Friday, December 28, 2007

Defense Against the Darks Arts (Jewish Division): pages 4-5 of Havdalah de Rabbi Akiba

Prior pages:
5-25-07, page 1
6-6-07, page 2
11-28-07, page 3

[A havdalah spice box in the form of a fortress tower]

In this entry I continue my translation of the Hebrew theurgic manual, "The Havdalah of Rabbi Akiba." The going is rough. Whether because of poor transmission, a deliberate effort at obscurantism, or the limitations of my Hebrew and Aramaic, parts of the translation of these two pages are largely speculative. I take comfort in the fact that in the Hebrew published version, most of these two pages are taken up in extensive notes and proposed emendations, indicating that wiser men than I have also been baffled in trying to make good sense of this section. The translation:

By means of the angels of Adonai is a bright leopard burst.[1] I adjure[2] and I surely bind and I surely cut off, I surely forswear[3] against a[ny] spirit[4] or demon [Page 4]

Page 4

or shade[5] or spells or bindings or charms, evil acts or an evil eye, or any bad women, or any evil word, or any evil creation (woe) that is in the world; you[6] will clear away and cancel from the 248 limbs[7] of Peloni bar Peloni,[8] from this day and beyond in the name of Adiriron,[9] Adonai Tzevaot, Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh,[10] amen, amen, amen, selah! [Blessed are You….] Creator of the fruit of the vine. [11] [Blessed are You…] Creator of the Light of Fire. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, Who distinguishes between the sacred and the ordinary, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, and between the seventh day and the six days of creation.
How the proclamation of Your mouth[12] discloses Your fury,[13] Your Name, it will smite with fire. Who is He that His primordial name[14] [Page 5] declared it night – Hormin and Azariyah sat close to Masa.[15] [Page 6] And how…

Zal g'mor - to learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

[1] This speculative translation is based on the premise that the first word, which has no obvious meaning, is actually an abbreviation. A “bright leopard” may refer to a shape-shifting demon that takes on animal form (See Amulets and Magic Bowls, pp. 200, 201) . If someone else has a better translation of bama n’fatz tzaf n’mar, I welcome it.
[2] See Amulets and Magic Bowls, pp. 164 - 65.
[3] Derived from “vow.” It can also mean “roll down/pour out,” but as phrases of power, oaths are a critical element in adjuration rhetoric.
[4] Most likely meaning a ghost, dybbuk, or poltergeist.
[5] A kind of night specter, Naveh and Shaked, Magic Spells and Formulae pp. 72-73
[6] The angels.
[7] The tradition that every person is made of 248 component limbs/bones appears in M. Ohel. 1.8 and Talmud Bavli Moed Katan 17a. A similiar formulation appears in the amulets TS K1.127 and TS K1.42 (See Schiffman and Swartz, Hebrew and Aramaic Incantation Texts from the Cairo Geniza, p. 120).
[8]Peloni bar Peloni” is the Jewish ideom for “John Doe,” indicating the adept should insert here the name of whomever is to be the recipient of this protective formula.
[9] This title, meaning something like “Mighty of the Mighty,” is sometimes used as a euphemism for YHWH, but also appears frequently, as it does here, in herem (expiation) adjurations.
[10] “Holy, Holy Holy is the Lord of Hosts…” This is derived from the angelic adoration spoken in Isaiah 6:3. It is unclear from the text whether the adept is expected to recite the entire verse here, which concludes “…the fullness of the earth is His glory!”
[11] Having concluded this adjuration, the adept now recites the next part of the (non-esoteric) havdalah ritual that concludes the Sabbath and initiates the new weekday. Note that the blessing over spices does not appear here. According to Maimonides [Rambam], the symbolic use of fragrant spices is to cheer the soul which is saddened at the departure of the Shabbat. One inhales the aroma of the spices because during the Shabbat humanity is given a neshama yetera ("an additional soul"). (Ta'an. 27b; Bez. 16a). By custom, spices are not used during havdalah for a festival that ends on a weekday. It is not obvious why this passage would be using the festival form of havdalah. Perhaps the additional soul of Shabbat grants a measure of protection that the festivals do not, hence the rituals of protection surrounding this havdalah is intended to fortify the adept in the absence of the neshama yetera.
[12] The havdalah ritual complete, one continues with an adjuration. Wording based on emendation of p’nekha to pikha.
[13] Translation based on emendation of razkha to rogzekha. Meaning of this passage remains uncertain.
[14] Meaning is unclear. Perhaps this refers to Elohim, the term used for deity when He created day and night (Gen. 1).
[15] Hormin is a demon, a son of Lilith (Baba Batra 73a), while Azariyah is the nom de guerre of the angel Raphael by which he travels incognito in the Book of Tobit. Why these two names should paired remains a mystery, and perhaps the entire passage suffers from poor transmission, for the meaning eludes this translator.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Jesus: Myth, Man, or Messiah?

When I was in seminary, I was required to take a course in the New Testament. It irritated me at the time, going to a Jewish institution and having to learn about Christianity, but it was really a very wise requirement, and not just because the instructor, Dr. Michael Cook, is a great Jew, an excellent scholar, and a real stitch. It was wise because, like most rabbis in America, I end up spending a lot of time talking about Jesus. And, as often happens at this season, I've had a flurry of recent conversations about Jesus with curious Christians. So what do Jews think?

Confusion about Jesus and Jews abounds, which really should come as no surprise. I mean, Christians have, by recent count, several thousand denominations, a good percentage of them born of disputes over the nature and person of Jesus (the others resulting from disputes about Church governance - Jews like to argue over the calendar, if it makes you feel any better). So if they are confused about Jesus, what chance to Jews have?

Most people, even a few Jews, seem to thing Jesus has the status of a prophet in Judaism. I have to explain to them that that's Muslims who hold Jesus to be a human prophet, in the line of prophets to Muhammad.

Truth be told, we have done our part to contribute to this particular confusion. Back in the 19th Century, when all kinds of new theories were being floated about Jesus, "the historical Jesus," Jews got into the fray. There were those skeptics, for example, who posited that Jesus was not a historical figure at all, that he was a myth constructed whole cloth out of the imagination of the early Church. Some Jews at the time jumped on that bandwagon (a few are still on it), insisting there was never a historical figure who bore any real resemblance to the literary Jesus at all. Almost at the same time, however, some rather prominent Jewish thinkers, like Kaufmann Kohler and Martin Buber, wanted to reclaim the "historical" Jesus (but not the doctrinal Jesus) for Judaism. A couple of rabbis even wrote essays about Jesus the "Jewish prophet." I think these efforts set into motion this persistent idea that Judaism regards Jesus as a prophet.

But that notion was 86ed almost as soon as it was proposed. Most Jews regard Jesus neither as a myth, a prophet, or a (successful) messiah. Judaism certainly gives him no religious status (Though Jewish scholars have lately given more serious thought to Christianity as a whole - see the document Dabru Emet posted on the Web). So how do we think of him? Well I think of him as Jesus IHS. Not Iesus Hominum Salvator, "Jesus Savior of Humanity", but IHS meaning - "Interesting Historical Semite."

When people ask what I mean by that, I explain it this way: "For Jews, Jesus is like Albert Einstein." (I used to use Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx also, but too many people got hostile about those analogies; everybody apparently feels positively about Albert). To Jews, Jesus is like Albert Einstein: A Jew who formulated new ways to think, and in doing so, transformed the way the world thinks and works. Like Einstein, Jesus offered up novel ways to understand the world. Like Einstein, he had many Jewish disciples; like Einstein his ideas were embraced by people outside of Jewish circles, and like Einstein, none of this makes him a religious authority for Judaism. He's just an IHS, an "Interesting Historical Semite."

C.S. Lewis is famous for formulating the "3L" argument: given what he said about himself in the Gospels, Jesus has to be one of three things: Lunatic, Liar, or Lord. I for one hate these forced choice questions, questions like - "Given the choice, would you rather be blind or give birth to the Anti-Christ?" Well, circumstances are such that Jews don't have to make that choice, and by the same token Jews don't have to make the 3L choice either. Lewis is, I suppose, relying on us not to be so impolite as to tell our Christian friends we think their savior is a fraud or delusional. But, in fact, we don't have to argue either of those positions. Since the Gospels are not sacred scriptures to Jews, we are under no obligation to assume that the Gospel authors provide us with an inerrant transcript of Jesus' actual words, much less his thoughts. We know from the Gospels what the authors thought Jesus thought of himself, but absent an autobiography, we needn't take the Gospels as, well...gospel.

I can also imagine that Jesus sincerely thought himself to be the eschatological messiah. But that doesn't make him a lunatic, it just makes him wrong. Jewish history gives us multiple examples of well-meaning, sane Jews who thought themselves to be positioned in such a unique time and place in history that God had placed messianic power in their hands. Its just never worked out. The world is still unredeemed. While Jesus has transformed the hearts of his followers, he has failed to transform the world at large. Changed it, yes, but not to messianic dimensions.

So until the world changes to the extent that lions lie down with lambs, men beat their M-4 carbines with undermounted M-203 grenade launchers into composite plumbing fixtures for the poor; until oppression and cruelty ceases, we Jews, at least, know the Messiah has yet to come.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Privy Counsel: Jewish Spirit Etiquette for the Toilet

[Toilet unearthed in the City of David. I'd be worried]

So, as a former Registered Nurse, I often emphasize to my congregants that Judaism is a spiritual tradition that embraces every aspect of what it means to be human. Hence, at Kol Ami we encourage use of the b'rukhah of Asher Yetzer ha-Adam, the blessing for having a bodily function.

This prayer is said once you have completed your business. But the Shulkhan Arukh, the 16th Century digest of Jewish law by the legal and mystic genius Joseph Caro, also reveals a more complex spiritual tradition concerning defecation. In 3:3 Caro states:

If one wishes to palpate the rectum with a pebble or a piece of wood in order to open up the hole, he should do so prior to sitting but not after sitting in order to thwart sorcery.

OK, so perhaps only a person with a medical background would care that Caro is talking about mechanical digitalization for the purpose of relieving constipation [1]. But that aside, what's with the threat of witchcraft while sitting on the john? Well first of all, Caro may simply feel the obligation to reiterate this bit of folkish advice because it appears in the Talmud and relates to his current topic of proper deportment in the toilet (see below). But that answer only defers our questions back 1200 years earlier. So what were the Talmudic Sages on about?

Well, it all starts with the indigenous Jewish tradition that we are surrounded by spiritual forces:

It has been taught: Abba Benjamin says, if the eye had the power to see them, no creature could endure the demons. Abaye says: They are more numerous than we are and they surround us like the ridge round a field. R. Huna says: Every one among us has a thousand on his left hand and ten thousand on his right hand (Berkhot 6a)

By the same token, we are also equally hedged around by guardian spirits:

For He will order his angels to guard you wherever you go (Ps. 91:11)

If a person makes himself to be a righteous person and speak the truth, he is given an Angel who guides him along the path of righteous people and truth is always spoken to him . If a person makes himself to be wicked, to corrupt and speaks lies, then an angel will be attached to him who will corrupt him/her and mislead them in life . If a person makes himself a "chasid" - an especially kind and thoughtful person, accepting everything painful, then a special angel is given to the person which can guide along the pathway of the exceedingly righteous, giving them strength to sustain any pain (Tana Deve Eliyahu Zuta 3:4)

But there are circumstances and places where that protection is weakened, or not applicable at all. Thus, it's considered impolite to force the angels to escort you to the restroom:

Upon entering a toilet, a person should recite:
Honor yourselves, honored ones, holy ones who serve Above. Give honor to the God of Israel, leave me alone until I enter and fulfill my desire, and then I will return to you (Ber. 60a).[2]

The result of this leaving our spirit guardians outside the door is that we are spiritually vulnerable while doing our business in a way we aren't at other times of the day. This negative force is personified as the sheid beit ha-kisei, the djinn of the privy.

In the same way one becomes vulnerable to spirits, one also is subject to assault by witchcraft or the evil eye (here's Caro's Talmudic source):

Palpate yourself before sitting, but do not sit and palpate, for if one sits and then palpates, should witchcraft be used against him, even as far away as Aspamia he will not be immune from it. And if he forgets and does sit and then palpates, what is his remedy? When he rises he should say thus: Not for me, not for me; not for takhtim, nor takhtim [literally, "bottoms"]; not for these nor any part of these; neither the sorceries of sorcerers nor the sorceries of sorceresses! (Ber. 62a)

The concern here is, quite literally, with creating an opening to attack. In other places in the Talmud, we learn that unclean spirits enter through the orifices of the body like the mouth and eyes. Apparently, so too the anus. Now that was the formula against witchcraft; this is a handy phrase against daemons:

For [defeating] a sheid of the privy one should say thus: 'On the head of a lion and on the snout of a lioness did we find the demon Bar Shirika Panda; with a bed of leeks I hurled him down, [and] with the jawbone of an ass I smote him' [3](Shabbat 67a).

But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If spells are good, amulets are even better:

Rabbah bar bar Hannah said: We used to walk behind R' Yochanan,
And when he needed to go to the bathroom -
When he was carrying a book of Midrash he'd give it to us.
But when he was carrying tefillin, he wouldn't give them to us.
He would say: “Since the Rabbis permit us [to take tefillin into a privy],
They will guard me [against demons]!” (Berakhot 23a-b)

From whence does all this anxiety come? I can only guess, but here again, I turn to my prior profession for insight. And in my experience, more than a fair share of medical misadventures happen in the loo - bleeding hemorrhoids, vagal responses that result in syncope and fainting, rectal prolapse from over-straining...the list goes on and on. And these don't even include the classic slip-and-fall. Turns out, just as our modern statisticians tell us, bathrooms are dangerous places.

Zal g'mor - to learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

[1] inclusion of such toilet hygiene and health advice, shocking to the modern 'religious' sensibility, is completely in keeping with the dictum of the Talmudic Sage Rav Hiyya, who declared seemingly mundane matters that nevertheless "concern the well-being of all humanity" to in fact be equal to religious imperatives. No spirit-body dichotomy here.

[2] This passage provides one of the only recorded exceptions to the claim of the great J. Heinemann, ‘It is a well-known fact that there are no prayers from the Talmudic period which are addressed to intermediaries of any sort - neither to angels, nor to saints or patriarchs.’ That some Jews did, in fact, pray to their guardian spirits is demonstrated by the necessity of this prohibition the Palestinian Talmud: If a person faces trouble, he should not cry out to the angels Michael or Gabriel. But he should cry out to Me, and I will immediately answer him. In this regard [it says], ‘All who call upon the name of the Lord shall be delivered’ Ber. 9:1 13a. While praying to intermediary spirits was generally frowned upon by the Sages, the Rabbis of Eretz Israel were apparently somewhat more doctrinaire about this then the Rabbis of Babylon.

[3] It is sometimes the case in Jewish ritual declarations that the phrases of the incantation are meaningless to us. The assumption is either that the words function like a passcode (Ever experience this? "Your proposed password is too weak; it should not include words found in the dictionary") or are encrypted to us but comprehensible to divine beings.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Like Sands Through an Hour Glass...: Jewish Magical Soap Opera

[Two women walking on the sand - not that there's anything wrong with that]

I just read a story that even left me baffled. Apparently a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) man in B'nai Brak, Israel, learned that his wife was having a lesbian love affair. Consulting his rabbi, the rabbi handed him a sack of sand, told him the sand was "special," and told him to spread it over the threshold of the offending lesbian. As soon as his wife set foot on the sand, so he was told, his wife would return to him.

Apparently the man sent his son to lay the sand before the doorway, but in an improvisation on the ritual, decided to torch the woman's laundry also. This may have made a pleasing odor unto the Lord, but it also drew the police. Father and son were pinched and confessed to the whole affair (the magical one, that is).

So, this is a novel ritual even to me. I know one may write in sand as part of a ritual, or use it to detect the passing of demons, but I know of nothing like this. Anybody have a source or lead for the use of sand as a love segullah or as a defense against lesbianism?

To learn more about the other Jewish occult practices I do understand, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Jewish Occult Masters

I recently received this comment:

Rabbi, I find your blogs interesting and insightfuil, thank you. My question is...Are these kinds of rituals and esoteric practices necessary for salvation or anything else? What is the purpose of practicing all these types of rituals, incantations, etc...? Is there such a thing as the spiritual elite who can do these things and then the rest of us "normal" spiritual beings?

There are a number of issues embedded here. First, Judaism does not have the issues of "salvation, " at least not as defined in traditional Christianity. Judaism does not have a "one life: pass/fail" metaphysical model. We also do not share in the orthodox church doctrine of "eternal damnation" [I say this with the acknowledgement that the varieties of Christianity and Christian doctrines are virtually infinite and there are no doubt countless nuances to be found among Christian sects]. According to Judaism, virtually all spiritual matter (like the soul[s])[1] eventually finds its way back to God. At worst, the evil that men do will be "blotted out under heaven," which is to say, annihilated and forgotten. Putting it fliply, God is not a cosmic cat that simply tortures something [even an evil something] for its pleasure for all eternity.

As for the function of the esoteric rituals and practices I describe on this blog, well, their practice is understood to empower us and make our lives better. Perhaps the hardest thing for us to grasp, growing up in the Western theological/philosophical tradition, is just how [potentially] empowered and powerful human being are perceived to be in Jewish tradition. We are potentially "Godly" in the Old English sense of that word, "God-like." Even the angels envy us. These rituals are supposed to give us greater access to that divine capacity and power. That being said, as I remark in my introduction to my book, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, Jews can and do live happy and spiritually fulfilling lives never practicing, or even knowing, most of these esoteric traditions.

As for who can access such things, well, that's a matter of debate. But regardless of the nuances of that debate, the adepts who do these things are, almost by definition an "elite," because few Jews ever learn these skills, much less master them. That being said, the esoteric tradition is elitism by meritocracy. Anyone can learn these traditions who wishes to. There are no real gatekeepers or priesthood. Even the supposed rules, like - "You have to be 40, married, etc...." before you learn - are in fact meant to be broken [Off the top of my head I can think of three great esoteric masters who taught and died before they reached 40: Isaak Luria, Nachman of Bratslav, and Aryeh Kaplan].
The only real limit is that few have the combination of inclination, knowledge, moral excellence, and aptitude to achieve a real mastery of these traditions.

[1] the poly-psychic nature of the human soul is a topic for another entry

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Dreidel Mysticism

[The account of Zechariah's dream lamp is read every Hanukkah. Medieval illuminated manuscript]

This drash is not my composition. It came to me via e-mail and I'm trying to track down the source [addendum - it's handed down from CHaBaD]. I thought it apropos for the time of the season:

Rabbi Refael of Barshid said: "Just like there are 70 facets to Torah, so too there are 70 facets to Jewish customs, and the sages say that all the miracles come from the palace of Moshiach {the Messiah}, and during Chanukah light from Moshiach descends. This is hinted at in the letters on the dreidel which add up to Moshiach=358.

The Bnei Yissoschor writes that by playing dreidel one can nullify many negative forces: "And with this you'll understand the custom of our fathers which is Torah, that during Chanuka (which is the education and preparation for the future Geula speedily in our days), the children play with squared off pieces of wood with the letters gimmel, shin, hei, nun etched in them,one letter per side, and this wooden top spins on a central point to show that these kingdoms which are alluded to in these letters - which oppose Holiness by way of separating [from the Divine Unity] by spreading out to all sides, all spin on the central point - the Jewish people who unite all the sides, therefore the sides rotate on the point and all will be nullified to the center, [as the prophet says] "v'az yahapoch el amim, safa berurayachad likro b'sheim Hashem" (then the nations will be transformed into[one] clear language to call upon the name of Hashem [G-d]), at which time the zohamas na'ch'ash ( the filth of the primeval snake) which has the letters of gimmel, shin, nun, hei will be nullified - and then Hashem rules, ruled and will rule ....with the coming of Moshiach Tzidkeinu speedily in our days amen."

To which I may add this thought - that if we take the 358 of the dreidel and add to it the 7 days of the miracle of the oil (the first day it burned as it naturally would - the miracle began the 2nd day), the resulting number is 365, teaching us we should take the values of the 8 days of Hanukkah and extend them to our spinning globe the rest of the year. And just as Jews may be the fulcrum, so too the rest of humanity makes up the 'faces' of the dreidel, and therefore cannot be ignored. So our constant engagement with and concern for all peoples is part and parcel of what will (may he come speedily and in our day] bring Mashiach ben David.

I hope everyone has an enlightened Hanukkah.

Zal g'mor - to learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050