The Talmud is the large corpus of Jewish law, compiled in the first centuries C.E. in Jerusalem and Babylon. The word Law should be used here in a very loose sense; the text is essentially protocols, ordered by vague association into smaller books called Tractates. The Talmud list endless disputes disputes on such inane subjects as the amount of white hairs that can appear on the body of a red heifer before it can no longer be called a red heifer; or the exact size of a woman’s breasts before she can be considered an adult.
In short, the Talmud contains every bit of knowledge its many authors thought might be of some use; and in a world populated with demons and other such malevolent creatures, you simply have to know some ways of warding them off. So, for the benefit of our readers who might otherwise be irreversibly damaged by disease and ill fortune, I present to you a short list of useful chants and incantations found in the Babylonian Talmud.
One common way to deal with ailments is by chanting certain verses from the Bible. There’s an entire art of matching the right phrase to the right situation. Here is a good way of dealing with the evil carriers of misfortune and cooties, also known as women:
Do not stand in front of women when they are returning from the presence of a dead person, because I [The Angel of Death] go leaping in front of them with my sword in my hand, and I have permission to harm. If one should happen to meet them, what is his remedy? …Let him turn his face away and say, ‘And the Lord said unto Satan, The Lord rebuke thee, O Satan’ etc. (Zecharia 3:2) until they have passed by.
The next trick, used for removing infection, is more complicated but works on the same principle. It also requires a knife and sagebrush:
For an inflammatory fever let one take an all-iron knife, go whither thorn-hedges are to be found, and tie a white twisted thread thereto. On the first day he must slightly notch it, and say, ‘and the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush (Exodus 3:2).’ On the following day he [again] makes a small notch and says, ‘And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight (3:3).’ The next day he makes [another] small notch and says, ‘And the Lord saw that he turned aside to see’ (3:4).
By far, most popular charm-verses are from the book of Psalms. First mentioned in the Talmud, the practice of chanting Psalms in order to ward off misfortune persists among some religious Jews to this very day. Waiting rooms in Israeli hospitals usually store several shelves of Psalms for use by worried family members.
The more interesting and exotic chants, however, are not of Biblical origin. These are the sort of incantations based on word-play and alliteration that were common in the Hellenic and Babylonian cultures. The following chant that was meant to combat the influence of the demon Shabriri, a destructive spirit that infects water sources during the night so that they afflict the drinker with blindness.
Our Rabbis taught: One should not drink water in the night… for it is dangerous. What danger is there? The danger of Shabriri. But if he be thirsty, how can he put things right? —…Let him knock with the lid on the jug and say to himself: ‘Thou [giving his name] the son of [naming his mother], thy mother hath warned thee to guard thyself against Shabriri, briri, riri, iri, ri, which prevail in blind vessels’.
(Abodah Zarah 12b)
A passage in tractate Shabbat mentions a similar but longer incantation to be used for the removal of abscess. It was probably invented by a physician who didn’t want to get his hands dirty with all the puss that cutting the abscess would have created.
For an abscess one should say thus: ‘Let it indeed be cut down, let it indeed be healed, let it indeed be overthrown; Sharlai and Amarlai are those angels who were sent from the land of Sodom to heal boils and aches: bazak, bazik, bizbazik, mismasik, kamun kamik, thy colour [be confined] within thee, thy colour [be confined] within thee, thy seat be within thee, thy semen be like a eunuch and like a mule that is not fruitful and does not increase; so be thou not fruitful nor increase in the body of So-and-so’.
The passage continue to list incantations against demons. These present another popular form of incantation that continued to enjoy popularity in later Kabbalistic texts; it consists of lists of names of angels and demons, which are supposed to hold power over the malevolent being. The first incantation is meant to protect from any sort of demon; the second one will protect you from a very specific creature called “Shida deBet Hakise”, which roughly translates as “Demon of the Toilet”, and which may or may not be related to the tentacle monster was rumoured to dwell within the sewers of Ancient Rome.
Against a demon one should say thus: ‘Thou wast closed up; closed up wast thou. Cursed, broken, and destroyed be Bar Tit, Bar Tame, Bar Tina as Shamgez, Mezigaz and Istamai.’
For [the Demon of the Toilet] one should say thus: ‘On the head of a lion and on the snout of a lioness did we find the demon Bar Shirika Panda; with a bed of leeks I hurled him down, [and] with the jawbone of an ass I smote him.’
Sometimes a simple incantation just isn’t enough, and a more complex ritual is needed. For example, when bitten by a rabid dog (which in the preceding passages was established to be an animal possessed by a demon), the following actions will save you from certain death:
Let him take the skin of a male hyena, and write upon it: I, So-and-so, the son of that-and-that woman, write upon the skin of a male Hyena: Hami, kanti, kloros. God, God, Lord of Hosts, Amen, Amen, Selah, Then let him strip off his clothes, and bury them in a grave [at cross-roads] for twelve months of a year. Then he should take them out and burn them in an oven, and scatter the ashes.
During these twelve months, if he drinks water, he shall not drink it but out of a copper tube, lest he see the shadow of the demon and be endangered.
So there you have it – seven useful magic spells to be used against demons, dames and disease. Learn them by heart and you’ll never be caught off guard when taking a dump.
(All of the Talmudic text in this post is from the English edition edited by Isidore Epstein, and converted to easily searchable hypertext by the good folks of Come and Hear, and from the pdf files available at Halakha.com.
For those of you who can read Hebrew, the website Daat Emet has a list of silliest issues in the Talmud.)