Magic vs. Divine Decree in the Shtetl

Magic vs. Divine Decree in the Shtetl

By Eugen Schoenfeld

Reb Chaim Berger was my grandfather’s neighbor in Talamas, a tiny village at the crest of the Carpathian Mountains.

The Jewish community in the village consisted of about six couples and their teen children so that there were enough males Friday evening and Shabbat morning to have a minion.

Reb Chaim was a little more modern than the rest of the old-time Jews with their long beards and caftans. He trimmed his beard a little more severely than the other Jews, and his payes (ear locks) were shorter. His wife, unlike the other married Jewish women, didn’t cut off her hair, nor did she wear a kerchief over her hair or a sheitel (wig).

Eugen Schoenfeld
Eugen Schoenfeld

In spite of his supposed modernity, Reb Chaim’s children had a propensity for the occult. His children about my age loved to tell Yiddish stories about magical events and magicians. In fact, they bewildered me when they began to command the table to perform magical effects.

They loved to sit around a table where, with the help of other children holding on to the table with their fingers spread in a “V” in the manner of the ancient priests blessing the Jews in the Holy Temple, they made the table respond to questions. One tap with its leg meant yes, and two taps was no. We were (perhaps I alone was) overawed with their magic skills.

Each summer I spent two glorious months with my grandparents in Talamas, which became my Shangri-La, and while there, I frequently visited Reb Chaim’s daughters, whom I befriended. One day, I looked at the transom of their main door, and in addition to the handsome mezuzah high over the door I beheld a small bat with its wings in a Christ-like spread nailed to the wall.

“Why did you nail the bat to the wall?” I asked one of the girls.

“Don’t you know? It is for good luck. A bat on the wall averts troubles and calamities in the house.” But to initiate the bat’s magical power, she informed me, it must be killed by slitting its neck with a flattened and sharpened silver coin.

Magic and superstition were a part of Jewish shtetl and village life. Early in my life, for instance, I learned a brief ditty designed to save me from attacking dogs.

During the late fall and winter, darkness fell early in my city, and I walked home from the yeshiva about 5 p.m. by the light of a candle enclosed in a lantern. There were always unchained dogs roaming the streets, and my greatest fear was being attacked by a rabid animal. I heard all kinds of stories of the pains that boys had to endure from the anti-rabies serum invented by Louis Pasteur, which was injected into the abdomen.

To avoid being bitten, most of us boys resorted to magic for protection. When seeing a dog, especially at night, I began reciting, “Hint, hint, ich bin Yaakov’s kind” (Dog, dog, I am Jacob’s child), and by the power vested in these words I was guarded from being bitten.

Did it work? I lived over 18 years in my shtetl and was never attacked by a dog, day or night.

The noted cultural anthropologist Bronislav Malinowski, a professor at the London School of Economics and at Yale University, spent four years studying the life and culture of the natives in Trobriand Island, and he described his observations in the book “Magic, Science and Religion.” Among the Trobriand Islanders, religion and magic were independent social institutions, each with its own function. The primary function of religion, as in Judaism, was to mark and celebrate lifecycle events, most associated with seasons or with functions such as marriages, births, agricultural activities and fishing. These were celebratory functions and not problem-solving ones.

But in all aspects of life people encountered problems they could not solve because of the absence of empirical knowledge. The function of magic was not to serve as a substitute for empirical knowledge, whose efficacy was proved by reliable and repetitive outcomes. Magic and magicians existed to provide solutions to problems when proven knowledge was not available.

Judaism, however, denounced both magic and its practitioners. Magicians and their craft as a mode of problem solving were outlawed by the Torah. The text in Exodus (22:7), Leviticus (20:27) and Deuteronomy (18:7-13) forbids Jews to engage in witchcraft or to use incantations, oracles or astrology.

The reason for this ban, most likely, is that such activities stand in competition with G-d and challenge His powers. When Moses came to Pharaoh and demanded in G-d’s name the release of the Jews, he used magic (turning his staff into a snake) as a sign of G-d’s power and hence his legitimacy as a divine messenger. Pharaoh countered with his own magicians, who were able to perform the same act.

But denying the legitimacy of magic does not end its practice. Magic did not disappear among the Jews.

When King Saul was in trouble, he turned to the Witch of Endor, who summoned the spirit of the prophet Samuel so that Saul could consult him. When problems cannot be solved by empiricism, people turn to cults and to magic. Only the advent of science can make magic obsolete.

When magic was forbidden as an independent social institution, Jews moved it into religion itself. The belief in the evil eye became a part of religious belief, and its existence and solution were discussed in the Talmud in the same manner as were religious matters.

I remember well that in 1934, long before the discovery of antibiotics or even sulfa drugs, pneumonia was usually a terminal illness.

You must have seen movies with scenes in which a mortally ill person is lying in bed, and the family helplessly sits and waits for the crisis to come. The crisis is the point when either the ill person is overcome by the disease and dies, or the fever breaks and the person goes on living.

Such an event occurred in my family. My sister Esther-Elyke at the age of 6 months was infected by bacteria. She suffered a high fever, and the diagnosis was pneumonia. Nothing could be done for her with the exception of applying cold compresses. There weren’t any medications to alleviate her condition.

Though my family believed in and accepted the idea that G-d during the High Holidays decrees who shall live and who shall die, they couldn’t sit still when confronted with the possible death of my sister. In spite of their great belief in G-d as a true judge, they turned to magic for additional help.

First, my paternal grandmother, a great believer in the existence and power of the evil eye, thought that someone out of jealousy of my sister’s beauty deployed the evil eye (ayin hara in Hebrew or nehoreh in Yiddish), and its manifestation brought on her illness.

She set about to counteract that evil power. She lighted four candles and set them on the corners of the crib, onto which she also attached four pieces of red ribbon as guards against added evil eyes.

My grandfather, however, believed in the curative powers of Tehillim and thus continued to recite the Book of Psalms.

My father sought to obfuscate the decree G-d had written in the Book of Life. We went to the synagogue and opened the ark, and in front of a minyan my father renamed my sister by adding an additional name. Thus, theoretically, if G-d decreed that Esther-Elyke, the daughter of Chayim, should die, the decree would not apply to my sister, whose name became Esther-Elyke Naomi.

Similarly, I performed my own antidote to black magic through advice given in the Shulchan Aruch, the summary of Jewish religious laws written and edited by Judah Karo. His instructions were that Jews should not cut their finger and toe nails serially but instead should cut every other nail, then cut the others, and the clippings should be burned, thus avoiding any attempt by people to use them for black magic.

I have also seen many pregnant women who after Sukkot took a husband’s etrog, the citron used as one of the four species with the lulav, and bit off its end to ensure a male offspring. And so on.

Magic in Judaism never disappeared; it was merely absorbed into the body of religion and became part of religious practice. For instance, during Shemini Atzeret we pray for rain (geshem) and direct our prayer to Af-Berie, who many scholars believe was an ancient god of rain.

Magic will continue to exist so long as science cannot solve the problems that threaten humanity. I am sure that somewhere people are responding to pollution and the warming of Earth with both prayer and magic.

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