The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

On a Balsam Tree Leaf: Dealing with Infertility in Sefer Shimmushei Torah

This paper investigates the phenomenology of magical practices in the context of medieval Judaism by discussing a case-study from the treatise Sefer Shimmushei Torah: a biblical pericope used against infertility, accompanied by brief instructions in Aramaic and the name of an angel. The latter element is, in its turn, paradigmatic for the nature of Sefer Shimmushei Torah, a magical work of the 13th-14th century that relies on kabbalistic permutations of verses and pericopes from the Torah to bring forth magical names, used, in their turn, for what would commonly be defined as magical purposes. In this particular case, the lectionary Torah portion Eikev (starting with Deut 7.12), generates by anagrammatic means a name with supernatural potencies. Interestingly, the name in itself, nonetheless, does not appear to be enough: materia magica, in the form of a balsam tree leaf, as well as biblical verses referring to infertility are complementary elements whereby the efficacy of the magical practice is ensured. By exploring the link between materiality and the written word, this paper compares the existing scholarly views on magic in Judaism and the definitions thereof, with a focus on the emic understanding of ritualistic practices that involve both religious and scientific knowledge. A methodological framework thus established, the paper goes on to present philologically the use of biblical verses as an accompanying tool in the treatment of issues related to sexual health. The extent to which envisaged healing must equally rely on materia magica, anagrammata, nomina barbara, or other visual elements is an open-ended question to be addressed in the form of a conclusion.