Magic Bowls: A Key to the World of the Talmud?

December 22, 2014 | Shai Secunda
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The Babylonian Talmud contains a vast wealth of information about the Jewish society that, from the 3rd to 7th century, produced it, but historians have been confounded in their quest to find evidence outside the Talmud itself. The sole exception consists of inscriptions found on bowls containing “precise, technical formulations to bind demonic forces magically and prevent them from inflicting harm.” Scholars have now published the first of a projected multivolume series of annotated translations of these inscriptions. Meanwhile, Shai Secunda writes, the novelist Maggie Anton has released the first two volumes of a projected three-part work of historical fiction (free registration required):

By imagining the female relatives of prominent talmudic sages publicly producing magic bowls and other sorceries, Anton locates the magical arts at the very center of classical Jewish life. Unlike historical romances in which sex is breathlessly subversive and sorcery shocks, Anton keeps her sex scenes light and playful and marries traditional rabbinic piety with ancient sorcery. This is what makes [her novel] Rav Hisda’s Daughter so surprising and, one might argue, so compelling. The relentlessly undramatic nature of the series is its genius.

The resurfacing of the magic bowls in contemporary popular culture is a phenomenon worthy of note, not just for book-of-the-month clubs and avant-garde artists. Scholars ought to take heed. Anton is on to something. Rav Hisda’s Daughter raises fascinating questions about what [academic scholars of the Talmud] mean when speaking of “elite” in rabbinic culture, how rabbinic homes functioned simultaneously as both yeshivas and boisterous family estates, and how women and men actually interacted in these close spaces.

Set alongside the [the scholarly volume] Aramaic Bowl Spells, Anton’s forthrightly middlebrow novel proves to be an unexpected invitation to think about these questions. Most surprisingly, it suggests a way of re-conceiving the relationship between the Talmud and the magic bowls, and the lost Babylonian world that gave birth to Judaism.

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