This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Shephatiah ben Amittai and the Haunted Princess*

Even as the echoes of the final Harry Potter exploit have begun to fade into literary twilight, it is obvious that Rowling's popular fantasy novels have decisively altered our attitudes towards magic. No longer can we take it for granted that modern technological minds must inevitably look down on wizardry with disdain and derision. The sort of lore that figures in the curriculum of the Hogwarts School of Magic has acquired a measure of respectability that now puts the uninitiated Muggles on the defensive.

These developments in our popular culture environment invite us to revisit a facet of Jewish tradition that not so long ago would have been regarded as an embarrassment to be swept under the historical rug. Notwithstanding Judaism's frequent antipathy towards sorcery and wizardry, magic and its practitioners occupy an undeniable place in our history.

This was particularly true about the hazy origins of the European Jewish community. Of the earliest names that are known to us from that obscure period, the most distinguished belonged to a dynasty that distinguished itself as magicians, as well as in the more conventional avenues of Jewish scholarship, literature, mysticism and piety. Tales about this family were proudly chronicled by one of its latter members, a gifted poet named Ahimaaz ben Paltiel who lived in Oria, in the south of Italy, in the eleventh century.

The grandfather of this family was a certain Aaron of Baghdad who flourished in the ninth century. His magical vocation already became apparent in his early years. As a young man working on his father's farm in the old country, Babylonia, the family mule was eaten one day by a lion. Utilizing his remarkable skills, Aaron responded in an effective manner-- he tamed the lion and set it to work turning the family mill, as the mule had originally done.

Aaron's father, who appears to have been an unappreciative Muggle, lost his temper and scolded the lad for this disrespectful and unnatural treatment of the king of beasts. It was this lack of appreciation that forced our hero to forsake his native Babylonia and reestablish himself in Europe where he became the conduit for the transfer of esoteric teachings to Italy, and eventually to the renowned Kalonymus family that cultivated mystical lore in the Rhineland.

One of Aaron's first adventures after leaving the orient involved the rescue of a young man who had been transfigured by a wicked witch into the body of a donkey and put to work in her mill. Aaron snatched the son and restored him to his human form, and then returned him to his overjoyed parents.

On another occasion, while at a synagogue in Benevento one Shabbat, Aaron recognized that the cantor was avoiding mentioning God's names in his prayers. He recognized this as an unmistakable sign that the cantor really one of the un-dead, in accordance with the Psalmist's declaration that the dead praise not the Lord. Now that his secret was revealed, the mysterious cantor disclosed to Rabbi Aaron the full background to his present situation.

In his youth, he related, a pious Jew had asked him to accompany him on a charitable mission to Jerusalem and had solemnly pledged to the lad's mother that he would return her son safely. Eventually it was revealed to him (by another Jew with occult talents) that the boy was doomed to an imminent death. In order to avoid violating his promise to the mother, the man had resorted to magic to prolong the boy's life. He revived him by inscribing a holy name and placing the note in an incision that he carved in his right arm, thereby dooming the boy to an immortality that he did not desire.

Upon hearing the heartrending tale, Aaron put the cantor out of his misery by removing the amulet and finally allowing him to expire. Instantly, the body disintegrated into dust, as if it had perished years previously.

A similar tactic would later be employed by Aaron's descendant, Hananel ben Amittai. It once happened that Hananel's younger brother Papoleon died suddenly while his other siblings were abroad on a business trip. Because Jewish tradition discourages delaying a funeral, Hananel temporarily restored the deceased to life with the help of an amulet inserted under his tongue.

During the night preceding the brothers' arrival, they were surprised to find their dreams interrupted by an angel who chastised them for assuming divine prerogatives by reviving the dead. Only after the brothers arrived home did Hananel reveal to them what he had done. While faining a kiss, he removed the magical parchment from under his brother's tongue, upon which the body decomposed immediately and the soul was allowed to return to its creator.

Hananel's older brother, Rabbi Shephatiah of Oria in southern Italy, also distinguished himself through supernatural exploits. Once he was invited by the reigning monarch, the Byzantine Emperor Basil I, to participate in an inter-religious dialogue. After the official deliberations were concluded, the emperor confided in the rabbi that his daughter had been possessed by an evil spirit, and Shephatiah consented to treat her. The rabbi conjured up the offending demon, who set to berating him for consenting to the exorcism. After all, the spirit argued, Basil and his empire were notorious for their ill treatment of their Jewish subjects, and the demon was therefore performing a divine mission by tormenting the princess. Shephatiah retorted that a successful exorcism would serve as public testimony to the greatness of the Jewish God.

In the end, the demon was left with no alternative but to abandon the girl's body, but he tried to escape Shephatiah's clutches. The rabbi captured him, imprisoned him in a lead jar that was sealed with a mystical divine name, and then cast the jar into the depths of the sea. As a reward for his services to the crown, Rabbi Shephatiah was able to squeeze out an imperial commitment that the Jews of Oria would be exempted from missionizing efforts. The promise was kept, though Basil continued to aggressively promote his faith throughout the rest of the empire.

Years later, Shephatiah found another opportunity to use his supernatural abilities in the service of the Byzantine rulers. The Arab armies had taken control of several Sicilian centres, and the Byzantine governor sent Shephatiah on a delegation to negotiate a treaty with the Arab commander, Saudan. In reality, the rabbi's presence was being used as a tactical diversion to conceal Saudan's plans for a surprise attack. Shephatiah only found about about this late on Friday afternoon, when Jews were forbidden to travel.

On this occasion, Shephatiah's magical skills were invoked to salvage the dire situation. He inscribed one of his celebrated spells on a horse's hooves, enabling it to convey him at warp speed back to Oria where he warned the populace of the impending attack of the Arab forces. After duly informing the governor of the plot, Shephatiah proceeded calmly with his normal preparations for the Sabbath.

By the time Saudan arrived, he found that the region was completely deserted of its inhabitants. He accused Shephatiah of blatant violation of the Sabbath, a capital crime in Jewish law. The rabbi, however, was able to produce numerous witnesses that he had been publicly circulating in the town well before the onset of the holy day.

The same Saudan had a valued Jewish counselor named Abu Aaron who joined him once in the port of Bari where full honours were bestowed on him. Eventually, Abu Aaron booked homeward passage on a ship, but Saudan refused to authorize his departure and dispatched an imperial fleet to retrieve him. Abu Aaron, however, was able to cast a magical spell that paralyzed their boats with a kind of force-field that prevented them from either overtaking him or returning to shore. With a grudging new appreciation of his advisor's occult abilities, Saudan relented and let Abu Aaron depart.

Shephatiah had numerous adventures in his campaign against the forces of dark sorcery. Once, while strolling the streets of Oria by night, he happened to overhear two witches breaking into a house with the intention of abducting a child and then eating him. Shephatiah approached the ladies and discovered that they were really satyrs. He successfully rescued the young victim and brought him to his own house overnight for safekeeping.

On the following day, Shephatiah spoke to the child's parents. They were convinced that their son had died suddenly during the night and they had buried him in the family plot. Shephatiah assured them that their son was indeed alive and safe, and that if they would inspect the grave they would find it empty. And indeed, when they excavated the grave, all they found inside was a common broomstick.

Rabbi Shephatiah's death did not occur in a natural manner. He had long been the town's favourite shofar-blower on Rosh Hashanah. One year, he declined that duty owing to ill health. Unable to resist the townspeople's' persistent entreaties, Shephatiah made the effort, but with little success. He explained to them that the time had clearly come for him to terminate his mortal existence and move on to eternal rest. However, he consoled his flock by revealing that the timing of his death was providential. His longtime foe the emperor Basil had also expired recently, and Shephatiah had been personally selected to participate in his final judgment, to assure that the monarch received appropriate punishment in the next world for the suffering he had inflicted on his Jewish subjects.

When Shephatiah took his final breath, those present marked down the exact time. Later it was confirmed that it coincided precisely with the moment of Basil's death.

This article and many others are now included in the book

On the Trails of Tradition
On the Trails of Tradition

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