The Signifying Creator

Nontextual Sources of Meaning in Ancient Judaism

132 pages

May, 2014

ISBN: 9781479855575



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Michael D. Swartz is Professor of Hebrew and Religious Studies at the Ohio State University. His books include Scholastic Magic, Mystical Prayer in Ancient Judaism, Hebrew and Aramaic Incantation Texts from the Cairo Genizah (with Lawrence H. Schiffman), and Avodah: Ancient Poems for Yom Kippur (with Joseph Yahalom). He also served as Judaica Editor for the second edition of The Encyclopedia of Religion. 

All books by Michael D. Swartz

For centuries, Jews have been known as the "people of the book." It is commonly thought that Judaism in the first several centuries CE found meaning exclusively in textual sources. But there is another approach to meaning to be found in ancient Judaism, one that sees it in the natural world and derives it from visual clues rather than textual ones. According to this conception, God embedded hidden signs in the world that could be read by human beings and interpreted according to complex systems.

In exploring the diverse functions of signs outside of the realm of the written word, Swartz introduces unfamiliar sources and motifs from the formative age of Judaism, including magical and divination texts and new interpretations of legends and midrashim from classical rabbinic literature.  He shows us how ancient Jews perceived these signs and read them, elaborating on their use of divination, symbolic interpretation of physical features and dress, and interpretations of historical events. As we learn how these ancient people read the world, we begin to see how ancient people found meaning in unexpected ways.


  • "Recommended [for] libraries in general, especially those supporting Jewish studies, [as well as] upper-division undergraduates through researchers/faculty, [and] general readers."


  • "In this remarkably concise, yet massively researched, volume, Michael Swartz lays the historical and hermeneutical foundations for a massive revision of the idea of late antique Judaism as an essentially text- and logocentric intellectual tradition. His elegantly written argument will challenge scholars--and, one hopes, their students--for years to come!"

    —Martin S. Jaffee, University of Washington

  • "With gestures to the music of John Cage and the meaning of fashion, Michael Swartz explores the manifold ways that ancient Jews believed God could speak through worldly things: animals and dreams, zodiac and temple, priestly vestments and the flowing of blood. Using such diverse sources as ancient synagogue mosaics and liturgical poetry, Swartz shows with economy and insight that formative Judaism looked well beyond the Torah to find divine intention."

    —David Frankfurter, Boston University