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"Incantations must not be taught to anyone"

Updated: Jul 1

Translation of an excerpt from Abraham Rechtman, Yidishe Etnografye un Folklor, p. 289-298.

Rav Yokhanan had the habit of coming to sit by the gates of the mikve, and used to say that ‘if Jewish daughters as they come out from immersing themselves look at me, they will have children as beautiful as I am.’ The Rabbis asked him : does the rebe not fear an evil eye? He answered : I am descended from the children of Joseph, who an evil eye cannot affect, as it is written ‘a beautiful branch by Joseph’s spring’ (Genesis 49:22). Rav Abbahu said to this ‘do not read this as ‘by the spring’ but ‘by the eye’ (the Hebrew ‘ayin’ means both ‘eye’ and ‘spring’). Rab Yosai ben Hanina said from this (following the deduction that an evil eye has no effect on Joseph) ‘and they should multiply like fish in the land’ (Genesis 48: 16) (this is also written in relation to Joseph) Just as the fish in the sea are covered with water and an evil eye has no power over them, so too shall an evil eye have no power over Joseph’s children. And if we want to, we can also say ‘the eye didn’t want to partake of that which does not belong to it (Joseph did not want to sin with Potiphar’s wife), therefore an evil eye will have no power over it’

Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 20, Yiddish translation by Dr Yankev Mayer Zalkind

I intentionally brought this exact longer citation about the evil eye, although in the gemora there are tens of other shorter references and descriptions about the different forms of evil-eye. I did this for two reasons: Firstly, for the simple purpose of demonstrating that the belief in the effects of an evil eye dates back to ancient times, perhaps even before the Talmudic epoch. Secondly, and this is my main point, because this part of the gemora discusses Joseph the Righteous, and it is expressed with biblical quotations that over Joseph and over his children an evil eye has no power. As you will see in the following texts of various incantations, the name of Joseph HaTsadik is mentioned in almost all of them, and this is certainly based in this piece of gemora, therefore I cite it at the beginning.

According to the Talmud, an evil eye is a very dangerous affliction and can also cause various other dangerous illnesses. For this very reason, we find in the Talmud many remedies and charms to protect or to heal oneself from an evil eye, and methods are also given to prevent the diseases caused by an evil eye from spreading. This belief in the power of an evil eye, and in remedies and charms against it, appear to have always existed and to have extended from the ancient past, through all generations, to our present day. When the ethnographic expedition travelled around the towns and shtetlekh of Ukraine, we had the opportunity to see how deeply rooted and how very widespread these beliefs were there, and how great were the numbers of opshprekherkes and opsprekhers, who made use of various remedies and charms, which they had inherited from previous generations. In literally every town, big and small, of Ukraine, were found old women, who were turned to in every case of trouble and misfortune. Almost all pregnant women, especially those who were pregnant for the first time, were under their care and influence. It was even believed that not only did they know in advance whether the child would be a boy or a girl, but that they had the power to effect the sex of the child. They, these women, knew various incantations, charms and remedies ‘tried and tested’ on every problem you might encounter. They could ward-off an evil eye, tooth ache, a sprained ankle, an abscess, a rash, a dog bite, epilepsy and other afflictions; they did magic with knives, with socks and with hair combs; they poured wax and led; they ‘rolled eggs’ over someone who had caught a fright, tore the hem of an undershirt and performed hundreds of other remedies and cures.

The expedition succeeded in recording and collecting a very significant number of incantations, cures and amulets for all kinds of illnesses.

It was with great effort and difficulty that we managed to collect and record this sort of material. The opshprekherkes were extremely cautious not to teach anyone, even their close relatives, a single one of their incantations, and not to speak of any of their remedies or cures. Because it was believed that as soon as an incantation, remedy or cure is taught to someone who doesn’t believe in its power, it will lose that power, and there is even a danger that the healer, upon using the incantation again, would themselves be injured.

We used various ways and methods to get the incantations out of the opshprekherkes. Often one of us would pretend to be ill, lie in bed and send for an opshprekherke. She sometimes poured wax, sometimes warded off an evil eye with an incantation, and other similar things. Another one of us sat in the corner, and as much as was possible noted down her incantations. The photographer, however, almost always managed to get photos …

Opshprekherkes (women)

[Here Rechtman shares a number of the incantations that the expedition recorded, as well as the names of the opshprekherkes and some descriptions of how they were delivered. The first two were spoken in Yiddish, two others in Ukrainian, and the final example in Yiddish]

To ward off an evil eye (very common)

Three women sit on one stone. One says that [name] has an evil eye and another says ‘no’, and another says ‘from where it came there shall it go. If a man did something to them then let the hair of his beard fall out. And if a women did something to them then let her teeth fall out and her breasts droop. The sea does not have a road, and fish and moths do not have kidneys, just so may you [name] not have an evil eye, and may no illness afflict you. May these three women make efforts on your behalf, that all good should come to you and that it should be like this forever and ever. And just as Hezekiah was healed from his illness, may God grant you the complete recovery of all your limbs and your entire flesh and blood. Tfu! Tfu! Tfu! (Spit three times and start yawning)

— Khaye Beyle Shapira, Old Constantine (Starikonstantinov)

We recorded several variations of this incantation.

Another incantation against an evil eye:

With the help of the all-powerful God, he who heals all the sick, may he relieve you [name] of all pain and sickness and evil encounters that have befallen you. Whether from bad air, which was sent to you, or from the glance of an evil person who cast their gaze on you, whether it came from a man or a woman, whether from an old or a young person — may it do you no harm, not to your flesh and not to your life, not to your heart and not to your lungs. When Elijah the prophet encountered the angel Ashtrikhu, Elijah asked the angel ‘where do you want to go?’ The angel said ‘I want to go to [name] and I want to sit by them at their head and I want penetrate their blood vessels and their limbs and eat of their flesh and drink their blood. Then Elijah chanted to him: Just as you do not have the authority to drink up the water from the sea, so do you not have the authority to harm them, not their flesh and not any of their limbs. If one of the men or women of the world gave you an evil eye, may it not harm you, not by day and not by night. And just as no evil eye had any power over the children of Joseph HaTsadik, just so shall it not harm you. And before we can count to nine, may the Lord Blessed be He heal you completely, and may you immediately be fresh and well, Amen Selah.

— Sore Grinberg, Proskurov

The exorcists often made use of mixed incantations in Yiddish and Ukrainian, or even completely in the Ukrainian language. It is, by the way, quite remarkable and even incomprehensible that despite the distinct separation between the Jews and their surrounding gentile neighbours, despite the disdain with which Jews looked down on belief in ‘yozl’ [a derogatory name for Jesus#], yet when it came to folk-cures and incantations, the Jewish masses, even the very religious, showed great trust in the gentile exorcists, fortune-tellers, sorcerers band above all to ‘tatars.’ It was not unusual to call a non-Jewish opshprekherke, or go to the ‘tatar.’ People would often travel for miles to transport a sick person to him. Sometimes, a special messenger would be sent to to a ‘tatar’ for him to exorcise certain illnesses without the sick person being present. In such a case, the messenger brought with them an object belonging to the sick person, like a shirt in the case of an adult, or a sick infant’s swaddling cloth. The tatar performed his incantation over the object, and the sick person would then wear it until they were healed.

I will here relate two incantations in Ukrainian that Jewish opshprekherkes made use of. The first one I heard from a professional opshprekherin [variation of opshprekherke] in my hometown, Proskorov. The second I recorded from Khaykele Tverski, may her memory be a blessing, in the Sholem Aleykhem houses in New York.

[Here Rechtman gives the incantations in Ukrainian, written in Hebrew letters, followed by a Yiddish translation. I have translated the Yiddish translations.]

For an evil eye:

Evil eye I cast you out of the neck, the forehead, the breast, the shoulders, the spinal chord, the joints, the fingers, the belly, the back, the feet, the knees, from behind the knees, from the whole body. Whether you are a beyz oyg – an evil eye, an onshikenish - misfortune sent to this person, or a farshlepenish – a chronic problem. Whether you come from the eyes or from the thoughts. Whether you are a 24-hour problem, a 12 hour problem, or a 72 hour problem. Whether you are a morning problem or a nighttime problem. Whether you came from the road or from the other side of the border. I cast you out of [name]; whether you came from aristocratic, traveler, English, or Jewish eyes. Whether from a woman, or a man, or a young girl, or a child, or a calf. I cast you out of their bones, out of their blood and out of their whole body. You will not find joy here. You will not sink roots here. You will not ravage this white body. You will not drink this red blood. You will not break these yellow bones. I cast you out of [name] and I banish you to the reeds, to the bogs, to the blue sea, to the stony mountains. There is your place to rejoice. There is your place to sink roots, with sand to pour over yourself and stones to cover you. Disappear and be lost from God’s countenance and from all that is holy.

- Hinde the tukerin (mikve attendant), Proskorov

According to the Holy Tversky, may she rest in peace, she heard the following incantation from an 80 year old lady, who had brought up the children of her father, the Shpikover Rebbe, in his court.

For an evil eye:

The first time for good luck:

I [name] have come to call out an evil presence. I order you out, I scream you out, I pull you out, I chop you out. This is no place for you to be, to rejoice, to suck up the red blood and break the white bones. Go to the black sea – there where chickens will not go; where geese will not honk; where a dog will not bark. That is where you should be, and there may you rejoice.

The second time for good luck: (repeat)

The third time for good luck: (repeat)

This incantation was usually repeated three times. Afterwards, the healer bent over the sick person and whispered in their ear: ‘ni hori, ni bori, ni kori’. She then spat three times and started to yawn strenuously.

Khaykele Tverski, may she rest in peace, also taught me another quick incantation for an evil eye : You call together the whole household. Everyone stands in a circle, around the bed of the sick person, takes each other by the hand, and the oldest person says, [for a male person] ‘Ploni Ben Ploni has an evil eye’ or [for a female person] ‘Plonit bas Plonit has an evil eye’ (so and so, the son or daughter of so and so, has an evil eye.) And the surrounding people shout ‘Ooh-Va, Ooh-Va, Ooh-va, an aveyre (a transgression)! This is done ten times and everyone yawns at the same time.

For an ordinary sickness (in Yiddish)

In the name of the Lord God of Israel, send your angel Rafael that he may heal the suffering [name] from all their illness and pain. I swear, in the name of the almighty God blessed be his name, and by all of his commandments; by the sun and the moon; by the angels that live in the heavens of our Lord God blessed be his name; by the stars that are in the sky of our Lord God, blessed be his name; by the nine generations and nine seyfer-toyres; by the ten commandments and the ten sefirot [kabbalistic divine attributes]. Whether the illness came into the house, or was blown by the wind in the road, or sprayed from the rain, or was crowed by a rooster, or cast by demons. From all of this, heal them, almighty God, this very hour, by the merit of our fathers: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and by the merit of Moses, Aaron, David and Solomon; and by the merit of our mothers: Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam the prophetess and Esther the Queen. May the blessed name send complete healing this very hour. Amen, Selah

- Hinde the mikve attendant, Proskurov

The preparations before saying these incantations and the way that the opshprekherkes act during the exorcism are varied and extremely interesting. They make all kinds of grimaces, open their eyes wide, wriggle their noses, blow with their lips. Some bark like dogs, crawl on all floors, bleated like lambs, turn themselves round in circles, or hop around the bed on one foot. They also make use of various tools, such as: a knife, a comb, a sieve, a sock, and often even the wheel of a wagon.

Most opshprekhers before they start to chant their incantation wash their hands seven times. Each time she washes, she places her hands on the head of the sick person. And when, with the seventh wash, she is ready, she leaves her hands on the client’s head, until she was completely finished. After the incantation she usually licks the forehead of the sick person seven times, spitting three times after each lick, wets her finger with the sick person’s saliva or with their urine, which she uses to wet their forehead.

Others take certain medicinal plants and throw them in a glass of water to let them steep. During the time that the plants are steeping and the water taking on their colour, the opshprekherke continues washing her hands and saying her incantations. The plants usually produce a coloured liquid. When she finishes the incantations, she fills her mouth with the liquid, and sprays the face of the sick person three times in a row.

Rechtman goes on to describe how, in Letichev, he was chosen by the members of the expedition to play the sick person so that they could record the incantations of the local opshprekherke, Gnendl. You can read this story and many others, including their encounters with male exorcists, in a new, English edition of his memoirs, translated by Nathaniel Deutsch and Noah Barrera under the title ‘The Lost World of Russia’s Jews’ [2021.] However, one thing from Rechtman’s encounter with Gnendl of Letichev seems worth mentioning here. The descendant of a family of rabbis and ‘tsadikim’, Gnendl was famous all over the region, and did not accept money for her work but did it as a mitsve. Barely mobile, a visit from Gnendl was considered a great honour.

Cite this source: 'Incantations must not be taught to anyone', excerpt from Abraham Rechtman, Yidishe etnografye un folklor: zikhroyneʹs ṿegn der eṭnografisher ekspeditsye, ongefirt fun Sh. An-Ski, trans. Annabel Gottfried Cohen, (1958/2023).

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