Magic show

The permissibility of performing modern-day magic and optical illusions is subject to much debate.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is “Va’era”  (Exodus 6:2–9:35), and in it we read about seven of the 10 plagues that God brought upon Egypt. These plagues seem to be some kind of “battle of forces” between God and the powers of black magic by Pharaoh’s magicians. Let’s take a look.

God tells Aaron to throw his staff on the floor before Pharaoh and that it will turn into a snake. And so it was. But then Pharaoh’s magicians, in what appears to be a tit-for-tat, do the same thing with their staffs! This is a perfect example of God vs. Black Magic.

It is worth noting that Aaron’s staff swallowed up the magician’s staffs, which shows us the God is more powerful than the forces of black magic. Just sayin’.

For the plague of blood, God told Moses to tell Aaron to stretch his staff over the waters of Egypt and turn them into blood. Moses and Aaron did so. But again, the Egyptian magicians did the same with their “powers.”

And so it was with the plague of frogs. God told Moses to have Aaron hold his staff over the Nile and up would come the frogs. Again, Pharaoh’s magicians did the same. Interestingly, however, according to most sources, Pharaoh’s magicians could not replicate the plague of lice!

The plague of lice was set off by Aron striking the dust with his staff, which then turned to lice. We are told the Pharaoh’s magicians couldn’t do that because black magic does not work on anything smaller than a bean….and dust is smaller than a bean!

So what’s going on here? Do we believe in Black Magic?

The Torah is clearly opposed to black magic with verses such as, “You shall not allow a sorceress to live” and “There shall not be found among you . . . a soothsayer, a diviner, one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord . . .”.

One would be led to believe that the Torah is essentially acknowledging the existence of black magic; otherwise, there would be no need to prohibit it!

Indeed, most authorities throughout the generations were of the opinion that black magic does, in fact, exist. Maimonides, however, is a distinct opponent to this position. Let’s see what he says:

“Black magic is all falsehood and lies with which the original idolaters deceived the gentile nations in order to have them follow them. It is not fitting for Jews who are wise to be drawn into such emptiness, nor to consider that they have any value . . . Whoever believes in black magic of this nature and thinks that they are true and are words of wisdom…is foolish and feeble-minded . . . Those who are wise 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.”

As Maimonides makes abundantly clear, he is of the opinion the black magic is just an art of deception with no real power.

On the other hand, another major figure, Nachmanides, disagrees with Maimonides and writes:

“And now, know and understand regarding magic, that the Creator (may He be blessed) created everything from nothing…and He placed the power of the earth and all that is in it in the stars and constellations according to their motion and direction, as has been demonstrated in the science of astrology . . . However, it was one of His great wonders that He placed within the upper realms alternate ways and forces by which one might change the governance of the world . . . This is the secret of magic and its power…they subvert the simple forces of nature…Therefore, it is proper that the Torah prohibit them so that the world will be left to its normal function and its natural state, which is the desire of the Creator . . . “

According to Nachmanides, black magic is real, but God wants us to keep away from it. It contradicts the way that God wants the world to be run. In other words, using these black forces could lead one to believe that there is a power in the world besides God.

I tend to favor this approach. Indeed, how would Maimonides explain the ability of Pharaoh’s magicians to replicate the plagues and other “tricks” that Moses and Aaron performed? It certainly wasn’t with the power of God. As hard as it may be to fathom, there seems to be a power of magic in the world that fortunately, nowadays, no one is able to tap into.

While it is forbidden to consult astrologers for advice or to rely on omens and amulets, one is permitted to make decisions based on intuition. There are also a number of Torah based superstitions that one is permitted to practice. It goes without saying that communicating with the dead or with demons is included in the prohibition on magic.

The permissibility of performing modern-day magic and optical illusions is subject to much debate. It seems that optical illusions (“fooling the eyes”) may indeed fall under the Biblical prohibition against magic. As such, some authorities prohibit Jews to work as magicians or to attend a magic show.

Nevertheless, a number of contemporary halachic (Jewish legal) authorities approve of modern-day magic as a legitimate educational and professional pursuit. As it is known that there is no true magic in our day and age, many authorities dismiss most of the concerns mentioned above and permit one to attend a magic show. Even so, one must distance himself or herself from a magician or illusionist, whether Jewish or Gentile, who claims to have supernatural powers. Indeed, a magician is encouraged to inform his audience at the start of his presentation that nothing supernatural will be occurring during the show.

It is interesting to note that the primordial magic words of “abracadabra” are actually of Jewish origin. In fact, it is an Aramaic expression which means: “I will create (abra) as I speak (k’dabra).” Alternatively, it may also be a corruption of the Hebrew words “avar k’davar,” which mean roughly, “it will be according to what is spoken,” or the words “abracha adabra,” which mean “I shall bless, I shall speak.” It can also be read to mean “I transgress as I speak,” perhaps strengthening the case of those authorities who rule that practicing magic is indeed forbidden.