Tuesday, December 04, 2007


The story of Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem spitting on Armenian or Greek Orthodox clergy keeps reappearing with the same or similar details and different dates. The Assyrian International News Agency has the story posted on its website on December 1, 2007. The Telegraph ran it December 10, 2004. The Guardian ran it October 17, 2004. Haaretz ran it December 10, 2004.

The date discrepancy has me wondering, but in any case the story came to mind when I read the following mystical or magical reasons for spitting recounted by Trachtenberg:

...incantations were frequently accompanied by incidental actions whose significance lay in their symbolic or connotative values, some of which, in the course of millennia [sic], have come to be recognized as of distinctively magical import.

Expectorating before or after the recital of the spell is one such universally known act, the mere performance of which was taken to indicate the intent of the recital, even though the words may have been altogether innocent of magical significance. Human saliva, especially that of a fasting man, was believed to possess anti-demonic and anti-magical, that is, generally protective, powers. Galen tells of a man who undertook to kill a scorpion by means of an incantation which he repeated thrice. But at each repetition he spat on the scorpion. Galen claimed afterwards to have killed one by the same procedure without any incantation, and more quickly with the spittle of a fasting than of a full man. Maimonides wrote, in his capacity of physician, that the spittle of a fasting person is hostile to poisons. In consequence of this belief charms to heal an ailment or to drive off demons or to counteract magic were usually prefaced by a threefold expectoration.
(p. 120-121)

The most powerful liquid, as we have seen, was supposed to be spittle, especially the sputum of a fasting man. Therefore it was suggested that one may protect himself in unclean places, which the spirits haunt, by spitting three times, and even evil thoughts, which are the work of demons, may be dispelled in the same way.

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