Ancient Jewish Magic

Gideon Bohak

in Jewish Studies

ISBN: 9780199840731
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
Ancient Jewish Magic


“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.

Article.  18060 words. 

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies

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