Yuval Harari’s Jewish Magic before the Rise of Kabbalah includes material that clarifies the relationship between magical skulls and incantation bowls, the tight linkage between witchcraft and harlotry, the invocation of angelic spirits (‘princes’) to acquire knowledge of both a practical and theoretical sort (most especially knowledge and understanding of the Torah), and so on. As the title suggests, it focuses on the pre-medieval dimensions of the Jewish magical tradition, looking quite a bit at the rabbinic material, but it does dip into the debates that are taking place on the eve of the medieval era (most prominently those defined by Maimonides).
It has the air of the dissertation to it, including an extensive review of the last century of thought about what exactly constitutes ‘magic’ from a historical, sociological, and anthropological perspective. It probably won’t hurt anyone to be reminded what a headache the question can be and Harari makes a good case for not drawing a strong line between ‘magic’ and religious practice. Of the most interest to me are three topics that I just want to record here for reference.
(1) Harari’s discussion of demonic hierarchy, including various accounts of their origin. Three things here that catch my eye:
(a) The general sense that what is being called ‘demonic’ is pervasive and deeply entangled with creation (“As a rule, the night is the time of their domain, but they can also cause harm during the day. There are demons of shade and others, shabrirei yom, for whom daylight is their time.” ; “Demons can even be found in the holiest places and at the holiest of times. According to one tradition, they were present at Mount Sinai at the giving of the Torah.” ).
(b) Asmodeus’s prominence as the king of the demonic forces, but it being another figure, Agrat the daughter of Mahalat, who oversees their activity within the world (Agrat “leads a ‘chariot’ [merkavah] of harmful beings—180,000 destructive angels” ). That may be useful in thinking about Revelation.
(c) An account in the book of Tobit that integrates the woman with seven (dead) husbands into the Jewish community, placing the blame for the death of her previous husbands on Asmodeus who loves her. In Tobit, Tobias (son of Tobit) is able to protect himself from Asmodeus and so successfully secure marriage to her. That serves as an intriguing variation of the concubine material.
The way in which the woman moves through seven husbands also suggests something of an initiatory series that culminates in her integration into the line of Israel. The eighth husband, the living husband, is Israel.
(2) The book has the most exciting fourteen pages on dream work that I have read in a long time, including a nice summary of the differences of opinion regarding the relevance or irrelevance of dreams; an extensive set of ritual practices for ameliorating the dangers of bad dreams and securing blessings from good dreams; and a discussion about the generative possibilities of interpreting a dream.
(3) A discussion about the relationship between astral and astrological prediction and its relationship to the children of Israel. Harari traces out a line of thinking that links being the chosen people with falling outside the influences of the stars, such that the prohibition against astrology relates explicitly to it being inapplicable to a Jewish person. There is also a minor chord within this thinking that conceives of this liberation as contingent, rooted in proper observation of Jewish law, with the covering of the head being a practical tool for hedging out astral influence.
Given the proximity of Jewish and Christian communities during the early phase of this history, we can see something of a tug of war between the epistles of Paul and the rabbinic account, with each claiming freedom from astral determination.