Folk Religion: Folk Judaism

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In the course of its millennial history, biblical and Jewish folk religion has found its expression in beliefs in male and female deities other than God; in angels, devils, demons, ghosts, and spirits; in saints and holy men; in the "evil eye" and other baleful influences; and in rites and practices such as magic, witchcraft, divination, and the use of amulets, charms, and talismans. Manifestations of Jewish folk religion were found from earliest biblical times and continued to appear, until in the nineteenth century it waned in those European countries in which the Jews came under the influence of the Enlightenment. In the Middle Eastern Jewish communities folk religion retained its vitality until 1948, after which the people of these communities were largely transplanted to Israel.

Biblical Period

In a few cases the biblical authors refer to folk beliefs and rites without condemnation. These "naive" references pertain mostly to cosmic origins or to the early history of mankind, the Hebrew patriarchs, and the people of Israel. Thus Genesis 6:14 clearly reflects a folk belief in the existence of "sons of God"; Isaiah 14:1215, in a rebellious angel who was cast down into the netherworld; and various passages in Isaiah, Psalms, and Job, in sea dragons and other monsters who dared to oppose God. Terafim, small household gods taken by Rachel from her father's house (Gn. 31:19, 31:3035), and larger versions of the same kept by Saul's daughter Michal (the wife of David) in her chambers (1 Sm. 19:13, 19:16), are clear examples of folk belief.

In sharp contrast to these uncritical mentions of folk religion are the condemnatory references to the popular (as well as institutional) worship of gods other than Yahveh contained in the historical and prophetic writings of the Bible. But these scornful references are, at the same time, also testimonies to the popular worship in Israel of several male and female deities (such as Baal, Kemosh, Milcom, Asherah, Astarte, and the Queen of Heaven) from the time of the Judges to the destruction of Israel and Judah in 722 and 587/6 bce and even later (see Jer. 44:1519). These biblical data are supplemented by archaeological discoveries of small figurines of goddesses (Asherah, Astarte) in many excavated Israelite homes from the biblical period all over the country.


With reference to demons the biblical evidence shows a similar duality. On the one hand, there are prohibitions of witchcraft and all trafficking with, or consultation of, demons, ghosts, and spirits, which practices are considered capital sins punishable by death (Ex. 22:17, Dt. 18:1012), and historical notes tell of the attempted extermination by royal decree of "those that divined by a ghost or familiar spirit" (1 Sm. 28:3). On the other, there is ample testimony to the belief, shared by the Yahvist historians and prophets with the common folk, in the existence of demons and their power to harm people's bodies and minds (Gn. 32:25ff.; Lv. 16:10; Is. 13:21, 34:14; 1 Sm. 16:15, 16:23; 1 Kgs. 22:2223; Ps. 91:56). Israelite folk religion seems to have made room for species of demons (shedim, seʿirim ), as well as individual demons, for example ʿAzʾazel. Most of the latter are known from the religions of the neighboring peoples as gods, thus, for example, Lilith, Mavet ("death"), and Reshef ("pestilence"). From the late biblical and apocryphal literature are known the devil-like demons called Saan, Masemah, Belial (Beliyyaʿal), Asmodeus (Ashmedʿai), while both in the New Testament and in rabbinic literature demons are referred to as "unclean" or "evil spirits." In the three synoptic gospels the prince of demons has the name Beelzebul (Baʿal Zebub). These demons, generic and individual, are all reflections of Jewish folk belief.

Magic and divination

The Bible repeatedly condemns action taken to influence the mysterious forces of nature and the spirits. Deuteronomy 18:1011 decrees, "There shall not be found among you any one that useth divination, a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or one that consulteth a ghost or a familiar spirit, or a necromancer." Exodus 22:17 rules explicitly, "Thou shalt not suffer a sorceress to live" (cf. Lv. 20:27). Passages such as these indicate that the biblical authors shared with the common people the belief in the reality and efficacy of magic, but, in contrast with the common folk, condemned it as an act of unfaithfulness to God (cf. Dt. 18:1213).

Recognizing the assurance divination provided, biblical legislation, while outlawing it in the form practiced by the Canaanites, supplied a substitute for it in the mantic activity of prophets, whose legitimacy, it states, would be proven by subsequent events (Dt. 18:1422). The people, it seems, turned to the prophets primarily in order to profit from their mantic powers (1 Sm. 9:6; 1 Kgs. 14:1ff., 22:5ff.; 2 Kgs. 3:11). Divination included the questioning of the Urim and Tummim (1 Sm. 23:912), consultation of the terafim (Jgs. 17:5, 18:14; Hos. 3:4; Ez. 21:26; Zec. 10:2), the use of goblets (Gn. 44:5), arrows (Ez. 21:26), spoken words (Gn. 24:14, 1 Sm. 14:910, cf. v. 12), and the interpretation of the liver (Ez. 21:26), stars (Is. 47:13, Jer. 10:2), and dreams (1 Sm. 28:6). The hold diviners had over the people is best illustrated by the story about King Saul: he "cut them off the land," but when in trouble sought out one of those who remained (1 Sm. 28:325).

The persistence into the first century bce of magic as a part of popular religion is attested by 2 Maccabees 12:40, which tells about the Jewish warriors who wore under their tunics amulets (hieromata ) taken from the idols of Yavneh. This practice was condemned by the author because of the pagan derivation of the amulets. On the other hand, in Tobit, an apocryphal book of the first century bce, a method of exorcising a demon from a possessed person with the help of fumigation is described as having been taught by the angel Raphael, that is, as a religiously orthodox act.

Talmudic Period

After the Babylonian exile, Jewish folk religion found its expression, partly under the impact of Babylonian, Persian, and, later, Hellenistic influences, in a proliferation of angels, demons (some of whom had figured already in the Bible), evil spirits, the evil eye, and so on, and in practices aiming at the invocation of beneficial superhuman powers and the propitiation of, or protection against, those with evil intentions. While in the Jerusalem (Palestinian) Talmud only three categories of demons (mazziqim, shedim, and ruot ) are mentioned, demonology is more prominent in the Palestinian midrashim. However, it is the Babylonian Talmud (completed c. 500 ce) that is the richest source for Jewish folk religion in general and demonology in particular.

For Talmudic Judaism the number of demons was legion. Ashmedʾai was their king, while their queen, Iggrat the daughter of Mahalat, went about with a retinue of 180,000 "angels of destruction" (B.T., Pes. 112b). The Talmudic sages fought valiantly, not against the popular belief in demons, but against the demons themselves. Thus aninaʾ ben Dosaʾ and Abbaye succeeded in restricting the activities of Iggrat to certain times and places. Other sages conducted conversations with demons. Most dangerous was the female demon Lilith, who seduced men at night and strangled babes, and who could be kept away only by means of protective charms.

Since both Talmuds and the midrashim record the sayings, rulings, and acts of the sages, and not of the common folk, our knowledge of folk religion is largely confined to its reflection in the recorded words and deeds of the rabbis, and it is on them that we must base our conclusions as to the religious beliefs and acts of the simple people. Thus, for example, the Mishnah (San. 6.4) and the Jerusalem Talmud (San. 6.9, 23c) tell about the leading first century bce Palestinian sage and head of the Sanhedrin, Shimʾon ben Shea, that he had eighty witches hanged in the port city of Ashqelon. Such a report is, of course, evidence of the existence of a belief in witches among both the people and their spiritual leaders.

Occasional references in the Mishnah and Talmud indicate that kishshuf, witchcraft, was widespread, especially among women (Sot. 9.13, Avot. 2.7; B.T., San. 67a), despite the fact that it was a capital offense (San. 7.4, 7.11; B.T., San. 67b), punishable by stoning. Persons accused of witchcraft were frequently brought before the judges, who therefore were required to have a thorough familiarity with the workings of magic (B.T., San. 17a). They also had certain criteria by which they were able to differentiate between witchcraft and mere trickery (B.T., San. 67b).

Of several sages it is reported that they themselves practiced and taught magic (B.T., San. 67b68a), as did the daughters of at least one of them (B.T., Git. 45a). Some women engaged in faith healing (B.T., Sot. 22a, cf. Rashi). One of the pious men of the first century bce, Honi the Circle Maker, practiced rain magic (Taʿan. 3.8). The use of incantations and the recitation of magic formulas for curative purposes was widespread (B.T., Shab. 67a).

As for amulets (sg., qameiʿa ), in Talmudic times two kinds were in vogue: those written on and those containing roots and leaves. They were dispensed by physicians to cure ailments, and also used by people for protection against the evil eye and demons, and to make women conceive (Kel. 23.1, Shab. 6.2; B.T., Shab. 61ab, Pes. 111b; J. T., Shab. 6, 8b top; Gn. Rab. 45; Nm. Rab. 12; et al.). (Whether the biblical dudaʿim [mandrakes] found by Reuben in the field were ingested by the sterile Rachel or used by her as an amulet is not clear. See Gn. 30:1415, 30:2223.) An amulet was usually put around the neck of a child soon after its birth (B.T., Qid. 73b), which custom has remained alive until modern times in Middle Eastern Jewish communities. Amulets that had proven their efficacy were allowed to be worn outside the home even on the Sabbath, although on that rest day the carrying of all objects was prohibited (Shab. 6.2).

Divination (niush ) continued in the Talmudic period as an integral part of popular religion, despite rabbinic prohibition and its punishment by flogging. The influence of Jewish and Babylonian folk religion on the Babylonian amoraim (Talmudic sages of the third to fifth centuries) can be seen in the permission they gave to use simanim (signs or omens) in trying to foretell the future. Very popular in Talmudic times was the divinatory use of biblical verses randomly recited by children (B.T., ag. 15ab, ul. 95b). There were so few people who refrained from practicing some kind of divination that those who did were considered more meritorious than the ministering angels (B.T., Ned. 32a).

Middle Ages and Later Times

The medieval development of Qabbalah constituted a favorable environment for the further proliferation of the belief in demons. Folk belief and the teachings of Qabbalah mutually reinforced each other. The sexual seduction of humans by demons was considered an imminent danger, resulting in the birth of additional demons. Many illnesses were believed to be the result of spirit possession, and consequently the exorcism of spirits (dybbuks) became an important method of popular medicine. While the exorcists seem to have been men only, the persons considered possessed were mostly women. Childlessnessgenerally considered the wife's "fault"gave rise to a wide variety of folk cures, including the ingestion of substances of animal origin prohibited by halakhah (traditional Jewish law).

Much of medieval Jewish folk religion expressed itself in rites and ceremonies performed at the three major stages of human life: birth (including circumcision), marriage, and death. On these occasions the demons were believed to be especially aggressive and dangerous, and the protection of the principals as well as the attendants was a major concern that gave rise to numerous folk rites.

Features of folk religion are also present at the celebrations of the official Jewish holy days, despite repeated attempts by rabbinical authorities to suppress them. The Tashlikh rite (the symbolic casting of one's sins into water on Roʾsh ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year) and the Kapparah (the symbolic transference of one's sins onto a hen or a cock on the eve of Yom Kippur) are two examples of practices that Jewish folk religion introduced into the High Holy Days celebrations over the objection of the rabbis.

Of special interest for the historian of religion is the extent to which Jewish folk religion succeeded in being accepted by the leading Jewish religious authorities, who, by including numerous folk beliefs and customs into their halakhic codes, made them part of official Judaism. The Shulan ʿarukh, the law code that governs Jewish traditional life to this day, contains rulings that show that its author, the Sefardi Yosef Karo (14881575), and his chief annotator, the Ashkenazi Mosheh Isserles (15251572), believed in the power of the evil eye to harm a person even in the synagogue, in the efficacy of amulets, in the influence of the stars on human life, in omens, in incantations to subdue demons and dangerous animals, in the magic prevention or cure of illness, in consulting the dead and the demons, and so on.

The veneration of saintly men and, more rarely, women, expressed mainly in visits to their tombs with appropriate offerings in the hope of obtaining various benefits, has been an integral part of Jewish folk religion, especially in Islamic countries, for centuries. Occasionally the same Jewish or Muslim saint has been venerated by both Jews and Muslims.

Although several leading medieval rabbinical authorities (including Moses Maimonides, 1135/81204) objected to the use of amulets, charms, and magic remedies, their popularity could not be checked, and after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 they spread to eastern Europe. Prepared by rabbis, healers, or holy men for a fee, they were believed to save the wearer or user from all types of harm; to cure his (or her) ailments; to protect him from demons; and to provide good luck, health, and many other kinds of benefits. The amulets, widely used especially in the Middle East down to recent times, whether written on paper or made of silver, brass, tin, or iron, are often decorated with magic triangles and squares, the Magen David (Shield of David), or menorahs. The metal amulets typically have the shape of a circle, a square, a rectangle, a shield, a hand (the most frequent shape), and, rarely, a foot. They are inscribed with divine and angelic names, brief quotations from the Bible, and magic combinations of letters or obscure words. Often the amulet states the name of the person for whom it was prepared and the name of his or her mother.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in central and eastern Europe a magician who prepared such amulets was called Baʿal Shem, that is, "Master of the Name," because he was an expert in the use of holy names for magico-religious purposes. The founder of Hasidism, Yisraʾel ben Eliʿezer, known as the Besht (acronym of Baʿal Shem ov), was, in his early years, such a provider of amulets. The popular belief in the efficacy of amulets was so strong that numerous rabbis openly supported their use and wrote treatises in their defense. While practically all the Hasidic rebeyim (as the miracle-working saintly leaders were known) were men, at least occasionally women functioned in the same capacity.

Divination continued to be a widespread practice among the Jews down to modern times. More recent methods resorted to include the lighting of candles, the observation of shadows, opening the Bible at random, casting lots, gazing at a polished surface, incantations, and consulting with the dead. The interpretation of omens developed into a veritable folk science to which frequent references are found in medieval and later rabbinic literature. It also led to a literary genre of its own in Hebrew, sifrei goralot, "books of lots," which contain instructions and rules for the predictive use of names of animals, birds, the twelve tribes, the twelve signs of the Zodiac, cosmic phenomena, the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and so on. These books, which, as a rule, are of southern European or Middle Eastern origin, are the counterpart in the field of divination to the even richer assortment of books on charms and magic remedies, some of which were composed or reprinted as late as the twentieth century.

Modern Period

The spread of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) in the nineteenth century resulted in a decline of both Jewish folk religion and Jewish orthodoxy. By the second half of the twentieth century folk religion remained a significant element only in the culture of a diminishing sector of unsecularized ultraconservative Jews. Those of Middle Eastern extraction transplanted into Israel colorful customs connected with the life cycle and the ritual calendar, as well as features such as the Moroccan Maimuna feast that commemorates the death of Maimonides and the veneration of other saints, similar to the long-established Lag ba-ʿOmer festivities at the tomb of the second-century tanna Shimʿon bar Yoʾai in Meron. In Israeli kibbutsim and in some circles in the United States, attempts are being made to endow traditional religious ceremonies (such as the Passover Seder) with contemporary religious, social, and political relevance. In the United States, outside Orthodox circles, traditional Jewish folk religion is largely moribund, but the transformation of the synagogue into a "center" of social, educational, cultural, and charitable activities and the proliferation of men's clubs, sisterhoods, youth groups, and avurot (egalitarian religious fellowships) can be interpreted as a new departure in the realm of folk Judaism. Manifestations such as these can be taken as indications that folk religion, which has always been a significant aspect of Jewish religious life, is still alive and can be expected to produce as yet unforeseeable developments.

See Also

Alphabets; Hasidism, overview article; Pilgrimage, article on Contemporary Jewish Pilgrimage; Prophecy, article on Biblical Prophecy; Talmud.


There is no single book dealing with the whole field of Jewish folk religion, or even with Jewish folk religion in one particular period. There are, however, numerous studies on specific aspects of Jewish folk religion in each of the major historical periods of Judaism.

Biblical Period

Several of the standard histories of biblical Hebrew religion discuss such elements in it as folk belief, folk custom, and magic. See also Reginald C. Thompson's Semitic Magic: Its Origins and Development (London, 1908); Alfred Guillaume's Prophecy and Divination among the Hebrews and Other Semites (London, 1938); James G. Frazer's Folk-Lore in the Old Testament, 3 vols. (London, 1919); and S. H. Hooke's The Origins of Early Semitic Ritual (Oxford, 1938).

Talmudic Period

There is no study on Talmudic folk religion in general, but several books deal with Talmudic magic and other aspects of Talmudic folk belief. See Gideon Brecher's Das Transcendentale, Magie, und magische Heilarten im Talmud (Vienna, 1850), mainly of historical interest as a pioneering study; Ludwig Blau's Das altjüdische Zauberwesen (Strasbourg, 1898), still very valuable; Samuel Daiches's Babylonian Oil Magic in the Talmud and Later Jewish Literature (Oxford, 1913); Sefer harazim, edited by Mordechai Margalioth (Jerusalem, 1969); and my Man and Temple in Ancient Jewish Myth and Ritual (1947; 2d ed., New York, 1967).

Middle Ages and Later Times

The subject most thoroughly researched within the general field of medieval and later Jewish folk religion is magic. See in particular The Sword of Moses: An Ancient Book of Magic, edited by Moses Gaster (London, 1896), and Gaster's Studies and Texts in Folklore, Magic, Medieval Romance, Hebrew Apocrypha, and Samaritan Archaeology, 3 vols. (19251928; reprint, New York, 1971); Hermann Gollancz's Book of the Key of Solomon, in Hebrew and English (Oxford, 1914); Joshua Trachtenberg's Jewish Magic and Superstition (1939; reprint, New York, 1982); H. J. Zimmels's Magicians, Theologians and Doctors (London, 1952).

Special Subjects

Among the books dealing with special subjects within the general field of Jewish folk religion the following should be mentioned: Michael L. Rodkinson's History of Amulets, Charms, and Talismans (New York, 1893); Theodore Schrire's Hebrew Amulets (London, 1966); reprinted as Hebrew Magic Amulets (New York, 1982); Angelo S. Rappoport's The Folklore of the Jews (London, 1937); my On Jewish Folklore (Detroit, 1983); and Michael Molho's Usos y costumbres de los Sefardíes de Salónica (Madrid, 1950).

Much material on Jewish folk religion is contained in the journals devoted to Jewish folklore and folk life: Mitteilungen zur jüdischen Volkskunde (Berlin, 18981929) and Jahrbuch für jüdische Volkskunde (Berlin, 19231925), both edited by Max Grunwald; Edoth: A Quarterly for Folklore and Ethnology (in Hebrew and English), edited by myself and Joseph J. Rivlin (Jerusalem, 19451948); and Yedaʿ-ʿAm, edited by Yom-Tov Levinsky (Tel Aviv, 1948).

New Sources

Cohen, Shaye J. D., ed. The Jewish Family in Antiquity. Atlanta, 1993.

King, Philip J., and Laurence E. Stager. Life in Biblical Israel. Louisville, Ky., 2001.

Lowenstein, Steven M. Frankfurt on the Hudson: The German-Jewish Community of Washington Heights, 1933-1983, Its Structure and Culture. Detroit, Mich., 1989.

Lowenstein, Steven M. "The Shifting Boundary between Eastern and Western Jewry." Journal of Social Studies, 4 (Fall 1997): 6079.

Lowenstein, Steven M. The Jewish Cultural Tapestry: International Jewish Folk Traditions. New York, 2000.

Malina, Bruce J. The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels. New York, 1996.

Niditich, Susan. Ancient Israelite Tradition. New York, 1997.

Raphael Patai (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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