Different ways of looking at traditional beliefs.
RABBI JEREMY ROSEN
CAN JEWS BELIEVE IN MAGIC ?Are Jews forbidden to indulge in Magic ? Can Jews go to palmists or tarot card readers ? What part does luck play in our religion ? Is magic or spiritualism compatible with Judaism ? The first use of a word in the Torah that might hint at the world of magic is uttered by Laban, Jacob's father in law, when he says ' I saw in my magic that God has blessed me because of you ' . In modern Hebrew, the word ' LeNachesh ' usually means 'to guess'. It is possible that Laban was saying something like ' I took a risk in employing you but things have worked out well'. But the Chaldeans were well known for their interest in the supernatural and that was probably Laban's world. There is even a Midrash that says that the rabbis agreed with Chaldean methods . The same word is used of Joseph being able to guess, or divine the real truth about the brothers . Within Egypt, Pharaoh has disturbing dreams and calls upon his ' Chartumim' , commonly translated 'magicians' to interpret his dreams. Most scholars take the origin of the word to come from ' Cheret' a stylus or engraver and so the 'Chartumim' would be those who interpreted texts, perhaps the scientists of those days. When Moses meets God at the burning bush , God uses a variety of methods to persuade Moses to take on the assignment of going down to Egypt to get the Children of Israel out. There was a burning bush that did not burn up, a staff that turned into a snake and an arm that turned leprous. We might have put all these down as miracles performed by God were it not for the fact that the Egyptian Chartumim could, initially at any rate, imitate many of Moses's miracles, including the snake trick . This situation reflects on the nature of miracles. Were they events that were part of the world order but used in specific ways and at crucial moments ? Or were they then, and would be now, special and uniquely Divine interventions against the natural flow of the world. Why did God give Moses something to do that could be imitated unless He was delivering a message that there was something valid in Egyptian knowledge as well for it to be able to do similar things ? Was the issue simply one of who applies this knowledge, its application and the leadership ? However the word Chartumim is not used in the rest of the Torah in the context of magic again. It appears that it was intended as a specifically Egyptian phenomenon.
2There are five different words that are used in the Torah for magic, wizardry or the supernatural. Nachash ( Its root suggests 'Lachash', to whisper or talk or 'Nachash' , meaning a snake, with its hissing and slyness ). This is the word used of Laban and Joseph and it is the word favored by Balaam when he is invited to curse the Children of Israel. Balaam declares that ' There is no magic ( nachash )in Jacob and no witchcraft ( kessem ) in Israel', in other words that magic has no power over Israel, presumably because Israel is protected by God . He discovers that God does not want him to curse so he no longer returns to consult his ' nachashim' . So the most appropriate translation might be a 'fortune teller'. A word that is used in connection with 'Nachash' is 'Onen' which might mean telling the future by reading the clouds ( since the word for cloud is identical ) or it could come from 'answering' replying with words to requests for information. Then there is the word now commonly used for magic 'Kishuf' which indicates the ability to reveal secrets. It is used in Egypt together with wise men and so must have been one of their 'sciences'. ' And Pharaoh called to his wise men and his magicians ( mechashefim )' . Connected and yet different is the word ' Kessem' which is more a description of objects used in magic than a system. So when the elders of Moab come towards Balaam they bring ' Kessamim' ' Charms in their hands' and someone who uses charms is called a Kossem. The word Kessem also means sticks possibly the art was in casting down sticks or wooden dice and reading them. There is another category that involves making something, either an effigy or raising up an image of someone. The words are 'Ov' and 'Yidoni' and the Torah talks about not turning towards them ( for answers ) ' Do not turn to the Ovs and the Yidonis ' ' Do not ask of them' and here the context adds ' asking of the dead' so it would appear that these elements were part of a procedure of calling up the spirits of the dead. The prophet Isaiah also forbids ' asking ' of them . An Ov might be an image, figurine or effigy and a Yidoni might be a spirit or a less material form having some special knowledge ( given that Yidoni has the same root as the word for knowledge ). The Deuteronomy text also adds another category , that of the ' Chover Chaver ' . Literally this means a friend. One can only assume it is a confidant or a private consultant on the affairs of the occult. It could also mean someone who has a special relationship with spirits or is on a higher level, like the honorific term later given to scholars ' Chaver'. So there are seemingly a series of very different categories . When it comes to the specific laws of the Torah there are a series of very specific laws that deal with magic and its allied areas. In Exodus there is a specific command to get rid of witches ' 'Mechashefa' A witch should not be allowed to live' Then there is a specific command against individuals to try doing these things. ' Do not try to make charms or tell the future' ' Do not turn ( for answers ) to an image or a spirit and do not contaminate yourselves with them for I am God' . Here we go a step further in specifying that this approach is a form of contamination that goes against God directly. The implication is that one accepts God's instructions and no one else's. But the same text goes on ' Do not eat over blood, do not make charms or tell the future'. Eating blood was strictly forbidden in the Torah. It was a very important part of idolatrous rites in Canaan and has continued to play a role in magic rites supposedly passing on the qualities of the previous 'owner' of the blood. We have a clear indication that these practices were rooted in idolatry and the opposition is to the context as well as the act itself. The clearest evidence of the idolatrous context of these practices comes towards the end of the Torah. 'When you come into the land which YHVH your God gives you, do not learn from the to do the abominations of those nations. There should not be amongst you anyone who passes his son or daughter through fire, a charmer of charms, a reader of clouds, a fortune teller or a magician. A friendly fortune teller or someone who asks of an image or a spirit or asks of the dead. Because God despises anyone who does these things and it is because of these abominations that YHVH your God is driving them out before you . You should be straight with YHVH your God. For these nations that you will displace , they listen to fortune tellers and charmers but you should not do so' . And then the Torah goes on to talk about the Prophet as the proto-type of spiritual leadership and spiritual direction. He is the one to turn to for advice and for help in dealing with the unknown, the frightening and the uncertainty of the future.
3The most famous case in the bible of asking after the dead concerns King Saul. Desperate for guidance after Samuel dies he asks his servants to find him a ' Baalat Ov' a woman who can produce images of the dead . This , of course gives us a clue as to the meaning of 'Ov' but it also raises a different question. The spirit of Samuel does indeed appear to rise. This seems to indicate that magic in one form or another can achieve results. The Torah, interestingly, does not say that magic is baseless, empty or primitive. Its instructions are simply not to get involved in it in any way that might have some influence or power over a person. But clearly these practices were so ingrained and popular that they were all but impossible to wipe out. Shimon Ben Shetach is reputed to have executed eighty women when he waged a campaign against witches The very name of the Festival Purim is based on the word for the magic lots that Haman cast to determine the appropriate time to destroy the Jews. Haman is portrayed as trying to use his 'magic' to destroy the Jews. However Divine influence, even though hidden, not obvious, Esther's name means 'hidden' ( and that is also why God's name is not mentioned directly in the story of Esther ) is more powerful. As Haman's wife and his wise men ( a parallel with the wise men and magicians of Pharaoh ) tell him ' If you have begun to fall before him ( Mordecai ) you will not be able to overcome him' . This is a very obvious contrast to the Jewish historical experience which often has included a decline before rising. This is an assertion of the superiority of the Jewish way of responding to challenges over the pagan way of feeling determined how to act and therefore more passive in the face of adversity. However by the time of the Talmud the debate centered more on astrology and mazal. There is a difference of opinion as to whether these 'skills' count as part of idolatrous practices and therefore are banned under the general prohibition of anything to do with idolatrous practices. Or whether they count as 'wisdom', ' The men of the east know about mazalot and astrology ' . Non Jewish wisdom that has no heretical connotations , is not prohibited and on the contrary something to be appreciated and there is even a blessing to be said over wise men . There is also a major difference as to the extent to which the constellations or various forms of mazalot do or do not influence human behavior. It was at the time a universally accepted idea that there were twelve signs of the Zodiac that were an integral part of the way God's universe was made up. The role of the mazalot in determining the future seems bound up with magic and other esoteric practices ' What did they do wrong ? They consulted the stars ( signs of the Zodiac ), magicians who look at birds and those expert in reading signs ( 'Tayar' some commentators say these are the 'auspices' of Roman tradition, the innards of birds, others suggest symbols, the origin of Tarot ) . In the creation process described in Genesis , there is no mention of mazalot. The Torah talks about the Sun , the moon and the stars. But by the Second Book of Kings there is one quote where mazalot replace the stars . The fact that the mazalot are not mentioned in the Torah leads one opinion to argue that there are no such things as mazalot and mazal has no influence over Israel. ' Abraham said to God I can see the future in my mazal and I will only have one son. God took him outside and showed him the Heavens and said to him ' Ignore your astrology, mazal has no power over Israel ' . The main discussion on this issue has Rebbi Yochanan, Rav, Rebbi Yehuda, Rebbi Nachman Bar Yitzchak, Rebbi Akivah and Shmuel all agree with different sources that mazal has no power over Jews. On the other hand Rebbi Channina says there that both wisdom and wealth are influenced by mazal and that every hour of the day has its mazal exercising control over it . The most famous quote that supports the influence of mazal is that ' Life ( how long a person lives ) ,Children ( how many or how they turn out ) and income do not depend on a persons deserts but on mazal ' . Similarly ' There is not a blade of grass that does not have a mazal in the heavens and ' Mazal affects people' seem to assert that something extraterrestial has an influence, whether it is the constellations or the power of God working through various processes before it reaches mankind. If a person suddenly feels frightened it may be because although he hasn't seen anything dangerous , his mazal has but the Gemara responds by saying that the answer is to say 'The Shema'. In other words having a direct connection to God is a protection against any sub-Divine powers or influences. The compromise position is that mazalot exist and have influence but that God controls everything ' There are twelve Mazalot God created in the heavens ' or 'God controls the mazal ' .
4At the time of Maimonides the function of the signs of the Zodiac was still seen as a scientific truth. After describing the ' heavens' and the spheres and the place of the Sun, moon and the stars in them he goes on to describe the names and the functions of the signs of the Zodiac . The whole chapter reads very strangely to those of us brought up on a scientific model of how the universe is structured. For Maimonides the signs of the Zodiac are part of the world of Astronomy. Yet when it comes to what we call astrology, Maimonides is very definite in saying it has no place in Jewish life. The only question is whether the prohibition comes under the general category of idolatry or not. In his list of the commandments in the Torah , Maimonides lists three separate laws in the idolatry category. 8. We have been forbidden to make an 'Ov'. This refers to offering well known incense and performing special rituals to an effigy and then imagining that one hears replies to questions he asks it.' 9. We have been forbidden to make a ' Yidoni' which is a form of idol worship. This refers to taking a bird bone and putting it in the mouth and making smoke and going into a trance and behaving like someone who is sick and falling into a trance like state and giving instructions. 10. We have been forbidden to get involved with spells , looking into the spirits of stars having an influence upon us and making images and offering incense to them and acting in a particular way. And then he gives a further list of things that are forbidden because they divert a person from following Torah. They come after the prohibitions against listening to false prophets and against following non-Jewish customs and social values. 31. We have been warned against magic ( Kossem ). This means allowing the powers of illusion that tell a person what events will happen before they do. The events actually do seem to happen because of the powers of their illusions and this leads people to become dependent on them and so slowly they take control of peoples souls… some of them strike the dust with a staff in particular ways and cry unusual cries and look at the ground for a long time until they see signs in the sand and foretell what will be and I have seen this several times in the West. And others throw down small stones onto a leather curtain and they look at them for a long time and then tell things and this is common in places that I have been to. Others throw a leather girdle onto the ground and look at it and reveal secrets. The aim of this to make use of the powers of imagination. It is not that the action itself does anything or indicates anything but the masses are deluded by these things… 32. We have been warned against making decisions like saying that this day will be good for doing this action or that on this day one should not do something. This is what is meant when He says ' You should have no Onen '…but it is also forbidden to ask someone to tell the future and it is forbidden to act on what they say in the hope of succeeding or benefiting and included in this is all acts of magic. The rabbis have said that a future teller is an illusionist who can fool people into believing things that have no truth like putting a piece of rope into their cloaks and taking out a snake or throwing a ring into the air and taking it out of a person's mouth… 33. We are forbidden to use omens ( LeNachesh ) like empty minded people who say ' Since I turned back on my route I will not succeed ' or ' Today is the first day of the week and this was the day I saw something and that is why today I cannot succeed '… 34. We are forbidden from practicing magic… 35. We are forbidden to be soothsayers which means uttering combinations of words saying things that we think will help us…this includes saying things over a scorpion or a snake bite in the hope that the words will cure.. 36. We are forbidden to ask things of an Ov ( the previous law was against making one ).. 37. We are forbidden to ask anything of a Yidoni ( similarly, the previous law was against making one )… 38. We are forbidden to ask anything of the dead… And Maimonides concludes his chapter on these practices by saying that ' These are all lies and falsehood that are the nature of Idolatry.' In effect there are two issues that go towards explaining rabbinic opposition to these practises. The first is that anything associated with idolatry is forbidden. In so far as one needs a reason, the reason is that idolatry requires of a person obedience to corrupt practices and symbols that traditionally destroyed the fabric of a moral, caring society that protected its citizens and delivered them into the random and unpredictable power of priests and magicians who had control over life and death. Children were sacrificed, women were expected to perform as Temple prostitutes and the instructions of 'holy men' based on spells and 'reading signs ' had to be obeyed regardless of any law or any appeal. This conflicts with the Jewish concept of a clear commitment to a known constitution which preserves rights and protects the weak. In accepting Judaism one knows precisely in advance what is expected and what the rules are. The second issue is the responsibility of a person to decide how to act. The opposition to these practices is because a person is handing over the decision making process either to another or is subjecting the decisions to random or unknown criteria. This is not the same as asking for advice or seeking out expertise because the one still has responsibility for the final decision. And in Judaism , the expert advice of say a great rabbi is still based on clear set of assumptions and criteria. It is handing oneself over to unknown powers that conflicts with the Jewish principle of obedience to God and Torah.
5Despite this very definite prohibition, the fact is that Jews around the world do pay a great deal of attention to good luck charms , things that protect from harm and people who have special 'gifts' to see into the future. Particularly in the Sephardi world which ostensibly follows Maimonides as the major authority, the Chamsa wards off the evil eye and there is a whole range of special formulae to be said. In the West many people pay attention to astrological charts and go to see miracle workers to discover the appropriate times for deals and betrothals. It seems that almost everything Maimonides specifies as being wrong, is popular in many Jewish circles. And what of those who regard the Mezuzah as a charm to protect homes ? What is more, many people have had experiences with mind readers, palm readers or psychics that are remarkably correct both about the past and the future. Besides, the Torah does not say these things are all nonsense, just that we should avoid them. And if the Bible can record Samuel's body returning doesn't this prove that there is something it ? Just because people do things , this does not make them right. The Mezuzah is not a charm. It simply reminds us of the principles and the commandments that each home should be dedicated to. The word on the exterior is the name of God. It is God who protects us, not the mezuzah. Yes, we have all heard of ' wonders' that happen when we check a mezuzah and find a letter missing but like all 'miracles' there are other ways of seeing what actually happened and of course we hear about the coincidences and the wonders but not of the cases where nothing happens at all. People are very gullible. That is precisely why so much of the Torah is devoted to attacking these sorts of practices. The fact is that individuals should try to run their lives according to accurate information and well thought out decision making. Sadly there are people who need placebos in the medicine of the mind as much as in the medicine of the body. Even if there is something supernatural and a nether world that is different to ours, that does not mean we should pursue it. Indeed, as with idolatry, the Torah does not say there are no other gods, just that we should not allow them to influence us or be dominated by them. Does this mean that it is all total garbage ? Not necessarily. Does this mean that one cannot study these practices out of interest ? Not at all. ' A person who learns anything from a sorcerer ( associated with idolatry ) deserves to die but someone who learns from a magician ( illusionist ) it is written ' You should not learn to do what these nations do ' To learn to do is forbidden but not to learn to understand and to teach, indeed anyone who knows about calendars or the signs of the zodiac and does not use this knowledge of him it is said ' They pay no attention to the work of My ( God's ) hands' . There is room to study these phenomena to try to understand what is going on and to better understand the universe we are part of. However the guiding principle is ' Be straight with the Lord Your God '. We have the possibility of a direct and personal relationship with God, This is the route to go down. It is, to give an analogy, like having direct access to the President but instead one makes appointments with his secretary. We have no need of intermediaries only of wise and spiritual people who will help us make up our own minds.