In This Article Ancient Jewish Magic

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Definitions and Methodology
  • Stereotypes and Realities
  • The Aims and Techniques of Ancient Jewish Magic
  • Jewish Magic in Rabbinic Literature
  • Art and Magic in Ancient Judaism

Jewish Studies Ancient Jewish Magic
by
Gideon Bohak
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 July 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0022

Introduction

“Magic” is notoriously impossible to define, not least because the meaning of this term changes from one culture to another and from one period to the next. Moreover, the distinction between “magic” and “religion” is equally problematic, and in some cultural contexts utterly nonexistent. In the ancient Jewish world, one repeatedly sees a condemnation of magic and divination side by side with their actual practice in every level of Jewish society. In some cases, we find magical practices that are deeply embedded in the Jewish religious system—including the sotah ordeal of Numbers 5:11–31, or the many magical spells and recipes found in the Babylonian Talmud. In others, we find numerous magical practices that did not become part of “normative Judaism” (as canonized in the Hebrew Bible or in the Babylonian Talmud) yet were widely practiced by many Jews. Such practices—including the exorcizing of demons, the production of a wide array of amulets, the recurrent use of medical magic, and even the recourse to aggressive and erotic magic—usually were either only mildly condemned or not condemned at all by the Jewish religious leadership, and in some cases were actively adopted by it. In the past, the study of such practices and practitioners was hampered by scholars’ preference for more rational forms of Judaism, which made those scholars ignore the extensive evidence for ancient Jewish magic. However, as more such evidence came to light, and as scholars began to focus on Judaism as it was and not as we might have wished it to have been, the study of ancient Jewish magic started growing, and it now keeps on growing at full pace. Today, more ancient Jewish magical texts are identified, published, and analyzed, and more attempts are made to offer broad syntheses of the entire field.

General Overviews

The existence of magical elements within ancient Jewish culture and society has always been known, and has occasionally been studied by scholars at least as far back as the 19th century (Brecher 1850). Such studies relied almost exclusively on the evidence provided by canonical Jewish literature, and especially the Babylonian Talmud, which has much to say on magic, magicians, amulets, spells, and exorcisms. But others took a more historical and comparative approach, and displayed a growing awareness of the actual magical texts produced by ancient Jews. By far the best and most comprehensive of these is Blau 1914, which for a long time remained the best survey of ancient Jewish magic. Another excellent study, Trachtenberg 2004, is mostly limited to medieval Ashkenazi Jewish magic, but often refers to the rabbinic roots of, or precedents for, many medieval Jewish magical beliefs and practices. But with the ever-growing publications of ancient Jewish magical texts—amulets, incantation bowls, Genizah magical texts, and “literary” books of magic such as Harba de-Moshe and Sefer ha-Razim—the scholarly perspective has changed dramatically. Today, scholars no longer look at rabbinic literature as the main source for the study of ancient Jewish magic, but look at the ancient Jewish magical texts, use them to construct a picture of ancient Jewish magic, and only then turn to rabbinic literature in search of modifications or improvements to that picture. This shift is apparent in Swartz 2006, and underlies two subsequent synthetic surveys of the evidence, Bohak 2008 and Harari 2010, which now provide the best starting points for anyone interested in ancient Jewish magic. Bohak 2009 and Vukosavović 2010 provide broad overviews of the Jewish magical tradition as a whole.

  • Blau, Ludwig. Das altjüdische Zauberwesen. 2d ed. Berlin: Verlag von Louis Lamm, 1914.

    E-mail Citation »

    A broad survey of ancient Jewish magic, especially as it emerges from rabbinic literature, with special emphasis on its aims (aggressive magic, healing magic, creating living creatures) and means (reciting spells, curses, and biblical verses; using magic implements and amulets). Includes a detailed analysis of the Jewish elements found in the pagan Greek magical texts known at the time. Originally published in 1898, an edition that is available online.

  • Bohak, Gideon. Ancient Jewish Magic: A History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    A broad history of ancient Jewish magic, from the Second Temple period to Late Antiquity, with special emphasis on intercultural dynamics, and on processes of continuity and change within the Jewish magical tradition. Throughout, the focus is on the recipes and “finished products” produced by the magicians, with the more canonical Jewish texts—and especially rabbinic literature—measured against the magical texts.

  • Brecher, Gideon. Das Transcendentale, Magie und magische Heilarten im Talmud. Vienna: Ulrich Klopf, 1850.

    E-mail Citation »

    A broad survey of the “sea of the Talmud” in search for all things transcendental, including detailed discussions of Talmudic passages relating to demonology; magical beliefs and practices; and amulets, spells, and exorcisms. Brecher often adduces his sources without any further analysis, but the resulting trove of relevant Talmudic passages has fruitfully been mined by subsequent scholars.

  • Bohak, Gideon. “Prolegomena to the Study of the Jewish Magical Tradition.” Currents in Biblical Literature 8 (2009): 107–150.

    DOI: 10.1177/1476993X09339445E-mail Citation »

    A survey of what has been done thus far in the study of Jewish magic, and a call for further research, with special emphasis on the need to identify, publish, and analyze more Jewish magical texts and to study them synchronically and diachronically.

  • Harari, Yuval. Ha-kishuf ha-Yehudi ha-kadum. Jerusalem: Mosad Byalik, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    A broad survey of the available sources for the study of ancient Jewish magic, and of the methods used in its study, with special emphasis on the history of scholarship in this field and on the problems pertaining to the definition of “magic” and the social struggles and divisions that often lay behind it.

  • Swartz, Michael D. “Jewish Magic in Late Antiquity.” In The Cambridge History of Judaism. Vol. 4, The Late Roman–Rabbinic Period. Edited by Steven T. Katz, 699–720. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521772488E-mail Citation »

    A broad survey of late-antique Jewish magic, in light of rabbinic literature, Palestinian Jewish amulets, Babylonian Jewish incantation bowls, medieval magical manuals, and Hekhalot literature. The Jewish magical tradition was not the domain of the lower classes, as some of its practitioners clearly had good scribal and scriptural training and may perhaps be classified as a “secondary elite.”

  • Trachtenberg, Joshua. Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    The classic study of Jewish magic, setting out from the medieval Christian stereotype of Jews-as-magicians and exploring the reality behind the myth. Detailed analyses of every aspect of medieval Ashkenazi (i.e., German and Northern French) Jewish magic, with occasional forays into the Talmudic backgrounds and precedents of some of the medieval beliefs and practices. Originally published in 1939.

  • Vukosavović, Filip, ed. Angels and Demons: Jewish Magic through the Ages. Jerusalem: Bible Lands Museum, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    The catalogue of an exhibition that was on display in the Bible Lands Museum in 2010 and 2011, covering many types of Jewish magical texts and objects, from Antiquity to the 21st century, and accompanied by brief introductions by leading scholars and by excellent images.

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