour will be handsome and wise;
2nd hour Mars do not approach a woman, and do not engage in trade; nativity—one will be poor or will die in infancy;
3rd hour Sun propitious for every enterprise; nativity—one will be poor, will suffer misfortunes, and will die by the sword;
4th hour Venus good for trade and marriage; nativity—one will be a conspirator and will be killed;

and so on through the week. Nativities were also taken according to the day of the week. While this was not strictly approved astrological method, the Latin names of the days, paronyms of the planets, led to the days being credited with the virtues of the stars. Jews never adopted the week-day names in use in Europe, but for astrological purposes, they accepted the planetary associations. (One writer, for instance, suggested that Friday was the favorite wedding day because it was Venus’s day.) The length of one’s life could be similarly forecast. If birth occurs in the “house” of Saturn (the heaven was divided into twelve “houses,” each presided over by a planet) the child will enjoy 57 years on earth; if in Jupiter’s “house,” 79; in Mars’s, 66; Venus’s 22; the sun’s, 77; etc.6

There was also great interest in astrological weather prediction, and many treatises were written on the subject. We have no extended Jewish discussion, but ample evidence to indicate that Jews were familiar with the method and were not averse to utilizing it. Predictions were based on observations of the sun and its relation to the constellations, on the phases of the moon, and on the physical appearance of these two bodies, the color, and shape of the clouds, unusual astronomical phenomena, etc.

Certain periods were also chosen as symptomatic of the weather for the entire year. Each of the four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot was equated with three months, so that if it rained on the

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first of these days, one could anticipate heavy showers in the months of Tishri, Ḥeshvan and Kislev. The days near the summer and winter solstices were similarly regarded as portentous; the 13th of Tamuz indicates the weather that will prevail during Tamuz, Ab, Elul and Tishri, the 14th corresponds to Ḥeshvan, Kislev, Tebet, Shebat, etc. A late tradition ascribed to Judah the Pious, which is probably authentic since it tallies with a remark in a thirteenth-century work, displays a more direct economic concern with the weather: when it rains on the 19th of Tamuz and not on the 21st, the price of foodstuffs will be high until the spring, and then will fall; if it rains on the 21st and not on the 19th, prices will be low until spring and will then rise; if it rains on both days, prices will be high all year; but if it rains on neither day, food will be abundant and cheap throughout the year. A common method of predicting weather, among Christians, was on the basis of the twelve days following Christmas (the season of the winter solstice) . Jews adopted this practice, eliminating, of course, the reference to Christmas; one month of the year was assigned to each day from the first to the twelfth of Tebet (corresponding to the “Twelve Nights”) and the daily weather during this period was accepted as indicative of the weather during the correlated months.7

Lists of unlucky days, sometimes called “Egyptian Days,” are of rather common occurrence in medieval Latin works. Undoubtedly a relic of the ill-omened days in the ancient Egyptian calendar, they were largely determined on astrological grounds. These were preeminently days on which patients should not be bled; in some cases the warning was extended to cover any work of importance. Such lists based on tradition and astrology are to be found in medieval Jewish literature as well. Phlebotomy was regarded as a very dangerous operation when performed on the eve of a holiday, or on Hoshana Rabbah; some included the entire months of Tamuz, Ab, Elul and Shebat in the list, others only the first day of Iyar, Elul and Tebet when these fall on a Monday or Wednesday, and still others included the first of every month, and the period between Passover and Lag B’omer.

Certain days of the week were also singled out as unfavorable: Monday, Tuesday and Thursday; Sunday, Wednesday and Friday were regarded as especially opportune for blood-letting. However, if Wednesday fell on a 4th, 14th, 24th, or during the last four days of the month, it was also included among the inauspicious days. Monday and Wednesday were regarded as unlucky for new undertakings,

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and it was an accepted rule that “one does not begin anything on Monday or Wednesday”; the explanation that “on these days the stars are unpropitious” is no doubt the correct one. As Mordecai Jaffe, who offered this reason, continued, “One should not inquire concerning the astrological portents before beginning an undertaking, but when he knows that the stars are unfavorable he should not act counter to them and rely on a miracle.” Eleazar of Worms published a list of 59 days through the year when it was “good to set out on a journey.”8 The astrological factor was also of great importance in magical pursuits. As we have seen, special days were designated as particularly favorable for writing amulets and mezuzot. Besides, the association of the angels with the planets and stars made it necessary, before invoking angels, to determine just which astrological influences were dominant. Magic leaned heavily upon astrology.

According to some, the Roman superstition which forbade marriages in May was preserved in the Jewish custom not to celebrate a wedding between Passover and Pentecost, with an exception allowed on Lag B’omer. This prohibition was judaized into a mark of mourning, and was associated with the tradition that during this period, in the second century, a great many of Akiba’s pupils were destroyed by a plague. A thirteenth-century manuscript, Sefer Asufot, explains it on the ground that during these months the Jewish communities of the Rhineland were decimated by marauding Crusaders, but the custom was introduced into Judaism long before; it is first mentioned in a Geonic responsum of the eighth or ninth century. As we noticed above, this period was also considered inopportune for blood-letting. The mourning motif was emphasized by further prohibitions against cutting the hair, paring finger-nails, wearing new clothes and working after sunset.9

The moon is universally believed to exert a most powerful influence upon terrestrial phenomena, and during the Middle Ages Christians and Jews rarely entered upon an important activity without having first observed the lunar auspices. The waxing moon advances growth and development, the waning moon promotes decay and death. Eleazar of Worms diagnosed a mental ailment as due to the contraction of the brain during the last quarters of the moon, and its expansion during the first. Again he warned that clothing soaked in water, trees that have been cut down, fruits and grains harvested while the moon is diminishing rot away very rapidly. Marriages were celebrated during a waxing moon, “not for any superstitious reason,

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but only as a good omen”! A conception that occurred during this phase of the moon was considered especially auspicious for the child; people moved into new homes in the first half of the lunar month. The day of the new moon was the most favorable for new enterprises, children were brought to school and courses of study begun on that day. A rational explanation of this last usage was offered, namely, “to give out-of-town students time to arrive,” but even its author realized that it was not very convincing, and admitted “and also because it is a good omen.” Cutting the hair or finger-nails on new moon day was frowned upon “because of the danger,” for growth should not be checked on the day which is most auspicious for it. Such beliefs were very prevalent among German Christians, and though the rabbis often forbade these practices, their disapproval had little effect on their flock.10

The pagan veneration of the new moon, which had by no means disappeared in Biblical times, has no direct connection with the ceremony of blessing the new moon which was outlined in the Talmud and is observed to this day. But certain superstitious practices have been associated with the rite, pointing to its continued occult importance in human affairs. Some of these are first mentioned in a work composed during the post-Talmudic period, the Masechet Soferim, others are medieval accretions. In the first group are the practices of skipping three times at the close of the blessing, and addressing the moon three times: “As I skip before you and do not reach you, so, if others jump before me may they not strike me,” and of then thrice bidding one’s neighbor “Peace be unto you.” The ceremony, as well as the threefold repetitions, are typical of magical acts. In the latter group are the practice of shaking one’s clothes “to cast off the spirits,” and the belief that one who has performed the full rite need not fear death during the ensuing month. In the sixteenth century the Safed school of Kabbalists instituted the custom of fasting on the eve of the new moon (the day of the new moon was a feast day). The practice was probably in vogue at an earlier time and may be connected with a Christian usage, deplored by a fifteenth-century German writer, but observed by “many people both laity and clergy, even including masters,” who “bend the knee or bow the head at new moon or fast on that day, even though it be Sunday or Christmas when the church forbids fasting.” A halting recognition that the fast was observed because of “the shrinking of the moon” is evidence of the persistence of primitive apprehensions.11

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An interesting and obscure superstition attached to the four Tekufot, or “turnings of the sun,” that is, the solstices and equinoxes. It was believed that during these periods a mysterious precipitation poisoned all water, which should therefore not be drawn or drunk at the crucial moment. The source of this Jewish superstition is very much in the dark. The solstices in particular, when the day attains its longest and shortest duration, have captured the imagination of primitive folk, and have induced sentiments of exaltation and despair. It was believed that at these times peculiarly potent supernatural forces are at work. During the Middle Ages, among the non-Jewish peoples of Europe, the advent of Midsummer Day was greeted with great festivities and bonfires, which, among other things, were supposed to drive off certain noxious dragons which polluted the wells and springs by dropping their seed into them as they copulated in the upper atmosphere.

It has been suggested that this late belief was derived from the Jewish superstition, which was first mentioned as far back as the tenth century; Grünbaum’s contention that the Jews borrowed it from the Germans is certainly untenable. Hai Gaon, asked to explain the custom of not drinking water during the Tekufot, replied, “Although we do not know the reason, it should be meticulously observed, for not without good reason has it spread through Israel.” Apparently it was already, in the tenth century, sanctioned by long usage. Then he proceeded to offer the prevailing explanation, to the effect that during the four quarters of the year the universe is guarded by specially appointed angels, but at the Tekufot, the time of the changing of the watch, when their supervision is momentarily relaxed, the powers of evil seize the opportunity to work havoc among men by poisoning their wells. Hai Gaon also suggested a rationalistic interpretation: the custom is an expression of man’s dislike to begin a new season with so inconsequential an action as drinking water. This latter explanation was occasionally repeated during the Middle Ages, but without enthusiasm; the former was more often advanced as the true reason.12

A slight variant of this superstition is incorporated in the idea that it is blood, rather than poison, that pollutes the wells. An old legend, which made its first literary appearance in the Maḥzor Vitry (twelfth century), connects this belief with the following events: God turned the waters of Egypt into blood in the vernal equinox, and from then on at the time of the equinox a drop of blood is deposited in the waters and makes them unfit to drink; the same occurs at the summer solstice,

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when Moses smote the rock and blood flowed therefrom; at the autumnal equinox, when Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac, and blood appeared on his knife; and at the winter solstice, when Jephtha sacrificed his daughter in fulfillment of his vow. A Kabbalistic explanation has it that Lilit’s menses are the source of these drops of blood. Still another legend is that the constellations Scorpio and Leo, or Cancer and Libra, engage in a bitter struggle at these four critical moments, and their blood taints our water. It is possible that there is some relation between this blood version of the Tekufah superstition and the medieval German belief that on Midsummer Day (St. John’s Day) drops from the bleeding corpse of John the Baptist, which at that time hovers over the earth, are to be discerned on the leaves of the Johanniskraut (Hypericum perforatum).13

Despite the reproof administered by Judah the Pious, and often repeated, that “the sincerely devout need fear no evil,” there was a widespread indisposition to make use of water drawn during the Tekufah, or which had been left uncovered at that time. Maharil wrote that though he did not dispute Judah’s dictum, “it is best not to count on miracles”! According to some, the danger was restricted to drinking water at the instant of the Tekufah, and did not apply within a city, but most people chose to play safe and accepted the broader view. Since the evil spirits were generally held responsible, it was possible to adopt certain preventive measures, which were first mentioned in Western Germany in the thirteenth century, and from there spread throughout the Jewish communities of Europe. These entailed the suspension of a piece of iron in the water, or the admixture of some salt, or the sealing of the vessel, all well-known anti-demonic devices. Thus ensured against contamination, the water could be imbibed without fear or danger.14

The notion that death would befall anyone who killed a goose during an undetermined brief period in the months of Tebet and Shebat (from about the middle of December to the middle of February) produced a general disinclination to slaughter geese throughout the two months. Some believed that it was possible to evade this consequence by eating immediately a bit of the dead fowl. The origin of this notion is obscure. There may be something to the opinion of a late commentator that it is based upon the belief that “the demons are at the height of their power in these months” (the period of the winter solstice) and for some reason resent the slaughter of a goose.15

As a final note to this chapter it should be pointed out that medieval

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medicine, Christian and Jewish, was strongly influenced by astrological considerations. The planets and stars were responsible for the functioning not alone of the universe, but of the human body as well; an exact and minute correspondence was drawn between the various heavenly bodies and the human organs. Even the foods that man consumes were related to the stars, and drew their peculiar natural and occult qualities from them. Therefore illnesses were often caused by astrological influences—we have seen how the waning and waxing of the moon can affect a man’s mind (a non-Jewish surgeon advised against operating on a fractured skull at the full of the moon, because then the brain expands and fills the cranium)—and medical treatments took these factors into account.16

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