Real or illusory, magic has been an element of human society almost since time immemorial. From the sorcerers of ancient Egypt to the witch at Ein-Dor sought out by King Shaul, from the Salem witch hunts to Penn and Teller, from black magic to white magic, and various shades of gray in between, there have always been those who have claimed an ability to act in defiance of the generally accepted laws of nature, or at least to be able to appear to act in such a manner. Our question for the week is what is the Torah view on this practice? Would Merlin find as much favor in the Heavenly Court as he did in that of King Arthur?

The Torah mentions magic (mechashef) twice. The first is in Shemot 22:17, where the judges are commanded not to let a sorceress live. The second source is Devarim 18:10, where there is a direct command for a person not to be a sorcerer. There are many places throughout the Talmud that discuss various forms of magic or occasions on which it was utilized. We will leave out most of the stories and focus mainly on Sanhedrin 67, where the gemara discuss various aspects of the actual prohibition for one to practice magic.

The Mishna on 67a states that with regard to a mechashef, one who performs an action is liable, while one who merely creates an illusion (achizat enayim, literally "seizing one's eyes") is excluded from this prohibition. As an example, Rabi Akiva says that real magic is one who picks an entire field of cucumbers in some "supernatural" way, while an illusion is simply making it appear to others that one has done so, without actually doing so. The gemara goes on to cite Abaye, who compares the laws pertaining to magic to those pertaining to Shabbat. Just as by Shabbat there are three levels of actions with regard to permissibility - those things forbidden, those that are forbidden but that one is not punished for (patur aval assur), and those that are permitted, so too by magic we see these three levels. One who performs a true act of magic is held responsible for his actions and is punished killed by the courts; one who commits an act of achizat enayim is not punished but acts in violation of a Torah injunction; and one who performs an action by using the Sefer Yetzirah (literally "Book of Creation" - the gemara here and in Shabbat discuss how two Rabbis would create a cow for their Shabbat meal by using this book) performs an action that is completely permitted. Finally, the gemara offers one final way in which one can perform an act of magic. If one is learning magic for the purpose of being able to recognize what true magic is, i.e. a judge who will have to serve in cases of accused sorcerers being brought to trial, then it is permissible due to the leniency of "l'havin u'lehorot" - we are allowed to learn the practices of other nations that are ordinarily forbidden if the reason is to understand such practices and to teach others to avoid them (this concept will be discussed in greater detail in a future Chabura).

There is a second line of discussion in the gemara, and that is the distinction between magic - kishuf, and similar actions that invoke demons - ma'asei sheidim. The gemara sees these as two distinct areas of practice, and thus the challenge becomes to find a reason that ma'asei sheidim are forbidden. Rosh claims that since this distinction does exist, and since there is no source that speaks about ma'asei sheidim, that points to the fact that we are dealing with a separate category and that anything done via demons is permissible as far as the prohibition of magic goes. The Meiri objects to this, claiming that all ma'asei sheidim are, in fact, included in the prohibition of magic, and thus are similarly forbidden. The Margaliot HaYam states that the difference between the two is that magic causes one thing to appear to turn into something else, something that ma'asei sheidim lacks the power to do. Seemingly, he would side with the Rosh that we are speaking of two separate categories. The Hagahot Maimoniyot claims that ma'asei sheidim is a separate idea, however it is still forbidden due to the dangers involved (see the Sefer HaChinuch cited below). Finally, on the halachic level, the Tur cites Rama and Rav Yeshaya who claim that ma'asei sheidim are included in the ban on magic. However, he then quotes his father, Rosh, who allows one to consult demons without performing any action, and is left doubting whether or not one may perform an action as well (the Tur claims that his father was leaning towards permitting it). The Shulchan Aruch forbids any ma'asei sheidim.

Returning to our main topic, we must first ask what exactly magic is, what achizat enayim is, and why either one of them, if not both, is forbidden? The gemara states that the word "mechashef" results from a concatenation of "mechachesh pamalya shel ma'ala," literally that it weakens the heavenly palace. Ramban (commentary to Devarim 18:9) and the Sefer HaChinuch echo this idea, claiming that the main issue involved here is that one alters the world as Hashem created it (they both make comparisons to the prohibition against mixing species, which is rationalized in a similar way). In a similar vein, the Meiri defines magic as something non- or supernatural. If an act conforms to the laws of nature, it falls outside the bounds of this restriction. The Yere'im gives a more detailed description. He claims that magic is when one performs an action without invoking demons and creates something tangible and convinces people of what he has done. Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:37) gives an extremely detailed account of magic. He explains that there are three categories of magic - those things dependent on a specific object, those dependent on a specific time, and those dependent on particular human actions. Various actions require one, two, or all three of these elements. As many of these actions depend on the powers that emanated from the stars (a power that virtually all Rishonim believed in to one extent or another), there is no question that acts of magic fall under the category of avodat kochavim - worship of the celestial bodies. As such, one should stay far away from any such actions, even those that do not depend on the stars, as there is still a prohibition of adopting the practices of the nations around us.

In addition to these views, there are two other reasons given as to why magic is forbidden. The first is given by the Sefer HaChinuch. In addition to the reason stated above, he claims that the main purpose of magic is to cause harm to other human beings, and for that reason alone it is forbidden. A much more straightforward opinion is that of Rabbeinu Chananel, as quoted by Rabbeinu Bechaye. He claims that magic has no power if Hashem does not want it to. If so, how can anyone be held responsible for committing an act that occurred only by the grace of God? He answers that such though-processes are irrelevant, and that one is held culpable for such actions simply because he violated the word of God.

What about achizat enayim? This is a slightly trickier (no pun intended) topic. We have already seen that the gemara considers the art of illusion to be forbidden, although without any punishment if one commits such an action. Rambam (Hil. Avodah Zara 11:15) says that one receives "makkat mardut" (lashes given to one who rebels against the Sages), although there is no punishment linked to his specific act. Why is this so? Rambam gives the reason as being that since magic is a negative commandment for which one receives death at the hands of the court, there are no lashes given specifically for the prohibition of kishuf if one violates this ban at a lower level, namely achizat enayim. The Kesef Mishna asks why Rambam did not simply say that there are no lashes given here because achizat enayim does not involve an action, and we have a general rule that one does not receive lashes unless he performed a specific action? He begins his answer by claiming that the person in our case does perform some sort of action, although it is not the action that he appears to be performing. From there, the Kesef Mishna distinguishes between two categories of achizat enayim - one can create an illusion that he is doing something supernatural, and for that he receives lashes for violating the prohibition of sorcery. Alternatively, one can create an illusion that he is doing a natural act (such as picking cucumbers), and for that he receives only makkat mardut, but no punishment stemming from a violation of mechashef. The Taz makes a similar distinction. He agrees with Rambam as to why achizat enayim does not result in a punishment of lashes for mechashef. He then claims that there are two forms of achizat enayim. The first form is a derivative of the prohibition of "me'onein," another occult practice for which the Torah does not state that one is liable to be killed by the courts. As such, one may receive lashes for such a violation. The second type of achizat enayim is a derivative of mechashef, and, as we have already stated, there is a specific death penalty mentioned in the Torah in this regard, and thus no lashes are given (the differences between me'onein, mechashef, and several other practices mentioned in the Torah are the subject of considerable debate and are often very subtle. As such, they are beyond our scope at this time.).

What about the permitted practice - Sefer Yetzirah? The Beit Yoseif cites Rabbeinu Yerucham, who claims that this is a form of ma'asei sheidim. The Beit Yoseif immediately notes that this is a mistake, and the Darchei Moshe says that it may be forbidden to say such a thing, although he does mention that the wording of the gemara implies that some magic is involved. The general view is that Sefer Yetzirah is a book that uses the various names of Hashem and their mystical connotations, and through them allows one to create things and perform other "magical" acts.

There is one more issue discussed with regard to the prohibition on magic. That is the idea of "tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha" - you shall be perfect with Hashem, your God. The approach to this verse taken throughout halacha in that it encourages one to live up not only to the letter of the law, but to its spirit as well. One should not act in any way that could possibly be misconstrued as a forbidden act, nor should one do anything that may lead one to eventually commit a forbidden act. As such, the Beit Yoseif states that while there is no problem on a straight halachic level of consulting a non-Jewish magician, there is still an issue of "tamim tihiyeh." Similarly, Ramo explains the injunction against consulting astrologers and fortune-tellers stated in the Shulchan Aruch as being a problem of "tamim tihiyeh." On the other side of the coin, the Shach quotes the Maharshal, who claims that if one is sick, and the sickness came about as a result of magic, one is permitted to utilize a non-Jewish sorcerer. Seemingly, in such a case, the need for healing supersedes that to walk perfectly with Hashem.

Interestingly enough, Maharshal, in a responsa discussing consultation with magicians, claims that in general one may not do so since all magic is folly and thus one would be doing something that has absolutely no bearing on anything in the world. As such, he claims that even a sick person may not consult magicians. While this responsa does include several opinions that put forth various reasons as to why consultation is permitted, I am at a bit of a loss to explain the seeming contradiction between the view of Maharshal in the responsa and the view cited by the Shach.

Finally, we come to the question of modern-day magicians. Most people recognize that while they may be unable to catch the sleight of hand of the magician or to understand exactly how he does his tricks, the tricks performed are all merely illusion and no demons or dark forces are being summoned. The Pitchei Teshuva claims that this makes no difference. He mentions the view of the Chochmat Adam, who states that such magicians as perform at weddings act in violation of a Torah law, those who hire them act in violation of the injunction not to put a stumbling block before a blind man, and that it is forbidden for one to watch such performances. Rav Ovadia Yoseif (Yabia Omer Y.D. 5:14) attempts to find a source that allows such practices. He first claims that people who encourage such forms of entertainment likely rely on the view of the Yavin Da'at, who states that since the magician does not actually do anything substantive, but merely tricks his audience, there is no real prohibition involved. Second, Rav Yoseif notes the opinion of the Mahari Mintz, who says that on Purim a man is allowed to wear women's clothes and students may steal food off of each others' plates, assuming that everything is done in a jesting manner and is done merely due to the happiness of the day. Rav Yoseif claims that there are those who extend this leniency to magic, and further extend it to allow magic to be performed at any happy occasion (weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc.), provided that it is done in the spirit of happiness that pervades the event. However, Rav Yoseif states that one should certainly try to be strict in these matters, especially since there are several opinions who claim that the prohibition involved here is one that comes directly from the Torah.

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