In that dreadful time, when a storm of evil and hatred was raging through Europe and murdering its Jews, frightening reports kept reaching Eretz Israel. In the summer of 1940, the sense of impending danger grew more ominous. General Eugène Mittelhauser, commander of the French army in Syria and Lebanon, declared his loyalty to the Vichy government, the Italian Air Force bombed Haifa and Tel Aviv, and the Desert Campaign opened up in Western Egypt—all indications that war was at the gates. Reports about the advance of the German army in North Africa and the pro-Nazi rebellion in Iraq fanned fears in the Yishuv, as the Zionist Jewish community then emerging in Palestine was known. The information that Rommel and his forces had reached El Alamein turned concern into real anxiety. The Zionist leadership (unsuccessfully) endorsed political means in an attempt to restrain German policies, and activists in Zionist movements attempted to save Jews and bring them to Palestine.
The various Orthodox Jewish communities living in Eretz Israel (mainly in Jerusalem, Tiberias, and Safed) were also involved in rescue and resistance actions of their own. Individuals and communities resorted to the ritual tactics whose power had been known to the Jewish people for generations—prayer, repentance, fasts, and acts of “practical Kabbalah.” In this paper, I consider testimonies of the latter kind of activity.
“Kabbalah” is the name that has been used since the Middle Ages to describe Jewish esoteric knowledge. According to the Jewish approach, this knowledge splits into theoretical and practical realms—the former’s concern is speculative and its method is study and thought, while the latter’s concern is performative and its purpose is to act in the world. But whereas theoretical Kabbalah did propose a conceptual turnabout and true innovation in Jewish thought about God and the world, practical Kabbalah mainly continued the pre-kabbalistic tradition of Jewish magic.
The existence of magic beliefs and acts in the Jewish people is well documented in Scripture and in the Second Temple literature. Yet, actual evidence of the (oral or written) ritual performance of adjurations using holy names for the purpose of achieving some defined change in reality has been known to us mainly since the third to fourth centuries CE. From this period, and even more so from the fifth century onward, insider evidence of this activity gradually expands and includes texts reflecting practical interest in the ritual performance of adjurations (magic manuals) as well as artifacts (such as amulets, curse writs, magic jewelry and incantation bowls) pointing to the actual performance of such acts.
This activity was further expanded and developed in Europe during the Middle Ages and the early modern period since the fifteenth century, and came to be known by its updated name—“practical Kabbalah.” No performative artifacts have survived from this period, but the extensive magic knowledge accumulated in dozens of manuscripts—including both practical instructions and theoretical studies (touching mainly on the linguistic components of magical technology)—as well as the presence of magic thought and action in outsider (that is, non-magic) sources, leave no doubt in this regard.
Two main directions of development can be identified at this time: (1) Kabbalah of the holy names (Kabbalat ha-shemot). This branch of Kabbalah centers on the holy names—their source, combinations, meanings, and uses. In its practical context, the Kabbalah of the holy names focuses on the linguistic element of magic action and marginalizes the ritual-material aspect related to the implementation of the names and incantations. (2) The ritual-material trend, which focuses on the ritual and expands on all that concerns its details. The difference between these two trends, as manifest in the magic literature, is mainly a matter of proportions between the linguistic and the ritual-material components, which are always woven together. Both these trends are present in the Jewish culture of the last few centuries (and even today) in Europe and in Muslim areas under a variety of names—segulot (properties), qeme‘ot (amulets), refu’ot (remedies), pe‘ulot (actions), hashba‘ot (adjurations) and practical Kabbalah.
The magic recipes literature is a pragmatic literature concerned with the day-to-day life of individuals. Its purpose is to heal humans—their bodies, their souls, their lives. The magic action focuses mostly on the person for whom it is performed in an attempt to fulfill a defined wish: healing, protection, an easy birth, business success, a marriage partner, secret knowledge, and so forth. But benefit to one may at times mean harm to another. Magic then seeks to harm and destroy, even to kill. The kinds of harm mentioned in magic Jewish sources are no different from those in the Greco-Roman or Christian sources and they include physical torture, sowing nightmares into sleep, destroying social status and contacts, harming family members, inflicting illness, injury, and even death.
Jerusalem kabbalists possessed texts including recipes “for hatred,” “for defeating an enemy,” or “for killing.” Some of these texts definitely reached this community from the outside, as part of the cultural capital of sages who immigrated to Eretz Israel from Muslim areas and from Europe. Others were written in the city or in its surroundings. Eliyahu Abraham Mizrahi Dehuki was extremely interested in “practical Kabbalah” and invested a great deal in the collection and dissemination of this knowledge. When the vital need to apply it arose, one of his acquaintances wrote to him on this matter and urged him to act.
The struggle of Jerusalem kabbalists against Adolf Hitler and their attempt to destroy him through ritual tactics of ban and witchcraft is neither the first nor the last link in a chain of actions and stories about such actions. In the stories about the visits to Rome of the kabbalist R. Shlomo Molkho (1500-1532) and of Nathan of Gaza (Sabbetai Zevi’s prophet, 1643-1680) are echoes of possibly similar acts aimed against the pope. The Rebbe of Lubavitch (Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 1902-1994) and his Hasidim who, according to a popular Habad tradition, “eliminated” Joseph Stalin in the course of a Hasidic gathering during the 1953 Purim holiday, and those who cursed Gamal Abdel Nasser after the Six-Day War engaged in similar acts when operating in the United States and in Israel against foreign despots-enemies. Not much time would pass until others would seek to harm Israeli Prime Ministers with a widely publicized Pulsa’ de-Nura’ (fire-stroke) ritual.
In between, Eliyahu Mizrahi and his friends also tried to act and save their people from the impending catastrophe. Armies and weapons of the kind operated by the Allies in the battlefield were not available to them. But they had, so they believed, another power, a holy force hidden in ancient manuscripts in the shape of charms and incantations, rituals and holy names. They therefore fought the enemy in their way and, resorting to the power of practical Kabbalah, tried to kill Adolf, son of Klara, Hitler, “ruler of the Germans.”
The 19th century and the beginning of the 20th were a prosperous era for the Torah world in Jerusalem. Over one hundred yeshivot (houses of study) were founded at this time, fostering spiritual and religious creativity, and Kabbalah had a place in it as well. Despite several descriptions by recent arrivals reporting on the decline of Kabbalah in Jerusalem, today we know that, at the time, the city was the scene of a continuous and significant kabbalistic activity. At the beginning of the 20th century, this activity was evident mainly among Mizrahi (that is, those originating in Arab lands) Jews and focused on the more prominent kabbalists’ yeshivot—Beit El, Reḥovot ha-Nahar, Oz ve-Hadar, Sha’ar ha-Shamayim, and Gan ha-Levanon. Many Jerusalem sages, however, studied mystic texts outside these institutions as well, as individuals or in groups. This was the kabbalistic scene that the young Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) encountered upon his arrival to Jerusalem, a setting that he excluded from his research as uninteresting and immaterial.
These kabbalists split their activity between theory and practice. Usually, they focused on the study of Lurianic Kabbalah (from the influential school of the 16th-century Safed kabbalist R. Yitzhak Luria, known as Ha-Ari), and on its application according to R. Shalom Sharabi’s mid-18th-century method of kavanot in Torah study and prayer. But at a time of distress, also those kabbalists, like other leaders of the religious public, expanded their involvement. Some of their actions were routine—prayers, supplications, fasts—and some relied on more powerful ritual symbols. Some were performed in public and some were discrete. Some were targeted at the world (to stop a plague or a drought, for example), and some at human actions. The appalling fate of the Jewish communities in Europe, the danger of war at the gates, and certainly the “two-hundred days of dread”—as the period of deep anxiety in the Yishuv (the community of Jewish residents in Palestine) following the advance of Rommel’s army toward the Suez Canal and Palestine came to be known—were among the times most in need of such action.
The collective narrative that emerges from contemporary and later testimonies—mainly in the hagiographic literature and in light of these interventions’ success (given that Rommel was ultimately defeated in El Alamein and his forces never reached Palestine)—points to the extensive involvement, both overt and concealed, of rabbis and kabbalists from all communities in the struggle against the Germans. Generally, they convey the collective memory (contemporary or slightly later) of the Jerusalem community and, according to the genre to which they belong, they often tend to hyperbole and should be approached with caution. Nonetheless, I hold that, beyond imprecisions in specific details, these stories do attest to actual events. Together with personal testimonies and incontrovertible documents, they enable us to offer a broad and reliable picture of the ritual activity carried out in Jerusalem by Admorim (that is, leaders of Hasidic communities) and kabbalists in the context of the struggle against the Nazis.
This was a multifaceted activity. Some arranged prayers and supplications, fasts, calls to repentance, taking Torah scrolls out of the ark, and blowing shofarot—all in an attempt to fix the flaw due to which, so they believed, God had punished the people so terribly and persuade him to revoke it. Others went to prostrate themselves on the tombs of the ancestors or tsaddikim (righteous men) to ask them to intercede in the people’s favor. Some adopted a defensive strategy and asked for heavenly mercy. Others opted for an aggressive course and wanted to attack, to ban, and to curse.
R. Yehuda Fetaya (1859-1942), then known in Jerusalem as a “great kabbalist, an expert in the nature of [God’s] names and the incantations, who would write amulets and heal the sick and had several yeshivot for teaching the wisdom of truth and amended several souls and expelled several spirits,” played a central role in this affair and worked on it in various ways. In 1940, he wrote and printed out a special prayer ceremony and arranged its simultaneous performance in various places in Jerusalem to protect the city: “He gathered the public for a special prayer, split them into four groups, and sent them to the four corners of Jerusalem to stand there and pray according to the order he had … prescribed. Another source reports that he performed ascetic rituals and fasts at the Western Wall and joined tikkunim and prayers set by his fellow kabbalists. For this purpose, he even led a group made up of members of his family and his community on a trip to Rachel’s Tomb (near Beth Lehem). The tomb’s guard at the time, R. Shlomo Eliyahu Freiman, writes that as this group (about sixty people) reached the tomb “they wore sacks with ashes on their heads and began to pray, from that morning until the next. At night, they blew dozens of shofarot crying with tears and screaming to the Holy One, blessed be He, to show compassion to his people, the people of Israel.” In the morning, when Fetaya heard a conversation with one of the local Arabs who stated the prayers would not help and Eretz Israel would soon be overtaken,
he immediately ordered all the petitioners to go inside, and each one took an empty cup and circled the place seven times. Each time, all said in unison: “the adversary and the enemy would not enter the gates of Jerusalem. The gates of tears are not locked.” And he told them that they should shed their tears into the cups in their hands … At the end all said seven times in unison: “He will not come.” … After the prayer, which went on for twenty-four hours, they conducted a se‘udat mitsvah [a commanded celebratory meal] and they sang and danced and thanked the Lord asking for their prayer to be accepted.
It is told that the Admor of Lelov (the chief leader of the Lelov Hasidic dynasty, Moshe Mordechai Biderman), for example, secluded himself for forty continuous days in the cave containing the tomb of R. Meir Baal ha-Nes (in Tiberias), and moved from there to a long retreat at the tomb of R. Shimon Bar Yohai. R. Yitzhak Alfiah went as far as Damanhur in Egypt to prostrate himself at the tomb of R. Yaakov Abuhatsera to ask for help and mercy. Others engaged in stormier actions.
The most surprising tradition in this context concerns a kabbalists’ flight over Palestine. Versions of this event vary. Bezalel Friedman cites a concise report by R. Yaakov Meir Schechter (a Bratslav Hasid, from the Sha’ar ha-Shamayim yeshiva):
At the time of the horrific war, during the awful Shoah, some “practical kabbalists” in Jerusalem decided to take action to inflict a crushing defeat on the enemy. They inquired and searched for the name of the enemy and the name of his mother: Hitler, may his name be blotted out, son of Klara, and decided to go up on a plane above the Makhpelah cave to slaughter a hen there and, when doing so, engage in special kavanot and [the invocation of holy] names, thereby uprooting the evil enemy. Among the great rabbis there were several who did not support this action.
Two motifs typical of the stories of that time come together in this version: the slaughter in heaven and the inquiry concerning Hitler’s mother’s name (a matter that, as will be shown, had some foundation in reality). This plan of the kabbalists, which may indeed have awakened reservations even at this time of great distress, was tied to the name of R. Shimon Zvi Horowitz (Lieder), among the founders of the kabbalists’ yeshiva Sha’ar ha-Shamayim. Both this source as well as another one—a 1989 letter from Yosef Leib Zusman who was also a member of this yeshiva—describe an attack against Horowitz at the synagogue accusing him of witchcraft and idolatry. In both of them we are told that he denied any involvement in this action. Zusman’s version of the actual event, which is not first-hand either, differs slightly from the one cited. The flight idea is presented as an actual event and the sacrifice on high is endowed with another meaning: “They say that, during the Second World War, several kabbalists traveled on a plane to spray the blood of cocks around Eretz Israel.”
The idea whereby the slaughter flight would delineate the borders of Eretz Israel with blood and thus protect it is described in graphic language in another version of this event. This version also addresses the actual feasibility of this act, and solves it in an original way. According to the narrator (Nahum Roz), “British officers inquired whether the Jerusalem kabbalists could work for the victory of the Allies.” The two that were sent on this mission (R. Shimon Zvi Horowitz and Hakham Tsaddok Yihiyah Cohen) boarded a military airplane with four cocks “white as snow,” and the plane circled over the borders of Eretz Israel—north, south, east, and west. They read special prayers according to R. Shalom Sharabi’s method, slaughtered one cock at each direction, and sprayed its blood from the air over the land.
Obviously, one can hardly imagine that British officers turned to Jerusalem kabbalists requesting help. But even if this was not the order of events, can one assume the very feasibility of such an event? Could the British Air Force have cooperated with Jerusalem kabbalists to spray the blood of cocks from heaven over the borders of the land? Another surprising source, outside the Jerusalem community and the Yishuv generally, holds that this is indeed what happened.
On Aug. 14, 1981, the personal testimony of the pilot (engineer and film producer) Wim Van Leer was published in The Jerusalem Post, centering on the kabbalists’ flight. According to Van Leer, on June 20, 1948, during a flight from Europe to Israel in the service of the Haganah (the major Jewish defense organization at the time of the British Mandate in Palestine), he spent the night at the control tower of a small airport in Al-Adam, Cyrenaica (close to Tobruk, on Libya’s eastern border). An Irish pilot he met there, with whom he talked through the night, told him that he had been on an air mission in Palestine in 1942, when Rommel had stood at the gates of Alexandria. In his account (as narrated by Van Leer many years later), a delegation of rabbis approached the Air Force commander in Palestine and offered to draw a circle around the land to protect it from the German forces. For that purpose, they needed a plane. Their request was passed on and “somebody approved it.” When the pilot telling the story landed his Dakota at the Atarot airport in northern Jerusalem, waiting for him beside a military truck was a large group of “holy men” accompanied by some army person who was in charge and instructed the plane crew. Three old rabbis boarded the plane, on which their friends loaded many cages with white hens.
The planned circular route included a flight along the coast of Israel and Egypt up to Alexandria, southward along the Suez Canal, landing for refueling, onward to Aqaba, and northward to the Dead Sea along the Jordan River up to Jerusalem. Since the blood of the hens was meant to be sprayed along the route, the door of one of the plane’s loading docks was removed, a net was set in place to prevent falls, and the flight departed. The rabbis, who were covered in the fowls’ blood because of the air sucked into the plane through the opening, recited psalms and prayers all the time, slaughtered more and more hens and squeezed their blood through the opening. According to the pilot, a great deal of blood spread on the body and the tail of the plane, and the place was a mess of cages, blood, and fowls’ carcasses. At the end of the flight, the rabbis gave the crew some money “for beer,” and that was the end.
We obviously cannot know exactly what the kabbalists said and did on the plane besides slaughtering the fowl and spraying the blood outside. It is also hard to believe every detail of the story retold here about thirty-five years after hearing it. But if Van Leer’s story is not a complete invention (and I have no reason to assume so), this is an actual testimony to the slaughter in the sky. If this plan of the kabbalists was indeed implemented (with British assistance), this is unquestionably the most dramatic action that Jerusalem kabbalists engaged in as part of their defense rituals against the Nazi army, whose impending arrival and the catastrophe that would befall the local Jewish community in its wake were extremely clear.
Not all, as noted, confined themselves to ritual actions meant for protection. A power humans could exert—the power of holy names, adjurations, and curses was available to rabbis and kabbalists, concealed in oral traditions and in texts of Kabbalah and magic. Some decided to use it against the leaders of the Nazi regime, and even against the source in whose service, so they believed, the Germans were acting.
The approach whereby this struggle meant a confrontation with the cosmic root of evil in the world, the siṭra’ ’aḥra’—that is, the other, satanic, side of the godhead—is not widely documented in the sources dealing with this period. It does, however, emerge clearly from the statement of the Admor of Lelov when coming out from his long seclusion in, so we are told, a dark room in one of the abandoned courtyards in Jerusalem’s Old City. “At first,” he said, ”when we went there, we went in with great force, but the enemy [ba‘al ha-davar, meaning Satan] also acted resolutely and did not let us act.” This approach is also graphically reflected in the story about the serpent revealed to R. Salman Mutzafi in his dream:
He [R. Salman Mutzafi] once related a terrible event with great anxiety: in the year 5602 (1942), we were at Rachel’s Tomb, about one hundred and fifty people praying for the annulment of the decree against the Jewish people. A scholar then came in and wanted to perform a “kol-bo ban” against the Nazi leaders, may their names be blotted out. Somehow, I felt uneasy and withdrew to sit in a corner, took a nap and saw a terrible vision. A three-headed serpent stood at this place and opened its mouth to swallow me. Iron jaws were in its mouth and its eyes spat venom. One standing close to it said to me: “You should know that no tool or device in the world can struggle with this serpent, so beware and do not provoke it.” From that day on, I continued my prayers and supplications but I refrained from naming the foe and from kavanot and yihudim against it.
Before this dream, then, Mutzafi had not only prayed for the Jewish people but had also used holy names and performed kavanot and yihudim—that is, he had tried to ritually influence the heavenly realm aiming to harm Hitler and his followers. In his heart, however, Mutzafi seems to have feared this provocation against the element of cosmic evil raging unbound in the world through its emissaries, and that scholar’s attempt to make this provocation public through the “kol-bo ban” evoked a fierce panic in his dream and dissuaded him from engaging in any similar attempts.
Kabbalistic kavanot of the kind mentioned by Mutzafi become concrete in a later document, whose source is in practical Kabbalah itself. In one of his notebooks, R. Yitzhak Kaduri (1898-2006) copied magic recipes from a manuscript by Abraham Barazani, who was a disciple of R. Yehuda Fetaya in Jerusalem. At the top of the list, Kaduri copied a recipe ascribed to R. Yehuda Fetaya titled “To kill a rival.”
Fetaya, as noted, played a prominent role in the struggle of Jerusalem kabbalists against the Nazis. If he himself is the one responsible for the technique suggested in the recipe using Hitler’s name and the (mistaken) name Gertrude for his mother, then he also seemingly engaged, at least theoretically, in an aggressive ritual activity focusing on Adolf Hitler. This is the wording of the recipe (with elisions and accompanied by several explanations):
From R. Yehuda Fetaya—To kill a rival
“Right would you be, O Lord … pull them out like sheep for the slaughter, and prepare them for the day of slaughter” (Jeremiah 12:1-3). First recite these three verses and then include the name of the rival and the name of his mother with the three words htqm kṣ’n lṭbḥh [pull them out like sheep for the slaughter]. Then repeat and include the name of the rival and the name of his mother with the three words whqydšm lyom hrgh [and prepare them for the day of slaughter] thus [that is, as shown below] and recite the verses with the cantillation notes and with the verse “the Lord shall punish the host of the high ones on high, and the kings of the earth upon the earth” (Isaiah 24:21).
[The six words from Jeremiah are given here, with the letters of the name ’dwlp bn gtrwd’ combined in them. And the writer explains:] together with Adolf son of Gertrude—he is Hitler, may the evildoer’s name rot.
[The writer now presents some relevant numerological calculations (gimatriyot) and concludes]: And in my humble opinion, it appears that if a person will say this three times [the combination including the verses and the name of the rival] and has a kavanah … when saying “pull them out like sheep for the slaughter and prepare them for the day of slaughter,” the rival can then be killed. So says R. Yehuda Fetaya.
R. Salman Mutzafi was among the more distinguished disciples of R. Yehuda Fetaya and the two were in close touch in Bagdad and in Jerusalem. We have no evidence that they engaged in the study or the development of aggressive kabbalistic techniques based on kavanot and yiḥudim but it is plausible that, at a time of distress, their discussions did not ignore this matter.
We do not know what happened to the scholar whose actions had troubled Mutzafi and whether he did indeed perform the kol-bo ban at Rachel’s Tomb or at any other site. In any event, in a letter that R. Moshe Yair Weinstock, who was also a Jerusalem kabbalist at the time, wrote to a rabbi friend in 1967, he explicitly mentioned participating in such a ritual, which had been led by the above mentioned R. Shimon Zvi Horowitz (Lieder). He writes as follows:
I think I’ve already told you how we banned them. The leader was the kabbalist R. Shimon Lieder … and R. Moshe Yemini … and I the young one with them, so [it was] a kind of tribunal, and we banned Hitler and Goebbels and his assistants. And until today I wonder how R. Shimon knew the names of the mothers of those Nazis, may their names be blotted out.
Magic activity in general, and aggressive activity in particular, requires the identification of its beneficiary or its victim as precisely as possible. The usual way to do so is to denote the name of the person and that of his or her mother. For a Jerusalem kabbalist in the early 1940s to attain this kind of information (which so impressed Weinstock), was apparently not a trivial matter. A brief item published several years before in the Do’ar ha-Yom daily titled “Bratslav Hasidim in Jerusalem Decided to Ban Hitler” attests to this: “A reliable source indicates that Bratslav Hasidim in Jerusalem wanted to ban Hitler by lighting candles and blowing a shofar at the Western Wall. But they retracted from it because they did not know the name of Hitler’s mother.”
In 2009, the “Kedem Auction House” offered for sale in a public auction a page they called “Boycott and Curse on Hitler.” A picture of it was published in the sales catalogue. The picture and the accompanying information show this to be a page 23 x 20.5 cm. The text is typewritten and contains handwritten additions. The paper was folded and laminated after it was reopened (making reading along the folds slightly more difficult). At the top is the title: “Abridged version of a ban on one guilty by law,” and below it are notes concerning the performance: “Say Amen after every word of the cantor. Open the holy ark and take out the Torah scrolls, and say.” These instructions denote that the ritual for which this text was written was performed (or meant to be performed) at the synagogue, facing the Torah scrolls, with the participation of a cantor and a congregation.
The ban, written against Hitler (whose name is always written in capitals) and his accomplices, is an abridged and adapted ad hoc version of the kol-bo ban. The instructions state that, after its performance, the ritual should be completed with the liturgical blessing Mi she-Berekh (He Who Blessed), meant for blessing, salvation, and success, for the deliverance of the congregation and of Jewish communities and to hasten redemption.
The added handwritten notes touch on several subjects. Prominent is the addition “son of Klara” always placed close to Hitler’s name, above the line. When the ban was typed up the writer had obviously lacked this information, which was later added in order to make the ritual more effective. The writer had originally used the “ruler of the Germans” title, intending the specific Adolf Hitler that the kabbalists wanted to punish. The “son of Klara” is an addition rather than a replacement. The instruction “and if [it is implemented] regarding many, they should speak in plural” is also noteworthy, attesting to the writer’s sense of responsibility and to his involvement in the ritual’s performance. Notice also the emphasis in the handwritten addition “all Arab murderers with all the wicked who help them” at the opening, which is included in the typewritten version as well. This document is undated and it is hard to estimate when exactly it was written. Following is the text (the handwritten additions are italicized):
Abridged version of a ban on one guilty by law. (Say amen after every word of the cantor) open the holy ark, take out the Torah scrolls, and say:
We deliver to Heaven the judgment on all Arab murderers with all the wicked who help them, and on the famous villain Adolf Hitler the foe, son of Klara and his entire nation, may their name be blotted out.
Thus we say: As decreed by the angels and by the saying of holy ones, we boycott, ban, excommunicate, execrate, and curse, with the agreement of God, may He be blessed, and of this holy congregation, the evil Gentile Adolf Hitler son of Klara ruler of the Germans ??? the foes Goebbels and Göring with all their associates, enemies of Israel, may their names and memory be blotted out, with all the Arab nation, may its name and memory be blotted out, with divine consent and with the consent of this congregation, with this holy Torah scroll and the 613 commandments written in it. And with the ban that Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse that Elisha cursed the youths and with the curse he cursed his servant Gehazi. And with the spell of spells that Rav Yehuda ben Rav Yehezkel threw on a certain man, and with all the bans and curses and execrations and boycotts and excommunications performed since the days of Moses, may he rest in peace, and until today. All will befall the evil Gentile ruler of the Germans Adolf Hitler son of Klara with all his evil associates enemies of Israel mentioned above, may their name and memory be blotted out. And if [it is implemented] regarding many, they should speak in plural. May he be cursed on the day. May he be cursed at night. May he be cursed when lying down. May he be cursed when rising up. May he be cursed when going out and when coming in. May he be cursed wherever he turns to. In dread will his soul leave. [God] will not spare him. Then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man and all the curses that are written in this book of the Torah will lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord will mark him off for evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the Torah [Deuteronomy 29:19-20]. And you that did cleave to the Torah of your God are alive every one of you this day [Deuteronomy 4:4].
And then say:
He who blessed our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon and the prophets of Israel and the righteous of the world, He will bless all this holy congregation with all the holy congregations. Except for the evil ruler of the Germans Adolf Hitler son of Klara with all his evil associates mentioned above who spill Jewish blood, may they be lost. But our Jewish brethren, God in his mercy will protect them and keep them, and save them from all sorrow and distress, and lengthen their days and their years and bless all their deeds with success and soon redeem them forever together with the whole of Israel amen may it be His will and we say amen.
This, then, is an actual testimony of the preparation of a public banning ritual for “Hitler the son of Klara the ruler of the Germans,” and with him Goebbels and Göring and their assistants. The chain of banning verbs, the cursing words, and the ritual structure of saying amen in unison after every word of the cantor (without doubt loudly and with great fervor) facing the representation of God embodied in the Torah scrolls taken out from the ark are all meant to create a performative event capable of effecting loss and destruction.
Only one further step separates this kind of ritual event from the actual implementation of harmful witchcraft for the purpose of eliminating Hitler. In an interview that the journalist Yoram Harpaz conducted with Fania Scholem, Gershom Scholem’s widow, she reported:
During the Second World War, several kabbalists came here [meaning to their home] and asked him to teach them to activate powers that would eliminate Hitler. Scholem told them it is forbidden to awaken such powers. They nevertheless tried, and after Rudolf Hess fell in England he said they had almost succeeded.
Fania Scholem told this story as evidence supporting her claim that her husband’s relationship with Kabbalah had not been confined, as he had declared, to philological-historical research and that his involvement in it had resembled, even if slightly, that of the kabbalists. It is hard to say whether what he told his wife and the kabbalists asking for his advice was meant in earnest, as she thought, or in jest, but this is irrelevant for my current purpose. What matters is her testimony about the very occurrence of this encounter and Scholem’s knowledge that the kabbalists did ultimately perform some act of the kind they had discussed with him.
We have no information about the group that sought Scholem’s advice and whether it also included Eliyahu Abraham Mizrahi (Dehuki). Scholem was by then already known to the Jerusalem kabbalists as a scholar well versed in Kabbalah literature and in kabbalistic manuscripts, and they probably valued him greatly. He met some of them. He also considered learning from some of them (but decided against the idea). Mizrahi, who was mainly interested in practical Kabbalah, is an interesting example of these relationships. On the one hand, in a list that Scholem made for himself including names of yeshivot, sages, and various issues touching on Kabbalah in Jerusalem, Scholem mentions him as “Eliyahu Dehuki from Kurdistan, who offered to teach me practical Kabbalah.” On the other, Mizrahi copied in his own handwriting fragments from Scholem’s article about “Bilar the King of the Demons,” (below). Dehuki, then, may have tried to engage Scholem in some kind of dialogue, perhaps because of his own marginal status in the local community of kabbalists and his search for an alternative authority that would lend him credence, and perhaps due to his contacts with Prof. Yosef Yoel Rivlin (1889-1971), the expert in Oriental studies. Was it then Eliyahu Mizrahi, the Kabbalah practitioner, who arranged the kabbalists’ meeting with Scholem and brought them to his home? We cannot be sure. In any event, the piece of paper given to Mizrahi containing three magic recipes for killing Adolf Hitler is definitely the document closest in its spirit to the conversation that took place at Scholem’s home.
Eliyahu Abraham Mizrahi Dehuki Abu Abdallah was born in the mid-1870s in Zakhu, northwestern Iraq. His family came from Duhuk, a town close to Zakhu (hence his nickname Dehuki), and traded in textiles. He studied with the local rabbis in his youth, married at 18, and from the age of 21 he combined commercial and study journeys in the area between Zakhu and Bagdad. In his early thirties, he immigrated to Palestine and settled in Jerusalem. Due to economic difficulties, he left and wandered between Egypt and Greece and finally, about ten years after his first arrival, he returned to Jerusalem and settled in the Sha‘arei Raḥamim neighborhood.
In 1928, when he was 53, he began to write for Yoel Rivlin (who was then a professor of Arabic and Islam at the Hebrew University) a version of the Scriptures in the dialect of Zakhu Jews. This project took many months and, in the course of it, the two became acquainted. According to Rivlin, Mizrahi “was not considered a ‘sage’ (ḥakham), although he engaged extensively in practical Kabbalah and was in touch with kabbalists in Jerusalem. People from his own ethnic community held he was versed in mystical knowledge, could tell the future, and had incantations for all illnesses and ailments.” On his personality, Rivlin writes that “he was not only gifted with incredible imagination, since he engaged in Kabbalah, but also with a quick grasp, a sharp eye, and an understanding heart.” The two were in contact over many years and, in the course of them, Mizrahi wrote another eight works for Rivlin, all devoted to the folklore of Jews in Kurdistan and their history.
Some more information about Dehuki’s activities in Jerusalem can be retrieved from his manuscripts and from the books he published. Available in the National Library of Israel and in the Library’s Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts are four manuscripts where Mizrahi identified himself in the colophon and two more that were his work. Two of the former are from Rivlin’s estate: the translation of the Scriptures into Kurdish Aramean and a book of proverbs and stories of Kurdish Jews. The two other manuscripts where he identified himself are devoted to practical Kabbalah. Mizrahi gathered in them magic recipes and divination texts beside magical and demonological treatises. One, which he called Harba de-Moshe (The Sword of Moses), is basically a copy of Moshe Gaster’s printed edition of this work, defined by Mizrahi as “practical Kabbalah.”
Another treatise by Mizrahi, an extensive manuscript including hundreds of magic recipes and various issues of demonology and divination, reached the kabbalist R. Yitzhak Kaduri mentioned above, who copied fragments from it. Kaduri was not happy with the material that Mizrahi had collected, which he viewed as touching partly on impure matters alien to Judaism, and he used wide discretion in selecting from it. R. Yaakov Ades, who handled the printing of Kaduri’s writings in practical Kabbalah, censored it too so that the book by Mizrahi that has reached us is a lacking, expurgated version. As far as we know, this is the largest volume that Mizrahi wrote. He included in it recipes from all the known areas in magic literature, which he ordered alphabetically according to their aims (obviously influenced by the writings of R. Abraham Hamuy [1836-1886], which he knew at least partly).
Mizrahi’s manuscripts and books include a vast number of magic recipes, including many for “hatred” and for “killing.” Those found on the piece of paper written for him, however, are not among them. The basis of this manuscript was probably a conversation between Mizrahi and one of his practical Kabbalah colleagues, but I do not know who this was. In the hagiographic literature about contemporary kabbalists and Admorim, Mizrahi is never mentioned and Rivlin appears to have been right when he claimed that they did not view him as a real partner. Be that as it may, at the very time the horrors of the Third Reich descended upon Europe’s Jews and its army stood at the gates of Palestine, one of Mizrahi’s acquaintances thought that he might be able to do something to improve the situation and wrote out for him instructions for killing Adolf Hitler, “ruler of the Germans.”
The MSS Jerusalem, INL Heb. 24°7204.4, is a piece of paper of 22 x 11 cms. that was folded into four (along its length and width), tore widthwise when folded and is now made up of three pieces glued together. The document is written with ink in Oriental script (a script typical of Hebrew manuscripts from the Muslim world). It bears no date and the only identifying sign that could perhaps point to its writer is the name “Abraham” written in pencil on the bottom right quarter of the reverse side. Its content is as follows (I added a few punctuation marks):
To my dear friend, the god-fearing reliable honest and wise R. Eliyahu
Abraham Mizrahi, may God sustain him and keep him.
The first of the 613 commandments is the commandment to blot out the memory of Amalek, may its name and memory be blotted out.
Hence my friend I send out to him three proven charms [segulot] to kill the fool dog
who wishes to exterminate the people of Israel and to observe [the commandment] if a man comes to kill you
rise early and kill him first. And these are the charms, (1) He should take a white cock that was chosen
by the name [named after] of the evildoer Adolf Hitler and raise it at home for three weeks
that is twenty-one days and then will slaughter it on a waterway and say
seven times, as I slaughter this cock so will Adolf Hitler the ruler of the Germans be slaughtered by
Samael, amen may it be His will.
(2) Another [one]. Write on a burnt piece of limestone
these names ‘NY’L, LHBY’L, ZRW‘Y’L, ’BHY’L, YHW’L, MṢY’L
T’WMY’L, WHHY’L, ’WRY’L, ’DWNY’L, SRFY’L seraphs
stand above Him, that they should destroy the evildoer Adolf Hitler, ruler of the Germans, may his name be blotted out
lemaher shalal ḥash baz (the spoil speeds, the prey hastens), and bury it in an old grave. Proven.
(3) Another [one]. To buy a cock, for nine days
he should keep it in the house and should call him by the name of the evildoer as noted above and he should bury him
with the pot in the dust and say, as I buried this cock so
did I bury the evildoer Adolf Hitler may his name be blotted out,
ruler of the Germans.
Explanation and notes:
(1) First Charm
The suggested action is based on the sympathetic law of similarity, which comes forth here in the equation between signifier and signified and in the performative proclamation that they share the same fate. Its culmination is a sacrifice, that is, a violent ritual act for taking a life. The combination of these two components is meant to create a reality where the violence inflicted on its signifier is imposed on the signified.
Parallel versions of this recipe are found in other manuscripts. In one, Manuscript New York JTSL 8114 (second part, 12a-b), the slaughtering on the waterway is combined with additional ritual actions, but the wording of the spell “as … so …” is missing:
To kill the enemy take a chosen cock and name the cock after the enemy and raise it in your house twenty-one days and after that slaughter it, referring to its name on the waterway and bury it by the river while intending to the enemy. And write this verse on a citron or on an apple, “those men that brought up the evil report upon the land died” [Numbers 14:37] and so forth and cook it in vinegar and take it out from there and write on a deer parchment, so will the heart of N son of N fly away and die by the name of Zaʽafiel, and tie it around the citron and bury everything with the cock on the riverside and when the water rises it will cover the grave and he will die.
Another parallel version is found in a manuscript from Kurdistan that Reginald Campbell Thompson bought in Mossoul at the end of the 19th century. There too, the slaughter is accompanied by additional ritual acts:
Take a black cock and buy it at whatever price they shall ask from you, and put it in the fowl-run by itself, and feed it and call it by the name of the man you seek, and you should say to it, eat you N son of N. Do so for nine consecutive days, and on the tenth bring it to the river and slaughter it there, and say, I am slaughtering N son of N, so that N son of N may die. As this cock was slaughtered and died so may N son of N die. And take two needles and thrust them in its heart, one lengthwise and the other breadthwise, and bury it on the brink of the river, and the enemy will not complete his year, by God’s help.
A white cock may serve many aims in Jewish magic practice (regardless of whether it is slaughtered). For example, Sefer ha-Razim recommends slaughtering a white cock to arouse passion; a Babylonian incantation bowl hints at the sacrifice of a white cock for oppressing and controlling others; an ancient Genizah recipe commands the killing and burying of a cock to attain sexual control over a woman; another Genizah recipe suggests giving a white cock mature wine in order to find a treasure; a book of recipes from Europe (Italian script, 17th century) suggests using a white cock for finding a thief; and Sefer Raziel ha-Malakh suggests slaughtering a white cock as part of a ritual for bringing down rain. In any event, none of the parallel versions of this recipe that were noted above mentions a white cock. Two actually mention “a black cock,” while the third refers to a “chosen cock.”
Taking (or choosing, or buying) something “by the name” of someone means creating ab initio, ritually and deliberately, a concrete signifier-signified connection between the thing and the person by whose name it was taken. In this case, between the cock and Hitler. This is an instance of the law of similarity pointed out by James Frazer as one of the sympathetic principles underlying magic thought and action. An explicit expression of this principle is found in the wording of the formula accompanying the slaughter: “As I slaughter this cock, so will Adolf Hitler be slaughtered.”
Raising the cock at home for three weeks is intended to deepen the identification of the cock with Hitler, strengthening it beyond the initial connection founded on the choice of the cock “by his name,” toward its final revelation in the wording that accompanies the slaughter. In the course of these three weeks, the person will recurrently point out the signifier-signified link so as to tighten the bond between them. We can easily imagine his attitude toward “Hitler” the cock in his possession and the reversal of the feelings and the relationship between them—from fear and humiliation to mastery and control. This reversal will assume its ultimate and absolute meaning in the act of taking “Hitler’s” life and will be realized in the world through the death of Hitler “ruler of the Germans.”
Sacrifices—meaning the ritual act of taking a life—are widespread in magic activity, particularly of the aggressive type, and are already documented in the earliest Jewish magic treatises. The Book of Mysteries (Sefer ha-Razim), for example, suggests slaughtering a lion cub, slaughtering a grouse, and using the head of a black dog, while The Sword of Moses (Ḥarba de-Moshe) commands slaughtering a cock. A cock is an available animal, and relatively easy to slaughter (or kill in other ways). It is probably for this reason that it also serves in the only sacrifice ritual practiced in Judaism—the custom of kapparot (expiation) on the eve of the Day of Atonement. To the best of my knowledge, fowl were killed in the context of magic activities mainly in order to use their blood, whereas other animals were killed in order to use their limbs. Killing animals (usually small and available) as part of the magic ritual is documented in many recipe books from the early modern period.
Contrary to other recipes, where water serves to gather the blood in order to use it, here water receives and bears the blood. Clearly, then, it is not the blood as such that is at the center but the slaughter on the water. The most important example of a ritual on the water in Jewish culture is the Tashlikh practice on the first day of Rosh ha-Shanah. Jacob Lauterbach, who tied this practice to that of the kapparot, viewed both as upshots of an ancient practice that developed after the destruction of the Temple and the abolition of the ritual of sending the goat into the wilderness (Leviticus 16), whose essence was to bring a ritual gift to Satan and to the demonic entities that dwell in bodies of water. Echoing in this recipe may also be the notion of a sacrifice to Satan (siṭra’ ’aḥra’), whose concrete expression is the gift of the blood in the water. This option is particularly plausible in light of the fact that Samael (meaning Satan) is the one who was sent to slaughter Hitler.
The performative formula “as I slaughter this cock so will Adolf Hitler … be slaughtered,” which is meant to act in the world and create a reality within it is, as noted, the linguistic expression of the sympathetic principle underlying the entire act: as soon as the cock was tied to Hitler and became one with him, slaughtering them both is also one action. Many harmful acts in Jewish magic literature are based on this principle—they are founded on acts of violence that often (but not always) are imposed on a living victim and end with the taking of its life.
(2) Second Charm
This recipe does not require the taking of a life but death is still present in it. The ritual’s components are simple and amount to the hiding of eleven holy names written on limestone in an old grave. The setting of the writing and the burial is not precisely defined. The gist of the act, in this version, is thus a joining of death and the power of the names by activating them for the purpose of killing Hitler. This purpose is explicitly communicated to the holy names that are required to act.
Something, however, may have gone amiss in this version. Two versions close to it explicitly require that the holy names be burnt on the stone before their burial and this was possibly the intention of the current version as well. In these two versions, the writing’s setting is scripted far more precisely. In manuscript Geneva, Bibliothèque de Genève, Comites Latentes 145 (p. 327), someone wrote in one of the empty pages in Oriental script:
To destroy an enemy. He should write these names on limestone on the first hour of the first day and burn these names ‘NY’L LHBY’L ZRW‘Y’L ’BYH’L YQRY’L ‘LY’L T’WMY’L WHHY’L ’WRY’L ’DWNY’L SRPY’L seraphs stand above Him to destroy N son of N lemaher shalal ḥash baz and bury it in an old grave.
A very close version appears in one of the manuscripts that Thompson acquired in Mossoul. This recipe is slightly corrupted and reads as follows:
To destroy an enemy. He should write on the first day at the third hour of the day on limestone, these names; and then let him burn the stone with these written [names] NM’L LHBY’L ZRW‘Y’L ’HBY’L YHRY’L MRY’L ’MY’L WHBY’L ’WRY’L SRPY’L Seraphs stand above Him, that you may destroy the enemy, N son of N lemaher shalal ḥash baz, or bury these names in an old grave. And this is tested and efficient. End.
The burning motif is mentioned in the recipe in the names of two angels—Lahaviel (angel of flame) and Saraphiel (angel of fire)—and also in the verse cited from Isaiah (seraphs), and is obviously vital to the act suggested.
According to the magic approach that identifies the name and the essence it is tied to, the holy names are not representations of heavenly entities but they are actually the entities-powers themselves. The burning of holy names, and particularly those where God is present (in the el suffix) is an aggressive act and a provocation of heaven. The purpose of this act is probably to enrage the heavenly dwellers going up in flames and incite their revenge. This heavenly aggression, which the torcher-adjurer evokes through his acts, is what he seeks to channel to “death” through burial in an old grave in the direction of Adolf Hitler. In this recipe, then, the letter representing the Hebrew conjunction was omitted and so is the element of violence toward heaven, which I hold to be the very essence of the entire act. The use of graves is not widespread in Jewish magic and serves mainly in two contexts: speaking with the dead and harming others. Hiding the names in the grave is thus part of structuring the aggressive meaning (and consequence!) of the act, which begins with the burning of the holy names through the ritual-performative representation of its purpose—the destruction of the enemy.
(3) Third Charm
In its character and performative principle, this recipe resembles the first one and indeed refers to it explicitly. Here too the act rests on a ritual violence that culminates in the taking of a life but the slaughter is replaced by another act of killing and the linguistic-performative formula changes accordingly. Attached to the first appearance of the word “pot” [kederah] in the recipe (in line 17) is a definite article, attesting to something missing. The performer was probably supposed to have done something with the cock and the pot before the burial and that matter is omitted here. The linguistic formula suggests that the cock is put in a pot and buried within it while still alive.
Hiding incantation writs and various objects in the dust (not necessarily in a grave) as part of their activation is pervasive in Jewish magic and serves a variety of aims. The hiding here does assume the meaning of a burial, and death clings to it. The accompanying incantation attests that the burial of the cock “Hitler” represents the culmination of the entire act and embodies the element of ritual violence due to which violence (and burial) will also enter the life of Hitler the man. The hiding in the dust is thus the actual killing of the cock, accompanied in this ritual by prolonged distress and pain.
The formulation “as I buried this cock so did I bury the evildoer Adolf Hitler,” as its parallel in the first charm, is meant to concretize the connection between the cock and Hitler created in the nine days preceding the burial. The past tense shows that this sentence is meant to be uttered after the burial and not in its course, as in the slaughtering. The sympathetic element of the act is explicitly clarified in the accompanying linguistic formula. This is the height of the ritual and, given that what the performer has in mind is Hitler’s death rather than his burial, we may assume that the cock’s burial is the actual violent act of its killing. The first and third charms, then, offer alternative options for taking the life of “Hitler” the cock in order to kill Adolf Hitler “ruler of the Germans.”
This article is a concise and non-annotated version of Yuval Harari’s “Three Charms for Killing Adolf Hitler: Practical Kabbalah in WW2,” published in Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism 17 (2017), 171–214. We thank the editor and the publisher (Brill) for the permission to republish it here.
Yuval Harari teaches at the Goldstein-Goren Department of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Among his recent publications:Jewish Magic before the Rise of Kabbalah and “Practical Kabbalah and the Jewish Tradition of Magic,” in Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism, 19 (2019).