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Curse or Blessing: What’s in the Magic Bowl?
By Dan Levine
The Ian Karsten Lecture given at the University of Southampton (2002)
Introduction: In this lecture I intend to look at magic bowls in order to see how and for what purpose they were used, and to get a glimpse at the way they worked and what hidden treasures can be found within them. Before considering the feast of images in these somewhat peculiar, some might say attractive objects, I should point out that the in essence their greatest importance lies not so much in their physical appearance, seductive though it might be, but in the texts within them.
The magic bowls, of which there are less than a couple of thousand, with only a few hundred having been deciphered and published so far, are, in essence, a collection of manuscripts. They represent a rare archive dated to a period that is no later than the seventh century CE: a period from which there is, in effect, no other current document in Jewish Aramaic; a dialect of the language that had been for almost a millennia, by that time, the lingua franca of the Near East.
Indeed, I must qualify this statement by adding that we do have one other document whose authorship and content is ascribed to the same period. That is, of course, the monumental literary compilation of the commentaries, thoughts, writings and other information from numerous rabbis and other Jews of that same period, namely the Babylonian Talmud. This quantification is, nevertheless, tempered by the fact that, whereas the bowls are actual manuscripts that were physically written at that time, the Talmud is a work that was copied over generations, so that the earliest manuscripts we have of it are from the 12th century.
The reason that magic bowl texts survived was simply due to the fact that they were written with a permanent ink on earthenware pots that were buried soon after. Whereas, all other written material, letters, literature, receipts, accounts, Scripture, liturgy, etc., everything,… was written on materials such as vellum or parchment and were thus doomed to perish.