Monday, October 18, 2010

Ritual Curses Then and Now

If against a man his companion lifts the tongue, or if he
invokes the gods against him, this is the ritual suitable for him: They
bring out to the grassland a loaf of bread and a jug of wine. He
breaks the loaf on the left and puts it on the ground, then he offers
wine on the left, and speaks in the following way: “Whatever
person has lifted the tongue before the gods, whoever invoked
the gods against me, as this grass is dry, let himself and his house in
the same way go dry too.
-KUB 17.28 ii 33-47

The above is part of an ancient Hittite ritual invoking a simile curse against slanderers and cursers. Imagine my surprise the other day when my Ukrainian wife mentioned similar rituals in Slavic magic, as practiced by village znakhari*
A search of the internet revealed one example which I'll reproduce here.
In your garden pick some weeds and recite over them:As this grass becomes dry, thus shall every tongue cease to speak of me and spread slander about me. The grass shall become dry and my enemy shall cease from troubling me. Amen.
When the grass becomes dry, cast it to your enemies. They will forget about you- they will have their own troubles to overcome.

Of course the two are not identical, nor is there any reason to suppose that spells are stationary, yet the combination of tongues, grass and dryness in context of a ritual involving a curse is remarkable.

*A znakhar or znakharka is both a healer, fortune-teller and witch.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Enoch the Shoemaker or Why God Took Up Enoch

And I asked my teacher Rabbi Yehudah the Preacher Ashkenazi, of blessed memory, what the matter of Enoch was, by virtue of which he had merited all this[1], for the matter of Elijah was known, but why Enoch?
He said that he recieved[2] that Enoch was an ushkaf, that is, he sewed together shoes, and with every incision and incision that he would make using the stitching awl, he would bless with a whole heart and perfect intent the Name, be blessed[3], and extended the blessing to Metatron the exalted, and never did he forget during even a single incision to bless, but would always do so, until because of so much love he was not, for God took him and he merited being called Metatron and his virtue is very great indeed.

ושאלתי את פי מורי הר׳יהודה הדרשן אשכגזי ז״ל מה היה עניין חגוך שעל ידו זכה לכל זה, כי עניין אליהו ז״ל ידוע, אבל חנוך למה, ואמר שקבל שחנוך היה אישכף כלומר תופר מנעלים, ובכל נקיבה ונקיבה שהיה נוקב במרצע בעור, היה מברך בלב שלם ובכוונה שלימה לשם ית׳, וממשיך הברכה למטטרון הנאצל, ומעולם לא שכח אפי׳ בנקיבה אחת מלברך אלא תמיד היה עושה כן, עד שמרוב אהבה איננו כי לקח אותו אלהים (בראשית ה׳) וזכה להקראות מטטרון ומעלתו גדולה עד מאד.

Rabbi Isaac of Acre, in Meirat Einaim, pg. 47

Rabbi Isaac ben Samuel of Acre was an early kabbalist who lived between 1250-1340, and lived in the port city of Acre until it was captured by the Mameluk sultan al-Ashraf Khalil in 1291. R. Isaac himself was taken prisoner. After his release he moved to Italy and Spain. He is perhaps best known through the controversy over the origins and antiquity of the Zohar, the central book of the Kabbalah. His testimony amounts to the only contemporary historical evidence on the publication of the Zohar, so its importance cannot be overrated. For more on that, see I. Tishby's The Wisdom of the Zohar, pg. 13-18.
R. Isaac belonged to the main branch of Kabbalah, the theosophical-theurgical one. In other words, the contemplation of the upper reaches and also of how man affected them. The above quote from R. Isaac is a clear theurgical statement. God in kabbalistic thought is represented by a series of emanations, the ten sephirot, each with its unique names and attributes. Metatron the exalted was considered to be malchut, the tenth and lowest sephirah. This Metatron is distinct from the created Metatron, Enoch, who is merely given that title.
Enoch, who lived before the commandments were given to Moses, loved God and served him whole heartedly, focusing his love and intents on God during such a mundane and menial act as sewing together shoes. This blessing caused power to flow downwards to the lowest sephirah. Because of this great love of Enoch for God, he was taken up and exalted. Abstract emotion and devotion, without accompanying acts, do not suffice to cause a change in the world. The opposite also holds true.
Moshe Idel surmises that although it is filtered through R. Isaac's kabbalistic leanings, this story reflects a rich but lost Enochic tradition in the possesion of the German Pietists (Hasidei Ashkenaz) of the 12th century, which itself preserves older material. He points out that the German R. Yehudah recieved this traditions from an anonymous master, presumabely also a German. Idel further points out that in some Muslim legends Idris (Enoch) is a tailor.[4]

[1]His ascent. Unlike Elijah, where we are given his story before his ascent, the Bible records of Enoch merely that he walked with God, and he was not, for God took him. This brevity puzzled R. Isaac.

[2]Heb. kibel, which implies a teaching or saying given to one by one's teacher or master.

[3]A common term for God in medieval Jewish literature.

[4]See chapter 4 of Moshe Idel's The Angelic World- Apotheosis and Theophany, Miskal, 2008, from where I have drawn most of the material for this post.