Review: Magic, Mysticism, and Hasidism, by Gedalyah Nigal

I picked up this book after discovering it in the bibliography of a couple of other books on Jewish mysticism which I was reading as research material for book 4 in my Dark Apostle series. I wanted more detail on some of the apparently magical powers of certain rabbis and sages, which are relevant to my fantasy novels, and this book delivered.

The book is broken into sections with intriguing subject areas like intermarriage with demons, dybbuks, and kefitzat ha-derekh (“bending the way”–a means of extremely rapid travel used by the righteous). each section then gives numerous examples from both folklore and rabbinical history where these subjects cropped up. It places the examples in chronological order, which is very handy for me because I am focusing on the 14th century, and references much after that are less useful. The book also includes a lengthy section of notes in the back which are easily found (the tops of the pages tell you which page in the book are covered by those notes–why don’t more books do this??)

My first complaint is the lack of context for some of the names. The book assumes a good knowledge of the Jewish sages, by name, place and dates, because it rarely bothers to pin down these details in the text. Without that knowledge, I was sometimes lost and had to cross-reference the names in order to identify the time and place origin of the stories being related. It doesn’t help that the author, while primarily working in chronological order, will occasionally refer to contradictory opinions of scholars from later eras. This makes for a nice mishnah effect with overlapping commentaries, but from an academic standpoint, is a bit dicey.

Also, some subjects did not appear, like the concept of the lamed-vov, the thirty-six righteous ones who are guardians of the Jews, driven by compassion, and without whom the world might be allowed to end.

However, if you are interested in Jewish mysticism, this book contains all kinds of goodies. For the areas the book covers in detail, it is much more engaging than other works I have read. I had not previously found references to kefitzat ha-derehk being used on the water, but a couple of the wonder-workers here sped their boats by use of holy names written on the bow or sails, or understood that the term “golem” might be applied to a soul-less body in general (ie, a corpse re-animated after someone has died), not just a created being as we usually see it applied.

Still haven’t figured out the new system for sending my Goodreads reviews over here, but if you’d like to read more of them, you can find my reviews here.

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About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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