Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Gideon Bohak, Ancient Jewish Magic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), Pp. xviiiix, 483. ISBN 978-0-521-87457; US$135.00.

The last two decades have seen an unprecedented rise in the number of publications on ancient magic. It seems that one can hardly pick up a publisher's catalog without finding advertisements for new monographs and conference volumes devoted to the subject. Often these books merely review previous scholarship and offer few new insights, methods, or perspectives. This volume is a welcome exception. It offers a balanced and accessible treatment of many complex topics related to the place of magic within ancient Judaism.

Gideon Bohak bases his approach to Jewish magic less on praxis than on texts, artifacts, and their changing contexts. He seeks to demonstrate that Jewish magic, as a distinct characteristic of Jewish culture, is worthy of study and that writing a history of Jewish magic is a valid enterprise. Thus, Bohak positions himself vis-à-vis previous generations of scholars who felt magic was not worthy of academic discourse or who understood magic as social deviance or superstition. Much to the contrary of these earlier figures Bohak argues that magic “…was a technology mastered by many specialists and lay persons and accepted, and even utilized, by the religious establishment itself” (p. 428).

While the book is accessible, it is also very dense in content. The study of Jewish magic naturally requires that one investigate an extraordinary number of topics and texts that cover many centuries and appear in both western and eastern forms. Bohak navigates well these potential difficulties by organizing the book chronologically, distinguishing western and eastern Jewish magic, and by providing judicious summaries throughout. In an effort to convey the complexities of the book's contents I herewith provide a synopsis of its six chapters and their major conclusions.

Chapter One asks whether “Jewish Magic (is): A Contradiction in Terms?” Here Bohak lays out a justification for studying Jewish magic by arguing that it has always been a part of Judaism. As he puts it: “the supposed incompatibility between magic and monotheism is nothing but a hoax” (p. 68). In fact, Bohak finds the cultural roots of Jewish magic in ancient Israel, and he deduces from relevant biblical passages two points:

…the legislation against magic and divination is far from precise when it comes to what exactly is forbidden and what is not. Second, that other sections of the Hebrew Bible make it clear that many magical activities are permitted, and even encouraged, as long as they are conducted by the right people and in the right manner (p. 34).

Bohak also argues that the Hebrew Bible's legal materials and narratives provide two paradigms for legitimate “miracle working” and divination that remain operative after the Babylonian exile and inform the later history of Jewish magic: “that performed by the ‘man of God’ and that which relied on the innate power of God's sacred objects and the priests who handled them” (p. 67).

Chapter Two collects the relatively scant evidence for “Jewish magic in the Second Temple period.” Here Bohak attempts to ascertain what the Jewish attitude was concerning magic and magicians and what sorts of magic rituals were in use at the time. After considering the immense cultural changes that mark this period, Bohak turns to Philo, 1 Enoch, Jubilees, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Josephus for what they tell us about Jewish magic. He then turns his attention to the identity of magic practitioners, which he divides into three types (miracle working holy men modeled on the aforementioned biblical paradigms, those who required no innate qualities to perform their feats ex officio [like priests], and foreigners). He also looks at the magical technologies of the period (i.e., using the divine name, cursing, whispering, pharmakon, and appealing to angels). After dividing his data according to those magic texts and artifacts created by magicians (“insider evidence”) and those texts written about magic and magicians by non-practitioners (“outsider accounts”), Bohak finds that there is “virtually no evidence for the Jewish use of written amulets” in the Second Temple period (p. 123).[1] He also observes that the period offers overall a lack of “insider evidence,” because of a general disinterest in the subject, and few “outsider accounts,” because of the primarily oral and ad hoc nature of magic and lack of professional Jewish magicians. In fact, the only magical activity for which Bohak finds both “insider evidence” and “outsider accounts” is exorcism.

The third chapter assesses the evidence for “Jewish magic in late antiquity” solely from the perspective of “insider evidence.” Here Bohak observes a sharp rise in Aramaic and Hebrew written magic for aggressive and erotic purposes by way of amulets, gems, rings, pendants, and “magic books” (i.e., Sepher ha-Razim, Ḥarba de-Moshe, Testament of Solomon, Babylonian incantation bowls, and magic skulls). Though beyond the timeframe of this book, Bohak also looks into medieval texts from the Cairo Genizah and elsewhere, because they sometimes preserve more ancient traditions. Also appearing in Chapter Three are Jewish elements, such as the divine name, epithets, and recipes that occur in non-Jewish magic texts (i.e., Demotic and Greek papyri, and Greek magic texts likely to be produced by Jews).[2]

In Chapter Four, “Non-Jewish elements in late-antique Jewish magic,” Bohak examines bilingual (Hebrew/Aramaic-Greek) and trilingual (Aramaic-Greek-Hebrew) magic amulets, Aramaic and Hebrew recipes translated from Greek originals, Greek words and phrases found in Jewish magic texts, Greek phrases in Hebrew transliteration, mistranslations of Greek phrases in Jewish magic texts, and Greek-based calques in Hebrew and Aramaic. Bohak also discusses foreign deities and demons in late antique magic texts (e.g., Abrasax, Helios, Shamash, etc.). Considered also are magic ring-letter symbols (i.e., charactêres), magic words, vowel permutations, shapes, signs, symbols, and images. Bohak is especially adept here in establishing the shared taxonomies and preconditions that facilitated the adaptation of non-Jewish elements. This clearly was a time of intense exchange, as he remarks: “Late-antique Jewish magicians avidly borrowed much from their non-Jewish colleagues, and they did so in many different forms and on numerous occasions” (p. 290). Bohak finishes the chapter by turning to the structure, layout, and technical vocabulary of Jewish magical recipes and practitioners' aims, techniques, and material medica. He concludes that late antiquity is marked by an increased “scribalization” of the Jewish magical tradition, which he relates not to a rise in the level of literacy, but to a …shift from Temple-based priestly magic, and from wonder-working holy men, to the services provided by professional magicians whose knowledge was enshrined in written manuscripts (p. 284). It is this increase in written over oral magic that also explains the marked growth in the available evidence from this period.

The fifth chapter addresses the question “How ‘Jewish” was ancient Jewish magic?” After outlining a number of problems posed by defining both “Jewish” and “magic,” Bohak summarizes the continuities between magic in the Second Temple period and in late antiquity and surveys Jewish divine and angelic names, epithets, and descriptions, the use of the Hebrew Bible in magic, and magic in the synagogue. He then takes a first step toward untangling the complex relationship between Jewish magic and mystical traditions as found in Sepher Yeṣira, the Shi`ur Qomah and Hekhalot/Merkaba texts. Here he finds that

…although late-antique Jewish magic and mysticism did not stem from the same social circles, and did not share the same body of knowledge, they did not hesitate to borrow each other's technical innovations when these were deemed useful for their own aims and needs (p. 339).

Bohak also studies rabbinic elements in Jewish magic and the limits of cultural receptivity. Some of his intriguing finds include a rabbinic influence on eastern (but not western) forms of Jewish magic and the general avoidance of iconography in western Jewish magic. Bohak concludes:

…Jewish magicians of late antiquity were far less syncretistic, and far more “Jewish,” than previous scholars were willing to admit. And while their “Judaism” probably does not merit its own separate label (such as “magical Judaism”), we may be quite sure that it was neither Gnostic nor heretical, neither mystical nor rabbinic. For all we know, it may have been the “Judaism” intuitively shared by most Jews in late antiquity (p. 350).

The book's sixth and final chapter on “Magic and magicians in rabbinic literature” focuses on prohibitions against magic and exemptions in rabbinic halakha. Here Bohak observes that while magic is an emic category well known in rabbinic literature and is punished by stoning, the rabbis did permit the study of magic. They also allowed the practice of magic when it was simply an optical illusion, or when important authorities claimed to have made living creatures by means of the “Laws of Creation.” Magic for medicinal purposes, for defeating someone else's magic, and for combating non-magicians who threatened rabbinic authority was also permissible. On the other hand, the rabbis were certainly ill at ease with some practices, such as the use of biblical verses in spells and the adjuration of angels.

Thus, just as the biblical laws not only forbade magic but also left many loopholes and explicit paradigms which made Jewish magic possible, and perhaps even inevitable, so in rabbinic halakha the blanket condemnation of magic and magicians was mitigated by many other elements in the rabbi's own legislation on this score (p. 385).

The chapter also mines rabbinic literature for familiarity with non-Jewish practices and rabbinic charges against witches and minim (opponents of the rabbis), and examines rabbis as magicians and rabbinic magical recipes.

In an Epilogue, Bohak summarizes the historical development of Jewish magic and offers five broad observations. These include the importance of recognizing: 1) the ways in which biblical prohibitions and narratives shaped the development of Jewish magic; 2) that some forms of magic were acceptable and even desirable to the religious establishment and laypersons; 3) the process by which the rabbis developed a discourse of “licit magic”; 4) the religious selectivity with which Jews adapted magical elements from non-Jewish practices; and 5) the utility of Jewish magic texts as sources of data on sexuality, gender, economic and social conditions, and other subjects unrelated to magic. A forty-three page bibliography and subject index conclude the book.

The patient reader will by now appreciate the complexity of the topic and the vast amount of research that went into producing this fine study. It is an important contribution to Jewish Studies. Nevertheless, there is one aspect of the book that some readers will find troubling—nowhere does the author define “magic.” [3]

Though Bohak devotes much of Chapter One to critiquing various theoretical approaches to “magic,” this process results in implying, but not providing, a definition. In essence, we are told what it is not and how not to study it, but we are not told what “it” is. Instead, Bohak insists that an intuitive definition of “magic” will suffice and that distinguishing magic and religion is a goal and not a theoretical position. If we decide to focus on the magic dimensions of Jewish religion, we may certainly adopt any intuitive definition of magic and search all aspects of Jewish culture which fall under that definition. But if we wish to study Jewish magic, we must adopt a somewhat different strategy, in order to separate Jewish magic from Jewish religion. Luckily, this is not so difficult, for their exists an extensive body of ancient Jewish texts which would fall under our intuitive category of “magic,” and which certainly were not part of the standard (or “normative”) Jewish religion at the time, or even that of some specific inner-Jewish group or sect (p. 65). Instead of providing an explicit taxonomy for “magic,” Bohak positions his approach between two extremes. The first understands magic as “…a derogatory label, always reserved for the religious activities of ‘the other’” (p. 10). The second extreme argues “…that Judaism of all periods was shot through with magical beliefs and practices so that one cannot even talk about Jewish religion without immediately talking about Jewish magic” (p. 10). Though there certainly are scholars who hold such views, it is fair to say that definitions of “magic” are much debated by academics from many disciplines who hold a variety of views not easily polarized into these two extremes. Readers aware of these on-going discussions might feel that the author is side stepping the issue. At the very least, one would like to see his intuitive definition of “magic” made explicit. In the opening to his book, Bohak cites a well-known joke that relates students of Jewish culture confronting the subject of magic to a man who visits a zoo for the first time, sees a giraffe, and leaves saying “there is no such animal” (p. 8). If I may be permitted to extend this metaphor, there are many students of Jewish culture who are perfectly comfortable accepting that such an animal exists and are fascinated by its unique features. They simply want to know what kind of animal it is, how it relates to others, and what is its natural habitat.

This criticism notwithstanding, Bohak offers numerous scholarly contributions while also suggesting several promising paths for future research. This is a seminal work that will benefit the broader study of ancient magic generally, and it is a first point of departure for students of Jewish “magic,” however defined.[4]

Scott Noegel, University of Washington

[1] The lack of amulets in the Second Temple period draws into question Bohak's assertion that the Hebrew Bible attests to the use of amulets (p. 121, n. 149). In fact, the proof texts he cites make references to earrings (Gen 35:4) and other jewelry (Judg 8:26, Isa 3:18-23). While jewelry might have held ritual power for the Israelites, the aforementioned texts make no mention of it. reference

[2] I note here that the author's consistent use of the word “pagan” for non-Jew(ish) is not helpful to the discussion since it remains imprecise at best and derogatory at worst. reference

[3] Some readers also will find frustrating the lack of English translations for the many Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin words and texts cited in the footnotes. reference

[4] I take this opportunity to cite three publications that the author might find useful, two of which appeared too late to enter the book's bibliography: Tzvi Abusch, “Alaktu and Halakhah: Oracular Decision, Divine Revelation,” Harvard Theological Review 80 (1987), pp. 15-42; Alex P. Jassen, Mediating the Divine: Prophecy and Revelation in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Second Temple Judaism (Leiden/Boston: Brill 2007); Joseph Angel, “The Use of the Hebrew Bible in Jewish Magic,” Compass: Religion 5 (2009). With the hope that this book will appear in future editions I herewith provide errata: the Egyptian god Seth is not an “evil god” (p. 234), but a god of chaos, storms, and foreign lands; Shamash is spelled Shamish (p. 253), Egyptian appears as Egpytian (p. 318); and an inconsistent use of upper and lower case (p. 417). reference