The Witches Among Us

“You shall not allow a witch to survive.”[1]

“Let no one among you be… a soothsayer, a diviner or a magician..."[2]

It’s clear from these pesukim that magic is prohibited.

It’s not clear, though, why it’s prohibited.

Some say that it’s because magic has “real” powers that Hashem doesn’t want us to access. That’s the view of the Chinuch who writes: “magic … causes many mishaps. …. therefore we were commanded to execute someone who does this, as he is coming against the will of God … that everything should be administered in a natural way…. and this [magician] wants to change everything …” [3] [4]

The Chinuch’s supposition about magic’s ability to change the “natural order” seems to find substantiation in a number of Torah stories.

One such story is the following about Pharaoh’s magicians: “Aharon cast his rod … and it turned into a serpent… and the Egyptian magicians, in turn, did the same with their magic, each threw his stick down...and the sticks became snakes.”[5]

Aharon was able to turn sticks into snakes because Hashem had empowered him to do that. And Hashem can make anything. How, though, did the Egyptian magicians turn sticks into snakes? It wasn’t through divine powers because the magicians hadn’t been divinely empowered that way.

The magicians must, then, have created turned sticks into snakes through pore pf magic.

It seems, then, that magical powers can change the natural order.

Another such story is the following story about King Shaul’s visit to a witch: “Shaul told his courtiers, ‘Find me a woman who consults ghosts, so that I can go to her and inquire through her.’ …. They came to the woman … and Shaul said, ‘Please divine for me’ … the woman asked, ‘Whom shall I bring up for you?’ He answered, ‘Bring up Shmuel.’ … And the woman said to Shaul, ‘I see a divine being coming up from the earth.’ Shaul knew that it was Shmuel ….and Shmuel said to Shaul, “Why have you disturbed me and brought me up?”[6]

That witch seemed to have returned Shmuel from the dead. Her magical powers were, then, seemed to be potent and real.

You wonder, though: If magic can really change the natural order, then isn’t it a sort of science? If so, shouldn’t it be treated like science? Shouldn’t it, then, be acceptable to use magically to address issues the way w we use science to advance health, agriculture and so much else?

Why, then, is magic forbidden?[7]

This question prompts many authorities to say that magic vent really changes the natural order. The Radak says this when he notes that: “all Gaonim agree that magic is nothingness and lies and trickery.”[8] And the Rambam says this when he writes: “whomever believes in magic ….and thinks it is true and words of wisdom… is foolish and feebleminded.”[9]

These authorities, of course, know about magicians’ amazing feats. Those feats though, according to these authorities, are just trickery and optical illusions.

And that is how these authorities read the Torah’s stories about sticks becoming snakes and about people being raised up from the dead.

How did magicians trick people into thinking that sticks became snakes?”[10] They did that by charming snakes into sleeping like ramrod sticks. Once sleeping, the snakes were thrown onto the ground. That awoke them and caused them to slither like snakes. Onlookers who watched all this unfold assumed that sticks became snakes.[11]

And how did the witch trick Shaul into thinking that Shmuel had returned from the dead? She did that by hiding a person who then “spoke from that hidden place... in a low voice...so Shaul thought it was Shmuel speaking.”[12]

Yes, these authorities believe that magic is only trickery and illusions.

Magic, though, is still banned. And its practitioners are still severely punished.

And that’s because magic, even if not real, is still dangerous. It’s dangerous in how naïfs consider believe it real. That naiveté lets charlatans – whose magical acts mesmerize naïfs - trick people into attributing real power to those charlatans.

Those naïfs, once tricked into believing in charlatans, became easy prey for them. That lets charlatans abuse naïfs physically, emotionally and financially.

Those dangers displayed themselves in a horrific mass suicide that occurred in 1978. That was when charismatic church leader, Jim Jones, convinced his 918 followers to join him in death.

How did Jones convince his followers to do that? By convincing them of his magical powers. He did by, among other things, showing his followers that he “magically” knew their secrets.

Jones did, indeed, know his followers’ secrets. That, though, was only because he raided their garbage and read their mail.

Jones’ magical powers gave him a credence that let him coax his followers to join his “utopian” community in the Guyanese jungles. Once there, Jones further conditioned his followers until they joined him on that final journey.

Those dangers also displayed themselves in the tragedy of the 17th century charlatan, Shabsai Tzvi. Shabsai Tzvi’s “magical” powers caused a significant percentage of world Jewry to accept him as Moshiach. Many of his followers continued believing in him, even as he abandoned more and more mitzvos. Some of his followers even joined the “Dönmeh” sect he established when he, eventually, converted to Islam.

Those dangers were also seen in the horrors perpetrated by the fifth century Moshe from Crete. Moshe used charisma and “magic” to create a group of devotees. Moshe then told his devotees to join him on a Messianic journey to Israel. According to Moshe, people just had to jump into the Aegean sea from a cliff above that sea. The sea, he assured his followers, would then part to allow passage to Israel. Many jumped. The waters, though, didn’t part. And those who jumped, died.

Today’s charlatans may not be as dangerous as the charlatans of yore

And that’s because most people today are sophisticated enough to research “magical” claims before accepting them at face value. And that’s also because research is easy now that we can pick up a phone or research claims online.

Less danger, though, doesn’t mean no danger.

All too many charlatans are still all too successful. All too much of their “magic” - usually psychological tricks – still harms all too many naïfs.

Charlatans still study the body languages that husbands and wives share with each other and then insights afforded by that language to “magically” assess a relationship. Charlatans still research their followers’ backgrounds, families and businesses. They then use that research to offer “magical insights” on their followers’ families and businesses.

Naïfs, even today, are won over by such “magic.” And once won over, naïfs seek - and pay dearly - for charlatans’ guidance. They pay with money. With heart. With time, effort and with so much else.

Let’s not be like those naïfs.

Let’s not focus on a charlatan’s will o' the wisp.

Let’s, rather, focus on proper medical care, sound relationship advice and real mitzvos.

Those efforts and mitzvos will achieve more magic than the most exotic of magics.

[1] Shemos 22:17

[2] Devarim 18: 10

[3] Sefer ha-Chinuch 62

[4] Bi’ur HaGra, Yoreh Dei’ah 179:13

[5] Shemos 7:11-13

[6] Shmuel 1 28:7-15

[7] Ibn Ezra Vayikra 19:31

[8] Radak, Shmuel 1, 28: 23

[9] Rambam, Avoda Zara 11:15

[10] Shemos 7:11-12

[11] Shadal Ad loc.

[12] Radak, Shmuel 1, 28:23

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