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

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.

Avigail Manekin Bamberger

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 excommunication 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 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 Lilith12 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) neighbor. That 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 14וכל שם שיש לו. 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.


Avigail Manekin–BambergerAvigail 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. 
  1.  For a comprehensive overview see: D. Levene, ”Curse or Blessing, What’s in the Magic Bowl?”, Parkes Institute Pamphlet 2 (University of Southampton 2002); G. Bohak, Ancient Jewish Magic: A History (Cambridge 2008, 183-193); Y. Harari, Early Jewish Magic: Study, Method, Sources (Jerusalem 2010), {Hebrew}, 182-196. Scholarship on the bowls  goes back to the mid-nineteenth century, and various important scholarly editions were published during the 20th century. The major publication include: A.H. Layard, Discoveries in the Ruins of Ninveh and Babylon, (London 1853), 434 – 448; J. A. Montgomery, Aramaic Incantation Texts From Nippur (Philadelphia 1913); C. Isbell published most of the bowls that were published before 1975 in C. D. Isbell, Corpus of the Aramaic Incantation Bowls (Missoula 1975); Other major collections include J. Naveh and S. Shaked, Amulets and Magic Bowls (Jerusalem 1985); Ibid., Magic Spells and Formulae (Jerusalem 1993); J.B. Segal, Catalogue of the Aramaic and Mandaic Incantation Bowls in the British Museum (London 2000); D. Levene, A Corpus of Magic Bowls (London 2003); Ibid., Jewish Aramaic Curse Texts from Late-Antique Mesapotamia (Leiden 2013);  C. Muller-Kessler, Die Zauberschalentexte in der Hilprecht-Sammlung, Jena, und weitere, Nippur-Texte anderer Sammlungen (Wiesbaden 2005); and S. Shaked, J.N. Ford and S. Bhayro, Aramaic Bowl Spells; Jewish Babylonian Aramaic Bowls, 1 (Leiden 2013). Since the turn of the 21st century many more bowls were discovered and published, and future publication of some hundreds more, is expected over the next few years.
  2. See Robert Brody, “The Talmud in the Geonic Period,” in Printing the Talmud: From Bomberg to Schottenstein (eds. Sharon Liberman Mintz and Gabriel M. Goldstein; New York, 2005), 31.
  3. One typical reference to amulets appears in sugyot that discuss demonic forces by name. The Talmud explains that one needs to know the names of these forces in order to compose effective amulets. See for example b. Pesaḥim 111b and b. Gittin 77b.
  4.  See A. Faraj, ”An Incantation Bowl of Biblical Verses and a Syriac Incantation Bowl for the Protection of a House”, in Proceedings of the 13th Italian Meeting of Afro-Asiatic Linguistics (eds. F.M Fales & G.F. Grassi; Padova 2010), 205-212; C. Müller-Kessler, “The Use of Biblical Quotations in Jewish Aramaic Incantation Bowls”, in Studies on Magic and Divination in the Biblical World (eds. H.R. Jacobus et al.; New Jersey 2013), 227–245;  P. T. Lanfer, “Why Biblical Scholars Should Study Aramaic Bowl Spells,” Aramaic Studies, 13.1 (2015): 9-23.
  5. S. Shaked, ”Magic Bowls and Incantation Texts: How to Get Rid of Demons and Pests”, Quadmoniot 129 (2005): 2-13. (Hebrew); and Shaked, Ford and Bhayro, Aramaic Bowl Spells, 22-23. Shaked suggests that the bowl scribes might have known this mishnah through prayer, since it is recited as part of the section commonly known as korbanot.
  6. Some examples that were recently published by Shaked:, רב דימי בר שרה, רב סחורה בר אימי, מר זוטרא בר אוקמי, רב אשי בר מחלפתא.Ibid., ‘Rabbis in Incantation Bowls’, in The Archeology and Material Culture of the Babylonian Talmud (ed. M. Geller; Leiden 2015), 97-120. It is important to note that the rabbis named in the bowls do not entirely match the names of rabbis we know from rabbinical texts, since in the bowls the names are usually cited with the name of the mother, contrary to rabbinic texts where the rabbis’ names are normally recorded with the patronym. This makes it difficult to conclusively identify the rabbis mentioned in the bowls.
  7.  For the use of formal and legal language in the Aramaic incantation bowls, see: Y. Breuer, “The Babylonian Aramaic in Tractate Karetot according to MS Oxford (Bodl. heb. b. 1),” Aramaic Studies 5 (2007):  23—25; M. Morgenstern, “On Some Non-Standard Spellings in the Aramaic Magic Bowls and their Linguistic Significance,” Journal of Semitic Studies 52 (2007): 248—249; idem., Ha-Aramit ha-Bavlit ha-Yehudit bi-teshuvot ha-geʼonim : ʻiyunim be-torat ha-hegeh, bi-tetsurat ha-poʻal, be-khinuyim uve-signon, (PhD diss., Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2002), 9-15.
  8. A similar phenomenon occurs in the use of liturgy. In all likelihood, the scribe does not view his bowl as a replacement for the prayer book, but rather he borrows liturgical formulae for his magic spells in order to achieve the goal of exorcizing demons.
  9. For more examples see A. Manekin Bamberger, “Jewish Legal Formulae in the Aramaic Incantation Bowls,” Aramaic Studies, 13.1 (2015): 69-81.
  10. The formula is found less frequently after pronouncing the name of a demon. See for example bowl JBA 24 (MS 2053/251), line 13: ‘אנתי לילי וכל שום דאית ליכי’, in S. Shaked, J. N. Ford and S. Bhayro, Aramaic Bowl Spells; Jewish Babylonian Aramaic Bowls, p. 138.
  11. See D. Levene, A Corpus of Magic Bowls (London 2003), 51-52.
  12. Lilith is the name of a demon with ancient Semitic roots that is mentioned a few times in the Bavli. See for example b. Shabbat 151b: ‘R. Hanina said: One may not sleep in a house alone, and whoever sleeps in a house alone is seized by Lilith.’
  13. The text is taken from the Mishnah manuscript Kaufmann A50
  14. Saul Lieberman attributes the need for Rabban Gamaliel’s enactment to the historical circumstances of the time of the Mishnah. According to Lieberman, people at that time did not often leave their place of residence. When they did leave, it was usually under compulsion. In certain cases, the wives would return to their father’s home, and the husband would send the geṭ using new names, thereby causing a problem with the validity of the geṭ; see S. Lieberman, Tosefta ki-feshuṭah: beʼur arokh la-Tosefta, Seder Nashim (New York 1973), 894-896.
  15.  The text is according to the Vatican, BAV Cod. ebr. 130 manuscript. The word וחניכא (nickname) does not appear in the other manuscripts and here it is erased by the scribe. It seems that the initial addition of the word may have been due to the scribe’s familiarity with the medieval geṭ, which states שום וחניכא (name and nickname).
  16.  See Halakhot Gedolot (ed. Hildesheimer), 187; S. Assaf, ‘The Book of Documents of Rav Hai Gaon, Edited from MSS Leningrad and Oxford with Introduction and Notes’, Supplement to Tarbiz 1 (1930), 17-18. (Hebrew)
  17.  Yechezkel David investigated the Jewish divorce documents from the Cairo Genizah and found that only from the thirteenth century onwards חניכא  was written in divorce documents outside of Palestine. This conclusion accords with findings from the incantation bowls and rabbinic literature. See Y. David, Ha-Geṭ ṿe-nusḥaʼotaṿ: ʻal pi teʻudot me-ha-genizah u-meqorot aḥerim (Master’s Thesis, Tel Aviv University, 1991), 46-47.
  18.  See for example the Tosafot on b. Giṭtin 34b, who claim that the term must not be understood as a general term, because those who do not have additional names and nicknames might be confused with others. Therefore, according to the Tosafot, the names must be listed in detail. See David, Ha-Geṭ, 41-43.
  19. For more examples see A. Manekin Bamberger, “Jewish Legal Formulae in the Aramaic Incantation Bowls,” Aramaic Studies, 13.1 (2015), 69-81. I am in the process of writing a doctoral thesis on a variety of joint legal formulae, besides the divorce terminology.
  20.  S. Bhayro, “Divorcing a Demon: Incantation Bowls and BT Gittin 85b,” in The Archeology and Material Culture of the Babylonian Talmud, 121-131. 
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