Introduction: The War With The Spirits

Fear of the supernatural has been productive of the greatest number and variety of magical protective devices...

The method of warding off the spirits fell into three general categories:
to drive them away, or at least to render them powerless by the application of certain approved means;
to buy them off with gifts, to bribe them and thus conciliate them;
to deceive them by disguising their intended victims, or by pretending that the situation was other than it actually was.

Each of these methods, and often two or all three of them combined, was known and employed by Jews and even found expression in special ceremonies which have become part and parcel of Jewish ritual. We will focus in this article on the third weapon in anti-demonic strategy — deceit.


Deceit figures prominently in the initiation, marriage and burial rites of primitive peoples and not a few examples have been collected from European folk-customs. Medieval Jews, however, resorted to this device only rarely. Apart from several instances connected with birth and was most commonly employed in changing an invalid's name so that the spirits who might be charged with effecting his death would be unable to locate him. This deception was also practiced by individuals who had suffered a run of bad luck; just as criminals adopt aliases to evade the police, so medieval Jews embraced new names to give their spirit harriers the slip. Changing one's residence, or moving out of a city altogether, was another way of confusing and eluding the demons; this remedy was suggested to people whose fortune had soured, to couples whose children had died young, to men who had lost their peace of mind through the operation of love charms.

Medieval Healing Tactics

Medieval medicine was a curiously indiscriminate compound of science and superstition.... A quite extraordinary healing device was predicated on the belief that illness and death are often visited upon man for his sins, by the angels, at God's command. Jews visualized the celestial administration as conducted in much the same bureaucratic manner as a mundane government. The decrees issued from the seat of the Supreme Ruler were distributed among the various secretariats and in time assigned to angelic attendants for execution. Not unlike their earthly counterparts, the angels tended to go about their tasks methodically, but not over-intelligently, carrying out the letter of their orders without any great concern with or comprehension of the wider import of their errands.

The human analogy suggested the possibility of outwitting them by a crafty dodge. The Talmud knew of four courses that might be pursued to counteract an adverse decree from above, namely, alms-giving, prayer, change of conduct, and change of name. Lest there be any doubt of the intent of this last method, Moses of Coucy[2] plainly explained that the one who changes his name as much as declares to the angel looking for him, "I am not the person you are seeking, I am not the one who committed the sins you charge me with." And, of course, the angel takes him at his word. During the Middle Ages the belief that changing the name of a sick person can save his life and effect his cure by hoodwinking the angel charged with bringing his ailment to a fatal conclusion was very pronounced and much more generally accepted than in earlier periods. It seems to have been acted upon universally among German Jews when an illness was prolonged and severe. Interestingly enough, the very same course is followed on the opposite side of the earth, in Borneo and the Kingsmill Islands.

In modern times, when Jews effected such a change of name, they usually selected one which in itself suggests a long life, to make doubly sure that the angel of death will avoid the invalid, such as Hayim ("life"), Alter ("old man"), Zeide ("grandfather"), etc. During the Middle Ages the customary procedure was to find a new name "by lot," opening the Bible at random and choosing the first one that appeared. Israel Bruna,[3] in his responsa, protested against the adoption of the name of a sick person when such was the first found, and ordered it to be passed over for the first righteous one, citing "the memory of the just is blessed, but the name of the wicked shall perish" (Proverbs 10:7) in extenuation. Israel Isserlein[4] went further, and demanded that the new name contain not a single letter of the old and that it have a greater numerical value, although when he changed his own son's name during an illness he adhered to neither of his requirements.

This change of name was and still is solemnly effected before an assembly of ten persons by an expert reader who holds a Torah scroll in his hands while he repeats a prescribed formula whose institution is attributed to the Geonim. After announcing the new name, the ritual formally notifies the heavenly authorities of the change, and requests them to take cognizance of it and to consider this person as not identical with the one who bore his former name, "for he is another man, like unto a newborn creature, an infant who has just been born unto a long and good life." The new name then becomes the true name, even though the old remains in use, and in legal documents the individual is identified by it with the notation that he bears his former name as an alias.

However. Some Jews were known by their parents' names as well as by their own, as Isaac son of Abraham and Sarah, there still remained some room for apprehension lest the angel's order identify the child by its parents (which is especially likely to happen when the child is being punished for its parents' sins); a change simply of its own name would then be ineffective to save its life. The way out was not hard to find — change his parents as well! Which is just what was done. The real parents would sell their invalid child to another couple who, because their children were alive and well, appeared to be in high favor with the heavenly powers. Thus, the child acquired new parents, and the angel of death was twice confounded. If he tried to locate the child through the parents he could not trace it, and if he hunted up the parents to punish them by killing their child, he found they had none.

Civilized people lose their religion easily, but rarely their superstitions.  — Karl Goldmark[1]

[1] Karl Goldmark (1830-1915), Viennese Jewish music teacher, composer and conductor. His autobiography (1922) was translated into English in 1927 as Notes from the Life of a Viennese Composer. [back]

[2] Moses ben Jacob of Coucy (13th cent.), French scholar and tosafist, the first example among French Jews of an itinerant preacher, wandering from town to town and from country to country to rouse the masses to draw near to God by the active observance of His precepts. [Back]

[3] Israel Bruna (c.1400-1480), German rabbi and communal leader; after the deaths of Rabbis Jacob Weil and Israel Isserlein, he was recognized as the halakhic authority of Germany, and his opinion in communal and rabbinic matters was widely sought. His responsa, which provide valuable information on the German Jewish scene of his time, were collected and published posthumously (1788, 1860, 1960). [back]

[4] Israel Isserlein (1390-1460), the foremost rabbi of Germany in the 15th century, erudite and profound scholar; also known as Israel Marburg and Israel Neustadt, after the towns in which he resided. Isserlein's most important work is his responsa Terumat ha-Deshen, whose halakhic rulings provide an authentic picture of Jewish life in 15th-century Germany. [Back]
From: Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion by Joshua Trachtenberg.

TOPSY TURVY Table of Contents



Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend