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Religon Compass 3/5 (2009): 785798, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00167.

The Use of the Hebrew Bible in Early Jewish Magic


Joseph Angel*
Yeshiva University

Abstract

This study seeks to enumerate the extensive and variegated use of the Hebrew Bible in early
Jewish magic. The survey focuses mainly on the key Jewish magical corpora from late antiquity
and the early Middle Ages Palestinian Amulets, Babylonian magic bowls, assorted magical texts
from the Cairo Geniza, and several magical handbooks deriving from Babylonia and other indeterminate locations. The article is divided into three substantive sections. The first treats numerous
methodological pitfalls tied to the use of the terms magic, Jewish magic, and Hebrew Bible.
The second and third sections are devoted, respectively, to the two broad formal categories into
which magical use of the Hebrew Bible may be divided, citations of biblical verses and biblical
historiolae.

Introduction
The aim of the present article is to enumerate the various applications of the Hebrew
Bible appearing in early Jewish magical writings. These writings are represented, for the
most part, by distinct literary corpora dating from the third through the twelfth centuries
C.E. and deriving from Palestine, North Africa, and Babylonia. The most important
available evidence includes Palestinian amulets, Babylonian magic bowls, assorted magical
material from the Cairo Geniza, and extensive magical handbooks such as Sefer ha-Razim,
The Sword of Moses, and Havdala de-Rabbi Akiva. In addition to these sources, we will
touch upon material dating back to the Second Temple period and earlier, most notably
the Dead Sea Scrolls (third century B.C.E. to first century C.E.) and the Ketef Hinnom
amulets (seventh or sixth century B.C.E.). Before turning to the evidence, it is necessary
to introduce some key problems related to the sphere of terminology.
Terminological Problems
MAGIC

Contemporary historians of religion and culture often point to a paradigm shift characterizing the scholarly understanding of the term magic over the past century. The traditional approach, well represented by J. G. Frazers Golden Bough, viewed magic and
religion as distinct and oppositional entities. Magic was seen as an expression of primitive and superstitious thinking that arose prior to religion, while the latter embodied a
more mature conception of human interaction with the divine. Over the course of history, humanity increasingly recognized the inherent fallacy of magic and gradually
evolved to progressively higher degrees of religion. For Frazer, the culmination of this
evolutionary process was represented by the rise of Christianity. This approach undergirded much of the academic study of magic in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
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Indeed, in such research it is common to find apologies for the selection of such an
offensive and backwards topic. The judgmental dichotomy between magic and religion
also characterized the most important early scholarship on Jewish magic, which viewed
the presence of magical traditions in Jewish texts largely in terms of folk influence and
the contamination of real religion (Blau 1898; Trachtenberg 1939).
A subsequent century of research has deemed the clear-cut distinction between magic
and religion as artificial and prejudiced. Today, scholars recognize that magic often functions as a negative category of social disapproval and coercion, whereby the ruling religious group labels the rituals of another group or class as foreign or illicit. This has led
some scholars to the conclusion that the term magic is hopelessly tainted and therefore
unsuitable as a category for scientific inquiry (Lesses 1998; Smith 1995; Meyer & Smith
1994; cf. Gager 1992). A more moderate view posits that the category of magic is still
useful as long as it is understood as part of religion or as part of the complex system of
cultural symbolism of which religion is also a part (Farber 1995; Hammond 1970; Harari
2005; Hoffman 2002; Schafer 1997; Versnel 1991). Indeed, as Noegel, Walker, and
Wheeler note, recent scholarship has preferred to view magical and religious practices
as part of a continuum that encompassed both individual and communal forms of piety
(Noegel et al. 2003, p. 2). Furthermore, whereas earlier research tended to define magic
by confidently imposing its own terms and categories onto distant cultural contexts (what
anthropologists term etic interpretation), it is now widely held that such an approach is
bound to lead to a distorted view and must be supplemented by a method which seeks
to understand magic in the terms and within the symbolic framework of the observed
culture (emic interpretation).
Despite such advancements, the definition of magic remains far from settled. Several
useful treatments of the current debate may be consulted (Harari 2005; Hoffman 2002;
Jeffers 2007). For our present purpose, it will not be necessary to adhere to a rigid essentialist definition. Such definitions commonly view magic as the ritual exercise of control
over supernatural entities to bring about a desired change in reality (see, e.g., Flint 1991,
p. 3). Rather, to avoid overreaching generalizations, we will instead focus on the identification of certain texts as examples of Jewish magic on the basis of formal and thematic
features (see below).
JEWISH MAGIC

The study of Jewish magic presents its own special set of problems. For one, while it
seems intuitive to identify Jewish magic as magic practiced by Jews or borrowed from
Jews and practiced by others, it may be debated whether everything done or produced
by a Jew should be considered Jewish. As the Greek magical papyri adequately illustrate,
ancient magic was a thoroughly syncretistic affair. This extensive corpus, which contains
material ranging from the second century B.C.E. to the fifth century C.E., teems with
Jewish, Greek, Egyptian, and some Christian elements in what has been described as a
trans-cultural magical lingo (Smith 1996, p. 245). Biblical citations, names, and stories,
and various epithets for the God of Israel are freely employed alongside pagan elements
to achieve the intended results. As van der Horst notes, when one moves from pagan
magical texts to Jewish ones, one often does not have the feeling of moving to a different
world (van der Horst 2006, p. 272). Practically, it thus becomes quite difficult at times
to determine whether a particular text is of Jewish or pagan provenance. In a similar vein,
it is occasionally impossible to tell whether a particular text is of Jewish or Christian
origin (see, e.g., Daniel & Maltomini 1990, pp. 4952).
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In the hundreds of seemingly magical late antique and medieval documents that are
unambiguously identifiable as Jewish, a different taxonomical hurdle is encountered.
Pentateuchal legislation explicitly condemns a wide range of magical practices and practitioners (Deuteronomy 18:1011; cf. Exodus 22:17; Leviticus 19:26,31; 20:27) and rabbinic literature follows suit (see, e.g., M. Sanh. 6:6; 7:7; Shab. 6:10). Thus, in apparent
avoidance of direct conflict with biblical or both biblical and rabbinic law, ancient and
medieval Jews who wished to employ techniques that might be judged as magical generally avoided the use of the terms magic (kishuf ), magician (mekhashef ), or witch
(mekhashefah). Moreover, they of course avoided any precise definition of magic. The
unfortunate result is that the available evidence does not allow for an emic definition of
early Jewish magic. Rather, any modern study of this phenomenon will by necessity take
an etic approach, i.e., as the texts do not do the job themselves, it is left for us to determine which texts are to be included in such a study (Bohak 2008). This is problematic,
for Jewish conceptions of magic often differed drastically from one community to the
next, and certainly from one historical era to the next. By imposing our own a priori dictionary definition onto the evidence, we are virtually guaranteed to miss important nuances and developments vital to understanding the essentially contextual nature of the
category of Jewish magic.
Fortunately, largely in recognition of this difficulty, the scholarly discourse on Jewish
magic has recently witnessed an important shift. Instead of imposing static culture-bound
definitions, many scholars now prefer to start with the literary characteristics of the texts
themselves (Bohak 2008; Harari 2005). When this is done, it is found that certain genres,
such as incantations and handbooks for gaining power and practical goals through rituals,
coalesce in distinct literary corpora (Swartz 2006, p. 702). Swartz divides the major
themes of these corpora into the following three elements:
(1) The process of adjuration of intermediaries, such as angels or demons; (2) the use of powerful and arcane names of God as the source of the magicians authority; and (3) the use of these
techniques for the personal needs of the individual. (Swartz 2006, p. 702)

It has further been noted that these corpora include several common formal elements,
such as
a self definition of the text or of the object on which it is written as an adjuration, writ, seal, or
amulet[an address to supernatural] powers in the first person singularuse of accelerating and
threatening phrases towards the supernatural powers[and] naming the person on whose behalf
the appeal is made by his own name and his mothers name, or, in the case of literature for
instruction, with the label so-and-so, the son of so-and-so. (Harari 2005, pp. 11920)

By allowing the specific contours of the literary evidence to determine the identification
of early Jewish magical texts, we have a useful and flexible point of departure for study.
Texts that contain more or less of the above qualities may be described as possessing
more or less Jewish magical elements, respectively.
HEBREW BIBLE

Technically, the phrase Hebrew Bible refers to the tripartite collection of sacred Hebrew
writings that took final form only in the late first or second century C.E. (Ulrich 1999;
cf. Beckwith 1988). Thus, while several books in the Hebrew biblical canon, such as
those of the Pentateuch, had certainly enjoyed authoritative status among Jews centuries
earlier, it is anachronistic to speak of the Hebrew Bible as a collection prior to that point.
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Thus, in connection with Jewish magic dating to the Second Temple period and earlier,
we will refrain from speaking of the use of the Bible or biblical verses and stories.
Employment of the Hebrew Bible in Early Jewish Magic: Citations and Historiolae
Without many exceptions, ancient Jews viewed the Hebrew Bible as the ultimate source
of divinely communicated truth and wisdom. It is thus no surprise to find that early
Jewish magic often attempts to harness the divine power assumed to be contained in biblical verses, names, and stories to bring about the desired results. Indeed, this phenomenon continued into the late Middle Ages and persists to this day in modern Jewish
magical practice.
Applications of the Hebrew Bible in early Jewish magical texts generally may be
divided into two broad formal categories, citations of biblical verses and biblical historiolae. The former category includes verbatim and partial, loose, or mistaken quotations of
verses, citations with abbreviated, inverted, or otherwise manipulated word order, as well
as deliberate midrashic misreadings that manipulate verses for the purposes of a particular
incantation or spell. Generally, a specific verse is selected for citation on the basis of one
or both of the following two rationales: (1) It contains the name of God or speaks of
Gods tremendous power, and thus came to be regarded as a source of divine power
itself. (2) It seemed to have a more or less immediate relevance to the situation in which
it was employed (Trachtenberg 1939, p. 108).
Biblical historiolae may be defined as abbreviations or paraphrases of biblical narratives
incorporated into magical spells. The assumption here is generally that there is an analogy
between the sacred mythical reality of the Bible and the present situation of the magician
(Frankfurter 1995). By invoking a biblical precedent, the magician is able to draw the
inherent power of the mythic dimension into his or her own realm to alter reality in
accordance with his or her wishes.
The following survey is not meant to be exhaustive and seeks only to offer a representative sampling and categorization of the employment of biblical citations and historiolae
in early Jewish magical writings. Much material remains to be studied and published, and
as more early Jewish magical texts continue to emerge the picture is bound to change. It
should also be borne in mind that the available written sources represent only a very
small percentage of what actually existed centuries ago. Moreover, since, by all indications, a good deal of magical activity was conducted orally, it left no trace behind at all.
BIBLICAL CITATIONS

Citations and Liturgy


Jewish magical texts frequently cite verses that also appear prominently in traditional rabbinic liturgy (Naveh & Shaked 1993, pp. 2231). This seems to indicate that certain
magical citations of Scripture are inspired by liturgical usage rather than by the Bible
alone. Several texts bear out this assertion. One particular Aramaic magic bowl seeking
protection from various types of demons borrows a sequence of several verses (Zechariah
3:2; Psalm 89:53; 106:48; 72:1819; 104:31) from the weekly evening prayers known
from the earliest extant Jewish prayer book, the ninth century Seder Amram Gaon (Levene
2003, pp. 714). The magicians selection of these particular verses appears to have been
inspired by the fact that the evening prayers (Arvit and Keriat Shema al ha-Mit[t(ah) contain requests for protection from the perils of the night and, according to the Babylonian
Talmud, keep demons away (Ber. 5a). Another bowl seeking protection from harmful
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sorcery contains the blessing, Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, the
great, the mighty, and the awesome God While the italicized words derive from Deuteronomy 10:17, it is likely that the magician is here invoking this verse as it is quoted in
the first blessing of the Eighteen Benedictions, the most important daily payer of the
synagogue (Levene 2003, p. 12).
Other magical texts reveal the liturgical inspiration behind their citation of the Bible
more readily. For instance, an Arabic magical recipe meant to instill hatred between individuals discovered in the Cairo Geniza instructs the practitioner to write down portions
of the Hallel, a synagogal prayer for festive days consisting of Psalms 113 through 118
(Naveh & Shaked 1993, 150). Another Geniza recipe seeking the cure of an unspecified
disease calls for the client to recite the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:49; 11:1321; Numbers
15:3741), a large portion of the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15), and the non-biblical ancient
blessing Emet ve-Yatsiv seven times each (Naveh & Shaked 1993, p. 228). Clearly, the
magicians instruction to write and recite these biblical texts is dependent on their prominence in early Jewish liturgical practice.
The use of traditional liturgical material in magical texts may be understood as a strategy by which the magician harnesses the power of the religiously sanctioned and legitimizes a magical operation (Shaked 1995, p. 205). That matters of authority and
legitimacy concerned Jewish magicians is well illustrated by another magic bowl designed
for protection against evil spirits (Levene 2003, p. 116). In this text the evil spirit threatening the client is identified with the demon that attempted to assault Rabbi Hanina ben
Dosa in a story preserved in the Babylonian Talmud (Pes. 112b). As in the talmudic
story, Hanina is able to subdue the demon, but in the context of the magic bowl, this is
accomplished through his recitation of Psalm 104:20, You bring on darkness and it is
night, when all the beasts of the forests stir. For the author of the bowl, Haninas recitation of this verse is also efficacious for the present situation. The verse is considered useful precisely because it was deemed effective by an especially powerful rabbinic authority
who found himself in an analogous situation.
Common Incantatory Citations
It is evident that, independent from liturgy, certain verses were commonly employed specifically for magical purposes. While early Jewish magic employs an impressive number of
such biblical citations covering the gamut of the tripartite canon, a handful of passages
enjoy special prominence. Rabbinic literature indicates that one such verse, Exodus 15:26
(I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I
the Lord am your healer), was commonly used to bring about healing at least as early as
the second century C.E. (M. Sanh. 10:1). The magical use of several other popular passages, such as Zechariah 3:2, Numbers 6:2426, and Psalm 91 may be traced back to the
Second Temple period and, in one case, even earlier. It is not difficult to determine why
and how these passages were employed from such early times: All of them straightforwardly refer to Gods awesome protective powers and thus were regarded as appropriate
words for activating such powers. Their invocation beckoned God to conform to his
scriptural promises or attributes.
Zechariah 3:2 The most commonly cited verse in early Jewish magic is probably Zechariah 3:2: But the Lord said to the Accuser [Heb. satan], The Lord rebuke you, O Accuser; may the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! For this is a brand plucked
from the fire. Clearly, it is the assault against Satan in this verse that underscores its use
to ward off demons in at least six Babylonian magic bowls (see Isbell 1975, p. 195;
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Naveh & Shaked 1998, pp. 1845) and a Palestinian amulet (Naveh & Shaked 1998,
pp. 401). The effectiveness of these words for such purposes is also known to talmudic
tradition, which states that if a person must walk by the angel of death, he should turn
his face and recite Zechariah 3:2 for protection (b. Ber. 51a). It appears that this verse
served an apotropaic function at least as early as the Dead Sea Scrolls. One particular fragment of the Cave 1 Hodayot scroll (1QHa 22:25 (first century B.C.E.)), paraphrases it in
the context of an apotropaic hymn.
Numbers 6:2426 (The Priestly Benediction) Two tiny silver scrolls discovered in a burial
complex in the Hinnom valley of Jerusalem in 1979 bear inscriptions nearly identical to
the famous blessing found in Numbers 6:2426 known as the Priestly Benediction. The
finds date to the late seventh or early sixth century B.C.E. and have been identified as
amulets that were worn to serve as a constant defense against malevolent forces by invoking the protection of the biblical deity (Barkay et al. 2003). This interpretation of the discovery is in harmony with the special apotropaic powers attributed to the blessing by
later Jewish tradition. Indeed, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (post-seventh century C.E.)
embellishes upon Numbers 6:24, The Lord bless you and guard you! as follows: May
the Lord bless you and guard you in all your endeavor from (the demons of the) darkness
and from frightening demons and midday demons and morning demons and destroyers
and night demons (Clarke 1995, p. 205). Similarly, Sifre Numbers, a tannaitic exegetical
commentary on the book of Numbers (third century C.E.), explains the words and
guard you as referring to protection from harmful demons (Horovitz 1971, p. 44; cf. b.
Ber. 55b). The use of the Priestly Benediction as a potent magic formula is well documented in both the Palestinian and Babylonian branches of early Jewish magic. A Babylonian Aramaic magic bowl seeking the protection of the household of Ashtar (son of)
Mahaduk cites it (Isbell 1975, p. 146), as does an Aramaic healing amulet from the Cairo
Geniza for one Bunayna daughter of Yaman (Schiffman & Swartz 1992, pp. 11322). It
also appears as an efficacious magical formula in Havdala de-Rabbi Akiva, a magical handbook originating in post-talmudic Babylonia (Scholem 1980 1981, p. 269).
Psalm 91 According to talmudic tradition, Psalm 91 is a potent anti-demonic psalm
(shir shel pegaim; b. Sheb. 15b; y. Erub. 10:11). It was particularly popular among medieval Jews, who recited it often for a host of magical purposes (Trachtenberg 1939, pp.
1123). The earliest apotropaic use of this text appears in a Qumran manuscript dating to
the middle of the first century C.E. known as Apocryphal Psalms (11Q11; cf. Matthew
4:6). This collection of incantations includes a version of Psalm 91 deliberately reworked
so that it might defend more effectively against demons (Eshel 2003, pp. 724; Puech
2000). Psalm 91 is also quoted multiple times in apotropaic Aramaic magic bowls, a
Geniza fragment, and Havdala de-Rabbi Akiva.
Incantatory Citations and Scriptural Context
It is most often the case that there is some easily discernable logical connection between
the cited biblical verse and the purpose of the magical spell. For example, an amulet for
success in business invokes the power of Deuteronomy 28:8, The Lord will ordain blessings for you upon your barns and upon all your undertakings: He will bless you in the
land that the Lord your God is giving you (Schiffman & Swartz 1992, pp. 1078). A
recipe to smite enemies with fever requires that Deuteronomy 28:22, The Lord will
strike you with consumption, fever, and inflammation, with scorching heat be written
in chicken blood (Naveh & Shaked 1993, p. 179). In both of these cases the intention of
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the magic is more or less in harmony with the plain sense of Deuteronomy 28, which
contains an extensive list of blessings for the righteous and curses for the wicked.
Most of the time, however, the magical use of a particular verse implies an understanding more removed from the plain sense of the verse in its original context. For example,
a spell meant to nullify harmful magic cites Isaiah 8:10, Hatch a plot it shall be foiled;
Agree on action it shall not succeed. For with us is God (Naveh & Shaked 1993,
p. 199). In its original setting, this verse refers to Gods protection of the kingdom of
Judah from the military threat of surrounding nations. But in our magical text, the plot
and action are understood as harmful spells and incantations, and the verse is addressed
to those that cast them. A more extreme departure from the original scriptural context is
observed in a recipe for success in business that invokes and adapts Isaiah 10:14, I was
able to seize, like a nest, the wealth of peoples (Naveh & Shaked 1993, p. 237). In its
original location this verse is part of a boastful and arrogant speech of the king of Assyria
who is destined for destruction. It is striking that the magician had no problem utilizing
it as a formula for prosperity. Another instructive example occurs in an incantation for
difficulty at childbirth that quotes Exodus 11:8:
Then all these courtiers of yours shall come down to me and bow low to me, saying, Come
out, you and all the people who follow you! After that I will come out. And he [Moses] came
out from before Pharaoh in hot anger.

In its original context, this verse represents Moses description of the results of the tenth
plague to Pharaoh and is unrelated to childbirth. While the threefold repetition of the
verb come out originally referred either to departure from Egypt or the presence of
Pharaoh, in the magical setting, it is utilized to coax out the dilatory baby. This interpretation is confirmed by the repetition, after the cited verse, of the summation: Go out, I
shall go out, and he went out (Naveh & Shaked 1993, p. 149). It appears that this
abridgement was thought to possess power of its own, as in another spell meant for
extracting a dead fetus from the mothers womb, it is cited without the verse from which
it derives (Naveh & Shaked 1993, p. 177).
In rare cases, it is not readily apparent how a selected verse was thought to relate to a
spells purpose. For instance, one can only speculate as to why a recipe for opening locks
instructs the practitioner to recite the prophet Hoseas menacing oracle to Israel:
Behold, they have gone from destruction with the silver they treasure. Egypt shall hold them
fast, Moph shall receive them in burial. Weeds are their heirs; Prickly shrubs occupy their tents.
(Hosea 9:6; Naveh & Shaked 1993, p. 161)

It is occasionally possible, however, to comprehend the logic behind the selection of a


verse that is seemingly unrelated to the magical goal on the basis of extra-biblical Jewish
tradition. For example, the amulet for the cure of Bunayna mentioned above quotes
Genesis 49:22, Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring; its branches run
over a wall. On the surface, this verse seems unrelated to the procurement of good health
for the client. However, according to talmudic tradition this verse indicates that descendants of Joseph are immune from the evil eye (e.g., b. Ber. 20a). Furthermore, in late
Middle Eastern Jewish amulets, it is constantly invoked for protection against the evil eye
(Schrire 1966, p. 114). It thus appears that the verses use here is related to this tradition.
Manipulated Citations
Jewish magicians did not limit themselves to verbatim quotation of Scripture. Biblical
verses are very often deliberately manipulated in a variety of ways for a number of different
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purposes. One fairly straightforward and common type of alteration involves grammatical
tweaking of or insertion of proper names into a verse to make it fit the context of the
magical operation. For instance, an amulet to protect one Saida daughter of Sitt al-Ahl
appropriately manipulates Psalm 46:8, The God of Jacob is our refuge, to read The
God of Jacob is her refuge (Naveh & Shaked 1993, p. 240). A charm for harming an
enemy adapts the prescription of Leviticus 6:6, A perpetual fire shall be kept burning
upon the altar, it shall never go out, by replacing the words the altar with the name of
the victim (Naveh & Shaked 1998, pp. 2335). An Aramaic magic bowl adapts Gods
words to Cyrus in Isaiah 45:2, I will shatter bronze doors and cut down iron bars, as
follows: By means of Gabriel and Michael and Raphael who shatter bronze doors and cut
off iron bars, may they shatter and cut off the evil spirit (Levene 2003, p. 111). Examples
of these kinds of adaptations could easily be multiplied.
In one notable case, the selection of a particular verse for its magical purpose may
hinge on the manipulation of a single letter. An amulet designed to protect the fetus of
one Surah daughter of Sarah cites Psalm 116:6, The Lord protects the simpletons; I was
brought low and he saved me. This was a popular verse in Jewish anti-abortion spells,
but at first glance the underlying reasoning for this is unclear. Naveh and Shaked suggest
that the rationale depends on the pronunciation of the Hebrew word for simpletons,
petaim. In late antique Hebrew, the weakening of guttural sounds caused petaim to be
pronounced very similarly to the Hebrew word petah9im, meaning openings. The verse
was thus understood as describing God as protecting the opening out of which a baby
might escape prematurely, i.e., its mothers womb (Naveh & Shaked 1993, p. 105). The
hermeneutical mechanism here is similar to a well-known rabbinic interpretive technique
(al tikre), which attaches new meaning to a biblical verse on the basis of a slight change
in the vocalization of a Hebrew word.
In the above examples, the manipulation of the cited verse seeks to bring it in line
with the magical aim. However, this is not always the magicians intention in altering a
verse. In fact, a very frequently encountered type of manipulation appears to have less to
do with matching the specific goals of the spell and more to do with the incantatory activation of the divine powers assumed to inhere in biblical words. This latter process is
often brought about by the creative reordering and combination of the words in a verse.
For example, it is common to find a verse quoted with the word order completely
reversed. This often occurs immediately after quotation of the same verse in its original
order. For instance, Havdala de-Rabbi Akiva cites Psalm 55:9 (I would soon find me a refuge from the sweeping wind, from the tempest) verbatim and immediately reverses the
words in precise order (Scholem 1980 1981, p. 277; ll. 56). Sometimes, as in an amulet
to subdue the tongue of one Abu al-Karam the Christian, the verse appears only in the
reversed order (see, e.g., Naveh & Shaked 1993, pp. 168, 2334). Another comparable
technique is to list the verse in various permutations of word order. Of course this task is
most easily carried out with short verses. A Geniza amulet lists the three Hebrew words
of Genesis 49:18 (I wait for your deliverance, O Lord!) in three different orders (Schiffman & Swartz 1992, p. 143). A manuscript of Havdala de-Rabbi Akiva (Oxf. 1539) lists
the three words of 2 Samuel 5:16, Elishama, Eliada, and Eliphelet (names of Davids
sons born to him in Jerusalem) in all six permutations (Schiffman & Swartz 1992,
p. 154).
Another technique meant to activate the mysterious powers of a verse involves interweaving it with external words. At times these words can derive from another verse.
For example, several magic bowls, a Geniza fragment, and Havdala de-Rabbi Akiva interweave Psalm 91:1(O you who dwell in the shelter of the Most High and abide in the
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protection of Shaddai) with Deuteronomy 6:4 (Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God,
the Lord alone) by taking one word from one verse and following it with one word
from the other (Naveh & Shaked 1998, p. 187; Scholem 1980 1981, p. 272). In other
cases, the external words consist of divine or angelic names. For instance, Havdala deRabbi Akiva inserts various angelic names into Psalm 91 (Scholem 1980 1981, p. 251).
Bunaynas healing amulet activates or enhances the power of the Priestly Benediction
by interweaving it with the twenty-two letter divine name (Schiffman & Swartz 1992,
p. 117).
Citations and Divine Names
The belief that divine names possess great power has characterized Jewish magical practice
from its inception. The magicians knowledge and application of such names (both of
God and other supernatural beings), whether activated through pronunciation, writing, or
incorporation into a larger magical text, was thought to be a vital element in ensuring
the success of a magical operation (Bohak 2008, pp. 3057). It is very often the case that
these names may be traced back to the Hebrew Bible. For instance, along with the Tetragrammaton, El, Elohim, and Shaddai, one of the most commonly utilized epithets is
I am that I am (and variations), which derives from Exodus 3:14.
While the main purpose for invoking divine names is simply to harness their immense
power, at times there is a discernible connection between the selected name and the aim
of the spell. For example, a Geniza amulet summons the God of the armies of Israel (1
Samuel 17:45) to battle and drive out all harmful spirits and every Satan (Naveh &
Shaked 1998, p. 223). A recipe for sending out fire invokes the name of As the Lord
of Hosts Lives (Naveh & Shaked 1993, p. 179). Apparently, the epithet here derives
from Elijahs oath in 1 Kings 18:15. In this chapter, Elijah miraculously causes a fire from
God to consume a sacrifice on Mount Carmel. A further example derives from the amulet for the healing of Bunayna, which appeals to the God who wounds and heals
(Schiffman & Swartz 1992, p. 115). In this case, the epithet is a grammatically appropriate
reworking of Gods words in Deuteronomy 32:39, I wound and I heal. This example
demonstrates that magicians were free to create new divine names on the basis of biblical
descriptions of God.
Several Aramaic magic bowls cite entire verses as if they are equivalent to divine
names. For instance, a bowl for the binding of demons follows the formula in the name
of with a complete citation of Zechariah 3:2 (Levene 2003, p. 72; cf. pp. 78, 116). This
phenomenon stems from the belief that biblical verses themselves contain hidden divine
names and thus could serve in their own right as the name of the power by which the
magical aim is accomplished. This belief is well demonstrated by a very popular medieval
magic handbook that may contain vestiges of early Jewish magical practice known as
Shimmush Tehillim (=The [Magical] Use of the Psalms). The first line of this work reads:
The entire Torah is composed of the names of God, and in consequence it has the property of saving and protecting man (Trachtenberg 1939, p. 109).
Another interesting manifestation of this belief is observed in the magical technique
known as tsiruf, or joining letters of verses to form potent divine names. A good example of tsiruf appears in a Hebrew amulet from the Geniza asking for protection in childbirth (Schiffman & Swartz 1992, 6978). In this text, the first letter of each word of
verses 1-9a of Psalm 91 are combined to function as a powerful divine name. To date,
tsiruf remains unattested in Jewish magical texts from Late Antiquity. It appears to have
developed only in the Middle Ages, when it became an important element of kabbalistic
practice (Idel 1988, pp. 97103).
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Citations and Physical Use


Jewish magical texts often seek to activate the power of biblical verses by means of various forms of physical application. One way in which this was accomplished was by means
of exotic props. A recipe to cure a headache calls for a version of Numbers 12:13, O
God, please heal her! to be written on a leaf of a reed and applied to the head (Naveh &
Shaked 1993, pp. 2201). Another recipe for curing leprosy calls for the practitioner to
take a new jar, fill it with water, and recite 2 Kings 5:11 over it seven times. He is then
instructed to knead cakes out of frankincense, a virgins urine, and other ingredients.
Apparently, the resulting substance was thought to effect an immediate cure (Naveh &
Shaked 1993, pp. 2289). Shimmush Tehillim contains several striking recipes of a similar
type. For example, for curing a headache or shoulder pain, Psalm 3 is to be recited over
olive oil to which salt should later be added. Finally, the aching body part is to be rubbed
with the mixture (Fodor 1978). In each of the above cases, the power of biblical words is
presumably transferred to a physical object, which is then utilized for healing.
A more symbolic physical application of the Bible appears in an anti-demonic Aramaic
magic bowl. In the central circle of the bowl there is a drawing of the murderous demoness Lilith (Naveh & Shaked 1998, pl. 3031). She is surrounded by the words of Exodus 15:7, In Your great triumph you break your opponents; you send forth your fury, it
consumes them like straw. Here, the physical layout of the verse around the depiction of
the demon is meant to confine and control Lilith and the various other demons mentioned in the text.
Biblical Purity and Temple Ritual
It is worth noting that several early Jewish magical texts show a deep concern for biblical
rules of purity and temple ritual. For example, the extensive magical handbook Sefer haRazim (=The Book of the Mysteries) instructs a man who wishes to save a friend from
trouble to cleanse himself from impurity and not cohabit with a woman for three days
before adjuring the holy angels to do his bidding (Morgan 1983, p. 56). This instruction
clearly derives from Exodus 19, where the children of Israel are commanded to purify
themselves for three days and to not approach a woman in preparation for the theophany at Sinai (cf. Temple Scroll 45:712). Apparently the assumption here is that divine
beings are intolerant of sexual and other types of impurity. To make himself available for
his encounter with the holy angels, the practitioner must match their level of purity.
This concern is common in early Jewish magical texts and is made explicit in a Geniza
text dating to the eleventh century, which provides the following description of the practitioner:
[If he] wanders upon the path of purity, and (if) purity is in his body and purity is in his flesh,
(and if) he occupies himself with these (divine) namesthen he resembles an angel and a high
priest. (In) everything that he does he will not return empty-handed. (Schafer 1996, p. 555)

Parenthetically, it is interesting to note that a similar notion of purity permeates the


theology of the Qumran sect (see, e.g., Dimant 1996).
The Geniza text just cited is instructive for another reason; it makes extensive use of
the trial of the suspected adulteress found in Numbers 5:1131. According to this biblical
passage, this woman is made to drink bitter water consisting of a mixture of holy water,
dust from the floor of the tabernacle, and the dissolved scroll on which the priest has
written the appropriate curses. Using the biblical verses as a frame, the Geniza text greatly
expands on the curse formula and includes a magical adjuration full of divine names.
Moreover, as a replacement for the sacral water and tabernacle dust, which were, of
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Hebrew Bible in Early Jewish Magic

795

course, unavailable to the practitioner, the text prescribes the use of running water from
a spring and dust from the synagogue. It thus makes the bold claim to continue a biblically mandated practice connected with the temple something the rabbinic movement
was loath to do. As Schafer observes, this allows us to attribute the origins of this text to
circles close to thoseresponsible for the Hekhalot literature, which indulges in temple
fantasies and is very concerned to locate its mystical and magical exercises in a temple
setting (Schafer 1996, p. 544).
Non-Magical Citations
Biblical citations and allusions in early Jewish magic do not always have an immediately
magical purpose. For example, magical texts commonly introduce an adjuration with
liturgical praises and requests for favor couched in verses from the book of Psalms, such
as Psalm 119:64, Your steadfast love, O Lord, fills the earth! or Psalm 44:27, Arise and
help us, redeem us, as befits your faithfulness (see, e.g., Schiffman & Swartz 1992,
p. 112; l. 19; p. 150, l. 19; Naveh & Shaked 1998, p. 223, ll. 12). Such citations are
quite distinct from the incantatory uses noted above. In other cases, biblical quotations
seem to simply result from the popularity of biblical language and categories in Jewish
society. For instance, a recipe for gaining political influence contains instructions for
being heard by a prince and a judge. The phrase a prince and a judge derives from
Exodus 2:14, where Moses is asked, Who made you a prince and a judge over us?
Clearly, the biblical language here is not cited for its magical powers. Rather, it simply
provides the categories for the purpose of the magic recipe. Examples of this sort could
easily be multiplied.
BIBLICAL HISTORIOLAE

Basic Form
The most basic variety of biblical historiola appears in the form, Just as X (=biblical
precedent) happened, so Y (=desired result) shall happen. An excellent example is
observed in an amulet for one Siahm daughter of Sitt al-Ahl, which reads, Just as they
sent the angel of the presence to Daniel, so shall he overcome all people, and the mouths
of all people should be shut, as well as the mouth of Musa son of Jala, that he may not
harm me (Naveh & Shaked 1993, p. 211). This text utilizes the power of the story of
Daniels salvation from the lions den (Daniel 6) to bring about the protection of the client. More specifically, the amulet seems to have Daniel 6:23 in mind, My God has sent
his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions, and they did not hurt me. Another clear
example appears in a recipe to achieve sleep, which, in an Aramaic paraphrase following
the language of Targum Onkelos, simply recalls Gods action in Genesis 2:21, Blessed is
he who caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam and he slept; so shall N son of N sleep,
Amen Amen Selah (Naveh & Shaked 1998, p. 227).
Catenae
For increased efficacy, some magical texts successively list several biblical historiolae from
different parts of the Bible. As a rule, these relate directly to the theme of the magical
aim. For example, the above-mentioned magic recipe to nullify harmful spells turns to
the failure of both the plans of the generation of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11) and the
plans of the wicked advisor Ahitophel (2 Samuel 17) successively. A curse attached to a
codex of the Pentateuch states that anyone who sells or steals this bookshall be under
the ban of the God of Hosts and under the ban that Joshua son of Nun imposed on Jericho,
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796 Joseph Angel

and under the ban that the ten brothers of Joseph imposed (Naveh & Shaked 1993,
p. 213).
In other cases, a biblical historiola will appear in a chain of non-biblical precedents
invoking the powers of natural order. For instance, the above-mentioned recipe for
instilling hatred between individuals, in addition to summoning the power of the great
hatred that Amnon felt for Tamar (2 Samuel 13), alludes to the hatred of a dog in front
of a cat andthe hatred of a dog in front of a swine (Naveh & Shaked 1993, p. 150). A
recipe for the subjugation of all people cites the subjugation of the sea before the children
of Israel (Exodus 14) as well as that of the sand before the sea, and the sea before God,
and human beings before death, and death before God (Naveh & Shaked 1993, p. 201).
Physical Activation
As with biblical citations, the activation of the power of a biblical precedent sometimes
involves the use of exotic props. A good example occurs in a Geniza recipe that alludes
to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) to bring about the destruction
of an enemy. Over a concoction containing his own urine as well as that of a donkey
and a black bull, the client is told to read the following spell seven times:
You are the power of the great God, you are the spirit of the world (with?) which God overturned Sodom and Gomorrahso shall you overturn and uproot and exile NN from his home
and from his place.

In this case, the terrible smell of the liquid mixture presumably allows it to be equated
with the smelly sulfurous fire that rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah in illo tempore
(Bohak 2008, p. 313). The recitation of the spell thus draws the power of the mythical
biblical substance and infuses the magicians urine mixture with it.
Finally, it is worth mentioning a cure for leprosy that appears in The Sword of Moses,
another magical handbook from post-talmudic Babylonia. The cure calls for the client to
first recite an adjuration commanding the disease to disappear and then to dip seven
times in the river. Lastly, he is to write out the original adjuration on an amulet and
wear it on his neck (Gaster & Daiches 1986, p. 37). While no biblical story is explicitly
cited here, a vital part of the cure appears to be based on 2 Kings 5, where the Syrian
general Naaman is healed from leprosy after dipping in the Jordan River seven times.
Thus, in this case, the efficaciousness of the cure draws on the potency of an implied
biblical precedent.
Conclusion
The employment of the Bible in early Jewish magic was a creative and fluid process.
Indeed, while certain passages were utilized more often than others, there was never a
fixed list of verses or stories designated for magical purposes. The selection of a particular
verse or story depended largely on the needs of the client as well as the magicians ingenuity and depth of scriptural knowledge. We thus find that the number of biblical verses
used in Jewish magic seems to have grown enormously with the centuries, and probably
keeps on growing to this day (Bohak 2008, p. 309).
In a similar vein, early Jewish magic did not limit itself to one particular manner of utilizing Scripture. Depending on the magicians education and familiarity with the magical
arts, he or she had a variety of techniques at his or her disposal to activate the powers
inhering in the Bible. With the passage of time new magical technologies were introduced, greatly increasing the tools available to the well-informed magician.
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797

Magicians and practitioners of early Jewish magic certainly viewed the Hebrew Bible
as a source of awesome and mysterious power waiting to be unleashed. However, the
ubiquitous and diverse use of Scripture in the magic texts indicates that the Bible was
much more than that. As the non-magical uses of the Bible encountered in magical texts
make clear (see above, 3.1.8), it also served as a vital source of spiritual inspiration and a
familiar and authoritative frame of reference.
Short Biography
Joseph Angel is Instructor of Bible at Yeshiva University in New York City, where he
lectures in Hebrew Bible and classical Jewish history. His research focuses on the literature of the late Second Temple period and the significant role it plays in the reconstruction of classical Judaism. More particularly, his work examines how the religious and
legal perspectives preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls reconfigure the Hebrew Bible and
shed light on the nature of the Qumran community, as well as the development of both
rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity. Dr Angels forthcoming book, Seeking a Higher
Service: Otherworldly and Eschatological Priesthood in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Studies on the
Texts of the Desert of Judah; Brill), explores pervasive representations of priesthood in
the Dead Sea Scrolls as a reflection of the religious worldview of the Qumran community
and related segments of Second Temple society. He holds a BA in Jewish Studies from
the University of Washington and a PhD in Second Temple period history and literature
from New York University.
Notes
* Correspondence address: Dr Joseph Angel, 500 W. 185th Street, New York, NY 10033, USA. E-mail: jangel@
yu.edu.

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