Naming Demons: The Aramaic Incantation Bowls and Gittin

What the unique corpus of magical texts inscribed on bowls can teach us about the diffusion of the rabbinic laws of divorce in late antique Babylonia.


Incantation bowl with an Aramaic inscription around a demon. From Nippur, Mesopotamia 6th–7th ce. Photographer Marie-Lan Nguyen

The Aramaic Incantation Bowls

Across the ancient world, demons and other forces of evil were treated as genuine threats to reckon with. In Sasanian Mesopotamia from the fifth to the seventh centuries CE, clay Aramaic incantation bowls, commonly known as magic bowls were widely used to expel demons and protect houses.[1] The magic bowls were produced by scribes who wrote incantations, divine names, curses, and spells in ink on the surface of the bowl. Later, the bowl was buried upside down, usually in the home of the client who commissioned it.

The texts written upon the bowls constitute the only Jewish epigraphic material that survives from Babylonia at the time of the editing of the Talmud  (the earliest evidence of copied Talmudic texts are from the mid-eighth century),[2] so they are of considerable importance to the study of rabbinic literature. Although the incantation bowls are not mentioned explicitly in the Talmud, the use of amulets is mentioned in several places in rabbinic literature,[3] and the bowls refer to themselves as amulets, as can be seen from a common formula that appears on a number of them: הדין קמיע – “this amulet.”

The incantation bowls were not distant from classical Judaism, and some of their incantations parallel rabbinic literature and other ancient Jewish texts. Examples include:

  • Use of scripture: Many bowls have scriptural quotations, some of which are known from Jewish prayers and ancient amulets, for example: שמע ישראל (Deut. 6:4), ויהי בנסוע הארון (Num. 10:35), ויאמר ה’ אל השטן (Zech. 3:2).[4]   
  • Mishnah quotations: For instance, one bowl cites m. Zevahim 5:3.[5]
  •  The quotation of this mishnah is introduced by the word “בשום” (“in the name of”), a term that is normally used for invoking the power of deities and angels. The use of this term to introduce a quote from the Mishnah suggests that the rabbinic text itself was assumed to possess supernatural powers.
  • Rabbinical names: A number of rabbis are mentioned by name in the incantation bowls. Some of the rabbis show up as clients who commissioned the bowls, while others, like R. Yehoshua b. Peraḥia, who were considered to have supernatural powers, appear as exorcisers of demons.[6]
  • Quotations of blessings: Bowl 42 in the Isbell corpus reads as follows: “ברוך אתה ה’ רפא חולי כל בשר ומופלא לעשות אמן אמן סלה” (“Blessed are you, Lord, who heals all flesh and acts wondrously”). This blessing is quite similar to the ending of the blessing of Asher Yatzar that is in use to this day in the traditional Jewish prayer book. Several other examples of blessings, not all known from the traditional prayer, are written on bowls.
  • Legal formulae: [7] This includes terminology used in oaths and incantations, vows, pronouncements of ex-communication, and especially pronouncements of divorce. These legal formulae employ specific terms and technicalities that have parallels in biblical and Second Temple literature, rabbinic writings, and archeological findings.

Rabbinic Divorce Formulae in the Bowls

Many Aramaic incantation bowls present themselves, in various ways, as a writ of divorce (“גיטא”) to the demons who had attached themselves to the clients or the clients’ households. Some contain longer formulae and begin with the phrase הדין גיטא “this divorce document” – apparently referring to the entire bowl itself as a kind of get, while others only mention the divorce in a sentence or phrase.  The scribes transferred the divorce formulae from the world of divorce law to the world of magic.[8] While there is an obvious distinction between these two contexts (law and magic), in the eyes of the bowl practitioners, divorce rituals were assumed to be equally effective.

Studying the divorce formulae found in the bowls provides a window into the ideas and assumptions about magic current in late antique Babylonia, and also teaches us about the diffusion of the rules of divorce among Babylonian Jews.

Names and Nicknames in Gittin and the Bowls

The phrase “וכל שום דאית לה” (“and every name he/she has”) appears in the Jewish get as well as rabbinic literature and the incantation bowls.[9] It is on a large number of bowls;[10] for example, bowl M103, published and translated by Dan Levene:[11]

(1) הדין גיטא דליליתא דלוטתא די כתבית לה לאימי בת קאקי וכל שום דאית לה (2) תיתסי תינטרי תישתזבי …(5) מן חרשי מעבדי מן חרשי דזני זמרתא זניתא וליליתא ולוטתא דמקטלא בני דיליה בני (6) דחברתיה דאם תיהויין ראשהא ושליטא בנפשיכי לכל אינש דאיתצבין די כתבית ליכי גיטא גיט פיטורין מן הדא אימי בת קאקי כל שום (7) דאית לה.
(1) This is a divorce writ for the Lilith[12] that curses which I have written for Imi daughter of Qaqi and any name she has.  (2) May you be healed, may you be protected, may you be saved…(5) from every evil strong powerful spirit, from active sorcerers, from spells of ZNY the singer prostitute, and the Lilith, and the curse which is killing children that are hers, children (6) of her (female) neighborThat if you are permitted and have power over yourself (to be with) any person that you may desire, for I have written to you a deed of divorce, a writ of dismissal  from this Imi daughter of Qaqi (and) any (7) name that she has…

In Rabbinic literature, the term “וכל שום דאית לה” is first mentioned in m. Giṭtin 4.2:

בראשונה היה משנה שמו ושמה ושם עירו ושם עירה היתקין רבן גמליא’ הזקן שיהא כותב איש פלוני וכל שם שיש לו אשה פלונית וכל שם שיש לה מפני תיקון העולם.[13]
At first [the husband] would change his name and her name, his town’s name and her town’s name. Rabban Gamaliel the elder enacted for the reason of tikkun ha’olam (‘repair of the world’) that one should write ‘The man so-and-so and every name that he has’; ‘The woman so-and-so and every name that she has’.

The Mishnah suggests that Rabban Gamaliel enacted this requirement because people would change their names and would write names of their choosing in the geṭ. This practice apparently caused complications in the validity of the geṭ, prompting Rabban Gamaliel’s enactment to use the formula וכל שם שיש לו in the text.[14] From the wording of the Mishnah, it is not clear whether this general formula literally signifies: ‘any name he has’ or whether it is an instruction to fill in all existing names.

Giṭtin 34b provides one answer to this question:[15]

הה(ו)יא דהוו קרו לה מרים ופורתא שרה, אמרי נהרדעי: מרים וכל שום (וחניכה) דאית לה, ולא שרה וכל שום דאית לה.
There was a woman who was called Miriam by most people and Sarah by some. The Nehardean sages ruled that [in the geṭ she should be referred to as] ‘Miriam and every name she has’ and not ‘Sarah and every name she has’.

This Talmudic passage shows that the Nehardean sages enacted the addition of the formula “and every name she has” rather than writing every existing name of the divorcee out in detail. This addition became an essential part of the divorce in geonic times.[16]  Later, in divorce documents from the Cairo Genizah, we usually find the formula in a slightly different form: וכל שום וחניכא דאית לה, ‘and every name and nickname she has’.[17] On the other hand, from the middle ages through the present, the formula: וכל שום דאית ליה/לה has been interpreted in some places as listing all the names.[18]

The presence of the formula וכל שום דאית לה on the Aramaic incantation bowls indicates that it was in wide use in the Talmudic era, and was then understood in the manner of both the Babylonian Talmud and geonic literature – i.e., as a general term appearing after the name of the client of the divorce. Moreover, the bowls use the formula of the Babylonian Talmud: וכל שום דאית לה, without the word חניכא, as opposed to the formula found in Palestinian divorce documents from the Genizah (“וכל שום וחניכה דאית לה”). The bowls thus preserve a rabbinic formula from mishnaic times as interpreted in the Babylonian Talmud. Indeed, the appearance of the formula on the bowls may indicate the diffusion of rabbinic teachings in broader society.

Jewish Legal Magicians

This is only one of many examples of legal terminology used in these bowls.[19] Siam Bhayro and Dan Levene explain the surprising overlap between the world of magic and halakhah by suggesting that the bowls were sometimes written by professional scribes of legal documents (sofrim); indeed, this would also explain the expert scripts found on some of the bowls.[20]  In other words, the bowl scribes seem to have had knowledge from beyond their particular expertise as magicians, and were in a sense Jewish legal magicians.

Thinking of the bowl scribes as such can help recover the incantation bowls from what may have seen as an obscure corner of Jewish society. Locating the Aramaic incantation bowls firmly within the ancient Babylonian Jewish community opens up new lines of inquiry into the study of Aramaic incantation bowls which can help illuminate late antique Jewish culture and Jewish law.



Dr. Avigail Manekin–Bamberger is currently a doctoral candidate in the department of Hebrew Culture Studies at Tel Aviv University. Her thesis focuses on shared practices in rabbinical law and ancient Jewish magic, with special reference to Aramaic incantation bowls. She received her BA and MA in the Talmud department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  She has published articles on Jewish magic and rabbinic literature and was a collaborator on the Princeton Toledot Yeshu project.