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The Torah clearly prohibits all forms of magic, which we might define as the achievement of any supernatural phenomenon.

Yet we find many neviim, most blatantly Eliyahu and Elisha, achieving many supernatural phenomena, including bringing dead people back to life! (Just to note, these things were being done even through the times of he tana'im and amora'im.)

Now, clearly we must assume that the neviim were not violating the Torah, and thus their actions were permitted. Let us call their actions "miracles" to separate them from the "magic" that is prohibited by the Torah.

What is the difference between the "magic" that the Torah prohibited and the "miracles" being practiced by these neviim?

(Note: This question assumes (1) that magic is real (in opposition to Rambam), and that (2) the stories of the neviim (and tana'im and amora'im) are to be taken literally. I am looking for answers that follow these assumptions, not that undermine them.)

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+1 unbelievable! I was just wondering about this last night! –  Hacham Gabriel Jan 29 '12 at 16:12
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+1 I was thinking about asking a similar question, but I wasn't going to limit it to Tanach. Why not include the stories in Gemara and those about kabbala maasis? –  HodofHod Jan 29 '12 at 16:16
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@HodofHod, I assumed that an answer to this would answer the same question with regard to the stories in the gemara. Not sure about kabbala maasis. –  jake Jan 29 '12 at 16:20
    
are you asking "what are the prophets doing differently?" or "how do we, viewing the miracle, know that it is a true miracle?" –  Menachem May 9 '12 at 19:55
    
@Menachem, The former. –  jake May 9 '12 at 21:06
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4 Answers

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There are three main differences between Magic and Miracles.

  1. A miracle is a request to Hashem that is then granted, but it may not always be granted. While Magic is an attempt to subvert the will of Hashem and presumably is reliable.
  2. The ability of magic is limited. It can not create new things, can not raise the dead, and if it passes over fresh water it is reverted. Miracles however have no such limitations as they come from Hashem. (Sanhedrin 68b)
  3. Magic manipulates the powers that exist in the world, and may work with intermediaries such Demons and Angels as well as elements of various kinds. Miracles however come from Hashem, and do not work with intermediaries.

There are stories of prophets or chazal doing acts of magic, but they did not make a profession out of it, and they did so only for the benefit of people and the community. I presume that is why it was allowed and they did not get punished for it. Some magics are clearly allowed such as amulets for protection and healing.

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Can you cite a source for the distinction you outline? –  msh210 Jan 29 '12 at 18:05
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@msh210, #1 is implied by the Gemara's expression (Sanhedrin 67b) that magic "weakens the Heavnly famalia" - as Rashi puts it, it subverts Hashem's decision that, say, a certain person should live (while a magician then causes his death). –  Alex Jan 29 '12 at 19:53
    
@msh210 All points are found in or around 68b in Sanhedrin (or is it 67?) –  avi Jan 29 '12 at 20:02
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From the story of Shimon Ben Shetach and the 80 witches of Ashkelon, we see that the witches had to be touching the ground to perform witchcraft.

The story is retold in several different places, but in Talmud Yerushalmi Sanhedrin Chapter 6 Halacha 6 (29A here), it says that Shimon Ben Shetach first had the witches perform their magic, and then asked them to repeat it when they were being held in the air. When they were unable to perform the magic, he killed them.

My understanding is (see Rashi to Sanhedrin 44b) that in order to perform magic using the forces of impurity, once must be touching the ground. When performing a miracle using the forces of holiness, this is not necessary. This then, is what Shimon Ben Shetach was testing, were they using the forces of impurity or holiness to perform their feats. [The Da'as Zekeinim on Shemot 8:14 explains that this is why the magicians in egypt weren't able to reproduce the plague of lice. They weren't touching the ground, since all the ground had been turned to lice].


And, speaking of lice, Rashi (Shemot 8:14) says the the forces of impurity (which the magicians were using to replicate the plagues) have no power over something smaller than a grain of barley.

The Gur Aryeh on that Rashi explains that anything smaller than a grain of barley has no individual importance, and is nullified to the rest of the world. The forces of impurity have no power over the whole world, they can only rest/rule over individual things that fit the minimum shiur.

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I suspect that the question author did not mean "what is the practical difference" (which you address very nicely) but rather "what is the difference in their natures". But perhaps I should let him speak for himself. –  msh210 Jan 29 '12 at 19:02
    
Yes, I was looking preferably for a distinction between the natures of magic and miracles. The Torah prohibits performing "magic". Are you defining magic as that which cannot be done whilst not touching the ground or upon things less than the size of a barley grain? If so, who's to say the neviim were not performing magic, as one can assume they were standing firmly on the ground and most of their activities involved large enough items? –  jake Jan 30 '12 at 2:01
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Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan talks about this difference in this interview from 1979. He says that mystical manipulations are dangerous in general, but there are permitted and forbidden means of doing so.

The main difference is the desire to connect to Hashem. However, even regarding the "permitted" techniques, there are Kabbalistic sources that say these are permitted only in special situations, like when one receives a Divine command to do so.

Black magic generally involved obvious idolatry, for example:

  • Prostrating and praying in front of idolatrous images
  • Meditating on and connecting oneself to names of impurity
  • Gazing intently at idols, or even
  • Gazing at and meditating on one's own mirror image (this is likely a reason why it is forbidden to daven in front of a mirror).

Other sins were often involved with such magical practices, like murder and sexual immorality. Rabbi Ulman in "Magic and Witchcraft" collects sources from the Tanach, Gemara and Zohar describing some of these.

With regard to fortune-telling, prophecies from black magic will inevitably contain some errors. In fact, the Torah tells us that we can tell a true prophet from a false one by asking him about the future. If it comes true, then we must obey him (Devarim 18:15), but if even the smallest detail is different, this is a false prophet, and his life is forfeit (18:20-22).

Even when prophecy and miracle-making is permitted, Chasidic writings show that it is preferable to perform mitzvos without such aids. (For example, see the story about the Alter Rebbe and Kiddush Levanah.) We Jews are to follow the teaching, "Be simple-hearted with Hashem your G-d" (Devarim 18:13).

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Without getting into a distinction between magic and miracles (because in the end both are supernatural) the halacha (Yoreh Deah 179) states that all forms of k'shuf are forbidden except those performed through Sefer Yetzeirah. The Beis Yosef and others explain that the general principle is that the Sefer Yetzeirah discusses the use of combinations of Hashem's name and as such any 'magical' practice done using those names is permitted. They continue to explain that the reason that may underlie this is that magic was seen as validating an authority other than God, whereas any magic performed expressly using the name of God would not have that problem.

In the case of the nevi'im I would say that

  1. all of what they did was done through similar spiritual 'channels' and

  2. it was always done to exalt and promote the presence of Hashem in the world.

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