We speak of “Kabbalah,” but in fact, there are several “branches” of Kabbalistic teaching.

A common dichotomy is between “theoretical” and “practical” kabbalah.

The former is concerned with concepts and ideas which, when contemplated fully, produce a change in consciousness. The emanation of the finite from the Infinite via the s’firot is one such overall concept.

“Practical” Kabbalah has to do with the application of those ideas in specific practices. For example, healing through the use of a “kameiah”  or “segulah” (amulet).

Both branches of Kabbalah were disparaged by the more rationalistic branches of Jewish tradition; Maimonides, for example. In recent years, “theoretical” Kabbalah, once dismissed as meaningless nonsense, has re-emerged as  a serious area of learning.

“Practical” Kabbalah has always been a part of the most traditional branches of Judaism and continues so today. For example, it’s not uncommon to find a Jewish book store that serves a very Orthodox clientele to be selling “kameiot” (plural of “kameiah”) to protect newborn children from “Lilith.” These amulets are hung on the baby’s crib.  I’ve also often seen kameiot/segulot in stores owned and operated by Israelis. Interestingly enough, the same men and women who might otherwise be utterly opposed to religious observance will hang a kameiah for “parnassah” (financial success or success in business) in a place that can be clearly seen — on the wall behind the cashier, for example.

A writer of such amulets was called a “ba’al shem” — a “master of the Name” (or perhaps, an “expert in [angelic] names”). The Ba’al Shem Tov was the greatest of these, but far from the only one.

There are several books on the history of “Jewish Magic” — Joshua Trachtenberg’s “Jewish Magic and Superstition,” for example, or T. Schrire’s “Hebrew Magic Amulets.” There’s also a wealth of information online.

However, these are academic studies of the topic — á la Gershom Scholem. They’re not primary sources for the tradition of creating the kameiot themselves.

One such primary source — perhaps the most famous one — is entitled “Sefer Raziel ha-Malakh” — “The Book of the Angel Raziel.”

Raziel Hebrew

Go to almost any Jewish bookstore — and you will not find a translation as far as I know. Yet, two translations exist:
Sepher Rezial Hemelach,” translated by Steve Savedow [1] and “Book of Raziel,” translated by Giovanni Grippo [2].

I usually try to write only positive reviews. In the case of both these books, I must begin by mentioning some problems:

The first has to do with English-usage itself. I found some of the English unnecessarily difficult to understand.

Mr. Savedow, an American and an English-speaker, translated from the Hebrew rather literally — in some cases, perhaps too Raziel Savedowliterally. There seemed to be many problems with English syntax, some of which might have been from trying to maintain Hebrew syntax in English.

The spelling of angelic names wasn’t consistent throughout his book. He mistranslates some verses from Torah and Talmud, possibly through a lack of familiarity with them (as suggested by the absence of source citations). He also departs from some of the more common spellings of angelic names and Hebrew words, using “Rezial” instead of “Raziel” or “ruoch” for “ruach,” for example. While I appreciate a writer’s need to be idiosyncratic, I found that this created more confusion than clarity.

Mr. Savedow’s translation is also mono-lingual. There’s no accompanying Hebrew text. While no translation might be perfect in itself, many problems can be tempered by including the text in its original language. A translation can then serve as a guide, without having to stand on its own as an informational source.

Given that Weiser Books, Inc., also published Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s, z”l, translation of “The Bahir” (a medieval Kabbalistic text) without similar “English” problems, and with an accompanying Hebrew text, it seems that the publisher has left quite a bit up to the translator, without an editor in-between to mediate or moderate effectively.

Mr. Grippo, whose primary language is German, seems to be his own publisher and was kind enough to send me a review copy, for which I’m very grateful.

I have to begin by saying that each of these translations actually starts from a different Hebrew edition of “…Raziel.” Thus, although there’s some overlap, they’re not exactly parallel translations.

Mr. Grippo’s edition does contain a Hebrew text, facing the English one. What’s more, he appropriately places it to the right of the English text, rather than to the left. I made the Raziel Gripposame point a year or so ago about a translation of Heschel’s poems from Yiddish: In Hebrew, the eye is moving from right to left; in English, from left to right. Having the Hebrew (or Yiddish) to the right of the English text conforms more closely to the natural movement of our eyes as we read.

For Mr. Grippo, English is a 2nd language (at least). I therefore found spelling errors (e.g. “devine” for “divine”). There were also problems with syntax and grammar, all of which could have been caught by an editor or proofreader better-versed in English.

I found some problems with his translations from Hebrew itself. For example, he translates ויאמר רזיאל אל אדם as “And Raziel go [sic] ahead with his dispositions,” rather than “And Raziel said to Adam…,” which more correctly represents the Hebrew. It’s hard to tell whether this is a problem with his translation from Hebrew, or with the translation from German (his original version) to English.

Anyone — myself included — who tries to translate with the belief that using a dictionary alone is enough, quickly finds him/herself disabused of that notion.

Mr. Grippo’s layout and cover-design are attractive and have been done with care and forethought.

Both these editions, then, could have been much improved by more careful proof-reading and editing.

On the positive side, both include illustrative diagrams from the traditional editions of “…Raziel.’ Mr. Savedow seems to have borrowed them from available sources; Mr. Grippo (who has a background in art, I believe) has recreated them. Both approaches are useful.

Years ago, a lady, probably in her ’60’s or ’70’s at the time, showed me an amulet she’d been given by a rabbi 40 years earlier, to heal some health problem. She’d been carrying it with her ever since — and believed that it brought her back to health. She was non-observant but Jewish. The amulet hadn’t led her to greater Jewish involvement, even though she believed it had helped her.

I won’t dispute that amulets have historically benefited people at least some of the time. Was it because of the sound-value of the Hebrew forms of angels’ or Divine names? Was it the “placebo effect?” Did it depend on some quality or state of consciousness of the preparer? Could it be researched? I have no answers.

My interest in the translations of “…Raziel” wasn’t to create amulets myself. Rather, I wanted to better understand the principles involved, if possible. What became clear in reading these books, even with the above-mentioned difficulties, was: Following the directions would be far more difficult than literally following a recipe in a cookbook. It seems likely to me that the book was never meant to be read by itself; rather, I think it was intended to be studied with an “expert” or “master” who already had experience in doing this work. It’s analogous to reading books about playing the piano or practicing psychotherapy: Sooner or later, you need an experienced teacher.

I suspect, with some discomfort, that this area will become popular in the next few years. “Discomfort,” because I’ve seen the most spiritual teachings become used — often inaccurately — for purely commercial interests. The commercialism bothers me far less than the inaccuracy. But when there’s a market, there’s sure to be a seller.

For someone sufficiently literate in Hebrew, but who might also need an English translation for support, either or both of these editions could be recommended.

The translations by Mr. Savedow and Mr. Grippo have problems, to be sure. But they are important first steps in opening this part of Jewish tradition for examination. If they could be re-edited with regard to the English and clarity, and if a Hebrew text could be added to Mr. Savedow’s, they could become important resources for research.

[1] © 2000; Weiser Books, Inc.; see http://www.redwheelweiser.com/

[2] © 2010; Giovanni Grippo Verlag; see http://www.grippo-verlag.de; for English-language correspondence, use: marketing@grippo-verlag.de