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Cambridge University Library

Throwback Thursday: Magic Moments

T-S K23.3
T-S K23.3 P2 (recto): Palimpsest of the magical work Sefer ha-Razim written over a ketubba. 10th-11th century.
Author: 
Melonie Schmierer-Lee
Thu 16 Sep 2021

Our Throwback Thursday this week is taken from issues 8 and 9 of the printed edition of Genizah Fragments, published in October 1984 and April 1985, by Shaul Shaked:

Among their varied treasures, the Cairo Genizah collections contain valuable materials for the study of a number of fields of Jewish and general interest for which they have, until now, hardly been used at all. Among these fields are Judaeo-Persian texts and magic fragments and it was to these that I devoted a few weeks at Cambridge University Library in the summers of 1983 and 1984.
Some of the oldest extant fragments of documents and literary compositions in Judaeo-Persian – that is, in the Persian written by Jews in Hebrew characters – have survived thanks to the Genizah. These are, in fact, some of the oldest extant documents in any form of neo-Persian. The oldest dated document of this group from the Genizah, or from any other source, carries a date which corresponds to 950 C.E. It is a court settlement over matters relating to family property and was issued by a Karaite court.
Some of the literary fragments written in Judaeo-Persian and preserved in the Genizah are actually remnants of what might have been an extensive Judaeo-Persian religious literature written by Karaites. That many of the leaders of the early Karaite movements came from Persia is a well-known fact, but in the Genizah we now find for the first time evidence for the use of Persian in their sectarian writings. We now have available to us specimens of Karaite Bible commentaries, of legal discussions and theology, and possibly of Hebrew grammatical analysis, all of them written in Persian in Hebrew characters.
Scholarly interest in the Judaeo-Persian material in the Genizah goes beyond the question of the Karaite connections of some of these fragments. The corpus of Judaeo-Persian texts from the Genizah is well in excess of 100 folios and it incorporates private letters and legal deeds, as well as such items as Bible commentaries, midrashic and halakhic compositions, medicine and magic. There are also fragments of poetry, both original (including at least one piece of popular poetry, probably designed to be sung at a wedding) and translated from Hebrew and Aramaic (usually liturgical compositions given as part of a prayer book, with the original poem in Hebrew or Aramaic copied together with the Judaeo-Persian version).
These fragments constitute about all that remains of the literature written and used by the Jews of Persia in the period which preceded the invasion of that country by the Mongols in the early twelfth century. Their conquests meant extensive devastation of many towns and villages in Iran and the complete disappearance of several Jewish communities. They were the cause of a profound disruption in the history of Iranian Jewry. 
The value of the discovery of these new texts can be better appreciated when we note that, with one exception, none of the literary products of the pre-Mongol period is known from any of the rich collections of Judaeo-Persian manuscripts in various libraries in Europe, the USA and Israel. Apart from their importance for historical and literary study, these fragments are also instructive for the study of the Judaeo-Persian language and of the development of Classical Persian. The early Judaeo-Persian fragments use an archaic form of New Persian and appear to have been written, for the most part, in the western regions of Iran, at a distance from the eastern area where literary New Persian was in the process of crystallization around the tenth century. The fact that they used the Hebrew script made the Jewish writers less dependent on the orthographic conventions which were at that time imposed on the writing of standard Persian in the Arabic script. They thus provide us with a valuable, independent witness for the division of Persian dialects in that early period.
The numerous fragments in the Cairo Genizah which relate to magic provide clear evidence of the prominent position which this type of activity enjoyed in Jewish and non-Jewish life. A general description of the material will demonstrate how interesting it is.
Magic material in the Genizah can be divided into two large groups: actual amulets and fragments of books. The former group comprises a fairly large number of texts and magic symbols written on sheets of paper, parchment or cloth, prepared for the use of a specific individual, often for a well-defined purpose, for example protection from disease, obtaining someone's love, gaining power, influence or wealth, etc. Some of the formulae used belong to traditional Hebrew-Aramaic phraseology, similar to that found in early incantation texts from Palestine and Asia Minor and in incantation bowls from Mesopotamia and Iran. Others employ the new language of magic which developed in Judaism under Islam and which blends older elements with Judaeo-Arabic phrases, and sometimes with phrases of Muslim-Arabic origin.
Another group of amulets from the Genizah consists of Muslim texts written in Arabic characters. Many of these amulets were originally folded tightly and it is possible that they were at one stage placed in containers shaped like phylacteries (tefillin), to be worn on the body or hung in the house.
The large group of magic texts which consist of fragments of books again falls into a number of different classes. There are books concerned with the theoretical background of magic practice that give detailed descriptions of the heavenly hosts and their functions. The most important and best known of these compositions is the ancient Sefer Ha-Razim, published by the late Mordecai Margaliot, but other compositions of a similar nature (though mostly of a later date) also exist, both in Hebrew and in Judaeo-Arabic.
Another category of magic texts offers recipes for various occasions, with the texts to be written on the appropriate amulets sometimes being used in conjunction with other means. The language of such books may be Hebrew or Judaeo-Arabic, and in one instance it is Judaeo-Persian. In some cases, one has the impression that one is dealing with a composition of some antiquity and with formulae that go back to the pre-Muslim period; other books are clearly products of Islamic times.
A large and interesting group of magic texts comprises books to be employed in divination; they represent different techniques of prediction, but it is not always easy to tell from the surviving fragments what system or praxis was used in connection with the text. Some of them are clearly based on the objects seen in a dream, and they thus belong to the vast and old fields of pitheron halomoth, ʿibarat al-ruʿya, the interpretation of dreams, which has Greek and Mesopotamian antecedents. Others are apparently based on a number being established (perhaps by throwing dice or by similar means), the number then being traced in the book of divination and interpreted according to the text which goes with it. Some seem to be based on personal names, while others carry more than one set of numbers or letters.
Among the fragments of texts in Muslim Arabic (in Arabic characters), we again find a certain number of fragments representing the main type of magical compositions in Muslim literature, and their study and identification may enrich our knowledge of the transmission of magic lore in Islam. 
The study of these texts amplifies our knowledge of pre-Kabala Jewish mysticism and shows both the continuity of the magic tradition from Talmudic times to the Islamic period, as well as the effects of the encounter with Muslim magic (which in its turn was also profoundly affected by Jewish elements). It is likely to help us gain a better understanding of popular religion, and in some cases it enriches our knowledge of Hebrew and Judaeo-Arabic with the type of vocabulary that is not normally represented in other kinds of writings.

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