Podcast episode

Episode 149: Exploring the Sefer ha-Razim

The Sefer ha-Razim is an exquisite and delightful (though sometimes depressing and evil-minded) late-antique book of magic. The rituals and other instructions are familiar stuff from the late Roman-era tradition, and much of the practical material is clearly drawn from Greek sources as well as Jewish traditions. But all of this material has been inserted into a Jewish sevenfold literary/cosmological structure of ‘firmaments’, each of which contains ranks upon ranks of angels; these angels are the ones who perform the magical effects sought by the practitioner. The seventh firmament, however, contains god’s heavenly court, and here no magic is permissible; this is Rabbinic Judaism, and you do not attempt to constrain god.

We discuss the textual web lying behind the book as we have it, the dating and likely provenance of the work, magical parallels in the PGM and incantation-bowls, but also cosmological parallels in the Hekhalot/Merkavah traditions and in apocalypses, what kinds of stuff you can do with this tome, and lastly, some of the many ramifications and mutations of the book in later magical-book traditions.

Works Cited in this Episode (roughly in the order in which they are mentioned):

  • Margalioth 1966: see below.
  • For the dating of the text by Roman indictions, see ibid, p. 24.
  • Morgan 1983 (see below), p. 9: ‘In dating SHR we are not dating the antiquity of the praxeis themselves.’
  • Adela Yarbro Collins. Cosmology and Eschatology in Jewish and Christian Apoca-lypticism, volume 50 of Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism. Brill, Leiden/New York, NY/Köln, 1996., pp. 53-4.
  • Idol used to quell a rising river: Sefer ha-Razim 2:115 ff.
  • Invocation of Helios: Sefer ha-Razim ch. 4, lines 61–4.
  • Porphyry and Iamblichus discuss charaktērēs: Iamb. De myst. III.13.
  • Charaktēres in the PGM: e.g. IV:2706; VII:810, 816, 860, 922.
  • Korshi Dosoo. Rituals of Apparition in the Theban Magical Library. PhD thesis, Macquarie University, 2014.
  • Ars Aurora. The Angels of the 7 Heavens: Practical Rituals with the Angels of Sepher Ha-Razim. no publication-data given, 2021.

Recommended Reading:

For the text of Sefer ha-Razim, see

  • M. Margalioth, Sepher Ha-Razim: A Newly Recovered Book of Magic from the Talmudic Period (Tel Aviv: Yediot Acharonot, 1966) (Heb.).
  • Bill Rebiger and Peter Schäfer, Das Buch der Geheimnisse I und II, Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 125, 132, 2 vols. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009).

For an English translation, see

  • Michael A. Morgan, Sepher Ha-Razim: The Book of the Mysteries (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983) [featuring old-school typewriter-font, which has a magic all its own].

Analytic studies can be found in e.g:

  • Philip S. Alexander, “Sefer ha-Razim and the Problem of Black Magic in Early Judaism,” in Magic in the Biblical World, 170–190.
  • Ithamar Gruenwald. Apocalyptic and Merkavah Mysticism. Number 90 in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity. Brill, Leiden, 1980. [argues, p. 226, for a late seventh-century composition date for the Sefer].
  • Naomi Janowitz, Icons of Power: Ritual Practices in Late Antiquity, Magic in History (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2002), pp. 85–108.
  • Jens-Heinrich Niggemeyer, Beschwörungsformeln aus dem “Buch der Geheimnisse” (Sefär ha-Razim): Zur Topologie der magischen Rede, Judäistische Texte und Studien 3 (Hildesheim: Olms, 1975) [pp. 18-19 have a chart of the incredibly-complex textual webs involved in reconstructing the text].

The magic 8-ball's prognosis for late-antique ritual practice. Divination works because of the divine signatures scattered throughout kosmic reality.


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