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 href=""
target="_blank">The Continuum International Publishing Group from
target="_blank">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

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Alan J. Avery-Peck is the Kraft-Hiatt Professor in Judaic Studies and Chair at Holy Cross University and a prolific author. Dr. Avery-Peck's primary research interest is Judaism in the first six centuries C.E., with particular attention to the literature of Rabbinic Judaism.

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