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Jonathan Rabinowitz





Accusing Women of Witchcraft





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Jonathan Rabinowitz





Accusing Women of Witchcraft








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Accusing Women of Witchcraft

It is clear in the Bible and ancient Near Eastern texts that men were sorcerers, yet Exodus 22:17 seems to single out women in its command, “You shall not permit a witch to live.”


Accusing Women of Witchcraft

Witches being burnt and tortured, Mahiet and the Master of the Cambrai Missal, Royal 16 G VI, 1332-1350. British Library

Fear of witchcraft or sorcery,[1] and the belief that it was the cause of many illnesses was widespread in the ancient world,[2] and thus punishable by death. The Torah shares this attitude towards witchcraft:

שמות כב:יז מְכַשֵּׁפָה לֹא תְחַיֶּה.
Exod 22:17 You shall not permit a witch to live.

The word מְכַשֵּׁפָה mekhashefah, “witch” or “sorceress” is not found anywhere else in the Bible. The comparable masculine term from the same root k.š.p (“sorcerer,” “warlock,” or “wizard”)[3] appears in the prohibition against sorcery in Deuteronomy:

דברים יח:י לֹא יִמָּצֵא בְךָ מַעֲבִיר בְּנוֹ וּבִתּוֹ בָּאֵשׁ קֹסֵם קְסָמִים מְעוֹנֵן וּמְנַחֵשׁ וּמְכַשֵּׁף.
Deut 18:10 Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer.

Sorcerers are also referenced as serving in Pharaoh’s court in Exodus 7:11[4] and in Nebuchadnezzar’s court in Daniel 2:2.[5] The book of Jeremiah also refers to sorcerers among Judahites, using the same root, though in a different grammatical form:

ירמיה כז:ט וְאַתֶּם אַל תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל נְבִיאֵיכֶם וְאֶל קֹסְמֵיכֶם וְאֶל חֲלֹמֹתֵיכֶם וְאֶל עֹנְנֵיכֶם וְאֶל כַּשָּׁפֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר הֵם אֹמְרִים אֲלֵיכֶם לֵאמֹר לֹא תַעַבְדוּ אֶת מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל.
Jer 27:9 As for you, give no heed to your prophets, augurs, dreamers, diviners, and sorcerers, who say to you, “Do not serve the king of Babylon.”

Laws Against Sorcery in the Ancient Near East

Ancient Near Eastern laws confirm that men could be sorcerers. For instance, law §2 in the Laws of Hammurabi (ca. 1750 B.C.E.) outlines how to prove a man is a sorcerer when there is no evidence:

§2 If a man charges another man with practicing witchcraft (kišpī)[6] but cannot bring proof against him, he who is charged with witchcraft shall go to the divine River Ordeal… If the divine River Ordeal should overwhelm him, his accuser shall take full legal possession of his estate; if the divine River Ordeal should clear that man and should he survive, he who made the charge of witchcraft against him shall be killed…[7]

If the accused drowns, it means that the river god has determined the man to be a warlock and drowned him;[8] if he survives, the river god has acquitted him.

The Middle Assyrian Laws (ca. 1076 B.C.E.) describe the practioner of sorcery as being either a man or a woman:

§47 If either a man or a woman should be discovered practicing witchcraft (kišpī), and should they prove the charges against them and find them guilty, they shall kill the practitioner of witchcraft…[9]

In this sense, the law in Exodus stands out among other ANE law collections in its singling out of female practioners.

A Collective Noun Including Men

Perhaps influenced by the many verses that refer to male sorcerers, some ancient translators and commentators do not understand the word מְכַשֵּׁפָה mekhashefah as specifically feminine, even though it is marked as feminine in the Hebrew.

LXX and Vulgate

The Greek LXX (Septuagint) translation renders the word as if it were written in the masculine plural, “you shall not allow sorcerers to remain” (φαρμακοὺς οὐ περιποιήσετε). The Latin Vulgate also translates in this vein, “you shall not allow sorcerers to live” (maleficos non patieris vivere). It seems unlikely that this translation reflects an alternative Vorlage with a Hebrew plural.

While it is possible that the translators are deliberately mistranslating to avoid the impression that the prohibition applies only to women, it seems more likely that they understood the word mekhashefah as a collective noun in feminine form, with the heh as the sign of the plural.[10]

A classic example of this in biblical Hebrew is the word דגה, an alternative form of the word דג meaning “fish,” and used to express the plurality “a shoal of fish” or “all the fish.” For example, when the Nile is struck with the plague of blood, we are told וְהַדָּגָה אֲשֶׁר בַּיְאֹר מֵתָה “all the fish in the Nile died” (Exod 7:21). Similarly, when the Israelites complain about their lack of food in the wilderness, they say זָכַרְנוּ אֶת הַדָּגָה אֲשֶׁר נֹאכַל בְּמִצְרַיִם חִנָּם “we remember all the fish we would eat for free in Egypt” (Num 11:5). According to this, our verse is trying to communicate something like “do not allow any sorcerer or sorceress to live.”

Jerusalem Aramaic Targumim

Targum Neofiti (3rd to 6th century C.E.) avoids translating the term as feminine:

עמי בני ישראל כל חרש וחרשה לא תקיימון
My people, the children of Israel, do not allow a sorcerer or sorceress to live.

Similary, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (7th/8th cent. C.E.) avoids the gender issue by restating the verse with a different locution:

עמי בני ישראל כל עביד חרשיותא לא תקיימון
My people, the children of Israel, do not allow anyone who performs sorcery to live.

Whether or not these translations also read the word as a collective, or whether they simply wanted to emphasize the men are also culpable for witchcraft, is unclear.

Emphasis: Ibn Janach

R. Jonah ibn Janach (ca. 990–1055), in his Book of Roots (Kitab al-Usul, ספר השרשים), offers a different interpretation of the word mekhashefah:

ההא להפלגה לא לנקבה
The heh is for emphasis; it is not a sign of the feminine.[11]

Similarly, in his Book of Embroidery (Kitab al-Luma, ספר הרקמה), he writes:

ובמכשפה לא תחיה שרוצים בו הזכר והנקבה, אבל באה עליו ההא להגעה.[12]
With regard to “do not allow a mekhashefah to live,” it refers to both males and females, but the final heh is used for rhetorical purposes.[13]

According to this, the verse should be understood as expressing something like “surely you shall not allow a sorcerer or sorceress to live.”

Ibn Janach’s reading may have been influenced by the Arabic translation (tafsir) of Saʿadiah Gaon—the standard text for Jewish speakers of Arabic at the time—which translates the word מכשפה as the masculine singular אלסאחר (الساحر), al-sāḥir.[14] A translation into the masculine is also found in the Aramaic Onkelos and the Syriac Peshita (חרשא).[15]

A Feminine Noun

The vast majority of translators and commentators, traditional and modern, however, take the word as a feminine singular noun, referring to a female practioner of magic. For example, Abraham ibn Ezra, in his short commentary, defends this interpretation against that of ibn Janach:

מכשפה – אמר ר' יונה [המדקדק נ"ע]: כי הה"א נוסף. ולא דבר נכונה... על כן מכשפה היא נקבה. ואנחנו נדע כי משפט זובח לאלהים או זובחת אחד הוא, כי כן מכשפה, וכן משפט המכשף. רק בעבור שהנשים כשפניות, כאשר אפרש בפרשת כי תצא למלחמה, הזכיר הכתוב כן. וכבר הזכיר המכשף שם (דברים י"ח:י').
Mekhashefah—R. Jonah [the grammarian] said: The heh is superfluous (i.e., for rhetorical purposes, not the sign of the feminine) but he is not correct…[16] Therefore, mekhashefah is a feminine word. But [this does not mean it only applies to women, for] we know that [despite the masculine gender] one who sacrifices to foreign gods, it makes no difference whether the person is male or female. The same is true of the witch, for a wizard must be treated the same way. It is only that women tend to practice witchcraft… that the verse writes it this way. The prohibition against a wizard appears later (Deut 18:10).

Most traditional commentators similarly argue that whereas the prohibition applies to both men and women, the word is in the feminine to emphasize that women tend to practice witchcraft.[17]

“Witch” as an Insult

“Practitioner of witchcraft” functions as an insult or slur against women in the Bible. For instance, when Jehu is about to assassinate King Jehoram, he insults Jehoram’s mother by accusing her of witchcraft:

מלכים ב ט:כב וַיְהִי כִּרְאוֹת יְהוֹרָם אֶת יֵהוּא וַיֹּאמֶר הֲשָׁלוֹם יֵהוּא וַיֹּאמֶר מָה הַשָּׁלוֹם עַד זְנוּנֵי אִיזֶבֶל אִמְּךָ וּכְשָׁפֶיהָ הָרַבִּים.
2 Kgs 9:22 When Jehoram saw Jehu, he asked, “Is all well, Jehu?” But Jehu replied, “How can all be well as long as your mother Jezebel carries on her countless harlotries and sorceries?”[18]

In contrast, we do not see sorcery used as an insult against men in the Bible.[19] This would tend to support the standard reading of mekhashefah as feminine, implying that the verse in Exodus assumes sorcery is more commonly practiced by women.

An Ancient Near Eastern Notion?

According to Daniel Schwemer of the University of Würzberg, in contrast to Mesopotamian laws, Mesopotiamian ritual texts, such as the long series of Maqlû incantations, written to protect people from witchcraft, commonly assume the perpetrator is female.[20] A typical example of such a text reads:

She trusts in her artful witchcraft, but I (trust) in the steady light of the Fire-god, the judge. Fire-god, burn [her], Fire-god, incinerate her, Fire-god, overpower her![21]

If Schwemer is correct, then the use of the female in Exodus would be typical of ancient Near Eastern thinking, though still an outlier among ANE law collections (which reference sorcerers).

Women and Witchcraft in Second Temple and Rabbinic Sources

The connection between women and sorcery is taken for granted in rabbinic literature.[22] For instance, in the Sayings of the Fathers, the sage Hillel states (m. Abot 2:7):

...מרבה נכסים מרבה דאגה מרבה נשים מרבה כשפים מרבה שפחות מרבה זמה
…The more possessions the more care; the more women the more witchcraft; the more bondswomen the more lewdness….

Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:4 states that Shimon ben Shetach executed 80 women for witchcraft in Ashkelon in one day. While this is likely not an actual historical incident,[23] it highlights the assumption that witches would be women.

In a similar vein, the Babylonian Talmud records a statement by R. Yossi that while Jews do not burn incense to gods like pagans do, Jewish women use incense as part of their witchcraft (b. Berakhot 53a):

תנו רבנן: היה מהלך חוץ לכרך והריח ריח, אם רוב נכרים - אינו מברך, אם רוב ישראל - מברך. רבי יוסי אומר: אפילו רוב ישראל נמי אינו מברך, מפני שבנות ישראל מקטרות לכשפים.
Our Rabbis taught: One who was walking outside a city and smelled a scent; if the majority of the town’s residents are gentiles, he may not recite a blessing over the scent [since it is being burnt to foreign gods], but if the majority are Jews, he may recite a blessing. Rabbi Yossi says: “Even if the majority are Jews, one may not recite a blessing, as the daughters of Israel burn incense to witchcraft [i.e., the spices were certainly made for witchcraft, not for their fragrance].[24]

The Babylonian Talmud thus explains the reason for the feminine noun in the prohibition against witchcraft along these lines (b. Sanhedrin 67a):

תנו רבנן מכשפה אחד האיש ואחד האשה א"כ מה ת"ל מכשפה מפני שרוב נשים מצויות בכשפים.
It was taught: “Mekhashefah”—whether a man or a woman. If so [i.e., if the law applies to men and women], why does it say witch [in the feminine]? It comes to teach you that many women are involved in witchcraft.[25]

A Longstanding Bias about Women

The belief that sorcery was a predominantly female occupation continued into medieval European Christianity, where women accused of witchcraft were thrown into rivers, in a practice reminiscent of the Mesopotamian river ordeal, but even more sinister, since in this version, her survival proves that she is a witch.[26] This prejudice even crossed the ocean into the United States, with the famous Salem witch trials.[27]

The presumed connection between witchcraft and women haunted many ancient cultures, and did not originate in the Bible. Nevertheless, the use of a feminine noun in Exodus—or at least the assumption that the word is feminine in the verse’s reception history—sadly contributed to the persecution of women as witches throughout the ages.


Witchcraft in the Quran

A strong parallel to what we see in the Exodus verse and its reception can be found in the Quran (7th cent. C.E.), which refers in verse 4 of Surah 113 (“The Dawn”) to “the evil of those who blow upon knots,”[28] an incantation practice. The term النَّفَّاثَاتِ ([a]l-nafāthāti), “one who blows” is in the feminine plural.

Commentaries and legends around this verse read similar to those regarding the Exodus verse. Thus, in his commentary on the Quran, Ali Ünal understands the verse as the rabbis understood Exodus:

Particularly since ancient times, it has generally been women who were occupied with casting spells or sorcery; that is why this verse focuses on such women.[29]

In contrast, Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s The Study Quran takes a more apologetic approach:

Though the noun is in the feminine plural, it is not necessarily limited to women, but may indicate human beings in general. In this sense, it could be understood as a reference to general evil as practice in this specific case by the women who blow on knots.[30]

Notably, some traditional commentators record a story about a Jewish man and his daughters casting a spell on Muhammed using the knots method.[31]


March 2, 2021


Last Updated

June 24, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Jonathan Rabinowitz is the Elie Wiesel Professor at Bar Ilan University. His Ph.D. is in Social Welfare and Statistics. Rabinowitz is a fellow of the American College Neuropsychopharmacology and a member of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology.