Trachtenberg's discussion of the magic in first things relates
to magic in the context of folk superstition. We preface his
words with the understanding that the real magic is in the firsts
we encounter everyday: the predictable break of dawn, the first
rain, the flower that knows to open every morning.
The tradition has provided us with a joyous expression of thanksgiving
for being alive and able to enjoy new beginnings. Upon eating
any fruit for the first time in season, upon taking possession
of a new house or property; upon purchasing new dishes; after
lighting the festival candles and when sitting in the sukkah;
and indeed, at any occasion where one feels gratitude for "having
arrived" — we recite the traditional blessing:
is God... for having sustained us and enabling us to reach this time.
the formal development of the Jewish religion, there was a constant
elaboration of what we may call "folk religion" —
ideas and practices that never met with the whole-hearted approval of
the religious leaders, but which enjoyed such wide popularity that they
could not be altogether excluded from the field of religion.
sort were the beliefs concerning demons and angels, and the many superstitious
usages based on these beliefs, which by more or less devious routes
actually became a part of Judaism; on the periphery of the religious
life were the practices of magic which never broke completely with the
tenets of the faith, yet stretched them almost to the breaking-point.
If we call these "folk religion," it is because they expressed the common
attitude of the people to the universe, as opposed to the official attitude
of the Synagogue.
rabbis sought to eradicate these practices, or at least to transmute
their offensive features. But their efforts met with only indifferent
success, and they were often obliged to accord the elements of this
folk religion a grudging recognition and acceptance. "Better it is that
Israel should sin unwittingly than consciously break the law."
An example of this folk religion is the significant magical import
attributed to the use of new things, a universally encountered idea.
When the prophet Elisha was asked by the people of Jericho to purify
their water which had been polluted, he said to them, "Bring me a new
cruse and put salt therein" (II Kings 2:20).
of our medieval charms have the same provision:
- The apprentice
sorcerer was instructed to place his decoction in a new cup or bowl;
- Spells were to
be engraved upon metal plates with a new knife; the circle was to be
inscribed with a new sword;
- Virgin earth was
to be used to mold an image; water was to be drawn from a swift-flowing
stream or a spring which continually renews itself;
- Amulets were to
be written on virgin parchment;
- The "firstborn
of a firstborn" made a highly potent magical offering;
- One was to purchase
the first object prescribed which he encountered, and at the first price
demanded for it;
- The first person
met in the morning, the first action performed at the beginning of a
week, or month or year, were portentous for the ensuing period.
Such instances can
be easily multiplied many times. New things, first actions, are innocent
and virginal, like the boy or girl who were the best mediums in divination,
uncontaminated by use or repetition or by years and experience; they therefore
serve the magician's purpose best, for they can exert their greatest inner
potency on his behalf.
Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion by