Jewish Magic Through the Ages
Jerusalem: Bible Lands Museum, 2010, 192 pp.
$39 (soft cover)
Reviewed by Michael D. Swartz
Here is a brief quiz for BAR readers:
(1) What are the two most ancient copies of a Biblical text?
(2) What is the largest body of inscriptions documenting ancient Judaism?
Most BAR readers will know the answer to the first question: The two small strips of silver from Ketef Hinnom containing portions of the Priestly Blessing from Numbers 6:24–26. Fewer people, however, may realize these small silver strips were most probably magical amulets.a (Like many ancient amulets, they were found at a gravesite.)
The answer to the second question is not so well known: The largest body of inscriptions from ancient Judaism is the collection of more than 2,000 magic bowls from Talmudic Babylonia (present-day Iraq) from the fifth–eighth centuries C.E. These bowls are inscribed in Aramaic with incantations against demons.b
Magic—a term usually applied to unauthorized ritual practices to obtain a material benefit for an individual—has flourished in Judaism from Biblical times to the present, despite prohibitions against witches and other practitioners in Exodus 22:17 (verse 18 in English), Deuteronomy 18, and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.1 Jewish magic usually involves invoking the powerful name of God to command intermediary beings, such as angels and demons, to do the will of the practitioner. For centuries Jews have used magical incantations, talismans worn on the body or hung in the house, objects such as curse tablets, and handbooks, for conducting magical rituals to heal a sick person or protect women and babies in childbirth or make a business prosperous. Other curses are used to harm an enemy or cast a spell to make someone fall desperately in love. These latter two often take the same form—adjuring an angel or demon to put a burning fire in the bowels of the intended “victim.” In our day, Jewish books, images and Web sites of “practical Kabbalah” can be downloaded from the Internet, and magical charms can be bought in kosher grocery stores.
In 2010 the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem recognized the importance of the magical tradition in Jewish history and culture with an exhibit of amulets, objects, books, manuscripts and ephemera from classical antiquity to modern times. This handsome volume is the exhibition catalogue. It contains rich photographs of the objects—indeed some of the best photos yet available of some texts and archaeological items. It also features essays by some of the finest scholars of Jewish magic, mysticism and art history.
The essays begin with brief surveys of the main historical periods and go on to specific themes. The objects are organized not by historical period but by function (such as “Personal Protection” and aggressive magic, here called “black magic”) and by themes, such as “Letter and Word” and “Evil Eye.” This organization highlights two important features of Jewish magic: Its cosmopolitan nature and its remarkable continuity. Jewish magical texts and objects closely resemble those of their neighbors, so that instructions found in the Book of Mysteries (Sefer ha-Razim), a magical handbook from the Talmudic period, are very similar to non-Jewish Greek magical papyri of the same era. Jewish magic’s cosmopolitan character is illustrated in the catalogue by magical gems with the names of Jewish angels written in Greek. There are also many examples of the “khamsa,” a symbolic hand worn as a pendant or hung on a wall as protection against the evil eye; this same image is found throughout the Middle East.
For anyone interested in the history and variety of Jewish magic, this exhibition catalogue is an excellent place to begin.
1. The Biblical texts in fact tell a far more complicated story. See Mark Geller’s comments in the volume under review (Angels and Demons, p. 34) and especially Gideon Bohak, Ancient Jewish Magic (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007), pp. 11–35.
a. See Gabriel Barkay,“The Riches of Ketef Hinnom: Jerusalem Tomb Yields Biblical Text Four Centuries Older than Dead Sea Scrolls,” BAR 35:04.
b. See Hershel Shanks,“Magic Incantation Bowls: Charms to Curse, to Cure, and to Celebrate,” BAR 33:01.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.