Dear Jew in the City,
With Halloween coming up, I was wondering what the Jewish view on witchcraft and magic is. Is it mentioned anywhere in Jewish texts? Do you need to believe in it to be an observant Jew? The ancients might have believed in it, but we now know that magic is a hoax.
Thanks for your help!
That’s a great question. The Torah certainly talks about magic and sorcery, but the jury is out as to whether or not these things are real. But the very fact that they’re discussed is not proof that they exist in and of itself.
The Torah prohibits such things as fortune-telling and necromancy. There are two schools of thought on this matter: one is that the practitioners of such arts actually tap into dark forces. The other is that they’re frauds, deceiving people into believing nonsense. Either one would be sufficient reason to prohibit sorcery.
The “magic is a fraud” position is not a modern, rationalist invention. This was actually the opinion of the Rambam (Maimonides). He discusses the relevant laws in the Mishneh Torah in Hilchos Avodas Kochavim (Laws Pertaining to Idolatry), chapter 11. Examples of his comments there include:
“One is not permitted to tell fortunes; this is so even though he performs no action, but merely tells lies that foolish people think contain wisdom. … This prohibition (Leviticus 19:26 – “Do not tell fortunes”) also includes one who performs magic tricks and deceives others into thinking that he performs wonders; such a person is liable for the penalty of lashes.” (Avodas Kochavim 11:9) “Incantations and spells do nothing – they can neither harm nor help.” (Avodas Kochavim 11:10)
Descriptions of magic and sorcery in Tanach are likewise subject to dispute. The Torah describes Pharaoh’s astrologers duplicating the earliest of Moshe’s feats; the Book of Samuel describes how the “witch of Endor” summoned the spirit of the prophet Samuel for King Saul. Some authorities take these narratives at face value, while others – including the Rambam – say that these magicians were engaged in acts of trickery and only made it appear as if they accomplished these things. This is not unreasonable. I might say that I saw a magician saw a lady in half, although we are all well aware that he actually did no such thing.
Mediums, astrologers and Tarot readers exist even today, but that doesn’t mean that they have supernatural power. In 1983, I saw David Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear. Thousands of people were watching and it was pretty darn impressive. But nobody thinks he actually did it. We all know it was a trick. This kind of “magic” is permitted because, unlike an unscrupulous huckster who tries to control people with horoscopes or Tarot cards, stage magicians aren’t really trying to convince anyone that they have supernatural powers. It’s just a form of entertainment. The problem is the intention to deceive.
“Soothsaying” is a more difficult area. It is clearly prohibited to base one’s actions on signs and omens, such as “turning back because a black cat crossed one’s path.” Yet we see some “kosher” people engaged in the practice. The best-known example would be Avraham’s servant Eliezer. When dispatched to find a bride for Yitzchak, he said, “I’ll ask the girl for some water. If she offers to water my camel as well, I’ll know she’s the one.” As we know, things did work out as Eliezer planned with Rivka, but was he guilty of relying on signs?
There are two ways to reconcile this dilemma. One approach is that Eliezer was wrong, but that God made it work out okay for Avraham’s sake. The other approach is that Eliezer wasn’t relying on signs at all. He knew what Avraham was looking for in a daughter-in-law. Rather than trying to prompt a Divine signal, he was actually testing Rivka to see if she shared Avraham’s trait of generosity. Her response to Eliezer’s request was intended strictly as a test of her hospitality.
Similarly, Yonatan appears to rely on a sign in order to determine whether or not he should attack the Philistine camp in I Samuel chapter 14. At first glance, he appears to be relying on a sign but upon the barest inspection, it becomes apparent that he was actually testing the enemy’s defenses.
So, are you required to believe in magic? Absolutely not. And if you don’t, you’d be in some very fine company indeed. Let us conclude with the Rambam’s final thoughts on this topic: “All the forms of sorcery discussed in this chapter are lies that idolators used to deceive the nations in order to get them to follow their idols. It is not appropriate for Jews to follow such nonsense, nor to attribute any value to them. Numbers 23:23 says, “There is no divination found among Jacob, nor soothsaying within Israel.” Deuteronomy 18:14 likewise states that “The nations you are driving out follow astrologers and diviners but God has not given you things like these.”
“If a person believes in sorcery like these, thinking that they are true and wise, albeit prohibited by the Torah, then he is foolish. Wise people know that all these magics that the Torah has forbidden are simply forms of emptiness that attract feeble-minded people and cause them to abandon the path of truth. This is why, when the Torah prohibits all these things, it adds (Deuteronomy 18:13) “Be of perfect faith with Hashem, your God.” (Avodas Kochavim 11:16).
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, JITC Educational Correspondent