Review, "Oral Law, Oral Magic: Some Observations on Talmudic Magic"
This article was interesting to me in that it pointed out some passages in the Talmud dealing with magic of which I had previously been unaware. Despite this interest, I found the basic premise of this article flawed.
The central thesis of the paper is that "nearly all Talmudic magic has an oral performance." The writer discusses the Talmudic narrative regarding amulets and states that "From the Talmudic discussion on the Mishnah it is clear that it refers to a written amulet: 'Our Rabbis taught: What is an expert amulet? One that has healed [once], a second time and a third time; whether it is an amulet in writing or an amulet of roots...'." The problem with this statement should be obvious to anyone reading it. The passage clearly leaves open that the amulet could either be of writing or of roots, so I am at a loss in understanding how the writer arrived at the statement: "it is clear that it refers to a written amulet". Clearly, it could be a written amulet, but the passage leaves open that it could also be roots. The idea that it could also be roots does not, of course, support the author's argument that "nearly all Talmudic magic has an oral performance." In other words, the author shows his central thesis to be flawed as soon as he begins to discuss what is actually written in the Talmud.
When analyzing and attempting to draw conclusions from a document, it is important to understand and keep in mind the nature and intent of the document. In the case of the Talmud, it should be remembered that the Talmud is a legal document. It is concerned with the Oral Law. It is not a medical treatise even though it regularly discusses medical issues and cures, and should not, therefore, be expected to spend equal effort on each of the medical practices of the time. Roots are not, as far as I can remember, proscribed by the Torah. Because of this, the legality of their use is not a very complicated situation. Written amulets and spoken spells generally call upon names of powers, and are therefore a much more complicated situation legally. There are two major issues at play with amulets. The first issue is the question of idolatry and paganism, if the amulet calls upon powers other than the Lord and his angels, and sometimes even the calling on of angels is called into legal question. The second issue is the proper use and treatment of divine names and biblical passages. These questions make amulets and spells worthy of legal discussion, and therefore, discussion in the Talmud. The author touches on these issues in the article, such as the question of bringing biblical passages on amulets into the toilet. One does not have the same issue with roots. There is no reason not to bring them into the toilet. When this is understood, one does not need to come to the conclusion of the author that: "The fact that the Talmudic discussion elaborates mainly on aspects that are relevant to written amulets, suggests that for the Rabbis of the Talmud - and not necessarily for those of the Mishnah - the average amulet was a written one."
The author then goes on to mention the widespread use of written amulets in other culture and the large body of Jewish written amulets surviving from antiquity. What he does not seem to consider is that metal and clay amulets are much more likely to survive the elements over a thousand or more years than a root. Even if a dried root did survive the test of time, the archaeologist who might have dug it up would have little to suggest that it was an artifact of magical use. Considering how many incantation bowls were found by non-archaeologists, who recognized them as valuable enough to sell, we can imagine that any surviving roots dug up would have been discarded as rubbish. We cannot, therefore, use the survival of such amulets as evidence that they may have been more common than amulets of roots.
Once these central points are shown to not be built on any solid foundation, the succeeding points in this short article fall flat as a result. What we are left with is a few pages pointing out a few of the more interesting magical passages in the Talmud.
- B.R. Gendler