Thursday, June 25, 2009

Naming Names

A few years ago when "Matt and Judy" were under extreme pressure to start "naming names" in the Valerie Plame CIA leak investigation, Shaul Shaked delivered a paper at Hebrew U where he too set out to do just that - in other words, name certain rabbis as clients and "targets" in the Aramaic Incantation bowls. I was out of town at the time and when I returned, I begged for the transcript, but to no avail. The paper was not yet ready for circulation, and I would have to wait, which I did, but patiently, which I did not. Four years later at the UCL conference there was an encore performance which did not disappoint.

In fact, Shaked was interested in more then merely naming names in the bowls. He began with a discussion of the few dozen Sasanian Jewish seals in collections around the world, which he has published and which have recently been (re)analyzed in Daniel M. Friedenberg's somewhat pretentiously titled Sasanian Jewry and Its Culture (University of Illinois Press, 2008) A well known example is the seal of Huna b. Natan in Haifa University's Hecht collection. The seal depicts the usual lulav and etrog, but also an object in the center that Shaked identified as an incense shovel. Decades ago it was suggested that the seal was that of our very own Huna b. Natan [though this is questioned in Geoffrey Herman's dissertation on the exilarch (Hebrew University, 2005)], and Shaked used his discussion about the Huna b. Natan seal and others similar to it in order to advance the following argument: We can't be completely sure that the owners of the seals are to be connected with the names familiar to us from rabbinic literature - especially when the names are common, like Huna and Natan. Still there is something to be said for the fact that only somewhat important people would have had seals to begin with. This narrows the pool significantly. A similar kind of argument can be made for the bowls. Of course the bowls were owned by virtually everyone. Rich, poor, mighty and meek. But the title "rabbi" that appears before certain names limits the number of possible "matches" significantly. In amoraic Babylonia, it does seem that R. meant more than simply teacher. The challenge however with names in the bowls is that as in most healing contexts, we usually have the mother's name instead of the patronymic, while in rabbinic literature it is the father's name that rules that day.
On to the main event:
1. R. Aha b. Rav Huna is named in a bowl in the Schoyen collection as a neighbor that abutted the field of the bowl's client. There are a couple of amoraim of this name, one in the 4th century and the other in the 6th. So this revelation is not so exciting, as it merely shows that rabbis lived next to people who used magical bowls.
2. Rav Dimi Bar Sarah appears in a few bowls. Again, 4th or 6th centuries.
3. Rav Sehora b. Immi appears in Dan Levine's archive.
4. BM 040A. Mar Zutra b. Ukhma was misidentified by Segal in his collection of British Museum bowls as merely a pejorative for the person who was being "targeted" by this aggressive bowl ("Mr. Small the son of Black)" This is highly unlikely (a) because Mar does not simply mean Mr. in Aramaic but someone of importance, (b) because magic requires precision, and there is no way a nickname would have been used, (c) because these names are common anyway - not unlike Klein and Schwartz! Just as Schwartz is not a pejorative but a real last name, so is Ukhma. In this case, the name is extremely common and there were numerous Mar Zutra's in rabbinic literature throughout the generations. This raises the possibility that it is just some important Zutra out there, but no one in rabbinic literature.
5. Rav Ashi b. Mahlafta (Tarshish bowl JA1). A Rabbi of this name appears in the Bavli and seems to have lived at the end of the fourth to early fifth centuries. Incidentally, he was a contemporary of Huna b. Natan. This case is probably the most significant, since Ashi is not a common name, and only one person in rabbinic literature, of extreme importance for talmudic history, carries the title.
The text of the bowl is itself fascinating. Typical beginning:
אסו[תא] מ[ן שמיא תהוי לר]ב אשי בר מחלפתא...
but things quickly get interesting. There is a visionary, hekhalot poetic section about God:
"? is his name, ש is his name, Amotz is his name, rwy is his name, Raziel is his name....King of king of kings is his name, kzyh is his name, which burns he repairs (it) above and over the highest heavens, in the palace of fire and hail, including its chariots and the heaven..."
There also is a very long section about the splitting of the sea which is midrashic in nature. Shaked suggested that the bowl's client, Rav Ashi, may have had input in the decision of what to include in the bowl. The text ends with אשבעית וא[...]מית ואומיתי על רוחא בישא דשלטה בה ברב אשי בר מחלפתא דתיעידי ותיזח ותיקפץ ותיגלי מן רב אשי בר מחלפתא מן יומה דין ולעלם אמן אמן סלה
6. Finally, we have a Rav Yosef b. Imma de-Immah in a bowl which seems to have come from Borsippa, Iraq. This bowl was published by Harviainen, "Syriac Incantation Bowl in the Finnish National Museum: A Specimen of Eastern Amamaic Îkoineâ," Studia Orientalia 51 (1982), but Shaked offered a new reading and translation. Harviainen had read Jesus into the divine names in this bowl, but Shaked considers this highly speculative. Unfortunately, there was not enough time to look at this bowl in detail.

The drama of it all derived primarily from the supposed revelation that rabbis were engaged in magic. This is not news, especially after Gideon Bohak's recent book. But there is something sublime about coming into "contact" with the rabbis that we engage in study - their names now engraved in real objects that they (may) have left behind. The irony here is that we have almost nothing of that sort in Roman Palestine, maybe even including this blog's banner (See Steven Fine's recent discussion). The sense was palpable that the enormous number of bowls which still have not been published hold tremendous potential. Michael Morony wrote just a few years ago that the data contained in the bowls is valuable for everyone - not only "magician colleagues". Shaked alluded to other fascinating features in some of these bowls - including dates which could have been included because some of the bowls were seen as divorce documents (more on that, later).

Fear not, the requisite skepticism was voiced in the Q and A. But these small findings are, at least for me, of great importance. What now needs to happen is for Talmudists to get involved and go over the material carefully, in concert with scholars of the bowls. Any volunteers?

UPDATE: There seem to be more "Ravs" in the bowls. Just came across a Rav Mari b. Mamah in British Museum 024A-024b. This bowl is a divorce document and even features four (! - a kohen?!) witnesses: Rav Rivay b. Marti, and Tzeruiah b. Shiltay, Barbe'ammeh b. Mesharshetana and Qanyah b. Nahlat.


  1. Sure! Got an open position? :-)

  2. I'm in! Where are the bowls kept during the year, and who is working on them? Is there a timetable in terms of publication?

    Also, what data have been considered when making a statement like, "X is an uncommon name"?

  3. Sorry guys, my "any volunteers" was more open-ended rhetorical than anything else. What I mean is that Talmudists need to collaborate in serious ways with scholars of the bowls re: analysis of the bowls in general and the "named" bowls in particular. Different bowls are kept in different places, but generally the professional photographs of the bowls suffice. The difficulty is gaining access to them. Supposedly, Dan Levine has a website that he's working on which contains a nice collection of photos, but because of rights and funding issues it is not yet open to the public.
    In terms of publication of the UCL conference proceedings (where the Shaked article is going to be published) I understand that it will be a relatively quick process, as Mark Geller (the organizer) seems to get these things out at impressive speed. If you guys are interested, I would suggest that you make the contacts...


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