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The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism: Second Edition

The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism: Second Edition PDF

Author: Geoffrey W. Dennis

Publisher: Llewellyn Publications


Publish Date: February 8, 2016

ISBN-10: 073874591X

Pages: 504

File Type: Epub

Language: English

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Book Preface

Judaism is one of the oldest living esoteric traditions in the world. Virtually every form of Western mysticism and spiritualism known today draws upon Jewish mythic and occult teachings—magic, prayer, angelology, alchemy, numerology, astral projection, dream interpretation, astrology, amulets, divination, altered states of consciousness, alternative, and rituals of power—all have roots in the Jewish occult.

But for millennia, many of these core teachings have been unavailable to the general public, concealed by barriers of language and by the protective principles governing the teaching of Kabbalah, which has both nurtured and guarded such knowledge. Now, however, many more traditional texts of Jewish mysticism and magic are being translated into English and many more almost-forgotten manuscripts of Jewish esoteric teachings have been recovered and identified. At the same time, people of all backgrounds are thirsty for the kind of wisdom that can only be drawn from ancient wells. This confluence of factors inspired me to write a book like The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.

When Adam HaRishon, the First Man, sinned, he blemished all the nitzotzot (Holy Sparks) … causing them to become immersed in the kelipot … The kelipot are the husks or shells [of impurity, evil, and entropy] that imprison the fallen Holy Sparks.1

This is a book full of husks and sparks: of things concealed and revealed, lost and then recovered. This encyclopedia focuses exclusively on the esoteric in Judaism—the fabulous, the miraculous, and the mysterious. In this book the reader will find many kelipot, husks from the ancient and shattered world of Jewish occult teachings: the seemingly eccentric, the offbeat, the peripheral, and the outlandish. Much of it will strike a modern reader as dark, strange, and alien stuff indeed—husks.

Because so much has been lost over the past two centuries of what we term “modernization,” even many Jews will be puzzled by the contents of this book. And to be frank, most Jews can live very satisfactory spiritual lives never having known, or never knowing, much of what can be found in these pages. So be forewarned: this is not a primer on Judaism, providing a conventional perspective on those beliefs and practices most people associate with Torah and Jewish faith. On the other hand …

Concealed within these many husks there are nitzotzot, orholy sparks.” Since Jewish esotericism is the oldest and most influential continuous occult tradition in the West, shaping everything from angelology to the zodiac, this book contains lore that can spiritually enrich the lives of anyone, Jewish or not, who wishes to understand the mysteries that underlie our universe. The reader who looks carefully into this book will glimpse flashes of insight, glimmers of inspiration, and sparks of wit and wisdom. For Jews, this book uncovers aspects of Judaism that have been lost to most of us until recently. For every reader, this book is meant to be a portal into an exotic alternate spiritual world, for this is a book about three things that have profoundly shaped human experience: myth, magic, and mysticism.

Already, with the word “myth,” the puzzlement begins and our modern prejudices take over our thinking. For is not a myth a kind of fairy tale, a fantastic account about something that never really was? Modern Jews are constantly taught that Judaism is a religion without mythology, a faith unburdened by fanciful and grotesque “adventures of the gods.” To that claim I answer, “Well, yes and no.”

First of all, let us clear something up: a myth, a really good myth, is not a story about something that never happened. It’s a story about something that happens all the time. Myths are archetypal tales, fabulous stories told to help us fathom important truths—truths about ourselves, our universe, and how things really are. And while it is true that Judaism (mostly) lacks stories about “God as action-hero,” it nevertheless revels in mythological tales about those things which are, to paraphrase the Psalms, “little less than God”; angels and demons, primeval monsters, magicians and miracle-workers, agents of good and evil. After all, what are the first eleven chapters of Genesis if not a carefully crafted mythic account of exactly what human beings are and how our world came to look the way it does? The simple fact is that Jewish tradition overflows with myths of deep complexity and singular wisdom.

It is much the same with regard to the magical. Modern Jews like to imagine that magic has been swept into the dustbin of history by the long, inexorable progress of rationalism. More than that, Jews have been taught from our youth that Judaism has always possessed an essentially naturalistic worldview and that magic, merely a marginal Jewish preoccupation at most, was just an anomaly resulting from our being situated (and corrupted) by the superstitions of our neighbors. But that’s not entirely accurate. It is only in the last two centuries that Jews have fully embraced science, but we have always been looking for ways to change the world for the better, whether it be through science, medicine, or “practical Kabbalah.”

Even today, rationalism has not completely displaced our sense that there is a mystical potential at work in the world; Occam’s razor has never been able to fully overpower the Sixteen-Sided Sword of the Almighty.2 Millions of people, both Jews and gentiles, continue to believe that the stars influence our lives. Most Americans believe in the reality of angels. Jewish techniques of dream interpretation and for combating the evil eye are still widely practiced today. When you read the entries of this book on topics such as these, you will realize that magical thinking and enchanting deeds have always had a place in Judaism and, however much some might want to dismiss Judaism’s miraculous and wondrous traditions, the presence of Jewish magic in Jewish life has merely been eclipsed, never uprooted; it still has the potential to empower us.

Mysticism, the quest for an intimate encounter with God, has fared little better in modernity than Jewish myth or magic, but for different reasons than those discussed above. For despite a long retreat from its disciplines among many Western Jews from the eighteenth through twentieth centuries, Kabbalah has continued to have its champions and its practitioners.

Instead, there is a terrible irony that haunts the contemporary seeker in regard to Jewish mysticism. For it was in the middle of the last century, just at the time when sparks of renewed interest in Kabbalah were released in the world, that a terrible demonic force, Nazism, arose to engulf and extinguish the lights emanating from the countless spiritual centers of Jewish mysticism in eastern Europe. The Nazis slew many, if not most, of the precious teachers and disciples of Jewish mysticism in its monstrous campaign to blot out all things Jewish from the world. Because of the scope of that crime, those of us who would use Kabbalah in our soul journey, or who long to storm the gates of heaven, have been left with few teachers to guide us. Thus many of us have had to rediscover the ancient paths to supernal wisdom without accomplished masters to guide us on our way.

Thankfully, as we enter into a new millennium, new teachers have arisen and this generation has yielded many new devotees. Students of Kabbalah, inspired by a small but vigorous circle of self-educated leaders, have shown themselves determined not to let such divine mysteries slip into oblivion, and they have recovered and reclaimed much. Moreover, as this generation has come to better understand the wisdom and power of Kabbalah, that recovered knowledge has also helped inspire interest in related Jewish traditions—mythic traditions and occult traditions—other holy sparks, that are now included in this encyclopedia.

As I said at the beginning of this introduction, this book is a combination of kelipot and nitzotzot, of husks and sparks. While I have learned many divine lessons from these traditions, lessons that have both enriched my understanding and influenced my life, many more of them remain still trapped in their husks; I apprehend them but do not yet understand or appreciate what they are trying to teach me. Moreover, in teaching this lore to my congregants, to my university students, to Jews, and to non-Jews alike, I have come to understand that holy sparks do not always reveal themselves to everyone at the same time, or even reveal themselves at all. Spiritually, the student has to be ready to see a spark before it can shine forth. Some teachings that I find enlightening or empowering continue to remain dark and inert for my students. Other teachings that I fail to appreciate myself, my students find illuminating. Therefore my philosophy in writing this book has been to include all the Jewish mystical, occult, and fabulous teachings I have found—even those I neither fully understand nor accept—in the hopes that a reader somewhere will perhaps find a spark in something I cannot (yet).

It has also been my approach in writing these entries to describe more than I interpret, and to interpret more than judge. At times, some interpretation is called for, and I give it my best effort, trying to be clear without oversimplifying. At other times, judgment of some sort is also appropriate, and at such occasions, I offer mine; the reader is welcome to disagree with me—in fact I encourage it. And on occasion I include comments that reflect, as one early reader called it, an “insouciant sense of humor.” I feel it is right to do this because humor has always been an honored method of Jewish wisdom development. The Bible, rabbinic literature, and Kabbalah are all filled with sayings, stories, and teachings that are supposed to make us laugh. Furthermore, I hope that it will be clear to the reader that I use humor in a spirit of love, for I do love this lore, all of it, even those practices and ideas that puzzle me, trouble me, or seem at odds with my own philosophy of Torah.


The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism was released in 2007 to remarkable reception. It was honored by both the Jewish Book Council and the Association of Jewish Librarians, and it received enthusiastic popular interest. Almost immediately people, in person and through e-mails, letters, and my blog Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism would draw my attention to the need for something more: more Hebrew, more direct quotes from the sources, more illustrations, as well as terms, concepts, and themes that really deserved their own entries or expanded treatment or revision. Moreover, over the past decade, as I have continued to publish articles in academic journals and write entries for other people’s encyclopedias in the fields of biblical studies, mysticism, theology, and ritual studies, I constantly uncovered new esoteric traditions and source materials.

So soon after its release, I took a copy of the EJMMM and started adding notations, comments, and source citations for further research and development. That copy went with me when I taught my own university classes, when I heard others lecture, and when I went to conferences, to retreats, and to study sessions. That battered (a mirror, perhaps, of its owner) copy of the EJMMM, now inked over with seven years of additional information and discoveries, sits next to me even now as I write this, the last element in the process of replacing it.

As with the original EJMMM, many hands have contributed to this edition. I have had the privilege to hear the presentations of leading researchers—most notably Moshe Idel, Pichas Giller, Arthur Green, Jay Michaelson, and Elliot Wolfson—who have influenced and, at times, changed my perspectives on a variety of issues. My colleagues and study chevruta, Rabbi Charles (“Charlie”) Cytron-Walker and Rabbi Benjamin (“Ben”) Sternman, have helped me investigate many issues in depth. My ongoing dialogue with my dear (but sadly distant) colleague, Rabbi Stan Zamek, has been an ongoing boon in my work. As always, my blessing, my wife Robin, has been both a ready research assistant and a patient hand-holder through this process.

And I especially want to thank the many interlocutors, most of them anonymous, on my blog who have added to this revised work. However, I do want to (partially) name Aharon, Charles, and Brem, who engaged me on several occasions and drew my attention to useful new sources and information.

Finally, my appreciation goes out to my publisher, Llewellyn Worldwide, and Elysia Gallo, its Acquisitions Editor, for giving me this opportunity to continue and advance this labor of love.

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