Monday, September 05, 2005

Practical magic

I started reading Yuval Harari's article in the latest Pe'amim. It is a study of the use of magic bowls in the Middle East since Antiquity. The only remarkable thing about this article is its point of departure. Harari saw a newspaper clipping from 1997, with a photo of a magic plate that had turned up in the Yeroham cemetery. The plate had been wrapped in plastic and placed in a fresh grave. In other words, it was placed there in the 1990s. The plate itself is modern, as evidenced by the trademarks stamped into it.

A Yeroham rabbi is quoted as denouncing this act of agression, meant to scare the inhabitants of Yeroham, and also declared that it reflected a tradition foreign to Judaism.

The writing on the plate was clearly meant to be apotropaic - the recurring supplication is "refu'ah guf, refu'ah nefesh", healing for the body, healing for the soul. The aggression the rabbi was alluding to probably had more to do with local politics than it did with the content of the plate.

Jews have been producing magic bowls for centuries. And their purpose was usually benign, achieved by invoking holy or angelic names, or biblical and mythical motifs. In one case (a bowl that has not yet been published), a mishnah provides the magic. But this praxis, found throughout the Middle East in Late Antiquity, changed character in Muslim society. There it became associated with a different kind of magic, one of power channeled into the body . The bowl or plate would be filled with water and then swallowed by the person who was supposed to benefit from the magic. It is this tradition which was behind the magic plate of Yeroham. And Harari will explore it more in his next installment.


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