Rosh Hashanah 29

Sympathetic magic.

The mishnah on today’s daf discusses what I would argue are two of the most fascinating episodes in the Torah. The first episode takes place just after the Israelites leave Egypt. Exodus 17 recounts that as the Israelites were wandering in the desert, they were attacked by a group called the Amalekites. Moses commands Joshua to lead the Israelites in battle against their attackers while he himself goes up onto a nearby mountain.

Exodus 17:11 explains: As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning.”  Indeed, according to the story, Moses’ hands were so crucial to the course of the battle that when he got tired, his brother Aaron and another man named Hur first supported him with a stone, and then literally held Moses’ arms up for the duration of the battle.

Why would Moses raising his hands lead to decisive victory and not Joshua’s battle tactics? Exodus 17 doesn’t say. Today’s mishnah, however, offers an explanation:

As long as the Jewish people turned their eyes upward and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they prevailed. But if not, they fell.

The mishnah suggests that Moses’ upraised hands, visible from his perch on the mountain overlooking the battle with the Amalekites, reminded the Israelites of their relationship to God — and it was that relationship, and Israel’s continued faith in God, that ultimately led to their victory.

The mishnah then offers another example of how this works, referencing another strange story, this time in the Book of Numbers. According to Numbers 21, the people of Israel speak out against God and Moses, angry that they are still wandering and have not yet reached the Promised Land. God does not take this criticism lightly and sends “fiery serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died”  (Numbers 21:6). Devastated by the plague of vipers, the people repent of their sin and Moses intercedes for them with God. God advises Moses to make a “fiery figure” and mount it on a standard. Anyone who looks at this object, God promises, will recover from their snake bites. Remarkably, this works! Moses makes a copper serpent, mounts it on a pole, and when people are bitten by snakes they need only look at it to be healed. 

There’s actually a technical term for what’s happening here with the fake snake — sympathetic magic. Sympathetic magic is a form of ritual in which someone tries to control a person or thing by using an object that corresponds to it. If snakes are causing problems, then creating a metallic snake and binding it to a stick might work to bind or control the living snakes. 

The mishnah, however, interprets the snake episode differently, centering God even more explicitly in the ritual:

When the Jewish people turned their eyes upward and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed, but if not, they rotted.

It’s not that the snake on the pole had magic power, any more than Moses’ hands did. It was simply a way to redirect people’s attention back to God. Just as in the story of Amalek, the mishnah insists that it is through an active engagement with God that healing and salvation occur. 

There’s a lot of rich stuff going on here — ideas about the nature of warfare, healing magic, the relationship between the Jews and God, sparkly snakes on poles and more. But while the mishnah plants the seeds for a fascinating discussion, the authors of the Talmud just don’t engage. There is, in fact, no talmudic discussion about these strange stories. Did the rabbis think the mishnah’s explanations were sufficient? Did they not know what to do with them? Did they just not care in this context? The Talmud doesn’t say.

Read all of Rosh Hashanah 29 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 7th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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