Women and Witchcraft

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

There is certainly something magical about sex. Of course, when we use the word “magical” we tend to mean “transcendent,” something that it is beyond what we expect from the routine cycles of nature, and that can at least temporarily lift us from our own. We don’t usually mean that that sex is magical in the Hogwarts sense – particularly given the unacceptable absence of any sex-ed class among either the O.W.L.s or N.E.W.T.s.

"The magic's still there, but the sex is terrible." Cartoon by Zachary Kanin, published in The New Yorker on January 18, 2016

“The magic’s still there, but the sex is terrible.”
Cartoon by Zachary Kanin, published in The New Yorker on January 18, 2016

Yet, it turns our that there really is a connection between sex and magic, hinted at in the Torah in three cryptic words found in this week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim: מְכַשֵּׁפָ֖ה לֹא תְחַיֶּֽה – “a sorceress you shall not allow to live.” Exodus, 22:17.

Why mention a female sorceress and not a male sorcerer?

Women and magic have a long history, both within Jewish culture and without.

The great sage Hillel is famously quoted in the Mishnah as saying: “one who increases wives, increases witchcraft.” Mishnah, Avot, 2:7. Indeed, this is the explanation given by most commentaries for why the Torah references a sorceress, rather than a sorcerer, is because “the text speaks of the usual case, and those who practice sorcery are usually women.” This is a fascinating statement, given that none of the sorcerers described in the Torah (Pharaoh’s sorcerers, Bilaam) have been women.

The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 also reflected the perception that women were more likely to be involved in witchcraft than men: of the twenty people executed for sorcery, fourteen were women.

However, there is another very famous witch trial involving the great first-century sage Shimon ben Shetach, who was the head of the Sanhedrin, and the brother of Queen Salome Alexandra. One of Shimon ben Shetach’s students had a dream in which he was told that there were eighty Jewish women in the city of Ashkelon, who practiced black magic, and who engaged in other forbidden rites. He was told that Shimon ben Shetach was aware of these woman, and had vowed to rid the city of them once he became the head of the Sanhedrin, but that he had failed to keep his vow.

When the student awoke, the dream was still fresh in his mind, and he knew it was no ordinary dream. He quickly went to Shimon ben Shetach and told him of the dream. Simon ben Shetach realized the dream was a message for him, and he acknowledged that he had failed to get rid of the witches as he had promised. He knew that the eighty women practiced their dark arts in a large cave outside the city, and he immediately made plans to capture them.

From among his disciples, Shimon ben Shetach chose eighty of the tallest and strongest men. Each one was given a large clay jug and a light cloak that would readily show the slightest sign of moisture. He then chose a stormy day for the expedition. It was raining so hard it was almost impossible to go outdoors. Shimon ben Shetach instructed his men to take their cloaks and place them in the waterproof jars, sealing them very tightly. At his signal, they were to enter the cave, and before the women could see them, to put on their cloaks.

Leaving his disciples standing outside in the downpour, Shimon ben Shetach entered the cave alone. He was immediately challenged by one of the women.

“Who are you, and what business have you here?” she asked.

“I am a master warlock,” Shimon ben Shetach responded. “I have heard that you ladies are also practitioners of the sorcery, and I have come to measure your powers against my own.”

“And yet you expect us to take you at your word, and to reveal our own powers without any demonstration of your own?”

“Fair enough,” Shimon ben Shetach responded. “A demonstration is indeed in order. As you can see, it is raining very hard outside. However, with but a word, I can summon eighty young men to entertain you – and their clothes will be perfectly dry.”

“Now that’s a demonstration that I know all of us ladies would enjoy seeing. Do that, and you will be welcome.”

The young men had protected themselves from the rain under an overhang adjoining the mouth of the car, where the women could not see them. There, they changed into their dry cloaks from the jugs. At Shimon ben Shetach’s signal, they came dancing into the cave. Each one grabbed a woman to pull her into a whirling dance in the center and before they knew it, all eighty women were in the arms or on the shoulders of Shimon ben Shetach’s disciples.

Too late, however, the women realized that without touching the ground, they were powerless, for the energies that feed dark magic come from the earth, and require a constant connection to it. Shimon ben Shetach promptly convened a court of law, and passed sentence upon the sorceresses. They were immediately hanged, their feet still not touching the ground. (Incidentally, commentaries say that this is the reason that the Egyptian sorcerers were unable to duplicate the plague of lice, which swarmed beneath their feet, interrupting their contact with the earth.

But why would sorcery appeal more to women than to men?

One obvious explanation is that women tend to be more open and attuned to the supernatural. The laws of nature aren’t as intimidating or absolute to them. So if women cannot achieve something naturally, she is open to alternatives. And when I use the word “nature,” I am including what has been accepted as the status quo. Thus, for example, when large parts of the world existed in intense states of superstition in 1692, it seems that women tended to be more open to the sciences, natural medicine, exploration, and challenging the status quo. Tragically, their male counterparts, belonging to an increasingly patriarchal culture and religion, were unable to abide such a threat to their belief system, and finding witchcraft to be either the explanation for these out-of-the-box practices, or a convenient pretext, the women were executed for witchcraft.

Rabbeinu Bachya explains, however, that real sorcery fundamentally involves the merging of two entirely distinct items, and the blending of their innate spiritual forces, which, in turn, produces a magical and novel result. This, he explains, touches upon one of the reasons for the prohibition of grafting produce or crossbreeding animals. See Leviticus, 18:19. The problem with witchcraft is that these spiritual forces were created to be distinct and separate for a reason, and blending them both subverts this reason, and announces a disregard for our Creator’s intentions and a challenge to His wisdom.

This poses an interesting and disturbing question: It is an oft-repeated statement throughout Torah literature that Jewish women are actually the standard-bearers of Jewish faith in G-d. They are the ones that brought tambourines and other musical instruments with them when they left Egypt, having complete faith in G-d that they would be completely saved, and that there would be cause for dancing and celebration. They are the ones who, in Egypt, took extraordinary measures to maintain Jewish fecundity, firmly believing that the Jewish nation had a future beyond Pharaoh’s slave pits. They are the ones that most valued and appreciated the Manna, which was itself an experiment in daily faith. They are the ones that most prized and anticipated their entry into the Land of Israel, and had complete faith that G-d would lead them and install them there. And, perhaps most significantly, theyare the ones who reportedly did not participate in the sin of the Golden Calf.

On the other hand, if women are the most susceptible to witchcraft, and the most likely to practice sorcery, how can that be reconciled with their supposed superior faith in G-d?

Several commentaries to the above verse in Mishpatim have found a link between magic and sexuality. They note the interesting juxtaposition of the commandment to not allow sorceresses to live appearing right between the laws pertaining to one who seduces and beds a virgin girl, and the prohibition against bestiality. Why would sorcery appear here, as opposed to later, where other forms of witchcraft are discussed, such as in Leviticus (19:4)?

Yet sexuality is so very powerful, and sexual lust is so intense, that people would frequently turn to magic in order to achieve the object of their desires. Just think of the market for love potions and aphrodisiacs. What better use could there be of the magical power to circumvent nature and to achieve sexual fulfillment? In fact, many have noted the unhealthy sexual relationship between Bilaam – the anti-Semitic sorcerer who was hired to curse the Israelites in Numbers (Chapter 22) – and his donkey. Indeed, the Ba’al Haturim points out that, in the following verse in Mishpatim, prohibiting bestiality, the last letter of each of the first two words, along with the entirety of the third word, spell “Bilaam“.

Could there be a link between the sexual focus of magic and the fact that sorcery is a field dominated by women? It seems that one would think the opposite to be true, given the male preoccupation with sex. And the one example we have of a sorcerer engaging in sexual perversion is from Bilaam – a male.

Were it not for the leading commentaries statements to the contrary, I might have proposed an alternative interpretation of the verse. You see, male sorcerers are discussed much later in the Torah. In Deuteronomy (18:10), the Torah states that “there shall not be found amongst you…a sorcerer.” In contrast to the absolute condemnation of a sorceress in our Parshah, the prohibition on being a sorcerer is among the list of abominations practiced by the Canaanites that the Israelites were forbidden from emulating when they entered the Land of Canaan. So why are male sorcerers prohibited only in the context of abominable Canaanite practices, whereas female sorceresses were prohibited immediately after leaving Egypt, and with the harshest of condemnations – “you may not allow a sorceress to live”?

Perhaps it is because Jewish women are the vanguard of the Jewish nation when it comes to faith in G-d; because they are naturally more spiritual, and therefore have the greater potential to appreciate G-d’s transcendence; and because of the natural influence have women have on the men; for women to turn to sorcery is more out of character, more of a betrayal, and has the potential to cause more widespread corruption.

Perhaps sorceresses were singled out because women are in fact the keepers and guardians of true faith.