The magic in firsts

Joshua 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:

Blessed is God... for having sustained us and enabling us to reach this time.

Alongside 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.

Of this 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.

The 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).

Many 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.

From Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion by Joshua Trachtenberg:



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