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If you read through Chapter 11 of the Rambam's laws on Idol Worship, you'll see what seems to be the Rambam forbidding anything that even resembles magic, all while calling such practices foolish and saying they have no effect at all, neither good nor bad.

But then you get to Halacha 15, where the Rambam says:

"A sorcerer must be condemned to execution by stoning."

And just in case you thought the Rambam meant that this "sorcerer" was pretending to perform sorcery (since it seems he holds that it doesn't exist), the very next words are:

"This applies when he commits a deed of sorcery. If, however, he merely deludes those who observe him into thinking that he is performing an act although he actually does not, he is given stripes for rebelliousness."

Then in the next Halacha, the Rambam returns to his previous theme:

"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 [implied by Numbers 23:23]: "No black magic can be found among Jacob, or occult arts within Israel." Similarly, [Deuteronomy 18:14] states: "These nations which you are driving out listen to astrologers and diviners. This is not [what God... has granted] you."

Whoever believes in [occult arts] of this nature and, in his heart, thinks that they are true and words of wisdom, but are forbidden by the Torah, is foolish and feebleminded."

What's going on? Does the Rambam believe in the efficacy of black magic and sorcery or not? What's the explanation for this seeming contradiction?

(Thanks to @Curiouser and @ShmuelBrill for this question.)
Related: Why is there no magic today?

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Umm, why the downvote? – HodofHod May 2 '12 at 21:04

It may be that Rambam would distinguish between whether the magician actually did some kind of action or not.

Suppose, for example, you have someone who claims that he will use magic to harvest a field of cucumbers (the example given in the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 67a). There are, then, three possibilities:

  1. He performs some action (waving a wand, saying some incantation, etc.), and the results really do happen (the cucumbers really are harvested magically).

  2. He performs the action, but the results don't happen - he's hypnotized the audience into thinking that there is a pile of harvested cucumbers there (or he uses sleight of hand to pick them without being noticed, etc.).

  3. He doesn't even perform any action of that sort, just hypnotizes the audience into believing that they've seen both the action and its result.

Now, Rambam is stating that #1 is impossible, which leaves us with two options. Perhaps, then, he would say that the magician is liable to the death penalty in case #2, for actually performing the action (with the fact that the results weren't, in fact, magical being irrelevant), while he would define #3 as the אוחז את העיניים mentioned in the Mishnah there - he didn't perform any forbidden act (let's assume, for argument's sake, that hypnotizing people is not forbidden) and therefore gets only malkos.

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+1. If this is correct, it would seem to explain the practice of religious Jewish magicians nowadays, who give away (explain) one trick to show that what they're doing is sleight of hand, and then use the usual "hocus pocus" theatrics for the rest of the show: giving away one trick seems to make it that they're doing #3 rather than #2 for the non-given-away tricks (viz, by showing the audience that the wand-waving is actually nothing at all). – msh210 Jan 29 '12 at 20:49
@msh210, if that were the reason, they'd still have a problem: אוחז את העיניים is also forbidden (and punishable by malkos). I think it might be more that their giving away one trick results in the rest of their show not falling into any of these categories - i.e., they're telling the audience that no actual magic is being done, nor are they being led to believe that it is. – Alex Jan 30 '12 at 6:29
I don't know.... It seems to me that both 2 & 3 would be "אוחז את העיניים". – HodofHod Feb 7 '12 at 5:18

At least according to the Maaseh Rokeach on the Rambam, the Rambam did indeed believe in magic. (There's also another pirush on that page called דעת ומחשבה which says the same thing, but I have never heard of it.)

His explanation is that the Rambam could not deny something that is stated in pesukim clearly (as evidenced by his halachos on punishments for practitioners of magic), so the explanation of what the Rambam means by "falsehood and lies" is that magic comes from "sitra achra" (lit. "the other side" i.e. the opposite of holiness). He explains that the reason the Rambam chose such strong language is to distance people as much as possible from such practices.

לכאורה דברים תמוהים הם דמעשה דשאול עם בעלת אוב כתוב בפסוק ואין ספק שהיה המעשה באמת וכן בכמה מקומות מוכיח שדברים אמתיים הם ובגמ' אמרו גם כן למה נקרא שמן כשפים שמכחישין פמליא של מעלה וכבר נתעוררו המפרשים ז"ל בזה ולענ"ד נראה כוונת רבינו אינה אלא כלפי שהם מצד הסטרא אחרא וזה הוא השקר והכזב שיש בהם שאינן מסטרא דקדושה כלל חלילה ונקט נמי האי לישנא להרחיק המין האנושי מאלו העניינים לגמרי כמ"ש אחר זה

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This is a big stretch IMO :\ Rambam was not afraid to allegorize or refuse literal interpretations of Tanakh. – Yaakov Kuperman Apr 15 '12 at 16:31
@HodofHod This answer solves my issue over here as well (although the premise of the question rules out this as a valid answer) – Y ez Jan 29 at 4:19
Something is utter idiocy, that is in opposition to the Torah, yet claim that we cant trust the source (Rambam) because maybe he is lying to us and using language that is meant to fool us, then we can never read any text. After all, maybe the Talmud was trying to wean us off excessive rationalism. Lastly, his assumption that Rambam was referencing kabbalistic concepts is extremely tenuous at best. No less than Rav Chaim Vital affirmed the obvious; that Rambam did not have Kabbalah. And even those who invented the legend connecting Rambam to Kabbalah, state that he learned it at the end of his – mevaqesh Jan 29 at 5:33
Life. After completing the MT. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that even given the great shortcomings of this explanation, even Maaseh Rokeach himself does not mention (at least in the cited text) Rambam's statement about a sorcerer only being liable if he performs an act. Evidently he agreed that this line posed no difficulty, and did not indicate belief in magic. – mevaqesh Jan 29 at 5:39
@mevaqesh Indeed it seems the Maaseh Rokeach's argument ("it can't be that someone would take the Shaul story as not having happened literally") is valid but not sound, and thus whether or not his conclusion is correct, his position doesn't count for anything other than historical novelty. – Double AA Jan 29 at 13:44

The rambam is very clear that there is no such thing as sorcery and that it's impossible for a person to do an act of sorcery.

Nevertheless, the Rambam is honest regarding what the Talmud and Torah and halacha say about such a person. He isn't going to pretend that the halacha doesn't exist, just because there is no such thing as sorcery and there never will be.

This isn't any different than the halacha for the Ben Sorer (Rebellious child) which the gemora says never happened and never can happen.

Just because nobody will ever be punished with that halacha, and the situation for the halacha can't arise, doesn't mean that the law must be "removed from the books."

And I imagine the Rambam wan't to be sure that even though such things don't exist, a person should not say to themselves, "Well, maybe it does exist and I will try it." because then they would be liable for the death penalty if they succeeded. So this is just an extra precaution to keep people away from such foolishness. And Gd forbid their faith in Hashem or the Torah is diminished because they think that Magic should exist because of this halacha, but they find it is all fraudulent.

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+1, sounds reasonable. is it all your own conjecture (and can you make that clear in the answer) or does your main point have a source? – msh210 Jan 29 '12 at 20:50
But the Rambam is definitely seeing sorcery as different than a rebellious son. The latter has never happened and may/will never happen. The former can never happen. Therefore applying the same idea of not removing a halacha because it won't happen doesn't apply to a sorcerer, where the forbidden action can never happen. – HodofHod Jan 29 '12 at 21:08
@avi, It's interesting to note, that the same Gemara (Sanhedrin 71a) quotes R' Yonasan as having witnessed several of these things that "never happened", including the execution of the rebellious son. Also interesting to note, R' Yehuda does not say that the parents cannot have the same voice; rather that if the law is to be applied, they must be the same. – HodofHod Feb 16 '12 at 0:15
@avi, Nowhere do any of the opinions say that the case of the rebellious son (or the condemned city, or the leprous house) is impossible, only that the circumstances of one are incredibly difficult to fulfill, and hence they have never and will never happen; but not that they can't. Yes, I believe there is a difference. – HodofHod Feb 16 '12 at 0:15
But the Rambam himself doesn't follow R' Yehuda in saying that they must have the same voice. – HodofHod Feb 16 '12 at 15:44

The Rambam clearly is stating his disbelief in magic, a statement that typifies his rationalist and philosophical outlook. This manifests in practical halacha here where his statement that magic spells are placebos and have no real effect is codified in the Shulkhan Arukh. This source is also notable because the Vilna Gaon (Be'ur Ha'Grah note 13) disagrees strongly and attacks the Rambam as being poisoned by 'accursed philosophy' in his rejection of magic, demons, amulets, etc.

As for the seeming contradiction as to why he states that there exists such a thing as 'a deed of sorcery', 'sorcery' or 'magic' refers to distinct practices. Performing these distinct practices would be explicitly forbidden. Pretending to do these practices would be 'grabbing the eyes'. (Also note that IIRC this is a quote from a relevant mishna in Sanhedrin, not the Rambam's own words).

While I don't know of anything off the top of my head that would be 'kishuf', you can use the example of the ancient pagan practice of consulting entrails to tell the future. In line with Rambam's thinking (and assuming this is 'kishuf'), if I actually made predictions based on entrails I would be a sorcerer. If, however, I made predictions claiming them to be based on entrails, but never did the actual ritual practices to divine with entrails, that would be 'grabbing the eyes'. Either way, the entrails are what they are, the forbidden practice is what it is, and no supernatural event has occurred.

Similarly, just because you're liable for serving a foreign deity doesn't mean that the deity actually exists. The actions of the foreign cult are what is forbidden, not the alleged effects those actions have in the cult's mythology.

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"The Rambam clearly is stating his disbelief in magic, a statement that typifies his rationalist and philosophical outlook." Any source for this? Or is your source the very thing which you claim to be a manifestation of the source? It seems you are taking as a starting point the stance that the Rambam doesn't believe in magic. Do you have any clear source? Since, as you mentioned yourself, the Rambam does seem to differentiate between real magic and slight of hand. – Chaim Jan 28 at 20:54
@Chaim Although his statements in MT could not possibly be more clear as noted by Rav Qafih z"l probably the greatest expert on Rambam in at least 500 years, You could add his comments in Perush Hamishnayot in Avodah Zara which I quoted here. – mevaqesh Jan 28 at 23:41
רבינו בחיי שמות כב:יז-מכשפה לא תחיה. ענין הכשוף הוא חבור דברים חלוקים זה מזה וכאשר יחבר אותם הדברים למטה זה עם זה כן יתחברו ויתערבו הכחות אשר למעלה זה עם זה ותצא מביניהם פעולה נפלאה נכרית. והנה חרטומי מצרים עיקר חכמתם היה ענין הכשוף והיו עושים בהם דברים נפלאים בדרך טבע ודרשו רז"ל למה נקרא שמן כשפין שמכחישים פמליא של מעלה. והכחשת הפמליא הוא כשאדם עושה למטה הרכבת דברים שהם הפך הכחות הפשוטים הנגזרים בתנועת הגלגלים ובגזרת עירין שהם נפש להם והם הנקראים פמליא של מעלה. וראוי לאדם שיניח העולם שיתנהג כמנהגו וכפי טבעו הפשוט, שהוא רצון בוראו יתברך שבראו כך ואם תתעסק בכשפים יש בזה צד הכחשה, וכן דעת הרמב"ם – Chaim Feb 4 at 21:50
@Chaim The kabbalists claiming that Rambam was a closet kabbalist, an overt kabbalist, or a convert to kabbalism is nothing new. They even forged documents to back this up. yawn. Much more significant are the Rambam's own repeated assertions in Shemonah Ferakim, elsewhere in Mishne Torah, in his letter to Provence, etc. To the contrary. Similarly, whose objective it is to explain the Rambam (e.g. R. Qafih who devoted his life to translating explaining, publishing, and following the Rambam) cannot possibly be dismissed on account of those whose goal it was to explain away the Rambam. – mevaqesh Feb 10 at 14:44
I would hardly say Rabbeinu Bachya's goal was to explain away the Rambam. Very often he dismissed the Rambam's rationalist approach, such as in Shemos 23:19. Dismissing a Rishon, on the other hand, would seem to be explaining away a proof. However, in the pursuit of truth, I will tell you that R' Chavel changes the Girsa to RambaN, based on your assertion. – Chaim Feb 10 at 14:49

the rambam in his introduction to zeraim clearly admits to magic

ופן יחשוב חושב ויאמר, כי בקיום הודעת החידושים והעתידות תתקיים הנבואה לטוען אותה, הנה כל הקוסמים והוברי שמים ובעלי הכוחות הנפשיות יכולים לטעון טענת נבואה, שאנו רואים אותם, עין בעין, כל היום מגידים מה שעתיד להיות ואני אומר, שהקוסמים והוברי שמים ואנשל החבורה ההיא, יגידו העתידות ההוות, אבל יצדקו קצתם וישקרו קצתם בהכרה. וזה הדבר אנו רואים אותו תמיד, ויסכימו עליו ג"כ אנשי המלאכה ההיא ואותותם לא ינכרו. אבל יתרון כל איש מהם על חברו, בהיות כל שקרי איש אחד פחות משקרי זולתו, אך שיצדקו בכל דקדוקי העתידות זה אי אפשר להיות. ובעלי הכוחות האלו לא יכנו נפשם, ולא יתהללו שיצדקו בכל חלקי הדברים, אבל אומרים שזאת השנה יהיה בצורת, ושלא ירד גשם כלל, ונמצא שיהיה בה גשם מעט; או יאמר שמחר ירד גשם ונמצא שירד ליום שלישי וכדומה לו, וזה הדבר יקרה לו כשיהיה בקי מאוד, והן הידועים בשם אשר דברו עליהם בספריהם. וזה עניין דברי ישעיהו לבבל (ישעיה מז), יעמדו נא ויושיעוך הוברי שמים, החוזים בכוכבים, מודיעים לחדשים [מאשר יבואו עליך]


basically he says there are various levels of these people. the greater the level of the sorcerer the greater percentage of truth and less falsehood in his words. however they are never consistently 100% accurate but the true prophet of God is always 100% true in every detail of what he predicts.

(the Rambam does not need to tell us the difference between a prophet of God and a charlatan. He is talking about people with special powers as he says "baalei kochos haelu", the same type of people referred to by the contemporary kabalist Rabbi Yaakov Hillel here )

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@mevaqesh Indeed, modern day meteorologists make predictions about rain all the time which are about as accurate as the Rambam describes. Making a prediction which is possibly true doesn't take magic. – Double AA Jan 29 at 4:17
@mevaqesh i translate the bold "the superiority of one over the other is that his words contain less falsehood than the other.. and those with such powers..". i think you are letting your views distort his words. btw, such people exist even today as rav yaakov hillel also clearly states judaism.stackexchange.com/a/45058/1857 – ray Jan 29 at 6:59
@DoubleAA i am amazed at how you can deny his black and white clear words that people with such prophetic powers do exist. – ray Jan 29 at 12:29
@DoubleAA I'm not endorsing this particularly reading of this particular Rambam, but you can't deny that there certainly are implications both ways, which is what prompted the question, and that there were at least some Torah sources who took the approach in the Rambam to accept the reality of magic and reinterpret the rest (as opposed to those who have to reinterpret the Rambam cited in the question). So calling it black and white seems slightly disingenuous (on both sides) – Y ez Jan 29 at 14:01
This shows that he admits to clairvoyance. But clairvoyance is not magic or sorcery. Some people have the intuition or 'feeling' of things which they couldn't have known naturally. And just as the Rambam describes it, they aren't always right, and they don't always have the feeling. These aren't practitioners. This is not Assur and is therefore not addressed in the MT. – HaLeiVi Jan 29 at 20:14

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