Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Sorceress to Live: Creative Women and Persecution

Parashat Mishpatim details many rules and laws, among them the decree “Thou shalt not suffer a sorceress to live.” The Sages discuss the proper manner of a witch’s death, and Rashi suggests they should be stoned to death. When the Sages discuss the question whether “sorceress” refers to women only or also include men, some argue that it refers to women since “most women practice sorcery.”

The Bible mentions only two sorceresses: the Witch of Ein-Dor (Ba’alat Ha’ov) and Queen Jezebel. The prophets Jeremiah and Malachi scold the people for using sorcery, and in Leviticus the decree against sorcery refers both to men and to women: “A man also or a woman that divineth by a ghost or a familiar spirit, shall surely be put to death; they shall stone them with stones; their blood shall be upon them” ( Leviticus 20, 27).  Rabbi Jonah Ibn Janah suggests a linguistic interpretation: “a sorceress” in Hebrew (Mechashefa) is a common noun for a person, male or female, who practices sorcery.

From a wider cultural perspective, one could argue that women, who refused to submit to the social norm, were marginalized, branded and persecuted as witches. The story of Shimon Ben Shetach and the hanging of eighty witches is a horrid case in point:

When Shimon ben Shetach was appointed as head of the Sanhedrin, he was told that there were eighty witches in a cave in Ashkelon. In order to trick them he came on a rainy day together with eighty young men who were each given a jar with a dry cloak in it. He told them that upon hearing his signal they should put on the dry cloak and come in to lift the witches off the ground, which would steal their powers from them. Shimon ben Shetach called for the witches to open the cave door so that he could enter. Upon doing so he impressed them, entering in a dry cloak, and told them that he came to learn and to teach. Each of the witches conjured up part of a festive meal and then inquired as to what magic he could do. In response, Shimon ben Shetach offered to make eighty young men appear in dry cloaks who would sweep them off their feet. Giving the signal, the men entered and captured the witches, who were taken off and hanged (Talmud Yerushalmi, Masechet Chagigah).

The women live in a cave, far from society and its rules and norms. They sustain themselves with their creative and fertile powers, enjoying undisturbed freedom. The cave is a metaphor to the female womb, to the earth and its fertile powers. The story hints that the society of women is a society of abundance and joy: they create food and wine, and enjoy the company of young men. Such female freedom is perceived as dangerous and destructive.

Shimon ben Shetah, the head of the Sanhedrin, cannot allow such freedom to continue. Therefore, he enlists eighty men to his aid. The meticulous instructions he gives the men as preparation towards his confrontation with the women he perceives as witches suggest that he is anxious and fearful of the free women, who are powerful and able to live outside of society and its constraints.

After he is invited into the cave, Shimon ben Shetah calls the men to his aid, and each men lifts a woman off the earth, thus disrupting her powers. Once they are separated from the earth, the source of their powers, the women are hanged. This horrific ending, horrified some of the Sages who argue that one should not execute more than two culprits in one day:

Rabbi Eliezer said to them: “But did not Shimon ben Shetah hang women at ashkelon?” They said: “[On that occasion] he hanged eighty women, even though two must not be tried on the same day (Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:4).

Shimon ben Shetah plays judge, jury and executioner in the sad tale of the eighty witches. Some Sages excuse the harsh act by saying:

People had become remiss; therefore, stringent measures had to be taken to rectify the situation (Sanhedrin 46a).

Women-poets often identify themselves as modern day witches. As a creative woman, operating outside the acceptable social norms, the poet Anne Sexton is aware of the high cost her art might demand of her. In “The Red Shoes,” Sexton describes the creative power as an inner drive, a power that is symbolized by a pair of red shoes, an heirloom that is handed down through a matrilineal line of inheritance. The poet chooses to wear the red shoes, while acutely aware of the heights of creativity and the immeasurable depths of pain she will suffer.

I stand in the ring
in the dead city
and tie on the red shoes.
Everything that was calm
is mine, the watch with an ant walking,
the toes, lined up like dogs,
the stove long before it boils toads,
the parlor, white in winter, long before flies,
the doe lying down on moss, long before the bullet.
I tie on the red shoes.

They are not mine.
They are my mother’s.
Her mother’s before.
Handed down like an heirloom
but hidden like shameful letters.
The house and the street where they belong
are hidden and all the women, too,
are hidden.

All those girls
who wore the red shoes,
each boarded a train that would not stop.
Stations flew by like suitors and would not stop.
They all danced like trout on the hook.
They were played with.
They tore off their ears like safety pins.
Their arms fell off them and became hats.
Their heads rolled off and sang down the street.
And their feet – oh God, their feet in the market place –
their feet, those two beetles, ran for the corner
and then danced forth as if they were proud.
Surely, people exclaimed,
surely they are mechanical. Otherwise…

But the feet went on.
The feet could not stop.
They were wound up like a cobra that sees you.
They were elastic pulling itself in two.
They were islands during an earthquake.
They were ships colliding and going down.
Never mind you and me.
They could not listen.
They could not stop.

What they did was the death dance.
What they did would do them in.

   ~ Anne Sexton, The Red Shoes

Feature Photo: Red Shoes Over Cliff, by Avi Richards

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