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Throughout Tanach and Talmud, there are numerous recorded uses and practitioners of magic1.

From Pharaoh's magicians to Shaul's necromancer, and magic cucumbers to were-donkeys, the references are numerous. These are not only brought as stories, but oftentimes as factors in halacha.

My question is, why don't we see magic practiced today? Does it still exist? Is it still theoretically do-able or has "nature changed"? If it's no longer possible, when did this change occur?

  • 1: (When I say "magic", I refer to supernatural powers that stem from the forces of impurity in the world. Commonly referred to as "sorcery" or "'black' magic", it was used to do things that are naturally impossible, such as necromancy, transforming objects into other objects, and "creating" things (as long as they're larger than a barley-corn). Frequently "sheidim" (demons) and their powers were employed in the use of magic. Not to be confused with illusions and illusionists.)
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There was the famous story (mentioned in Reshimos) with the contest between Shmuel Munkas and the two sourcerers (which may have had something to do with the Alter Rebbe's arrest), also Napoleon was involved in kishuf, so it's still around. –  Shmuel Brin Jan 26 '12 at 23:02
@ShmuelBrill interesting! I know the story, but I was not aware it's in reshimos. do you know where? –  HodofHod Jan 27 '12 at 16:02
@HodofHod I think it's in Reshimos Hayoman. I don't think it's on Hebrewbooks though. –  Shmuel Brin Jan 27 '12 at 21:34
Any explanation for the downvote? –  HodofHod Mar 2 '12 at 21:14
the efficacy of sorcery is a ell known dispute among the commentators. R. Saadya Gaon, R. Shmuel Bar Chofni, Rambam, R. Avraham Ben Harambam indeed held to be ineffective. Ramban and others assumed it to be ineffective. Today we see that the vast majority of supposed magic can be debunked. Although we cannot prove that it didnt exist in the past, we certainly have more reason to assume like the Rambam et al. Accordingly, verses about magic and their prohibition are generally assumed to refer to slight of hand. –  mevaqesh Feb 9 at 20:49

3 Answers 3

the Steipler writes in his book "Chayei Olam" that most of kishuf (sorcery) has been forgotten. perhaps due to things like witchhunts, etc.

There are however still pockets here and there (in Haiti, certain places in New Orleans)

I have personally met people who had contact with sorcery. They related to me experiences they had with sorcerers such as communicating with the dead using sorcery.

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Thanks for this answer! Do you happen to have a more precise location so I can look it up? –  HodofHod Feb 9 at 19:29
@HodofHod friend of mine which i met in jerusalem told me of how he contacted some dead spirit in new orleans by a seance. it's a freaky story. don't know where he is today though. also had a friend from Haiti a while back. ask around but why in the world do you want to get involved in such things. i can give you a name of someone with clairvoyance from the "good" side. –  ray Feb 9 at 19:32
I meant in the Chayei Olam! I'm not sure I want to get involved with modern sorcerers, just yet. :D –  HodofHod Feb 9 at 19:33
@HodofHod read it in there. not sure which page though –  ray Feb 9 at 19:34

There is no magic today because there never was magic. Magic is what we humans call things which we do not understand. The more we learn about how the world works, the less things we can call magic.

While people in generations prior to us, obviously felt that there was magic, in reality they are just describing situations which they think they understand what was happening (i.e. the use of magic). If all the facts were given to us, we would likely describe these situations differently. Perhaps we might say they are a coincidence, or we would be able to explain the situation "scientifically", or we would say the person was lucky with their intuition, or we would say it was just a false confirmation bias, or we would call it poetic language. It's impossible for us to know, since we no longer have the mindset of people who see "magic" happening around them on a relatively common basis.

This follows Rambam’s view. Accordingly, the references to practitioners of magic in Tanach, as well as the prohibition against engaging in such activity, refer to slight-of-hand being presented as supernatural ability. E.g., Uri Geller’s frauds are prohibited; James Randi’s entertainments might not be.

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Source........? Your answer seems to contradict the pshat of many things in Tanach, as well as undermine many halachos whose reasonings are based on magic. –  HodofHod Jan 27 '12 at 14:08
@HodofHod Just because the Talmud bases a halacha off of spontaneous generation, and says that because lice don't lay eggs you can kill them on shabbat, does not mean that lice suddenly started to lay eggs. It just means what they saw and how they explained what they saw, is different from what we see and how we explain what we see. Your question might as well be, "Why is there no spontaneous Generation today?" or "Why doesn't the Sun circle the earth today?" –  avi Jan 27 '12 at 14:11
Source: Mishna Torah Hilchos Akum 11:16 (hebrewbooks.org/rambam.aspx?rid=372) –  Curiouser Jan 27 '12 at 14:21
@avi, the Torah says to execute witches (Mechasheifa lo Sechaye). It is also codified in the Rambam. If witchcraft was only a sleigh of hands (or something natural that people didn't know), then any sleigh of hands is going to be punishable through stoning? –  Shmuel Brin Jan 29 '12 at 3:58
@jake there is no disproof of geocentricism, since there is no objective "center of the universe". I can make calculations assuming that the earth is in the center, that the moon is in the center, or for that matter that I am in the center. Due to the fact that the laws come easier assuming the earth orbits the sun, and there is no scientific advantage to geocentric-ism, scientists tend to believe that the earth orbits the sun. However, I don't find that a reason to knock off the Rambam. –  Shmuel Brin Jan 29 '12 at 19:09

Since the strength of Kedusha is not what it used to be, therefore the strength of Tumah is also not what it used to be. The Koach HaTuma mirrors the Koach HaKedusha.

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+1 I like this, do you have a source? –  HodofHod Jan 26 '12 at 21:58
I have heard it numerous times from my Rabbeim, however do not remember source. I will try to find the source and update. –  Gershon Gold Jan 26 '12 at 21:59
@monica the existence of kedusha doesn't prevent the existence of magic. The idea is that kedusha and tumah must be of equal strength. Hence, since the strength of kedusha is declining (less tzaddikim today, and of a lower caliber, no Beis Hamikdash), then the strength of tumah must decline as well (no more magic, no/less temptation for idolatry). –  HodofHod Jan 29 '12 at 17:28
@GershonGold any luck with a source? –  HodofHod Feb 13 '12 at 4:32
Sorry I haven't seen this question before, but a source for this idea is in Emes L'Yaakov of R. Yaakov Kamenetsky, Parshas Va'eira (cc @HodofHod) –  Matt Jan 15 at 21:53

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