Parsha Halacha – Parshat Bo

The Torah Perspective on the Occult

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Although the sorcerers of Pharaoh are mentioned numerous times in the Torah portion of Va’eira[1] as well as in earlier Torah portions,[2] they are not mentioned at all in the Torah portion of Bo.[3]  The reason for this is that, after being unable to replicate the power of G-d Almighty during the plague of lice, they were disgraced. They were too embarrassed to even stand in front of Pharaoh after that plague and from then on ceased to play an important role in the story.[4] In fact, from the exodus on, we find no mention of the sorcerers of any king until the magicians of Nebuchadnezzar are mentioned in the book of Daniel.[5]
The disgrace of the sorcerers seems to be a big factor in the exodus of the Jewish people. For, as long as the sorcerers could somewhat replicate the miracles of Moshe and Aharon, Pharaoh would convince himself that Moshe and Aharon were nothing more than master sorcerers and there was nothing unique about the “Jewish G-d” (so to speak). Whereas, when this was no longer the case, he was, eventually, forced to admit that G-d, and only G-d, was the one who had wrought all the plagues.
The Torah forbids sorcery and declares that it be punished in the harshest way. As the verse says, “You shall not allow a sorceress to live.”[6] Sorcery is considered akin to idol worship[7] as it was often practiced by idolatrous priests to convince the populace of the so-called power of their idols. As such, a sorcerer was put to death by stoning[8] which is considered the most painful form of death[9] and was reserved for the most severe sins such as idolatry and blasphemy.[10]
Real or Imagined Power
  • The View of the Rambam
The Rambam was of the opinion that sorcerers had no real power, nor is there any truth to astrology and necromancy, as he writes, “All the above matters are falsehood and lies with which the original idolaters deceived the gentile nations in order to lead them after them. It is not fitting for the Jews who are wise sages to be drawn into such emptiness, nor to consider that they have any value, as the verse says, ‘No black magic can be found among Jacob, or occult arts within Israel.’[11] Similarly, the Torah states: ‘These nations which you are driving out listen to astrologers and diviners. This is not what G-d… has granted you.’[12]
“Whoever believes in occult arts of this nature and, in his heart, thinks they are true and words of wisdom, but are forbidden by the Torah, is foolish and feeble-minded. He is considered like [one] who has an underdeveloped intellect.
“The masters of wisdom and those of perfect knowledge know with clear proof that all these crafts which the Torah forbade are not reflections of wisdom, but rather emptiness and vanity which attracted the feeble-minded and caused them to abandon all the paths of truth. For these reasons, when the Torah warned against all these empty matters, it advised, ‘Be of perfect faith with G-d, your L-rd.’”[13]
According to the Rambam, the magicians of Pharaoh were simply experts at sleight of hand, but they never actually did anything real.[14]
Shmuel and the Ba’alat Ov
A similar explanation can be given to the story told in the book of Shmuel I, chapter 28. It is recounted there, that after Shmuel passed away, the Philistines were about to wage war on the Jewish people. King Saul tried to communicate with G-d through dreams, the Urim VeTumim, and prophets but received no response. Out of desperation, he asked his general Avner to find him a necromancer. When he located one (the sages say[15] it was Avner’s own mother, King Saul’s aunt,[16]), King Saul went to her and asked her to bring up the spirit of Shmuel, the Prophet. The verse tells in detail how she described his appearance and that Shmuel then communicated with him. The prophet predicted King Saul’s death and the defeat of the Jewish army the very next day, which is exactly what occurred.
The Rambam can explain this story as the Radak does,[17] that the necromancer (Avner’s mother) was simply a wise woman who knew how Shmuel looked and, based on her knowledge of King Saul’s sin, predicted his demise herself. Like all necromancers, she claimed to be communicating with the dead, but it was, in fact, all a charade.
  • The View of the Ramban, Vilna Gaon, and Others 
Others say that the Rambam was following the philosophers of his day who rejected the concept of occult powers completely. But the traditional Jewish viewpoint is, that G-d did grant some powers to the occult practitioners (perhaps in order to keep the choice between good and evil a balanced one).[18] Despite this, He instructed us not to follow them as it is considered improper to interfere with the natural order of the world,[19]and, as mentioned, it can lead to idolatrous beliefs and practices.
The Vilna Gaon quotes many stories in the Talmud to prove his viewpoint.
  • A sorceress once used her sorcery to stop the boat in which Rav Papa and Rav Huna, son of Rabbi Yehoshua, were traveling.[20]
  • Rabbi Eliezer once taught his student Rabbi Akiva how magic works. (This is permissible since it is for educational purposes.[21]) He said one word and a field became full of cucumbers. He said another word and all the cucumbers were gathered into one place.[22]
  • The Talmud recounts how, using the Kabbalistic book of Sefer Yetzirah, Rabbi Chaninah and Rabbi Oshiyah would create a fatted cow every Friday and eat it in honor of Shabbat.[23]
  • The Talmud recounts how Rabbi Yehoshua had a (successful) battle of wits with the sages of Athens. In the course of the debate, Rabbi Yehoshua said a holy name of G-d and he suspended himself in midair.[24]
  • Avishai, the son of Tzeruyah, used names of G-d to save King David from certain death.[25]
  • The Jerusalem Talmud recounts how Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva were once pinned to the ceiling of a bathhouse by a sorcerer. In return, they made him freeze in the doorway. They then agreed to duel at the seashore. The sorcerer split the sea. The rabbis challenged him to enter it, which he did. They then caused it to return to its normal state and the sorcerer drowned.[26]
The Rambam would understand these stories as allegories rather than events that actually occurred.[27] This is not uncommon in the Talmud.[28]
G-d willing in a future article, we will discuss the permissibility of doing magic tricks today.
May G-d protect us from all harm.

[1] Exodus 7:11 and 22, 8:3, 14 and 15, and 9:11
[2] Gen. 41:8 and 24
[3] The astrologers of Pharaoh are mentioned in Rashi on 11:4.
[4] Da’at Mikrah
[5] 1:20, 2:2 and 10
[6] Exodus 22:17
[7] Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 511
[8] Rambam, Laws of Avodat Kochavim, 11:15
[9] Mishna, Sanherdin, 7:1 as explained in the commentaries there
[10] Ibid, 4. Several of the other sins for which one would be liable to receive this most severe punishment arealso related to idol worship. These include a person who offers his descendants to Molech (fire worship), a person who divines with an Ov (necromancer), a person who divines with a Yidoni, a person who entices others to worship idols, and the people who lead a city to idol worship. The other sins for which one would be liable for this punishment are engaging in relations with one’s mother, father’s wife, daughter-in-law, or a betrothed maiden, homosexual relations, a man who sodomizes an animal, a woman who has relations with an animal, a person who desecrates the Sabbath, a person who curses his father or mother, and a wayward and rebellious son (Rambam, Laws of the Sanhedrin, 15:10).
[11] Numbers, 23:23
[12] Deut. 18:14
[13] Ibid 13
[14] See the Pirush of Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsh on Exodus 7:11. He explains that the word לַהֲטֵיהֶם (ibid) and לָטֵיהֶם (ibid verse 22) refers to the methods of sleight-of-hand magicians. They create a distraction like a lightning bolt (להט means lightning) and they then do their trick in secret (לט means secret, see Samuel I 18:22and 24:4).
[15] Pirkei DeRabi Eliezer 33
[16] See Shmuel I 14:50
[17] On Shmuel I 28:22 in the name of Shmuel ben Chofni HaGaon. But see there that Rav Hai Gaon and Rav Saadiah Gaon disagreed and understood this story in the simple sense.
[18] Ramban on Deut. 19, 9 – 12, Vilna Gaon in Biur Hagra on Y.D. 179,
[19] See Sefer HaChinuch, mitzvah 62
[20] Shabbat 81b
[21] Shabbat 75a
[22] Sanhedrin 68a
[23] Ibid, 67b. (The Rambam can differentiate between sorcery which is meaningless and Kabbalistic powers which are meaningful.)
[24] Bechorot 8b (See the next note.) But see the Maharsha who insists that the story must only be understood as an allegory.
[25] Sanhedrin 95a (It would seem that, by bringing this story, the Vilna Gaon wants to prove that just as the miracles involving holy powers are taken at face value, the same should be the case for the stories involving supernatural, occult, powers. Once again, the Rambam will say that using a holy name is entirely different than sorcery.)
[26] Sanhedrin 7:13 (page 40b)
[27] Biur HaGra, ibid (Although the Vilna Gaon offers this explanation for the Rambam, he writes that he, personally believes that the stories should be taken at face value, but, that, in addition, they also have a deeper interpretation.)
[28] See the Introduction to the Ein Yaakov who quotes a lengthy explanation by Rabbi Avraham son of the Rambam about the stories of the Talmud. Paragraph beginning with the words “Hechelek hasheini hadrashot.”
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom 
Aryeh Citron

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