Before Harry Potter – Sorcery in the Talmud

Maggie AntonWe are pleased to welcome guest blogger, Maggie Anton, long time HUC patron, author, and lover of all things Talmud.

Book cover for Rav Hisda's DaughterWhen I began researching third-century Babylonia for my historical novel, Rav Hisda’s Daughter, I had never imagined that the subtitle would be “A Novel of Love, the Talmud and Sorcery.” But I soon learned that magic, whose etymology comes from Magi, the scholar-priests of Zoroastrian Babylonia, was pervasive throughout Persia. My initial glimpse of this world came when I discovered a corpus of research on Babylonian Incantation Bowls.

These were ordinary pottery with inscriptions inside whose purpose was to protect the people under whose home the vessels were buried. Thousands of these bowls had been unearthed in what is now Iraq and dated to the 4th-6th century. My initial interest in the incantations, written in the same Aramaic language as the Talmud, was purely as a source of authentic women’s names. But upon careful reading, I saw that they must have been produced by educated Jews.

Most were for benevolent purposes – healing the sick, protecting children and pregnant women from harm, guarding against demons and the Evil Eye. The spells often contained biblical verses and drawings of bound demons. One even quoted Talmud. The bowl pictured here, one of two I own, includes the verse from Zechariah 3:2, “May the LORD rebuke you, O Satan.”

Bowl with Aramaic incantation

Archeologists have also found amulets with similar, albeit shorter, incantations written by Jews throughout the Persian and Roman empires. They discovered Hebrew magic instruction manuals that list an astonishing variety of spells, some benevolent and some not. My favorite was one for winning at chariot races.

Meanwhile, I learned that the Talmud contains discussions of spells, amulets, demons, the Evil Eye, and other occult subjects. Some rabbis, including Rav Hisda, performed acts of magic themselves, but our Sages agreed that sorcery was predominantly the province of women. Though the Bible says, “You shall not allow a sorceress to live,” these women apparently practiced freely. They were respected professionals, not scary hags with pointy hats as in Wizard of Oz. The Talmud even tells of a rabbi who consulted the ‘head sorceress’ to learn a special protective spell.

When I read that Rav Hisda’s daughter demonstrated ways of protecting her husband Rava, a rabbi well versed in magic himself, from demons, I realized that my heroine was an enchantress! Indeed, sorceresses who inscribed incantation bowls were probably members of rabbinic families too, for what other Jewish women would be learned enough to create them?

In the end, the difference between Rav Hisda’s Daughter and novels like Harry Potter is that Harry’s magic is product of Rowling’s imagination, while I use actual, historical spells and procedures as found in incantation bowls, amulets, and the Talmud.

Maggie Anton

p.s. from Sheryl. If you are interesting in learning more, check our catalog for books on magic, incantations, amulets, or witchcraft. Also look for Maggie Anton’s earlier books on Rashi’s daughters.

Spaced Out

NASA picture star cluster R136

NASA picture star cluster R136

With Curiosity landing on Mars, it seems like a good time to address Jews in space … or at least religion in science fiction and fantasy. For those who are serious about their fun summer reading, here are a few suggestions.

In the past couple of years, we’ve purchased 3 books which address this issue: Sex, Politics, and Religion in Star Wars edited by Doulas Brode and Leah Deyneka (Scarecrow Press, 2012;) Morality for Muggles by Moshe Rosenberg (Ktav, 2011;) and Sacred Space by Douglas E. Cowan (Baylor University Press, 2010.)

“May the Force be with Jew,” says Andrew Bank, in the Star Wars anthology. He compares Judaism with “Jedi-ism.” Both systems have a long tradition of oral transmission; stress respect for the mentor/teacher; and emphasize the importance of actively choosing to act as a force of good. On the other hand, Julien Fielding finds many aspects of Eastern religions in the Star Wars series. He analyzes the characters’ names, costumes, and actions to find links to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism.

In Sacred Space, Cowan examines God, prophecy, and religion in many of my favorite (and much missed) television series. Many science fiction stories leave out any explicit mention of religion, but Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (in my opinion the best of the ST series) and Babylon 5 both featured many alien cultures, each with their own perspective on God and their own place in the universe. While the protagonists of the Stargate series had adventures on a different planet each week, the underlying story in the Stargate series was trace back the origin of life and to figure out how individuals and even whole species can achieve transcendence. Similarly, the remains of the mostly polytheistic human race in Battlestar Gallactica sought their planet or origin, while fighting with the monotheistic Cylons.

Moving back into our galaxy, Moshe Rosenberg finds lessons in Jewish values in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. His first chapter focuses on something near and dear to many kids’ hearts: breaking the rules. He shows that most of Harry’s rule breaking was to protect one or more of his friends. Rosenberg show examples from the Talmud and Tanach where breaking the rule was the best options. Other chapters focus on friendship, teachers, and prejudice.

For those more interested in the science, NASA has some amazing pictures of our planet, our galaxy, and beyond in their Picture of the Day gallery


p.s. Of course I know that many Jews actually have been in space – astronauts from several countries are members of the tribe!

Great links to the Jewish Book blogosphere

Jewish Book CarnivalThis month, the Jewish Book Carnival is hosted by the Prosen People. Check out their links!


“Ghetto Gelt: smuggled out of Warsaw, Poland…circa 1980”. A white post-it, attached to a plain envelope containing a few frayed paper bills, one coin. A gift from a friend of the Frances-Henry Library who had taken a tour of our Rare Book Room a few days earlier. I open the envelope and carefully spread out the contents on my desk. My vision blurs, and for a split second I stop breathing. I am holding “money” printed by the Germans for the use of Polish Jews, in the Lodz Ghetto. My first thoughts: What did this money buy? For how long? The many hands that touched this money – which ones of them survived? Which ones didn’t? And now that we were given this gift, how can we ensure that they are made visible and become useful to our academic pursuits at Hebrew Union College?

Zehn Mark bills

10 Mark Bills

I let Librarian sensibilities take over, and turn to Sheryl, our consummate cataloger, for help.

“Realia”, she determines, we’ll catalog them as artifacts. In our world, as Wikipedia explains, the term realia refers to three-dimensional objects from real life such as coins, etc., that do not easily fit into the orderly categories of printed material. They can be either man-made (artifacts, tools, utensils, etc.) or naturally occurring (specimens, samples, etc.), usually borrowed, purchased, or received as donation for use in classroom instruction or in exhibits.

5 Mark Bills

5 Mark Bills

Initial research yields a source that holds the details that will help us describe and place the money in its context: Jewish Ghettos’ and Concentration Camps’ Money (1933-1945) by Zvi Stahl (1990). The second chapter contains images identical to the paper money we now own, and the story behind the German decision to produce it. We now have the tools, and soon enough the objects are placed in protective envelopes and the record entered in our online catalog. They join items such as stamps, coins, photographs and playing cards that enrich our collection, presenting opportunities to touch, smell and make good use of tokens of our past.

50 Pfennig bills

50 Pfennig bills

Post script: the Lodz Ghetto money was presented to the library while I was away in Israel. During a visit with one of my uncles, Yaʻakov Refalovich,  he presented me with a copy of his memoirs, hand-written by him, printed and bound by his grandchildren for his 80th birthday. One of the chapters in the books told the story of his survival in the Lodz Ghetto. Having been published in a limited edition, the book was placed in the Rare Book Room as well. A week before Holocaust Memorial day…and so it goes…

Yaffa Weisman