Thursday, November 18, 2021

More on the "Magic of the Shema" at the Israel Museum

EXHIBITION: Hear, O Israel: There are magic powers in the Shema. Hear, O Israel: There are magic powers in the Shema (Jessica Steinberg, Times of Israel).

A word of caution about the following:

But the arrival of a 1,500-year-old silver armband inscribed with some of the words of the Jewish text led an Israel Museum archaeology staffer to some surprising discoveries about the Shema and its protective qualities.

The discoveries and artifacts are on display in “Hear, O Israel: The Magic of the Shema,” on display in the archaeology wing of the museum until April 2022.

The silver cuff, wide, durable and covered with Greek script, was part of a bequest of artifacts that arrived at the Israel Museum several years ago.

The silver cuff is a lovely object, but it raises a couple of red flags. First, it was included in "a bequest of artifacts." I can only read that as saying it is unprovenanced. Second, the article says that the object is more typical of Christian amulets and that the presence of the Shema on it is unique. The more unusual the object, the more closely we should attend to its authenticity. Objects like this one are relatively easy to forge and the forgery can be hard to detect.

My default assumption is that an unprovenanced inscribed artifact is a forgery unless someone makes a credible positive case that it is genuine. In such cases, a close look at the material composition and construction of the object is a desideratum.

I am not asserting that this object is a forgery. But I don't see the case for its authenticity being made yet.The article makes no reference to its authentication. I have also looked at the published edition of the text by the decipherer, which you can read here at It presents a critical edition and commentary on the text, but does not address authentication per se.

The object from an individual's bequest. I'm sure the individual thought he had a genuine artifact, but collectors can sometimes be fooled about such things. If it is a forgery, it's a good one. But epigraphic forgers are getting better and better.

Perhaps there is a positive case for the object's authenticity. If so, I would be pleased if someone would send it to me so I can note it and, hopefully, link to it. As it is, we don't even know the circumstances the owner reported about its acquisition.

For now, I register my skepticism that it is a genuine ancient artifact. I am happy to be corrected if there is additional information. Indeed, I would be delighted to be wrong on this.

Oddly the decipherer is reported to say the following:

There’s no magic per se in Judaism, said [Israel Museum staffer Nancy] Benovitz, but there are elements that show up in these bowls, books, and scrolls, in which verses are alternated and repeated, or in which words are manipulated or written backwards.
The statement is not in quotation marks, which makes me wonder if the reporter is mistakenly paraphrasing something Ms. Benovitz said. You can only say that there is no magic per se in Judaism if you move the goalposts a good distance on what constitutes magic. All religious traditions, Judaism included, inevitably include an unofficial stream of magic.

I have already noted this exhibition here, with links to posts on other, related exhibitions.

In just the last several years I have noted some books and articles on (mostly ancient) Jewish magic here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. And I posted the full text of my own 2020 conference paper (now in press as an article) on the late-antique Jewish magical handbook Sefer HaRazim here.

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