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.

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Reprinted 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 "magic."

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 Torah).'"

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Dr. Alan J. Avery-Peck

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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