Magic Names

Hebrew AlphabetJewish Magic and Superstition
by Joshua Trachtenberg, [1939]


Whence came the multitude of new names that made its way into Jewish mysticism toward the end of the Geonic period and during the Middle Ages? Was it concocted out of pure fancy, or did it bear any discernible relation to the names already in use? Can we discover any method behind the mad luxuriousness of thirteenth-century invention? The material itself, as often as not, defies analysis; so many terms are obviously corrupted beyond all hope of restoration; many of the names actually look impossible, as though the scribe or typesetter had simply jumbled together a group of letters and dared the reader to make sense of them. It not seldom happens that the same name is written in two or three different forms in one and the same recipe. Gaster noted that the copyist of the text of The Sword of Moses which he published, “gives in many places what are intended to be different readings”;1 the same is true of medieval manuscripts which I have examined. The lack of consistency in the names in a work like Sefer Raziel is exasperating—not only do varying forms of one name appear from page to page, but the same angel often bears so many aliases that one cannot keep up with him.

It is possible, however, to establish a set of rules according to which most of these names were created, so that we may observe the process at work even when the results in particular cases conform none too closely to our expectations. These rules were originally formulated in the Talmudic period and were extended and elaborated during the Middle Ages.

1. Following the model of such traditional angel names as Gabriel, Raphael, Michael, a large proportion of the new names was constructed of a root term and a theophorous suffix, El (God) being the commonest, with yah, yahu and other such particles of names of God also occurring often. The first part represented the characteristic attribute or function of the new angel. Sefer Raziel set down this principle in these terms: “The angels are named in accordance with the special activities over which they are appointed, as Raziel, who transmitted the mysteries (raz) to Adam; Yarḥiel, who rules the moon (yeraḥ); Kochbiel, who governs the stars (kochab), etc.” According to a later writer, “The names of the angels change constantly to conform with the missions to which they have been temporarily assigned, for the particular mission determines the name at the time.”2

2. Another method widely employed involved the manipulation of traditionally received divine names or particles of these names: a. by combining them and alternating their component letters, such as ‏יאהדונהי‎, which comprises ‏יהוה אדני‎; b. by combining a name with a word representing an attribute: ‏שקדחזי‎ is ‏שדי חזק‎; the letters here are merely jumbled together; c. by dropping letters from, or adding new ones to such names, like the ‏אני והו‎ mentioned in the Talmud, which some scholars take to be shortened forms of ‏אדני יהוה‎, or the Tetragrammaton plus inserted letters which may explain ‏יכה יוסה‎;3 d. by transposing the letters of these names, e.g. ‏אדני‎ may assume 24 forms: ‏דאני‎, ‏אנדי‎, etc.

Other methods frequently applied were originally created to facilitate the allegorical and mystical interpretation of the Bible. According to the mystical view the entire Torah is made up of holy names which have been so skilfully secreted among the letters of the text that only an expert can ferret them out.4 These systems provided the means of educing new names from the text of the Bible by a series of permutations, combinations and substitutions.

3. The simplest of these methods comprised merely the displacement of the letters of a word, so that the first word of the Bible, ‏בראשית‎, might become ‏שתיברא‎ or ‏אשרבית‎, etc.; letters were lifted out of a text; the words of a text were split up into three-letter units; words were read backwards, etc.

4. NOTARIKON5—originally this was employed as a method of abbreviation, to compose a word from the initial or final letters of several (e.g., ‏שאו מרום עיניכם‎ [Is. 40:20]= ‏שמע‎, or ‏ברא אלהים לעשות‎ [Gen. 2:3]= ‏אמת‎), or to decompose one word into several (e.g., ‏אדם‎ = ‏אדם דוד משיח‎, or ‏אפר דם מרה‎, ‏פרדם‎ = ‏פשט רמן דרוש סוד‎) for purposes of anagogic homiletics. This method was later used to create some of the most important names in the entire mystical catalogue. One of these names,6 guaranteed to protect its user against all weapons, is ‏יהמהיה‎, which on examination turns out to be nothing more than an acrostic of the concluding letters of the first six (Hebrew) words of Ex. 15:11, “Who is like unto Thee among the mighty, O Lord?” The famous name Agla (‏אגלא‎), whose awesome powers were set in operation even more often by Christian magicians than by Jews, is generally assumed to be composed of the first letters of the words, “Thou art mighty for ever, O Lord!” (from the second benediction of the ‘Amidah) . That Christians who employed it understood the principle of its formation, if not its original source, is indicated by the fact that in Germany these four letters, inscribed on wooden platters which were then believed to be capable of extinguishing fires, were read as the initials of “Allmächtiger Gott, lösch’ aus!” The interpretation, no doubt, varied with the use. One medieval Jewish writer traced this name to the initial letters of the four verses, Gen. 49:8-11.7

Whether so or not in this particular case, the method of joining letters from various verses was widely used. The book Shimmush Tehillim, which assigns magical potencies to the Psalms, created a host of fantastic names from letters chosen more or less at random from each Psalm; for instance, the name that is hidden in Ps. 4 is Yhyh, made up of the final letters of verses 2, 3, g and 6; in Ps. 1 it is Alḥd, which consists of the initials of the first words in verses 1 and 4, the last letter of the last word in verse 3, and the second letter of the sixth word in verse 6. It is likely that there was a method to this madness, but if so it wholly escapes us now. The possibilities of combination were, of course, unlimited. The most celebrated example of this method is the use to which Ex. 14:19-21 was put to form the 72-particle name of God.

5. GEMATRIA8—The letters of the Hebrew alphabet also serve as numerals: ‏א‎ = 1, ‏ב‎ = 2, ‏ג‎ = 3, etc. Gematria was a process of creating equivalences from the numerical values of words, and provided an ingenious method of reading novel and unexpected meanings into a text: ‏רדו‎ (Gen. 42:12) =210 = the years of Egyptian bondage; ‏זנושנתם‎ (Deut. 4:25) =852=the duration of the Jewish state; etc. That Metatron is the demiurge was proved by the fact that numerically both Metatron and Shaddai equal 314. Sometimes only the simple units were employed (‏מספר קטן‎) so that ‏י‎ (10) and ‏ק‎ (100) were counted as 1, ‏כ‎ (20) and ‏ר‎ (200) were 2, etc. By this means it was possible to prove mathematically that God is solely good and the first of all beings, for ‏יהוה‎ = 1(0) + 5 + 6 + 5=17; ‏טוב‎ = 9 + 6 + 2 = 17; and ‏ראשון‎ = 2(00) + 1+ 3(00) + 6 + 5(0) = 17.

This method was very popular and was elaborated in the course of time until it became an exercise in higher mathematics, which no doubt possessed intrinsic interest for its devotees in addition to its practical utility in interpreting the Bible—and in creating new names. Seven ways of figuring numerical values have been distinguished:9 a. simple addition: ‏א‎, ‏ב‎, ‏ג‎ = 1, 2, 3 = 6; b. the sum of the letters plus, for the word: ‏אבג‎ =6 + 1; c. the sum of the letters plus the number of letters in the word: ‏אבג‎ = 6 + 3. Sometimes b. and c. were joined, so that ‏אבג‎ =6 + 1 + 3; d. addition of the values of the names of the letters: ‏א‎ = ‏אלף‎ = 111, ‏ב‎ = ‏בית‎ = 412, etc. Thus “Hear O Israel” is equated with the final “One” of the verse (‏אחד‎ = 111 + 408 + 434 = 953 which is the equivalent of ‏שמע ישראל‎, 410 + 541 + 2 = 953); e. addition of the cardinal numbers: ‏א‎ = ‏אחד‎ =13, ‏ב‎ = ‏שנים‎ =400, ‏ג‎ = ‏שלשה‎ =635, etc. By a combination of d. and e. we get ‏י‎ = ‏יוד‎ = 20 = ‏עשרים‎ =620 = ‏כתר‎, therefore the letter yod represents the “crown” of glory; f. adding the values of all the letters in the alphabet that precede each letter of the word: ‏אהיה‎ = 1 + 15 + 55 + 15 = 86; g. adding the squares of the numerical values: ‏אחד‎ =1 + 64 + 16 = 81. Once the numerical value of a Biblical word or verse, selected as especially significant for one reason or another, was arrived at, any number of words adding up to the same total could be concocted, and by their very obscurity and the “mystery” inherent in their character as epitomes of important Biblical statements could achieve the status of potent magical “names.”

6. TEMURAH10—substitution or permutation, transposing the letters of a word (as in 2. above) or more frequently, replacing them with artificial equivalents obtained from one or another of a group of formal anagrams. Six of these proved the most popular:

a. By folding the alphabet in the center we get

כ‎ ‏י‎ ‏ט‎ ‏ח‎ ‏ז‎ ‏ו‎ ‏ה‎ ‏ד‎ ‏ג‎ ‏ב‎ ‏א‎
‏ל‎ ‏מ‎ ‏נ‎ ‏ס‎ ‏ע‎ ‏פ‎ ‏צ‎ ‏ק‎ ‏ר‎ ‏ש‎ ‏ת‎.

[paragraph continues] Corresponding letters on the upper and lower lines may be substituted for each other.

b. Reversing the lower line gives us

כ‎ ‏י‎ ‏ט‎ ‏ח‎ ‏ז‎ ‏ו‎ ‏ה‎ ‏ד‎ ‏ג‎ ‏ב‎ ‏א‎
‏ת‎ ‏ש‎ ‏ר‎ ‏ק‎ ‏צ‎ ‏פ‎ ‏ע‎ ‏ס‎ ‏נ‎ ‏מ‎ ‏ל‎.


(‏ך‎) ‏ת‎ ‏ש‎ ‏ר‎ ‏ק‎ (‏נ‎) ‏מ‎ ‏ל‎ ‏כ‎ ‏י‎ (‏ה‎) ‏ד‎ ‏ג‎ ‏ב‎ ‏א‎
(‏ך‎) ‏ם‎ ‏ן‎ ‏ף‎ ‏ץ‎ (‏נ‎) ‏ס‎ ‏ע‎ ‏פ‎ ‏צ‎ (‏ה‎) ‏ו‎ ‏ז‎ ‏ח‎ ‏ט‎.


These three groups are respectively the combinations equalling 10,

p. 264

[paragraph continues] 100 and 1000. The five final letters (in the third group) have here their ancient numerical values, 500 to 900.


ז‎ ‏ו‎ ‏ה‎ ‏ד‎ ‏ג‎ ‏ב‎ ‏א‎
‏נ‎ ‏מ‎ ‏ל‎ ‏כ‎ ‏י‎ ‏ט‎ ‏ח‎
‏ש‎ ‏ר‎ ‏ק‎ ‏צ‎ ‏פ‎ ‏ע‎ ‏ס‎.

[paragraph continues] The alphabet is divided into three equal parts, the last letter, ‏ת‎, not being used. Any one of the three letters in each column may be substituted for another.


ט‎ ‏ח‎ ‏ז‎ ‏ו‎ ‏ה‎ ‏ד‎ ‏ג‎ ‏ב‎ ‏א‎
‏צ‎ ‏פ‎ ‏ע‎ ‏ס‎ ‏נ‎ ‏מ‎ ‏ל‎ ‏כ‎ ‏י‎
‏ץ‎ ‏ף‎ ‏ן‎ ‏ם‎ ‏ך‎ ‏ת‎ ‏ש‎ ‏ר‎ ‏ק‎.

as in d. with the final letters included; these final letters, for purposes of Gematria, are here also given their ancient numerical values, as in c.

f. Each letter in a word is replaced by the letter immediately succeeding it in the alphabet: ‏ב‎ for ‏א‎, ‏ג‎ for ‏ב‎, ‏ד‎ for ‏ג‎, etc.

While the above alphabetical permutations are those most frequently employed, they by no means exhaust the possibilities. The fourteenth-century manuscript Sefer Gematriaot11 lists sixteen of them, and C. D. Ginsburg gives 24 in his work on the Kabbalah. Some Kabbalists went so far as to substitute for the letters of a word others resembling them in form, e.g., ‏א‎ = ‏יוי‎, ‏ה‎ = ‏דו‎, etc., and gave consonantal significance even to vowel points in this game.

It should be noted that several of these alphabets were often applied to one word or sentence in conjunction, as when the name Shaddai (‏שדי‎) was derived from the first verse of Genesis as follows: the ‏שׁ‎ is the equivalent of ‏ב‎ (‏בראשית‎) by method a, the ‏ד‎ comes from ‏ה‎ (‏אלהים‎) by f, the ‏י‎ from ‏ש‎ (‏השמים‎) by b.12 While this, of course, was a forced reading of the name into the verse, these alphabets were also used for creative purposes; the Tetragrammaton (‏יהוה‎) appears as ‏מצפץ‎ (a), or ‏כוזו‎ (f), or ‏שצפצ‎ (b), etc. The possible number of permutations and substitutions is endless, and when we realize that all of these methods, Notarikon, Gematria and Temurah (the three were usually lumped together as Gematria during the Middle Ages), may be used together, the possibilities are breath-taking. Is it any wonder that so many of these names defy unriddling?

7. Finally, words from foreign languages, names of pagan deities, even terms from the Latin liturgy, were transliterated into Hebrew, and in this guise became potent tools in the magician’s hands.



Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , ,

3 thoughts on “Magic Names

  1. atdreamstate November 25, 2014 at 10:03 am Reply

    Interesting, but it will take me a while to read through this.

  2. Jews and Demons | The Seven Worlds November 28, 2014 at 6:46 pm Reply

    […] inimical not alone to mankind, but to the pursuit of the religious life. The great development of name-magic, on the other hand, crowded out the earlier form. Invocation of demons, therefore, occupied a very […]

Leave a comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: