How Jewish Mystics Sought to Vanquish Hitler – and the Coronavirus

Stopping the Nazis with the aid of magic and fighting the coronavirus with blasts of the shofar? Neither surprise Yuval Harari, a scholar of Jewish magic and mysticism at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

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A kapparot ritual in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood, 2016.
A kapparot ritual in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood, 2016.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

This past Purim, in late March, a delegation of kabbalists and rabbis from Jerusalem flew over Israel in a helicopter, praying and blowing shofars and horns. Their aim was to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Israel. I imagine that you, in contrast to many others, were not amazed by this.

Not only was I not amazed, I was even happy. Truly. First of all, ritual activity of this type is a facet of Jewish culture that interests me very much. The second reason I wasn’t amazed is that this wasn’t the first time this has happened. There were precedents.

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You write about one of them in your article, “Three Charms for Killing Adolf Hitler” [an abridged version exists in English]. In 1940, a similar flight took place – also originating in Jerusalem. At that time the kabbalists’ goal was to protect the Land of Israel from the Nazis.

They wanted specifically to protect the country against an invasion by [the Germans]. Their flight took place over the country’s borders, and they prayed and slaughtered white roosters in the air and sprayed their blood from on high. The flight was only part of a larger effort by kabbalists in Jerusalem to block an invasion and vanquish Hitler. From their point of view, by the way, it worked: Rommel failed at El Alamein [in 1942] and was forced to retreat. It’s not an especially famous event, but if you peruse historical sources closely, you can trace its course.

Let’s concentrate on the similarities between these ceremonial acts. What does flying over the country symbolize?

The idea is that you demarcate a particular region and create a protected space within it. Magical-mystical activity of this kind also took place in the Talmudic period among the Babylonian Jews, who designated certain spaces as safe against demons. The principle is to isolate a specific area and protect it, and this repeats itself even in as basic an act as drawing the circle of Honi Hame’agel [a 1st-century B.C.E. Jewish teacher, who according to the Talmud drew a circle around himself to beseech God for rain during a drought], for example. It’s interesting to note that the Jerusalem kabbalists perceived Hitler and the Nazis as both evil itself and as its emissaries.

Three-headed snake

Confronting Hitler is tantamount to confronting the “sitra ahra” [Aramaic for the “other side,” meaning the realm of evil].

That is stated explicitly in some of the few [kabbalistic] testimonies that have been preserved. A kabbalist named Mutzafi, for example, relates that after he took part in activities of that kind, he saw in a dream an iron snake with three heads. The snake warned him that he was taking on the sitra ahra, and that nothing can truly harm the sitra ahra. Mutzafi decided to make do with praying for the evil to bypass the Jewish people, and not to target Hitler and his cohorts specifically.

It’s a very dangerous struggle. If the conception is that the reality we see is merely a reflection of cosmic struggles that are occurring against the divinity, then evil according to the kabbalist perception possesses tremendous power. Each person has to decide how much of a risk he is willing to take.

You cite a long list of means adopted to fight the Nazis: special prayers, self-denial and fasting, rituals and gatherings at Rachel’s Tomb and at tombs of tzaddikim (righteous men).

The 1940 flight was one episode amid a great struggle by kabbalists and rabbis in Jerusalem. There were defensive actions, aimed at asking for mercy, to induce God to mobilize and help – such as prayers, prostrations on graves of holy men, weeping and pleading. At the same time, there were also more aggressive acts.

My research on this subject started with a piece of paper I found in the National Library: a note that someone wrote to Rabbi Eliyahu Dehuki, titled “Three charms for killing Adolf Hitler.” It captivated me immediately. We have an extensive and fascinating literature of magical practices that has accompanied the Jewish people from the fifth century on – how to manipulate reality by means of ritual. Someone took three “recipes” from that body of work and provided them to Dehuki, one of the lesser-known kabbalists in Jerusalem at that time. They are very aggressive recipes, by the way – two of them entail killing an animal.

‘In Hitler’s name’

Killing a rooster. It had to be purchased “in Hitler’s name” and then slaughtered – or, horrifically, buried alive.

These recipes make use of what is known as the “principle law of similarity”: the attempt to bring about in reality something that has been performed in a symbolic way; and the “principle of contact”: to take something that was in contact with someone upon whom we wish to exercise the magic – his clothing, fingernails or hair – and to make use of it.

The page containing “Three Charms for Killing Adolf Hitler,” found by Harari in the National Library. The Nazi leader was tantamount to the sitra ahra itself.
The page containing “Three Charms for Killing Adolf Hitler,” found by Harari in the National Library. The Nazi leader was tantamount to the sitra ahra itself. Credit: Courtesy of the National Library of Israel

If you act on the object that represents someone, you are effectively acting on the one represented by it. Accordingly, if you are supposed to be slaughtering a rooster, it is impossible to make do with any random fowl. The recipe calls for the rooster to be purchased in Hitler’s name, so that already on the occasion of acquiring it you create the connection between the object and what it signifies – and then you raise it at home under the name of Hitler. Through the name and through the intentionality [of your actions], an association is forged between the rooster and Hitler.

Judaism attributes vast importance to a name and finds a deep connection between it and the essence [of the individual]. For example, if someone who is very ill goes to a rabbi, the rabbi may instruct him to change his name or to add a letter to it, in order to be cured. The act of slaughtering a fowl or, unfortunately, of burying it alive in the earth, as the recipe calls for, is intended to create a reality that will affect the real Hitler. And according to the law of similarity, when I slaughter that rooster, Hitler will be slaughtered likewise.

Great importance is also associated to the name of Hitler’s mother. The kabbalists took the trouble to find out her name. Some of the sources you quote refer to him as “Adolf Hitler son of Klara.”

Magic is not some sort of hocus-pocus – “Let’s do something and see what happens.” You need to know the mother’s name, because it’s important to aim precisely at the object of the forces we will unleash. We want the recipe to work on Adolf Hitler, son of Klara, and not for the evil forces to operate on some other, innocent Adolf Hitler.

In some of the sources you cite, she is actually called “Gertrude.” How did the kabbalists manage to establish her name?

There are several places where texts were amended, where the word “Gertrude” was erased and replaced by “Klara.” I imagine that they had connections with the British and were able to find out through them.

There is no real evidence that the plane flight took place – you learned about it from indirect testimony.

For a long time I tried to understand whether it happened in reality. I looked for corroboration and proof. I talked at length to the novelist Haim Be’er about it; he wrote about the flight in one of his books. He gave me access to his archive and shared with me newspaper clippings and other materials.

'They prayed and slaughtered white roosters in the air and sprayed their blood from on high. The flight was only part of a larger effort by kabbalists in Jerusalem to vanquish Hitler.'

There is a lot of insistent testimony concerning the very fact of the event, but I also could not help but ask myself questions about its feasibility. For example, where did Jerusalem rabbis and kabbalists get hold of a plane in 1940? In the end, I found a newspaper article in which [the engineer and film producer] Wim Van Leer, who was a pilot, relates that he met the pilot of that flight. The latter described the scene of a plane filled with cages of fowls and blood, and talked about the kabbalists’ bloodstained white clothes. It was very colorful.

Rommel and the Brits

Can you bring yourself to believe another claim, according to Van Leer’s account: namely, that the British were the ones who asked the kabbalists to help them try to block the Nazis? That that’s how they obtained the plane?

No. I absolutely don’t buy that. But there’s no doubt that there was some sort of connection between the kabbalists and the British authorities.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and try to understand the nature of this type of thinking – the notion that history is now unfolding in Germany and I, a kabbalist from Jerusalem, have the privilege and the ability to alter reality and influence the course of history.

The perception is that the reality in Israel is a product of a cosmic reality, over which the kabbalists tried to exert influence. The question they undoubtedly asked themselves was whether they were facing a situation of “hiding of the face” of God – when God turns away from us because of something we did and for which we must try to atone, to seek mercy and forgiveness – or whether this is a crisis of the divinity that requires repair, meaning we must resort to ritual acts.

The whole world is being managed all the time under divine supervision, and the way to activate it, according to the Jerusalem kabbalists, is by way of various rituals. We must act from down below upward in order to improve the situation of the whole world – whether by participating in an act against the sitra ahra, or by requesting the [dead] tzaddikim to act on our behalf.

The 2020 flight also ended with a prayer, uttered above the tomb of Rabbi Meir Ba’al Haness [in Tiberias], and with a gathering at the tomb of Rashbi [Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, on Mt. Meron]. There is a desire to harness the powers of the righteous for the great cause.

Yuval Harari, a scholar of Jewish magic and mysticism at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
Yuval Harari, a scholar of Jewish magic and mysticism at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.Credit: Emil Salman

Rashbi is [traditionally said to be] the author of the Zohar, the foundational work of kabbala, and worship of the tzaddikim and the understanding that they can work for us are part of the kabbalist approach. During the period of the [flourishing of the] kabbala in Safed, many rituals were practiced that were associated with the graves of the tzaddikim. The Lag Ba’omer festivities on Mount Meron constitute an extremely significant religious gathering, even by international criteria.

Be that as it may, the perception of magic here is practical. A toolbox. It’s not something remote and theoretical. It’s perhaps more like recipes in a cookbook. It’s a matter for technicians.

There is a great similarity. Just as a cookbook recipe explains, step by step, what you need to do in order to bake a cheesecake – from the ingredients and how they are mixed, to the baking – and if you follow it meticulously you will get a cheesecake, it is the same with the recipes for magic. I noted in my book [“Jewish Magic Before the Rise of Kabbalah,” English version published in 2017] that magic is quite a boring thing, maybe best suited to technicians, but the concept behind it is amazing.

The literature of magic is actually a map of human existence. It aims to deal with life, and it brings to the surface distress, needs and difficulties in a manner that’s both unrestrained and uncensored. Nothing is silenced and nothing is swept under the rug. No other genre provides precise instructions for how to summon the dead into a dream in order to ask them questions, how to cause a couple to separate or how to catch a thief.

Are these instructions meant for kabbalists only, or are laypeople also allowed to use magical recipes?

The literature of magical recipes does not state who the instructions are meant for. But it’s clear that if you must perform purification rites or refrain from speaking over three days, in order to acquire the ability to act – as is set forth, for example, in the early magical text “Harba de-Moshe” [The Sword of Moses] – then apparently it’s not intended for everyone; and it might be easier to go to someone who is known to be qualified in the practice.

Some sources also refer to the danger involved in having anything to do with forces of this kind. On the other hand, many recipes describe relatively simple procedures that anyone can carry out – certainly in an instance like “if you fall into a well,” when it might otherwise be quite difficult to find someone to rescue you.

Forbidden practice

'Jerusalem kabbalists opened the Holy Ark, took out the scrolls and cursed Hitler, Goebbels and Goering. I don’t think that in their opinion they were engaged in magic.'

Let’s talk about the fundamental dispute concerning magic – namely, that its practice is forbidden in Judaism.

Categorically, magic is forbidden. It is written, “Thou shalt not suffer a sorceress to live” [Exodus 22:17]. The punishment for a sorcerer or sorceress is death by stoning. The sages reiterated this in the Mishna and the Talmud. The Scriptures state explicitly that it is prohibited to enlist the aid of mediums, magicians, whisperers and so forth.

Yes, because the Chosen People was given an alternative: prophets from among them. But aren’t Moses’ deeds acts of magic?

No one will say that Moses is a magician or a sorcerer, because that is forbidden. So the terminology of the “miracle” is invoked. But what is he actually doing? He is changing reality. In terms of halakha [traditional religious law], that is absolutely forbidden. The question then becomes how to live with this. How do you reconcile such a prohibition with a reality in which you don’t want to dismiss such forces – you don’t want to dissociate yourself from Elijah who stops the rain and ascends to heaven in a storm. Or from Elisha, of whom it is said that even his bones could resurrect the dead.

In order not to sideline all these heroes, we need to explain why what they do is all right, whereas what others do is prohibited. There are all kinds of complex systems of explanations, which I don’t think we need to go into here; at the same time, there are some legal authorities who declare that magic is indeed banned by the Torah and that it is an idolatrous influence on Judaism.

You said earlier that magic is a practical matter, but within it one has to draw a distinction between magic that is intended to help – to heal the sick, find a partner, assist one in one’s livelihood, etc. – and “harmful magic,” namely magical practice that is intended to hurt someone, do him ill.

I believe there are very few people who are capable of deriving pleasure or benefit from doing harm for harm’s sake. In the course of fieldwork I did among people who inscribe amulets and create magical plates, I sat with one man in his impressive workroom in Kiryat Gat. After a lengthy conversation I asked if he also did things that were intended to cause harm. He pointed to an object on the table and said, “A woman asked me to inscribe that amulet against her husband, because he beat and abused her – so did I do a good deed or a bad deed?”

When the Jerusalem kabbalists try to kill Hitler, were they doing a good deed or a bad deed? There are very few magical recipes I am familiar with that are for the benefit of society as a whole [as opposed to intended to address a specific problem]. Magic is meant to help a person with his own private troubles. “The Book of Secrets” contains a recipe for getting rid of a debtor who is putting pressure you. Obviously, if you owe someone money and instead of paying him back you try to get rid of him – that is “mafia-style” magic. But as with life, so with magic. It reflects life as it is, and if you have a particular need, you get a response, even if it’s “not nice.”

Faithful at the tomb of Shimon Bar Yochai on Lag Ba’omer 2019. A desire to harness the powers of the righteous.
Faithful at the tomb of Shimon Bar Yochai on Lag Ba’omer 2019. A desire to harness the powers of the righteous. Credit: Gil Eliahu

It’s not pretty, but it’s certainly human.

It deals with humanity, without any embellishment. The literature [of magic] brings to the surface wishes, desires, anxieties, ambitions, jealousies – and in a collective way. It is a cumulative literature, a kind of collective knowledge that people pass from one to another, adding and copying things. It’s folklore in the sense of broad popular knowledge that expresses a common identity.

Is “pulsa denura,” for example, a harmful magical practice?

Pulsa denura, Aramaic for “lashes of fire,” is a ceremony that rests on what is known as “herem kol bo,” a ban or excommunication, which comes from “Sefer Kol Bo,” an Ashkenazi compendium from the Middle Ages. Is it a harmful magical practice? The question is whether you want to call it magic at all. I am certain that those who perform the ceremony would not consider it magic.

The ceremony of the excommunication of Hitler by the Jerusalem kabbalists, which is also based on the herem kol bo, was performed in a synagogue. They opened the Holy Ark, took out the scrolls and cursed Hitler, Goebbels and Goering. I don’t think that in their opinion they were engaged in magic. From their viewpoint, they would not involve the Torah scrolls, which embody the divine presence, in a forbidden act of magic. They defined for themselves what they were doing as being permitted; like, let’s say, using amulets.

Are amulets considered to have magical properties?

There are those who deride them, but they are not illegitimate. No one will be excommunicated for writing amulets. Rabbis write amulets.

So, there are semantic games at work.

Yes. There are semantic games. I don’t walk around with a box of religion and a box of magic. I think there are many points where there is an overlap, and there also many things in common, so it’s a matter of semantics and the way things are seen.

Almost all the kabbalists who massed their forces to repel the aggressor are of Eastern origin. Was the practical kabbala identified more with Mizrahim?

There were also some of Ashkenazi origin. But there was a far greater presence of kabbalists of Sephardi [or Mizrahi] origin in Jerusalem. There is no doubt of that at all. It’s a sensitive subject, so I am weighing my words. You know, Hasidism itself is based on a belief in the power of the tzaddik, and in practice on the supernatural power of the tzaddik. His ability to affect events in the world, to bring down abundance from above – that can be called the miracle-working side of the tzaddik, and it can also be called the magical side.

And Hasidism, as we know, is not a Mizrahi stream.

At home I have a bottle of water from the mikveh [ritual bath] of the Lubavitcher Rebbe – his body touched the water, and therefore, in cases of distress or sickness, it can heal. Because of the fact that it was in contact with a righteous man, it bears something of his virtuous quality and can act in the world.

I’ll put it differently: How, in the end, did Jewish magical practice become the preserve of the Mizrahim? What political-cultural development led to that identification or appropriation?

The tradition of affecting reality, whether by appealing to tzaddkim or by means of utterances, ceremonies or speaking holy names is rooted in Judaism long before the terms “Ashkenazi” and “Mizrahi” came into use. It begins with the idea of God who created the world by means of speech, and because we are in his image, our speech, too, has the power to affect reality. The Gemara states that if the righteous so wished, they would be capable of creating a world.

I did not study that topic nor am I an expert in it, but in general it is always worth examining what magical beliefs and deeds represent to those who criticize them.

The important distinction is not between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, as magical elements exist in the religious-traditionalist culture of both groups, but between those who are perceived by critics as “primitive” and therefore “inferior,” and what they perceive as “enlightened” and “developed” – namely, adhering to their own values. In the end it comes down to a battle over identity and power, and the relations between them.

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