The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Catching a Thief through his Eye: An Ancient Magic Spell in Yiddish

ד"ר Sivan Gottlieb

From the medieval and well into the early modern period, there were various magical spells and charms which were passed on in order to catch a thief. The procedure of magically identifying a thief with the combination of a painted eye on the wall, also known as the “Eye of Abraham,” and “Diebesauge,” has already been identified in the early medieval period, and in several different languages.

Much research has been devoted to this spell, and we would like to add another language in which this spell is found. The specific spell for catching a thief in the Yiddish language was not examined until today and we would like to bring it to light. The Yiddish spell is found in the Vatican Library in a manuscript of medical remedies and spells from the 15-16th century (Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica, Vat.ebr. 371). The spell includes instructions on how to identify a thief with the drawing of an eye on the wall. One has to speak out various magical incantations and summon up the help of God and demand justice. The final step to identify the thief consists of hammering a nail into a painted eye on the wall. However, the Yiddish spell does include slight changes from the other versions of this spell, which we will delve on during our presentation.

In our paper we seek to locate the origin of the Yiddish spell. We believe that significant parts of the spell originated in a German spell which we will introduce as well. We will analyze both the text and the illustration of the Yiddish spell, and demonstrate its Jewish and Christian sources, ranging from the medieval till the early modern period.