Thursday, July 09, 2009

Gideon Bohak, Ancient Jewish Magic: A History. Cambridge, UK/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. ix, 483. ISBN 9780521874571. $135.00.

Reviewed by David Frankfurter, University of New Hampshire ( )

Word count: 2445 words

This learned and thoughtful book, building on the spate of publications of Jewish magical texts over the past thirty years (as well as the refinement of the study of magic in the ancient Mediterranean world), aims first of all to replace Ludwig Blau's 1914 Das Altjüdische Zauberwesen as the essential resource on ancient Jewish magic. But Bohak, who readers might know best for his superb on-line collection of University of Michigan magical texts is also a very engaging writer. In many ways, Ancient Jewish Magic reads more like an extended essay on the place of magic in developing Jewish religion than a systematic tour of sources. With amusing metaphors and asides about contemporary Israeli politics, and at the same time little jargon, the book deserves (and rewards) a leisurely read as much as reference consultation. (Indeed, the publishers seem to have opted against reference consultation. The Table of Contents is so woefully inadequate, lacking all Bohak's critical sub-sections, that the volume can be difficult to consult for particular topics).

The overall goal of the book is to describe the development of Jewish magical practices from the Second Temple through late rabbinic eras. This development reflected an increasingly confident sense of what is foreign to Judaism, the increasing hegemony of rabbinic sages, and an increasingly textual sense of magic itself. Magic, in Bohak's perspective, was neither peripheral nor entirely central to formative Judaism.

UPDATE: Dead link now fixed. Sorry!