Friday, June 26, 2009

Bowling for the Bowls

Day two the conference took an archaeological turn. Siam Bhayro (Exeter) discussed certain aspects of Jewish divorce documents in the Judaean desert, Gaonic descriptions, the Cairo geniza, and the Aramaic incantation bowls. A well known law expressed by Abaye at b. Gittin 85b discusses some funny orthographic requirements for divorce documents.

אמר אביי: האי מאן דכתב גיטא, לא לכתוב ודין דמשמע ודין אלא ודן, ולא לכתוב איגרת דמשמע איגרת אלא אגרת, ולא לכתוב לימהך דמשמע לי מהך, ולא לכתוב למחך דמשמע כי חוכא, דיתיהוייין דיתיצבייין תלתא תלתא יודי"ן דמשמע תהויין ותצביין, ולורכיה לוי"ו דתירוכין ולוי"ו דשבוקין דמשמע תריכין ושביקין, ולורכיה לוי"ו דכדו דמשמע וכדי, ולא ליכתוב לאיתנסבא דמשמע לא יתנסבא אלא להתנסבא.

Bhayro discussed three of these: The requirement to write ודן instead of ןדין, to write אגרת instead of איגרת, and to elongate the wuw in תירוכין and שבוקין. Abaye's statement is obviously prescriptive, and Bhayro tested whether this was followed at various stages in Jewish history. An interesting linguistic discussion ensued from his discussion of a related document from the Judaean desert, Murabba'at 19, which Milik transcribes as having בדין, and understands as ב + דין. The problem is that a temporal adjective is not suited for a legal document of this sort. One would expect something like "hereby." More problematic is the fact that Milik's reading is a reconstruction to begin with. In other words, the old case of a reconstruction that then creates problems which need to be solved. Bhayro suggested כדין which is performative, fits the context much better, and means something like "I hereby (lit., thus), in according with this... In other words כ the preposition and דין a demonstrative pronoun. Even though this is not identical to the rabbinic ודין, it still seems to relate to the rabbinic conception of the document.

The march of history: Geniza gittin show a mixture of observance and neglect of these principals. So T-S 19J2.5 r. 15-17 (11th century Fustat, Egypt) has them, while T-S 10J2.2 r. 14-16 writes כדין. However, the absence of witnesses makes one wonder if it was ever used. Still, T-S 10J2.31 r. 11-13 was validated with witnesses, and like T-s 10J3.7 r. 7-9 has כדין, with a yod.
This brings us to bowls, which were sometimes conceived of as a divorce document with which to banish certain demons (particularly our old friend , Lilith). You see, demons did not simply invade the home or body, but actually contracted a certain kind of marriage, perhaps in the rabbinic mind effected through relations (m Qiddushin 1:1). And the only way to terminate the marriage is through death or divorce. And indeed, some bowls followed divorce document requirements. The precise dates in some bowls (mentioned by Shaked) points in this direction, as does the lengthened wuw in תירוכין in Schoyen 1927/39:8, and 2053/165:9-10. Still there is little consistency, and one of the latter retains the yod in איגרת.
The provocative point that was made is that not only were rabbis "consumers" of the bowls, as we learned from Shaked, but rabbinic scribal culture seems to have been connected with bowl production culture as well. References to rabbinic literature in the bowls are well known, but less known is the scribal artistic level of some bowls. This makes it likely that rabbinic scribes, schooled in the rabbinic scribal arts, were moonlighting as bowl producers.
Discussion following the paper involved M. Geller advancing a fascinating possibility - that Abaye's discussion of funny orthographic requirements moves in the opposite direction - from the world of magic where this kind of precision is need to divorce documents. Abaye is associated with magic in the Bavli, and even seems to push back against proto-rationalism [b. Hullin 105b, see Y. Elman, "The world of the "Sabboraim" : cultural aspects of post-redactional additions to the Bavli," in J. Rubenstein, ed. Creation and Composition (Tuebingen, 2005)]

With the audience energized after a coffee break, Naame Vilozny (Hebrew U) kept the ball rolling with a fascinating discussion of the iconography of the bowls - a sorely understudied aspect of the bowls. Part of the value of the two main pools of Jewish Babylonian archaeological remains is the iconagraphy in the seals and in the bowls. The bowls contain many pictures of demons, and some parallel talmudic passages. Bowls contain:
1.) human images mixed with angelic characteristics, which corresponds to b. Hagigah 16 and efforts (b. Gittin 66a) to compare and contrast demons and humans.
2.) Pictured with bird feet. Here there is some correspondence to the text of bowls - like דקריא כלילי כי (גבר) מידמיא להון כבני אינשא. And this seems to be a holdover from ancient conceptions - like Lamashtu amulets. This are numerous talmudic paralels, like the b. Berakhot recipe for seeing demons, and the b. Gittin version of Solomon and Ashmedai. In the bowls the most common way this is done is with three straight lines pointing downwards.
3.) Long tangled hair (also a feature of Lamashtu), and Iranian conceptions as well. Lilith, of course, is depicted as having long hair (b. Eruvin) and a Sasanian amulet from the 5th century held in the Met is a good example of this.
4. Goat horns and animal ears. Goats and demons have been together for millennia. Goatmen and horned Shahmaen are depicted in remains from 3000BCE, and this is true in ancient Iranian texts (not as old) and in Phoenician conceptions (Pazzuzu) as late as the 6th century BCE. The biblical scapegoat may point in this direction and there are other references in the Bible. Incredibly, there is a close textual link between a Dead Sea Scroll passage (11Q 11) which describes horned beings פניך פני [שו]ר? וקניך קרני חט[ו]ם. This line more or less shows up in magical texts from the geniza and in the bowls as well. The horns also corresponds to b. Gittin description of the קטב ישוד צהרים.
5.) Bound figures appear in the bowls. This motif already appears with the binding of Nuzi. We're talking about shackled legs, hands crossed over the chest and bound - iike depictions of Assyrian prisoners of war and also some female figurines from Egypt. Cf. Ashmedai (again, b. Gittin 61a-b) where Ashmedai is bound by the name of God.
6. The bowls have figures holding weapons (left hand) and palm branches. These seem to be depicting the sorcerers instead of the demons. They are not bound, and do not have any of the above characteristics. The palm was an important symbol in Assyrian art, but here it's use is reminiscent of the waving of the lulav (Sukkah 35b) which restrains evil spirits. These images can be found in bowls in the Penn collection and the Schoyen collection.
As expected, the images sometimes match up with talmudic conception, and sometimes do not. More work needs to be done on the bowls, but oh boy, do they create an impression. The ooh's and awww's were frequent during this talk.
In the Q+A Saint John asked about non-magical figures in some Mandaic bowls, and again, the Derekht Eretz principle ruled the day. Others suggested parallels with the Greek Magical Papyri. Naama agreed that there were similarities, but in her assessment the most significant influence on the art is from ancient Babylonia. This suggests that the bowls continue a very old, indigenous tradition now inscribed on new objects, with new magical heroes (i.e. R. Yehoshua b. Qarha). The more things change, the more they stay the same.


  1. Where might one find a good bibliography for the magic bowls?

  2. Scott Noegel used to have a great bibliography online at his website (, but it seems to have disappeared. Michael Morony has a good bibliography in his recent article on the topic, "Religion and the Aramaic Incantation Bowls" in Religion Compass 2 (2007).

  3. What would it mean to transfer scribal requirements from the bowls to the Get? Does the get effect some sort of magic too? Is that the point?

  4. I don't think Geller was saying that; rather, that once the genre of normal gittin was influenced by "magical" gittin (since it seems the same scribes were writing both bowls and normal gittin), some of the requirements were transferred over. My personal opinion is that the gravity of freeing a married woman carries enough weight to lead to obsessions about nicknames and these orthographic peculiarities.

  5. I'm with you: the sugya is clearly aiming at clarity of meaning and apearance.

  6. Ari, try here:

  7. here's that excellent bibiliography:


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