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“Magic” is a notoriously difficult term whose exact meaning tends to change from one scholarly treatment to the next. For the purpose of the current survey, magic is the attempt to achieve concrete results in the real world through actions that seek to harness or influence supernatural forces. However, as much of Judaism easily falls under such a definition, in the following survey we shall focus especially on practices that remained outside the framework of “normative Judaism” as embedded in its standard halakhic codes and prayer books.
Magical practices, such as various forms of divination, amulets or the use of incantations, were part and parcel of that concept of paganism, and they helped Christianity set up clear-cut boundaries by defining what is permitted from a Christian point of view and what is not. The late seventh and early eighth centuries marked an important turning point in the references made to magic and paganism in Western Europe. When considering the nature of magic and magical practices in the early medieval West, one has to keep in mind that magic was closely intertwined with the Christianised world-view of the post-Roman Barbarian world. No doubt people in the early medieval West possessed amulets and phylacteries, turned to witch doctors in times of illness and distress and attempted to intervene in the course of nature by swallowing potions or reciting incantations. These acts were interpreted by various Christian authors as magical and, more often than not, as pagan and diabolical.
Despite some progress in recent decades, the study of Jewish magic is still in its infancy. The few monographs devoted to this subject – most notably the classic treatments of Ludwig Blau and Joshua Trachtenberg – cover only small segments of the Jewish magical tradition, which spans at least from the Second Temple period all the way to the twenty-first century. And more recent work, including both the publication of numerous Jewish magical texts and some attempts at broader syntheses, has not yet grappled enough with the diachronic aspect of the Jewish magical texts, and with their diffusion and transformation over space and time. It is as a contribution to this important yet neglected topic that the following discussion of the Genizah magical texts and their transmission of some late antique Jewish magical recipes should be read. The significance of this contribution does not lie in the novelty of its main argument – that some of the magical texts from the Cairo Genizah are copies of magical texts from late antique Palestine and Egypt – for this point has already been made by others, but in the attempt to provide sound methodological guidelines which could supplement existing scholarly intuitions. It is for this reason that I shall begin with a brief general survey of the magical texts from the Cairo Genizah, move on to discussing the methods for distinguishing late antique materials in the Genizah magical texts and illustrating these methods with a concrete example, and end with some reflections on the wider implications of this claim for the study of late antique Jewish magic and its transmission history.
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