My Dear Rabbi Zahavy Talmudic Advice Column for August 2016: Are there any Magical Jewish Cures and Curses?

Your Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

My friend has started to scare me. She tells me often about her beliefs in the magical powers of religion and religious people. She claims to have witnessed faith healings right in front of her eyes. I think she’s gone off the deep end. Guide me please in what to do.

Scared in Secaucus

Dear Scared,

There are charismatic religious leaders in many religions who say that they can cure people of illnesses. In Judaism we say that we do not believe in, or practice, magical faith healing. The Torah condemns sorcerers, soothsayers, and witchcraft as abominations. But also note that the Torah tells us about Moses’ magical staff, capable of outperforming Pharaoh’s magicians. And some say the magical phrase Abracadabra comes from Aramaic words ארבדכ‭ ‬ארבא‭‬ that mean, “As I speak it, so it shall come to pass.”

And we do say some things in prayers that sound pretty close to invoking religion to cure sickness. In the weekday Amidah we say “Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed; save us and we shall be saved; for you are our praise. Vouchsafe a perfect healing to all our wounds; for you, almighty Monarch, are a faithful and merciful physician. Blessed are you, O Lord, who heals the sick of your people Israel.”

In many shuls, mesheberach prayers are made for sick people every week. You surely can argue that prayers for recovery are not the same as instant magical cures — but they are on the same spectrum.

And you are worried that your friend has gone off to one fringe of the continuum, or even over the edge, into the abyss of cultic magical beliefs.

Now, a strictly scientific thinker will argue, with a good deal of authority, that diseases cannot be cured by magic or prayer. Medicine alone has the capacity to cure. On the other hand, many scientific minded people find comfort in the thought that someone has prayed for their recovery and health.

Indeed, think about it. If magical or prayerful cures were effective in any predictable way, wouldn’t every health plan in America want to save money by urging us to go get cured by the local equivalent of a shaman?

Yes, we do need religion and prayer to give us hope in times of despair. And for the naïve among us, magical thinking will continue to attract. It’s tantalizing to imagine that a holy man or woman has what the classical anthropologists called “mana” — the invisible powers to control the forces of nature and the world.

It scares you because your friend is swallowing the idea of faith healing, hook, line, and sinker. You intuitively know that there must be a balance among the beliefs we have in magic, science, and religion.

You may want to tell your friend about your concerns. But do not expect her to understand. She seems enthralled and will not be open to discussions. Still, as long as she is not endangering herself by foregoing medical treatments, or by giving away her wealth to charlatans, you have no cause to try to intervene more actively against her beliefs.

Unfortunately, even if something bad does happen, there may not be much you can do to deter a truly determined believer in magic. Once magical thinking has a grip on someone, it is hard to pry off. Good luck to you in whatever course you decide to pursue.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

My neighbor is building an addition to his home that will destroy my view, take away my sunlight, and create constant terrible noises from many central air conditioning units right next to my backyard. It will ruin my domestic peace and joy. I’ve spoken to him, asking him to make some accommodations to my needs, but he does not care a whit. He is firm in sticking to his plans.

My friend tells me he knows a voodoo spell that I should try to cast against this person. Is there some effective Jewish magical curse that I can invoke to change his mind or to make all this go away?

Cursing in Cresskill

Dear Cursing,

Yes, in our world there are many people who will tell you that there is black magic, with spells and curses, that you can invoke against other people. In contemporary Judaism, we say that we do not believe in or practice such dark magic. Yet we Jews do have legends of a magical hero, the Golem, who saves the lives of Jews during dark times in Eastern Europe. And the Talmud is full of stories of Jews practicing magic in one way or another.

In actuality we do say some things in our daily prayers that sound like curses directed at our enemies. For instance, in the weekday Amidah we recite, “And for slanderers let there be no hope, and let all wickedness perish as in a moment; let all your enemies be speedily cut off, and the dominion of arrogance do you uproot and crush, cast down and humble speedily in our days. Blessed are you, O Lord, who breaks the enemies and humbles the arrogant.”

Additionally, we conclude the weekday Amidah with an invocation of God’s name, saying that God should protect us against the curses and spells of other people, “… to such as curse me let my soul be dumb, yea, let my soul be unto all as the dust. Open my heart to your Torah, and let my soul pursue your commandments. If any design evil against me, speedily make their counsel of none effect, and frustrate their designs. Do it for the sake of your name, do it for the sake of your right hand, do it for the sake of your holiness, and do it for the sake of your Torah.” Yes, that is a prayer. But in its formulation and language, it tilts a bit in the direction of a spell. And in Jewish Kabbalah, we find elements of magic, in addition to mysticism. The evil eye and the hamsah symbol are widespread Jewish magical beliefs and talismans.

The Pulsa d’nura incantation is an actual magical Jewish curse, accredited by some religious authorities. It was invoked by rabbis in recent years against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon because he gave land back to the Palestinians. Something like it was invoked years before against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Were these the causes of those leaders’ deaths? No, I am sure they were not. Yet others who believe in black magic will say the curses have effects.

Use of a magic curse is appealing to powerless and angry people, who have exhausted all their alternatives and seek a solution of last resort.

Many of us have our personal stories of curses we or our friends have invoked when nothing else would avail. The stories become particularly memorable when it appeared that they worked.

It’s nice to imagine that your curse caused the harm to those you wish to hurt. It’s more likely that happenstance can lead to various random outcomes.

I’m sure that in fact, black magic doesn’t work. If it did, we would not need a military. We’d just conscript a corps of holy men and women skilled in the art of the magical spell to fight our enemies.

My advice is that you don’t stoop to seeking out curses, lest you attract dark and negative energy to yourself alone. Your target will not even know what you intend at a distance. That negativity of the curse will pull you down in mood, and may affect your health, and will not do a thing to damage the well-being of your enemy.

Move on, then, from your darkness. Perhaps sit on your front lawn instead of in your backyard. If you are really distressed, you may consider moving to another home. Sorry, but I cannot provide you with the solutions you seek out of the mainstream traditions of Judaism. Good luck in dealing with your cursed annoyances.

Tzvee Zahavy received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author of numerous books about Judaism, including these ebooks on Amazon: “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Talmudic Advice from Dear Rabbi” — which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays. And don’t forget his classic, “Babylonian Talmud Tractate Hullin.”

I'm happy to announce my new publication: a revised edition for Kindle of Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg's "Jewish Magic."

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