The mystical virtues and powers of numbers were a favorite subject of speculation in the ancient world. In the Sefer Yezirah[1] and the later medieval Kabbalah this theme came in for a great deal of elaboration. But long before Pythagorean philosophy and Kabbalistic theosophy exalted the conception into systems of thought, the common man had recognized the occult potency of numbers by according them an honored place in his superstitions. Medieval charms and magical recipes reflect this universal attitude. Just as the recurrent blows of a sledge-hammer drive a wedge inexorably into a recalcitrant block of wood, so repetition of an incantation enhances its force, by making it so much more difficult for the spirits to escape its compulsion....

"All sevens are beloved," says the Midrash, and we may well accept its verdict when we recall the manifold sacred associations of that numeral in Judaism. In magic the seven was second only to the three in popularity. Time and time again the instructions run: repeat seven times, draw seven circles on the ground, do this daily for seven days, etc. But what I imagine may be accepted as the classic illustration of the number seven in magic is this Talmudic prescription to cure a tertian fever:

"Take seven prickles from seven palm trees, seven chips from seven beams, seven nails from seven bridges, seven ashes from seven ovens, seven scoops of earth from seven door sockets, seven pieces of pitch from seven ships, seven handfuls of cumin, and seven hairs from the beard of an old dog, and tie them to the neck-hole of the shirt with a white twisted cord."[2]

Extravagant as medieval magic often was, it cannot duplicate such an outbreak of sevens in one recipe.

[Somewhat less extravagant but likewise impressive is one of the remedies suggested for a quotidian fever: "Let him take a pitcherful of water to the river and say, ‘River, river! Lend me a pitcherful of water for the journey I have to make.' He then waves it seven times around his head, throws the water behind him and exclaims, ‘River, river! I take back the water which you gave me, because the journey I had to make has gone and returned the same day.'"[3]

The circle is another ancient and universal magical symbol. The invocation of demons is a dangerous business, and the magician must take steps to protect himself in the event that his spirit adjutants get out of hand. What simpler or more obvious device than to exclude them from his immediate environment? The widespread custom of circle drawing was often combined with the magical use of the number seven.

In this connection it is interesting that in the Orient the general practice at a funeral is for the mourners actually to encircle the coffin seven times, reciting the "anti-demonic psalm." Similarly the late custom among East-European Jews (which also prevails in the Orient) for the bride to walk around her groom under the wedding canopy three, or seven times, was probably originally intended to keep off the demons who were waiting to pounce upon them. The magician's circle was usually inscribed with a sword or knife, and sometimes the directions require three, or seven concentric circles, the metal and the number adding to the protective virtues of this device.[4]


[1] a 3rd-4th c. Hebrew teatise on cosmogony and cosmology, and one of the most influential works of Jewish science, philosophy and (because of the kabbalistic commentaries written on it) mysticism.[back]

[2] BT Shabbat 67a [back]
[3] BT Shabbat 66b [back]
[4] BT Ta'anit 19a and 23ff [back]

Barnes and Noble linkFrom: Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion, by Joshua Trachtenberg (Jewish Publication Society, 1973).


SEVEN Table of Contents



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