Menachem Mendel

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Witches and Trick-or-Treating

If you thought that the persecution of witches was limited to Salem, MA, think again. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, Shimon ben Shetah [Hagigah 2:2 (77d)] hanged 80 witches in Ashkelon. One can read more about witches and their sort in this good article by Meir Bar-Ilan, “Witches in the Bible and the Talmud.” More discussion about witches and witchcraft in the Bible can be found here at Codex (don’t miss the great clip from Monty Python linked at the end). Eliezer Segel has a post here on the topic and see here for an analysis of gender issues and witchcraft in antiquity. The Jewish Encylopedia has an article on “Magic”, always an informative source. For those interested in more reading, here is an extensive bibliography by Meir Bar-Ilan as is here (Ancient Period) and here (Medieval Period) by Scott B. Noegel. Also see this collection of “Witchcraft Legends” gathered by D.L. Ashliman (his site has excellent links to resources and texts on folktales) other medieval sources here from the great Medieval Sourcebook.

Probably the most important Jewish source for witches in the Middle Ages is Sefer Hasidim (“The Book of the Pious”). Abraham Grossman in his book Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe has an interesting discussion of women and withcraft in Medieval Jewish Society and brings a story from Sefer Hasidim (par. 172, p. 70 [ed. Wisstinetski]) which talks about women suspected of eating children. Some students come to a sage and say that just as the rebellious son, according to the Mishnah in Sanhedrin 8:5 (see Moshe Halbertal’s discussion of this in his book Mahapeichot Parshaniyut beHithavutan, pp. 48-57), is killed because of what they are going to do in the future, so should these women be killed in order to prevent them from eating children. The sage says to them that the people of Israel are not in their land and some women unwillingly get involved with witchcraft. His solution was that when these women are in the synagogue they should be warned against harming any children and that they would be severely punished (their teeth “would be sharpened with the stones surrounding the well” and they would be killed) if anything happened.

Historical questions aside, what about the halakhah lemaaseh of Halloween? R. Michael J. Broyde writes about the question here (w/o footnotes) and here (w/footnotes). Hirhurim also mentions Broyde’s treatment.

2 Responses to “Witches and Trick-or-Treating”

  1. 1
    Menachem Mendel » Blog Archive » Bewitched:

    […] here for a previous post on witches in Jewish […]

  2. 2
    Menachem Mendel:

    Trachtenberg is probably the most accessible one on the topic.
    The sefer hassidim quote is interesting especially since in the Margolius edition there is a slightly similar discussion about sharp teeth and killing children. There, a kid was supposedly born with very sharp teeth and a tail and the people wanted to know if they could kill it. The populace was afraid it would just eat people up. The Rabbi instead offered the “simple” solution of just cutting off the tail.
    Dan Rabinowitz | Homepage | 10.31.06 – 10:59 am | #

    Thanks. I wasn’t sure if there was a similar parallel in the Margolius edition.
    Menachem Mendel | Homepage | 10.31.06 – 4:53 pm | #

    Also see the book יש מנחילין p. 96-97 for a 17th century discussion about how to deal with witches who were killing babies.
    Dan Rabinowitz | Homepage | 11.02.06 – 2:27 pm | #




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