Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Too Holy To Print’: The Forbidden Books of Jewish Magic


 The very publishing of a magical book could be fraught with dangers of its own. The German bibliographer Johann Christoph Wolf, in his Bibliotheca Hebraea of 1715 took note of inflamed opposition to the publication of Raziel in certain rabbinic circles. In his description of the book, he notes, “Judaei illius editionem adeo non probarunt, ut de eo comburendo & prohibendo quosdam cogitasse audiverim. [The Jews did not approve of its publication to such an extent that I have heard some thought about burning and suppressing it.]” Such secondary dangers—in the sense that they stem not from the threat posed by the magical material but by the reception of the book in the contemporary social context—must have contributed to many a publisher’s decision to do so anonymously. R. Leon Modena provides an early example of this practice. Modena lists “Selling books of arcane remedies [segulot]” as well as “teaching arcane remedies and amulets” at the end of his autobiographical ethical will, Hayyei Yehudah, as among “the many endeavors I have tried in order to earn my living, trying without success.” Modena also mentioned a certain Beretin who “died in jail during inquisitorial proceedings for copying books of arcane remedies. Also a tailor was fined … in connection with proscribed arcane remedies.”

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