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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

J.H. Chajes
February 27, 2014

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.

The binary status of magic gave rise to contested formulations of its cultural position among rabbinic authorities. Was magic the most profound degradation of the spirit, or the highest actualization of human potential? Medieval German pietists, whose eponymous piety may have been ultimately conceived as preparatory to engagement in magical activity, seem to have favored the latter evaluation, as did the Italian Renaissance rabbis who placed the study of magic at the apex of their ideal curriculum.

A charged polarity born of proximity and parallelism is already implicit in the biblical mirroring of prophets and forbidden diviners (see, e.g., Deut. 18:9–22) and surfaces with great clarity and sophistication in Talmudic sources. Although the rabbis set out to define forbidden forms of magic, they issue anything but a flat-out condemnation; on the contrary, they are well aware of how closely their highest values mirror forbidden paths and seem irresistibly drawn to making the parallels explicit. The difficulty of practicing “holy magic” is thus cause for lament; Rabbi Akiva would cry in frustration, we are told, when reminded of the relative ease of inducing “impure” as opposed to “pure” forms of spirit obsession. Yet such difficulty could not deter the truly righteous from wielding God-like magical power, creating a world if they so desired. Though much has been made of the euphemisms for magic (kishuf) found in Jewish sources because of the negative associations borne by the term, the Talmudic discussion in fact concludes unapologetically: The laws of magic (kishuf), like those of the Sabbath, distinguish between magic illegal and punishable, illegal yet not punishable, and permitted ab initio. Rav Hanina and Rav Oshaya are mentioned in this context as having practiced permissible kishuf when, at Friday afternoon meetings, they would create a third-grown calf and eat it (B.T. Sanhedrin 67b).

The exposure in print of “practical” techniques to produce ecstatic states of consciousness (as in works of the Abulafian school) or to manipulate divine forces (names, angels, demons, etc.) has been limited but not entirely suppressed by rabbinic authorities. A herem (ban) on the 16th-century publishers of the Zohar, including a call for the publishers to suffer the pulsa de-nura punishment, is evidence of such attempts to keep the genies in their bottles. The publication of practical (or “useful”) magico-mystical works—shimush (“usage”) being one of the most common terms for licit magic in the Jewish lexicon—has been done in a defensive mode, accompanied by distinctive rhetorical practices marking the profound ambivalences surrounding such projects. How might we understand a statement to the effect that a magical book “has never before been published due to its great holiness”? And what—in addition to a keen market sense—is to be made of the mixed message of holy books introduced by grandiose promises overshadowed only by dire warnings and guilt-ridden justifications? Indeed, centuries before the printing press, an elaborate preparation ritual in the Hekhalot literature had warned of the dire consequences of selling the manuscript in which it appears. The age of print amplified rather than invented admonitory tropes that had long flanked magical material.

Of course magical books need not have been published at all. And if they were, they could be censored. Perhaps the most famous example of such bowdlerized esoteric literature is R. Hayyim Vital’s Sha’arei Qedushah (Gates of Holiness): All printed editions since the editio princeps (Istanbul, 1734) have excluded its “practical” fourth section, Ma’amar Hitbodedut (On Solitary Meditation). This section opens with Vital’s reminder that although revelations of the Holy Spirit can be obtained through holiness and Torah study, they can also be achieved by carrying out “a specific action” [‘al yedei ma’aseh prati]. Detailed instruction in such techniques constitutes this last section of Vital’s guide. If the reader might imagine that he was about to receive the keys to the kingdom, the publisher, however, demurred. After a mere introductory paragraph, the reader encounters the following editorial insertion: “The publisher says: This fourth section is not to be copied and not to be printed because it is entirely Names and the Combinations [serufim] and hidden secrets that it is unlawful [asher lo ke-dat] to bring upon the altar of the press.”

The publisher of Mif’alot Elokim insisted in his “STERN WARNING” that the work was printed to benefit sages and common folk alike

Although not classifiable as magic, the practical orientation of the last section and the implicit guarantee of prophecy to one who properly uses its techniques make the distinction seem academic. In any case, the bottom line remains the same: This material is taboo, too holy to print. No aspersion is cast upon Vital for having penned it, nor is any attempt made to conceal its existence. On the contrary, the uncensored opening paragraph of the section gives the reader an idea of what he will be missing. Revealing a handbreadth and concealing two, the taboo is expressed/created and perpetuated. That these materials exist may be known—and even “advertised”—but they may not be made public.

Publishers of magical works could not always neatly amputate a particularly problematic section of an otherwise acceptable text. In some cases, an entire work had to be filtered to render it acceptable. Merkavah Shlemah (Perfect Chariot)—an anthology of esoterica devoted to “heavenly hall ascent” [hekhalot] and divine macanthropos speculation [shi’ur qomah] is a late example of such an approach. Shlomo Moussaieff (1852–1922), the Bukharan scholar and collector who published the work, prefaced it with an unusually lengthy—and threatening—introduction. Although he proudly announces his intention to continue publishing “works of Kabbalah treating chariot mysticism [ma’aseh merkavah] and shi’ur qomah from the classical and medieval rabbis,” he has nevertheless seen fit “to skip [ledaleg] the Practical Kabbalah found in these materials. … For our purpose now is strictly for learning and knowledge and with the intention to unify the name of the Blessed Holy One and His Shekhinah in a perfect union, may He be blessed.” Even shorn of its magical components, however, Moussaieff felt the book to be inappropriate for indiscriminate distribution and demanded that it be sold only to “Torah scholars [benei Torah] and God-fearers who will keep it and learn from it in purity and not come carelessly [lit., at any time] in contact with the sacred. (cf. Lev. 16:2)” Beyond the horizon of the common Jew and his literary staples lay speculative mystical literature that God-fearing scholars might study. Albeit esoteric, such material was still legitimate to publish, as far as Moussaieff was concerned. But beyond such speculative literature lay the practical materials that were not to be published at all.

Moussaieff published his censored collection for the edification of a small elite readership; today’s publishers seem more inclined to publish magical works for a broad public—though in tiny, iconic editions clearly not intended for study. The microscopic print of such books distinguishes them as charms rather than as educational (or even devotional) material. If the Book of Psalms becomes an amulet when published in a key-chain-sized edition, another of today’s best-selling charm-books, Sefer Raziel ha-Malakh (The Book of Raziel the Angel), has never been published—in any size—as anything else. Although constituting a wide-ranging anthology of mystical, cosmological, and especially magical works, Sefer Raziel ha-Malakh has been in use as a charm since its first publication in Amsterdam in 1701. Its frontispiece stakes the claim for its eponymous origins: “This is the book of Primeval Adam [de-Adam Qadma’ah] given to him by Raziel the Angel.” With this claim, in fact, one might infer that the apologies have begun, the best defense being a good offense. The frontispiece, providing something like today’s dust-jacket summary and sales-pitch, makes only oblique reference to the possibility that a potential buyer of the work would ever actually open its covers. “This is the Gate of the Lord, the Righteous enter it, to ascend the climbing path, the House of God, to adhere to the Glory of God.” Rather than setting out righteousness as a goal, or inviting all readers to at least accept the possibility that they are righteous in some respect, this passage reflects something more akin to an advisory warning: The work is only intended for the use of the righteous elite. This sense is reinforced by the continuation:

But for all of the House of Israel it is a sublime charm [segulah] to see wise and understanding grandchildren; for success and blessing; and to extinguish fires of wood lest they take hold of one’s house; and against any demon or malevolent spirit lest they lodge in one’s dwelling-place. [Such are the benefits] for one who hides this holy, honorable, and awesome book and conceals it in his treasury beside his silver and gold. In illness and times of distress, it will be his speedy salvation, as will attest all sons of Torah.

That publishing books is, among other things, a business, may be ignored by publishers at their own peril. In 1701 as today, to publish books with only a tiny readership in mind is unfeasible. Ought these promises, then, to be read with the cynicism of R. Finzi as little more than a desperate attempt to sell books to buyers who could not, would not, or should not open them? Though this would seem to be part of the story, it is not likely the whole of it. Not merely the sales-pitch of a clever publisher, these promises reiterated the bold claims found in the very magical works included in the compilation. In his introduction, the publisher takes pains to provide references to some of these, going so far as to cite page numbers in the book where the reader can see a promise made in the ostensible authorial voice of Raziel: “And even one who does not merit to learn it, but merely keeps it in his house hidden with his silver and gold will certainly be saved from fire, demon, and injury, as this book says on p. 40a.” The book’s content was thus so powerful that its effects could be appreciated even when the cover remained shut; perhaps especially so. The iconic power of the book as a whole as well its component parts, including, most dramatically, the oft-reproduced bird amulet, bring to mind Elliot Wolfson’s observation that “the principal medium is the image,” i.e., that the power of the written word was no less in Jewish magic—and perhaps greater—than its pronouncement.

The very publishing of a magical book could be fraught with dangers of its own. The German bibliographer Johann Christoph Wolf, in his Bibliotheca Hebraea of 1715 took note of inflamed opposition to the publication of Raziel in certain rabbinic circles. In his description of the book, he notes, “Judaei illius editionem adeo non probarunt, ut de eo comburendo & prohibendo quosdam cogitasse audiverim. [The Jews did not approve of its publication to such an extent that I have heard some thought about burning and suppressing it.]” Such secondary dangers—in the sense that they stem not from the threat posed by the magical material but by the reception of the book in the contemporary social context—must have contributed to many a publisher’s decision to do so anonymously. R. Leon Modena provides an early example of this practice. Modena lists “Selling books of arcane remedies [segulot]” as well as “teaching arcane remedies and amulets” at the end of his autobiographical ethical will, Hayyei Yehudah, as among “the many endeavors I have tried in order to earn my living, trying without success.” Modena also mentioned a certain Beretin who “died in jail during inquisitorial proceedings for copying books of arcane remedies. Also a tailor was fined … in connection with proscribed arcane remedies.”

In the face of dangers such as these, Modena had published his own collection of charms titled Sod Yesharim (The Secret of the Upright) in 1594. The title page described the work as “a treasure-trove of secrets, marvelous cures, and amazing things.” Though the work enjoyed some success and was often reprinted, Modena pointedly did not publish it under his own name. Instead, he merely alluded to his name in an oblique acrostic on the title page: Yasa ha-kol u-va derekh ha-melekh, etc., the first letters of which spell out the Hebrew form of his first name, Yehudah.

If some publishers of practical esoterica concealed their identities, other works found their way into print despite their uncertain provenance. Such works could be accepted and embraced, though no little anxiety was produced by their ambiguous status. A case in point is the work Brit Menuhah, an anonymous 14th-century work first published in Amsterdam in 1648. Not long after its appearance in print it was described by R. Jehiel Heilprin as “a deep book of Kabbalah and of angelic names and their effects and of practical Kabbalah.” R. Heilprin accepted the attribution of the book to an otherwise unknown Spanish kabbalist, R. Abraham b. Isaac of Granada. However, the book was too unusual and dangerous in its eclectic weave of theoretical and practical concerns to be accepted as authoritative given that this reputed author was not a recognized authority. Even before its appearance in print the work had apparently been sufficiently compelling to kabbalists to elicit a range of protestations of its august status. R. Moshe Cordovero thus prefaced his citation of the work with the following description:

It is a pleasant book explicating 10 vocalizations of the Tetragrammaton. From its words it seems certain that they are words of Kabbalah [or “received words”] from mouth to mouth [i.e., passed down orally] or from the mouth of an angel. For they are not things that are apprehensible even with great study or fine intellect, but rather wondrous apprehension near to the Holy Spirit.

R. Hayyim Vital, citing his teacher R. Isaac Luria, echoed this appraisal, emphasizing the book’s inspirational origins that placed it beyond any flesh-and-blood author. “The soul of a righteous person revealed himself to [the author] and would teach him; all his words are concealed and sealed.” Vital prefaced his remarks with the unequivocal judgment that “the book called Brit Menuhah is true.”

Mif’alot Elokim (Elokim’s Undertakings), published in Zolkiew in 1710, was also published anonymously. R. Joel Ba’al Shem, in his approbation to the work, writes that he knows that many rabbis will object to its printing; the publisher’s introduction also paints a picture of a hostile rabbinic environment. Yet this introduction might also be seen as protesting too much. The frontispiece is unambiguous about the book’s content: “Mif’alot Elokim, comprising actions [pe’ulot] by Holy and Pure Names, excellent charms, cures, and natural remedies.” There was to be no doubt about the power of the material in the book, though the emphasis upon “Holy and Pure” obliquely signaled that demonic magic would not be found between its covers. As Jewish magical techniques often called for the practitioner to adjure demons, this protestation of innocence was worth pointing out. Strictly speaking, however, such concern was not a legal necessity, as many authorities permitted the practice of demonic magic, albeit with certain qualifications.

If demonic magic could be licit, the use of holy names was often represented as taboo, highly restricted and discouraged, if not altogether forbidden. The anxiety surrounding this issue was repeatedly expressed in apologetic introductions and afterwords. The publisher of Mif’alot Elokim thus insisted in his “STERN WARNING” that the work was printed to benefit sages and common folk alike, but that “nevertheless this intention was only with respect to charms and cures, whereas the holy names were only intended to be revealed for the use of the qualified upper echelon elite [bene aliyah yehide segulah]; would that in this generation one in a thousand were such.” Here begins what might be cynically construed as the warning qua sales-pitch, the early-modern equivalent of today’s declarations of “for informational purposes only” on websites carrying instructions for building atomic bombs. This suspicion is strengthened by the series of examples of what one could—but most emphatically should not—do with the techniques found in the book. The cookie-jar beckons: “Let no one, whomever he may be, come close to the service of the holy ones, to use the holy—for example to return a stolen object by the Prince of the Palm, or to draw wine out of a wall, or to see Gan Eden, and so forth, heaven forbid—for he will be in mortal danger.”

The marginality that found expression in warnings to keep books shut— that should hardly have been published in deference to their holiness—might also be the marginality felt most acutely by those doing the warning. Why promote a “closed book of Jewish magic”? Here is one possibility, admittedly conjectural: Jews and non-Jews going back to antiquity often agreed that Judaism was the carrier tradition of the ne plus ultra of magic. Although this reputation did not always serve them well, Jews could be proud of a legacy of magical prowess second to none. The question then becomes “What do these magical books reveal of that secret tradition?” Everything? Nothing? Might the objections to magical practice have something to do with a discomfiture in identifying Judaism’s ultimate magic with the textual corpus that seemed to represent it?

Standard tropes asserting that the techniques are not enough, or that the techniques are corrupted, or that the techniques require red heifer ashes, or that the techniques are mortally dangerous might then be viewed as an attempt to distance the ideal image of Jewish magic from its inevitably limited and even disappointing textual representations. R. David ibn Zimra (1479–1573) said this and more: The real stuff is not in the books at all.

And be exceedingly wary, my son, and refrain from using the Names. For you will squander your life with no help and no salvation, and you will dishonor the Holy Names. For no one knows anything about this, and nothing of what you will find of it written in books is reliable. Moreover, the essential has been omitted and left unwritten, as such matters are only transmitted orally.

At the very least, then, opposition to the distribution of this lore or warnings to keep the books closed were tantamount to an insistence that the effectiveness of Jewish magic was to be considered ex opere operantis [from the work of the doer] rather than ex opere operato [by the work done]. The inevitable hagiographical transformation of rabbinic sages into magical masters, a tendency that spared not even Maimonides, might thus be viewed as another expression of the conviction that, even more than in arcane formulae, Judaism’s magic resided in its saints.


A longer version of this article appeared in Jewish History, vol. 26:1-2 (May 2012): 247-262.

J. H. Chajes teaches Jewish history at the University of Haifa. He is the author of, among other works, Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism.

J.H. Chajes is Sir Isaac Wolfson Professor of Jewish Thought at the University of Haifa. He is the author of The Kabbalistic Tree and Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism, co-editor of The Visualization of Knowledge in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, and the director of the Ilanot Project.