Monday, January 30, 2012

Passwords Old and Ancient

The password to get into Abulafia had to be seven letters or fewer. Letters or numbers. How many groups of seven could be made from all the letters of the alphabet, including the possibility of repetition, since there was no reason the word couldn’t be ‘cadabra’? I knew the formula. The number was six billion and something. —Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum (1988)

We've previously discussed how the original password was open sesame (better translated as "simsim"), and how passwords are like magic words in that they are the keys for unlocking barriers, dissolving obstacles, revealing something beyond. Passwords are the coveted guarded secrets that grant admittance into inner chambers and secret circles. The folks at Wired sought to track down the first computer password. (Thanks, Gordon!)

Thursday, January 26, 2012


We have a doozy for you — an extraordinarily rare magic word from Hebrew mysticism, courtesy of Doctor of Biblical Studies, Trailblazer of Ancient Texts, and Specialist in the Book of Enoch, Dan Olson. Dr. Olson kindly invited us to share the fruits of his labors. He wrote:

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One of the many magic words from the world of Hebrew mysticism: Beka.

I know of only two texts that bear witness to this magic word, but as far as I can tell no one else has noticed the connection between them.

Beka consists of two letters, and it means “in you (sg.).” This is a common Hebrew word, used dozens of times in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 26:13, however, it appears in a very odd construction. The verse is usually translated along these lines:

Oh LORD our God, masters other than you have ruled over us;
But in you alone do we make remembrance of your name.

Some such meaning seems to be the intent, but the syntax is awkward. According to the usual meaning of the words, taken literally the second line should read, “Apart from in you do we make remembrance of your name.” This weird construction was a red flag to Jewish mystics, who quite naturally took “in you” (beka) here as a noun, part of a prepositional phrase. “Apart from beka do we make remembrance of your name.”

For those who don’t know, it needs to be pointed out that Hebrew, like many languages (including Greek and even Latin in the case of Roman numerals), uses the letters of the alphabet for its numerals. Beka has a numerical value of 22 if you add the two letters together. Very pedestrian gematria that.

In the Zohar (13th c. kabbalistic text), we find a commentary on the verse. “Rabbi Simeon” claims that while meditating on “the letters of the Holy Name” (i.e. YHWH, “Yahweh,” the personal name of God usually rendered “LORD” in English), he received a vision:

It is written, “O LORD our God, other lords beside thee dominated us, apart from thee do we make mention of thy Name” (Isa 26:13). This verse, apart from other interpretations, contains a profound doctrine of faith. YHWH Elohenu (LORD our God) is the source and beginning of supreme mysteries indeed....this Name dominates all. However, “other lords beside thee dominated us”; the people of Israel, which is destined to be ruled only by this supreme Name, is ruled (now) in exile by the “other side.” Indeed, “apart from thee (beka) do we make remembrance of thy Name.” The name “by thee” (beka) symbolizes the Holy Name comprising twenty-two letters,[1] and this is the name by which the Community of Israel is always blessed, as, for instance, “to whom thou swarest by thine own self (beka; Exod 32:13); “in thee (beka) shall Israel be blessed” (Gen 48:20); “for in thee (beka) I can run through the troops” (Ps18:29). In times of perfection, peace, and harmony, the two names are not separated one from the other, and indeed it is forbidden to separate them even in thought and imagination; but now, in exile, we do separate them... “Apart from thee,” being far away from Thee, and being ruled by other powers, “we make remembrance of thy Name,” in separation, thy Name (YHWH) being separated from the Name expressed by beka” (Zohar Shemoth 9a-9b).

The reason I took an interest in this obscure text in the Zohar is that when I was working on my translation of and commentary on The Book of Enoch, I came to the conclusion that this was the key to understanding a very difficult passage. In chapter 69 we are given a list of evil angelic powers that are causing much mischief on earth. (These powers would be equivalent to the “other masters” who are currently exercising illegitimate rule, according to the Zohar.) The last on the list is Kasbeel. The verses in question are quite difficult to translate because there are MANY variations in the manuscripts, and the text is obscure by any reckoning. I stuck closely to one particular manuscript[2] that really was the only one that provided a coherent text throughout the entire section.

This is the “number” of Kasbeel, chief of the Oath (which Oath he revealed to the holy ones while he was still dwelling above in glory). Its name is “Beqa.” He tried to talk Michael into revealing to him the secret Name in his possession, in order that they might then pronounce it [or make it to be remembered] in the Oath, and in so doing make those who revealed everything secret to the children of men [these are the fallen angels] tremble before that Name and that Oath. This is the power of that Oath—for it is indeed powerful and strong—and responsibility for this engraved Oath was given to Michael, and they are his secrets (En 69:13-16a).

The way I read this, the good angels were each in charge of one of the divine names of God. Kasbeel was in charge of the cosmic Oath Beka, being entrusted with its “number” (i.e. gematrial value). Michael was in charge of a different secret Name, possibly the divine Name YHWH. In the story told here, the end result is that the cosmic Oath is taken from Kasbeel and is now in Michael’s charge. This cosmic Oath is elaborately celebrated in the following section of chapter 69, which tells in a long series of stanzas how all of creation came into being and is held together in orderly fashion “through the Oath.” The Oath represented by Beka has a gematrial value of 22, the same as the number of letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which in turn is virtually a secret name of God in his creative capacity, as both the alphabet and the divine Name YHWH are credited elsewhere in Jewish tradition as functioning in this manner, creating, ordering, and “binding” all of creation (see, e.g., Prayer of Manasseh 3 and Sepher Yetsera 2:2). Perhaps Kasbeel tried to get Michael to reveal the secret name in his possession (YHWH?) so that the two of them could then combine it with the name/oath in his—Kasbeel’s—possession (Beka), expecting that the power in this combination would terrorize the rebel angels into submission. He may have tried to persuade Michael and the other “holy ones” to go along with this plan by first revealing to them the Beka name, hoping they would feel obligated to reciprocate. If so, the plan failed, and Kasbeel may have lost his heavenly post as a result, since he is no longer “dwelling above in glory.” Alternately, the “holy ones” to whom Kasbeel revealed the Beka oath while he was dwelling above were in fact the angels who later rebelled, and what we see here is a desperate and unsuccessful attempt by Kasbeel to undo the damage caused by his mistake. Either way, Kasbeel is gone, and Michael is now in charge of the Oath known as Beka. Coming as it does at the end of a list of wicked angels, the passage identifies Kasbeel as one of them and explains the circumstance that persuaded him to cast in his lot with the fallen angels. That’s my reading of this obscure passage.

Note how both passages seem to deal with the artificial separation of divine names/oaths, which results in the weakened state that allows “other powers” to exercise rule in God’s creation.

This section of the Book of Enoch is generally dated to around the turn of the era, give or take three or four decades. There is evidence elsewhere in the Zohar that the author(s) were familiar with this section of Enoch[3], so it may well be that we have in the Zohar is a mystical interpretation of Isa 26:13, the core of which already existed around the time of Christ and is alluded to in Enoch 69. As I said, I know of no other instances of Beka as a name/oath/magic word.


[1] R. Simeon is alluding to the 22-letter divine name derived by arcane permutations from the first five words of the famous priestly blessing in Num 6:24-27. This mystical name is not explicitly attested earlier then the beginning of the medieval period, but there is an older tradition, found already in the Sepher Yetserah (“Book of Creation”), which may go back as far as the second century AD. The Sepher Yetserah identifies the 22-letter Hebrew alphabet as the means by which all the cosmos was created and ordered, making the alphabet itself virtually a 22-letter divine name.

[2] For this section of Enoch, there is only an ancient Ethiopic version available, and there are dozens of manuscripts to sort through.

[3] In the Zohar Vayaqhel 202a we hear of an angel named Gadriel who is in charge of human warfare. The angel Gadriel in exactly this capacity appears also in Enoch 69:6-7. “Gadriel” is an extremely rare angel name, so the Zohar is likely dependent on this section of Enoch in this case.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Weaving a Tale of Magic

The caption reads, "Engaged, evidently, in weaving a tale of magic." From Hampton's magazine, 1909.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Magic Words Must Be Born of the Moment

We love this intriguing passage about how magic words must be improvised to be powerful:

"In the worlds of Jewish mysticism and Germanic fairy tales, a single magic word can make all the difference. The mojo of an effective transformative incantation involves using the right word at the right time. It must be improvisationally born of the moment, not a mindless, memorized formula. Magical words are by their very nature surprise—words that accidentally evoke mojo."
—Bradford Keeney, The Flying Drum: The Mojo Doctor's Guide to Creating Magic in Your Life (2011)

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Real Secret of Magic is that the World is Made of Words

Our friend (who also translated our book Magic Archetypes into Italian) Ferdinando Buscema notes that believing in magic may sound like an outdated superstition, yet it "means believing in the supreme power of the imagination to shape reality. As neuroscience has validated to a great extent, we are and we become what we think. And so, the magic meme is a kind of mind software to conceive and do things which are, as it were, magical." Buscema shares the third secret of magic: "Reality is made of words." He explains that "Magic is the art of the word that enchants and has concrete effects upon the world. The words that we speak shape our reality more deeply that we generally acknowledge. One postmodern philosopher [Terence McKenna] pushes the idea so far as to say that the real secret of magic is that the world is made of words. Those who know the right words can realize virtually everything they want." For concrete proofs, see Buscema's TEDx talk here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:
Egg, then, is a perfect magic word, both broadcasting a signal to create as well as facilitating a new reality.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Hocus Into Pocus

A line taken out of context, from our dictionary of magic words:
The formula is a distillation of the intention: “May that which we call Hocus be changed into Pocus.”