Author Archives: Dr. Alan J. Avery-Peck

Dr. Alan J. Avery-Peck

About Dr. Alan J. Avery-Peck

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.

Magic vs. Miracle

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.

Judaism, like most systems of religion, distinguishes between miracles–the extraordinary deeds of the true God or agents of the true God–and magic–the extraordinary deeds of false gods or their agents. The former acts are judged good and acceptable, so that a person who is able to use the power of the divine for purposes the religion deems right and appropriate is thought of as a holy man, miracle worker, or sage. By contrast, a person–usually an outsider or practitioner of a different religion–who demonstrates similar abilities is derided as a witch, demon, or fiend.

What in the Bible is magic and what is miracle?Examining the Bible

This distinction between magic and miracle is crucial to our comprehension of the Hebrew Bible’s most complete list of prohibited magical practices (Deut.18:10-11): “There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer.”

This list of prohibited forms of divination and magical practices is echoed throughout the Bible, e.g., at Leviticus 19:26, 19:31, and 20:1-6. Yet despite the directness of its condemnation of these practices, scripture itself frequently speaks in neutral or positive language about a wide range of similar divinatory and magical acts. Interpreting dreams, using magic staffs, reciting blessings and curses, referring to oracles–these are but a few of the”magical” procedures that elsewhere figure prominently as suitable behaviors of the progenitors and heroes of the Israelite nation.

In making sense of these contradictions, we must be clear that the distinction between permitted and prohibited, miracle and magic, has less to do with what deed is attempted with or without success than with the systemic context in which the deed is carried out. At the heart of Israelite thinking is the certainty that what we accomplish involves a miracle and is good while what you do is magic and evil.

Astrology in Medieval Judaism

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

In the Middle Ages, especially in the
orbit of Islam, Jews increasingly practiced astrology. A thorough knowledge of
this art is evidenced in the Zohar and Sefer
, and astrology is referred to frequently in medieval liturgical poetry,
including the works of poets such as Kalir and Ibn Gabirol.

known Jewish astrologers of the ninth century were Jacob ibn Turik, whom Ibn
Ezra says brought the astrological tables of the Hindus to Baghdad. Of the same
period, some astrological works remain extant of Sahl ben Bishr al-Israeli,
also known as Rabban al-Tabari ("the rabbi of Tabarisran").

Biblical Commentaries & Astrology

this period, the works of Islamic astrologers were translated by Jews into
Hebrew. Ibn Ezra himself was an avid follower of astrology, which he referred
to as a sublime science. He even translated into Hebrew the astrological work
of Mashallah, the court astrologer of Almansur and Marnun, and he authored
important works on the constellations and planets.

to astrology in his biblical commentaries, Ibn Ezra understood the heavens to
represent the Book of Life in which people’s fate is written. Still, in accordance
with the inherited talmudic perspective, he believed that this fate could be
overruled by God, to whom humans accordingly have recourse in their quest to
reshape their own destiny.

similar approach appears in the commentary to Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah of Abraham b. David of Posquieries (Rabad). While asserting the
influence of the stars upon human destiny, he also avers that faith in God can overcome

Magic Bowls

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.

Astrology in the Ancient Synagogue

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

The rabbis’ ambivalence towards astrology–their knowledge of and participation in it even as they denied its relevance–belies the place of astrological figures as a central motif of the synagogue of the talmudic period. The prevalence of the zodiac in synagogue art is described by Bernard Goldman in his discussion of the fifth or sixth century C.E. mosaic zodiac preserved in the Beth Alpha synagogue:

Goldman’s Description

“The badly preserved mosaic floor of the synagogue at Yafia contains an animal circle, similar to that of Beth Alpha, but it is not clear whether it represents the zodiac or the Twelve Tribes. The synagogue of ‘Ain Doug (Na’arah) contains an elaborately decorated mosaic floor with the wheel of the zodiac holding the center of the tripartite panel, much as at Beth Alpha; but, at ‘Ain Doug an interlocking pattern containing animal and floral vignettes replaces the Akedah.

In 1930, another synagogue mosaic containing the zodiac was uncovered on Mt. Carmel at the village of ‘Isfiya (Esfiya). Also, some of the relief decoration from the synagogue at Beth She’arim may have composed a zodiac design. The most recently discovered zodiac floor mosaic is one near Tiberias that also repeats the Beth Alpha format but, in style, is far closer to its classical art sources. There are several other probable references to the zodiac in synagogue architectural decorations; for example it is found on a fragmentary carved screen from Rafid. There is no question that future excavations will bring to light additional examples.”

The Use of the Zodiac

The recurrence of the zodiac in synagogue after synagogue suggests its importance as more than a decorative or ornamental device. Rather, as the talmudic sources make clear and as the continued appearance of the zodiac in later European Jewish art shows, the use of the zodiac in the synagogue of the rabbinic period was consonant with its symbolic importance, an importance that extended from non-Jewish into Jewish metaphysics.

Magic in Rabbinic Judaism

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

Taking up the fundamental distinction introduced already by
the Hebrew Scriptures, in the first centuries C.E. rabbinic Judaism presented what
to modern readers appears at first sight to be contradictory views of

On the one hand, the rabbis condemn magic as one of the
"ways of the Amorites" (Mishnah Shabbat 6:10), and they sanction its
practitioners to death by stoning (Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:7). One who so much as
whispers over a wound the words of Exodus 15:26 ("I will put none of the
diseases upon you that I have put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord who heals
you") is said to lose his place in the world to come (Mishnah Sanhedrin
10:1). Indeed, it is reported that to quell magical practices, Simeon b. Shetah
hung 80 witches on a single day (Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:4).

And yet, on the other hand, these same sources frequently
describe without condemnation or concern miraculous or magical acts performed
by both rabbis and common people. As our examination of the biblical legacy
leads us to anticipate, these superficially contradictory attitudes do not
emerge from a distinction the rabbis perceive in the character of what is done
or attempted, but, rather, from their analysis of the particular qualities and
purposes of the individual who carries out the act.

In the rabbinic view, an unusual events is "magic"–and
culpable–or "miracle"–and laudable–depending upon who does it, in
what context, and for what purpose. Exactly what is accomplished is rarely at
issue at all.

Sages as Torah Scrolls