Magic in the Talmud
“I see in the Gemara many things…which were permitted, from the realm of fortune-telling, incantations, and witchcraft…these are innumerable…as long as one’s intention is for the Heavens, and he knows that the true healer is G‑d…not like those whose intention is some guiding angel.”
(Responsa of the Rashba, 1:413,
by Rabbi Shlomo the son of Aderet [1235-1310] Barcelona)
Were an anthropologist of our times to spend a few years in ancient Pumbedita,Sura, or Nahardea in order to learn the social role of the sage, his research work would certainly have a title like ‘The Legislating Sorcerer of Babylon’.”
(Harari, Yuval , Ancient Jewish Magic,
doctoral dissertation, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, pg. 65)
One who wishes to research magic in the Talmud will find many passages which permit activities we would now call magic. Magic, in its limited definition, means the reign of forces — demons, angels, spirits, and stars — which lead, in a natural way, to the desired result if the details of the magic ceremony have been followed precisely. We will bring examples below, but first we would like to say a few words about magic and religion. This essay will support the claim that one who carefully looks will see that there is not the thinnest bit of difference between magic and religion, between incantations and prayer, between a prophet and a wizard, between faith and superstition, between one who worships the god of Israel and one who worships other gods. Any act which is not reasonable and by which one expects to provoke a response is magic. It would be appropriate to define theology and things like that with a single word which would encompass all faiths, witchcraft, magic, and religions. Reason draws no distinctions between magic and religion or between idolaters and worshipers of a god. Thus we find the distinction drawn by scholar YechezkelKaufman between the Jewish faith that G‑d reigns supreme and the idolatrous faith that god is subordinate to the entirety of existence:
The manifestations of idolatry were woven against a background of one basic ideal which is central to idolatry. This ideal is the faith that existence precedes god and is superior to god. Divinity is dependent upon it and subject to its nature, forces, and laws. Idolatry treats the god-entity as set in the primordial system of existence and as dependent on the forces of existence and its eternal laws (pg. 298)…The Israelite faith formed an ideal fundamentally different from the idolatrous ideal. Of all religions upon the face of the earth, only the religion of Israel has freed the Divine from the limits of magic and mythology. It is this religion which conceived of the idea of a supreme god which has complete reign, with no limitations, over all existence. It is this religion which completely discarded the idea of a super-divine existence, and thus uprooted the source of both the mythos and the magical ritual (pg. 302).
(Yechezkel Kaufman, A History of the Faith of Israel, vol. 1, book 2,
Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik Press; Tel Aviv: Dvir, 5723)
What does it matter if a person thinks G‑d is dependant on a superior existence or whether existence is dependant upon G‑d? What difference is there between a person who “thinks” that he can recognize the spiritual powers of nature and use them for his ends, and a person who considers certain rituals (sacrifices), commandments (the 613 commandments) and prayers as satisfying to G‑d? It seems as though there is a battle between religions and faiths as to who has created a more hidden, secret, lofty, and effective spiritual system, and which faith is more convincing.
Moreover, the distinction between magic and religion is artificial, created in the West by researchers who had an affinity for the monotheistic religion, as noted by Prof. Tzvi Werblobski:
The scientific study of religions grew in the school of the Western world, with its classical, biblical and Christian inheritance. That is why the passage “from incantation to prayer,” from utilizing a bound causal connection to falling upon the kindness of a god and his mercy, symbolized the greater move from “magic” to “religion.” The circle in which Choni stood was not a magic circle, it was a sign of the stubborn impudence (like a son pleading innocence) of his prayers to his Father in heaven (Mishnah Taanit 3:8)…Be the details of magic whatever they may, there sense of a difference between religion and magic remains, and sometimes it even causes a non-desirable religion or ritual to be termed “magic”…What we can see is that the opposition of magic/religion does not exist in many religious traditions.
Prof. Raphael Yehudah Zvi Werblowski, “On ‘Magic and Religion’,” Pa’amim: A Quarterly of Research on Jewish Communities in the East, 85 [Fall 5761], Machon BenTzvi, pp. 9-10
The distinction between religion and magic is a sort of idealization of religion in the face of magic and witchcraft, a way of saying that anyone who does not believe in my faith or act according to my customs believes in witchcraft, magic, and idolatry. The concept of magic cannot be defined as a strict set of actions; it is a subjective or political term used against the other, as noted by Geiger:
Geiger went even further and stated (pp. 24-25):
Magic, as a definite and consistent category of human behavior simply does not exist…The beliefs and rituals of “the others” are that which is always defined as “magic,” superstition…The sentence “So-and-so is/was a witch” tells us nothing about so-and-so’s beliefs and actions. The only information we are sure of, that which can be drawn from the statement, is the relationship of the speaker to the person he speaks of and their mutual social relationship: the person spoken of is seen by the speaker as powerful, marginal, and dangerous.
(Harari, Yuval , Ancient Jewish Magic, doctoral dissertation,
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, pg. 56)
Scholars of religion who draw a distinction between religion and magic have fallen into a political and unfair bias in favor of their own religion; whatever is not close to their religious viewpoint is considered witchcraft, magic, and idolatry. E. Peterson supposed that to clearly and honestly perform comparative research one must refrain from value judgments, and this can be achieved only by giving the concept of “magic” a dignified burial (Yuval Harari, “Religion, Witchcraft, and Incantations,” Da’at, issue 48 , pp. 43-44). In addition to his words I will argue that to further clarify the research of religion — without favoritism — one would have to bury the concept of “religion,” because in modern man’s mind it has a positive connotation while magic, on the other hand, has a negative connotation.
One of the best examples of the blurring between the terms magic and religion in the positive/negative, pure/impure meanings is the magical cure mentioned in the Torah: “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery figure and mount it on a standard. And if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall recover” (Numbers 21:9).
That action, that ceremony, that ritual — looking at the copper snake to heal the sick — became Divine worship because it was sanctioned by the Torah sages, and so is called part of the religion. If the action of looking at the snake had been forbidden by “religious” leaders it would have been considered idolatry and, by modern researchers, magic. The Scriptures itself draws this distinction in the story of the prophet Elijah fighting the false prophets:
Then Elijah said to the people, “I am the only prophet of the Lord left, while the prophets of Baal are four hundred and fifty men. Let two young bulls be given to us. Let them choose one bull, cut it up, and lay it on the wood, but let them not apply fire; I will prepare the other bull, and lay it on the wood, and will not apply fire. You will then invoke your god by name, and I will invoke the Lord by name; and let us agree: the god who responds with fire, that one is G‑d.” And all the people answered, “Very good!” Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one bull and prepare it first, for you are the majority; invoke your god by name, but apply no fire.” They took the bull that was given them; they prepared it, and invoked Baal by name from morning until noon, shouting, “O, Baal, answer us!” But there was no sound, and none who responded; so they performed a hopping dance about the altar that had been set up. When noon came, Elijah mocked them, saying, “Shout louder! After all, he is a god. But he may be in conversation, he may be detained, or he may be on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and will wake up.” So they shouted louder, and gashed themselves with knives and spears, according to their practice, until the blood streamed over them. When noon passed, they kept raving until the hour of presenting the meal offering. Still there was no sound, and none who responded or heeded. Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. He repaired the damaged altar of the Lord. Then Elijah took twelve stones, corresponding to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob ‑‑ to whom the word of the Lord had come: “Israel shall be your name” ‑‑ and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Around the altar he made a trench large enough for two seahs of seed. He laid out the wood, and he cut up the bull and laid it on the wood. And he said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it over the burnt offering and the wood.” Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. “Do it a third time,” he said; and they did it a third time. The water ran down around the altar, and even the trench was filled with water. When it was time to present the meal offering, the prophet Elijah came forward and said, “O Lord, G‑d of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel! Let it be known today that You are G‑d in Israel and that I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that You, O Lord, are G‑d; for You have turned their hearts backward.” Then fire from the Lord descended and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the earth; and it licked up the water that was in the trench. When they saw this, all the people flung themselves on their faces and cried out: “The Lord alone is G‑d, The Lord alone is G‑d!”
(I Kings 18:22-39)
The prophets of Baal called upon and prayed to Baal and this was considered idolatry. Elijah called to the G‑d of Abraham and this was considered worship of G‑d.
The Sages of the Talmud knew this distinction well: the intention and significance which a person gives his actions determines if his activity is desired or rejected. The exact same action can be considered as witchcraft or worship. An onlooker has no way of knowing whether to call it sorcery or worship because the intent of the actor and the interpretation of the onlooker are everything.
This is what we learn from Chazal’s interpretation of Elijah’s call to G‑d: “Answer me, O Lord, answer me.”
“Elijah came forward and said, ‘Answer me, O Lord, answer me’ — Answer meand let fire come down from the Heavens, answer me and let them not say it was sorcery” (Berachot 6b). Elijah’s actions could have been seen as sorcery.
If, in the Scriptures, we have found incantations and sorcery, we will certainly find them in the Talmud. Even scholars who treat the Scriptures with favor and glorify the biblical text admit that in the Talmudic era the Sages, influenced by the surrounding nations, believed in magic and witchcraft and even used magical techniques in practice:
The Scriptures do not see sorcery either as a harmful action or as the province of demonic forces. The view of sorcery in the apocrypha and of later Judaism is a separate issue, and the Scriptural view should in no way be interpreted through that lens.
(Kaufman pg. 459)
In this essay we will discuss the magic which appears in the Babylonian Talmud, written when the Jewish community in Babylon was under SassanidPersian rule. The use of the term “magic” here encompasses the entire Jewish religion, including all its actions and commandments. The term “Jewish religion,” as noted above, is merely a political designation, so we will not err if we use the term “Jewish magic.”
First let us get acquainted with the outlook and views of the Sages on the world, the knowledge the Babylonian Sages possessed about the universe as a whole, in all its physical and spiritual aspects (which for them were one and the same). The starring characters — man and G‑d — are important to understanding the practical and halachic conclusions drawn by the Sages. Afterwards we will detail the forces which act as agents between man and G‑d and we will explain the methods and actions which a man must undertake to use these forces to obtain his private goal or the general objective.
There are three central worlds — G‑d in the upper world, angels, stars, and spiritual powers which serve as intermediaries in the middle world, and man in the lower world. Man and G‑d, even though they are distant from each other, are the central issue and the purpose. The middle world is middle in both senses, both physical, midway between the worlds of man and G‑d and as middleman for the future reciprocal relationship between man and his god.The middle world is used by both G‑d and man. G‑d uses the middle forces to influence, punish, reward, and protect man: “I am sending an angel before you to protect you on your way” (Exodus 23:20), and man uses the middlemen to influence G‑d, to grow closer to Him in order to change His decrees: prayers and requests are made through the angels.
According to Chazal there are seven firmaments dividing between man, on earth, and G‑d, above the firmaments. These firmaments are the middle world in which dwell the angels, the zodiac, the stars, and other entities which act upon the earth.
Characteristics and qualities of the angels, according to Chazal
The Hebrew term for angel literally means “messenger.” In the Scriptures the word appears meaning a human messenger, as in “And the messenger went and came to tell David” (II Samuel 11:22). In places where the meaning is an angel the term will appear with the addition “of G‑d,” a messenger of G‑d, “for an angel is a messenger of G‑d between Him and Israel” (Ibn Ezra, Malachi 2:7).
Angels of G‑d have a great deal of importance in mediating between man and G‑d. They make announcements and teach halacha to sages. There are good angels and bad angels. The amount of angels is almost unlimited for the simple reason that no angel undertakes two missions (Rashi, Genesis 18:2). Each angel has a separate mission, yet they are ranked by their merits and closeness to G‑d.
Thus, for example, the angel Metatron, who is closest to G‑d. It is written,
“And to Moses He said, Come up to the Lord.” Chazal explained “It wasMetatron [who said that], whose name is similar to that of his Master” (Sanhedrin 38b).
According to Chazal the angels are real entities with presence and movement; they are involved in the everyday life of ordinary man. Their “space” is physically defined. For example, the angel Michael is in the fourth firmament, and the ministering angels are in the fifth (Chagigah 12b).
The ministering angels have wings and can fly “from one end of the world to the other” (the speed of flight changes from angel to angel [Berachot 4b]). They know the future, have wisdom, walk upright and speak the Holy Tongue (Chagigah 16a). They do not understand Aramaic (Shabbat 12b).
The Sages are divided on the question of whether they require nutrition, as does a man:
“‘Man ate the bread of the mighty” — The bread that the ministering angels eat, according to Rabbi Akiva. When this was said before Rabbi Ishmael he said to them: Go and tell Akiva, “Akiva, you have erred! Do the ministering angels eat bread? Has it not already been said (of Moses) ‘Bread I did not eat nor water did I drink’ [and if Moses, who was flesh and blood, did not eat or drink when he approached G‑d, how much more so is this true of angels, who do not eat and drink].”
There are many angels mentioned in the Talmud text, whose missions served the basis of faith and worldview which were common amongst the Sages, and by which they lived.
Gabriel is the minister of fire, responsible for the ripening of fruit (Sanhedrin 95b). He knows 70 languages, including Aramaic (Sotah 33a). When Solomon married the daughter of Pharaoh, Gabriel descended and stuck a reed in the sea, which gathered a sand-bank around it, on which was built the great city of Rome” (Sanhedrin 21b).
The punishments detailed in the Scriptures are carried out, in part, by angels. G‑d’s punishment of raining fire and brimstone upon Sodom and Gomorrah was carried out by the angel Gabriel, Minister of fire (Rashbam on Genesis 19:24).
Michael is the great minister found in the seventh firmament; he brings sacrifices. He is the one who told Sarah about the forthcoming birth of her son Isaac.
Raphael is the healing angel who healed Abraham after his circumcision.
He also healed Matiya the son of Charash in the era of the Tanaaim: “At that precise time the holy One, blessed be He, called Raphael and told him: go heal R’ Matiya the son of Charash” (Yalkut Shimoni on the Torah, portion of Vayechi, 161).
An angel in the form of a hawk: The angels prevent natural catastrophes. Thus, an angel in the form of a hawk prevents the southern wind from destroying the world: “Four winds blow each day…and the southern wind is the worst of all; were it not for the Son of Hawk [an angel in the form of a hawk] which blocks the wind [with its wings], it would destroy the whole world” (Gittin31b).
The angel of death: It has been said that the angel of death is all eyes, and that when a sick person is dying, the angel stands above him, sword drawn with a drop of bile dangling from it. When the sick person sees the angel he is shocked and opens his mouth; the bile falls into the open mouth and from this the person dies, from this the person deteriorates, from this his face turns green (Avodah Zarah 20b).
An activity that can save one from the angel of death is learning Torah. It is written, “Rabbi Yossi says: Israel only received the Torah so the angel of death would have no dominion over them” (Avodah Zarah 5a).
Another incident on the matter tells of King David, whom it was decreed would die on a Sabbath. He did not know, however, upon which Sabbath the angel of death would come to kill him. Therefore, each Sabbath he would learn Torah, and when the day of his death came, the angel of death did not succeed in killing him, because King David was so accustomed to studying Torah. The angel of death tricked him by shaking the branches of a tree; David stopped learning and in that second the angel of death managed to kill him (Shabbat 30b).
Angels of sabotage: The 180,000 angels of sabotage have the ability to harm a person who goes about alone (Pesachim 112b).
Angel of pregnancy: “The name of the angel who is in charge of conception is ‘Night’, and he takes up a drop and places it in the presence of the Holy One, blessed be He, saying, ‘Sovereign of the universe, what shall be the fate of this drop? Shall it produce a strong man or a weak man, a wise man or a fool, a rich man or a poor man?'” (Niddah 16b).
There are other angels whose role is characterized by interference in the daily activities of man:
The ministering angels: These angels are involved in the day-to-day life of people, and accompany them wherever they go, to the extent that when one enters the toilet room, one must bid farewell to the angels, who do not enter such an unclean place. “On entering a toilet room one should say: ‘Be honored, you honored and holy ones that minister to the Most High. Give honor to the G‑d of Israel. Wait for me till I enter and do my needs, and return to you.’ Abayesaid: A man should not speak thus, lest they should leave him and go. What he should say is: ‘Preserve me, preserve me, help me, help me, support me, support me, till I have entered and come forth, for this is the way of human beings'” (Berachot 60b). Similarly, two angels accompany the worshipper home from the synagogue on Friday night (Shabbat 119b).
Another role the angels serve is to show the righteous how to prevent damage from evil spirits, demons, and the angel of death:
- Ishmael b. Elisha said: Three things were told me by Suriel the Officer of the [Divine] Presence…R. Joshua b. Levi says: Three things were told me by the Angel of Death. Do not take your shirt from your attendant when dressing in the morning, and do not let water be poured on your hands by one who has not washed his own hands, and do not stand in front of women when they are returning from the presence of a dead person, because I go leaping in front of them with my sword in my hand, and I have permission to harm. If one should happen to meet them what is his remedy? — Let him turn aside four cubits; if there is a river, let him cross it, and if there is another road let him take it, and if there is a wall, let him stand behind it; and if he cannot do any of these things, let him turn his face away and say, (Zechariah 3) And the Lord said unto Satan, The Lord rebuke thee, O Satan etc., until they have passed by.
The prophet Elijah: Though Elijah is not an angel, he serves as an independent intermediary between man and his G‑d, as do all the other angels. What of the other prophets? Thus, for example, Elijah revealed himself to the Babylonian sages and told them things which happened behind the supernal curtain. In Nahardea there were licentious boys who even on the Day of Atonement had sexual relations with virgins. This was the reason that the Messiah did not come. When they asked Elijah if the Satan were not accusing them before G‑d for this licentiousness, Elijah answered: “On the Day of Atonement Satan has no permission to prosecute the nation of Israel” (Yoma 20a).
Rabbah the son of Abbuha met Elijah. Said he to him: Is a means test to be applied in favor of a debtor, so that his work tools will not be seized? Elijah answered that a means test must be applied. He also added that the graves of gentiles do not defile, for it is written, “And you, My flock, the flock of My pastures, are called men” — only you the Jews are designated men, while the gentiles are not so designated (Bava Metzia 114a-b).
Elijah came from a distance of 1600 km to save Rav Kahana, who had jumped from a roof in order to escape the seductions of a rich woman (Kiddushin 40a).
There are angels who are appointed to point out the sages’ negligence of commandments. That is what happened to Rav Katina, who walked around without a garment which would require tzitziyot, and an angel whom he met asked how it could be that he did not specifically look for a garment which did require tzitziyot (Menachot 41a).
Man uses the offices of the angels for prayers and requests. From the Talmud we can conclude, for example, that man’s prayers are heard and passed on to G‑d via the angels. That is why it is suggested one not make his requests in a language angels do not understand, like Aramaic (Sotah 33a).
In summary, according to Chazal, angels were a physical reality and were responsible for man’s activities and daily life style. Some did G‑d’s will and acted as agents for good (Raphael) and some for bad (the angel of death), and some communicated with the sages.
One of the roles of the angels, as intermediaries between G‑d and man, is prophecy: “In a dream I will speak to him” (Numbers 12:6) has been explained by the Sages as meaning that the prophecy came through an angel (Berachot55b). Prophecy, which is one of the fundamentals of the Jewish faith, needs clarification.
As we explained in the introduction, the use of forces is a magical phenomenon, therefore prophecy, which comes through forces such as angels, is a magical phenomenon (contrary to Maimonides’ opinion in Guide to the Perplexed, which holds that prophecy is an expression of man’s higher intellectual capacities). When certain forces reveal something to man — the future, people’s hearts, the “divine” will — through actual physical manifestations like voices or pictures, this is an utterly magical phenomenon. Nachmanides draws a distinction between prophecy revealed through sight and vision and a sages’ understanding, which in the Talmud is also considered prophecy. “The prophecy of the prophets was sight and vision, and the prophecy of the sages was through wisdom, and they knew the truth because of the holy spirit within them” (Chiddushei HaRamban on Tractate Bava Batra 12a).
The Scriptures describe, with even more force, the role of prophet as replacement for a magician:
Those nations you are about to dispossess do indeed resort to soothsayers and augurs; to you, however, the Lord your G‑d has not assigned the like. The Lord your G‑d will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people, like myself; him you shall heed.
That the prophets saw visions due to actual external forces is explained in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 89a), in discussing the case of prophets who speak about that which they did not hear. One such case was Tzidkiyah the son ofCanaanah, who told Achav that he would win the battle against Aram (I Kings 22:11). He prophesized in the name of the Lord, but in truth he had heard the spirit of Navot the Jezreelite, who had been killed by Achav and desired revenge. Tzidkiyah the son of Canaanah heard the voices of prophecy and gave over the message, but did not know how to tell that it was the voice of the spirit of Navot, come to mislead him. Chazal ask how Tzidkiyah the son ofCanaanah could have known the difference between a prophecy which came from the spirit of Navot and one which came from some other, purer, source. They answer: “No two prophets prophesize in the same manner,” and since all the prophets who told Achav he would win prophesized in the same manner, with similar language and imagery, it should have been known that these prophecies did not come from a holy source. What we can conclude from the words of Chazal is that prophets hear actual, objective voices from “divine” agents; sometimes these are the voices of impurity, like the spirit of Navot theJezrealite, and sometimes these are the voices of the pure angels.
After the prophets stopped prophesizing, a force considered to be at an inferior level of sanctity, the Bat Kol, was used:
Our Rabbis taught: Since the death of the last prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, the Holy Spirit [of prophetic inspiration] departed from Israel; yet they were still able to avail themselves of the Bat Kol. Once when the rabbis met in the upper chamber of Gurya’s house at Jericho, a Bat Kol was heard from Heaven, saying: ‘There is one amongst you who is worthy that the Shechinah should rest on him as it did on Moses, but his generation does not merit it.’ The Sages present set their eyes on Hillel the Elder.
This Bat Kol is real, not imaginary, and it has even been said that it sounds like the cooing of the dove:
It has been taught: R. Jose says, I was once traveling on the road, and I entered into one of the ruins of Jerusalem in order to pray. Elijah of blessed memory appeared and waited for me at the door till I finished my prayer… He further said to me: My son, what sound did you hear in this ruin? I replied: I heard a Divine voice, cooing like a dove, and saying: Woe to the children, on account of whose sins I destroyed My house and burnt My temple and exiled them among the nations of the world!
Another clearly magical phenomenon is the ritual of asking prophetic questions of the Urim V’Tumim via the High Priest. Even though this ritual was no longer practiced in the Second Temple period, Chazal believed that this ritual did take place in practical reality.
The High Priest wore special clothing as detailed in the Torah (Exodus 28). One of these special garments was the choshen, whose height and width were some 30 centimeters after it was folded. It was placed over the clothes on the priest’s chest. Upon it were precious stones with the names of the tribes and the forefathers, in a way in which all the letters of the alphabet were represented. Between the folds were placed the names of G‑d, and it is they which are theUrim V’Tumim (Rashi on Exodus 28:30).
The job of the High Priest was to answer questions through the Urim V’Tumim. The ritual was carried out so: The priest stood with his face to the Ark. The petitioner was behind him, facing the priest’s back. The petitioner would say “Shall I go to war or shall I not go to war?” He would not ask aloud nor whisper in his heart, but ask in a low voice as one who prays only for his own ears. Immediately the Holy Spirit clothed the priest; he would look at the choshen and see, in the letters which stood out from the choshen, the answer before him. Then the priest would answer the petitioner and tell him to go to war or not to go (Yoma 73a-b).
Nachmanides (on Exodus 28:30) describes in detail the magical ritual of the High Priest and even adds that the level of the Urim V’Tumim is a lower level of the holy spirit than that of prophecy, yet higher than that of the Bat Kol.
Prophecy and the Urim V’Tumim serve as a substitute for sorcerers, seers, and those who consulted with ghosts. This becomes very clear from the story of King Saul, who wished advice about whether to go to war against the Philistines. When his entreaties went unanswered, he was forced to go to the woman of Endor who consulted with ghosts:
And Saul inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams or by Urim or by prophets. Then Saul said to his courtiers, “Find me a woman who consults ghosts, so that I can go to her and inquire through her.”
(I Samuel 28:6-7).
One who burns incense for the demons to draw them close and to gather them or to force them to do his will, is as one who consults ghosts and he is liable to death by stoning…but one who burns incense for the demons to keep them from him is, it seems, acting in a permissible way.
(Responsa of the Ridbaz, part three 405, by Rabbi David the
son of Shlomo Ibn Zimra, b. 1479, Spain, d. 1573, Tzefat)
Six things have been said about demons. In three ways they are equal to the ministering angels, and in three equal to men. In three ways they are equal to the ministering angels: They have wings as do the ministering angels, they fly from one end of the world to the other as do the ministering angels, and they hear the future as it is foretold beyond the supernal curtain as do the ministering angels. In three ways they are equal to men: they eat and drink as do men, they sexually reproduce as do men, and they die as do men (Chagigah 16a).
Demons are intermediate entities: they are between angels and men. Their main role is to cause harm and people must be wary of them. The reciprocal relationship between demons and men has no connection to the religious field or the fulfillment of commandments. It is a real existential phenomenon which leads to various damages.
Demons were created in the era of Adam. Until the age of 130 Adam was separated from his wife because of his sins, and from the drops of his ejaculate were formed demons, spirits (with no body or form) and lilin (with the form of man and with wings) (Eruvin 18b). Similarly, some of the people in the generation of the Great Flood were turned into demons, spirits, and lilin(Sanhedrin 109a). They are also formed from bramble after seven years (Bava Kama 16a).
Demons are to be found in great quantities and mingle amongst people. They cannot be seen by the naked eye; to see them one must take the placenta of a black cat, daughter of a black cat, first born the daughter of a first born, and burn it to ashes. Put the ashes in ones eyes, and then one can see the demons. There is a warning: the ashes must be well guarded in a closed tube, lest the demons steal the ashes and cause harm to the person, as happened to RavBibi the son of Abaye, who saw the demons and was harmed. The sages prayed for him and he was healed (Berachot 6a).
One who wants to ascertain whether demons exist should spread some well-sifted dust around his bed at night. In the morning he will find signs like the marks of chicken feet. These are the footprints of the demons (ibid.)
The existence of a great number of demons amongst people serves as an explanation for a lot of unexplained “phenomena.”
The inexplicable crowding during rabbis’ speeches, the inexplicable weariness in the knees of a person who stands without doing anything, the way scholars’ clothes become worn out with no visible cause, for scholars merely sit and study and do no physical labor. All these phenomena are caused by the existence of demons (ibid.).
The great similarity between the form of a demon and that of man has caused fear lest a demon be able to deceive a person. Therefore one who hears the voice of a person stuck in a hole, saying “Write a bill of divorcement for my wife” does not write the divorce, lest it really be a demon, unless one sees the person’s form and the shadow of his shadow, for demons shadow’s do not have shadows [there is no clear explanation for the existence of a shadow’s shadow] (Gittin 61; see also Yevamot 122a).
Demons have names and specific tasks. Thus, for example, we know that demons have no shadows of shadows, as revealed to Rabbi Chanina by Jonathan the Demon (Yevamot 122a). The demon Ashmadai is king of the demons, and he is responsible for stopping people from drinking in pairs, as revealed to Rav Joseph by the demon Joseph (Pesachim 110a). Joseph the demon could also give learned speeches: the Sages relate that on one Sabbath morning Rav Chasda heard, in Sura, seven halachic teachings, and that very afternoon Rabah heard the same teachings in Pumbedita (over 100 kilometers away). The Sages debated from whom they had heard these teachings — the prophet Elijah or the demon Joseph, for only they could, in six hours, go a distance of 100 kilometers (Eruvin 43a). Demons are not omnipotent. Demons cannot create small creatures (like lice), which is why Pharaoh’s magicians could not create lice, and therefore concluded that the plague of lice was the finger of G‑d (Sanhedrin 67b).
The use of demons to serve man’s needs, that is, the permission to use the demons’ knowledge for man’s own ends, is not clear from the Talmud. In Tractate Gittin (68a) it is said that the use of demons is permitted: King Solomon asked the demons if they knew where the shamir worm (which can chew through stone, needed to build the Holy Temple) could be found, and they told him that Ashmadai the Demon knew. Solomon went to ask Ashmadai, and he told the king that the worm was to be found on a certain mountain. For another proof of the permissibility of using magical powers, see Sanhedrin 91a, where our forefather Abraham gave the names of demonic forces to the sons of his concubines, implying that one may use the names, even if they are not holy.
Demons offered their help in saving Jews from harsh decrees. When Rome decreed that the Jews not be permitted to observe the Sabbath, to circumcise their sons, nor have their wives immerse in the mikveh, the demon BenTemalion joined a delegation of sages which went to the Roman Caesar to get the decree repealed. The demon Ben Temalion entered the body of Caesar’s daughter and caused her to go mad and to shout “Bring R’ Shimon bar Yochai to me.” Then R’ Shimon came, called, and the demon left the girl’s body (Meilah17b).
On the other hand, it is written in the Talmud that using the power of demons to serve one’s own ends is forbidden under the Torah prohibition against sorcery (Sanhedrin 65a). In any case, one who wishes to be saved from a demon which has harmed him should say
“Thou were closed up; closed up were you. Cursed, broken, and destroyed be Bar Tit, Bar Tame, Bar Tina as Shamgaz, Mezigaz, andIstamai.” For a demon of the privy one should say: “On the head of a lion and on the snout of a lioness there is the demon Bar ShirikaPanda; at a garden-bed of leeks I hurled him down, [and] with the jawbone of an ass I smote him.”
To banish the harmful demon which has entered one’s body no dramatic ceremony, as used in recent generations to combat the phenomenon known as a dybbuk, is required. There are instructions in the Talmud which any person can follow to banish the demon. For example, it is forbidden to drink in pairs. If he did so, a demon might harm him.
If a person forgot and went out, what should he do? He should clasp his right thumb in the fingers of his left hand, and vice-versa, and say, ‘I and my fingers are three’. If he hears a voice say ‘You and I are four’, he should respond ‘You and I are five’, and so on, until the demon gets angry and leaves.
This occupation with demons is about everyday matters, and is not dependant on the fulfillment of commandments. Demons cause illness in certain well-known situations, and therefore a person should do things with intention, lest he be harmed. Thus, for example, the demon of the toilet causes epilepsy in fetuses. One must be careful not to have sexual intercourse immediatelyafter leaving the toilet room, lest one’s children be epileptics, for the demonfound in the toilet room accompanies him (Gittin 70a).
Demons are an inseparable part of man’s everyday life, and they are to be found almost everywhere: in the toilet, in narrow places (Pesachim 111a), in ruins (Berachot 3a), in shady places (Pesachim 111b). Man must act in such a way as not to harm them. Thus, for example, man is warned not to excrete in the narrow space between a palm tree and a wall, lest he push a demon because space is tight, and then cause the demon to harm him in return (ibid.). Similarly, he should not excrete in shady places nor under the shade of a sorb-tree, for there are various types of demons which can cause harm to be found there. One who excretes in the shade of a sorb-tree will be harmed by 60 demons, so the amulet to save one from such harm must be intended to ward off 60 demons (Pesachim 111b).
In Tractate Yoma (83b) the sages debated what causes rabies.
Rav said witches toyed with it [the dog], and Samuel said an evil spirit is upon it… If a man rubs against it he is endangered, and if he is bitten by it, he will surely die. If he rubs against it he is endangered. What can he do? Throw off his clothing and run, as did Rav Huna the son of Rav Joshua. One who is bitten will surely die. What can be done? Take the skin of a male hyena and write upon it: “I, so-and-so, son of so-and-so, have written about you on the skin of a male hyena. Kanti, kanti, kliros,” and some say, “Qandi, qandi, kliros. Yah, yah, the Lord of Hosts, Amen, Selah.” One should take off his clothing and bury it [in the graves by the crossroads]; after a twelve-month he should unearth them and burn them in an oven, throwing the ashes at the crossroads. During the twelve-month he should drink water only through a straw made of brass, lest he see the demon [who jumped from the dog to him] reflected in the water and be endangered.
If this were not enough, demons also cause mental illnesses (Rosh Hashanah 28a). One who drinks a great deal of new wine from his wine-press will find a female demon named Curdiacos muddling his mind. The way to be saved from this is to write an amulet intended specifically against Curdiacos. Since illnesses and damages are caused by spirits and demons, the ways to be saved from them are also magical, like the writing of an amulet.
Amulets and incantations
In the Talmud, amulets serve as remedies when prepared by a wise expert who is knowledgeable in the art of writing amulets and in the cause of the illness.
The contents of an amulet are verses written on parchment, so they need to be disposed of in a genizah, like all holy writings, and it should not be taken into the toilet room (Shabbat 61b).
There is also a kind of amulet called an amulet of roots. It is made from the roots of grasses (ibid.).
The use of amulets was very widespread in the era of the Babylonian sages for the simple reason that they thought illnesses were caused by external entities, as we have said: demons, spirits, and lilin. Therefore the cure was magical, like an amulet. Just as the diagnosis was real, so the methods of cure were real and factual; healing by amulet was considered “scientific” in the sense that it was experimental. Not every amulet was considered to cure scientifically or was, as the Talmud put it, an “approved amulet.” “Our Rabbis taught: What is an approved amulet? One that has healed [once], a second time and a third time; whether it is an amulet in writing or an amulet of roots” (Shabbat 61a). Experience (the three healings) proved the amulet’s efficacy in healing or preventing illnesses caused by external forces. The Talmud discusses “scientific” requirements for the approval of amulets. A distinction is drawn between the writer of amulets and the amulets themselves: to be considered approved to write amulets for all illnesses, a person must prove that his amulets have healed three different people suffering from three different illnesses, and that each one of them was cured three times. For a specific style of amulet to be considered approved so that any person could write it, the amulet must heal an illness three times. In the Talmud there is a question of whether a person who wrote three different healing amulets for three different illnesses suffered by one person would be considered an approved amulet writer or not. Is the writer an expert because his amulets have healed three times, or is he not, because perhaps the patient’s recovery stemmed from an angel which helped him specifically, and so the writer must heal two more people?
Even though the amulet can successfully deal with demons and heal people, it might not work on an animal which has fallen sick with the same illness, for a person has a “guardian angel” and an animal does not. For an amulet to be “scientifically” proven effective on animals as well, it must be tested on an animal (Shabbat 53b).
External forces which can be harmful are treated as natural, actual forces, and so they are handled by “natural” means in the vein of “permission was given to physicians to heal.” One who deals with demons and spirits to treat the everyday damages of life is as one who deals in medicine, and so is not prohibited in the way necromancers and sorcerers are. One is also permitted to use demons for other relevant matters, as King Solomon did when building the Holy Temple. He wished to know where the shamir worm, which chews stone, could be found (Yalkut Shimoni on I Kings, 182).
There are halachic limits on the use of amulets for healing. Thus, for example, it is forbidden to use words of Torah to heal, just as it is forbidden to use words of Torah to make a living: “He who makes worldly use of the crown of the Torah shall perish” (Mishnah, Avot 4:5).
A person who has been hit is forbidden to murmur verses from the Torah for healing. One who murmurs over a bruise and says (Exodus 15:26): “Any affliction which I visited upon Egypt I shall not visit upon you, for I am the Lord your healer” (has no portion in the World to Come) because one may use G‑d’s name only when there is spit in the wound, and this would degrade the name of G‑d (Sanhedrin 101a). But if there is no spit he is not punished with the severe punishment of no portion in the World to Come, but it is still forbidden because it is forbidden to make worldly use of and to take benefit from the words of Torah (Shevuot 15b).
When the illness is dangerous, one may heal it through verses which use G‑d’s name (Tosaphot on Shevuot 15b), just as the saving of lives takes precedence over the Sabbath. Therefore they permitted a person suffering from fever to
take an all-iron knife, go where thorn-hedges are to be found, and tie an animal hair to it. On the first day he must slightly notch it, and say, “And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, ‘I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up'” (Exodus 3:2-3). On the following day he [again] makes a small notch and says, “When the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, G‑d called out to him out of the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’ He answered, ‘Here I am’.” On the third day he should cut yet a little more and say, “And He said, ‘Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground'” (Exodus 3:4-5).
Reading verses from the Psalms serves as a sort of amulet to save one from harmful influences during sleep. Rabbi Joshua the son of Levi would read, before bed, the verse “A thousand may fall at your left side…You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High…for you, O Lord, are my refuge” (Psalms 91:7-9) to be safeguarded from harmful entities (Shevuot 15b).
We will bring a number of examples of amulets in the Talmud:
Chazal supposed that a long list of evil spirits and other harmful entities live in the shade of trees, so a person should avoid being in the shade. One who was not careful and was harmed should write an amulet for healing. The amulet had to be written with the harmful demon in mind, so one has to know the name of the demon:
In the shade of caper bushes there is a demon called Ruchi, of sorb trees there is a demon called Sheida, and of roofs a demon called Rishpi (Pesachim 111b). For the amulet to succeed, the writer must know the number of demons who attacked, the cause of the illness. As proof of this the Talmud brings an incident of a person who went under a sorb-tree near the city (in which 60 demons reside) and was endangered. He went to get an amulet written by a sage, but that sage did not know of the 60 demons, so the amulet did not help. He then went to another sage who did know of the 60 demons, and his amulet helped (ibid.).
One who drinks wine from his own press will find an evil spirit named Curdiacosmuddling his mind. Therefore the writing of the amulet must be intended specifically against Curdiacos (Gittin 67b).
The illnesses, damages, and harm caused to man are not just the result of demons. There are cases of a person harming another person or his property through looks; Chazal call this the “evil eye.”
“When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled” (Exodus 30:11). The plague might come, according to Rashi (ibid., 12) because the census brings with it the evil eye. King David counted the people of Israel (II Samuel 24), though counting them is forbidden. This led to the deaths of 70,000 people: “The Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel…and 70,000 of the people died from Dan to Beer-sheba.”
The priests in the Temple must cast lots, based upon which priests for the service will be called. The lottery is done by counting the priests, and so that the evil eye will not take hold of them, the Talmud relates (Yoma 22b) that “it is taught that the priests stuck out their fingers. Why did they not count the priests themselves? It is forbidden to count the Jews, even for the fulfillment of a commandment.” The Talmud’s words imply that if one counts things like fingers or pottery shards the evil eye has no dominion, but if people themselves are counted, it is a grave sin and punishment will follow.
The evil eye can also lead to real financial losses: “One may not stand over his neighbor’s field when its crop is full grown” (Bava Metzia 107a).
One who enters a city and is afraid of the evil eye should place the thumb of his right hand in his left hand and the thumb of his left hand in his right hand, and say, “I, so-and-so, am of the seed of Joseph over which the evil eye has no power” (Berachot 55b).
The power of a curse or an utterance
The Sages ascribed to human speech, even that of an ordinary man, a magical force with an existence of its own in the real world. There was a widow who came to a rabbinic court to obtain alimony. Raba the son of Rav Huna ruled that she had no right to alimony. The widow got angry and said: “Overturn his seat!” To prevent the curse from applying to the rabbi himself, they turned his seat over and put it straight again, but nevertheless Raba the son of Rav Huna did not escape illness (Gittin 35a).
Speech would have its effect even if a person was not intending to curse, but rather was engaged in regular talk.
The father of Shemuel redeemed female captives and placed guardians to see that they did not have sexual relations with men. Shemuel asked him: “Why place guardians? Before you redeemed them, they had no guardians and may have already had sexual relations with other men. His father replied: “If these were your daughters, you would not treat them slightly and abandon them.” The utterance of Shemuel’s father, “If these were your daughters,” causedShemuel’s daughters to fall into captivity (Ketubot 23a).
The power of the righteous
When the holy righteous ones cling in their thoughts to that which is above, whatever they think about at that time will come to pass, be it good or bad. This is why they said (Bava Batra 75a): “He looked at him and he turned into a pile of bones.”
(Igros Kodesh by Nachmanides, chapter 5)
What is the place of the righteous in the face of the Lord? It is written:
“I [G‑d] rule over man, and who rules over Me? The righteous. For I make a decree and [the righteous] negate it” (Taanit 16b). The righteous and the pious rule not only over the laws of nature, but also over the decrees of the holy One, blessed be He, and they have the power to negate them.
(A.A. Orbach, Chazal: Pirkei Emunot V’Deot,
Jerusalem, 5736, pp. 446-447)
The purpose for the creation of the lower world was man. The more a person rises in his righteousness and piety, the closer he is to G‑d and his ability to influence G‑d increases. Man’s status is measured primarily by how his actions match up with religious demands, and one who progresses in asceticism and purity becomes refined and can reach the level of the Holy Spirit, as the Talmud quotes Rabbi Pinchas the son of Yair: “Torah leads to caution…purity leads to piety…piety leads to the Holy Spirit…” (Avodah Zarah 20b).
The righteous man has power beyond that of other people. He can negate Divine decrees. A single righteous man can bypass the Divine will: “I [G‑d] rule over man, and who rules over Me? The righteous. For I make a decree and [the righteous] negate it” (Moed Katan 16b).
Thus did Choni HaMe’agel act to bring down the rains (Mishnah, Taanit 3:8). In the merit of these righteous people the world exists: “The holy One, blessed be He, saw that there were few righteous people; he planted them in each and every generation. Even for a single righteous person the world continues to exist” (Yoma 38b).
One of the righteous men who stands out in the Talmud as controlling the Divine conduct is R’ Chanina the son of Dosa: “Every day a Bat Kol states that the world is sustained in the merit of Chanina the son of Dosa, who suffices with a mere kav of carobs weekly” (Taanit 24b).
In merit of Chanina the son of Dosa’s piety neither demons nor angels of harm were able to hurt him. He had the ability to negate the power of demons (Pesachim 112b) and could even negate an edict of the holy One, blessed be He (Shabbat 63a).
There is a story told about an incident which occurred to R’ Chanina the son ofDosa. He was walking along when rain fell. He said, “Everyone is benefiting, and I am in distress?” and the rain stopped. Arriving home, he said, “Everyone is in distress, and I am benefiting?” and the rain continued (Taanit 24b).
The laws of physics are subject to the decision of the righteous man. R’ Chanina the son of Dosa saw his daughter distraught because she had lit with vinegar instead of oil. He told her that the One who makes oil burn can just as easily make vinegar burn. It is taught that the light burned through the day and provided light for Havdalah (Taanit 25a).
The righteous also have the power to cause others harm through a ban or by looking at a person.
One scholar lived in a community with a violent man who pained him. The scholar wrote a ban against the violent man: “Let this one be banned.” He put the writ of the ban in a pitcher and went to the cemetery. He blew a thousand blasts on a shofar until the pitcher shattered and the violent neighbor died (Moed Katan 17a). Another story tells of a dog which ate the shoes of the sages and they placed it under a ban. Its tail burned and killed it (ibid.).
In another story, a woman belittled Rav Judah in the rabbinical court. He wrote a shamta against her and her internal organs burst and she died (Nedarim 50b).Rabban Shimon the son of Gamliel said: Wherever the Sages set their eyes there is either death or calamity (ibid.).
It is also related that Rav Sheshet looked at a heretic and turned him into a pile of bones (Berachot 58a), and so did Rabbi Shimon the son of Yochai when he came out of the cave and met Judah the son of Gerim. He looked at the man and turned him into a pile of bones, for Judah the son of Gerim had informed the Roman authorities about Rabbi Shimon the son of Yochai’s words “Everything they established they established for themselves. They established markets — to place there whores. They established bath-houses to pleasure themselves. They built bridges to collect the taxes” (Shabbat 34a).
The wife of Resh Lakish grew fearful when she saw R’ Yochanan opening his eyes and looking at her son, lest R’ Yochanan look at him and kill him, as he had his father (Taanit 9a).
On the day of the famous disagreement between Rabbi Eliezer and R’ Joshua and the sages on the matter of Achnai’s oven,
Everything at which R. Eliezer cast his eyes was burned up. R.Gamaliel, too, was traveling in a ship when a huge wave arose to drown him. “It appears to me,” he reflected, “that this is on account of none other but R. Eliezer the son of Hyrcanus.” Thereupon he arose and exclaimed, “Sovereign of the Universe! You know full well that I have not acted for my honor, nor for the honor of my paternal house, but for Your honor, so that strife may not multiply in Israel!” At that the raging sea subsided.
Bava Metzia 59b
R’ Yossi of Kfar Yokrat’s workers were hungry. His son sat beneath a date tree and said: “Date tree, date tree, bring forth your fruits that my father’s workers may eat.” Fruits came forth and the workers ate. When R’ Yossi heard this he told his son, “My son, you bothered your Master to bring forth the fruits of the date before their season, and so you shall die before your time.” There was also an incident with his daughter, who was beautiful, He caught boys staring at her beauty and said to her “Better you should die than that you should cause others to sin,” and so it was (Taanit 24a).
Rav saw a man who sowed cotton on Purim and cursed him; the cotton did not grow (Megillah 5b).
In the first three hours of the day G‑d gets angry. The time of his anger is a “moment,” and one may pinpoint the time of his anger — it is when the rooster’s cockscomb turns white. R’ Joshua the son of Levi had a neighbor who pained him. He took a rooster and waited until its cockscomb paled, to time his curse for when G‑d is angry (Berachot 7a).
Chanina the son of Chama prayed and revived a slave of the Roman CaesarAntoninus after the slave was killed (Avoda Zara 10b).
Secrets of magical actions like “the sacred names” were given only to special people: the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton is given by sages to their students once each week (Kiddushin 71a).
Even fewer are given the holy names consisting of 12 and of 42 letters. These are only given to one “who is modest, humble, middle-aged, who does not get angry, does not get drunk, and does not harbor resentment [lest he use his knowledge to gain revenge — Rashi]” (Kiddushin 71a). Rabbi Chananya the son of Turadion would pronounce the Tetragrammaton, interpret it by the 42 letter name, and do with it as he wished (Rashi on Avoda Zara 17a).
Rabbi Meir’s sister-in-law was imprisoned. Rabbi Meir bribed the Roman guard of the jail and told him that if he would but say “O G‑d of Meir, answer me” he would be saved from all troubles. The guard wanted proof that this “mantra” would be effective. When dogs came to bite him the guard said, “O G‑d of Meir, answer me” and they left him be. When the government found out that the guard freed Rabbi Meir’s sister-in-law from jail they wanted to hang the guard. He said “Oh G‑d of Meir, answer me” and they took the noose off of him (AvodaZara 18a-b).
Let no one be found among you…who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead. For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to the Lord…Those nations you are about to dispossess do indeed resort to soothsayers and augurs; to you, however, the Lord your G‑d has not assigned the like. The Lord your G‑d will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people.
The act of sorcery is real, valid, and even so is forbidden. The reason is explained in the verse above: “Those nations…do indeed resort to soothsayers and augurs.” The prohibition stems from the need to separate from the gentiles. In other words, the very same act, the very same ritual, if performed by a gentile is sorcery, and if performed by one “from among your own people” is prophecy.
The daughters of R. Nahman used to stir a cauldron with their hands when it was boiling hot, without getting their hands burnt. R. ‘Ilish thought that they were not burned due to their righteousness and piety. A misfortune happened to them and they were carried away captive, and he also with them. One day he was sitting with a man who understood the language of the birds and who heard a dove call out, “‘Ilish, run away.” When ‘Ilish ran away from the government he saw the daughters of R. Nahman in their jail. He decided to see if they were indeed righteous. He went to listen to them in the toilet and heard them say to each other “Let us sleep with one of the guards and ask that he free us in exchange.” From this he understood that their ability to stir the cauldron came from witchcraft and not from sanctity (Gittin 45a).
A person may learn the ways of sorcery and try them out to be able to detect who is a sorcerer, a person liable to death (Sanhedrin 68a).
Thus did Rabbi Eliezer, expert in the ways of witchcraft, act. He knew how to fill a field with squash through sorcery, and how to then uproot them through another incantation.
Sorcerers could change a log of wood into a donkey. They could change scorpions to water and give it to a man to drink in order to harm and bewitch him. They could change a man into a donkey and ride him wherever they wished. Rav Ashi testified that he saw Karna’s father blow his nose violently and streamers of silk issued from his nostrils through sorcery (Sanhedrin 67b).
There is sorcery which is mere illusion and not true sorcery. For example, when a camel is killed and quartered and then revived. If blood issued when the camel was killed, the animal was truly killed and then revived. This is true sorcery. If no blood issued than it is all just an illusion and not sorcery. Therefore the severity of the prohibition is less (ibid.).
The distinction between the acts of demons, of changing things with the help of demons, and acts of sorcery is whether specific paraphernalia is used in the act. The sorcerer who insists on specific paraphernalia works through demons and one who does not proves that he knows the art of sorcery (ibid.).
There is a form of sorcery which is permitted: the use of combinations of the letters of the Divine name. Thus, for example, Rabbah created a man by combining the Divine names (Sanhedrin 65b), and so did Rav Chaninah and Rav Oshaya. Each Sabbath eve they would learn the laws of creation and combine the letters of the name through which the world was created. They would create a calf and eat it. Rashi explained the reason for the permission: This is no sorcery, for it is the act of the holy One, blessed be He, via His holy name (Sanhedrin 67b). Rashi’s explanation emphasizes our words throughout the essay. The creation of a calf by anyone other than “God” is an act of sorcery. The creation of a calf in the name of G‑d is the act of the holy One, blessed be He, and is not sorcery.
There are other types of sorcerers like the ob and the yidde’oni. They are included in the prohibition against sorcery, as explained in the Talmud: “The oband the yidde’oni are included among other sorcerers” (Sanhedrin 67b).
Ob — This is a sorcerer who raises the spirit of the dead and places it between his knees or under his armpit. The spirit then begins to answer the sorcerer’s questions in a low voice. (According to Rashi there are those who raise the dead upon their sexual organs.) (Sanhedrin 65b). The ob cannot raise the dead on the Sabbath (ibid.).
Yidde’oni — This is a sorcerer who takes a bone of the animal yedua (in the Mishnah it is called adanei hasadeh and is an animal resembling a man, connected to the earth at the navel) and the bone begins to speak of sorcery (Sanhedrin 65b).
One who inquires of the dead — This is one who starves himself and then goes to sleep in the cemetery so that the spirit of impurity, the demons who inhabit the cemetery, will help him in his sorcery (ibid.).
M’onen: This is one who spreads a layer of the sperm of seven men on his eyes and performs sorcery, as well as one who decrees favorable times, like one who says that a specific day is good for commerce (ibid.).
M’nachesh — One who treats events and occurrences as signs for the future, for example, one who sees that the bread falls from his mouth or whose walking stick falls and interprets this as a sign of doom, deciding not to continue what he started. (If he went out on a journey and one of these signs occurred, he decides to cancel the trip.) (ibid.)
Be innocent with the Lord your G‑d…for we must believe that He alone has made everything and that He knows the truth of all the future, and that from Him alone may we seek the future, through His prophets, the pious, or from the Urim V’Tumim, but we may not seek it from the skies or from the constellations; there is no assurance that their foretelling will come to pass, in any case. But if we hear any of what they have to say, we must say that all is in the hands of Heaven, for it is He who changes the path of the stars and the constellations as He wishes.
Nachmanides’ gloss on Maimonides’ Sefer HaMitzvot
Chazal called the study of stars’ influence on our world itstagninut (lit., use of signs) and a person expert in this study was called a “Chaldean.” The constellations and the zodiac are a sort of “natural process” which influences the natural world — “There is not a single blade of grass which does not have its own star in the sky which strikes it and says ‘grow!'” (Bereshit Rabbah [Vilna]parasha 10) — and human beings. Thus, for example, there is a story told aboutElazar the son of Pedat, who was a very poor man. He asked the holy One, blessed be He, how long he would continue to be poor and troubled. G‑d answered him, “Only were I to turn the world back to its beginning and were you to be born at a time conducive to wealth and prosperity could the situation be changed (Taanit 25a). The course of the constellations and the zodiac has influence as a natural law upon the world, and everything depends upon it: longevity, children, and finances (Moed Katan 28a).
When they wished to appoint Rav Joseph as head of the yeshiva, he refused, because astrologers told him that he would serve for only two years and then die. Therefore he left the office open for Rabbah, who served for 22 years. Afterward Rav Joseph served for two and a half years (Berachot 64a).
Astrologers informed Joseph, he who honored the Sabbath, that he would get the money of one of the wealthiest gentiles, and as they foretold, so did it happen (Shabbat 119a).
Even though the course of the constellations and the zodiac influences what happens in the world as a “natural” law, one can be saved from it because G‑d is supernatural and he rules over the natural phenomena and reigns over the constellations and the zodiac. We have seen that laws of physics can be changed based on the will of G‑d. The sun stood still for Joshua, so the sun stood still for Nakdimon the son of Gurion. The daughter of Chanina the son of Dosa lit vinegar instead of oil for the Sabbath, and he told her that the One who makes oil burn can just as easily make vinegar burn. It is taught that the light burned through the day and provided light for Havdalah (Taanit 25a). So are the phenomena of “nature” which stem from the influence of the constellations and of the zodiac. Proof of this comes from our forefather Abraham, who was expert in astrology. “Abraham possessed a power of reading the stars, for which he was much sought after by the potentates of East and West” (Baba Batra 16a), so he knew, by reading the stars, that he would have no progeny. Because of this knowledge he questioned the Lord. “Why do you promise I will have progeny?” G‑d answered that Abraham is outside the influence of the stars (Shabbat 156a).
There are women whose luck is bad, and this causes their husbands to die. Therefore one is forbidden to marry them (Yevamot 64b).
Even though one is prohibited from inquiring of astrologers, as it is written, “Be innocent with the Lord your G‑d” (Pesachim 113b), the sages were concerned with the forecasts of the astrologers, as is related of Rabbi Akiva, who was afraid for his daughter because of future harm forecast for her (Shabbat 156b).
The constellations and zodiac also influence the individual, and one who is expert in the “signs” of the stars can predict the future so that a man can take care and be protected.
R’ Akiva had a daughter. Now, astrologers told him: “On the day your daughter enters the bridal chamber, a snake will bite her and she will die.” He was very worried about this. On that day [of her marriage] she took a brooch [and] stuck it into the wall and by chance it penetrated [sank] into the eye of a serpent. The following morning, when she took it out, the snake came trailing after it. “What did you do?” her father asked her. “A poor man came to our door in the evening,” she replied, “and everybody was busy at the banquet, and there was none to attend to him. So I took the portion which was given to me and gave it to him.” “You have done a good deed,” said he to her. Thereupon R’ Akiva went out and taught: “But charity delivers from death.”
Chazal believed in astrology as we know it now, that the day or hour of one’s birth determines his fate because of the influence of the stars. “He who is born under Mars will be a shedder of blood. R. Ashi observed: Either a surgeon, a thief, a slaughterer, or a circumciser. Rabbah said: I was born under Mars.Abaye retorted: You too inflict punishment and kill” (Shabbat 156a).
Despite Chazal’s belief in the influence of stars and in astrology, they did not recommend specific actions to change the decree of the stars or bend them to one’s purpose aside from the demand that one fulfill the commandments and pray. It could be concluded that Chazal did not deal with astral magic in the sense defined by Dov Schwartz:
At the foundation of astral magic lies the assumption that man can use the heavenly bodies for his purpose and his benefit. The stars and constellations produce an everlasting abundance which is called spirituality, and from which amazing powers stem.
(Dov Schwartz, Astrology and Magic Reflected in Middle Ages Judaism,
Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 1999, “Introduction,” pg. 11)
Therefore, in their opinion, the way to be saved from the decrees of the stars was through the fulfillment of commandments: “‘Thus said the Lord, do not learn to go the way of the nations and do not be dismayed by portents in the sky, for the nations are dismayed by them!’ (Jeremiah 10:2). Gentiles will be dismayed; the Jews will not be dismayed” (Sukkah 29a).
According to the Sages the influence of the stars on Israel as a nation is negated when they fulfill the commandments. In other words, it can be said that our sages turned the fulfillment of the Torah and the commandments into magical acts which negate the influence of the stars and the zodiac.
This is what is written in the Talmud (Shabbat 156a): “It was stated. R’ Chanina said: The planetary influence gives wisdom, the planetary influence gives wealth, and Israel stands under planetary influence. R’ Yochanan said: Israel is immune from planetary influence.” How do we know that Israel is immune from planetary influence? From Abraham our forefather, who was expert in the constellations of stars and saw that he is not destined to sire a son. Abraham pleaded before the holy One, blessed be He: “How are You promising me that I will have descendants of my own, while I see in the constellations of stars that I am not destined to sire a son?” The holy One, blessed be He, answered: “‘One born from your own body will inherit what is yours.’ Then He took him [Abraham] outside and said, ‘Look at the sky and count the stars. See if you can count them.’ Then He said to him, ‘That is how [numerous] your descendants will be'” (Genesis 15:4-5). The Sages interpreted “Then He took him outside” to mean that He took him outside the influence of the constellations of stars and said to him: “Israel is immune from planetary influence.”
Commandments as Magic
The system of commandments is an (efficient) paradigm parallel to the activities of astral magic. Idolaters and those who sanctify shadows cannot manage to bring down the forces of spirituality with any efficiency, while those who fulfill the commandments receive the Divine abundance.
(Dov Schwartz, Astrology and Magic Reflected
in Middle Ages Judaism, pg. 33)
This statement discusses R’ Judah HaLevi’s views, but also holds for the views of the Babylonian sages.
The common view of the Talmudic sages was that the fulfillment of commandments and the study of Torah in the most meticulous fashion influences the Divine management of the Jewish nation in this world. “If you accept the Torah, good, and if not, your graves will be there” (Shabbat 85a).
G‑d is the manager of all things created: the stars and the zodiac, the angels and the heavenly ministers, and He leads the Jewish people with favorable conditions. While the other nations of the world are led by the stars and the zodiac, the angels and the heavenly ministers, the Jewish people are led by G‑d Himself, Lord of the heavenly hosts, and “not by a messenger and not by an angel.” All this is on condition that they follow G‑d’s “will,” that they fulfill the commandments written in the Torah.
This reciprocal relationship between G‑d and the Jewish people generally occurs between the nation as a single unit and G‑d. Therefore the demand and the requirement for Divine response is that the nation as a whole follow the rituals detailed in the Holy Writ.
But sometimes the Divine leadership is influenced by the actions of an individual who manages to convince G‑d to use His attributes of mercy and compassion for the sake of the entire nation. Sometimes this modified management is manifest only for a specific righteous person or the person who has fulfilled a commandment.
When the Holy Temple was standing, service in the Temple was the central ritual used to please G‑d.
The sacrifices and the priests’ actions in the Temple, as detailed in the Torah, are the subject of most “Divine” demands and conditions for the prosperity, security, and peace of the Jewish nation. There is no difference between all the intricately detailed demands written in the Torah and magical rituals, as we will see below.
After the Holy Temple was destroyed, after the loss of the spiritual center which influenced the Divine leadership of the Jewish nation, there was a need to convert the ritualistic ceremonies of the Temple to other rituals which could please the Lord. Therefore the Temple worship was switched to worship in synagogues and study halls, called “small temples.” The study of Torah and the details of the commandments are rituals which can influence the Divine leadership after the destruction of the Temple. Even though the land of Israel is the favored land for pulling down Divine abundance or punishment, as is written “It is a land which the Lord your G‑d looks after, on which the Lord your G‑d always keeps His eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end” (Deuteronomy 11:12), when the people were exiled the Divine presence was exiled with them: “Israel is so dear to G‑d, wherever they are exiled, the Divine presence accompanies them. They were exiled to Egypt — and the Divine presence went with them… They were exiled to Babylon, and the Divine Presence went with them” (Megillah 29a). Even though the Holy Temple (the location of the central ritual used to attract Divine abundance) was destroyed, and even though the Jewish nation is no longer in a place which attracts Divine abundance (the land of Israel), the reciprocal relationship between the nation and its god has not been uprooted.
The Temple worship as the central method of drawing down the thread of mercy, blessing, and a good life with no damage or illness is a central motif in the Holy Writ. Here are some representative examples:
On the Day of Atonement, as described in Leviticus (chapter 16), the High Priest is required to fulfill a number of detailed instructions for the forgiveness of sins, similar to a magical ritual. The only man authorized and permitted to manage the atonement ceremony in the Holy Temple and to enter the Holy of Holies is the High Priest. There are precise, detailed instructions about under what circumstances the High Priest is permitted into the Holy of Holies: first he must don eight garments (ephod, choshen, tzitz, etc.).
The order of his work and activities is also detailed. Preparing the incense, making the sacrifices, sending the scapegoat out to the desert, together with the entire nation’s fast, led G‑d to forgive and absolve the sins which are the causes of damages, harm, and illnesses. The order of worship on the Day of Atonement is a set of activities designed to please G‑d. G‑d, who rules the world, who has power over diseases and damages, who moves the orbit of the constellations and the zodiac, is the one who can save and protect the Jewish people who do His will and acknowledge His leadership and sovereignty over all. The promise is clear: following the procedures of the magical ceremonies will lead to bountiful livelihoods and health.
The Scriptures explicitly warn: “But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments…I will wreak misery upon you — consumption and fever” (Leviticus 26:14-16).
“He said, ‘If you will heed the Lord your G‑d diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the Lord am your healer” (Exodus 15:26).
“You shall serve the Lord your G‑d, and He will bless your bread and your water. And I will remove sickness from your midst” (Exodus 23:25).
Therefore forgiveness and absolution are the central motifs of magical acts. Absolution is forgiveness of sins and changes G‑d’s rulings. Instead of bringing diseases and damages, there will be affluence and prosperity. That is why the Day of Atonement was created, to allow the nation to earn forgiveness of its mistakes in the performance of magic ceremonies throughout the year: “This shall be to you a law for all time: to make atonement for the Israelites for all their sins once a year. And Moses did as the Lord had commanded him.” These magical rituals are called “commandments” by the Jews. This is the place to emphasize that language, as a collection of symbols, is that which lends significance to the action itself. The same ceremony, the same action, is given a completely different meaning when given a different name. The act of bringing the incense, if defined as a magical act, is something negative, as opposed to when it is defined as a “commandment.” Thus, for example, according to Maimonides, “He ordered the priests to bring the incense twice each day on the golden altar” (Sefer HaMitzvot, positive commandment 28). It would be enough were we to change the description of the person commanded to bring the incense from a priest to a mage, and then the significance of the action and the way it is viewed would change as well. Thus, for example, we would say that instead of the priests, “He ordered the mages to bring the incense twice each day on the altar.” Or we could change the parameters of the act, and instead of defining the act as the fulfillment of a commandment (an act which we see as appropriate and good) we could define it as a magical rite, and state “In a magical rite, the priests bring the incense twice each day on the altar.”
This is the case, too, for the order of the atonement service. Maimonides, in Sefer HaMitzvot (commandment 49), writes: “They were commanded the service of the day (of atonement), the sacrifices and confessions on the day of the fast of Kippur, to atone for all sins,” and in commandment 36, “The priests were commanded to wear special clothing.” Instead we could write “The magical rites of the day (of atonement), the sacrifices and confessions on the day of the fast of Kippur, the special clothes, are to be carried out by the Great Mage to atone for all sins.”
This is also the case of the ritual of giving the woman suspected of adultery to drink (Numbers 5). The ritual seeks to clarify whether the woman was taken in adultery. According to Maimonides (Laws of a Suspected Adulteress 3), the woman is brought to Jerusalem, before the Sanhedrin. After she is spoken to and they try many ways to convince her to confess, if she still maintains her innocence she is brought to the eastern gate of the azarah, which stands opposite the Holy of Holies. All her jewelry is removed and she is dressed in unbecoming clothing. The priest arrives and makes her swear that she did not commit adultery; she answers “Amen.” The priest writes the text of the oath on a piece of parchment. He brings a new pottery pitcher and fills it with half a logof water from the basin and adds dirt from the floor of the Temple. Afterwards he erases the text of the oath in the water, then places barley flour in the woman’s hand. The woman drinks the water in the pitcher and the priest helps her scatter the flour to the four winds, as well as above and below, and then the priest brings the sacrifice of the woman suspected of adultery. If she is pure she returns to her husband, and if she did commit adultery, her face turns yellow, her eyes bug out, and her stomach expands until she dies. This ritual is considered to be one of the 613 commandments.
Another example of a magical ritual which pleases G‑d and makes Him forget His anger and rage is the ceremony of the fire pans which Aaron conducted to save the Jewish people from a plague after they complained (Number 17:11). “Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Take the fire pan and put it on the fire from the altar. Add incense and take it quickly to the community and make expiation for them. For wrath has gone forth from the Lord: the plague has begun!”
From this we can see that the magical rituals and ceremonies (the commandments) serve as actions which influence the reciprocal relationship between G‑d and man.
As long as the service in the Holy Temple continued as it should have, no nation could reign supreme over the Temple. Therefore the only possibility of conquering it came through disturbing the orderly functioning of the Temple worship. As long as the Jews busied themselves with worship in the Temple they were not bested by the Greeks. The answer was to send them a pig (an impure animal) for the wholly-burnt offering in place of a lamb, and thus the Greeks were able to conquer the Holy Temple (Menachot 64b).
The cherubs (who looked like children with wings), which were found on the holy ark, would change the direction they faced in a miraculous fashion, based on the actions of Israel. When Israel did the will of G‑d the cherubs faced each other, and when Israel did not do the will of G‑d, the cherubs faced the walls of the Temple (Bava Batra 99a).
Since the day when the Temple was destroyed, rain no longer comes down from the good storehouse…When Israel act according to the will of God and are settled in their own land, then rain comes down from a good storehouse, but when Israel are not settled on their own land, then the rain does not come down from a good storehouse.
(Bava Batra 25b)
The Holy Temple was run in a magical manner. Never was a fly seen in the slaughterhouse, despite the great number of animal sacrifices. Never did a snake bite or scorpion sting in Jerusalem. Never did the rain put out the sacrificial fire, and the smoke, despite all the winds of the world, never moved from its place (Yoma 21a).
In the Talmud it is related that just before the destruction of the Second TempleRabban Yochanan the son of Zakkai went out of Jerusalem and met a woman — the daughter of the vastly wealthy Nakdimon the son of Gurion — gathering wheat in the dung of cattle belonging to Arabs. When he saw this he wept and said “How happy are Israel; when they do the will of the Omnipresent no nation nor any language-speaking group has any power over them; but when they do not do the will of the Omnipresent He delivers them into the hands of a low people, and not only in the hands of a low people but into the power of the beasts of a low people” (Ketubot 66b).
An illustrative example of a magical ceremony is the ceremony which causes the rain to fall.
Rain is a vital necessity, which a man has no control over. For this, he is dependant upon heaven’s mercy. “Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain” (Deuteronomy 11:16-17). The falling of rain depends upon the fulfillment of commandments. In the Talmud it is written, “Rav Katina said: the rains stop only because of neglect of the Torah” (Taanit 7b).
Even though in general the study of Torah and fulfillment of commandments improves the economic situation and the security of the nation, there are also more specific rituals designed to draw down the concrete abundance of good, and this is the case for bringing down the rains.
Natural phenomena which are guided by G‑d are re-evaluated once a year. Wheat is re-evaluated at Passover, fruits at Shavuot, and the rains at Sukkot(Rosh Hashanah 16a). This is why the altar is anointed with water and not wine on the Sukkot festival.
Thus did Rashi explain why seven bulls are sacrificed on Sukkot: “For the seventy nations of the world, to atone for them so that rain will fall throughout the world — for they are judged on the holiday in regard to water” (Rashi onSukkah 55b). This is also the reason for the four species on Sukkot: “Rabbi Eliezer said: The four species are taken as an appeasement for water” (Taanit2b). Shaking the four species to the four winds (north, south, east, and west) stops the evil winds, and shaking them above and below prevents harmful dews (Sukkah 37b).
But if all this has not worked, one must continue to placate G‑d, who holds the key to the rains (Taanit 2a) through special prayers and the blowing of theshofar, to bring down the rains. The ceremony is detailed in Tractate Taanit, and its purpose is to convince the people of Israel to repent. The rains have stopped as a result of their sins and iniquities; the Lord reprimanded mankind by stopping the rains. “They should dress and sit as mourners, as excommunicated people, despised by G‑d, until He has mercy upon them” (Taanit 14b). To placate Him they must shout to Him, to subjugate themselves to Him, and repent. Thirteen public fasts are declared, and in the final seven the holy ark and the Torah scrolls are taken out to the city square. Ashes are placed upon them and the entire nation gathers, dressed in sackcloth. Ashes are placed upon the heads of the community leader and of the chief of the rabbinical court, and they pray: “May He who answered our forefather Abraham on the Mount of Moriah answer you and hear your cries…” They then blow theshofar (Taanit 16a).
The power of prayer to destroy that which would harm is a common ritual amongst the sages of the Talmud.
Harmful entities and demons were in the study hall of Abaye, which was far from a town. When Rav Acha came to the study hall, a demon appeared to him as a seven-headed dragon. Rav Acha bowed down and prayed for the death of the harmful creature. Each time he bowed down, a head was cut off (Kiddushin 29b).
Below we will detail other expressions of the reciprocal relationship between the fulfillment of commandments and response from the Divine leadership:
The power of studying Torah to save and protect one from punishments and evil is greater than that of the fulfillment of commandments. In the Talmud it is written: “While one is engaged upon [study of] Torah, it protects [from suffering] and rescues [prevents from sinning], and while one is not engaged upon it, it protects but does not rescue. As for a commandment — whether while one is engaged upon it or not, it protects but does not rescue” (Sotah 21a). The power of studying Torah in purity and devotion is so great that it can burn birds flying over the one studying. It was said of Yochanan the son of Uziel that when he sat and studied Torah, all birds which flew above him burned (Sukkah 28a). The pure study of Torah has the power to burn birds.
Were Israel to keep two Sabbaths as they should be kept, they would immediately be redeemed (Shabbat 118b).
“The world endures only for the sake of the breath of school children” Why the children and not the adults? “Breath in which there is sin is not like breath in which there is no sin” (Shabbat 119b).
The reason why a scholar died in mid-life was unknown to the sages. Elijah came and explained to them that he died because when his wife was in her menstruation period, they ate at the same table and slept in the same bed, even though they did not have sexual relations (Shabbat 13b).
One who is diligent in lighting candles for the Sabbath will have scholarly sons. One who is diligent in putting a mezuzah at the entrance to his house will have a nice home (Shabbat 23b).
Women die in childbirth for neglecting three commandments: niddah (laws of impurity in the menstruation period), challah (separating a share from the dough, intended for a priest), and lighting Shabbat candles (Mishnah, Shabbat 2:6).
Performance of even inessential parts of a commandment delays punishment (Sukkah 38a).
Those occupied with performing a commandment are not harmed (Pesachim 8a).
There was an incident in which the daughter of Rabbi Akiva was saved from death in merit of her fulfillment of the commandment to give charity (Shabbat 156b).
Rav Chanina the son of Papi was saved from harmful spirits by merit of having overcome sexual desires. A woman asked him to have sexual relations with her. To be saved from her demands he said a magical incantation which caused his body to be covered with boils, so he would disgust her. Through sorcery she healed him. He fled from her to a place in which there were harmful spirits, and was saved from them in merit of his having overcome his desires (Kiddushin 39b).
The view of the system of commandments, the ceremonies and rituals, as a system whose purpose is to provoke a response from G‑d, to receive reward, contradicts the view found in the Mishnah, attributed to Antigonos of Socho:
Antigonos of Socho received the Torah from Shimon the Righteous. He used to say: Be not like servants who minister unto their master for the sake of receiving a reward, but be like servants who serve their master not upon the condition of receiving a reward; and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.
(Mishnah Avot 1:3)
It also contradicts the statement that “One should not say, ‘I will read Scripture that I may be called a sage, I will study, that I may be called rabbi, I will study in order to be an elder and sit in the assembly [of elders],’ but learn out of love” (Nedarim 62a) and the statement “R. Eliezer son of R. Zadok said: Do [good] deeds for the sake of their Maker, and speak of them for their own sake” (Nedarim 62a).
To intensify the contradiction we will add that the Torah text promises Divine feedback which defines the commandments as magical actions. “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your G‑d has commanded you, that you may long endure, and that you may fare well, in the land that the Lord your G‑d is assigning to you” (Deuteronomy 5:15).
“Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life” (Deuteronomy 22:7).
According to Chazal’s interpretation of the commandment to tithe as leading to the reward of riches:
The wealthy in Eretz Israel, whereby do they merit [wealth]? — Because they give tithes, he replied, as it is written, asser te’asser [which means], give tithes [asser] so that you may become wealthy [tit’ashsher]. Those in Babylon, wherewith do they merit [it]? — Because they honor the Torah, replied he. And those in other countries, whereby do they merit it? — Because they honor the Sabbath, answered he.
How can Antigonos of Socho’s demand that one serve their master not upon the condition of receiving a reward be reconciled with the explicit promises of reward?
The Gemara, in Pesachim (8a) explains that one who gives charity in order to merit the World to Come is considered righteous, but he is not fulfilling the commandment for its own sake. Yet the Talmud is full of statements which imply that the World to Come is the goal and the lofty purpose. As a representative example, we will bring the incident related in the Talmud (Berachot 28b): “When R. Eliezer fell ill, his disciples went in to visit him. They said to him: ‘Master, teach us the paths of life so that we may through them win the life of the world-to-come’.”
There are sages in the Talmud who suppose that the commandments written in the Torah “are nothing but decrees” (Megillah 25a). There is no reason behind them, only a decree which we must fulfill with no cause, and seemingly without recompense.
This is not the place to bring the many opinions on this matter, but we can conclude that there are those among the religious who state that one must fulfill what is written with no recompense or reciprocity. A person should observe the Torah because it embodies the ultimate knowledge. This was Maimonides’ opinion (Commentary on the Mishnayot, Sanhedrin chapter 10), and also that of Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz OBM:
We can distinguish two types of religions: a religion having, at its foundation, values and beliefs which require action, and a religion having, at its foundation, commandments and actions upon which are erected values and elements of consciousness. A “religion of values and beliefs” is a giving religion — it is a mean which helps man fill his spiritual needs and calm his psychological doubts. Its purpose is man, and in it god offers his services to man. One who adopts this religion is redeemed. A “religion of commandments” is a demanding religion. It places duties and roles upon man and turns him into a vessel serving a purpose which is not embodied in man. The satisfaction it gives is only the satisfaction a man gets from fulfilling his duty. One who adopts this religion is a man who worships his god for the worship’s own sake — for his god deserves to be worshiped. In this sense, the question of “What does religion give me?” is invalid. It is a question the religious man does not ask. What he does ask is “What is my obligation to religion?”
(Judaism, the Jewish Nation, and the State of Israel, pg. 23)
There is no need to note that both Maimonides’ words and Leibowitz’steachings differ from the predominate view of religion, which champions and educates one in a system of commandments or, more accurately, of magical ceremonies which influence the Divine governance to deliver bounty and mercy to the Jewish nation.
The “reality” of magical forces and the use thereof, the use of “the G‑d of Israel” or an act of sorcery — both in the Scriptures and in the Talmud — are taken for granted to be part of an understanding of natural processes. Moses hit the Nile with his staff and turned it into blood. “The Egyptian magicians did the same with their spells” (Exodus 7:22). Aaron held his arm out over the waters of Egypt and frogs arose to cover the land of Egypt. “The magicians did the same with their spells” (Exodus 8:3). Aaron hit the ground and there were lice throughout the land of Egypt. “The magicians did the like with their spells to produce lice, but they could not” (Exodus 8:14), because the demon cannot produce any creature as small as a louse (Sanhedrin 67b).
In the Middle Ages two schools emerged on the question of magical forces appearing in the Scriptures and the Talmud. One school, led by Maimonides, utterly rejected the magical forces. The other school, led by the Rashba (RabbiShlomo the son of Aderet, 1235-1310, Barcelona) accepted the physical presence of magical forces as part of the natural phenomena.
This is what Maimonides wrote:
These things [sorcery, speaking to the dead, and familiar spirits…] are all falsehoods, and it is what the idolaters used to get the early nations to follow their lead. It is not appropriate for Jews, wise scholars, to continue in this nonsense nor to consider that there might be use for them, as is written “There is no soothsaying for Jacob, no magic for Israel” (Numbers 23:23), and it is written “Those nations you are about to dispossess do indeed resort to soothsayers and augurs; to you, however, the Lord your G‑d has not assigned the like” (Deuteronomy 18:14). Anyone who believes in these things and their like and who considers that although they might bear some truth and wisdom they are forbidden because the Torah has said so, is a fool who lacks wisdom and is like the women and children, who are not in full possession of their faculties. Wise and pure men know, through absolute proof, that all this is nonsense, which those lacking wisdom follow and therefore leave the paths of truth. That is why the Torah has warned against all this nonsense, saying “Be innocent with the lord your G‑d” (Deuteronomy 18:13).
(Laws of Idolatry 11:16)
The gaon Shmuel the son of Chofni (d. 1013) also thought that this all was nonsense, and disagreed with the Talmudic sages:
“The act of necromancy is nonsense, lies, and ridiculous…the story of Samuel and Saul never, G‑d forbid, was real, and Samuel never rose from his grave. The woman did it all through trickery…” This is the commentary of the gaon Rav Shmuel the son of Chofni OBM, and he said this even though it can be implied from the words of the sages OBM in the Gemara that the woman truly did revive Samuel. He did not accept what was written there, for there are those who use reason to deny it.
(Radak on I Samuel 28:24)
On the other hand, the Rashba accepts the text in its plain meaning, and argues that just as natural remedies cure, so can amulets and sorcery, which, as the Torah and the Talmudic sages testify, act like natural laws, even though reason and study cannot explain them:
And I say that in His Divine mercy, from the start of Creation He invented for His world things to help His creations. For if something should happen, like illnesses and the like…there should be that which could return them to their former state or heal them. And these forces are actually available in nature, like drugs which are known to scholars of medicine, or natural remedies [amulets, incantations, sorcery…] which logic cannot explain.
(Responsa of the Rashba, part one, section 413)
The Gaon of Vilna followed the Rashba’s opinion and came out strongly against Maimonides’ “heretical” opinion.
All those who came after him disagreed with [Maimonides], for there are many incantations mentioned in the Talmud. But he was drawn to philosophy, and that is why he wrote that sorcery and holy names and incantations and demons and amulets are all false. But he had already been hit over the head about this, for we have seen many incidents in the Gemara using holy names and sorcery. Philosophy has influenced him [Maimonides], by the magnitude of its teachings, to interpret the Gemara as analogy and take it out of its plain meaning, G‑d forbid. I do not believe in them [philosophers] or their great numbers. Everything is as its plain meaning, but it contains an inner element — not the inner element of philosophy, which is truly external, but that of the masters of truth.
(The Gaon of Vilna’s commentary on Yoreh Deah 179:13)
How does Maimonides, who calls those who believe in sorcery and incantations “lacking wisdom,” deal with the passages in the Scriptures and the Talmud which discuss the actuality of magical forces?
Maimonides’ method is to use reason as a pivot upon which man turns and rests. He interprets the Scriptures in light of the conclusions of knowledge and reason.
Thus did Maimonides write in his book of halacha, in which he unambiguously ruled “Five are called apostates…and one who says there is a single master to the world, but he has a form and a figure” (Laws of Repentance 3:7), though this contradicts what is explicitly written in the Scriptures and from which we can conclude that G‑d does indeed have a material form.
That is why Maimonides wrote that the gates of interpretation are not locked, that one must force the Scriptures to match reason.
We do not reject the eternity of the universe out of the consideration certain passages in the Scripture confirm the Creation, for such passages are not more numerous than those in which G‑d is represented as a corporeal being; nor is it impossible or difficult to find for them a suitable interpretation. We might have explained them in the same manner as we did in respect to the incorporeality of G‑d.
(Guide to the Perplexed part 2, chapter 25)
Still, it is puzzling why the Torah, written “from the mouth of the Glory” chose to confuse the reader and present G‑d as having a body and to allow the reader to understand that magical forces are real.
Maimonides answers that the Torah took the route of educational interpretation, that it meant to achieve an educational goal at the price of a lesser educational goal.
To his mind, the central educational goal of the Torah is to uproot belief in idolatry and to implant the belief in the uniqueness of G‑d: “The principal object of the Torah is to remove this doctrine [of idolatry] and to destroy its traces” (part 3, chapter 30). The generation which left Egypt was accustomed to sacrificing to the sun, the moon, and the stars, and to building temples and altars in their honor. So that the public would accept the worship of G‑d as an alternative to the worship of the sun and the stars, “G‑d compromised” with human nature, which finds it difficult to change habits. Therefore He permitted sacrifices and the building of a Temple, as long as it was meant for the glory of G‑d, knowing that if He abolished this worship, as Divine truth would demand, they would not have accepted anything and would have rejected even the belief in the existence of G-d (part 3, chapter 32).
Maimonides gives an example to illustrate the need for “educational interpretation” of the Torah in keeping with the generation (for him, the Middle Ages). He writes: “It is the nature of man to generally cleave to that to which he is used. In those days, it would have made the same impression [if sacrifices were prohibited], as if a prophet would call at present to the service of God and tell us in His name that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action. [And in such case, we would reject the worship of G‑d entirely, because we are accustomed to prayers and the ceremony of the holidays]” (part 3, chapter 32). According to Maimonides, the Torah used educational trickery, and in order that the generation which left Egypt would accept belief in G‑d, it left them their rituals, even though this was not the “Divine truth.” It is interesting that Maimonides chose to bring this example, an example in which we think he is hinting that even the prayers and fasts which we now practice are not the final and true educational goal. In his opinion, the worship of thought, with no ceremonies and rituals, is the most appropriate, and it is possible that a future generation will come along which will be capable of accepting a “Divine worship” with no ceremonies, but through thought alone.
 Cornelius Tacticus (a Roman historian, 55-120 CE) treated the Jewish religion as superstition: “The stubborn hold of the Jews of their superstition” (“Histories,” translated to Hebrew by Sarah Devorski, Mossad Bialik, Jerusalem, 1965, Book Two, pg. 61). He wrote of Vespasian’s actions: “Indeed,Vespasian was not free of superstitions like these [the words of the seers and the orbit of the zodiac]; when he gained sovereignty he openly kept by himself an astrologer named Seleucus, on whose instruction and prophecy he relied” (ibid. pg. 94). Yet when discussing the behavior of the Senate, who cancelled assemblies on days of lightning and thunder, he did not ascribe this to superstition but took these “signs” seriously: “The day of the tenth of January was ominous, a day of lightning and thunderstorms and unusually fearsome skies. It was this which led the ancients to cancel the assembly” (ibid. pg 21).
 Natural phenomenon are also Divine messages and serve as a sort of dialogue between G-d and man, with clear codes. When rain falls on Sukkot, which exempts one from sitting in the Sukkah, it is as though G-d is talking to Man, who does not want the Divine commandments. He is like a servant who poured a glass for his master, and then the master slashed the jug at his face. A solar eclipse portends ill for the nations, a lunar eclipse portends ill for Israel (Sukkah 29a).
 Rabbi Joseph Elbo (Sefer HaIkarrim, essay 2, chapter 8) goes even further and states that when it is written “And there was no other prophet in Israel like Moses, who knew G-d face to face” it means that Moses spoke to Metatron, the angel closest to G-d, while the other prophets spoke with messengers and other agents. (See Nachmanides on Exodus 12:12; in his opinion Metatron is G-d’s messenger for all that happens on earth.)
 Almost every entity has an angel which is responsible for it: the angel of the ocean, the angel of hell, the angel of hot, the angel of cold…
 See the disagreement between Nachmanides (on Genesis 18:1) and Maimonides (Guide to the Perplexed).
 Bava Batra 12b.
 See Beit Yosef, Yoreh Deah 179 for an attempt to settle this contradiction.
 It is interesting to bring, on this note, the words of the Sefer Tashbetz Katan 445, by a student of the Maharam of Rottenburg, from the 13-14 centuries. He speaks of Sefer HaRefuot, attributed to King Hezkiyahu: “And if you ask how King Hezkiyahu got this book of cures, it should be said that while Noah was in the ark there were demons, spirits, and lilin with him, who caused him harm until most of the occupants were ill and stank. Then an angel came and took one of Noah’s sons to the Garden of Eden and taught him all the cures in the world. It is those cures which are written down in this book called SeferHaRefuot.”
 For approximately nine minutes, the time it would take to walk half a mil (half a kilometer).
 This demon resembles a sheep (Berachot 62a).
 “They would write in the amulet verses to be murmured, like ‘Every illness’ (Exodus 15:26) and ‘You need not fear the terror by night’ (Psalms 91:5)” (Rashi on Shabbat 115b).
 Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 15:3: “One must give heed lest one count people by their heads to know if there is a prayer quorum (10 men), for it is forbidden to count Jews y the head…it is customary to count them using the verse ‘Save Your people’ (Psalms 28:9), which has 10 words in the verse.”
 Thus, too, is it ruled in the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 378:5): “One may not stand over his neighbor’s field when its crop is full grown.”
 A rich man in the era of the Second Temple destruction. “Why wasNakdimon the son of Gurion so named? Because the sun had again broken through for his sake. Once, when all Israel had come up to Jerusalem for the festival, there was no water for them to drink. Nakdimon went to a certain nobleman and said to him, ‘Lend me twelve wells of water from now until such and such a day, and if I do not repay you twelve wells of water I will give you twelve talents of silver.’ He fixed a time limit for repayment. When the time came the nobleman sent him a message: “Deliver to me either twelve wells of water or twelve talents of silver.” He replied, “There is still time during the day.” The nobleman sneeringly said to him, “There has been no rain the whole year, will it rain now?” The nobleman repaired in a happy mood to the bath-house, while Nakdimon the son of Gurion entered the study hall, wrapped himself in his cloak, and stood up to pray. He said, ‘Lord of the universe! It is revealed and known before You that I did not act for my own glory or for the glory of my father’s house, but for Your glory did I act that the pilgrims should have water to drink.’ Immediately the sky became overcast and rain began to fall, until the twelve wells were filled to overflowing. He then sent a message to that nobleman. “Deliver to me the money for the extra water which you have because of me.” He replied, “The sun has already set and the rain has fallen in my possession.” Nakdimon returned to the study hall, wrapped himself up in his cloak, and again stood up in prayer, saying, ‘Lord of the universe! Perform for me a miracle now as You did perform before.’ Immediately the wind blew, the clouds dispersed, and the sun shone through. When they met the nobleman said, ‘I know that it was only for your sake that the holy One, blessed be He, disorganized His world'” (Minor Tractates, Avot D’Rabbi Natan, chapter 6, s.v.Lama Nikra).
 The Rosh wrote, in response to rule 53 (section 8), explaining the luck: “It seems to me that the woman’s luck is bad, and so husbands die on her account. This is dependent on luck, for people’s lives and their finances are dependent upon the stars. A man may be born at an hour which dictates that he will be rich or poor, but if his wife is locked up in her house, unable to support herself without her husband supporting her — if it is her fate that she should live out her life poor, with no one to support her [her husbands will die to cause this poverty]. But it should not be understood that she was born with the fate that her husbands would die, for have we not found in the Talmud (Shabbat 156, Moed Katan 28) that the only things which depend upon the stars are whether he will be rich or poor and his own longevity? Other things are not dependent upon the stars (Beit Yosef Even HaEzer 9:1).
 The incident of Rabbi Akiva, who took heed of the words of the astrologers, does not contradict Chazal’s words in Pesachim 113b which prohibit inquiring of astrologers because we should be innocent. It is prohibited to ask them anything, but if they, of their own volition, say something which is troubling, it is appropriate for one to take heed, for many times they speak the truth in their forecasts (Chidushei HaRitva on Shabbat 156b).
 An interesting story can be found in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 55b): “A man named Zunin said to Rabbi Akiva: “We both know in our heart that there is no reality in an idol; nevertheless we see men enter [the shrine] crippled and come out cured. What is the reason?” Rabbi Akiva replied, “When afflictions are sent upon a man, an oath is imposed upon them: ‘You shall not come upon him except on such and such a day, nor depart from him except on such and such a day, and at such an hour, and through the medium of so and so, and through such and such a remedy.’ When the time arrives for them to depart, the man chanced to go to an idolatrous shrine.”
According to Rabbi Akiva idolatry has no power to cure the sick, but he is still hostage to the magical belief that afflictions are “sent upon a man” and beholden by oath to leave him when the proper conditions are fulfilled.