The first time I came face-to-face with Jewish magic was when I moved to Israel in my early 20s. It was the fall of 1995 and Jerusalem was beginning a 15-month celebration marking the 3,000 years since King David conquered the city and proclaimed it the capital of the Jewish people. Bright banners emblazoned with "3000" hung from street lamps throughout the municipality and the mood was festive. Along with countless others, I watched the opening ceremonies outside the Knesset and listened, enthralled, as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told of leading the Israeli Army into the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1967 War and then spoke about how the real message of the last 3,000 years was the need for tolerance between religions and love between peoples. At the end of the speech, an Israeli man turned to me and told me that, for the first time, he believed Israel would know peace within his lifetime.
Six weeks later Rabin was shot dead. Overnight Jerusalem was transformed. Black-and-white images of the slain prime minister replaced the celebratory banners, and a somber atmosphere prevailed. Wild rumors soon emerged, with one in particular gaining traction. I heard over and over that a magical curse had led to the assassination.
At a time when the impossible had happened, this seemed plausible to many. The rapidly spreading story held that 32 days before the assassination, on October 3, 1995, a small group of ten or so fringe national-religious activists, angry at Rabin's intention to trade land for peace, had gathered outside the prime minister's home in Jerusalem. It was Yom Kippur Eve--considered the holiest night of the entire Jewish year--and the rabbis, who had fasted for two days in preparation, stood in a circle around two Torah scrolls, blew a ram's horn and then chanted: "On him, Yitzhak son of Rosa, known as Rabin...we have permission...to demand from the angels of destruction that they take a sword to this wicked man...to kill him...for handing over the Land of Israel to our enemies, the sons of Ishmael." Known as the Pulsa deNura ("Lashes of Fire"), this ancient Aramaic ritual was first mentioned in the Talmud and then described in greater detail in ancient Hebrew manuals of magic. When performed correctly, the curse was purported to inflict divine wrath on its victims within a year.
After Rabin's assassination, Pulsa deNura quickly became a household phrase. It remains a canonical element of any recounting of Rabin's assassination; even the official Israeli government biography of Rabin mentions the curse by name.
Intrigued by this tale, I began to study the use of magic in Judaism. Like many others, I hadn't been aware that Judaism had a rich tradition of magic that dated back to the Hebrew Bible. Many modern Jews simply ignore the topic altogether, because they believe that Jews have evolved past that aspect of their religion. They dismiss it as "irrational folklore," says Yuval Harari, author of Jewish Magic Before the Rise of Kabbalah. Magic is an "alien element that penetrated" Judaism "from the outside and stained it," influential mid-20th-century Israeli scholars Saul Lieberman and Ephraim Urbach argued. Their view prevailed until Moshe Idel, the preeminent scholar of Jewish mysticism, presented a picture in which magic was a central aspect of Judaism. Magic, he writes in the foreword to the 2004 edition of Joshua Trachtenberg's Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion, "is a vital form of Jewish spirituality. [Judaism is] deeply informed by magical ways of thinking and manners of action that are conceived to be both effective and licit."
As I investigated magic in the Bible, I found many contradictory messages. In Exodus we are told, "You shall not suffer a witch to live." In Deuteronomy, Jews are forbidden from being a "soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer." It appears from these texts that the Bible views magic as a real phenomenon, albeit one that the Israelites shouldn't take part in. Yet the most revered figures in the Bible engage in magical acts. Following a directive from God, Aaron throws his rod down before Pharaoh and it becomes a snake. The Egyptians follow suit, and using their "secret arts," perform the same act. But proof of Aaron's superiority comes when his snake swallows the Egyptian ones.
The Torah of course is full of super-natural acts--manna raining down from heaven, barren women giving birth, animals speaking--but these events are all attributed to God. Thus the supernatural happenings of the Israelites--whose source of power is God--are extolled. Similarly, when God parts the Red Sea as the Israelites flee Egypt, it's considered a miracle. When I asked Dan Ben-Amos, a...