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It appears that "magic" in most "modern" "western" civilizations is prohibited. But societies like those in China or Latin America or Africa have mentions of all kinds of magic. For example, the I Ching is full of specific actions you could take (with "Hexagram" symbols to go along with them) which is said will bring you "abundance" of various kinds. The shamans of Peru use magic plants to "directly connect with the cosmos" and heal people. Then there is "voodoo", "witchcraft", and other terms for similar things. There is a book floating around, The Galdrabók, an Icelandic book of spells. This UC Berkeley Old Norse professor talks about some related stuff here and there. It is the closest work I have found to "magic" that is described, but even then it is rather mundane and says more like "I know of a spell which can do X", rather than "The spell to do X is Y". Then there are secretive groups and such like the Rosicrucians, the Corpus Hermeticum and other "esoteric" works.

So people all over the world are, at least to some degree, exploring magic, whether they are doing it secretively like the fraternities, or openly like the shamans. But, I have never seen a list of the magic practices (a) that are even possible or were done in the past, and (b) why they are forbidden. All I have read so far is that the Torah mentions magic over and over again and how its use results in death (in Judaism, I assume only for Jewish people, not the Chinese or Peruvians or whoever else). There are very few online resources, and those that exist are very short and non-descriptive.

The first part of my question is:

What is this magic that they are talking about? What is the list of "forbidden" magics?

Not how do you practice the magic, but what is it? Necromancy is mentioned as one, but even that article on necromancy doesn't explain what is done. I feel like since the spread of the scientific method, we have almost completely lost sight of "magic" as it was used in the Torah. But I would like to gain a better sense of what the actual magical practices were (in Israel or Judaism during the time of the Torah). What were people doing back then? What Hebrew or English texts go into depth / down the rabbit hole on this topic? Is it not just what the other cultures in China and Latin America and Africa are doing, or was there more to it?

The second part of my question is:

Why is the magic forbidden?

What books/resources go into significant depth on this topic? I get that God doesn't want or like humans to be doing that, but why? All I have read here and there online so far is summarized as "If you do magic you will get death, [with no explanation of what the magic is or does, or why such a punishment]". I would like to know why it causes God to be so angry.

Basically:

  1. What is the definition of magic in Judaism, and what is the list of practices?
  2. Why are these things prohibited?

The linked answers so far say basically magic either doesn't exist or it is used to dupe people which is why you should ignore it. But why then the death punishment? Hopefully there are deeper analyses somewhere. Looking for books and books on it :)

  • Have a look at sefaria.org/Sefer_HaChinukh.62.1?lang=bi – mroll Aug 18 at 7:46
  • Related/possible dupe judaism.stackexchange.com/q/96654/6788 – mroll Aug 18 at 7:49
  • "I do not have to write at length about it, as the things are well-known." arg, thats what everything says. – Lance Pollard Aug 18 at 7:49
  • Nachmanides and Maimonaides are medieval scholars, Maimonaides the rationalist. Are they the standard source on the topic, is there not something more close to the source and ancient / mystical? – Lance Pollard Aug 18 at 7:52
  • I guess it would be helpful to have yes a list of the magical practices that were performed in ancient Israel, and why they were bad. – Lance Pollard Aug 18 at 7:55
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Great question!

The verse in Exodus 22:17 writes strongly about a one who practises sorcery:

מְכַשֵּׁפָ֖ה לֹ֥א תְחַיֶּֽה׃

You shall not tolerate a sorceress. (Sefaria translation)

And it writes in Deuteronomy 18:10 the direct command not to practise sorcery:

לֹֽא־יִמָּצֵ֣א בְךָ֔ מַעֲבִ֥יר בְּנֽוֹ־וּבִתּ֖וֹ בָּאֵ֑שׁ קֹסֵ֣ם קְסָמִ֔ים מְעוֹנֵ֥ן וּמְנַחֵ֖שׁ וּמְכַשֵּֽׁף׃

Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer

The Sefer HaChinuch (Lit. Book of Education) commandment 62 qualifies the first quote to mean anyone who practises magic. It writes there:

From the roots of the commandment are that it is known that magic is a very bad thing and causes many mishaps to people. I do not have to write at length about it, as the things are well-known. And therefore we were commanded to put away from the world someone who makes efforts with this, as he is coming against the will of God, as He desires [the world's] settlement and that everything should be administered in a natural way. As nature was at the beginning of creation and this one wants to change everything.

So it would seem that practising these types of magic are problematic as they are essentially, whether knowingly or not, trying to alter G-d's creation.

The Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed) 3:37 writes in quite some detail about how the various magic types were practised. It is clear from the Rambam that the practise of such magic is a form of idol worship and that is why there is such a strong command to distance oneself from it.

In keeping with this idea, there are certain idolatrous practises that also engage in some form of magic which the Torah warns against.

In Leviticus 19:13 it writes:

אַל־תִּפְנ֤וּ אֶל־הָאֹבֹת֙ וְאֶל־הַיִּדְּעֹנִ֔ים אַל־תְּבַקְשׁ֖וּ לְטָמְאָ֣ה בָהֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י ה' אֱלֹקיכֶֽם׃

Do not turn to ghosts and do not inquire of familiar spirits, to be defiled by them: I the LORD am your God.

Rashi, the Medieval commentator explains:

אל תפנו DO NOT TURN [TO THE אבת NOR TO THE ידענים] — This is a warning addressed to the necromancers and the charmers themselves (not to the people who consult these tricksters). The בעל אוב, the controller of the spirit אוב, as the necromancer is called (cf. I Samuel 28:7), is identical with the פיתום (in Greek: πύξωυ); he is one who speaks out of his arm-pit; ידעני is one who puts a bone of an animal the name of which is ידוע into his mouth and the bone speaks (Sanhedrin 65b).

The Torah also speaks about the idolatrous cult of Molech - first appearing Leviticus 18:21 which involved passing children through a fire and is referenced in the verse cited in Deuteronomy 18:10 above. There are numerous examples throughout Tanach where we see it being practised (see I Kings 11:7, II Kings 16:3 and II Chronicles 33:6) and especially in the II Chronicles source we find it grouped together with other forms of magic.

There is a lot more to say but I hope this is a good starting point.

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  • Nice! The :DO NOT TURN: section goes into some specifics :). I don't understand the idolatry part, need to dig more into that, but first thought is isn't numerology or gematria a form of number/letter idolatry?... "I do not have to write at length about it, as the things are well-known." where is it well known??! ...Well if you are burning people alive as a form of magic, then I guess I understand such harsh punishment. But where are the other types of magic? – Lance Pollard Aug 18 at 8:34
  • I have seen most of these quotes, is there not more to it than this? Thank you for all the links to the texts btw, that's really helpful! The Moreh Nevuchim is helpful, that's the most depth I've seen. – Lance Pollard Aug 18 at 8:39
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    Are "magic shows" for kids (or adults) allowed, if it's clear to all (but the kids) that these are just tricks? – Maurice Mizrahi Aug 18 at 13:44
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    @MauriceMizrahi - the concept of 'illusion' in modern day magic is a discussion amongst the poskim – Dov Aug 18 at 13:55
  • For reference I am not talking about modern day magic like sleight of hand, but instead talking about manipulating the darkness. – Lance Pollard Aug 18 at 15:23

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