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Jewish Beliefs on Demons, Evil Spirits, Witchcraft, and Sorcerous Practices

Jul 17, 2023

The Milky Way over the Negev desert (

כְּמַעֲשֵׂ֧ה אֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרַ֛יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְשַׁבְתֶּם־בָּ֖הּ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֑וּ וּכְמַעֲשֵׂ֣ה אֶֽרֶץ־כְּנַ֡עַן אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֲנִי֩ מֵבִ֨יא אֶתְכֶ֥ם שָׁ֙מָּה֙ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּ וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶ֖ם לֹ֥א תֵלֵֽכוּ׃

You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.

k'-ma-a-SAY e-retz mitz-RA-yim a-SHER y'-shav-tem BA LO ta-a-SU u-kh'-ma-a-SAY e-retz k'-NA-an a-SHER a-NEE may-VEE et-KHEM SHA-ma LO ta-a-SU uv-khu-ko-tay-HEM lo tay-LAY-khu

Leviticus 18:3

וְלֹא־יִזְבְּח֥וּ עוֹד֙ אֶת־זִבְחֵיהֶ֔ם לַשְּׂעִירִ֕ם אֲשֶׁ֛ר הֵ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַחֲרֵיהֶ֑ם חֻקַּ֥ת עוֹלָ֛ם תִּֽהְיֶה־זֹּ֥את לָהֶ֖ם לְדֹרֹתָֽם׃

and that they may offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after whom they stray. This shall be to them a law for all time, throughout the ages.

v'-LO yiz-B'-khu OD et ziv-KHE-hem la-s'-EE-rim a-SHER HEM zo-NIM a-cha-RE-hem khu-KAT o-LAM ti-HEH-zot la-HEM l'-do-RO-tam

Leviticus 17:7

עֶרְוַ֨ת אֲחֽוֹתְךָ֤ בַת־אָבִ֙יךָ֙ א֣וֹ בַת־אִמֶּ֔ךָ מוֹלֶ֣דֶת בַּ֔יִת א֖וֹ מוֹלֶ֣דֶת ח֑וּץ לֹ֥א תְגַלֶּ֖ה עֶרְוָתָֽן׃

The nakedness of your sister—your father's daughter or your mother's, whether born into the household or outside—do not uncover their nakedness.

er-VAT a-KHO-t'-KHA bat a-vee-KHA o bat i-ME-kha mo-LE-det BA-yit o mo-LE-det KHUTZ lo t'-ga-LEH er-va-TAN.

Leviticus 18:9

עֶרְוַ֤ת בַּת־בִּנְךָ֙ א֣וֹ בַֽת־בִּתְּךָ֔ לֹ֥א תְגַלֶּ֖ה עֶרְוָתָ֑ן כִּ֥י עֶרְוָתְךָ֖ הֵֽנָּה׃

The nakedness of your son's daughter, or of your daughter's daughter—do not uncover their nakedness; for their nakedness is yours.

er-VAT bat-bi-N'KHA o vat-bi-t'-KHA lo t'-ga-LEH er-va-TAN, KEE er-va-T'-KHA he-Na.

Leviticus 18:10

עֶרְוַ֨ת בַּת־אֵ֤שֶׁת אָבִ֙יךָ֙ מוֹלֶ֣דֶת אָבִ֔יךָ אֲחוֹתְךָ֖ הִ֑וא לֹ֥א תְגַלֶּ֖ה עֶרְוָתָֽהּ׃

The nakedness of your father's wife's daughter, who has born into your father's household—she is your sister; do not uncover her nakedness.

er-VAT bat-EY-shet a-VEE-kha mo-LE-det a-VEE-kha a-KHO-te-KHA hee lo te-ga-LEH er-va-TAH. (S)

Leviticus 18:11

עֶרְוַ֥ת אֲחוֹת־אָבִ֖יךָ לֹ֣א תְגַלֵּ֑ה שְׁאֵ֥ר אָבִ֖יךָ הִֽוא׃

Do not uncover the nakedness of your father's sister; she is your father's flesh.

er-VAT a-KHOT a-ve-KHA lo te-ga-LEH, she-ER a-ve-KHA he-VU. (Se)

Leviticus 18:12

Judaism, like many religious traditions, has a rich tapestry of beliefs and interpretations regarding the supernatural. Within the Jewish tradition, there is a spectrum of views on the existence and nature of demons, evil spirits, witchcraft, and sorcerous practices. In this article, we will explore the biblical sources that touch on these issues and the theological debates among prominent rabbis about them.

Biblical Condemnation of Sorcery and Witchcraft

The Bible, particularly in the Torah, contains several passages that address and condemn sorcery and witchcraft. For instance, Deuteronomy 18:9-12 warns the Israelites against engaging in various forms of divination and sorcery, asserting that these practices are detestable to God. Leviticus 18:3 echoes this sentiment by advising the Israelites not to follow the customs and practices of the nations that they are to dispossess, which included various forms of sorcery.

Additionally, the Bible condemns sacrifices to demons, as found in Leviticus 17:7 and Deuteronomy 32:17. These passages warn against the dangers of idolatry and associating with supernatural entities other than the God of Israel.

The Great Rabbinic Debate: Maimonides vs. Nachmanides

Central to the Jewish understanding of demons and sorcery is the debate among rabbinic scholars. Two of the most influential figures in this discussion are Rambam (Maimonides) and Ramban (Nachmanides).

Maimonides: Denial of the Supernatural

Maimonides, one of the preeminent Jewish philosophers and Torah scholars, categorically denied the existence of demons, evil spirits, and sorcerous practices. He posited that such beliefs were fabrications, created to control and deceive the masses. According to Maimonides, tales of harnessing supernatural forces through plants or celestial bodies were inventions aimed at exploiting people for monetary gain and allegiance. Maimonides was particularly concerned that these fraudulent practices led people away from true faith in God.

Nachmanides: Affirmation of the Supernatural

Contrary to Maimonides, Nachmanides, another towering figure in Jewish scholarship, asserted that sorcery and supernatural entities were real. He believed that individuals could harness impure forces to accomplish feats beyond the natural order of the world. According to Nachmanides, the various forms of witchcraft that are prohibited in the Bible are indicative of the methods used to engage with these malevolent forces.

Sorcery and Witchcraft as Forms of Idol Worship

An essential perspective to consider within the Jewish tradition is the categorization of sorcery and witchcraft as forms of idol worship. Idol worship, in the context of the Bible, refers to the act of revering or deifying entities other than the God of Israel. Since sorcery and witchcraft often involve invoking powers or spirits believed to be outside the domain of the divine, they are regarded as idolatrous practices.

According to Jewish tradition, idol worship is one of the gravest sins, as it goes against the fundamental principle of monotheism, which holds that there is only one God. By engaging in sorcery or witchcraft, an individual is perceived to be seeking intervention or assistance from forces other than God. This undermines the very foundation of Jewish faith and is seen as an affront to the relationship between God and His people.

Consequently, the prohibitions against sorcery and witchcraft in the Bible can be understood not only as warnings against practices considered detestable but also as part of a broader admonition against idolatry. This view is reinforced by the fact that the Bible often mentions sorcery and witchcraft alongside other forms of idolatrous practices. Thus, in the Jewish tradition, adhering to monotheism and refraining from idol worship, including sorcery and witchcraft, is paramount to maintaining a righteous and faithful relationship with God.

A United Stance Against Practicing Sorcery

Regardless of the differences in belief about the existence of demons, evil spirits, and sorcery, both Maimonides and Nachmanides, along with the broader spectrum of rabbinic authorities, agree on one fundamental point: these practices are strictly prohibited by the Bible. Whether one views them as illusions or as real entities and powers, engaging in witchcraft, sorcery, or any form of malevolent supernatural practice is considered contrary to the teachings and commandments of the Jewish faith.

Related Names and Places: Sorcerers and Witchcraft

Relate Bible Verses: Chapter 18

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