Rebecca Lesses

Associate Professor, Philosophy and Religion
School: School of Humanities and Sciences

Course Description

In the ancient and medieval worlds, Jews were reputed to possess much knowledge about magic: amulets and spells to heal from sickness or harm one’s enemies, mystical incantations to ascend to heaven or bring angels down to earth, and information about the beneficent angels who assisted humans in their fight against the demons of illness and madness. Jewish magic has been part of folk Jewish knowledge and elite rabbinic practice in many cultures. This course examines the Jewish magical tradition from antiquity through the Middle Ages, and investigates how it survived and underwent transformation in the modern world.

The term “magic” is problematic, because it has generally been used to describe the religious and ritual practices of people whom the speaker disapproves of. Other suggested terms are “folk religion” and “ritual power.” The course begins by examining these terms and whether they can replace the word “magic.” We will read a variety of historical and anthropological approaches to these terms, in order to discover their histories and the ways they have been used by modern researchers since the 19th century. We will then turn to different Jewish definition of magic and ritual power to see how ancient and medieval Jewish authorities judged magic – was it an acceptable activity, or wholly outside normative Jewish practice? The course then gives a survey of Jewish magical texts and practices that range from the Bible to medieval stories and amulets. We will consider the use of amulets and other magical techniques for healing, and explore the relationship between magic and Jewish mysticism. The course will finish with an examination of possession and exorcism in the early modern world, and the ways in which the Jewish magic tradition still exists in the modern era.


FOR PURCHASE AT IC BOOKSTORE (also on reserve in library)

J. H. Chajes, Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).

COURSE READER is for sale at Muller 309 from Kenesha Wick, for $14.


Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion, published by Forgotten Books (originally published in 1939). To access it, go to Google Books, put “Jewish Magic and Superstition” into the search engine, and it will be the first hit. It’s available as full text, so you can read the whole text online.


1. Class attendance (5%): Students are expected to attend all classes, and they are responsible for work missed during any absence from class. In accordance with New York State law, students who miss class due to their religious beliefs shall be excused from class or examinations on that day. Any student who misses class due to a verifiable family or individual health emergency, or to a required appearance in a court of law, shall be excused.

2 unexcused absences permitted. If additional classes must be missed because of illness, athletic exercises, concerts, job interviews, or other unavoidable activities, please let me know with a full explanation and if possible a note from the relevant authority (doctor, coach, chorus leader, Dean of Students office, etc.). More than two unexcused absences will lead to reduction of the course participation grade.

2. Class participation (10%) includes asking questions and speaking up during class discussions, participating in small group discussions, and active listening to lectures and to classmates. Since participation is dependent upon being in class, poor attendance will also reflect poorly on class participation. Students should come to class prepared to discuss the daily assignments. Assignments should be completed before class on the day on which they are listed on the syllabus. Students should bring to class specific questions about the assignments and topics for class discussion.

Class participation is an integral part of this course. All students are expected to participate in a thoughtful, well-prepared manner that is grounded in the course assignments. All members of the class are expected to reflect critically on they ways in which they can contribute to constructive rather than destructive class dynamics. I often call upon students and may not wait for students to volunteer themselves.

3. Participation in online forums through Sakai (10%) (our new online course software, which is replacing Blackboard). I will post a new question or questions each week on the topics we will be discussing. You must write a substantive answer to the questions, or a substantive response to another student’s answer, every week. (“Substantive” means at least one thoughtful, well-written, good-sized paragraph). Your responses can include further questions and comments related to the topic. You should post before the class during which we discuss the reading, because I’ll be reading the answers just before class and bringing interesting points into the classroom.

4. Analysis Papers (40%) 4-5 throughout the semester, 4-5 pages long.

5. Class presentation (10%) on a topic in Jewish magic. The class presentation should take between 10-15 minutes. A list of topics, and scheduling for these will begin the second week of classes.

6. Research Paper/Project (25%) on a topic of your choosing in Jewish folk religion or ritual power. Paper topics are due in class on October 24. Paper presentations will be scheduled for the last week of class. Completed paper is due Monday, December 19 at 5:00 p.m. in my office (Muller 307).


1. No plagiarism on papers. ALL WRITTEN WORK MUST BE YOUR OWN. Please consult the Student Handbook for a complete statement of the Ithaca College policy on plagiarism, including definitions of plagiarism and proper citation of sources. Plagiarism includes using another student’s paper to write your own, or lending your paper to another student (do not do this!). I refer proven cases of plagiarism or cheating to the Judicial Affairs office.

2. Respect for others in the class is required. This includes:

  • Arrive to class on time.
  • Turn off your cell-phone before class starts. No texting or playing games on cellphones during class.
  • No use of laptops in class without special permission.
  • Don't eat noisy food in class (e.g., potato chips). If you must eat in class, please throw away your trash after class.
  • Please do not leave the room during class except in case of dire physical need. (That is, use the bathroom before class starts)
  • Respect the instructor and your classmates – listen when they speak and avoid whispering or passing notes in class.

3. All written work must be done to pass the class.

4. If you need help with your writing: Please come speak to me. I also recommend the Writing Center, in Smiddy 107, which is run by the Department of Writing. Hours: M-F 9-5 and S-Th 7-10 pm. The Writing Center Annex in Smiddy 309 is open Sunday & Thursday, 6-10 pm, Monday & Wednesday, 7-10 p.m., and Tuesday 8-10 p.m. It’s advisable to make an appointment – call 274-3315 or sign up online

5. Students with learning disabilities: please approach me early in the semester and let me know your needs in terms of papers or exams. Also, please have the Office for Support Services send me a letter with your specific needs. In compliance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, reasonable accommodation will be provided to students with documented disabilities on a case-by-case basis. Students must register with Student Disability Services and provide appropriate documentation to Ithaca College before any academic adjustment will be provided.

6. If you are having personal or family problems, and find it difficult to complete your assignments – please speak to me to set up special arrangements. Please, do not simply stop coming to class!


Wednesday, Aug. 31: Introduction

What is the course about and why is the topic important? What is magic? Popular notions of magic. Doesn’t the Bible forbid magic? Samples of Jewish magical texts and rituals.

Monday, September 5 – No class, Labor Day

Unit 1: How to think about folk religion, ritual power, and magic

Weds., Sept. 7: What is folk religion? What is “domesticated Judaism”? As you read both of these articles, think about how Yoder’s and Sered’s definitions can be applied to Jewish or other religious practices. Do you think these are useful concepts? For Sered’s article: What is the important content of the religious lives of the women she studies? What do they believe and what do they do? Post a response to these questions (or a response to another student’s posting) in the Sakai forum thread on “What is folk religion?”

  • CR #8 – “Toward a Definition of Folk Religion” by Don Yoder (pp. 86-93).
  • CR #9 – “The Domestication of Religion: The Spiritual Guardianship of Elderly Jewish Women” by Susan Sered (pp. 94-109).

Mon., Sept. 12, and Weds., Sept. 14: What is ritual power?


  • CR #1 – “Theories and Controversies” by Fiona Bowie (pp. 1-19)
  • CR #5 – “Ritual Theory, Rites of Passage, and Ritual Violence,” by Fiona Bowie (pp. 55-68)
  • CR #6 – “The Abominations of Leviticus” by Mary Douglas (pp. 69-77)

Mon., Sept. 19 & Weds., Sept. 21: What is magic? Anthropological and historical theories about magic and ritual power


  • CR #2 – “The Meanings of Magic” by Michael Bailey (pp. 20-41)
  • CR #3 – Selections from Magic, Science, and Religion, by Bronislaw Malinowski (pp. 42-44)
  • CR #4 – “Baseball Magic” by George Gmelch (pp. 45-54)
  • CR #7 – “Magic and Miracle” by Mary Douglas (pp. 78-85)

Sept. 21: Topic #1 (definitions of magic) paper due.

Unit 2: Magic in the Bible and Talmud: definitions and prohibitions, demons, angels, and healing

Mon., Sept. 26: Magic in the Bible: definitions. How do these definitions interrelate with modern ones? What is the biblical connection between magic/sorcery and idolatry?


  • CR #10 – Biblical sources on magic, witchcraft, and divination (pp. 110-121)
  • Handout on Bible and Talmud

Weds., Sept. 28: No class, Rosh Hashanah begins this evening

Monday, October 3: Magic in the Talmud: definitions and prohibitions. How do the talmudic definitions differ from what’s found in the Bible? Are mostly women magicians?


  • CR #11 – Categories of magic in the Babylonian Talmud (pp. 122-133)

Weds., Oct. 5 & Mon., Oct. 10: Demons, magic, and medicine


  • CR #12 – Amulets and medical remedies in the Babylonian Talmud (pp. 134-141)
  • Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition, pp. 30-42 (on the powers of evil, especially demons)
  • CR #13 – Demons in the Babylonian Talmud (pp. 142-146)

Unit 3: Material culture and the study of ancient ritual

Weds., Oct. 12: Aramaic Incantation Bowls


  • CR #14 – Aramaic Incantation Bowls (pp. 148-152)
  •  CR #15 – “Image and Word: Performative Ritual and Material Culture in the Aramaic Incantation Bowls” by Rebecca Lesses (pp. 158-186)

Mon., Oct. 17: Metal amulets in Byzantine Palestine and the use of the Bible in magic


  • CR #14 – Metal Amulets from Israel (pp. 153-157)
  • Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition, pp. 106-116.

Weds., Oct. 19: Women in ancient Jewish magic


  • CR #16 – “Exe(o)rcising Power: Women as Sorceresses, Exorcists, and Demonesses in Babylonian Jewish society of Late Antiquity” by Rebecca Lesses (pp. 187-203) 

Unit 4: Jewish and Greco-Egyptian magic

Mon., Oct. 24: Jewish and other ancient magic: the Greek magical papyri. What is the relationship between Jewish practices of ritual power and those of other peoples? What was borrowed back and forth? Can we make a distinction between Jewish practices and those of other peoples: Greeks, Egyptians, Romans?


  •  CR #17 – Greek Magical Papyri (pp. 204-218)

Weds., Oct. 26: Sefer ha-Razim, “the Book of the Mysteries." A Jewish handbook of ritual power from late antiquity, comparable to the Greek magical papyri. What is the relationship of Jews in antiquity to “pagan” beliefs and practices?


  • CR #18 – Selections from Sefer ha-Razim (pp. 219-258)

Mon., Oct. 31: “Black” magic in Sefer ha-Razim


  • CR #19 – “Sefer ha-Razim and the Problem of Black Magic in Early Judaism” by Philip Alexander (pp. 259-271)

Unit 5: Ritual Power in Early Jewish Mysticism

Wednesday, November 2: Introduction to the Hekhalot literature


  • CR #21 – “Introduction to the Hekhalot Literature” by Rebecca Lesses (pp. 282-293)
  • CR #20 – “Jewish Magic Literature in Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages” by Peter Schäfer (pp. 272-276)

Mon., Nov. 7: Hekhalot texts of ritual power


  • CR #23 – Hekhalot adjurations (pp. 303-312)
  • CR #22 – “Adjurations as Performance” by Rebecca Lesses (pp. 294-302)

Unit 6: Medieval Jewish Magic

Weds., Nov. 9: Amulets from the Cairo Geniza and northern Europe


  • CR #24 – Hebrew and Aramaic Incantation Texts from the Cairo Geniza (pp. 313-335)
  • CR #25 – The Legend of Lilith (p. 336)
  • CR #26 – The Adjuration of Katviel (p. 337)
  • Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition, pp. 140-154 (medieval European amulets, use of mezuzot as amulets)

Mon., Nov. 14: The power of the divine name and the making of the Golem


  • Trachtenberg, “In the name of…”, pp. 81-105.

Unit 7: Dybbuks and Exorcists in Early Modern Judaism

Weds., Nov. 16, Mon., Nov. 28, and Weds., Nov. 30: Dybbuks and Exorcists


  • J. H. Chajes, Between Worlds
    • pp. 1-31 – Introduction and Emergence of Dybbuk Possession
    • pp. 32-56 – The Dead and the Possessed
    • pp. 57-96 – The Task of the Exorcist
    • pp. 97-118 – Dybbuk Possession and Women’s Religiosity
    • pp. 119-140 – Skeptics and Storytellers

Unit 8: Contemporary Jewish Magic

Monday, December 5 & Weds., Dec. 7: Jewish magic in Israel


  • CR# 28 – “Pulsa De-Nura: The Innovation of Modern Magic and Ritual” by Zion Zohar (pp. 355-382)
  • Other articles from the Israeli press, to be handed out in class

Unit 9: Student Presentations

Mon., Dec. 12 & Weds., Dec. 14 Student presentations of research projects

Monday, December 19: Research paper due in Muller 307 at 5:00 p.m.