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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
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    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 '15 at 20:49
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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
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    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
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    @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
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    @GershonGold any luck with a source? – HodofHod Feb 13 '12 at 4:32
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    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) – הנער הזה Jan 15 '15 at 21:53
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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
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    @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
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    Source: Mishna Torah Hilchos Akum 11:16 (hebrewbooks.org/rambam.aspx?rid=372) – Curiouser Jan 27 '12 at 14:21
  • @ avi. That wasn't the halacha i referred to, but your point is well taken. I had not seen this opinion before (although I suspected it existed), so I asked for a source. Thanks @curiouser for the source. (You should be aware that there are other explanations for spontaneous generation and geocentrism, than saying "they were wrong", v'ein kan m'komo.) – HodofHod Jan 27 '12 at 14:51
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation about geocentrism has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Dec 18 '16 at 17:45
1

The Steipler writes in his book "Chayei Olam" (ch.10) that most of kishuf (sorcery) has been forgotten. perhaps due to things like witchhunts, etc.

Rabbi Yaakov Hillel claims he has personally checked out many cases and concedes that sometimes it is real. though it is not clear if this is witchcraft or just clairvoyance. see here for more.

The Rambam seems to concede that clairvoyance exists according to some. though some argue with this interpretation of his words. decide for yourself here.

On the other hand, Rabbi Dov Shwartzman is quoted in the book "Reb Dov" (by Shmuel Wittow, pg.75) saying sorcery does not exist today:

"one of our members began to argue the point with the Rosh Yeshiva saying that he was certain he had seen and experienced the powers of tum'ah; however the Rosh Yeshiva would hear of no such thing and told him that it was a result of his imagination. He went on to prove his point by saying that there is a reality called "zeh leumas ze" ("God has made one corresponding to the other" - Eccl.7:14, see Shaarei Kedusha by Rabbi Chaim Vital Gate 1 ch.1), opposite and converse entities exist in the world in equal proportion, and since today the power of kedusha (holiness) is so low, there can no longer be such a strong or powerful level of tum'ah"

  • What does tum'ah have to do with magic? – mevaqesh Dec 18 '16 at 20:30
  • @mevaqesh that's how it is done. shemot tumah or shedim or who knows what – ray Dec 18 '16 at 20:35
  • What are shemot tumah? Who says they exist? How can a name contract impurity? Which sort of impurity does it contract av? Rishon? What do shedim have to do with tum'ah? – mevaqesh Dec 18 '16 at 20:44
  • @mevaqesh see shaarei kedusha ch.1 you've never encountered the term "kochot haTumah"? – ray Dec 21 '16 at 21:58
  • I am bewildered by your bewilderment about simple questions being asked about a term that does not appear in The Humash, the Prophets, the Hagiographa, Second Temple Literature (AFAIK), the Mishnah, the Tosefta, the Sifra, Sifrei, Mechilta, Bavli, Yerushalmi, other works of Hazal, Geonim, Rambam, Zohar, Tur, and Shulhan Arukh. – mevaqesh Dec 21 '16 at 22:08

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