Ithaca College
Fall Semester 2004


Jewish Magic and Ritual Power
Jewish Studies 340-353 / Religion 344-376
Tuesday/Thursday 2:35-3:50
CNS 118

Professor Rebecca Lesses
Office: Gannett G-122
Office Hours: MW 2:30-4:00 and by appointment.
Telephone: 274-3556

In the ancient and medieval worlds, Jews were reputed to possess much knowledge about magic: amulets and spells to heal from sickness or harm one’s enemies, mystical incantations to ascend to heaven or bring angels down to earth, and information about the beneficent angels who assisted humans in their fight against the demons of illness and madness. Jewish magic has been part of folk Jewish knowledge and elite rabbinic practice in many cultures. This course examines the Jewish magical tradition from antiquity through the Middle Ages, and investigates how it survived and underwent transformation in the modern world.

The course begins by examining the term “magic” itself, attempting to determine the relationship between magic and religion and questioning whether the term is still useful. We will read a variety of historical and anthropological approaches to this question, in order to discover the history of the term and the ways it has been used by modern researchers since the 19th century. We will then turn to different Jewish definition of magic and ritual power to see how ancient and medieval Jewish authorities judged magic – was it an acceptable activity, or wholly outside normative Jewish practice? The course then gives a survey of Jewish magical texts that range from the Bible to medieval stories and amulets. We will consider the use of amulets and other magical techniques for healing, and explore the relationship between magic and Jewish mysticism. The course will finish with an examination of possession and exorcism in the early modern world, and the ways in which the Jewish magic tradition still persists in the modern era.


IN BOOKSTORE (also on reserve in library)

Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion (1939; reprint edition, 1984).

J. H. Chajes, Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).

COURSE READER (available for sale in class and in Jewish Studies office, Gannett 122) – all readings in the course reader are marked in the syllabus as “CR”


Class attendance (5%): 2 unexcused absences permitted; if class is missed because of illness, student must present a doctor’s excuse; more absences will lead to a lower grade.

Class participation (10%) includes asking questions and speaking up during class discussions, participating in small group discussions, and active listening to lectures and to classmates. Since participation is dependent upon being in class, poor attendance will also reflect poorly on class participation.       

Students should come to class prepared to discuss the daily assignments. Assignments should be completed before class on the day on which they are listed on the syllabus. Students should bring to class specific questions about the assignments and topics for class discussion. In preparing for class, consider the following:

•     basic "facts" and concepts in the secondary sources
•     the ways in which the secondary sources and primary sources complement each other or contradict each other
•     the ways in which the secondary sources contradict or complement each other
•     the underlying argument, thesis, agenda, or perspective behind the secondary sources, internet sites, and films

Class participation is an integral part of this course. All students are expected to participate in a thoughtful, well-prepared manner that is grounded in the course assignments. All members of the class are expected to reflect critically on they ways in which they can contribute to constructive rather than destructive class dynamics. I often call upon students and may not wait for students to volunteer themselves.

Analysis Papers (4 -- worth 15% each). I have given you ten topics, with the papers due at different times during the semester. Pick four out of the ten topics to write on. The papers should be 4-5 pages long. Two must be written before midterm (due October 13), two afterwards. (See separate sheet of Paper Topics).

Class presentation (10%) on any topic in Jewish magic -- I will hand out a list of possible topics, and you can also come up with your own topic. You can also choose one of the already provided paper topics to speak about. I will provide any bibliography you might need for the presentation. The class presentation should take between 10-15 minutes.

4-5 page paper based on class presentation (15%) due Thursday, Dec. 16. If you have chosen a previously given paper topic, this paper should build on the first paper and discuss the topic in with greater sophistication, more detail, or with new information.


1. ALL WRITTEN WORK MUST BE YOUR OWN. Plagiarism will not be tolerated. I refer cases of plagiarism to the Judicial Affairs Office – plagiarism may result in an F for the course and being placed on Academic Probation. Please consult pages 116-118 of the Student Handbook for a complete statement of the Ithaca College policy on plagiarism, including definitions of plagiarism and proper citation of sources.

2. ALL WRITTEN WORK MUST BE DONE IN ORDER TO PASS THE COURSE. This includes all exams (midterm, final, and quizzes), map exercise, and papers.

3. IF YOU NEED HELP WITH YOUR WRITING: Please come speak to me. I also recommend the Writing Center, 228 Park, which is open 9-5 Mon.-Fri. and 7-10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs. To schedule an appointment, call 274-3315.

4. ATTENDANCE POLICY. 2 unexcused absences are permitted; if class is missed because of illness, student must present a doctor’s excuse. More than three unexcused absences will lead to reduction of the course attendance and participation grade.

5. STUDENTS WITH LEARNING DISABILITIES: please approach me early in the semester and let me know your needs in terms of papers or exams. Also, please have the Office for Support Services send me a letter with your specific needs.

6. IF YOU ARE HAVING TROUBLE IN YOUR LIFE that interferes with completing the course work (for example, a death in the family, grave illness, family discord, relationship problems) please come to me and we can talk about how to get your work done. DO NOT JUST STOP COMING TO CLASS!


Aug. 26: Introduction
What is the course about and why is the topic important? What is magic? Popular notions of magic. Doesn’t the Bible forbid magic? Samples of Jewish magical texts and rituals.

Aug. 31, Sept. 2: How to think about magic
Anthropological and historical theories about magic and ritual power
Aug. 31: CR # 1 & 2.
Sept. 2: CR # 3 & 4.

Sept. 7, 9, 14: Magic in the Bible and the Talmud: definitions and prohibitions
How do these definitions interrelate with modern ones? What is the biblical connection between magic/sorcery and idolatry? How do the talmudic definitions differ from what’s found in the Bible? Are mostly women magicians?
Sept. 7 (Bible): CR # 5.
Sept. 9 & 14 (Talmud): CR # 6.
handout: for consideration on Rosh Hashanah – invocations of the angels of the shofar

Sept. 16: First day of Rosh Hashanah, no class

Sept. 20: Topic #1 (definitions of magic) paper due: Everyone must hand in this paper!

Sept. 21-23: Magic in Bible and Talmud: demons, angels, and healing
The medium of Endor and divination (1 Sam. 28); seeing the demons; magic & medicine.
Sept. 21 (demons): CR pp. 34-36; #8; Trachtenberg, pp. 25-36 (powers of evil).
Sept. 23 (healing): CR #7.
handout of early Jewish chronology and key terms in early Judaism

Sept. 28: Material culture and the study of ancient ritual I
The Aramaic incantation bowls of Sassanian Babylonia; (presentation of photographs of bowls on overhead projector).
Readings: CR # 9.

Sept. 30: First day of Sukkot, no class

Oct. 5: Material culture and the study of ancient ritual II
Metal amulets in Byzantine Palestine; on women as sorceresses and demonesses in the incantation bowls.
Readings: CR 10 & 11; Trachtenberg, pp. 104-113 (the Bible in magic).

Oct. 7 – Shemini Atzeret, no class

Oct. 11: Paper Topic #2 (material culture) and #3 (analysis of incantation) due. You must write on one of these topics.

Oct. 12: Jewish and other ancient magic: the Greek magical papyri
What is the relationship between Jewish practices of ritual power and those of other peoples? What was borrowed back and forth? Can we make a distinction between Jewish practices and those of other peoples: Greeks, Egyptians, Romans?
Readings: CR #12.

Oct. 14: Fall break, no class

Oct. 19-21: Sefer ha-Razim, “the Book of the Mysteries”
A Jewish handbook of ritual power from late antiquity, comparable to the Greek magical papyri. Helios in Seferha-Razim and the ancient synagogue mosaics – what is the relationship of Jews to pagan beliefs and practices?
Oct. 19: CR #13
Oct. 21: CR # 14.

Oct. 25: Paper Topic #4 (comparing Greek magical papyri with Sefer ha-Razim) due.

Oct. 26-28: Ritual power in early Jewish mysticism: the Hekhalot literature
Oct. 26: CR #16
Oct. 28: CR #’s 18, 19, 20.
Recommended: Course Reader #’s 15 & 17.

November 1: Paper Topic #5 (comparing Hekhalot to Sefer ha-Razim & Greek Magical Papyri) due.

Nov. 2, 4, & 9: Medieval Jewish magic
Amulets from the Middle East (Cairo Geniza) and northern Europe; Lilith and other demons; names of God and the creation of the Golem.
Nov. 2: CR #21, Trachtenberg, pp. 139-152.
Nov. 4: CR #22, Trachtenberg, pp. 36-37; 44-60.
Nov. 9: Trachtenberg, pp. 78-103.

Nov. 15: Paper Topics #6 (mezuzah and tefillin) and #7 (amulets in Middle Ages) due.

Nov. 11, 16, 18: Dybbuks and Exorcists in Early Modern Judaism
Nov. 11: Chajes, pp. 1-31.
Nov. 16: Chajes, pp. 32-56.
Nov. 18: Chajes, pp. 57-96.

Nov. 23-25: Thanksgiving vacation, no classes.

Nov. 29: Paper Topic #8 (spirit possession) or Topic #9 (women & magic) due.

Nov. 30, Dec. 2: Dybbuks and Exorcists continued
Film presentation: Der Dibek
Nov. 30: Chajes, pp. 97-118.
Dec. 2: Chajes, pp. 119-140.

Dec. 7, 9: Jewish magic for today
Readings: CR #24.

Dec. 8: Topic # 10 (contemporary magic) due.


This page maintained by: Rebecca Lesses
Last revised August 25, 2004