Sympathetic Magic in Judaism


Ancient Jews, like their pagan neighbors believed that angels and demons exist, the first group helping people and the later harming them. They sought ways to control the demons and force them to do their will. They believed that humans have the power not only to control demons but to influence God to do what they want. Many thought they can do so with fervent prayer, pious living, and sympathetic magic. This essay discusses the use by Jews of sympathetic magic on two Jewish holidays.




Although I haven’t seen this idea expressed by anyone else, it seems to me that the two unique Sukkot practices – pouring water on the altar (which ceased with the destruction of the temple) and banging hoshanas on the ground, up and down (which is still performed) – were instituted as sympathetic magic. Two things need to be clarified before we understand what I think: the difference between the Pharisees and Sadducees and what is sympathetic magic.

Pharisees and Sadducees

Scholars understand that the Sadducees were following the ancient laws and customs and were therefore called Sadducees, Tzedukim in Hebrew, meaning “righteous ones.” When the Pharisees began to change Judaism[1] because of changed circumstances since the time the Torah was composed,[2] probably beginning in the fourth or third century BCE, the Sadducees objected to the changes. The Pharisees insisted that they were not altering Torah law; they were implementing the Oral Law that God gave to Moses when God revealed the Torah. For example, while the Torah states “an eye for an eye,” the Oral Torah teaches that God told Moses, this should be understood as monetary compensation. The Sadducees objected saying this notion of an Oral Torah is itself an invention; we never heard of it in prior years.[3]

Sympathetic magic

Sir James George Frazer explained the phrase sympathetic magic in his justly famed book “The Golden Bough,” published in 1889. Frazer divided sympathetic magic into two kinds: that relying on similarity and that relying on contact or contagion. He wrote:

“If we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion. From the first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not.”

It is the first, magic by means of similarity, which is involved in the Sukkot Pharisaic acts. Act performed on earth produces a similar act in heaven. American Indians, for example, also used sympathetic magic in their up and down motions in their rain dances.

The Pharisaic innovations

It seems to me that the Pharisees introduced a temple ceremony which is not mentioned in the Torah and seems to be contrary to the spirit of the sacrifices that were only of the best foods, such as pure non-processed wine and animals with no blemishes. In two or three centuries BCE, they introduced a ritual of pouring water on the temple altar during the fall holiday of Sukkot. The Sadducees objected strongly to this innovation, but the people backed the Pharisees, who won out. The Pharisees then expanded the observance to make it into a joyous festival with dancing and torches which they called Simchat beit Hasho’eivah, “The joy of the (water) drawing,” and exclaimed “Whoever had not seen the joy of Simchat beit Hasho’eivah hasn’t seen real joy.”

There are several things to note about this event. It occurred during the fall, at the onset of the rainy season in Israel when people wanted it to rain. The altar was thought to be an instrument of communication with God. The people wanted water to be poured on the altar. The turning of the practice of pouring water into a huge celebration is a classic case of “The lady doth protest too much, methinks,”[4] which suggest that when a person denies something overmuch or often or in too strong a manner, it indicates that the person is trying hard to hide an improper behavior.

Once this is recognized, it seems clear to me that the Pharisees went along with the notion of the masses that they can increase the chances of rain if they pour water on the altar. This is not only because the pouring was a communication or petition to God for the water, for a prayer for rain would have sufficed.[5] It was sympathetic magic done on the Simchat beit Hasho’eivah.[6]

There is another Sukkot practice: banging the hoshanas, “willows,” on the ground at the end of the Sukkot holiday, on 21 Tishrei, on a day also given an inflated name “Hoshana Rabba,” the Great Hoshana. Besides the inflated name, there are other indications that the banging of the hoshanas is sympathetic magic: Hoshanas (willows) are used because they are plants that grow by the water. There is no other ceremony in Judaism for banging something on the ground repeatedly, and trying to rationalize the banging by saying that the movement to and from the ground is a way of discharging sins is not reasonable. The up and down motion has been used in other cultures to induce rain by sympathetic magic, such as the American Indians. The number seven which is understood in many cultures to be, like three, a magic number,[7] is used repeatedly on this day: Hoshana Rabba occurs on the seventh day of Sukkot. Unlike the first six days of Sukkot when congregants make a single circuit in synagogues with the four species (lulav and etrog), on Hoshana Rabba, there are seven circuits,[8] and in many synagogues these circuits are given special significance by removing Torah scrolls from the ark and holding them during the circuits. Thus it seems reasonable to suppose that the up and down movement of the willows began as sympathetic magic to cause water (rain) to fall.[9]


                                                                             Rosh Hashanah


The Babylonian Talmud states:[10] “Abaye (who died in 339 CE) said ‘Now that you have said that an omen is significant, at the beginning of each year, each person should accustom himself to eat gourds, fenugreek, leeks, beets and dates…’.” Either because of this talmudic statement or more likely because the statement justified an already existing popular performance, the custom continued to the present day to eat foods that represent good things at the beginning of the year, on the new year holiday, Rosh Hashanah.

The ritual is to say certain words before eating the food. The opening words are always the same: “”May it be your will Lord our God and God of our forefathers…” Words are then added that resemble the Hebrew name of the food eaten. For example, for leek or cabbage: “…that our enemies be destroyed.” For gourd: “…that the decree of our sentence be ripped apart and our merits be proclaimed before you.” For apple in the honey: “…that you renew us for a good and sweet year.”

Why do we eat these foods on this occasion and why do we make the request?

A popular answer is that we eat these foods and recite the blessings as reminders to prompt Jews to act properly. By eating foods that have positive connotations, Jews remember that people are judged and divine decisions made concerning people at the start of the year and Jews should, for safety sake, change their behavior. The prayer to God can be seen as a petition to help Jews behave properly to deserve what the food symbolizes. The problem with this explanation is that the words of the prayer do not ask for God’s help but that God bring the requested benefit to them.

Why then are these foods eaten? It is likely that this custom began as sympathetic magic. Jews ate foods that symbolized desired benefits and by eating the food and praying that the benefit be produced, they felt certain that what they wanted would happen magically.


[1] The Pharisees preceded the rabbis; the institution of rabbis began around 70 CE when the temple was destroyed. Both instituted changes in Judaism. And both were preceded by leaders who also altered Torah laws. I go into detail regarding changes in my book “Mysteries of Judaism.” I show there, for example, that the ancients changed how every biblical holiday is observed.

[2] The prototypical alteration is that the Torah states that debts are discharged when the sabbatical year begins, every seventh year. This affected commerce as well as placing a harsh burden on the poor. Accordingly, the sage Hillel, at the beginning of the Common Era, instituted a practice, called pruzbal, that allowed the debt to continue if a court was notified of its existence.

[3] Since Torah Judaism was based in large part upon sacrifices and since the temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the Sadducees and Pharisees ceased to exist soon after 70 CE and the institution of rabbis began. No sage prior to 70 CE was called rabbi.

[4] William Shakespeare, “Hamlet.”

[5] The Babylonian Talmud in Taanit 25b relates a story about a devastating draught. Rabbi Eliezer sought to cause rain to fall by saying “twenty-four blessings, with no answer [no response from God]. Rabbi Akiva led after him, and said [just three parallel lines]:

Our father, our king, we have sinned before you.

Our father, our king, we have no king other than you.

Our father, our king, for your sake, have mercy upon us.

And the rain fell.”

[6] It should surprise no one that many Jewish practices are based on superstition and mystical notions. I gave many examples in my three Maimonides books. One example is Tashlich, the belief that going to the water during the holiday of Rosh Hashanah can cleans a person of sins. The rabbis at first berated fellow Jews for this notion but later accepted it. It is one of many cases of the tail leading the head.

[7] These numbers are also used frequently in Judaism to produce magic.

[8] Mentioned in Mishnah Sukkot 4:5.

[9] Later mystics reinterpreted the practice and gave it mystical significance.

[10] Kerisus 6a.