the six dimensions of the Jewish magical circle
One of my major pet peeves is the argument, among some Wiccan and Neopagan authors, that casting a magic circle is a spiritual practice indigenous to Europe. In an effort to recast ancient European Paganism as goddess worship to suit the feminist goals of recent Pagan thinkers, these authors have erased the Jewish history of the magic circle. When you consider that the same Jewish influence only existed because of the oppression of Jews in the Dark Ages, it feels especially painful that the contribution (read: theft) is now brushed aside.
The same is true of other revisions of ancient history. The idea that priestesses of Ishtar served as sacred prostitutes is another myth that was created by perverted men for intellectual masturbation. Ishtar did not have priestesses. The idea that Lilith was an empowered female goddess before the bad Jews turned her into a demon is a lie. Lilith was a demon to every ancient civilization that knew of her. Women were barred from inner sanctums of temples almost universally in the Ancient Near East (ANE). Attempts to cast ANE religion as somehow nice to women is usually a thinly veiled attempt to cast Judaism as a terribly mean religion. Ironically, Judaism was one of the few religions in the ancient world to consider women human beings.
Can so much be read into the European appropriation of circle casting? Yes, absolutely. As the goddess forgers can tell you, the circle is a more feminine shape. Ignoring for a moment that this gender essentialist nonsense was used to pair femininity with shapes to insidiously preserve patriarchy in modern anthropology, one can understand why modern Pagans want to see circle casting as European. First, it confirms the absurd notion that Gerald Gardner, the founder of modern Wicca, was actually working with inherited material. Second, the idea that circle casting is European allows Pagans with an attachment to European heritage to maintain the illusion that a feminine shape somehow belongs in their ancestral story. Grasping at straws to say the least.
Where does the circle actually come from? First of all, we have to acknowledge that shapes are rather universal. Everyone knows what a circle is, has encountered circles in nature and probably has some circular symbolism in their culture. But the particular, European use of the circle for magic is bound to a particular tradition, one that has unmistakably Jewish origins. It is not problematic to cast a circle and I am not suggesting that modern witches stop using the central liturgical form of their religion. What I am suggesting is that Wiccan authors and the like begin to acknowledge that a huge chunk of European magical tradition is a forgery of Jewish mysticism, born from the fires and torture chambers of the Inquisition.
Below we will explore three references to magic circles or their component parts in Jewish tradition. Then I would like to suggest a format for reclaiming circle casting as a magical Jewish ritual.
Our first source comes from tannaitic (the oldest) material in the Talmud:
Our rabbis taught: one time most of the month of Adar (February-March) had passed without the rains coming down. They sent for Choni the Circle Maker saying, “Pray and the rains will fall.” But the rains did not fall. He made a circle and stood inside it the way Habakkuk did as it says (Habakkuk 2:1), “on my watch I will stand and I will set myself on the tower…” He spoke to God, “Master of the World, your children look to me like a child of your house coming before you. I swear by your great name that I will not move from here until you have mercy on your children!” The rain began to trickle down (Taanit 23a).
You might doubt that what Choni was doing was casting a magic circle or that this one reference to making a circle is enough to confirm Jewish origins. That might be a fair doubt. But it is clear from this passage that Choni was doing something extraordinary, something considered beyond prayer. He prays and it does not rain, only then does he make the circle. He calls out to God from inside the circle not to beg for rain but to demand it, to force the hand of God and manipulate the forces of nature. This is magic by any good definition.
In addition to the act itself, the text uses language that Wiccans will be familiar with. Watch? Tower? “Hail to the Guardians of the Watchtowers of the East,” begins the traditional Wiccan circle casting in a part of the ritual known as Calling the Quarters. There is a fantastic example of this ritual in the cult film classic The Craft.
Favorite movies of my goth youth aside, the text presents further evidence that Choni’s circle is read as magical. Further down the page, Shimon ben Shatach threatens him with excommunication for desecrating the name of heaven. You can’t be excommunicated for praying for rain. You can be excommunicated for magicking it up. So it is not just me seeing Choni’s working as antinomian, the characters within the story are concerned about as much and, if they did not need the rain so badly, I think it is like that Choni’s act would have been read as an illegal form of sorcery.
The next example of Jewish circle making, and the focus of this article, is actually an example of Jewish quarter calling. In Neopagan ritual, after the circle is cast, there is almost always an invocation of the four directions with their elemental correspondences and sometimes the names of angels are included. The invocation of angels paired with directions is explicitly Jewish and can be found in the Jewish liturgy of Kriyat Shma al Hamitah, the Bedtime Shma.
Recite three times: In the name of YHVH God of Israel, on my right Michael and on my left Gabriel and before me Uriel and behind me Rafael and above my head the Shkhinah of God. (This is in just about every Ashkenazi siddur. I used this source text.)
Occultists will recognize this from Crowley’s Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram which was, of course, a significant source text for Wiccan circle casting as laid out by Gerald Gardner in his Book of Shadows. The order of the angels is different but the basic form is there. And let us be clear, this is not a chicken or egg situation. The chicken, clearly first here, is the Jewish liturgical tradition and the egg, definitely much later, is the work of Aleister Crowley. How one got to the other is unclear, but the relative ages of all of these documents are not. I suspect that Crowley was taking a lot of material from Mafteach Shlomo, an originally Hebrew but likely not Jewish medieval magical manuscript, which makes regular reference to Qabbalistic ritual. Even deeper down the rabbit hole is Sha’arei Tsion, a solidly Jewish text that first introduced truly Qabbalistic ideas into Jewish liturgy.
The third example comes from a core text of Qabbalah which, theoretically, is the most recent of the three sources I am presenting. Others will argue that Sefer Yetsirah is older; frankly it’s unimportant. It certainly predates both Crowley and Gardner as well as the Key of Solomon and Sha’arei Tsion.
Sefer Yetsirah 1:13 gives us a description of God’s creation of the dimensions that looks a lot like a Jewish “Calling the Quarters.” Indeed, in his commentary on Sefer Yetsirah, Aryeh Kaplan argues that this verse describes just such a ritual procedure.
God selected 3 letters from the Simples in the mystery of 3 Mothers AM”Sh and bound them to God’s great name and sealed in them 6 directions: God sealed above and faced above and sealed it with YH”V. God sealed below and faced below and sealed it with YV”H. God sealed East and faced forward and sealed it with HY”V. God sealed West and faced behind and sealed it with HV”Y. God sealed South and faced right and sealed it with VY”H. God sealed North and faced left and sealed it with VH”Y (Sefer Yetsirah 1:13).
If you have ever cast a circle, this is the step immediately after casting, the “Guardians of the Watchtowers” bit. In earlier, Crowleyan rituals, you did not actually turn your body to the directions, you merely directed your consciousness there but remained standing, facing the East. That is precisely what this text describes, God (or the magician, as it were) standing and facing the East and turning only God’s countenance (the magicians face) toward the directions. In this way, West is behind, South is right and North is left. There is no doubt in my mind that this text, or another text taking from it, is the origin of the Crowleyan and then Gardnerian circle casting and calling the quarters.
From Wiccans and all kinds of magical religionists, I am really only asking for acknowledgment of the Jewish origins of circle casting. But for magical Jews like myself, it’s not enough to simply acknowledge. I do not want Crowley’s LBRP or Gardner’s circle. I want Galgal Yetsirah, the Circle of Creation described in this book written by my genetic ancestors. As such I present to you, below, a quarter call based on Sefer Yetsirah as quoted above. This is an experiment, not a full circle casting. Please do not use this ritual material without the guidance of an experienced teacher.
Side note: if you are going to use Hebrew in your rituals, at least learn how to read it. You Ceremonial Magicians and Thelemites sound kind of ridiculous.
A Yetsiratic Quarter Call
After the circle is cast, stand facing the East and contemplate the Three Mothers. Begin with Alef, mother of Air and visualize the energy of the letter pouring through all space and time. Then see it gathered up into the image of the letter Yod. Next is Mem, mother of Water and Earth. Visualize that energy filling the whole world and then gather it up into the image of the letter Heh. Finally see Shin, mother of Fire, and her energy filling the world and then gathering up into the image of the letter Vav. Now you have created, in a sense, the three letters YH”V, the letters needed to invoke the Tetragrammaton, out of the foundation or elemental energies of the Mother letters AM”Sh.
Look up and imagine that you can perceive the limit of space above you, the terminus of “up-ness.” Chant the sounds of the letters out loud, “yo-hey-vah.” Face below, visualize the letters again, this time in the YV”H order and chant, “yo-va-hey.” Face straight ahead and chant, “hey-yo-va,” look over your right shoulder behind you with “hey-va-yo,” look to the right with “va-yo-hey” and to the left with “va-hey-yo.”
Face East and forward again. Now you are ready to proceed with the invocation.