The book from which I learned the history and practice of hypnosis treated it: as a rather recent discovery, crediting F.A. Mesmer with inventing hypnosis, or “animal magnetism” as he called it.1 But it is very improbable that this natural phenomenon could have evaded the ancients and remained unknown through all the centuries and millennia of recorded history: too simple is the application and in no proportion to the mystery of the phenomenon. Many of the practices of the Hindu yogis that go back to ancient times belong to the category of autohypnosis.

In a deep hypnosis it is possible to provoke by a mere verbal order a cataleptic state, hysteria-like paralysis, and illusions. An order can be given that the person in the experiment not be able to lift his arms; in the case of a person subjected to a deeper hypnosis—that he will not be able to see; or if led to some destination, that he should believe that he is in different surroundings.

In the Hebrew Scriptures I find two instances where supposed “miracles” can be recognized as inflicted hypnotical states, consisting of paralysis and somnambulistic illusions. In both of these examples the expression hikku b’ sanverim—he (or they) smote with sanverim”—is used to describe the phenomenon.

The first story is found in Genesis, in the narrative of the event shortly preceding the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot had in his house as guests two of the Lord’s messengers, or malakhim, a word usually translated as “angels” ; but they are called also “men” in the body of the story. When the depraved people of the town demanded the delivery of the guests for their sexual debauchery and tried to force their way inside. Lot vainly negotiated with the people at the door. The messengers opened the door, stretched out their arms, brought Lot inside, and smote the assailants at the door with sanverim. Those smitten with sanverim groped for the door, unable to find it. The next morning Lot with his family hastily left the city and fled to Zoar. Then followed the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The second case where the word sanverim is used in the Scriptures is in the Book of Kings. King Ben-Hadad of Damascus conspired to kill the king of Samaria in an ambush, hiding his assassins near a road where the king was to pass. But the king of Samaria was warned repeatedly by the seer Elisha, and would each time select a different route and thus escape the peril. The king of Damascus spoke to his captains and expressed the belief that somebody among them had disclosed their plans to the king of Samaria. They answered him by saying that the seer in Samaria knows what he. King Ben-Hadad, says in his bedroom; in other words, that the king of Samaria is warned by his seer, who is endowed with the gift of telepathy. On hearing this, the king of Damascus sent a detachment to fetch the seer. They found him in the village of Dothan. They were under orders to bring him to Damascus; but the seer smote them with sanverim and commanded them to follow him, saying that he would lead them to the man they were seeking. He led them to Samaria. There he opened their sight by ordering them to see again, and they saw; “and behold, they were in the midst of Samaria,” the king’s city. Then Elisha had bread and water set before them and sent them back to Damascus.

The usual translation of the word sanverim is “blindness.” Yet in these instances if blindness was meant, the regular word for blindness, ivaron should have been used. Iver signifies a blind person in many Biblical texts. The Old Testament also knows the ways a person may become blind—slowly as in the case of the patriarch Isaac, or suddenly, as in the case of King Zedekiah, blinded by Nebuchadnezzar. The translation of sanverim as blindness is given on the basis of the fact that In both instances the effect was a transient inability to see. But in the story of Lot we have a case of blindness obviously induced by hysteria, affecting simultaneously more than one person.2 In the story of Elisha it is even more obvious that the term refers to hypnotical blindness or illusion. It was inflicted by verbal means, and it was also relieved by verbal means. The fact that the soldiers of Ben-Hadad were made to travel to Samaria believing that they were going to a different destination is also an act that a good hypnotist can perform with a select group of people. Their being sent to remove the seer, whose fame had reached foreign countries, made the men of the detachment well prepared (conditioned) for this feat.


  1. Its first use is often placed in 1840 when a surgeon working in India applied it for its anaesthetic effect before there was any other method of painless surgery. Ether was introduced for narcosis by C.W. Long in 1842 and chlorophorm by J.Y. Simpson in 1847. Even today there are physicians who apply hypnosis in childbirth.

  2. The word sanverim is probably not of Hebrew origin; there is no word in Hebrew that is built on the same root. [A Syriac commentary on Genesis interprets the word sanverim as “phantasies.” Abraham Levene, The Early Syrian Fathers on Genesis (London, 1951) p. 92.—JNS]