Modern Sorcery

The Jewish Death Curse In Israeli Politics

The Jewish death curse recently directed at politician Naftali Bennett shows just how sidelined the ultra-Orthodox community feels in Israeli politics, writes Nicholas Saidel.

Gali Tibbon / AFP/ Getty Images

On April 28, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reported that Hojjat al-Islam Mehdi Taeb, a senior Iranian cleric close to Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, recently said that the Jews are the most powerful sorcerers in the world today, and that they have used their powers to attack Iran. Believe it or not, Taeb is not entirely incorrect. Certain fringe elements of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Israel do, in fact, engage in rituals pleading for divine wrath to be inflicted upon the enemies of the Jewish people. Perhaps luckily for Taeb, though, those targeted so far have been Israelis, not Iranians. Besides, the theological basis for such incantations is dubious at best.As recently as April 10, a Jewish "death curse" known as the Pulsa Dinura (Aramaic for "lashes of fire") was directed at an Israeli politician—in this case, Israeli Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett. Bennett was ostensibly chosen because of his role in governmental reforms that will likely end the longstanding policy of exempting the ultra-Orthodox from service in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The anonymous letter bluntly warned:

You will die. The Pulsa Dinura has been done to you... Already you will have no peace at home... A bitter life awaits you. From this day your life is ruined... It is better not to mess with Torah sages... Just one tear of theirs is enough to paralyze you for life. [You are] one who caused grief to the ultra-Orthodox and rose to prominence, but in the end you will be like Sharon.

The mention of "Sharon" is a reference to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was a recipient of the Pulsa Dinura in July 2005, about six months prior to the debilitating stroke he suffered in January 2006. The Pulsa Dinura was also aimed at former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in November 1995, less than a month before his assassination at the hands of the Jewish terrorist Yigal Amir. Both Sharon and Rabin were targeted for the Pulsa Dinura by Jewish extremists because of their planned land-based concessions to the Palestinians.

While the tragic fates of Rabin and Sharon may scare some into believing in the power of the ritual, the Pulsa Dinura is considered by most experts to be a modern contrivance that lacks authentic roots in Jewish law, and specifically in the Kabbalistic (Jewish mystical) tradition. In fact, Jewish law and custom condemns praying for the death of another human being, preferring instead prayers that call for the death of the evil within an individual.

The term Pulsa Dinura appears only ten times in sacred Jewish texts, four times in the Talmud and six times in the Zohar. According to Zion Zohar, the aptly named religious scholar who has written extensively on this issue, its usage in the Talmud, while relating to punishment of sinners, is decidedly metaphorical in nature. Two of the four Talmudic references apply to celestial beings as opposed to humans, while the other two deal with an individual already dead and a heated argument between rabbis.

The Zoharic references are even less convincing as a source for rituals invoking divine retribution against human beings. In the Zohar, the Pulsa Dinura is described as a cloak that clothes and protects the divine presence on Earth (the shechina) from external negative forces. It’s also used to connote a divine power or light that serves to reward Metatron, the archangel and celestial scribe, and to create harmony in this world and the one above.

While an Iranian cleric and some Israelis within the ultra-Orthodox community share a belief in Jewish black magic, probably one of their few shared beliefs, there is no evidence that this is anything but a bubbe meise (a Yiddish word literally meaning "a grandmother's tale," synonymous with "nonsense"). The latest Pulsa Dinura threat is a conjuring-of-last-resort by those within the ultra-Orthodox community who feel sidelined and left without a voice due to the outcome of the January 2013 Israeli election and the governing coalition that formed in its wake. It is a coalition that, for the first time in decades, lacks representation from the ultra-Orthodox parties, and one that is determined to revise age-old policies granting special privileges to the ultra-Orthodox population.

Given the political climate and the current lack of power among the ultra-Orthodox parties, we will likely see an increase in ritualistic behavior typified in this case by the issuance of the Pulsa Dinura. Such incantations are nothing more than a vain attempt to reclaim lost influence. Naftali Bennett can take solace in an old saying within the Israeli political establishment: "You haven't made it in Israeli politics until you've been cursed by the Pulsa Dinura."