Witches in the Bible and in the Talmud

Meir Bar-Ilan

Once, when Prof. Saul Lieberman chaired a meeting at which Gershom Scholem spoke, Lieberman said: "Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship". This statement was made in regard to Kabbalah, and is all the more true in regard to a study of witchcraft. This essay is meant to examine the female aspect of Jewish witchcraft in the ancient era. It focuses primarily on the Talmudic era, but the Biblical period is examined first as a type of introduction and background. The purpose in assembling the data here was twofold: on the one hand, to examine historically witchcraft among the Jewish people in ancient times, and on the other, to examine the specifically "female" social aspect of this occupation. Thus, it will become clear that the history of witchcraft, even if it considered to be the history of "nonsense", is in reality an inseparable chapter of the question of the status of women and the relationship between women and men in the ancient era.

A. Women Witches in the Bible

The ancient world was saturated with witchcraft. People believed in the power of the word to influence and cause events, without one lifting a hand. It followed that the believers in witchcraft had need of those experts (in the period before there were any other realms of expertise), who were capable of changing or rectifying matters in the world with a mere utterance of their mouths.1 As is known, the Torah forbids witchcraft in any form whatsoever, and this prohibition is repeated a number of times. In Deut. 18:10-12, we read:

There shall not be found among you any one that ... uses divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer, for all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord.

In Lev. 19:26, it states, "You shall not eat any thing with the blood; neither shall you use enchantment, nor observe times", and in regard to King Menasseh, it states clearly (II Kings 21:2 ff.), "He did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, after the abominations of the heathen, whom the Lord cast out before the children of Israel". His sins are then enumerated as follows:

He built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord. And he made his son pass through the fire, and observed times, and used enchantments, and dealt with familiar spirits and wizards. He wrought much wickedness in the sight of the Lord, to provoke Him to anger (vs. 5-6).

Thus in the Torah we find a prohibition against the existence of witches on the one hand, and a prohibition against practicing witchcraft on the other. In Exodus 22:17, a further prohibition is brought: "You shall not suffer a witch to live". A new element is introduced here. Not only is the punishment stipulated as death, a punishment not stipulated earlier, but emphasis is laid here on the woman who is a witch, the Hebrew term used being mekasefa, the female form. This emphasis seems strange, given the background of the literary evidence of sorcerers and not of witches.2

The only example in the Bible of a clear description of the practice of witchcraft is that of the woman who divined using the Ob. In I Sam. 28, we are told how Saul went to fight the Philistines, but before doing so he went to visit the woman in Ein Dor who divined using the Ob. Using the Ob, she raised up the prophet Samuel, who had died not long before, and from the conversation between Saul and the woman we see that Saul had killed all the diviners, in accordance with the verse, "You shall not suffer a witch to live". There are those, though, who claim that the woman merely deceived Saul in to believing that the prophet Samuel had spoken to him,3 but this rationalistic approach does not change anything in understanding the story here: witchcraft in ancient times, and the role of women in it.

Another woman to whom the Bible ascribes acts of witchcraft is Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Sidon. Regarding Jezebel, we are told in II Kings 9:22, that "the whoredoms of your mother Jezebel and her witchcrafts are so many". A similar link between sexual immorality and witchcraft can be deduced from the words of the prophet Nahum (3:4), who compares Nineveh to "the well favored harlot, the mistress of witchcrafts, that sells nations through her whoredoms, and families through her witchcraft". In other words, in ancient times there was evidently a link between sexual immorality and witchcraft,4 two "qualities" or "professions" which were possibly on the fringes of society, but which men needed.5 The prophet Ezekiel (13:17-23) prophesied against Jewish women who dealt with witchcraft and magic, to kill people or to bring people to life, i.e., black or even white magic, as an occupation common to a group of women.6 As a general rule, the Bible carries accounts of women who engaged in witchcraft, and there is even a certain stress on women as opposed to men, but we do not find women be identified with witchcraft in the Bible as we find in the post Biblical literature.

B. Women Witches in the Apocrypha

The links between women and witchcraft is mentioned very little in the Apocrypha, and we will commence with Enoch I (the Ethiopian). This book was written in approximately the third century B.C.E., i.e., before some of the Biblical works were written.7 In Enoch I, chapters 6-8, we find something akin to a Midrash on Genesis 6:14, where we are told of the Sons of God who took the daughters of men as wives. While the Biblical account is very brief, Enoch I deals with this episode at length. The author explains that two hundred angels led by Shemhazi (i.e., "the one who sees God"), came down on Mount Hermon, after which it states,

They took for themselves, they and all the others with them, took themselves wives, and each chose for himself one. They began to come upon them and cleaved to them and taught them magic and witchcraft and they taught them to cut roots and plants.8

In other words, the source for the knowledge of witchcraft among the human race was the angels (as mentioned there, 8:3). The angels taught witchcraft to mankind, so that the first humans to know it were women. From this one can see that the source of evil in the world is women. In the Testament of Reuben, 5:5-6, there is mention of the sin of the women with the Nefilim:

...For every woman who carries out these schemes will suffer eternal punishment, for it was thus that they led astray with their witchcraft the Nefilim before the flood.

According to the author of this work, the women did not learn witchcraft from the angels, but, on the contrary, they knew witchcraft even before then, and used these powers to have the angels fall into their traps.9 It would appear that a comprehensive approach such as this toward women as the source of witchcraft among mankind (even if according to Enoch I they obtained it from the angels), can serve as a proper introduction to the Talmudic literature as will be explained below.

C. Women Witches in the Talmud

In the centuries just before and just after the beginning of the Common Era, the Jews were known among the other nations as having magical powers, although this was not limited only to women.10 The involvement with witchcraft in the past led modern scholars to deal with it to a greater or lesser extent, but it would appear that the social aspect of witchcraft was never dealt with.11 In any event, the most ancient evidence of witches in the Talmudic literature deals with the non Jewish witches which Simeon ben Shetah killed in the first century B.C.E.

According to the story brought in JT Hagigah 2:2 (77d), 'R. Simeon ben Shetah hanged eighty witches in Ashkelon, these being women who had lived in a single cave and who had "harmed the world".12 The Talmudic description which details exactly how Simeon ben Shetah's men were able to capture these witches indicating a knowledge of witchcraft,13 and leaves no room for doubt that there was indeed a historical background to that story, although this particular aspect is not clarified. It is difficult to know from the story whether Simeon ben Shetah captured Ashkelon, or why he specifically killed witches rather than his enemies. It would appear logical that these witches were priestesses of idolatrous worship, for it is obvious that every sorcerer or witch must turn to the god who he or she worships. It thus follows that Simeon ben Shetah's action was linked to the attempt to expunge idolatry from the country.14 In any event, these witches were evidently not Jewish, and one cannot deduce anything about the Jewish society in Eretz Israel in ancient times from this particular account.

In the Talmudic literature, there is the assertion a number of times that women are synonymous with witchcraft, and this is expressed in a number of ways. In the Mishnah Abot 2:7, we have the saying by Hillel (of the first century C.E.): "The more possessions, the more worry; the more wives, the more witchcraft; the more female slaves, the more promiscuity". In other words, just as it is certain that increasing one's possessions must result in increased worry, it is certain that the more female slaves the more promiscuity15 and the more wives the more witchcraft. This evidently means that an older wife will use witchcraft to prevent a younger one from bearing children, or so that she will not enjoy the husband's favors, etc.16 In the Tannaitic literature of approximately the second century C.E., there are a number of mentions of the link between women and witchcraft, in an extreme fashion.

In Berakhot 53a, the following law is brought:

The Sages learned: "If a person was walking outside a town and smelled a good smell; if the majority are heathens, he does not recite a blessing (on the good smell). If the majority are Jews, he does recite the blessing". R. Yose says, "Even if the majority are Jews he still does not recite the blessing, because Jewish women offer incense to witchcraft".

In other words, according to R. Yose the Galilean (second century C.E.), the average Jewish woman is suspected of engaging in witchcraft, i.e., of burning incense.17 It is true that the Talmud there attempts to mitigate this view and states that only the minority of incense burning is carried out for the purpose of witchcraft, but it appears that one cannot ignore the general statement of R. Yose the Galilean whereby the average incense burning is to be assumed to be by Jewish women practicing witchcraft.

R. Yose's strong opinion of the close ties between women and witchcraft is in keeping with the view of R. Simeon bar Yohai, his junior. The Talmud in Erubin 64b deals with the law of whether a man who was walking along the road and saw bread lying there may leave it there, or whether he is required to pick it up. From a story told there of Rabban Gamliel, the Talmud concludes that one cannot leave the bread there but must pick it up. However, in its continuation, the Talmud notes:

R. Yohanan said in the name of R. Simeon bar Yohai: "That only applied in the early generations, where the Jewish daughters were not flagrantly involved in witchcraft, but in the later generations, where the Jewish daughters are flagrantly involved in witchcraft, one does pass (the food) by".

In other words, according to R. Simeon bar Yohai, Jewish women are flagrantly involved in witchcraft, and thus the chances are overwhelming that the bread that a man finds as he walks on the road is to be assumed to be part of witchcraft (as, for example, where an image of an enemy was drawn on the dough in order to destroy him), and therefore one is not to move the bread from its place.18

In the parallel passage in JT Abodah Zarah 1:9 (40a) we find a similar comment, with slight changes. There the note is brought in the name of R. Abahu, and not R. Simeon bar Yohai. Furthermore, it gives as the reason for not picking up bread "because of witchcraft", without mentioning women as such (even though bread was generally baked by women rather than by men). Based on the different versions in the texts, one cannot tell clearly whether it was indeed R. Simeon bar Yohai who made this major indictment against women. However we do have in our possession another text which may tip the scale in positively identifying this statement with R. Simeon bar Yohai. In JT Kiddushin 4 (66c), we find the following:

R. Simeon bar Yohai learned: "The best of heathens - kill him; the best of snakes - smash its skull; the best of women - is filled with witchcraft; praised be he who fulfills the will of the Place" (i.e., of God, who is omnipresent, or in every place at the same time).19

Thus we see clearly that R. Simeon bar Yohai is consistent in his views: it is he who holds that "the Jewish daughters are flagrantly involved in witchcraft", and he who stated that "the best of women - is filled with witchcraft".20 In other words, suspicion of involvement in witchcraft falls upon the majority of Jewish women, if not on all. Indeed, these views of the Tannaim are generally brought anonymously, and one may be able to deduce from them that it was not only these two Tannaim who held the view that the majority of Jewish women were involved in witchcraft. Thus, for example, in Sanhedrin 67a, a beraita is brought on the verse (Ex. 22:17), "You shall not suffer a witch to live" and it states there:

Our Sages learned: "witch" refers to both males and females. Why then does it state "witch" (rather than " sorcerer")? It is because most women are involved in witchcraft.21

According to the dispute between R. Yose and R. Akiba in the continuation of the beraita, one can see this view as preceding them chronologically. In any event, here we have a clear opinion regarding the tie between the majority of women and witchcraft, and it would appear that one cannot find a greater calumny on so large a group within the nation. It is worth noting in this regard that Sifre on Deut. 11:25, Section 52 (L. Finkelstein edition, New York, 1969, p. 118), states:

No man shall withstand you" - that only refers to a man; how do I know that it applies equally to a nation or family, or a woman with her witchcraft? It states, "No man shall withstand" - regardless (of the number or type of people).

Thus we see that the one who expounded this - a man, of course - is not afraid of going to war against strong and well trained forces, but is afraid of going to battle against a woman with her witchcraft. In this case, the woman, of course, is not Jewish, but it is important to note here to what extent a woman dealing with witchcraft was regarded as dangerous in the ancient era. Indeed, among many nations the sorcerer or witch would go out to war with the army and would help the general and the troops from afar.22 Before dealing with other nations and eras, it is worth examining Exodus 17:11. There we find that "when Moses raised his hands, Israel prevailed, and when Moses laid down his hands, Amalek prevailed". Thus we see that Israel prevailed not by its superior experience or its military might, but with the assistance of a spiritual leader (who was too old to participate in the battle itself), who was known for his ability to perform magic.23

Indeed, a late interpretation of the Tannaim (Rosh HaShanah 2:8) ignores the magical element of the Bible and relates the victory to trust in God. But it is just the words of the Tannaim regarding their fear of a woman witch who might go out to do battle against Israel which teaches us that the Tannaim were aware of actions such as those depicted in the Bible (which, one may assume, took place in their days as well), even though they did not regard Moses' actions as witchcraft.24 Another view which links women to witchcraft is to be found in Sifre on Deut. 3:23, Section 26 (A. A. Finkelstein edition, p. 37).25 There we are told:

This is analogous to a king who issued a decree saying: Whoever eats unripe figs of the sabbatical year will be thrown into prison. A certain woman of a respectable family went and ate unripe figs of the sabbatical year and was sentenced to imprisonment. She said to the king: "I beg of you, my lord the king! Inform everyone of my crime, that the people of the country should not say, 'It appears that she was guilty of adultery or of witchcraft.

Thus we see here three crimes, one a minor one, disobeying the decree of the king, and two major ones: adultery and witchcraft. In other words, according to this view, just as a woman is a candidate for sinning in adultery, she is assumed to be involved in witchcraft. A similar idea is found in the discussion in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 100b. There the Talmud discusses the significance of the verse in Ben Sira, "A daughter to her father - is a valueless treasure, for fear of her he does not sleep at night".26 The Talmud explains this:

When she is a child - lest she be seduced; when she is a young woman - lest she be guilty of sexual immorality; when she has grown up - lest she not marry; once she is married- lest she will not have children; when she is old - lest she will be involved in witchcraft.

In other words, the average woman is expected to engage in witchcraft, and there is nothing to protect her from this involvement. Whatever has been brought until now refers to the Jews of Eretz Israel, but one should not assume that matters were different in Babylon, and it appears that there too women were suspected of engaging in witchcraft.27 A group of women who engaged in witchcraft is mentioned in Pesahim 110a: "Said Amemar (one of the great Amoraim of Babylon in the fourth century C.E.): 'The head of that group of witches revealed to me how to defend himself from them, by saying as follows ...'" So too do we find in Pesahim 111a, among various discussions concerning witchcraft:

If two women sit at a crossroads, one on this side and the other on the other side, and they face one another - they are certainly engaged in witchcraft.

Indeed, in these examples one cannot tell whether the witches were Jewish or not, but one may assume that they were Jewish, and especially when an Amora such as Amemar spoke to the head of one of these groups. One can bring proof to the Jewishness of the Babylonian group from what we are told about the daughters of R. Nahman. In Gittin 45a, a story is brought which begins as follows: "The daughters of R. Nahman stirred a (boiling) pot with their bare hands." The conclusion of the Talmud is "they stirred the pot with witchcraft." In other words, according to this tradition, the daughters of the well known and important Amora R. Nahman were engaged in witchcraft.29 It appears that in the Babylonian Talmud we even had preserved the name of a single Jewish witch, but, presumably because of internal censorship, the entire story about this woman was removed from the Talmud. The Talmud in Sotah 22a opens with a law: Our Sages learned: "a maiden who gives herself up to prayer, a gadabout widow and a minor whose months are not completed - these bring about the destruction of the world." The Talmud brings an example of a righteous maiden who gives herself to prayer, and thereafter an example of a widow, but the example of the widow is rejected, and rightfully, and the Talmud states, "R. Yohanan (in explaining the beraita about the three who bring destruction to the world) was referring to Johani daughter of Retibi". The Talmud does not explain what sin this woman was guilty of. Rashi, though, explains this well, and it is clear that he had a tradition of the Geonim before him, as can be seen from the explanation of the topic by R. Nissim Gaon:

She was a gadabout woman who was considered by people to be a good person. But she was a witch who invoked witchcraft upon every pregnant woman in order to prevent her from giving birth. Then, when the woman's labor pains were very great, this widow would come and say: "I will pray to God for you to give birth immediately". She would then go to her home and take away the witchcraft, and the woman would give birth immediately. Thus people thought she was righteous and pious, and the pregnant women would go to her before they were due date to give birth and entreated her to pray for them. One day, though, she left her home and left behind a young lad to guard her home. He heard a sound of movement within the house, and he saw nothing but merely heard a sound. He then went and searched and found a full barrel which was covered. He uncovered it, and found the witchcraft within the barrel, and her wickedness and disgusting behavior were exposed, and the witchcraft was annulled. From that day on, the women no longer needed her, and the people of the city banished her from their midst.30

In addition to the fact that the woman's name remained here, as opposed to the anonymity which generally surrounds witches, we also have an example here of acts of witchcraft during the ancient era: the prevention of childbirth.31 Even more: the one who told the story stressed the deceitful nature of the witchcraft as well as the method in which the witch used witchcraft as a means to glorify her power. In any event, even if the story does not appear as such in the Talmud (and in spite of its alien nature, using a pseudo Biblical style), it appears that its origin was in the Talmud, but it is difficult to say with certainty that Johani the daughter of Retibi was an Eretz Israel witch (as appears to be the case from the Talmud) or Babylonian (for the source of the story is the Babylonian Talmud).

D. The Social Significance of the phenomenon

The old historiographic method did not find it appropriate to deal with "women" in the ancient era, and all the more did it regard studying witchcraft as studying "nonsense". Indeed, even if one found a scholar who dealt with either women or witchcraft, the assembling of sources as carried out until now was sufficient for him. As opposed to this, the new historiographical approach not only found it necessary to deal with women as a separate group, as well as with witchcraft in its historical appearances, but it has attempted to understand the social significance of this data, and a clarification of this type will be carried out later.32

At first blush, then, it appears that what remains to be clarified is the degree of historical truth in the question facing us. In other words, was the tendency to indulge in witchcraft a "female" one, and did the majority of Jewish woman in the Talmudic era indeed engage in witchcraft? If we study the sources, both Biblical and Talmudic, we find no indication that it was women, specifically, who engaged in witchcraft. On the contrary, a statistical analysis of the sources will show a greater number of sorcerer than of witches. The books of witchcraft of the Talmudic era, Harba de Mosheh33 and Sefer HaRazim, are attributed to males, and many of the examples in the Talmud deal with men (including some who were titled Rav) who were involved in witchcraft. In other words, one cannot regard witchcraft as a particularly feminine occupation. Similarly, one cannot prove historically the view of R. Yose the Galilean and R. Simeon bar Yohai that most Jewish women of their era engaged in witchcraft. One can find support for this from two sources outside the rabbinical world, Ben Sira and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Ben Sira, who lived in Jerusalem in the second century B.C.E., was often very critical of women, but did not say that they were guilty of witchcraft.34 Similarly, in a diatribe against the evil woman in the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q184), one finds no mention of women as being engaged in witchcraft.35

It therefore follows that the accusation levelled against women as being engaged in witchcraft is the product of a society of certain views, and not an objective historical fact regarding Jewish women in the ancient era. If that is the case, why were women considered to have been involved in witchcraft, and why allof them? It would appear that the answer to this double question should besought in the social plane, and in the relationship between the two sexes in the ancient era, that being the relationship from which the status of women was derived at that time.36 One can point to two possible explanations for the problem with which we are faced here, explanations which relate to the ancient social structure, which, even though they contradict one another somewhat, nevertheless serve to complement one another. First of all, one should note that any comprehensive approach of men in regard to women, and especially a serious accusation such as that with which we are dealing here:dealing with witchcraft, stems from prejudice. Where there is prejudice, one cannot understand the clear nature of the accusation. That, though, does not solve the problem, even if it serves to define it. Indeed, it appears that the source of the accusation leveled against women of indulging in witchcraft is linked to male chauvinist views regarding the superiority of the male on the one hand, and the inferiority of the female on the other. As is known, these views were not exclusively Jewish ones, but on the contrary, the non Jews who lived at the time had much worse anti feminine views than had the Jewish males.37

In any event, it appears that the double relationship between witchcraft and women, and women and witchcraft, was but a part of the imparting of a demonic nature to female activities and linking these to Satan.38 This, thus, is a further example of the negative view of men about women, and the perception of the female sex as endangering the "stronger"sex (a view which was the exact reverse of the reality in which men killed women, but not the other way round). It appears that these views were the product of the tension between the sexes in a traditional society in which there was clear inequality between the two sexes.39

With the aid of this accusation, the upper class strengthened its status over the lower class, and cast the blame upon the weak (physically and politically) women, as a solution to the ills of society. Thus, the lower class in society (women in one social context, and Jews in another social context) was blamed for all the tragedies and the woes with which the ruling society, i.e., the males or the Christians, was unable to deal.40

Linking women to witchcraft can serve as a lesson in suppressing a lower social class, but also in how the stronger class can strengthen its political status. One should also note another aspect of the sexual division in the issue at hand. In reality, all the sources which deplore women for their witchcraft are "male" sources. All the books quoted above were written, to the best of our knowledge, by men, and R. Yose and R. Simeon bar Yohai, who deplored women because of witchcraft, were also men. Indeed, one should note that the same R. Simeon bar Yohai who deplored women for their witchcraft was himself involved in witchcraft. After all, we are told that he removed a spirit which had entered into the body of the emperor's daughter (Me'ilah 17b), i.e., he was engaged in exorcism. It was R. Simeon bar Yohai who looked at his opponent and turned him into a heap of bones (JT Shevi'it 9:1, 38d), or, in other words, by the use of the "Evil Eye". So too are other miraculous deeds attributed to him.41

In other words, if R. Simeon bar Yohai carried out actions beyond the realm of the laws of nature, that was a miracle, but if a woman carried out the same action, that was witchcraft. Similarly, if Moses threw a staff and it turned to a snake, that was a miracle and a sign from God, but if a non Jew did that same action, it was witchcraft. It thus follows that, in ancient times, the boundary between the miracle and witchcraft depended not only on the person's religion, but also on the person's sex. From this, one can clarify another aspect of the social phenomenon. One cannot ignore the sources which stress women's involvement in witchcraft, and even if this is restricted to modest dimensions, we still find the accusation standing. It appears that the attribution of witchcraft to women stems from the nature of the traditional society, but in a different form than was explained earlier. This depends on the institutions of the society and one's natural desire to rule.42

This common human phenomenon was expressed in the ancient era only in the male world. Even if there were women who were queens, they were an insignificant minority when compared to the ruling male world. The traditional society closed off from women the ability to lead and to rule, beginning with battle which demands physical strength, which is greater among men than among women, and through political or personal advice in which the physical advantage had no significance. In other words, women were removed entirely from the social circle of the running of the community. As a result, it appears that the tendency by women to indulge in witchcraft was a type of expression of their desire to rule. If the normative society did not permit the women within it to attain leadership positions, the women tried, nevertheless, to rule in the society, if not by the customary means, then by other means, i.e., by witchcraft. In other words, the preoccupation by women with witchcraft in the ancient era expressed their desire to attain leadership positions not through the customary social means of the time, for that was barred to them.

Indeed, it is clear that if King Saul needed the advice and the professionalism of a witch, it is proof that he was acted in according with the desires of a woman. Similarly, when men go out to war on a day which has been determined by a woman as being suitable for going to war, there is no better example than that of the control women have over men. In other words, even if generally, in the traditional society, the man utilizes the woman for his needs - biological or psychological (the desire to rule) - the woman who is a witch illustrates the opposite phenomenon, in which the woman utilizes the man for her needs: ruling him and having him submit to her. The "deviant" way in which the witch carries out her deeds is due to the fact that the "normal" way to reach that position of power is barred to her, and that is why the society, i.e., the male world, regards her actions as "deviant".43

With this background, we can see the changes which took place in the Jewish people. Whereas in the Biblical era there were women prophets, i.e., charismatic women who attained a position of influence and even of leadership, in the Talmudic era this leadership path was no longer open to them. Not only had prophecy ceased from the world, but the other leadership path, instruction in the Oral Law, was not given over to women. As is known, there was not a single woman Tanna in the all male world of the Tannaim and the Oral Law, and women had no leadership position whatsoever in that society. Therefore, if a woman had a leadership talent, or let us say the ability to manipulate men, she could only express this within a framework which was outside that of the Establishment, i.e., through witchcraft. Even if she herself thought that her words were of no value, the male society pushed her to move men using "nonconventional" means, namely witchcraft. Thus, one way or another, the woman succeeded in telling men what to do, when and how. To a certain extent one can regard this as a type of "revenge" by the woman against the male world which forced her to act in this "nonconventional" manner. It is therefore clear that, with the development of human society, and the Jewish one among these, from one in which there was a clear inequality among the sexes to one in which there was equality between them, at least on the declarative level, the way was opened for talented women to attain decision making and administrative positions (including those held by males), and as a result there was nothing to push women into the arms of witchcraft.

It therefore follows that the men's accusation against women is in reality nothing but a charge sheet against the men themselves, because this accusation reveals, above all, the tremendous inequity that the males created in regard to females. Female witchcraft was in opposition to the social structure no less than male witchcraft, and far less destructive than the actual deeds of the males. If women turned to witchcraft, their involvement in it stemmed indirectly from the male desire to rule the society, a pressure which sometimes brought about the opposite: the control by women witches of the men who needed them.

Finally, there is another social element which requires clarification, and that is to what extent the belief in women witches was translated into everyday life. A comparison of Jewish women in the ancient era to the women of Europe and America in the 16th and 17th centuries is enlightening.44

In two different societies women were accused of dealing with witchcraft, but the two identical accusations bore entirely different fruit. In Eretz Israel, there was nothing like the "witch Craze", and there is no mention of any Jewish woman ever being killed for the crime, in spite of the clearly Biblical prohibition involved in this practice. As far as the eighty witches killed by Simeon ben Shetah are concerned, all were non Jewish. As opposed to this, in Christian Europe, more than 1,500 years later, the accusation of witchcraft caused the deaths of tens of thousands of women (and a small number of men) within about 200 years.45

From this point of view, the lot of the Jewish women was far superior. But what accounts for this difference? It is possible that the substantive difference between a society which translates its prejudices into action and one which does not do so stems from the simple reason that the sages of the Talmud did not have any real political power, whereas in the Christian society the wise men of the generation and its religious representatives were able to translate their ideas into actions, i.e., trials and death.46 The madness of witch hunting in Europe appears to be a direct continuation of the madness of the inquisition against the Jews in Spain, and in both cases the Christian religious establishment exercised its power against minority groups, Jews and women.

In any event, if we examine the fate of the women in Eretz Israel in the ancient era and in Europe in the Middle Ages, we will find another social distinction between the two. The significance of the different accusations is revealed by their results: death on the one hand, and mere prejudice on the other. This substantive difference can show that the accusation of witchcraft became a societal tool not only for the ruling class, the one which in the final analysis benefitted from the deaths of the accused as the legal heirs of their possessions, or because its social status was strengthened. Not only this, but one can regard the deaths of the women as a social means to reduce the population. One should not forget that just at the time in which a cruel witch hunt was taking place, the population of Europe grew after hundreds of years of marking time, and even a certain demographic decline (as a result of the Black Death). In other words, in a society in which birth control means were not used, there was a real growth in population, to the extent that there was a feeling of a"population explosion", a solution was found by means of burning women at the stake, of course with the support of the state religion. As is known, it is a folk view that women are to blame for the birth rate, and the death of a woman reduces the population more than does the death of a man.47 Therefore, an explanation is hereby offered why it was specifically women who were accused, and why the vast majority of the victims were women and not men.48

This deterministic explanation is possibly unproovable, but in practice it worked. Even if it is mistaken, it can still serve as a source for thought about the unfortunate lot of women in ancient times and on the brink of the modern era, an era in which they enjoyed an inferior status physically and politically in the male society. Furthermore, the data which has been gathered and the social differentiation can serve to supply the needs of a reigning social class, but this is already beyond the realm of this paper.


We have seen that the topic of women and witchcraft was possibly a minor one in the history of Jewish witchcraft, but it was clearly an important one in the history of the status of the women in the Jewish people in the ancient era. Whereas in the Biblical era the links between women and witchcraft were not absolute, over the course of time an identity emerged between women and witchcraft (but not between witchcraft and women). In the Apocrypha one finds this topic in the center not only in terms of time, but also in the center in terms of outlook: in other words, the source of witchcraft was women, even if one cannot utilize this source to say, as did the Tannaim hundreds of years later, that all women, even the most worthy among them, deal with witchcraft.

There is no doubt that the explanation of these phenomena must be given within the framework of the social sciences, and not only through purely historical methods. In any event, it is proposed that the link between women and witchcraft be regarded as following from the inferior status of women in ancient times. On the one hand, the tension between the sexes brought about accusations of the physical weaker sex as being engaged in demonic pursuits which endangered the stronger sex. This was what the ruling class did to strengthen its power, and exploited the weakness of the inferior class: the women. On the other hand, the lack of social equality brought about, if not directly then at least indirectly, women with a charismatic ability to engage in witchcraft, if only to attain a certain degree of leadership and social status.


1 See P. Arzi, "Witchcraft," Encyclopedia Mikra'it (Biblical Encyclopedia), IV, Jerusalem 1963, columns 348-365; S. D. Gotein, Iyunim BaMikra (Studies in the Bible), 3, Tel Aviv 1967, pp. 263-264 (Hebrew); Athalya Brenner, The Israelite Woman, JSOT Press, Sheffield, 1985, pp. 67 ff. On women witches in Mesopotamia, as a background to the Bible on the present topic, see: Sue Rollin, Women and Witchcraft in Ancient Assyria (c. 900-600 BC), Averil Cameron and Amelie Kuhut (eds.), Images of Women in Antiquity, London, 1983, pp. 34-45.

2 Thus, for example, we know of male sorcerer in Pharaoh's court (Ex. 7:11), in the court of the king of Babylon (Dan. 2:2), elders who take charms in their hands at the behest of the king of Moab (Num. 22:7), and in the same way we find sorcerer among the Jewish people (Mic. 3:5). As opposed to this, there is no record of female witches (and see below), except for when Nahum (3:4) compares Nineveh to a whore who employed witchcraft, and a similar idea in Isa. 47:9, where the prophet prophesies a punishment for the daughter of the Chaldeans because "of the great abundance of your enchantments".

3 See the commentary of R. David Kimhi ad loc. (I Sam. 28:25), which brings a dispute among the Geonim on the question of whether the woman deceived him and it was all an illusion, or whether it was really witchcraft. See also L. Ginzberg, Ginzei Shechter, I, New York, 1927, pp. 299-300. One should note that the Church Fathers were also divided about this question. See M. Sumers, The History of Witchcraft, the Mystic Press, USA (n.d., reprint of 1925 edition), pp. 176 ff.

4 The link between sexual immorality and witchcraft (in the description of Jezebel and of Nineveh) is stressed clearly in the description of the Sages of the Canaanites as being guilt of sexual immorality and of witchcraft (Lev. Rabbah 23:7, M. Margolioth edition, p. 536). Similarly, in Europe of the Middle Ages, women were accused of witchcraft (by causing miscarriages) and of sexual immorality in the same breath. See Shulamit Shahar, HaMa'amad HaRevi'i: HaIshah BeHevrat Yemei HaBinayim (The Fourth Class: The Woman in the Society of the Middle Ages), Devir, Tel Aviv 1983, p. 114 (Hebrew).

5 In the case of the woman who divined with the Ob we have a case of a man who needed the services of a witch, but that does not mean that women did not need the services of witches. For a case of an (assumed) witch who offered a love formula for the young woman mentioned in the Song of Songs, see my article, "Behinat HaNusah, Inyanim Eroti'im uMaasei Keshafim BiMegillat Shir HaShirim" ("Examination of the Text, Erotic Topics and Magical Actions in the Song of Songs"), Shenaton LeMikra UleHeker HaMizrah HaKadum (Yearbook for the Bible and for the Study of the Ancient East), IX (1987), pp. 31-53 (Hebrew). It is possible that the difference between sorcerer and witches was that the sorcerer advised the royal ranks and those of the upper classes, whereas the witches advised the common folk and those of the lower classes.

6 In Ezekiel 13:19, it states, "for handfuls of barley and for pieces of bread, to slay souls". Assumedly, this refers to the women who made a doll of the enemy out of dough, and afterwards stabbed the doll to death (as was donein the black magic of the Middle Ages and in "modern" voodoo), or sympathetic magic. One should remember that the heathen culture was used to making idols. However, while a statue of a person from wood or stone requires skill and money, making a doll of dough is cheap and does not require any great skill.

7 See: Michael E. Stone, Scriptures, Sects and Visions, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980, p. 31.

8 Quoted from A. A. Kahana, HaSefarim HaHitzoni'im (The Apocrypha), II, Tel Aviv 1956, I, p. 27.

9 See Testament of Judah, 23:1, where the males of Judah are accused of crimes and of "witchcraft which they performed against the monarchy, for they went after the observers of time and diviners and the spirits" (Kahane edition, p. 178). On witchcraft against the authorities, see, for example, M. Margolioth, Sefer HaRazim (The Book of the Secrets), Jerusalem 1967, p. 82 (Raki'a 2:17): "If you seek to quash a large and mighty group, or a ruler, or a judge, or the people of a certain country..." Incidentally, it is worth noting that a text of a similar character which condemns witchcraft was found in Qumran, but has not yet been published.

10 On Jews as sorcerers in the ancient era, see Y. Levi, Olamot Nifgashim (Worlds Meet), Jerusalem 1960, pp. 15 ff.; M. Stern, "Ti'ur Eretz Yisrael BiYedei Plinius HaZaken VeHalukata HaAdministrativit shel Yehudah BeSof Yemei Bayit Sheni" ("The Description of Eretz Israel by Plinius the Elder and the Administrative Division of Judea at the End of the Second Temple Era"), Tarbiz, 37 (1968), pp. 215-229 (especially p. 219). See also Pesahim 8b: "If we say that there is danger of witchcraft," i.e., that if a non Jew sees a Jew looking for leaven, he may suspect him of witchcraft. In other words, according to the Jews, the non Jews suspect them of witchcraft.

11 On magic among Jews in the ancient era, see the bibliographical listing of M. D. Herr, "Inyanei Halakhah BeEretz Yisrael BaMe'ah HaShishit VehaShevi'it LiSefirat HaNotzrim" ("Halakhic Matters in Eretz Israel in the Sixth and Seventh Centuries C.E."), Tarbiz, 49 (1980), pp. 62-80, n. 20 (Hebrew). See also my articles, "Ketivat Sefer Torah, Tefillin, Mezuzot UQemeot al Or Tzvi" ("The Writing of Torah scrolls, Tefillin, Mezuzot and Amulets on Deer Hide"), Beit Mikra, 102 (1985), pp. 375-381; "Hotamot al HaGuf bein Yehudim BaMe'ot HaRishonot LaSefirah" ("The Writing of Magical Incantations on the Body among Jews in the First Centuries of the Common Era"), Tarbiz, 50 (1988), pp. 37-50 (Hebrew).

12 On different aspects of this deed, see A. A. Halevi, HaAggadah HaHistorit Biografit (The Historical Biographical Aggadah), Tel Aviv 1975, pp. 81-84 (and parallel passages ibid., p. 72).

13 According to the Talmud, when the people of Simeon ben Shetah lifted up the women from the ground, their magical powers left them. It appears that one can learn from this that these women were connected in one fashion or another to the ritual of "Mother Earth," and therefore removing them from it prevented it from defending its priestesses, and see immediately thereafter.

14 See A. Kasher, "Milhamto shel HaMelekh Yannai BeArim HaHellinisti'ot BeAsplekaria shel Kitvei Yosef ben Matityahu" ("The War of King Jannai against the Hellenistic Cities in the Perspective of the Writings of Josephus"), Kathedra, 41 (1987), pp. 11-36 (especially p. 21). Kasher hypothesizes that the witches were priestesses of the Canaanite Ashtoreth, who was later identified with the Greek Aphrodite, on the basis of the evidence regarding the ritual in Ashkelon. In any event, by examining the methods of witchcraft, it appears that the major ritual of the witches was to the goddess of the earth (Ashtoreth), and not to the goddess of the sea (for that goddess is portrayed as half woman half fish, i.e., in the later Greek garb). On witches in the ancient world and their identification with female rituals, see J. C. Barola, The World of the Witches, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971, pp. 17 ff.

15 On "the more female slaves the more promiscuity," see S. Assaf, BeOholei Yaakov (In the Tents of Jacob), Jerusalem 1943, p. 223.

16 As an example of the offering of incense as part of the ritual of witchcraft, see, for example, M. Margalioth, Sefer HaRazim, p. 16 (Raki'a 1:29), "And take myrrh and frankincense and it is placed on coals in honor of the angel who rules over the first camp who is named Orpaniel." On the use of incense and smoke in performing magic in the ancient era (and even later), see A. Marmorstein, "Minhagim Qadmonim BeEretz Israel" ("Ancient Customs in Eretz Israel"), Ma'asaf Tzion, II (1927), pp. 17-27 (Hebrew).

17 Compare to the commentary of R. Jacob ben Asher on Deut. 21:15, "'The more wives the more witchcraft' - this teaches us that if a person has two wives, each will carry out witchcraft to have the husband hate the other."Another example of witchcraft carried out by a woman against her company wife can be seen in Gen. Rabbah 45:5, Theodor Albeck edition p. 453:

"'And he came to Hagar and she conceived' - why does it state, 'Behold you will conceive'? Rather, this teaches that Sarah used the Evil Eye against her and she miscarried"
(quoted according to manuscripts with different versions of the text there).

18 For an example of witchcraft of this type (black magic), see Pesikta Rabbati, M. Ish Shalom edition, Vienna 1880, 107b: "'You shall not kill' - in the end his wife will use witchcraft and kill him." It is possible that acts of murder such as these attributed to women are hinted at in the obscure statement that the witches of Ashkelon "destroy the world."

19 In Mekhilta d'Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, Y. N. Epstein and E. Z. Melamed edition, Jerusalem 1979, p. 51, it states: "They said, 'The best of the heathens - kill him, the best of snakes - smash its head.'" Presumably, the words against women were deliberately omitted. As opposed to this, the statement that"the best of women - practices witchcraft" appears in the name of R. Simeon bar Yohai in Midrash HaGadol on Exodus (14:7), M. Margolioth edition, Jerusalem 1967, p. 260. Similarly, the full version of the text appears in Tractate Soferim, M. Higer edition, New York, 1937, 15:7, p. 282.

20 Compare also: B. W. Bacher, Aggadot HaTannaim, Tel Aviv 1922, Vol. II, Part I, pp. 53, 56, and note there further the negative opinion of R. Simeon bar Yohai about women in Shabbat 33b: "Women's minds are frivolous" (so too Niddah 31b). On this view in the ancient world, see: A. A. Halevi, Olamah shel HaAggadah (The World of the Aggadah), Tel Aviv 1972, pp. 249 ff.

21 Compare to the parallel passage in JT Sanhedrin 7:16, 25d: "'You shall not suffer a witch to live' - both man and woman, but the Torah indicated the way of the world, as most women are witches." Incidentally, the Talmud brings a number of cases of witchcraft, all of them carried out by men.

22 Margaret A. Murray, The God of the Witches, Doubleday, Garden City, 1960, pp. 148 ff.

23 J. Neusner, "Science and Magic, Miracle and Magic in Formative Judaism: The System and the Difference," J. Neusner and others (eds.), Religion, Science, and Magic, Oxford University Press, New York - Oxford 1989, pp. 61-81.

24 It is possible that in the light of this, the verse (Jud. 4:8), "And Barak said unto her, If you will go with me, then I will go: but if you will not go with me, then I will not go," can be explained as follows: just as Joshua's victory in war was dependent on a prophet, Barak wanted Deborah to remain on a mountain (Tabor) and watch his troops, while she carried out various actions to ensure victory in battle.

25 For a parallel reference, see Lev. Rabbah 31:4, M. Margolioth edition (Jerusalem 1956), p. 719.

26 Ben Sira 42:11: "A daughter to a father conceals falsehood and disturbssleep." See M. Z. Segal (redactor), Sefer Ben Sira HaShalem (The Complete Ben Sira), Jerusalem 1972, p. 284 (and there the whole topic of witchcraft does not appear at all). See also: M. R. Lehman, "Megilot Yam HaMelah UBenSira" ("The Dead Sea Scrolls and Ben Sira"), Tarbiz, 39 (1970), pp. 232-247.

27 S. Lieberman, Yevanit VeYevanut BeEretz Yisrael (Greek and Hellenism inEretz Israel), Jerusalem 1963, pp. 73 ff.

28 On the antimagic formulation, see S. H. Kook, Iyunim UMehkarim (Examinations and Researches), I, Jerusalem 1959, pp. 266-268. One should note that the leader of the women advised the man how to banish those subject to her, and it is not out of the question that she did so in return for money.

29 See also, Y. Brand, Kelei HaHeres BeSifrut HaTalmud (Ceramics in Talmudic Literature), Jerusalem 1953, pp. 487-488 (Hebrew).

30 Quoted in B. M. Levin, Otzar HaGeonim (The Treasury of the Geonim), 11, Sotah, Jerusalem 1942, pp. 241-242. Another version is brought in S. Abramson, "Le R. Barukh ben Melekh," Tarbiz, 19 (1948), pp. 42-44. There it states, "Johani the daughter of Retibi was a witch and performed witchcraft to prevent different women from giving birth. She would place the witchcraft between two utensils, and as long as the vessels were not opened, the woman's womb would not open. She would then pretend to pray for the woman who was due to give birth, and when she bent down in her pleading she would open these utensils, at which point the witchcraft would cease and the woman would give birth. Once two sages came to her to ask her to plead for mercy for a woman who was having difficulty in childbirth, and found those two utensils of witchcraft, which they opened unwittingly, at which point the woman's womb was opened and she unwittingly gave birth. Then they knew that she was practicing witchcraft." The main differences between this version and that of Rav Nissim Gaon are: here there is a detailed listing of how the witchcraft was practices; the witch prays; sages reveal her lies and not "a youth"; there is no attempt to utilize pseudo Biblical language; the element of pay to the witch is missing here, as is her punishment.

31 Until this time, we have seen that to witches were ascribed murder (i.e., death of unknown causes) and victory in battle, and here they are able to prevent a woman from having an easy childbirth. One should note that according to Rav (Yoma 83b), a dog becomes rabid because "witches play with him," i.e., they harass dogs, and that is what causes them to become rabid. According to Ezekiel, women also knew how to revive the dead, and thus we see that both death and life (from the womb on) are under the control of women witches.

32 On the social significance of witchcraft (and a little on the place of witchcraft in Jewish law, although not a very successful account), see Daniel O'Keefe, Stolen Lightning: The Social Theory of Magic, Vintage Books, New York 1983, pp. 147-148.

33 On "The Sword of Moses," see my article on the hide of a deer mentioned earlier (note 11), and my book, Sitrei Tefillah VeHeikhalot (Hidden Elements of Prayer and Heikhalot), Ramat Gan 1987, pp. 110 ff.

34 See Ben Sira 25:26, 4, M. S. Segal, Sefer Ben Sira HaShalem (The Complete Book of Ben Sira), Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1972, pp. 155 ff. Compare also to the witchcraft attributed to the Ben Sira text in the Talmud, as quoted above. See also, W. C. Trenchard, Ben Sira's View of Women, Scholars Press, Chico 1982.

35 Y. Licht, "Ra'atah shel HaIshah HaZarah" ("The Evil of the Foreign Woman"), B. Oppenheimer (ed.), HaMikra VeToledot Yisrael: LeZikhro shel Yaakov Liver (The Bible and Jewish History: In Memory of Yaakov Liver), Tel Aviv 1972, pp. 289-296.

36 On the status of women in Jewish society in the Mishnaic and Talmudic era, see L. Swidler, Women in Judaism: The Status of Women in Formative Judaism, the Scarecrow Press, Metuchen, N. J., 1976; Leonie J. Archer, "The Role of Jewish Women in the Religion, Ritual and Cult of Graeco Roman Palestine," in Averil Cameron and Amelie Kuhut (eds.), Images of Women in Antiquity (note 1), pp. 273-287.

37 On the views regarding women in the Talmudic era compared to the Hellenistic world, see A. A. Halevi, Erkhei HaAggadah VehaHalakhah (The Values of the Aggadah and the Halakhah), IV, Tel Aviv 1982, p. 198 ff.

38 On the ancient link between the female and Satan one can learn from Gen. Rabbah 17:6, Theodor Albeck edition, p. 157, where it states on the verse (Gen. 2:21):

"And He closed up flesh about it" - R. Hanina son of R. Ada said: "From the beginning of the volume until this point the letter samekh does not appear, because when (Eve) was created, Satan was created along with her. And if someone says to you (that the letter samekh appears earlier in 2:11), 'it surrounded' - 'hu hasovev,' tell him that that refers to rivers."
In other words, one is able to twist the verse and write the word Satan incorrectly with a samekh rather than with the correct letter sin, so as to prove that the woman is linked to Satan. We are told in Kiddushin 81a that as soon as Satan was created, it sought a wife. This idea is developed at length in the Christian view, and women are considered to be in alliance with Satan. See S. Ashkenazi, HaIshah BeAspeklaria shel HaYahadut (The Woman in the View of Judaism), I, Tel Aviv 1953, p. 81 ff.

39 It is appears that this explanation is equally applicable to other times and places in which acts of witchcraft were attributed primarily to women. See Shulamit Shahar (note 4 above), pp. 223 ff.

40 E. E. Evans Pritchard, "Witchcraft Explains Unfortunate Events," William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt (eds.), Reader in Comparative Religion, 2nd ed., Harper and Row, New York, Evanston and London 1965, pp. 328-332.

41 Also compare JT Shevi'it there regarding the way in which he raised dead people in Tiberias from their graves; a similar use of the "Evil Eye" (Shabbat 33b); the finding of gold (Ex. Rabbah 52:3).

42 Compare to the approach which explains female witchcraft as aggression(and male witchcraft as defense): Esther Goody, "Legitimate and Illegitimate Aggression in a West African State," Mary Douglas (ed.), Witchcraft, Confessions and Accusations, Tavistock Publications, London 1970, pp. 207-244. The explanation given there, though, is far from convincing, as it does not explain the phenomenon but transfers it to another system of concepts.

43 Shahar's (note 4 above) approach in solving an identical problem in another culture is interesting. On the one hand, she holds, and rightfully, that women joined the heretical sects in order to improve their social position, this because of the greater equality which they had in the traditional society from which they came. On the other hand, in attempting to explain the link between women and witchcraft, she resorts to psychological approaches (ibid., p. 244), which appear to be unsupported.

44 Much has been written about this. See H. R. Trevor Roper, "The European Witch Craze," M. Marwick (ed.), Witchcraft and Sorcery, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1970, pp. 121-150. Compare also to the research on the history of religions (and see the vast bibliography): Mircea Eliade, Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London 1976, pp. 69 ff. Interesting numerical data also appears in S. Ashkenazi, HaIshah BeAspaklaria shel HaYahadut (The Woman in the View of Judaism), I, Tel Aviv 1953, p. 85 ff.

45 Trevor Roper's article refers to Europe in general, but without any social differentiation. Compare to the article dealing with a single region in England over a period of about 120 years: A. Macfarlane, "Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart Essex," Mary Douglas (ed.), Witchcraft, Confessions and Accusations, pp. 81-99. The author examines the statistical data, which shows that the percentage of those accused of witchcraft was 2.5% (!), of which more than 90% were women (!), and of these 40% were widows. About 20% of the accused were killed or died in prison.

46 This explanation can only be partially true, for in ancient Rome, for example, there was a death penalty for those who engaged in witchcraft, and in spite of that the law was very seldom implemented. On the occupation of the witches (their links to prostitution) and their beliefs in medieval Italy and in ancient Rome (according to the description of Horatius), see Y. Burckhart,' Tarbut HaRennaisance BeItalia (The Renaissance Culture in Italy), Mossad Bialik, Jerusalem 1953, pp. 390 ff.

47 I find the reverse of this idea in the sacrifices offered on the altar in Jerusalem. The animals sacrificed were almost entirely male, and it is clear that this was done in order not to decrease the population of sacrifices.

48 It is worth noting that Trevor Roper (above note 44) attributes the witchhunts to interdenominational tensions in the Christian world. Even though one cannot deny the relevance of this to the topic, it would appear that one cannot regard his explanation as but a part of the totality of the social questions discussed here.

This paper first appeared as: M. Bar-Ilan, 'Witches in the Bible and in the Talmud', Herbert W. Basser and Simcha Fishbane (eds.), Approaches to Ancient Judaism, New Series, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993, V, pp. 7-32.

With slight changes this paper is included as a chapter in:
M. Bar-Ilan, Some Jewish Women in Antiquity, Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press (Brown Judaic Studies 317), 1998 (Abstract).

The electronic address of this file is:

last updated: June 22, 1999