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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

4 Answers 4

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
@YaakovKuperman, Even when halachos are learned from those pesukim? – HodofHod Apr 15 '12 at 18:18
See my answer, in this circumstance it's not necessary to have a a literal understanding of magic for the halachos. I'd have to see specific examples to say further with certainty, but I have no doubt that halachos would not be a deterrent. – Yaakov Kuperman Apr 15 '12 at 20:55

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
@HodofHod I don't see any difference. It is impossible for a mother and father to have the exact same voice. It's never going to happen, and never can happen. – avi Jan 30 '12 at 6:10
@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

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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