JASON MOKHTARIAN: OK, I think we'll go ahead and get started, and if people join late, that's fine. I think we have most of our participants here. So welcome, everybody to our webinar at Cornell University. It's wonderful to see so many people are joining us on this Monday afternoon, March 1st, 2021. My name is Jason Mokhtarian. I'm an Associate Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies here at Cornell where I hold the Herbert and Stephanie Neumann Chair in Hebrew and Jewish Literature.
I'm honored today to be able to introduce our speaker, Dr. Avigail Manekin-Bamberger, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, whose talk is entitled "Jewish Religion in 'Talmudic' Babylonia: the Evidence of the Aramaic Incantation Bowls." This talk is sponsored by the Jewish Studies Program with the support from the Religious Studies Program and the Department of Near Eastern Studies.
Before introducing our distinguished guest, I would like to invite all of you to join the Jewish Studies Program again this Wednesday, March 3 from 5:00 to 6:15 PM for another fascinating virtual event called "Nice Jewish Rapper: Drake's Detachable Judaism and Racialized Masculine Mobility." You can register for free on the Jewish Studies Program website. And while on the site, we also encourage you to subscribe for the Jewish Studies Program newsletter to receive weekly updates on future events.
Our speaker today is Dr. Avigail Manekin-Bamberger, who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows in Jerusalem. This coming July, she'll be joining the Faculty of the Department of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her research focuses on the social and cultural history of Jews in antiquity with a special emphasis on Jewish society in the Persian society and empire.
She's published works on various aspects of Rabbinic literature, ancient Jewish magic and demonology and ancient Jewish culture within its broader context, including a recent article entitled, "Who were the Jewish 'magicians' behind the Aramaic incantation bowls?" published in the Journal of Jewish Studies.
After her talk, we will have time for a Q&A session, so if you would like to ask a question, please type in the Q&A tab at any time during the lecture, and I will moderate this session by choosing from the questions and reading them aloud. So without further ado, let's welcome Dr. Avigail Manekin-Bamberger.
AVIGAIL MANEKIN-BAMBERGER: Hello, everyone, and good afternoon. I would like to first say thank you for this invitation. It's a pleasure to be here virtually, and thank you especially to Jason Mokhtarian for inviting me. So I can't see you, but you are supposedly here.
So it's a bit like demonic presence-- no offense, of course-- that the rabbis say, you know, that the demons are surrounding you but you can't see them, and it's like it's that way. But it's the same with angels, so maybe I should have said angels. OK, so I'm going to share my screen and begin. So the Babylonian Talmud, compiled between the 3rd and 6th centuries CE, is the principal surviving literary source for the Jewish communities in the Sassanian Empire.
As a result, scholarship has primarily focused on the rabbinic elite represented in and responsible for the Talmud, often painting a rather narrow picture of Sassanian Jewry. This accepted scholarly approach has recently been complicated by the discovery of hundreds of Jewish magical amulets written on bowls. Yet, since their discovery, the bowls have been largely relegated to the domain of synchronistic or popular culture, contrasted with that of the high scholastic, rabbinic elite.
The Jews who used these amulets were often deemed uneducated and unable or unwilling to differentiate between Jewish and pagan and between learned and vulgar beliefs. The widespread narrative of Babylonian Jewish society constructs a binary model with two monolithic strata, the rabbinic elites and their followers on the one hand and the uneducated masses and their magic formulae on the other hand.
In my presentation today, I will argue that this dichotomy between the world of the rabbis and that of the magic bowls is artificial and difficult to maintain. A close reading of the bowls revealed that they were produced by different groups of professional Jewish scribes, some of whom had expert knowledge of Jewish legal formulae and rabbinic traditions.
Likewise, rabbinic literature provides ample examples of the knowledge and practice of magical traditions akin and at times identical to those found in the incantation bowls. Moreover, reading rabbinic legal terms and institutions in light of the incantation bowls reveals that their meaning was often entangled with magical connotations, a point often missed when studying these two corpora in isolation.
The bowls, therefore, offer a rare and alternative vantage point from which we may rethink rabbinic law and practice as well as ancient Jewish society at large. But first, a few introductory words regarding the incantation bowls. So Aramic incantation bowls dated to the 5th to 7th century CE were generally intended to protect households from demons, curses and malice.
Some bowls were intended for other purposes such as success in business, cursing enemies, gaining favor in the eyes of named individuals, and more. A scribe wrote incantation, divine names, curses and spells in ink on the surface of an earthenware bowl, usually in a spiral fashion, as you can see in this photo.
Later, the bowl was buried, usually upside down, in a home of a named client who commissioned it, as you could see here the bowls that were found in Nippur. Some bowls include illustrations, usually of demons or demonesses bound in chains. This, for example, is an image of a bowl with a chicken-legged demon from the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago.
And such examples could be multiplied. Here is a slide with pictures taken from Naama Vilozny's work, who copied the illustrations on the bowls. And you could see her work is very interesting, and you could read more about that. But just to point to a few features, like the disheveled hair and the exaggerated genitalia, you could see demons bound in their arms and in their legs, et cetera.
So there are around 600 bowls, published bowls, and more than 1,500 that still remain unpublished. Only a few bowls are d, mostly coming from Nippur, modern-day southern and central Iraq. Most of the bowls are written in Jewish Babylonian, Aramaic and in square Hebrew letters, while others are written in Syriac and Mandaic.
The bowls are primarily dated to the 5th to 7th century based on archaeological evidence of the provenanced bowls, as well as a number of unpublished bowls that provide explicit dates according to the Seleucid era. And I'll talk a bit more about that later. Other than a few dozen Jewish seals, the incantation bowls represent our only surviving material evidence from Jews in the Sassanian Empire in late antiquity.
This was a crucial time in Jewish history, as this was the period when the Babylonian Talmud was redacted and transmitted, a period that therefore shaped the course of Judaism for generations to come. The bowls, therefore, provide us with first-hand and contemporary knowledge of Jewish practices at a formative time, knowledge that we would not gain from reading the Talmud alone.
One of the fundamental, enduring questions regarding these artifacts is who wrote these bowls. At first glance, this question seems impossible to answer. There is no signature of a scribe nor any external evidence of bowl-writing practices. Turning to the many scholarly editions of the bowls does not provide us with a clear answer either, a reality made apparent by the lack of consistency in how scholars describe these writers.
Scholars will typically adopt several descriptions such as "scribes," "practitioners" or "professionals" if they wish to emphasize the writer's expertise, or "exorcists," "magicians" or "sorcerers" if they wish to emphasize their field of expertise. But who were these practitioners? How were they perceived by society, and what was the relation between them and the rabbinic elite?
In several recent publications, I argued that a close study of the language of the bowls demonstrates that their writers possessed expert knowledge befitting scribes of Jewish society. See, for example, this provenanced bowl from that resides at the University of Pennsylvania Museum collection. This bowl was written for a woman by the name of Komis, daughter of Mahlaphta, and was intended to divorce demons by using accepted language of the Jewish divorce document, the get.
Divorcing demons through human legal divorce formulae is very common in the Jewish bowls, and in some cases was even borrowed in the Syriac bowls, as we will see in a moment. Scholars such as Shaul Shaked from the Hebrew University have suggested that the use of the divorce in the bowls is metaphorical. However, I argue that attention to the specific divorce terminology employed in the bowls teaches us that it was actually intended quite literally.
So I'm just going to read the bowl, lines from the bowl that was intended for Komis. "This day of all days, years and generations of the world, I, Komis, daughter of Mahlaphta, have dismissed, released and divorced you, Lilith. You are sent away naked and you are not clothed, your hair disheveled behind your backs. It is heard regarding you, whose mother is Palhan and whose father is Palhadad. Lilths hear and go out, and do not trouble Komis, daughter of Mahlaptha in her house."
We see here an opening formula with a vague time designation followed by a declaration of divorce from Komis to the Lilith demon expressed in the first person. The scribe then describes the various demons who are sent away shamefully, and the description may remind you of the images we saw before. He ends by listing the client Komis by using the third person. "Do not trouble Komis, daughter of Mahlaphta."
The use of the first-person divorce rhetoric reflects ancient Jewish scribal practices already attested in Jewish divorce documents from Masada from the 1st century CE, as well as in early rabbinic literature from the beginning of the 3rd century CE. More geographically proximate, the Babylonian Talmud quotes divorce formulae that bears strong resemblance to Komis's contemporaneous magic bowl.
In the table on the screen, you can see these Talmudic quotes, translated, obviously, compared to Komis's bowl and to a parallel bowl made by the same scribe for a male client, Honiq son of Ahat. Following the first-person address, the bowls then employ three Aramaic verbs of the verse, [ARAMAIC] Interestingly, the Talmud only has two, which may suggest that there are some differences in legal formulae employed by the two groups.
However, Jewish divorce documents from the Geonic period, that is, Babylonian rabbis from the 7th to 12th century and onwards, use these three verbs as well. The divorce formula on the bowls not only parallels those of later rabbis but is our earliest evidence for changes in Jewish divorce formula that are found later in rabbinic texts. Now, this similarity between the bowl of Komis and Honiq and the contemporary Jewish divorce document is hardly unique.
It is part of a much larger phenomenon of use of Jewish legal formulae that I found in the bowls, that includes, for example-- and this, I'm just going to skim over. We have time designations, for example, the general time designation we saw before, or dates, self-designations from the realm of legal documents.
When I say "self-designations," I mean that a book starts by saying this is a divorce document, a [ARAMAIC] or this is a document, [ARAMAIC] et cetera. We have Jewish legal formulae and Jewish divorce formulae. For example, the divorcing demons, according to the law of Moses in Israel are using the additional words and any names she has or any name he has to present the client, which accords with the rabbinic instruction that in divorce, you must give all the names of the divorcee and also the man who divorces, perpetuity clauses, and closing formulae such as "Amen, Amen," or "This is true," et cetera.
And then the consistent employment of legal formulae by the scribes occasionally leads to surprising consequences. For example, in a Jewish writ from a from Masada dated to the first century CE there is a formula that expresses the permission given to the divorced woman to remarry if she so desires. This sentence is a crucial part of the Jewish divorce document, as we see later in rabbinic literature, so much that without it, the divorce is not valid.
In a number of bowls, the scribe of the bowl employs the permission clause, thus giving the demonic divorcee permission to be with another. For example, in this bowl, "This is the deed of divorce of the accursed lilith, which I have written for Immi, daughter of Qaqay and any name that she has. And the lilith who massacres her own children and the children of her companions in order that you may have authority and power over yourself to any man that you wish." This is said to the lilith, "For I have written to you a deed of divorce and a document of release from this Immi, daughter of Qaqay, from her house, from her children, and any name that you have."
So as you could see on the screen, the sentence is very similar to the divorce already in the Masada bowl from the 1st century. The presence of the statement of permission in the bowl indicates that the scribe was proficient in precise legal jargon. Moreover, despite the problematic consequences, or immoral even, of giving permission to demons to conjoin with another human, the bowl scribes did not relinquish the formula but rather retained it, thus employing the correct and expected divorce formula.
Another example of using precise formulae in the bowls is those who have specific dates. And this is very rare to have in a magical document, or magic book, or magical amulet. It's very rare to have a date.
And here, for example, we have a divorce formula. Those who read Hebrew letters, you could see here that [SPEAKING ARAMAIC] "I have written a divorce document," Hebrew letters in Aramaic, of course. So this photo that is taken from an auction house website. Unfortunately, the bowl is also sold, in case you had any interest in this.
So it says here, "I have written a divorce document on the fourth day of the week, that is the 28th day of the month of Av, the 919th year, King Khosrow. The date is written according to the Seleucid Era, which means it comes out 608 CE. And King Khosrow mentioned here is Khosrow the Second that reigned from 590 to 628 and was the last significant king of this Sasanian Empire.
So altogether, there are around 20 different Jewish legal formulations that I have found in the bowls. So the scribes clearly made an effort to use pervasive and legally valid language, meaning that the divorce, in my opinion, was not understood as a metaphor, rather as something quite literal. The appearance of the various legal formulae is best explained by the training and the knowledge of the scribes.
The extensive knowledge of scribal formulae, and indeed, in some cases even scribal practices, reflect that some of the bowl writers may have been part of a scribal guild. Yet their scribal knowledge was not limited to legal formulae that they employed. For instance, one bowl found in an archaeological excavation in [? Ipur ?] is composed entirely from biblical passages and their Aramaic translation, which is almost identical to the traditional accepted Aramaic translation of this period, [ARAMAIC].
We also find various liturgical formulae in the bowls, such as this bowl that has an extensive quote of the liturgical prayer, [ARAMAIC]. And as you could see, this is derived from liturgy and not just biblical verses because it employs the liturgical response, [SPEAKING ARAMAIC]
"Blessed be the name of his glorious kingdom forever and ever." And there are other examples of liturgical quotes. For example, I'm working now on liturgical blessings that we know from rabbinic literature and later Jewish prayer books that appear for the first time, sometimes, on bowls, or that are parallel to rabbinic literature.
So my argument regarding the scribal profession of the practitioners of the magic bowls fits the material aspect of the bowls, as well. The bowl practitioner carefully uses ink in order to write small, square letters on a surface of a bowl. And this is quite different from the contemporaneous Jewish magical finding from late antique Palestine of metal amulets, [ARAMAIC] which are inscribed in Jewish, Palestinian, Aramaic, or Hebrew.
The craftsmen of the Palestinian metal amulets engraved letters with a stylus. And this is a very different, unique skill set, unrelated to scribal practices. So this would explain that in the amulets, the Jewish amulets from late antique Palestine, we do not find legal formulae and we don't find the use of divorce.
The penmanship of some bowls are particularly striking and they exhibit that some bowls were professional scribes. My initial research demonstrate that there may be some sort of correlation between the quality of the handwriting and learned content of the Jewish bowls and also of the Syriac and Mandaic bowls. It seems, therefore, quite likely that these bowl scribes would have composed other Jewish legal documents or biblical scrolls, et cetera, diversifying their potential source of income.
So my conclusion regarding the different historical and professional context of the various magical artifacts problematizes the common use of the generic term, "Jewish magicians" or "Jewish magic." This term apologetically distances magic from other intellectual domains, but it does not adequately represent the differing professional and social backgrounds of, in this case, the metal amulets and the bowls. Moreover, using the term "magician" or "sorcerer" to describe a practitioner of both corpora erases the unique professional nature underlying each corpus. By viewing these corpora separate from one another, we are able to better situate the producers within their own unique context.
Lastly, the term "Jewish magician" is meant to contrast them with other Jewish religious experts about whom we have knowledge, the rabbis. Yet once we appreciate the extent to which bowl scribes employ Jewish formulae, we are less inhibited from observing how rabbinic literature depicts some rabbis as experts in the formulae necessary to dismiss demons. For instance in this Talmudic passage from Babylonian the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesahim.
"Reeds that are near the city have no less than 60 demons. A certain town official went and relieved himself among the reeds and was in danger. A certain sage came and wrote for him and amulet against one demon. He did not know that the reeds held 60 demons. He heard them, the demons, rejoicing and singing in it, "Master's scarf is like that of a sage, but we have examined him he does not know how to bless." A certain scholar came who knew that the reeds held 60 demons, and he wrote an amulet for 60 demons. He heard them, the demons, say, "Remove yourselves from here."
This Talmudic story tells of rabbinic sages attempting to exorcise 60 demons from reeds that they inhabit. The first one fails to do so because he designated the amulet for only one demon. The demons mock the sage by singing to him that he is indeed dressed like a rabbi, but he does not know how to bless, which is a euphemism for "curse."
Another rabbinic sage writes the correct formula for all 60 demons and succeeds in exorcising them. This passage may teach us a number of things. First, there is a need for precision that we may call legal in exorcising demons. This matches what we saw in the bowls that employ legal formulae.
Second, the people who exorcise the demons are not described as magicians or sorcerers, rather rabbis or sages. Third, rabbis are supposed to be able to exorcise a demon. That explains why the demon mocked the first sage that he looks like a rabbi, but he can't achieve such a basic thing as cursing demons. This is compatible with many other rabbinic passages that include various instructions to ward off demons and combat disease. Once we appreciate these Talmudic passages alongside the conclusion that many bowl scribes emerged from a professional scribal context, the rigid binary between rabbis and magicians begin to unravel.
Yet Jewish legal formulae was hardly the only content on the bowl incantations. Many bowls in Jewish Aramaic employed a wide variety of motifs drawn from Mesopotamian traditions, Christianity, and also from broader magical tropes found in Greek and Roman traditions. For example in the bowl on the screen, published by Dan Levine, we find this concluding formula, "By the name of I am that I am, YHWH Saboth, and by the name of Jesus who conquered the height and the depth by his cross, and by the name of his exalted father, and by the name of the holy spirits forever in eternity, amen amen, selah. This press is true and established."
This scribe, as you can see, wrote in beautiful Jewish Aramaic script. But instead of invoking the perhaps expected kosher deities, he invokes the Trinity as a binding power. Yet while the case of the Trinity is especially noteworthy, this kind of invocation fits numerous examples in which scribes of bowls in Jewish script incorporate elaborate non-Jewish motifs. Alongside bowls that have elaborate religious motifs such as the Jesus bowl and the Jewish ones we have seen, we also find many bowls that are formulaic and do not display unique content at all.
In addition, there is a large number of bowls written in pseudo-script, with seemingly no unique content at all. And this is a subject of much discussion between bowl scholars. What is the meaning of this pseudo-script bowl? Is it charlatans or, as Daniel Waller argued, does this have meaning? And I could elaborate more in the discussion.
So this large spectrum of content had led scholars to describe the bowls as syncretistic, part of a local koine produced by one group of magicians or sorcerers, and all reflective of a single corpus and a single strata of Jewish society. However, in a forthcoming article, Simcha Gross from University of Pennsylvania and I argue that the Jewish incantation bowls should not be viewed as a single corpus. Rather, the bowls were produced by different groups of scribes, some of whom were socialized according to rabbinic norms, and some of whom were closer to the traditions of neighboring religions.
Though the medium they employed, ceramic bowls, was the same, their producers were not necessarily part of the same scribal guilds. Indeed, while scholars have noted the presence of some rabbinic traditions and motifs in the bowls, something that they argued that is part of a general popular koine of the bowl writers, a study of the distribution of Rabbinic literary traditions and motifs reveal that they often concentrate on a select number of bowls. Many of these bowls also appear to avoid motifs that might have clashed with rabbinic ideas and stipulations.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are bowls that contain only non-Jewish themes and motifs, and do not display specific Jewish tradition, such as the bowl we saw with the invocation of the Trinity. These results suggest that the bowls were produced by different Jewish scribes with different proximity to and affinity for the rabbis and their teachings.
The bowls that display expert knowledge of Jewish motifs are usually divided into two kinds-- bowls that display a clustering of a variety of Jewish motifs and bowls that cite a single lengthy Jewish tradition or motif as the primary incantation. For example, this bowl, [INAUDIBLE] 164, quotes from a wide variety of Jewish literature. This includes-- and I'll again go over this quickly-- it includes biblical passages from Daniel and Isaiah, a Mishnah quote from Tractate Shavuot, which in the original context is a Mishnah that deals with legally binding adjurations that a litigant may use to force a potential witness to come forward and witness.
So the scribe selects the-- or cites only the legally binding names in an intelligent quote of the Mishnah. There's also a parallel to the Babylonian Talmud regarding the Angel Metatron, liturgical formula, parallel from early mystical literature, and excommunication formula in the name of Rabbi Joshua son of Perahala.
This wide array of different texts quoted in one single bowl attests to an erudite scribe knowledgeable in many Jewish texts and genres. Other scribes cite a single rabbinic tradition, which did not necessarily exhaust their knowledge of Jewish tradition, but displayed the important power they ascribed to it. For instance, two bows cite Mishnah from Tractate Zevahim sacrifice, that contain rabbinic description of sacrifices in the temple. In both bowls, the Mishnah is introduced with the word [ARAMAIC], "in the name of," clearly treating these rabbinic texts as effective utterances in their own right.
Beyond identifying particular bowls that display concentrations of Jewish traditions, we have identified a few scribes that consistently integrate various clusters of Jewish motifs in their bowls. The scribe of the multiple bowls on the screen, for example, included in his bowls quotes from early Jewish mystical texts, quotes from Jewish prayer, a spell against a demon that we find also in the Talmud, a mythical story, historiola, regarding an encounter of a rabbi, [INAUDIBLE], and a demon that appears very similarly in the Talmud and Tractate Shabbat.
Once we acknowledge that the bowl corpus should not be seen as a homogeneous corpus reflecting popular beliefs and practices from a specific and often lower social stratum, we are able to offer a richer portrait of Babylonian Jewish society. Different scribes reflect their different levels of proximity to and engagement with the rabbis. But these different groups simultaneously shared a medium, a craft, or even a business.
Any effort at simply dismissing the bowls, or even the bowls that employ non-Jewish motifs, as the work of a lower and isolated stratum of Babylonian Jewish society, fails to explain this evidence or the evidence cited above of rabbis displaying expertise at expelling demons. At the same time, the somewhat romantic attempt to treat the Babylonian rabbis as the sole religious elite of their time, shaping the religious world of most Babylonian Jews, is no longer plausible, as the bowl riders themselves may have been perceived as religious elites, as well.
How are we on time? OK. We're fine.
So beyond reflecting the varying proximity bowl scribes had to the rabbis, the bowls reveal much about veneration of rabbis in Sasanian Babylonia, at least among some Jews. First, there are about a dozen bowls that mention rabbinic clients, as Shaul Shaked has shown. For example, this bowl was written for one Rav Ashi son of Mahlaphta, a name that may fit a prominent rabbi from the Fifth Century who is traditionally seen as responsible for the redaction of the Babylonian Talmud.
However, it is difficult to offer a precise identification, as rabbinic literature gives the patronymic, whereas the magic bowls list the matronymic. And an initial study of the bowls written for rabbis revealed that they usually contained diverse Jewish motifs and avoid appealing to non-Jewish deities. In addition to mentioning rabbis as clients, other bowl incantations invoke rabbis, and particularly their legal prowess, as powerful apotropaics.
The most widely attested example is that of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perahya, who appears in early rabbinic literature, and who is said to have lived in the second century BCE. For example, in the bowl published from [INAUDIBLE] on the screen, just said there was a lilith who strangled human beings and rabbi Yehoshua bar Perahya sent a ban against her, but she did not accept it because he did not know her name. And her name was written in the deed of divorce.
And an announcement was made against her in heaven by a deed of divorce that came from across the sea. So you, too, are roped, tied, and suppressed all of you under the feet of this Marnaqa son Qala. In this magic bowl we have a magical legend, a historiola, that refers to the attempt of Rabbi Yehoshua to ban a strangling lilith, a female demon, and his failure to do so because he did not know her name.
Later, a heavenly divorce document is handed to Rebbe Yehoshua with which he successfully divorces the strangling lilith. The power of this mythical moment is invoked in order to protect the client Marnaqa. Other references in the bowls to Rabbi Yehoshua are also exclusively connected to either his divorce document or his ban.
It is important to stress that in this case, rabbi Yehoshua is invoked in a different way than the bowls invoke holy names or angel. He is invoked here as a potent producer of legal deeds, either as casting a ban, performing divorce, or serving a legal document. This may reflect the view that rabbis were authoritative and possessed binding legal power, but the importance of the legal power is employed in mundane contexts, such as banishing evil demons.
The invocation of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perahya was so popular that he appears also in a couple of Syriac bowls, for example here, where he also produces a document to banish demons, like it was when Rabbi Yehoshua bar Perahya sat and wrote against them a document, [ARAMAIC], against all demons and devs. Here, a bowls written in Syriac and Manichaean script clearly adopts the Jewish figure of Rabbi Yehoshua or Yeshua along the motif of the divorce by using a Persian loanword, [PERSIAN] meaning "document," as Shaul Shaked has shown.
In addition to Yehoshua ben Perahya, who somehow made the jump from rabbinic expert to popular magical motif, some bowls refer to recent or even contemporary rabbis. In an unpublished bowl generously shared with me by James Ford, we find the following invocation-- "By the ban of the land of Israel, and by the ban of Babylonia, and by the ban of the rabbis of the land of Israel, and by the ban of the rabbis of Babylonia, may she, the demoness or lilith, be banned and excommunicated." The invocation mentions the land of Israel and Babylonia followed by the rabbis of the land of Israel and the rabbis of Babylonia. [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]
This quote makes it clear that the bowl is referring to the major two centers of the rabbinic movement. We once again see the scribe invoking rabbis and specifically their legal deeds, in this case, their ban or excommunication as potent magical precedent. A further invocation to a more recent rabbinic figure-- recent to them, not to us-- is also found in bowl published by Christa Muller-Kessler, which invokes one Rabbi Aha bar Rabbi Hanilay, and I should say published with correction by Matthew Morgenstern and James Ford. So you could see here, "And by the ban of Rabbi Aha son of Rabbi Hanilay, Rabbi aha bar Rabbi Hanilay.
So this rabbi is not a Palestinian or distant figure like Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perahya, but refers to a Babylonian sage closer to the time of writing this bowl. In fact, this rabbi likely appears in rabbinic chronography from the 9th and 10th century such as the earliest rabbinic chronography [SPEAKING HEBREW]. He lists Reb Aha bar Rabbi [INAUDIBLE], placing him in the early sixth century.
And lastly, there is a bowl that also hasn't been published yet from the [? musav ?] collection, which is currently in the National Library of Israel, that we see here. And the external side of the bowl, "May you be under the ban of the academy heads" or [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] "and the rabbis," meaning here the invocation is not just to individual rabbis, but to institutional or organizational structures, which also were seen as something that can be invoked for power, which could teach us a lot about questions of urbanization, questions that haven't yet had much scholarship in the scholarship of Babylonia, in contrast to contemporary Palestine, where there's a lot of more material-- archaeological material and other material.
So I'll now talk a bit-- just conclude with a few things. And I think I'm going to stop sharing even though I still don't see you. OK, so the presence and invocations of rabbis in the incantation bowls on the one hand, and the phenomenon of Jewish-Babylonian-Aramaic bowls with clusters of Jewish traditions and motifs on the other, offer a novel view of Babylonian-Jewish society and the positions of the rabbi within it during the end of the Talmudic period.
These references are all the more significant if we do not assume, as scholars often have, that the Babylonian rabbis quickly rose to positions of prominence among the broader Jewish-Babylonian community. Once we do not simply assume that the rabbis always enjoyed recognition in Babylonia, the bowls provide us with our first evidence that at least some Babylonian Jews both imbued the title of "rabbi" with respect, and venerated rabbis for their legal powers and expertise. In terms of the rabbis, the bowls reveal that at least some Jews recognized and esteemed them, and invoked their legal prowess as individuals and as a collective in incantations in a manner unprecedented in other Jewish amulets or in the contemporary incantation bowls in Syriac and Mandaic.
Simultaneously, a closer examination of the distribution of certain motifs throughout the bowls suggests that certain scribes had greater proximity to the rabbis and their teachings than others. We have, then, a more complicated view of Jewish society, where rabbinic figures are known and venerated, but actual relation to them and their teachings was by no means universal. The proximity between the bowl writers and the rabbis and their teachings complicate views of the rabbis as purveyors of elite culture, and challenges the popular elite dichotomy that has been applied to Rabbinic Judaism.
On a social level, the clear scribal nature of the incantation bowls challenges the common scholarly perception of the ancient Jewish magician. There is no rabbinic term to designate these magicians, and certainly no pejorative term, as the practice of writing an amulet is expected to be known by the rabbis themselves. Or we have the phrase [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], "amulet by an expert."
The bowl writers may have been viewed as a religious elite consulted at times of need. Indeed, challenging the popular elite dichotomy is true not only on the social or professional level. We may even go one step further by challenging the categorical dichotomy between law and magic as forms of high scholastic versus low popular cultural expressions, such binaries that are so popular in scholarship.
As we have seen, the magical texts themselves are replete with legal formulae. And it seems reasonable to assume that for the scribes of the Babylonian incantation bowls, the lines between magic, law, and religion were not rigid and perhaps nonexistent. This hold true not only for the magical material.
When we examine the nature of many rabbinic texts, the boundaries between what we may call "magic" and what we may call "laws" simply do not hold. One example of this is rabbinic discussions of excommunication, as Jason Mokhtarian demonstrated. Others include legal oaths, vows, and legal documents.
To conclude, I have argued today for a vision for rethinking Babylonian society, in this case by rigorously incorporating the ever-growing corpus of the Babylonian incantation bowls into our models. I began by proposing an identification of the social and professional context of the bowl writers. I then argue that the Jewish bowls should not be seen as a homogeneous corpus reflecting popular beliefs.
Rather, they were produced by various groups of scribes, some of whom displayed expert knowledge of a variety of Jewish motifs and attest to veneration of the rabbis. In turn, the rabbis themselves did not live in splendid isolation. And rabbinic texts can be understood in new ways.
My work has focused only on a small part of the vast potential of incorporating magical materials in the study of Rabbinic Judaism. My current project, for example, deals with questions of the everyday lives of Jews in the late Sasanian empire, such as their daily concerns and fears, the spiritual world in which they lived, the place of the rabbis, connection between Jews and non-Jews, and more. In these areas as well, the bowls not only enrich our historical knowledge, but also push us to change the paradigms through which we perceive Judaism at this formative time. Thank you to all of you invisible people.
JASON MOKHTARIAN: Well, thank you so much for that wonderful talk. It was really illuminating for me and I'm sure all of the guests. We have a lot of questions to get to.
We only, unfortunately, have about 15 minutes or so. So I'm going to have a difficult decision of choosing which questions to ask. And my apologies to all of you if I don't get to all of them.
I would like to start with the following question to you-- what is the consensus among scholars as to why this seems to have been a Jewish specialty? Does it suggest any new insight as to the general situation of Jews and Jewishness in this larger society? And as a follow-up to that, the person who asked the question asks, I'm presuming that many bowl writers appear to have been written for non-Jewish clients. Did this have to do with Jewish literacy only, or perhaps with the "Jewish mystique," as well?
AVIGAIL MANEKIN-BAMBERGER: I'll start with the first question and then I'll forget the second. So please remind me. It's not just a Jewish specialty. I now focused on the bowls written in Jewish-Babylonian Aramaic.
As I mentioned, there are Syriac bowls and there's Mandaic bowls. So the Mandaic bowls have a lot of Mandaean religion. We could see different things that are unique to Mandaeans.
But it is true, on the other hand, that most of the corpus-- I don't know if I said this, but around two-thirds of the bowls are Jewish material. And what Shaul Shaked said about this, and I'll quote him, is that the reason that the bowls are sort of opposite to the place of society-- the Jews are the smallest community but have the most bowls-- is because many times, magic powers or ritual powers are ascribed to smaller communities or different communities. So the Jews maybe would have been seen as some people who have special powers.
As we could see in later periods, that's sometimes the situation about certain communities-- that certain small communities are seen in that way. I hope that answered the question. What was the second question?
JASON MOKHTARIAN: I'm presuming that many bowls appear to have been written for non-Jewish clients. Did this have to do with Jewish literacy only or perhaps with the Jewish mystique, as well?
AVIGAIL MANEKIN-BAMBERGER: OK. So the Jewish mystique, I think I answered. Regarding who were the clients, that's a question that unfortunately, we can't give a good answer to. Because as you saw in the examples that I gave, we have Persian names.
And the question is if the Persian names mean that it wasn't a Jewish client. Because sometimes we have a list of a family, and there are in the family Persian names, as well as Jewish names. And then that could mean that these were Jews.
So we really don't know who were the clients and if Jews were writing to non-Jews. I think that most scholars would say that they are, at least in some cases. I think the best example for that is there are a few bowls that have a Jewish-Babylonian inscription, but on the rim of the bowl or the external side of the bowl, there is an instruction in middle Persian-- to bury in, I don't know, the entrance of the home. So maybe that is for middle Persian-reading people, which could be non-Jews, could be Jews.
So this is a big question. But if it is Jews writing for non-Jews, it could have to do with the mystique. And in terms of literacy, it's very hard for me to answer if the Jews were more literate than others. I mean, I guess this is something that has been studied in other periods. But I think it's impossible to give an exact answer to that.
JASON MOKHTARIAN: OK, next question-- you've held that the deed of divorce, a get, was a literal legal document. What does this say about the status of demons in Levantine Babylonia? Were the demons perhaps considered to be some kind of person?
AVIGAIL MANEKIN-BAMBERGER: OK, so I think that it has to do with the status and it doesn't. There isn't an issue with demons conjoining humans, that there is a fear of some sort of sexual join, if it's female liliths for males, and male liliths for females, male [? lilys ?] or whatever. And so this could have to do with that, in a way.
But on the other hand, I think that the Jews of Sasanian Babylonia were using everything they could in their power to expel and banish the demons. So together with the divorce we also have, as Jason has written about, the excommunication. And we saw this with the excommunication in the name of rabbis.
So they're also using excommunication formulae, just as they're using divorce. So on the one hand, yes. I think it does have to do with a certain connection. But on the other hand, it also has to do with just how can we expel demons? We could use what we know. What we know is legal adjurations and other things that work in the human realm.
JASON MOKHTARIAN: OK, wonderful. Next question-- is there any pattern in the bowls that have illustrations on them? That is to say, is there always a connection between the content and the illustration in the case of demon illustrations, et cetera? And if I could just actually follow up on that, does that play any role in the work that you've done on differentiating between scribal guilds?
AVIGAIL MANEKIN-BAMBERGER: OK, so in terms of the first question, there is sometimes actually the [INAUDIBLE] a connection that we [INAUDIBLE]. Sometimes-- and this, I recommend Naama Vilozny's work, who also speaks about this. There are a few bowls that said, "This is the demon," or "This is the lilith." But usually, we don't know exactly what is the connection. And we're not even sure that the same hand that drew the illustration is the same hand that wrote the bowl.
In terms of-- on the work that I mentioned of Simcha Gross and I of distinguishing different bowls, we did see, but we still there's still a lot of work to do in this, that a lot of the bowls with a lot of Jewish clusters, there aren't pictures of demons. If you remember in my presentation, in the bowl that quotes the Mishnah, there is some sort of image, but not of a person or demon, which is interesting because we know the problematics of drawing figures. But this is something that we just did preliminary research. I think there may be a connection, but there's still more to do on that.
JASON MOKHTARIAN: OK, thank you. Next question-- do we know of any professional titles in surrounding cultures for those who may have been experts in dealing with protecting people against malevolent forces that might offer a compelling comparison?
AVIGAIL MANEKIN-BAMBERGER: That's a very good question. Well, there are. There's a book of Theodore de Bruyn who speaks about Christian magic in Egypt. And with Christians it's a bit easier, because we have descriptions of priests writing magical amulets. So that would be sometimes priests.
I think that we don't necessarily have to go to other religions because we have in the Talmud, or that story of rabbis writing amulets, or in the Tannaitic literature and later also in the Talmud, the amulets by an expert, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]. So the answer is there.
And I think that the reason we, or scholars in their publications, tend to call them "magicians" or "exorcists," et cetera, doesn't have to do necessarily with the materials that are before them but more maybe certain biases or thoughts about what magic is.
JASON MOKHTARIAN: OK, terrific. Thank you. OK, next question-- were the people at this time period just feeling the demons around them? Or were there times when they could see the demons? And how do they know the identities of these demons?
AVIGAIL MANEKIN-BAMBERGER: OK, so usually, on the one hand, demons are invisible, as I said in the beginning of my lecture. And we see that in rabbinic literature, that they say that demons are all around. On the other hand, demons can take forms of either humans or animals.
And one interesting thing-- I didn't show this, but a lot of illustrations, the demons have chicken feet. And there is a passage in the Tractate Berekhot that talks about if you want to see a demon-- and you guys could try this at home-- put dust next to your bed when you go to sleep. And when you wake up in the morning, if you see chicken footprint's, then it means there's a demon there.
So there's one sort of answer. But again, demons-- I didn't show this, but in the bowl with all of the different clusters of Jewish material, the bowl is, "If you appear as a pig, I adjure you with this. If you appear as a ram, I adjure you with this." So they could take form of others. And this is also mentioned in the Talmud, that demons could take the form of other things.
JASON MOKHTARIAN: OK, thank you. Next question-- since the scribes were so educated and showed knowledge of legal language, were the people who received the bowls able to understand them themselves?
AVIGAIL MANEKIN-BAMBERGER: That's an excellent question. Unfortunately, we don't know. I imagine that's part of the bowls I talked about, bowls that were written for a rabbinic client. And even if this is the rabbis we know from the Talmud or if it isn't, is very rare that we find a name with "rabbi." So I believe or I think that it is reasonable to assume that the bowls that were for rabbis were for people who were knowledgeable and could read it.
I also think that many of the bowls-- that also illiterate people purchased bowls. And this also connects to the question of pseudo-script bowls. Were the pseudo-script bowls, such as those we have seen, were they charlatans-- or I don't know, you could find a different word-- or people who are trying to imitate, and then they were selling it to people who didn't know how to read? So I think the answer is complex in that way.
JASON MOKHTARIAN: OK, thank you. So we just have about five minutes left. And again, my sincere apologies to those of you who are asking questions that we don't get to. There's a lot of questions here.
So the next one that I'll read is the following-- are we able to tell between guilds and traditions that created these bowls? Idol worship or other Avodah Zarah is a giveaway, but there were many other mysteries or traditions at that time and location.
AVIGAIL MANEKIN-BAMBERGER: This is an excellent question. So that is the project I talked a little about, with differentiating between the different bowls. But let's take the Jewish cluster bowls.
So if we think about it, we could imagine-- if you remember that slide with all the different mystical literature, liturgy, et cetera-- we imagine a different diverse library-- a "library" or not with scare quotes-- with all different kinds of text. And then who are the people who would have access to such a wide variety of texts? Is it rabbis? Is it people that are engaged in mystical traditions? So that's on the one hand.
On the other hand, when we have bowls such as the bowl that we saw that invocation of the Trinity-- so are we speaking in that about Jewish Christians? I know obviously, this is a big question. Or bowls with more Mandaic formulas-- are these Jews that are connected to the Mandaeans?
So this is always the difficulty, to make the jump between making the distinctions on paper and then jumping from the distinctions on paper to the social aspects. Are these bowls representing communities? And what communities are they representing? So I will leave it in a certain question because I think there still needs to be more research that I will, hopefully, do, and hopefully, get closer, maybe, to some answers.
JASON MOKHTARIAN: Wonderful. Thank you. Always more questions than answers when it comes to the bowls. Next question, and hopefully, we can ask one more final question after this-- this question is, is there any evidence within rabbinic literature of knowledge of usage of these bowls? And if there's not, what do you make of that?
AVIGAIL MANEKIN-BAMBERGER: OK, so there is one story in Tractate Mo'ed Katan of-- I'll say this very quickly-- it's in page 17 if you want to see, and [? Guidon ?] Brack wrote about this-- about a violent man who was upsetting the rabbis. And then the rabbis tell him to write an excommunication, bury it in a jar, and do this sort of ritual. And at the end, the jar explodes and the violent man dies.
Now, so it's burying-- this is not exactly a bowl, but it's in burying an excommunication, so it is similar to the bowl. So on the one hand, we don't have a description of bowls, but we have that. And we have many mentions of amulets.
And many of these bowls start with an introductory formula, "This is an amulet." So I think that to your question, Jason, about what do I make of this, I think that the reason we found so many bowls is because they were buried. But I believe that these people had lots of more amulets that they hung in their house or that were all around. So I think that when rabbinic literature talks about amulets, they are talking also about bowls, and also about many other amulets that we don't have.
JASON MOKHTARIAN: Great. Thank you. So we'll end with this question, which I think is a nice question to end with, and then we'll say thank you. Since you argue that the term "magician" is not an adequate word to use, is there another term you think should be used instead? So what should we be referring to the sorcerers as, in your opinion?
AVIGAIL MANEKIN-BAMBERGER: So I use the word "scribes," usually. I try to be consistent, but I think specifically with the bowls-- I mean, even you could try this at home. Taking a bowl, writing tiny letters in a spiral fashion, is very, very difficult.
And I think that even before the legal terminology, the material aspect, it points to scribes. So I think the most precise way to describe them is "scribes." But this is right for the bowls.
For the amulets, it would be something else-- engravers or practitioners, which is maybe-- but I'm sitting here in Jerusalem and you're asking me about English terms. So maybe I should ask the listeners, who their English is probably better than mine.
JASON MOKHTARIAN: Well, thank you so much for this wonderful talk and for answering all the questions. On behalf of Cornell and the Jewish Studies Program, thank you again for taking the time to speak to us. And this is a wonderful talk.
So thank you to all the attendees, as well. We hope to see you at future events. And just a quick reminder-- there's an event this Wednesday at 5:00 PM. So thank you all for attending. And I'll let everybody go right on time. Goodbye everyone.
AVIGAIL MANEKIN-BAMBERGER: Thank you. Good-bye.
JASON MOKHTARIAN: Thank you.
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Learn about Babylonian Jewish incantation bowls which provide access to the unknown lives and practices of Jews in the Sasanian empire in a talk with Dr. Avigail Manekin-Bamberger. The bowls provide a rare vantage point from which to enrich our knowledge of both rabbinic law and practice, ancient Jewish society, and the place of the rabbis within it.