Framing witches, measure for measure, and the appointment of Shim'on ben Shatah

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The story of Shimon ben Shatah's battle against the witches of Ashkelon in the Palestinian Talmud (yHagigah 2:2 [77d]; ySanhedrin 6:4 [23c]) is part of a larger narrative for which it provides a culminating end. This article argues that the entire narrative, which also offers unique descriptions of rewards and punishments in the world to come, constitutes a coherent mythological foundation story of (amoraic) rabbinic authority. The unity of the narrative is formed through thematic connections between its seemingly disparate units and by a clear underlying principle that governs the unfolding plot, i.e. measure for measure. The generic markers of the tale situate it as a liminal narrative, between a tale that recounts biblical events and a biographical tale of a sage, and consequently it positions its protagonist as a liminal figure that signifies both a connection to, and rapture from a biblical past. The historical consciousness staged in this elaborate legend of origin is tied up not only with rabbinic polemics against paganism - with which the witches have been identified in earlier scholarship - but also against Christianity. Given that the tale appears in conjunction with a typical foundation story told in Judeo-Christian circles, with which it also shares themes and motifs, and pointing at the exceptional description of Miriam's fate in Hell as adhering to the underlying measure for measure principle, the article argues for dual pagan and Christian context (although possibly not distinguished from each other in rabbinic eyes) to which the story responds.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)413-437
Number of pages25
JournalJewish Quarterly Review
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Jun 2014

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2014 Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies.


  • Christianity
  • Genre
  • Hell
  • Legend of origin
  • Paganism
  • Plot
  • Witches

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • History
  • Religious studies


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