Jewish Magic versus Jewish Religion and the ancient synagogue

There is a great deal of scholarship on the exact definition of “magic” and its relationship to religion in the ancient world.[440] Until a century ago, magic was often perceived as either the direct opponent of orthodox religion or the primitive expression of supernatural beliefs exercised on the margins of society.[441] Most recent discussions, however, have argued that rigid distinctions between the two spheres cannot be sustained for the ancient Mediterranean world.[442] As Jacob Neusner states: “The difference then, is social and systemic: the distinction merely a conventional usage of society.”[443] As we saw in the many examples taken from the Mishnah and Talmuds, in Late Antique Judaism as well, a distinction between “religion,” whatever that might mean, and “magic,” has not much meaning.[444] A document found in the Cairo-Genizah, for example, gives instructions for the use of amulets, stating that for the best effect, the amulet is to be buried “under the ark of the synagogue.” [445] The placement of amulets in close proximity to the Ark in the synagogue at Ma’on (Nirim) or the amulet discovered under the threshold at Meroth might indeed suggest that the synagogue was seen by ancient Jews as a locus of power and could be used for magical purposes. Besides these clearly apotropaic devices, some scholars have pointed to other synagogue features that might have been magical, although this involves more conjecture. For example, in some buildings, inscriptions have been discovered that may be interpreted as magical incantations. The expression “Amen, amen selah,” as an example, does not appear in Scripture but appears on amulets and Aramic magic bowls as well as in synagogue inscriptions, for example at Gerasa.[446] The mirroring of letters and words in synagogue floor mosaics might also indicate magical practices.[447]

Much has been written on the synagogue as a “holy space.”[448] Many Jews believed that synagogue buildings, the receptacles of Torah scrolls, were sacred and therefore were the place where God’s presence (shekinah) dwelled.[449] Expressions of this sanctity have been found in dedicatory inscriptions such as in the synagogues at Gaza and Ashkelon, where the buildings are described as [most] holy place[s], or at the synagogue of Naro in North Africa where the building is called a sancta sinagoga.[450] Thus, the ancient synagogue was perceived as closer to God than any other communal space.[451] When one wanted God to intervene in one’s daily life, the synagogue was the place to go.[452]


[440] It is not my aim here to provide a new definition of magic. For a good introduction, see Trzcionka 2007, pp. 5–14; Schmidt, 2016, pp. 2–11; Swartz 2018, pp. 16–18.

[441] Tylor 1889; Durkheim 1915; Evans–Pritchard 1929.

[442] McCollough and Glazier-McDonald 1997, p. 144; Frankfurter 2019, pp. 29–35; Kahlos 2020, pp. 195–197. Relevant sources are too extensive to summarize here but see, for example, the many works by David Frankfurter, Christopher Faraone, and Andrew Wilburn. The study of magic in ancient Judaism, and especially archaeology connected with magic, is still in its infancy compared to the study of Greco-Roman magic. Most of the work has been done by Joseph Naveh, Shaul Shaked, Gideon Bohak, Ortal-Paz Saar, and Michael Swartz.

[443] Neusner 1992, p. 61.

[444] Bar-Ilan points out that although rabbinic literature is full of “magical” stories, not once can the word “magic” explicitly be found in them. Thus “the relation of the texts to magical deeds is the product of the thought of the modern commentator, not the transmitters of the tradition” (Bar-Ilan 2002, p. 396). In other words, although the use of amulets and coins in the ancient synagogue (see below) might seem “magical” to us, it was only another component of general Judaism, and a general approach to life. It is not my place here to go deeper into the (often problematic) scholarship on the categorical distinction or overlap between magic and religion in ancient Judaism. For studies and many more examples of ancient Jewish magic from the Hebrew Bible to the rabbinic literature, see Neusner 1992; Bar-Ilan 2002; Bloom 2007; Bohak 2008, 2017; Elliott 2016, 2017; Swartz 2018; Harari 2019. I am not covering here the topic of Jewish mysticism (like Kabbalah, Hekhalot, or Merkavah literature), which is undoubtedly intertwined with Jewish magic but is a separate field. See for example Lesses 1998 (especially her comparison between Hekhalot literature and amulets and incantation bowls); Bohak 2008, pp. 322-339; and Swartz 2018.

[445] Fine 1997, p. 73 (note 65); Bohak 2011. The document can be found in the Cambridge Digital Library, as part of The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection, under inventory number T-S K1.162 ( Another example of the connection between amulets and the synagogue can be found in a Jewish magical recipe from later periods in the Sword of Moses (dated to before the 11th century), which states “And if you want your fear to be upon people, write on a lead lamella from X to Y, and bury it in a synagogue in the western direction.” (Translation Bohak 2008, p. 319).

[446] Sukenik 1934, p. 77. It also appears in papyri, for example on an unidentified fragment from 4th century Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, discovered by Flinders Petrie in 1922 (Loewe 1923) (See also:

[447] For example, in the synagogue at Hammath Tiberias, the Hebrew word דלי “deli” is written in reverse script (Naveh 1992, pp. 145, 154–155). Of course, the fact that zodiacs appear at all in ancient synagogues can in itself be seen as a form of magic. Steven Werlin also believes that the inscription on the mosaic floor of the Ma’on (Nirim) synagogue contains some magical characters. This makes him conclude that “some members of this community practiced a form of Jewish magic in which incantation formulas and unintelligible language were employed” (Werlin 2012, pp. 349–353). Last, Trzcionka points out that certain motifs on mosaic floors, like peacocks, lions, etc. could have had a protective function (Trzcionka 2007, p. 111).

[448] Branham 1995; Fine 1997; Satlow 2005.

[449] For the shekinah in rabbinic literature, see bt. Berachot 6a-b, bt. Megillah 29a; Leviticus Rabbah 11:7.

[450] Branham 1995; Stern 2016, p. 224.

[451] This could also be evidenced by the large number of graffiti found in the synagogue at Dura-Europos as well as other religious buildings in the city. According to Karen Stern, inscribing one’s name on the walls of a sacred building could have been a form of prayer offered to the divine. If a visitor reads the name out loud, the prayer could have been “activated,” indicating the importance of writing and reading in ancient religion and magic (Stern 2012, p. 188).

[452] In fact, Mock 2003 has gone so far as to state that synagogues were used as stages for elaborate magical rituals, taking over the function of the temple after its destruction. This is evidenced by John Chrysostom’s bitter complaint that too many Christians went to the Jewish synagogue of Daphne in Antioch, including a reference to those who went there for incubation (a ritual in which the individual sleeps in the sacred compound with the hopes of having a divinely inspired dream or cure). It is unclear if this story is accurate or if this practice also took place at other synagogues. It does show that the synagogue might have been a place for active supernatural rituals, a point also made by Magness who thinks that the Helios-zodiac cycles in ancient synagogues can be connected to ritual practices as well (Magness 2005).