Magic Bowls

Ancient artifacts reveal Jewish attitudes toward incantations, demons, and the supernatural.


Reprinted with permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from
The Encyclopedia of Judaism
, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

The Talmud portrays Jews in late antiquity as accepting and participating in the culture of magic and miracles of their age. The use of magical powers was seen as normal, and it was sanctioned so long as the person involved stood within the rabbinic community and used magic for purposes accepted within rabbinic religion. This implication of the literary sources is strengthened by archaeological evidence that reveals the extent to which the Jews of the talmudic period, like the non-Jews of the cultures in which they lived, accepted and indeed depended upon the efficacy of magical spells for personal protection from demons and other ills.

This dependence is shown by a form of magical talisman found frequently in homes of the talmudic period. The term “magic bowl” refers to a pottery bowl on which was written a magical formula used to drive away evil spirits or to invoke a deity’s help in preserving and protecting individuals or a family.

Who Used These Bowls?

During the talmudic period, in roughly 300-600 C.E., such bowls were in common use in Babylonia by Christians, Mazdeans, Mandeans, and Jews. While bowls in use in Jewish homes often were prepared by Jews who were not involved with or representative of the rabbinical academies, certain rabbinical figures also were deemed potent agents the citation of whose names could drive away particular demons.

incantation bowlThe names of these rabbis accordingly appear frequently on magic bowls and are invoked in spells written to protect an individual or property from demons. In this way, the Talmud’s own image of the rabbi as a wonder-working holy man entered into and was utilized within the popular culture of the day.

The formulas used on magic bowls and the deities invoked are common across religious traditions. The bowls apparently were prepared by professionals, for instance, by Jews for both Jewish and non-Jewish use. A particular practitioner would be hired to produce a bowl not because of his religious or cultural origins but because of his reputation for success.

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Alan J. Avery-Peck is the Kraft-Hiatt Professor in Judaic Studies and Chair at Holy Cross University and a prolific author. Dr. Avery-Peck's primary research interest is Judaism in the first six centuries C.E., with particular attention to the literature of Rabbinic Judaism.

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