Jewish Magic in the Roman Bathhouse

David Zimet


            The title “Jewish Magic in the Roman Bathhouse,” at first glance, looks extremely odd as a topic in the context of scholarly research.  One might wonder if it is instead the title of some sort of speculative fiction based on the Roman era.  However, if one disregards the hindsight bias that might be brought to the consideration of Judaism in the past, and researches the subject to some extent, this topic becomes far more plausible.  The phenomenon of Jewish magic, even in the obscure context of the bathhouse, can be found in several different sources from late antiquity.

In order to understand the context of this topic, it is first necessary to know what the Roman bathhouses were, and how they came to be a cultural phenomenon in late antiquity. The institution of bathhouses in the Roman Empire derives from the Greek institution of the bathhouse and the gymnasium.  The Romans adopted a slightly changed version of the gymnasium, in that hot bathing was present in addition to the cold baths that were characteristic of the early Greek facilities.[1] Also the Roman innovations[2] such as the underfloor heating system known as the hypocaust and wall heating elements such as the terra cotta tubuli were very significant in that it made the heating of large bathhouses far more practical. The hypocaust functioned by heating the marble floor, which was raised on pillars, from beneath by means of a wood or charcoal fire. Hot air was then channeled through the tubuli, which took the form of earthenware pipes in the walls. These enabled the Romans to construct large bathhouses, known as thermae, in addition the smaller bathhouses called balnea. 

There were already one hundred and seventy bathhouses in Rome by 33 B.C.E.  In early Roman history, bathing was something that was done on a weekly rather than daily basis, and was not regarded as a priority. During the 2nd century BCE, however, the Greek custom of regular bathing began to gain popularity in Rome. It gradually became a daily practice for all Roman citizens to frequent public baths. Balinae, the small bathhouses that were normally privately owned operations, began to open up throughout the empire.  Thermae were often built by the Emperors, and were owned by the state.  The funding for the building and upkeep of the public baths was considered a sort of civic duty of wealthy citizens.[3]  Agrippa, and all Roman emperors to follow him, all built thermae dedicated in their honor.  These thermae, named in honor of the emperors who had them built, were: Nero in 65 AD, Titus in 81 AD, Domitian in 95 AD, Commodus in 185 AD, Caracalla in 217 AD, Diocletian in 305 AD, and Constantine in 315 AD.  This said, it seems safe to conclude that the baths were an important part of Roman life, if not the central activity that many historians make them out to be.[4]

Thermae built in the empire typically had three to six rooms, depending on which bathhouse one chose to examine.  For purposes of this discussion, we will consider a hypothetical bathhouse with one of each of the rooms that might be found in a bathhouse. The first part of the bathhouse would be the athletic yard, called the palestra, where one would work up a sweat before bathing.  Proceeding then into the baths, one would first enter the apodyterium, which was an unheated room equipped with benches and clothing compartments, where one would change into one’s bathing apparel (or disrobe entirely, in the case where nude bathing was the norm).  The next room to enter would be the tepidarium, a warm anteroom in which bathers would stay for a mild sauna.  The next room to enter would be the caldarium, which was a hot room for taking a hot bath, after which one would proceed to the final hot chamber, the laconicum. From there, one would proceed to the unctorium, where one would apply oil and scrape it off with a strigil, a tool designed for scraping away dirt and oil from the skin. Lastly, bathers would enter the frigidarium.  As the name implies, this was a cold room, where one would take a cold bath.  Bathers might use the room in order in which they are presented above, but could choose to use them any number of times in whatsoever order they chose.

Bathing was routine before the evening meal, and the bathhouse was often a place to find and invite guests to dinner.  Some bathhouses tended to encourage the segregation of men and women, possibly to discourage sexual interaction, and in this case women and men would have separate bathing times.  Women in this case were traditionally given morning times, whereas the men would bathe during the afternoon hours as they would normally have done.

Because the bathhouse was so universally used, it came to serve as a sort of gathering place, and a place to socialize with one’s fellows.  Martial’s accounts of Roman life paint the bathhouse as a place to drink, socialize, pursue members of the opposite gender, and generally indulge in social intercourse.  The availability of alcoholic drinks and food in the bath, as well as sexual activity in the bathhouses, is corroborated in graffiti found in the various thermae.  Additionally, several of the thermae offered various other forms of entertainment, including, “…gardens, conference halls, lectures and even libraries.”[5]  The bathhouse, then, was in many cases a very important source of entertainment for citizens of the Roman empire.

            Having defined the nature of the thermae and their place in coeval society, we must now move forth towards the goal of this paper, which is to verify the occurrence of Jewish magic in the Roman bathhouse.  Obviously then, in order for this to be accomplished, it must be demonstrated that there were in fact Jews in these bathhouses.

            The most compelling proof comes in the form of documentation in the Talmud of Rabbis in the bathhouses. Specifically, more than one passage describes the Rabbis in the bathhouse at Tiberias, which is one of the large baths that are called thermae.  Looking at these Talmudic sources, it is clear that even Jews as polemically anti-Roman as the Rabbis did indeed spend time in the bathhouse.[6]  Why, one might ask, would the Jews be willing to consent to participate in this characteristically Roman cultural tradition?  The answer is that most likely the assimilation of the bathhouse into Jewish life took place through a filtered absorption, so that the Jews became acclimated to the concept of this cultural phenomenon while at the same time modifying it to suit their manner of living.[7] The term “filtered” in this context refers to the way that the Jewish population selectively accepted elements of the archetypal Roman bathhouse, while excluding others that were offensive or unacceptable to them. [8]  According to the same essay, the Jews tended to exclude statuary that would commonly be found in bathhouses in primarily non-Jewish cities. [9]  Also, the segregation of men and women, and deprecation of nude bathing, were Jewish customs that were most likely practiced more thoroughly in the bathhouses of predominantly Jewish neighborhoods, so that naked bathing and mixed-gender bathing were uncommon in these places.[10]

            The next keystone in the structure of supporting argument defending the plausibility of the title of this work is the existence of magic in the context of the bathhouse.  If magic was never associated with the bathhouse at all, then surely then there would be no grounds for claiming that there could be Jewish magic in the bathhouses.  Fortunately, there are many examples of magic intended specifically for use in the bathhouse. G. Fagan, in his book Bathing In Public In The Roman World, quotes two spells from Greek magical papyri that are intended for use in the context of the bathhouse.  The first reads, “To get a certain lover at the baths: rub a tick from a dead dog on the loins”; the second describes a different spell, wherein it says, “Love spell of attraction…take a pure papyrus and with the blood of an ass write the following names and figure and put in the magical material from the woman you desire. Smear the strip of papyrus with moistened vinegar gum and glue it to the dry vaulted vapor room of a bath, and you will marvel.”[11]  Both of these sources are quoted from The Greek Magical Papyri In Translation (2nd ed) , a collection of texts found in the Papyri graecae magicae, translated by Hans Dieter Betz.

References from Fagan’s footnotes led to four more spells that require a bathhouse for their functioning. One is a spell of revelation, one is a love spell, and both indicate at some step in the procedure of the spell that once one has prepared the magical materials, one must “throw it into the [furnace/heating chamber] of a bathhouse.” [pp 14/130]  A footnote to the former spell goes on to say that “Bathhouses were important places for doing magic,” and then refers to other sources on the subject.[12] It also refers to another spell on page 171 of the same book, which also contains a reference to the bath as an important step in its preparation.  The book lists other spells where the magic ritual involves the bathhouse in some way, but I will omit them here rather than belabor the point.[13]

Having established the fact that the bathhouse had a place in magical tradition, it must now be demonstrated that there was in fact a Jewish magical tradition which could be useful in the context of the bathhouse.  To demonstrate that there was at the least a Jewish magical tradition, we have the evidence of the very existence of Sefir Ha’Razim, a Jewish magical text of the late third or early fourth century discovered in the Cairo Genizah.  The book lists one spell that is explicitly for use in the context of a bathhouse.[14]  So, we have at least one documented instance of Jewish magic that is to be used in the bathhouse.

If this is not evidence enough to conclusively demonstrate Jewish magic and its use in the bathhouse, we have two legends from the Talmud wherein the use of magic by the rabbi Joshua ben Haninia, although perhaps not explicitly mentioned, is implicitly present. Rather than quote them here, these sources are presented as appendices B & C to this document.

The first thing to do is to analyze the structure of these two passages.  My argument is that the structures of these two passages are nearly identical.  In both passages, the Rabbis are first given a setting, such as the bathhouse in one case and the house of a Jewish host in the other.  They are then presented with a problematic situation.  In first passage, the rabbis are held fast by the actions of the min.  In the other, the Rabbis are informed of the inability of their host to produce offspring. The next action in both cases is conspicuously similar, wherein the Rabbis turn expectantly to R. Joshua to resolve the situation, using nearly the same words in both passages.  The last part of these passages is the resolution of the problems the Rabbis face. In the story in the bathhouse, R. Joshua casts a magical spell that holds the min in place, so that he is forced to turn to the Rabbis in order to gain his freedom.  In the other story, R. Joshua magically summons the sorceress who has enchanted their host, and then coerces her into removing the spell.

How do we know magic is at work here?  In the case of the min, we have the expression “he said what he said” occurring twice when a magical event occurs. This phrase, as it happens, is a euphemism used by the rabbis to indicate that the person performing this action “said a magical utterance.”[15]  Furthermore, the expression is used throughout the Talmud to refer to magical utterances, and was used by the Rabbis to avoid revealing what the magical phrase actually was.[16]  For corroboration of the fact that steps are taken by scholars of magical knowledge to keep their incantations secret, one may refer again to the passage with the host and the sorceress; the way that R. Joshua coerces the woman into releasing the spell is by threatening to publicize her magical secrets.  From this it follows that to have one’s magical secrets revealed to the public was extremely undesirable.

            Also, the fact that twice R. Joshua is called upon to take action in the situation, and twice brings resolution to the situation by causes some sort of supernatural occurrence, to me indicates that R. Joshua is known by the Rabbis to be skilled in the supernatural arts. Since, as a Rabbi, it is implied that he is a righteous individual, this to me indicates that R. Joshua is a scholar of some sort of Jewish magical arts that are of a nature of that is acceptable to the Rabbis, thereby proving the existence of this magical tradition.

            The last passage to which I will refer in supporting the title of this work is a passage from

Yerushalmi Terumot, regarding the Rabbis and Diocletian.  This passage describes the interaction of the Rabbis with a spirit named Angitaris, who protects them from the harmful intentions of Diocletian.  There is one particular part of the passage that indicates to me that perhaps there are magical forces involved in the story, other than those employed by Angitaris himself.  The passage reads,


 [After receiving the message,] R. Yudan the Patriarch and R. Samuel bar Nahman were resting in the public baths in Tiberias. Angitaris, [a certain spirit, appeared and] came to their side.  R. Yudan the patriarch wished to rebuke him [and chase him away].  R. Samuel bar Nahman said to him [i.e. to Yudan], “Leave him be. He appears as a messenger of salvation.” [Angitaris] said to them, “What is troubling the rabbis?”  They told him the story [and] he said to them, “[Finish] bathing [in honor of the Sabbath]. For your creator is going to perform miracles [for you].”[17]


The portion of this passage that seemed to me to indicate proactive magical activity on the part of the rabbis was the sharp distinction between the reaction of R. Yudan and R. Samuel.  When the spirit comes to their side, R. Yudan wishes to rebuke it, while R. Samuel says to leave him be, because he comes as an agent to assist them.  My extrapolation here is that R. Samuel knows that Angitaris has come to help them because it was R. Samuel himself who called Angitaris, to request his assistance, as this would explain why he would have known that Angitaris had come to aid them, when R. Yudan did not.[18]  Regardless, the connection of the rabbis with Angitaris is notable in that it represents another instance of Jews taking part in supernatural interactions in the bathhouse.

            In conclusion, I believe that the body of evidence presented here leaves no conclusion but that magic was a common practice in the Roman bathhouses, and that Jewish magic was one of the many types of supernatural powers that were employed in the context of the bath.  The existence of spells such as those listed in the Papyri Graecae Magicae make it clear that the use of the bathhouse in magical formulae was not a fluke occurrence, but was instead an important element in the magical arts.  The existence of Sefer Ha-Razim and the adventures of R. Joshua ben Haninia prove that a Jewish magical tradition did exist, and that it had uses within the bathhouse.  Lastly, the incident with Angitaris cements the phenomenon of supernatural occurrences in the bathhouse in the context of Jews.  Given all this, I believe I have demonstrated that it is safe to say that Jewish Magic in the Roman Bathhouse is a reasonable, legitimate topic of academic interest.

[1] According to Thermae Et Balnea, Nielsen, steam baths were present in gymnasia but not hot baths. (pg 12)

[2] That the hypocaust itself is a Roman innovation is challenged by Yegul in Baths and Bathing in Late Antiquity, (pg. 48), as well as by Y. Eliav, “The Roman Bath As A Jewish Institution,” p. 419

[3] See bath dedications, 233

[4] Y. Eliav, “The Roman Bath As A Jewish Institution,” p. 421

[5] Y. Eliav, “The Jewish Bath As A Roman Institution,” p. 421

[6] See y. Ter. 8.46b-c, y. Sanhedrin 7:3, Also y. Yom-tov 1.60c (semi-parallel to b Ber. 60a, b. Ketub. 62a.)

[7] Y. Eliav, “The Jewish Bath As A Roman Institution,” pp. 426-427.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, pp. 435-437.

[10] Ibid, pp. 438-442.

[11] G. Fagan, Bathing In Public In The Roman World, p. 35.

[12] Sources indicated: Kropp, Koptische Zaubertexte I, 51-52; II, 32; J. H. Johnson, OMRM 56 (1975):44-45

[13] For the record, more spells can be found at PGM 36.33 and PGM 38.1-26

[14] Sepher Ha-Razim, Trans. Michael A. Morgan, pp 62-63. See appendix A to this paper.

[15] My thanks to Prof. Eliav for his commentary and teaching on this issue.

[16] Ibid.

[17] The rest of the passage is inserted as appendix D.

[18] My knowledge of spirits known in Jewish tradition is limited, but my brief experience with the Sefer Ha-Razim brings me to wonder whether or not Angitaris a spirit that would be recognized (i.e., documented elsewhere) as one that is summoned to aid a Jewish supplicant with a magical task. Accepting that Angitaris was in fact summoned by R. Samuel would perhaps enable further conclusions to be drawn about the function and importance of Jewish magic in the bathhouse, but since it does not appear in the text, it did not seem reasonable to make this assumption.