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Magic and Witchcraft

By Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum

Magic is usually divided into two different categories. There is the magic practiced by the great magicians of today and there is black-magic, witchcraft, or sorcery. The Torah forbids both types, yet, the punishments for them are different. For magic, the punishment is 39 lashes, (actually makos mardes), while for practicing witchcraft, it is stoning. Members of the Sanhedrin were therefore required to know the difference between the two.

All of today’s magicians will readily admit that they are only practicing the art of deceit and deception. Even the world’s greatest magicians such as David Copperfield, or David Blain, who can make the Statute of Liberty disappear in front of your eyes or cut a person in half and put him back together again will readily admit that they are just fooling you and the stunt is based on some clever deception. However, black magic claims that they can actually change or defy the laws of nature and can make the supernatural happen. They claim they can bend spoons just by looking at them, or speak to the dead, or have psychic powers to read people’s minds and know their past and predict their future. Supernatural claims made by people like Uri Geller fall within the category of witchcraft. Yet, today, all those who have claimed to have supernatural powers have been proven to be con-artists. So far, all those who have claimed to be able to use incantations or other supernatural means to make the impossible happen, or to talk to the dead, have all been proven to be frauds. While we don’t know what happened in ancient times, nowadays it’s all been proven to be a hoax. Some say that these powers never really existed, while others claim they were forgotten over time. The Randy Foundation offers over a million-dollar reward for anyone that can show any paranormal powers. So far, many have tried but there have still been no takers.

 Historically, both magic and witchcraft trace their origin to the priests of avoda zorah- idol worship. The priests of various religions used their magical knowledge and abilities to convince their followers to worship their false gods. Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism and many other religions, are based on the supposed miraculous powers and miracles of their founders. Unfortunately, even Jews used its powers to convince the people to serve the Golden Calf in the desert and latter in Dan. Many of their practices, especially some of their medical practices, are based on their false beliefs and therefore are prohibited to Jews who are forbidden to use medical methods or practices that are or were based on idolatry. This is why rabbonim must be familiar with them. For instance, the use of Chi, a type of energy healing system used even today, has its roots in Hinduism and Buddhism. One must be familiar with certain alternative medical practices in order to make sure that they are not used, based, or rooted, in the worship of idolatry.  It’s rather interesting to note that even the practice of saying pesukim over a wound in order that it should heal is forbidden in Shulchan Aruch.(See Rambam Hilchos Avoda Zara perek 11.) Certain illnesses are caused or are affected by anxiety and therefore saying soothing words over a wound is permitted even on the Shabbos, since it may have a placebo affect and help calm a person down.

 The Rambam (Hilchos Avoda Zara perek 11) as well as some others dismiss magic as nothing but clever trickery and deception and claim that there is no such thing and never was anything as true black magic. The Egyptians who were able to perform the first two plagues did it through clever trickery and even any amateur magician of today can easily change a stick into a snake, or turn water into blood, or make frogs jump out of an empty hat.

 Actually it may very well be that black magic or sorcery was done by using Hashem’s Holy Names.  We find that the Golden Calf as well as the large golden idol put up by King Baalshetzarthat was able to speak was made by putting Hashem’s Holy Name into them. When one desecrates Hashem’s Holy Name and uses it for idolatrous purposes, then the punishment is stoning. The Gemora Sanhedrin tells us that Rava created a man using the secret Names of Hashem found in the Sefer Yetzirah. This was only permitted for the purpose pf study.

Bilam’s powers of sorcery seem to be fraudulent and were probably based on his powers of prophecy. The Gemora Brochos tells us that he was able to know the one moment each day when Hashem got angry. He used this moment to put a curse and kill his enemies, while making believe that he was doing it through his magical skills. During all the time that he tried to put a curse on the Jews, he failed. That’s because Hashem never became angry during those days, and therefore his supposed witchcraft didn't work.

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