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Ta-Da! A Jewish Magic Bowl!

by | Apr 25, 2024 | Deep-ish Dive | 0 comments

The period of Jewish History known as the Talmudic period spanned the 3rd through the 6th centuries.  Both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud offer glimpses into the every day of Jewish living in Roman Palestine and Persian Iraq.

The Babylonian community was vastly larger and more integrated into its ruling Sassanian Persian (3rd-7th c.) culture than their ‘Palestinian’ brethren in Eretz Yisrael. And yet, one of the only real surviving remnants of that great community is the 72-volume Babylonian Talmud.

That – and magic bowls.

Sounds crazy, no? What are they? What’s Jewish Magic? Bowls? In truth, there is such a thing, and they are exactly as described! Really. Google it!

All cultures in contact with each other influence each other. The Babylonian Jewish Community was no exception, and their embrace of certain Persian practices and attitudes are evident in many Talmudic discussions. One of the features of Persian culture that popped up in the text was the belief in the supernatural world, angels, demons and magical practices associated with them.

One of those practices was the use of magic bowls.  These ceramic bowls were inscribed, usually inside, with magical formulae intended to defend against demonic effects. The incantation would be written in a spiral and often include depictions of the specific angel or demon being addressed. Archeologists uncovered these artifacts in many domestic sites. It’s assumed that the bowls were custom-made for individuals needing protection or protection against the demons. The names of the individual ‘purchasing’ the protection of the bowl is often mentioned in the text of the bowl.

And yet, magic bowls are not explicitly mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud – unless by general reference to amulets, which are mentioned often. It could be that they were so common a feature of that culture that nobody paid much attention to them.

The authors of these magical texts were probably considered specialists or experts in their field. They had expertise in using traditional names and legal-sounding formulae to overpower the demons who were out to get their clients. Many bowls display statements using legal terminology like “divorce the bad angel” from one’s life.

We know that these artifacts are of Jewish origin and were used by Jews because they invoke the names of angels and demons that appear in the Talmud. They reference Jewish texts and the names of familiar rabbis. They are written in proper Babylonian Jewish Aramaic and reference familiar Jewish legal formulae and concepts in their texts. Moreover, the rabbis did not object to this practice, lending their names and ‘powers’ to the apotropaic powers of the buried incantations. The rabbis identified amulet and bowl writings with “experts” and amulets written by such experts were even permitted to be carried on the Shabbat (see Mishnah Shabbat 6:2).

Here’s an example of one such incantation:

For all, for evil Liliths that I am casting and drawing a lot and I made a (magical) act in the dwelling of R. Joshua bar Perahia. I wrote a gett (to) the male and female ones, to the ban, the accompanying demon who accompanies and dwells and lives in the house of Ardoi son of Khwarkhshidukh; and any name that it has that appears to them in a dream of the night and in the sleep of the day. And I have written you a divorce writ, a gett of releasing and sending away, and letters of separation according to the law of Moses and Israel.

In the name of a letter from within a letter and letters from within letters and a name from within the names and gaps from within the revealed. By which were subjugated heaven and earth, and mountains were uprooted by them, and heights were melted by them. Demons and sorceries die by them.

For Thy namesake I have done (this magic act), Gabriel and Michael and Raphael and Uriel … in the name of Suriel… YHWQ YHYQ the great selah.

“And the Lord said to Satan, ‘The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?’”

Though popular in Babylonia, the Jews of Eretz Yisrael had a very different attitude. They often made fun of their Babylonian cousins’ ‘outlandish’ beliefs, using the term “Babylonian” as a synonym for someone uneducated and unsophisticated.

There are several thousand magic bowls around the world today held by museums and private collectors. Each one tells a different story. Each one is magical in its own way.

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