Magic in Rabbinic Judaism

The rabbis of the Talmud believed that magic was real and legitimate, when performed by sages who used the power of Torah.

with permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from
The Encyclopedia of Judaism, edited by Jacob Neusner,
Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

Taking up the fundamental distinction introduced already by
the Hebrew Scriptures, in the first centuries C.E. rabbinic Judaism presented what
to modern readers appears at first sight to be contradictory views of

On the one hand, the rabbis condemn magic as one of the
"ways of the Amorites" (Mishnah Shabbat 6:10), and they sanction its
practitioners to death by stoning (Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:7). One who so much as
whispers over a wound the words of Exodus 15:26 ("I will put none of the
diseases upon you that I have put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord who heals
you") is said to lose his place in the world to come (Mishnah Sanhedrin
10:1). Indeed, it is reported that to quell magical practices, Simeon b. Shetah
hung 80 witches on a single day (Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:4).

And yet, on the other hand, these same sources frequently
describe without condemnation or concern miraculous or magical acts performed
by both rabbis and common people. As our examination of the biblical legacy
leads us to anticipate, these superficially contradictory attitudes do not
emerge from a distinction the rabbis perceive in the character of what is done
or attempted, but, rather, from their analysis of the particular qualities and
purposes of the individual who carries out the act.

In the rabbinic view, an unusual events is "magic"–and
culpable–or "miracle"–and laudable–depending upon who does it, in
what context, and for what purpose. Exactly what is accomplished is rarely at
issue at all.

Sages as Torah Scrolls

For the rabbis, miracles are distinguished from magic
primarily by the fact that the former are performed by a sage whose power derives
from the merit earned through knowledge of Torah and a life of piety. In their academies,
sages participated in the processes of revelation that yielded Torah. In doing
this, they became more than simply partners with God, who himself had revealed Torah.

Rather, insofar as what rabbis said and thought was
understood to embody the precise thought and words of God, rabbinic texts equate
sages themselves with scrolls of the Torah. This is explicit at Yerushalmi Moed
Kattan 3:7:

"He who sees a disciple of a sage who has died is as if
he sees a scroll of the Torah that has been burned. R. Jacob bar Abayye in the
name of R. Aha said: ‘An elder who forgot his learning because of some accident
that happened to him–they treat him with the sanctity owed to an ark (of the

For the rabbis, the Torah, God’s revelation, is incarnate in
the sage who as a result can use the power of God to perform wonders. Like
Moses, whose wonders were achieved through special capacities granted him by
God, so the sage can carry out astounding acts that are deemed legitimate and

Special Powers by Virtue of What?

Indeed, a particular sage’s prestige would be substantially enhanced
should it become clear that his knowledge of Torah in conjunction with other
characteristic rabbinic virtues had given him supernatural powers (Yerushalmi
Taanit 3:11, IV):

"There was a house that was about to collapse over
there (in Babylonia), and Rab set one of his disciples in the house, until they
had cleared out everything from the house. When the disciple left the house,
the house collapsed. And there are those who say that it was R. Adda bar Ahwah.
Sages sent and said to him: ‘What sort of good deeds are to your credit (that
you have that much merit)?’

He said to them: ‘In my whole life no man ever got to the
synagogue in the morning before I did. I never left anybody there when I went
out. I never walked four cubits without speaking words of Torah. Nor did I ever
mention teachings of Torah in an inappropriate setting. I never laid out a bed
and slept for a regular period of time. I never took great strides among the
associates. I never called my fellow by a nickname. I never rejoiced in the
embarrassment of my fellow. I never cursed my fellow when I was lying by myself
in bed. I never walked over in the marketplace to someone who owed me money. In
my entire life I never lost my temper in my household.’"

The correlation of learning and virtuous behavior with the
ability to work wonders is here explicit. The following passages, which appear
at Bavli Sanhedrin 67b-68a, ultimately make clear the way in which such
laudable use of rabbinical power is distinguished from the magical deeds
performed by non-rabbis. The magic tricks of non-rabbis, but not those of a
rabbi, render the lay magician culpable for death:

"There was a woman who tried to take dirt from under
the feet of R. Hanina (for use

against him in sorcery). He said to her: If it works out for
you, go do it, (for at Deut. 4:25) ‘There is no one else besides him’ is
written. Can this be so (that Hanina permitted the woman to attempt a magical
act)? This seems impossible, since, at Deut. 4:25 ‘There is no one else besides
him’ is written. And (suggesting that sorcerers attempt to avail themselves of
some different power) did not R. Yohanan say: ‘Why are they called sorcerers? Because
they deny the power of the family above’? R. Hanina was in a special category,
because he had a great deal of merit."

Yannai & the Innkeeper

The rabbis thus distinguish the use of the power of Torah
from deeds that are sorcery or "black" magic. In making this
distinction, they in no way deny the existence and power of magical acts. Their
point, rather, is simply to distinguish the miracles that knowledge of Torah
allowed rabbis to do, which they deemed proper and acceptable, from what
sorcerers do, which they view always as wrong.

An important aspect of this distinction was the rabbis’
certainty that, based upon the power of God and Torah, their power–like that
of Moses–was greater than the power of (mere) magicians (Bavli Sanhedrin 67b):

"Yannai came to an inn. He said to them: ‘Give me some
water to drink.’ They brought him a flour-and-water drink. He saw that the
woman’s lips were moving. He poured out a little of the drink, and it turned
into scorpions. He said to them: ‘I drank something of yours, now you take a
drink of mine.’ He gave her something to drink, and she turned into an ass. He
mounted her and went out to the market place. Her girl-friend came and
nullified the charm, so he was seen riding around on a woman in the market

When Yannai is given a drink that, when spilled out, turns
into scorpions, he repays the innkeeper with a potion that turned her into an
ass. While the innkeeper’s girlfriend is able to break the spell, the clear
point here is that the rabbi, by using his powers, retained the upper hand. Not
only did he escape the danger presented by sorcerers, but he was able to use
his own power against such magicians, at least temporarily turning one of them
into an ass.

Strikingly, although the passage highlights the greater
power of the rabbi, it also makes the point that, overall, there is no intrinsic
difference between his magic and that of the non-rabbi. What he can do is
pretty much what they are able to do, including their ability to undo the spell
he has cast.

A Question of Perspective

So as we have seen all along, the distinction between
miracles and magic is purely one of perspective: what distinguishes the two is
the ultimate source of the power that makes the deed possible.

In similar passages, the Talmud reports that Ashi knew of a
person who could produce ribbons of silk from his nostrils; Hiyya speaks of an
Arab who chopped up a camel and, by ringing a bell, caused it to come together again;
Eliezer states that he taught Aqiba how to cause an entire field of cucumbers to
grow and then to be harvested simply by saying a few words.

These reports of magic performed by rabbis, common Jews, and
non-Jews suggest that despite biblical and rabbinic prohibitions against
sorcery, the use of magic within the general culture of the talmudic period had
a significant impact upon Jewish society. Such practices were largely accepted
as real and, when performed by sages who used the power of Torah, were deemed
appropriate methods of protecting people from harm or of accomplishing other
legitimate purposes.

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