Once Every Seven Years: Dismissing Debt on Rosh Hashanah

The concept of Shemittah – the Jewish Sabbatical Year – includes among other things a provision to release people from debts owed to others. Though clearly a noble and moral sentiment, such a law can easily lead to problematic situations and even exploitation. Levi Cooper delves into one possible solution to this issue, provided by a 2000 year-old legal loophole…

A Rosh Hashanah greeting card depicting an act of charity, the Hebrew caption across the bottom reads: “Repentance, prayer and charity avert the severity of the decree”, early 20th century, the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection

One aspect of Shemittah – the biblically mandated Sabbatical Year – is debt relief: Creditors release debtors from loans that are due to be repaid. The release – termed Shemittat Kesafim (release of monies) – is triggered on Rosh Hashanah following the Sabbatical Year: sundown September 25, 2022.

The workaround

During the Second Temple period, it became apparent that creditors were not extending loans to the needy, lest they would not be able to recover the funds because of Shemittat Kesafim. Extending credit to the needy is a form of charity. Moreover, not providing loans because of Shemittat Kesafim is in conflict with the biblical warning not to let the remission hinder extending credit.

To combat the trend, Hillel the Elder instituted a legal instrument termed prozbul – a fictitious transfer of bonds held by creditors to the court of law. The sabbatical remission applies only to debts owed to individuals, and not to debts owed to the court. Hence, the bond remains intact despite the biblical debt relief. Creditors – acting as agents of the court – can then recover outstanding debts despite Shemittat Kesafim.

Prozbul involves a simple declaration attested by witnesses or judges: “I deliver to you [insert names] judges of [insert location], that any debt that I have [owed to me] that I may collect it at any time I choose.”

The specific goal of Hillel’s legal innovation was to help the needy by encouraging creditors to extend loans. The motivation for Hillel’s enactment is also described in general terms as mipnei tikkun ha-‘olam, for the sake of order of the world. In contemporary discourse, Tikkun Olam has become a popular – and one could argue overused – catchcry.

It was Greek to me

The meaning of the Greek term prozbul and its Hellenistic legal origins have been discussed by scholars. Already in Babylonia, the rabbis were unsure of the term’s etymology. Thus Rava sought assistance from a foreigner who spoke Greek as to the meaning of the term. The Greek-speaker explaned: Pursa (enactment) of the matter. Scholars have suggested that the term comes from προσβολή (prosbolé), meaning delivery and describing the transfer of the bond to the court. Other scholars suggested that the term is a portmanteau of πρὸς βουλῇ βουλευτῶν (pros boulé bouleuton), meaning before the assembly of councilors and describing the authority that receives the bonds. The Talmud offers a different explanation: The term comes from the words pros buli and buti – the enactment (pros) for the wealthy (buli) who can recover debts, and for the impoverished (buti) who can obtain loans.

Lost in time

By the Middle Ages, Shemittat Kesafim had been forgotten in many Jewish communities. It was not just that the loan remission was not observed, but executing a prozbul to avoid debt cancellation was also not widespread. This is apparent from legal sources that can be divided into four categories:

  1. Justifications for the neglect;
  2. Critique for the neglect and calls for reinstatement;
  3. Contractual stipulations – actual or implied – that circumvent the law;
  4. Communal ordinances that abrogate the law of debt cancellation.

To be sure, prozbul templates and documents from the Middle Ages have survived. For example, a prozbul from 1224 was discovered in the Cairo Genizah.

A prozbul document from the Cairo Genizah, 1224, Jacques Mosseri, Paris, France

The balance of the legal sources was a demand to keep the debt relief law, which meant choosing between two alternatives: either debt release or using a legal instrument to avoid debt release. This second path included various options, such as executing a prozbul, incorporating a circumvention clause in the loan contract, setting the payment date after Rosh Hashanah, securing the loan with collateral, and more.

No one suggested that there was a legal need or a religious value for creditors to do both; that is, cancel debts and avoid debt release. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with choosing different alternatives for different debts. It was at the discretion of creditors whether to cancel a debt or opt for a workaround. It is not hard to imagine a creditor applying the debt release to certain loans, while avoiding the release for other loans. For example, a creditor may choose to cancel a personal loan to a poor debtor, but execute a prozbul for a loan to a successful entrepreneur who has suffered a temporary loss. In other words, the circumstances might dictate the creditors’ decision. No sources suggested that there was a religious ideal to actively seek a way to fulfil the biblical command and release debts.

Symbolic loan

The great Baghdadi scholar, Rabbi Yosef Hayim (1835-1909), discussed debt relief laws in his Ben Ish Hai – a compendium of practical Jewish law, designed as a two-year programme of study. Rabbi Yosef Hayim was a prolific writer, but he is identified by the title of this volume due to its widespread popularity. After recounting the basic laws of prozbul, Ben Ish Hai added a watershed passage:

And behold there are those who act piously, after they write the prozbul, they lend some sum of money – ten grush or less or more – to a friend, and on that amount the prozbul is ineffective, since they loaned [the money] after the time of the prozbul.

And then, after Rosh Hashanah, when his friend brings him the funds to pay him back, [the creditor] should say to [the debtor] “I cancel [the debt],” and [the creditor] should not receive [the funds] from [the debtor], and the debtor can use these funds and enjoy them, and the creditor can enjoy the mitzvah of releasing monies [owed] that he actually fulfilled.

Grush refers to a silver currency unit used for daily transactions in the Ottoman Empire. The purchasing power of ten grush in Ben Ish Hai’s context may be estimated at US$15-20. Thus the loan that Ben Ish Hai was advocating was a symbolic gesture, though the amount was not worthless. The symbolism of the act is further emphasised by the identity of the recipient – a friend, rather than a pauper. This post-prozbul loan was an attempt to preserve an element of debt release, even if it was only a shadow of the original biblical commandment.

A prozbul document from the early 1860s, signed by Ya’akov Bar Ya’akov Amsalem, Morocco, donated by Ezra P. Gorodetzky, the National Library of Israel

Ben Ish Hai opened his description with the claim that “there are those who act piously” – indicating that this was an existing custom. Alas, documentation of such a practice has not reached us. At least as far as local practice was concerned, Ben Ish Hai seems to have introduced the custom in Baghdad, as the following biographical note suggests:

I instituted this mitzvah here in our city Baghdad, may God protect it. I printed prozbul documents and I distributed them to a number of people and they executed them.

And I also taught them that they should do thus – to loan any sum after the prozbul time and to actually fulfil the mitzvah.

Ben Ish Hai added a further angle:

And also if a person borrowed loaves of bread from his friend, even one loaf, the law of Shemittah applies to this.

In the eyes of the Ben Ish Hai, this was an opportunity for fulfilment of the mitzvah by another sector of the community:

Therefore, it is good if the woman loans a loaf of bread or two or three to her friend on the day before Rosh Hashanah, and after Rosh Hashanah when [the borrower] pays her back, she will say to her: “I cancel [the debt],” and thus this woman fulfils the commandment of Shemittah.

Once again Ben Ish Hai provided a local report, followed by a triumphant crescendo:

And thus a number of women did so in our city, may God protect it, because with the help of God may he be blessed, I preached [about] this matter in public. Fortunate is Israel!

“An Announcement on the Matter of prozbul” – a public notice on behalf of the the “Edah Haredit” community organization, mentioning that rabbis would be answering questions on the subject of prozbuls, “everyday between 3 and 4 in the afternoon”, 1966, the Pashkevil Collection at the National Library of Israel

Last minute loan

Lest we think that Rabbi Yosef Hayim was a lone voice advocating this creative course: Another authority, from a later period and from a different cultural milieu also signed a prozbul and then gave a loan in order to preserve an element of the original biblical requirement. This episode was reported in 1994 as Shemittah 5754 drew to a close.

On Shabbat afternoon, August 6, 1994 – the day before Rosh Hodesh Elul, the final month of that Shemittah year – Rabbi Pinhas Menachem Alter of Ger (1926-1996) spoke to his Hasidim, as was his custom. These talks were posthumously published under the title Pnei Menahem. As per the Ger practice, the title of the rebbe’s work became the standard name for the hasidic master.

Within a month of the talk, people would diligently execute prozbuls before the next Hebrew year began. At the end of his talk, Pnei Menahem added a vignette about his father, Rabbi Avraham Mordekhai Alter of Ger (Imrei Emet, 1865-1948):

I heard from one the elders who saw that my father of blessed memory (when he was in the Land of Israel) in the Shemittah year wrote a prozbul as per the institution of the sages, and nevertheless since he wanted to fulfil the commandment of Shemittat Kesafim, therefore after writing the prozbul he sought after a poor person to lend him a bit of money in order to fulfil the plain meaning of the verse “and your heart shall not be resentful [when you give to him; Deut. 15:10], since loans from here henceforth are released.

Rabbi Avraham Mordekhai Alter of Ger (The Imrei Emet), the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

There is no indication that the Polish hasidic master had been inspired by the Baghdadi rabbinic leader. Imrei Emet seems to have gone further than Ben Ish Hai in that he sought a needy person, so that the debt relief would provide real assistance to the impoverished.

Notwithstanding the difference, it seems that the two rabbis – who were educated in different cultural contexts – were driven by a heartfelt desire to fulfil the original biblical commandment, despite the existence of an acceptable rabbinic workaround.

The Hebrew Manuscript That Dared to Depict God

We decided to examine the manuscript that boldly violated the explicit commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness”

Genesis 2:23 “she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man”. The Braginsky Collection, Zurich, manuscript photographed by Ardon Bar-Hama

The second of the Ten Commandments states “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness” (Exodus 20:2-3). The conventional understanding of the second part of this commandment concerns first and foremost the image of God. Was this not what set the chosen people apart from other peoples? Was this not what set monotheism apart from polytheistic religions?  According to tradition, the God of Israel has no face and no form, except in a metaphorical sense.

Of course, some would disagree with this blanket claim and say that already in ancient times the Children of Israel sculpted their gods, but that their tools were words. The Bible opens with the personification of God when it speaks of Man created in God’s image, and is replete with other images of God personified, such as Moses seeing the back of God, descriptions of God’s wrath using metaphors referring to his nose (חרון אפו – charon apo), and much more. True, one can argue, as did the great Jewish sages and thinkers including Maimonides, that this is a classic case of “the Torah speaking in human language.” But of course there are other examples of the physical image of God in Jewish tradition and literature that would be hard to argue with: for example, the Hekhalot and Merkavah literature, esoteric writings that likely stemmed from the Talmudic period, and which describe God as standing behind the curtain in the center of the seventh heavenly palace. The purpose of the Ma’aseh Merkava, (“Account of the Chariot”) is to observe the king in his palaces, that is, to see God sitting on the throne of honor.

However, the boldest text by far is the Shiur Koma (lit. dimensions of the body), a work dedicated to the description of God’s enormous physical stature. According to this book, the pupil of God’s right eye measures thousands of parsot (an ancient measurement of distance), and “each and every parsa is three miles, and each and every mile is ten thousand amah (cubits) and each amah is three zeratot (spans, though the singular zeret also means ‘little finger’) […] and his zeret is the breadth of the entire world.” In other words, the measure and form of God’s body cannot be grasped in human terms.

But if this is how God is represented in words, how did illustrated Hebrew manuscripts deal with the biblical prohibition relating to making images of God? And were there some that nevertheless disregarded the strict prohibition? Let’s begin by looking at some of the ways the prohibition was circumvented.


Image for illustrative purposes only


In the context of Hebrew manuscripts, there are a number of conventional methods of representing God, and the first of these is depicting an image of God’s hand. The hand of God commonly appears in medieval Hebrew manuscripts in scenes of Abraham’s rescue from the fiery furnace. There are also earlier examples which appear in synagogue art, for example in the third-century CE synagogue of Dura Europos (south-eastern Syria) and the 6th-century CE synagogue of Beit Alpha, near Bet She’an in northern Israel.

Leipzig Mahzor | Library of University of Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany, 14th century


Detail, the hand of God appearing from the clouds to deliver Abraham from the fiery furnace


While Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people, is indeed a biblical figure, the story of his rescue from the fiery furnace into which he was thrown by order of King Nimrod appears in the Midrash Bereishit Rabbah and the Babylonian Talmud, but not in the Bible. Nevertheless, the story captured the imaginations of illustrators, and we can find several versions of it in Hebrew manuscripts.

Sometimes, however, even this image was too bold a choice, and angels were brought in to replace the divine hand, as in this example from the Barcelona Haggadah. In this case, the illustrator chose to emphasize another aspect of the midrash about Abraham and the furnace, which recounts that when Abraham was thrown into the fire, he not only remained unscathed, but was even quite able to sit and converse with the angels.

Barcelona Haggadah | the British Library, London, England, 14th century


Another way to depict God is to closely follow the biblical text and represent “the voice of God walking in the garden toward the cool of the day,” as in the Sarajevo Haggadah, which was written and illuminated in the same century as the two manuscripts we have already mentioned. Despite its name, this spectacular Haggadah was probably written in Barcelona, ​​Spain in approximately 1350. The Haggadah is displayed in the city of Sarajevo at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Sarajevo Haggadah depicts Adam and Eve in a series of illustrations somewhat reminiscent of a comic strip. First, in the upper-right corner, Eve is created from Adam’s rib, a scene immediately followed by Adam eating from the forbidden tree as Eve and the serpent watch. At bottom right Adam and Eve cover themselves with fig leaves after realizing they are naked. And in the final illustration below on the left, they are expelled from the Garden of Eden: Eve is fully clothed, and Adam tills the soil by the sweat of his brow.


In the lower right image, where Adam and Eve cover themselves after realizing they are naked, the sharp-eyed viewer will notice rays of light emanating from above the tree at left. The artist has found an interesting compromise for depicting God through a close reading of the biblical verse: “And they heard the voice of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” “Where art thou?” God asks Adam, who immediately explains: “I heard your voice in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked and I hid myself.” The unknown illustrator of the Sarajevo Haggadah visualizes the voice of God as heavenly light.


Some 30 years before the appearance of the Sarajevo Haggadah, around the year 1320, another Passover Haggadah was written and illustrated, also in Catalonia. This Haggadah is known as the “Golden Haggadah” for the gold backgrounds that adorn the 128 illustrated pages out of its 322 pages in total. This manuscript also opens with illustrations of biblical scenes.

The second illustration in the Golden Haggadah depicts two scenes that we encountered previously in the Sarajevo Haggadah: the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib and the eating of the fruit of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Above the illustration is written “Adam and his wife naked.” Here, however, is a truly astonishing innovation in the depiction of the figure emerging from a cloud to admonish the three sinners—Adam, Eve and the serpent. We can assume that this is not the figure of God himself, but an angel, an acceptable and even reasonable choice. It reminds us of yet another biblical story—that of Jacob wrestling with an angel of God, who is presented as God himself.

The second illustration in the Golden Haggadah: a heavenly figure rebukes Adam and Eve

Yet the clearest and most baffling example of the personification of God comes from a Hebrew illuminated manuscript written in Corfu in the 18th century. The manuscript, titled Piyutim Le’Hatan (“Liturgical Hymns for the Bridegroom”), is preserved in the Braginsky Collection in Zurich, and includes, besides the many piyutim and poems, 60 illustrations in gouache of various scenes from the book of Genesis, by the hand of a talented artist who likely was trained in Venice.

At the bottom of the illustration it is written, “Creation of the heaven and earth, the sun and moon.” The Braginsky Collection, Zurich, manuscript photographed by Ardon Bar-Hama. Click on the image to enlarge


At first glance, the figure with the crown could be mistaken for King David standing in front of the wonders of creation, as in Psalm 8:4: “When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the star, which you have made.” If not David, it could also be interpreted as a depiction of the long-awaited Messiah, traditionally a descendant of King David.

However, by the third illustration in the manuscript, there is no longer any mistaking this figure for David. While the Jewish sages and biblical commentators had much to say about the early chapters of Genesis, they certainly never suggested that it was King David or the Messiah who created Eve from Adam’s rib.

“And He took one of his ribs” (Gen 2:21). The Braginsky Collection, Zurich, manuscript photographed by Ardon Bar-Hama. Click on the image to enlarge


The fifth illustration leaves no doubt about the identity of this figure as God, who is portrayed admonishing Adam and Eve before their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

“And the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Gen 3:8), image on the left. The Braginsky Collection, Zurich, manuscript photographed by Ardon Bar-Hama. Click to enlarge

How could practicing Jews rationalize such a blatant violation of the second commandment? Contrary to the example we will examine next, the owner of this manuscript made no attempt to delete or cover up the problematic illustrations—three in all—alongside the other 57 illustrations of scenes from Genesis, most of them incidentally depicting the life of Joseph. On the contrary, below each illustration, a corresponding biblical verse was inserted.

Another interesting detail related to the manuscript is that the order of the illustrations runs counter to the text. In other words, the first illustration—God creating the heavens and the earth (and the sun and the moon)—appears at the end of the manuscript rather than at the beginning. This may very well be the clue we were looking for: The images are intended to be displayed in the book from left to right, suggesting that the illustrator was a Christian who obviously did not work closely with the Jewish author of the text. It is also possible that the Christian artist illustrated the manuscript independently, before it was subsequently bought by a Jew who had the texts added later. This would explain the captions in Hebrew under the illustrations and the fact that the texts do not relate to the illustrations, all of which are from the Bible, while the texts are liturgical hymns meant for a bridegroom.

We now turn to the opposite example, in which the violation of the biblical prohibition was not overlooked. In 1984, while studying the biblical illustrations in a manuscript of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah in the David Kaufmann Collection at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, researcher Evelyn Cohen noticed a puzzling detail. In the scene showing Moses giving the Tablets of the Covenant to the people of Israel, she spotted the remains of a figure that had been erased and covered up by a later correction.

Click to enlarge


The first illustrated manuscript of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, written 90 years after the death of its author who was one of the Jewish people’s greatest thinkers, indeed shows the image of God giving Moses the Tablets of the Law. It is difficult to distinguish the image as it was erased and all that remains of it is a single hand at the right holding the Tablets along with Moses at left. This hand apparently originally belonged to an image of God in all his glory, which was covered up and turned into a mountain. Here too, as was the case with the manuscript from Corfu, the artist was likely a Christian who was not aware of the prohibition against making any graven image or likeness. Or, what is more likely, since the prohibition also exists in Christianity, the artist may have simply interpreted its meaning differently

Can you spot the hand holding onto the Tablets of the Law along with Moses?


One can always make excuses: It is possible to claim Christian influence, or as the Jewish philosopher Rabbi Saadia Gaon argued, that at stake is God’s glory and not his body, as God does not and cannot have tangible form. Be that as it may, we have now seen several examples in which an image of God was certainly created.

In fact, so long as the illustrations were related to Kabbalistic theory, various loopholes have enabled artistic representation of the figure of God for centuries. Visualization of the Sefirot has always been permitted in Jewish tradition, even when it includes the figure of Adam Kadmon (lit. primordial man), who according to the Kabbalah is the first of the Four Worlds (spiritual realms in the descending chain of existence) created by God, who extracted them from Ein-Sof (infinity). Essentially, this means that the figure of Adam Kadmon is not a separate entity from God but rather part of the Godhead itself. At the risk of oversimplification, this is therefore an image of the one true God. No?

Amulet for exorcising a dybbuk, Jewish Theological Seminary, New York. Click on the image to enlarge



Thank you to Daniel Frank and Sara Offenberg for their help in preparing this article


Who Wrote These Magical Ancient Jewish Bowls?

Were they men or women, rabbis or sorcerers, legal experts or ignoramuses?

Ancient Babylonian incantation bowl from the National Library of Israel collection. This bowl was donated to NLI by Ms. Aliza Moussaieff.

Growing scholarly interest in late antique Jewish amulets and magic bowls has greatly advanced our understanding of Jewish magic, yet a fundamental question remains unanswered: who composed these magical Jewish artifacts?

Were they men or women, rabbis or sorcerers, experts in rabbinic law or ignoramuses?

The answer to this question remains elusive; the amulets and bowls do not contain a name of a scribe; nor do we generally possess any external accounts of their creation. This confusion is reflected in the many ways scholars of Jewish magic refer to amulet-writers: ‘scribes’, ‘practitioners’ or ‘professionals’, as well as ‘exorcists’, ‘magicians’ and ‘sorcerers’, are often employed interchangeably.


Exorcists, rabbis or women?

More than 600 Jewish Aramaic incantation bowls, created in Sasanian Babylonia roughly 1,500 years ago, have been researched and published, while at least three times that number remain unpublished. They contain numerous incantations, usually designated for the general protection of a named individual but also designated for other purposes such as medical cures, business prosperity, love charms, curses and more.

Other than a few dozen Jewish seals, the incantation bowls represent our only surviving material evidence from Jews in the Sasanian Empire in Late Antiquity. This was a crucial time in Jewish history, as this was the period in which the Babylonian Talmud was redacted and transmitted, a period that therefore shaped the course of Jewish religion for generations to come.  The bowls therefore provide us with first-hand and contemporary knowledge of Jewish practices at a formative time, knowledge that we would not gain from reading the Talmud alone. Although the incantation texts contain potentially invaluable historical information as well as biblical quotations and parallels to rabbinic texts, they remain primarily the subject of study of scholars of linguistics or of Jewish magic.

A number of scholars have proposed historical identifications of the bowl authors. In his pioneering volume of incantation bowls published in 1913, James Montgomery made an important distinction between, on the one hand, the majority of the bowls written by ‘exorcists’ with ‘professional possession of occult powers’ and, on the other, the poorly written bowls, especially in pseudo-script, which he suggested were written by laymen.

­­A Babylonian incantation bowl featuring relatively crude penmanship. The bowl was donated to the National Library of Israel by Ms. Aliza Moussaieff. Click image to enlarge

About a century later, Shaul Shaked also emphasized the wide range of writing skills of the authors of the bowls while noting the range of knowledge of scripture and other Jewish expressions. Shaked suggested that the authors who were learned in matters of Jewish formulae were connected to the ‘rabbinic tradition’.

קערה בעלת כיתוב בארמית בבלית יהודית להגנת היולדת וילדיה. מאוספי הספרייה הלאומית
This Jewish incantation bowl, created sometime between the 5th and 7th centuries CE, was made to protect newborn babies. From the National Library of Israel collection

In recent years a few scholars have argued that women wrote incantation bowls, most notably Rebeca Lessees, Yaakov Elman and Dorit Kedar. The main argument for female authorship of the bowls is that a few of them are seemingly written in the female first-person singular. However, ascribing authorship of the bowls based on the use of the first-person is highly problematic, as it does not necessarily echo the voice of the scribe. Rather, as scholars have noted, the use of the first-person, male or female, and sometimes the first-person plural, to refer to a husband and wife, is simply a magical technique in which the client(s) of the bowl is listed.

For example, sometimes female and male clients are listed in the first-person as serving a divorce document to a demon, thus employing proper legal document formulae. Moreover, the vast majority of these bowls begin by listing the client in the first-person singular, but later in the same text switch back to the regular expected third-person ­singular, indicating that the first-person is not a reflection of the incantation bowl’s scribe, but rather a technique to distance malevolent forces from the client(s). This would also explain why we have different first-person formulae, with varying names, written by the same hand. It bears stressing that professional scribes were necessary in pre-modern societies in which many individuals, male and female, were illiterate.


Legal magic

Other prevalent features in bowl incantations point instead to a guild of scribal professionals. The texts appearing on some magic bowls bears a striking resemblance to the contemporary Jewish divorce document, and this is hardly coincidental. It is part of a much larger phenomenon of the use of legal formulae in the bowls, a phenomenon that should be linked to scribal professionals responsible for a range of legal documents. In fact, signs of professional scribal practices in the bowls have been identified by scholars, including Siam Bhayro, who has concluded that, “the same scribes who would be employed to write Jewish legal documents … were able to supplement their income by writing incantations”.

Writing exercises of a scribe, including the initial wording of a marriage contract, 1086. From the Cambridge University Library, available online via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Indeed, the most striking feature of knowledge of scribal practices is the use of precise Jewish legal formulae. For example, the use of time designations as part of the divorce formula, including specific dates according to the Seleucid era; presenting the clients with the additional words ‘and any name he/she has’, in line with the Tannaitic instruction; employing Jewish divorce formulae; uses of perpetuity clauses and closing formulae.

Together, there are at least twenty different Jewish legal formulations found in the bowls, phrased in line with Jewish legal formulations found in archeological findings of ancient documents, rabbinic instructions, and later legal documents from the Cairo Genizah This finding is best explained by attributing knowledge of scribal practices, and even particular Jewish legal writing, to the bowl authors.


Writers of books

Further evidence regarding the scribal profession of the bowl authors may be found in their designation for their opponents. In one carefully written bowl (known as “AMB6”), which was published and translated by Shaul Shaked and Joseph Naveh and is currently on display in the Israel Museum, there is an intriguing text designated for the protection of Berik Yehabya son of Mama. The bowl ends with a unique spell for protection:

“I adjure you in the name of He who is great and fearsome that you may silence for Berik Yehabya son of Mama the mouths of all people who write books, who sit in forts, who sit in market places, and in streets, who go out on the roads, so that their tongues should cleave to their mouths, and that they should not speak evil words against me. In the name of he who commanded and it came into being. Amen, Amen, Selah.”

The formula begins with an adjuration silencing the mouths of the people who ‘write books’ (‘sifrei’), who sit in various places and go out on the roads. In Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, the word ‘sifra’/’sefer’ can mean ‘scroll, scriptural book or document’.

This leads to the question: why would the client, Berik Yehabya, seek protection from writers of books?

Perhaps, because these writers are professional scribes who write documents and scrolls, but also curses and magical spells, such as bowls. Thus, this scribe is attempting to ‘silence the mouths’ of other scribes who write curses. From this it would seem that the way this magic bowl author referred to himself and to his competitors is not as professional magicians or sorcerers, but as scribes. Indeed, among the malevolent forces the bowl incantations regularly sought to ward off are other curses and spells aimed at the clients. This unique incantation would therefore target not only the opposing incantations, but the scribes responsible for them. Other contextual clues, including the names of the locations in which they sit, provide additional evidence for the professional scribal nature of these writers.

A traditional Jewish scribe. Image part of the Israel Archive Network project, made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The bowl also makes clear that these scribes were not confined to the marketplace, but in fact some went out on the roads, peddling their goods from door to door. This evidence, alongside the extensive use of legal formulae and the presence of self-designations from the legal sphere, substantiates the conclusion that many bowl writers were in fact professional scribes.

This would fit the material aspect of the bowls as well. Bowl scribes carefully used ink in order to write small square letters on the surface of a bowl. The penmanship of some bowls are particularly striking and my initial research demonstrates that there may be a correlation between the quality of the handwriting and learned content of the bowl texts.

Certainly, this conclusion does not contradict Montgomery’s and Shaked’s assertion that the bowls demonstrate a variety of expertise. On the contrary, in a recent article, Simcha Gross and I argue that the Jewish incantation bowls should not be viewed as a single corpus. Rather, the bowls were produced by different groups of scribes, some of whom were socialized according to rabbinic norms and some of whom were closer to the traditions of neighboring religions. Though the medium they employed – ceramic bowls – was the same, their producers were not necessarily part of the same scribal circles. We should instead think of a market of competing scribes with differing scribal expertise, where the same client could commission a bowl from a scribe who in turn wrote a bowl that would fend off the incantations of his scribal competitors.


If indeed some of the bowl writers were professional scribes, they may have engaged in other forms of penmanship such as biblical and liturgical writing. It is important to note that in Aramaic there is no lexical distinction between different kind of scribes; therefore there is seemingly no reason to limit some of the ‘writers of books’ to just bowls and legal documents. Indeed, the incantation bowls quote a wide variety of biblical passages, and Targum, as well as liturgical texts, which may attest to expert knowledge in these fields.

This incantation bowl written in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic was commissioned by someone named Gia Bar Imma for the purposes of an exorcism. The bowl was donated to the National Library of Israel by Ms. Aliza Moussaieff. Click image to enlarge

While there are sometimes minor divergences from the Masoretic spellings, these may be due to scribal practices of the time and place of the bowl writers and do not necessarily contradict the possibility that scribes of bowls engaged in copying biblical texts.

Another important component of many bowls is liturgical quotations, such as blessings and prayers, including the Shema. This too may attest to the profession of the bowl scribes many of whom may certainly also have engaged in some sort of liturgical writing. Given the various scribal roles apparently performed by these authors, the terms ‘magician’ and ‘sorcerer’ may be too restrictive of the professional functions of these Jewish writers.


Babylonian rabbis and expert (amulet) writers

Focusing on the professional aspect of the bowl writers may shed light on attitudes towards these practitioners in the Babylonian Talmud. Some scholars have searched for rabbinic attitudes towards the bowl writers, in stories concerning witchcraft and/or female sorcery, but following the conclusion that bowls were produced by professional scribes, the conflation of bowl writers and sorcerers may lead us astray. Indeed, it would be more accurate to search for rabbinic passages dealing with amulets, since the bowls were considered amulets by their producers, as can be deduced from the common introductory formula: “this is an amulet”. The rabbis identified amulet writings with “experts” and amulets written by such experts are even permitted to be carried on the Sabbath (Mishnah Shabat 6:2). Moreover, in at least one story in the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis themselves engaged in amulet writing (Tractate Pesachim 111b).

This incantation bowl, written in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, features a demon in the form of the cat, and the words “this cat is bound”. The bowl was donated to the National Library of Israel by Ms. Aliza Moussaieff. For more on the images, see here. Click image to enlarge

Rabbinic sympathetic attitudes toward amulets fits the proposed identification between the incantation bowls and expert writers. As with other professionals, the rabbis accept the fact that there are non-rabbinic experts in a variety of areas and rely on their expertise. The rabbinic views of amulet writers as experts, alongside the clear scribal nature of the incantation bowls, problematizes the common use of the generic term ‘Jewish magicians’. There is no rabbinic term to designate these ‘magicians’, and certainly no pejorative term. Once we appreciate these Talmudic passages alongside the conclusion that many bowl scribes emerge from a professional scribal context, the rigid binary between rabbis and magicians begins to unravel.

On a social level, the clear scribal nature of the incantation bowls challenges the common scholarly perception of the ancient Jewish “magicians”. The bowl writers may have even been viewed as a religious elite, consulted at times of need. Indeed, challenging the popular/ elite dichotomy is true not only on the social or professional level. We may even go one step further by challenging the categorical dichotomy between law and magic as forms of high/scholastic versus low/popular cultural expressions.

As we have seen, the magical texts themselves are replete with legal formulae, and it seems reasonable to assume that for the scribes of the Babylonian incantation bowls the lines between magic, law, and religion were not rigid, and perhaps nonexistent.

A version of this article, “Who were the Jewish ‘magicians’ behind the Aramaic incantation bowls” originally appeared in the Journal of Jewish Studies (

Two Scholarly Giants: Prof. David Halivni & Prof. Gershom Scholem

Dr. Zvi Leshem, Director of the Gershom Scholem Collection, shares some personal memories of his own Rabbi and mentor, Prof. David Halivni, who recently passed away and whose path crossed with that of the legendary Kabbalah scholar…

The Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Prof. David Halivni (1927-2022), who recently passed away in Jerusalem and who was a near-permanent presence at the National Library of Israel for many years, had a friendship of sorts with the scholar of Kabbalah, Prof. Gershom Scholem (1897-1982).

Scholem was 30 years older than Halivni, so it wasn’t an “even” friendship. I suspect that it was initially established via Prof. Shaul Lieberman, Halivni’s mentor and a very close friend of Scholem. I once asked Prof. Halivni what Scholem and Lieberman had in common, as they seemed to have come from such different backgrounds, lived different lifestyles and had different scholarly pursuits (there is an urban legend that the Lieberman was once in Scholem’s apartment, with a library of some 30,000 volumes, and quipped, “But there is nothing here to read!”). Prof. Halivni answered, “They were both lovers of Torah”.

When R. Halivni left the Jewish Theological Seminary in the 1980s over the issue of women’s ordination, Scholem reacted incredulously, remarking, “but you are the Wellhausen of the Talmud!”, a reference to Julius Wellhausen, the father of Higher Biblical Criticism, and seemingly comparing the German scholar’s work to Halivni’s own Source Critical approach to Talmudic analysis. Apparently Scholem was incapable of understanding how one could be simultaneously a critical text scholar as well as a conservative halachasist.

In the Scholem Collection there is one offprint of a Halivni article and a photocopy of another. The offprint is of “Contemporary Methods of the Study of the Talmud” (Journal of Jewish Studies 30:2, Autumn 1979), and is annotated with Scholem’s marginalia. It is possible that Scholem also possessed some of Halivni’s books as well. Not everything from his home collection came to the Library, but that deserves a separate discussion.

From a copy of “Contemporary Methods of the Study of the Talmud” (Journal of Jewish Studies 30:2, Autumn 1979) – Scholem’s notes in Hebrew and English (“He was right!”, “He should have elaborated”, “So what?”…) can be seen in the margins, the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel (click to enlarge)

Since we mentioned R. Lieberman, I will close with a little-known anecdote that Prof. Halivni once shared with me. The first time he visited Israel (early 60s I believe) was to lecture at the World Congress of Jewish Studies. When he entered the lecture hall he saw the Israeli author S.Y. Agnon (whom he recognized from pictures) sitting in the front row. He couldn’t figure out what he was doing there. When he returned to New York he mentioned this to R. Lieberman who chuckled and said, “Agnon is always telling me that I probably don’t have any good students in the Diaspora, so I told him he should go listen to you”.

On that note, in 1963, the American Hebrew newspaper, HaDoar, printed a special edition in honor of Lieberman’s 65th birthday. In his “ad” which appeared in the edition, Agnon reflected sadly upon R. Lieberman living outside of Israel (though Lieberman did also own an apartment in Jerusalem, close to that of Scholem, were he spent a good deal of time during his later years), concluding, “As long as most of Am Yisrael is in exile it is good that this scholar, a true Gaon, is in your midst, for surely HaShem sent him as a salvation for you, to raise up a great remnant”.

“As long as most of Am Yisrael is in exile it is good that this scholar, a true Gaon, is in your midst, for surely HaShem sent him as a salvation for you, to raise up a great remnant.” –  S.Y. Agnon on Prof. Shaul Lieberman in a special 1963 edition of HaDoar. Lieberman was Halivni’s mentor, and the protégé also published an article in the same edition. The Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel

Prof. Halivni also had an article in the same edition of HaDoar, titled – “לפרושה של סוגיה בירושלמי”.

Both Professors, Scholem and Halivni, participated in a program in 1973 called “The Religious Dimension of Judaism”, hosted by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. In it, Scholem read a paper and Halivni was one of the responders. You can listen to a recording of the event here.

May the memory of all of these great scholars be for a blessing.