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‘Too Holy To Print’: The Forbidden Books of Jewish Magic

Books fraught with danger—curses, secrets, marvelous cures, diviners, demons—caused political intrigue and censorship

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A story from the field: In the fall of 1995, while working on my dissertation in Jerusalem, I learned that an important magical compendium by the 17th-century Rabbi Moses Zacuto, Shorshei ha-Shemot, had been published in the city. Strangely, the book was unavailable in stores and could only be purchased directly from its publishers. I telephoned one of them, Rabbi Shraga Boyer, at his Har Nof residence, and he asked that we meet for an interview the following day at a street corner in Mekor Barukh, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood adjacent to shuk Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s central market. At the appointed hour, I met Rabbi Boyer and his business partner, Rabbi Shraga Eisenbach. The three of us had a congenial conversation that lasted roughly 10 minutes.

The rabbis explained to me that it was their duty to determine the nature of the interest of prospective buyers before selling any copies of the newly printed work. This was in keeping with the terms of the approbation they had received from Rabbi Yitzhak Kadoori, Israel’s oldest and perhaps most eminent Kabbalist:

Rejoice Kabbalists and exult Sages [acrostic in Hebrew: YHVH] at the publishing of the book Shorshei ha-Shemot (Roots of the Names) by the honorable rabbis Rav Shraga Boyer and Rav Shraga Eisenbach, may they live good long lives, may God protect them and grant them life. These [two rabbis] have toiled to publish this holy book that has never before been published due to its great holiness, lest it come into the hands of one unworthy of it. And now the aforementioned rabbis have accepted upon themselves neither to give nor to sell the book to those other than the God-fearing who will not make use of it for Practical Kabbalah [Kabbalah Ma’asit], God-forbid, [but rather] to protect and to save them from all misfortune, God-forbid, and to find grace and favor in the eyes of God and man. And they must conduct an investigation and an interrogation [hakirah u-derishah] before selling this holy book to see if he [the potential buyer] is worthy of it. And it is a good deed to help them in all their endeavors; may they be successful in publishing this holy book, and their reward be doubled from heaven. Thus I have signed in the month of Iyar, 5753 [April–May 1993]. Yitzhak Kadoori [emphases added]

In this unusual encounter in the age of mechanical reproduction between two publishers and the prospective buyer of their printed book, my approach was straightforward, if not somewhat disingenuous. I reassured the rabbis that my interest in the work was purely academic and that I had no intention to use its powers. The rabbis, who were respectful and even curious about my work, then sold me the two volumes. But the requirement to interrogate each potential book buyer could not have had a positive impact on sales.

It was therefore not entirely surprising when, four years later, a second edition appeared in bookstores and libraries, its distribution no longer constrained. What had changed? Rather than open with approbations, only a note remained to alert the interested reader to their presence in the first edition. The new edition also featured more extensive indices, differences in content—both additions and deletions—and even a new principle of organization. In short, this was no longer the printed version of a historic manuscript.

Magical anthologies, like family recipe books, were typically supplemented from generation to generation by their inheritors, but in this case the publishers had gone beyond their predecessors in extensively restructuring the work. The deletions, however, and their rationale are what concern us here. The first edition had been published just months before the assassination of Israel’s Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin in 1995. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Israelis tried to understand how the “unthinkable” had happened. What were the precursors of the assassination? One of the most commonly noted was the placement of a magical curse upon the prime minister not long before the assassin struck. The media popularized the rather arcane fact that the curse had been none other than pulsa de-nura, the “fire-stroke,” turning this esoteric Aramaic idiom into a household word for the first time in history. The event was to become a canonical element of any recounting of the tragedy; even the brief official Israeli government biography of Rabin does not fail to mention the curse by name as part of its treatment of the assassination.

Even more surprising, perhaps, was the frequent obfuscation in public discourse of the distinction between curse as incitement to violence and curse as criminal ritual. Under such circumstances, the publishers feared that they might be vulnerable to prosecution as “curse-dealers.” In a flourish of political and financial acumen, the publishers released the new edition. Free of potentially incriminating curse formulae, it was also sans Kadoori and thus available on the open market. The late-20th-century publication of a venerable Jewish book of magic was thus the occasion for ambivalence and anxiety on all fronts: from Rav Kadoori, concerned that the book’s power would be abused, yet willing to consent to the printing; to the publishers, charged with a sacred duty to limit the sales of their merchandise by scrutinizing prospective buyers only to be subsequently spooked by the prospect of prosecution; to secular media and security services, now disposed to regard magical curses as threats to Israel’s very political stability.

***

If Rav Kadoori is a distinctly late-20th-century Israeli phenomenon, then, the printing of magical materials has been a complicated affair for centuries. At once inviolable, sacred, and unlawful, magic is the object of what Sigmund Freud called “holy dread.” That magic was taboo, however, does not mean that its adepts were viewed as evil or in rebellion against the authority of Jewish tradition. Magical adepts could be cultural heroes, and magical prowess so attractive and impressive that its attribution to rabbinic saints was a sine qua non of hagiographical traditions. The move beyond “holy dread” to the practice of magic situated the practitioner in a transgressive but awe-inspiring position, at the nexus of the forbidden and the sacred. Such transgression need not have been viewed as the denial of the taboo, however, but, in Georges Bataille’s terms, as its completion or consummation. Bataille’s position has been well summarized by Michael Richardson:

Transgression is associated with the sacred, the moment of rupture when the excluded element that is forbidden by the taboo is brought into focus. In earlier societies, transgression was an inherent part of social life, given form in the festival, where transgression was given free play and so functioned as part of the regulatory function of the taboo. As Bataille says, “transgression does not deny the taboo but transcends and completes it.”

If most historical Judaisms have taken a transcendental approach to the magic taboo, the transgression-consummation dyad accounts for the simultaneous attraction and repulsion to magic one finds in so many Jewish sources. The highly charged polarity is responsible for producing myriad expressions of anxiety, the tracing of which may shed light on familiar facets of Jewish culture.

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‘Too Holy To Print’: The Forbidden Books of Jewish Magic

Books fraught with danger—curses, secrets, marvelous cures, diviners, demons—caused political intrigue and censorship