Episode 146: Gideon Bohak on Late-Antique Jewish Magic
Gideon Bohak is our guide in a rich and wide-ranging discussion of late-antique Jewish magic. The conversation turns this way and that, dipping into Jewish magic in the bronze-age to the twenty-first century, but concentrates on late antiquity, when a ‘scribal turn’ in Jewish culture produced numerous magical texts, often in various amuletic forms, which constitute a superb evidence-base for understanding ‘magical’ practices among Jews.
Among the fascinating byways we discuss:
- The ‘in-house’ terminology, in Hebrew and other Jewish languages of late antiquity, for various ritual practices we might wish to discuss under the rubric of ‘magic’ and the ways in which etic and emic perspectives are both useful in casting light on this material,
- The evidence-base for late-antique Jewish magic, including Talmud on the theoretical side and many ‘magical’ objects such as incantation bowls, amulets, inscribed lamellæ, and operative texts on the practical side,
- The ‘scribal turn’ in late antiquity, whereby we find a lot more textual evidence for Jewish magic than we tend to find for the Second Temple period,
- An introduction to the Sefer ha-Razim, a late-antique Jewish magical book with a fascinating history both ‘in the wild’ and in scholarship,
- Some general observations about late-antique Jewish magical materials in a comparative perspective with Græco-Roman, Egyptian, and other contemporary traditions (the Jewish material that is firmly identifiable as such tends to be aniconic and, while adjurations of angelic and demonic beings are everywhere, the supreme god is never subjected to adjuration),
- The status of much late-antique Jewish ‘magic’ vis à vis Jewish life more broadly, wherein we find that these practices were anything but marginalised, forbidden arts, and in fact were seen as one of many facets of ordinary daily life, and
- The absolutely fascinating overlaps we find between the legal and the magical in this late-antique Jewish context (as well as in modern Jewish contexts).
Gideon Bohak is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Religious Studies at Tel Aviv. His work centres on the broad panoply of practices, artefacts, and texts relating to Jewish ‘magic’, particularly in late antiquity, and the list of his publications and edited volumes on the subject is awe-inspiring.
Works Cited in this Episode:
- For Apuleius’ Apology, see Episode 74.
- The story of the rabbinic disciple who wrote the wrong amulet, and another disciple had to do the proper amulet to get the demons to leave: Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim, fol. 111b. (You can find the text, and an English translation, here).
Rabbi Yohanan: in order to sit in the Sanhedrin you have to be a master of magic: Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, fol. 17a and Tractate Menachot 65a (You can find the text, and an English translation, here).
- Avigail Manekin Bamberger. Jewish Legal Formulæ in the Aramaic Incantation Bowls. Aramaic Studies, 13:69–81, 2015.
- For Margalioth and Rebiger/Schäfer’s reconstructions of the Sefer ha-Razim, see Recommended Reading > Sefer ha-Razim below.
- The New York Times articles are ‘‘LOST’ MS. DEPICTS 2D-CENTURY MAGIC’, Dec. 26, 1964 and ‘SCHOLAR DISMAYED BY THE ‘WHAT’ OF A 2D-CENTURY ‘HOW-TO’ BOOK’, Dec. 29, 1964.
- Melissa M. Aubin. Gendering Magic in Late Antique Judaism. PhD thesis, 1998.
- Meir Bar-Ilan. Between Magic and Religion: Sympathetic Magic in the World of the Sages of the Mishnah and Talmud. Review of Rabbinic Judaism, 5:383–99, 2002.
- Gideon Bohak. Ancient Jewish Magic: A History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008.
- Idem. Prolegomena to the Study of the Jewish Magical Tradition. Currents in Biblical Literature, 8:107–150, 2009.
- Idem. Jewish Amulets, Magic Bowls, and Manuals in Aramaic and Hebrew. In David Frankfurter, editor, Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic, number 189 in Religions in the Greco-Roman World, pages 388–415. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2019.
- M. J. Geller. Deconstructing Talmudic Magic. In Charles Burnett and W.F. Ryan, editors, Magic and the Classical Tradition, volume 7, pages 1–18. Warburg Institute, London, 2006.
- N. Janowitz. Magic in the Roman World: Pagans, Jews, and Christians. Routledge, London, 2001.
- Dan Levene. A Corpus of Magic Bowls: Incantation Texts in Jewish Aramaic from Late Antiquity. Kegan Paul, London, 2003.
- Joshua Levinson. Enchanting Rabbis: Contest Narratives between Rabbis and Magicians in Late Antiquity. Jewish Quarterly Review, 100:54–94, 2010.
- Michael G. Morony. Magic and Society in Late Sasanian Iraq. In Joel Walker, Scott Noegel, and Brannon Wheeler, editors, Prayer, Magic, and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World, pages 83–107. Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, 2003.
- Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked. Magic Spells and Formulae: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity. Magnes, Jerusalem, 1993.
- Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked. Amulets and Magic Bowls: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity. Magnes, Jerusalem, 1998.
- Ben Outhwaite and Siam Bhayro. Towards a Catalogue of the Magical, Astrological,
Divinatory and Alchemical Fragments from the Cambridge Genizah Collections. In
Gideon Bohak, editor, “From a Sacred Source”: Genizah Studies in Honour of Professor
Stefan C. Reif, volume 1, pages 53–79. Brill, Leiden, 2010.
- Claudia Rohrbacher-Sticker. From Sense to Nonsense, from Incantation Prayer to Magical Spell. Jewish Studies Quarterly, 3:24–46, 1996.
- Shaul Shaked. Transmission and Transformation of Spells: The Case of the Jewish Babylonian Aramaic Bowls. In Gideon Bohak, Yuval Harari, and Shaul Shaked, editors, Continuity and Innovation in the Magical Tradition, pages 187-217. Brill, Leiden, 2011.
- Daniel Sperber. Magic and Folklore in Rabbinic Literature. Bar-Ilan University Press, Ramat-Gan, Israel, 1994.
- Michael D. Swartz. Jewish Magic in Late Antiquity. In Steven T. Katz, editor, The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume Four: The Late Roman–Rabbinic Period, volume 4, pages 699–720. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006.
- Mark Verman and Shulamit H. Adler. Path Jumping in the Jewish Magical Tradition. Jewish Studies Quarterly, 1:131–148, 1993.
- Filip Vukosavović. Angels and Demons: Jewish Magic through the Ages. Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem, 2010.
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:
- 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).
- Naomi Janowitz, Icons of Power: Ritual Practices in Late Antiquity, Magic in History (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2002), pp. 85–108.
- Philip S. Alexander, “Sefer ha-Razim and the Problem of Black Magic in Early Judaism,” in Magic in the Biblical World, 170–190.