Rashi (Sanhedrin 44b, s.v. D'ba'ya) relates the story of Shimon ben Shetach's capture of 80 witches. He instructed his students to pick up the witches because the sorcery would be powerless against the students if the witches were ungrounded. Is this to say that sorcery does not work unless the practitioner is grounded?

If so, how can we interpret the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba, 20:20) that states that Bilaam used sorcery to fly through the air?

  • 3
    Maybe you only need to be grounded to start a spell, but once it's going you don't need to be involved.
    – Double AA
    May 9, 2012 at 6:50
  • 6
    Maybe Bilam was higher level then a witch.
    – jutky
    May 9, 2012 at 10:58
  • 1
    Must be grounded,see Sefer Chassidim 474.
    – sam
    May 9, 2012 at 15:36
  • related (slightly): judaism.stackexchange.com/a/13705/603
    – Menachem
    May 9, 2012 at 19:07
  • 1
    @fred wasn't the scroll story yeshu?
    – sam
    May 10, 2012 at 20:37

4 Answers 4


Perhaps one need be grounded only to cast the spell (as @DoubleAA said here). If so, Bilaam could have cast the spell on the ground. They were then able to fly, which they did.

  • Could be. It would be nice if you could better support the answer, though.
    – Fred
    Jun 21, 2013 at 21:08
  • @Fred: It would be nice if I could find support for the answer.
    – Menachem
    Jun 21, 2013 at 21:50
  • Perhaps sorcerors are only capable of... leaping tall buildings in a single bound! Jul 16, 2015 at 15:58
  • By the way, I +1'd this some while back. I just haven't accepted it since I think it's not quite definitive without a source.
    – Fred
    Jul 16, 2015 at 17:57

The case of Rebbi Shimon ben Shetach might have been about their particular method, from where they drew their power.

Also, there are a few types of Kishuf. Rashi points out that there is Latt and Lahatt. Perhaps using demons doesn't require being grounded.

Another possibility is that he was on the ground but projected himself into the air.

  • +1. (a.) Your first suggestion is an interesting possibility that could fit with Rashi's wording "ושוב אין מכשפות שולטות בכם." (b.) Do you have a source that Bilaam used demons for his sorcery? (c.) Regarding your last suggestion, do you mean his body stayed on the ground? I'm not sure how well that fits with the context of the Midrash. And is there a source in Chazal that this kind of kishuf exists?
    – Fred
    Jul 16, 2015 at 17:55
  • @Fred regarding B, the Arizal explains that flying is usually by being Mashbia Sheidim. And regarding C, I'm coming off, somewhat the Maharal in Gevuros about the children bring swallowed into the ground.
    – HaLeiVi
    Jul 16, 2015 at 20:17

Shimon Ben Shetach was the Nasi of the Sanhedrin. Like in Sanhedrin 68a (i think) where it explains that with the death of Rabbi Eliezer witchcraft was forgotten amongst the sages, it is likely that Shimon Ben Shetach (the Nasi in his time) also was familiar with witchcraft. Therefore, perhaps he knew that this particular form of witchcraft required being attached to the ground, where as Bilaam (an "expert" that a King sought out) would probably have spells in his arsenal (?) that wouldn't require being on the ground.

Also, note that Balak himself was an expert in various types of witchcraft/sorcery, but needed to enlist Bilaam due to his specific expertise in a certiain 'field'

  • Interesting, but isn't this essentially the same as the first two paragraphs in HaLeiVi's answer?
    – Fred
    Aug 20, 2015 at 6:27
  • @Fred I think the reference to the Sanhedrin being experts in sorcery is important to note, it supports the possibility that Shimon Ben Shetach was explaining the nature of the specific sorcery at hand.
    – jj2
    Aug 20, 2015 at 21:45
  • So you're noting that Sanhedrin 68a indicates the rabbis had knowledge of sorcery in general in order to make halachic decisions in various cases. There is a dispute regarding whether a non-Jew would be liable for performing magic, but Jews definitely are. The Sanhedrin might therefore be more interested in knowing about the witchcraft commonly used by Jewish violators, assuming there is such a distinction between various kinds of sorcery. So perhaps they knew the rule about grounding generally applied to Jewish witches, but they had no knowledge of Bil'am's magic. Interesting idea. +1
    – Fred
    Aug 21, 2015 at 0:25
  • @Fred i think it was their intention to learn all sorcery, in case a Jew would use it as well
    – jj2
    Aug 21, 2015 at 20:59

I think, in the Rashi on Sanhedrin 44b, the subject of the sentence "He should lift one of them from the ground" is not referring to one of the witches, but to one of the jars that he distributed in the sentence before.

As translated here: http://www.bmv.org.il/shiurim/sanhedrin/san080.html

[Shimon ben Shetach] assembled eighty tall young men and distributed to each of them a jar with a cloak wrapped up inside (it was a rainy day). He also told them to make sure that they were always eighty in number. "When you come inside," he said, "one of you must raise his jar from the ground; from that moment the witches will have no further hold over you; if that does not work then we can never beat them." Shim'on ben-Shataĥ went into the witches' coven and left the young men outside. When the witches asked him who he was he replied that he was a wizard who had come to test them with his wizardry. "What tricks can you do?" they asked. "Despite the fact that it is raining today I can produce eighty young men with dry cloaks!" "Show us!" He went outside and beckoned the young men inside. They removed the cloaks from the jars, put them on, and came into the coven. Thus they bettered the witches, took them outside and strung them all up.

I don't know how lifting one of the jars from the ground would render their powers useless, but maybe that answer lies in what power the witches claimed to have.

  • In other places, water is used to nullify witchcraft. Perhaps it was really the rain that nullified their powers.
    – zaq
    May 17, 2012 at 18:19
  • 1
    Thanks for the answer. However, I just reread the Rashi, and it is in fact referring to the witches, not the jars. The translation is incorrect. -1, sorry.
    – Fred
    May 17, 2012 at 20:21
  • Although it seems from Rashi that it was not the rain that did it, could you please produce a source that "in other places, water is used to nullify witchcraft"?
    – Fred
    May 17, 2012 at 20:24
  • 2
    @Fred: in Sanhedrin 67b, there's the case of Ze'iri buying a donkey in Alexandria - unbeknownst to him, it was turned into one by magic - and having it turn back into "a plank of wood from a bridge" when he took it to the water to drink; they tell him that everyone who buys stuff here knows to first test it with water to make sure it's the genuine article.
    – Alex
    May 18, 2012 at 2:52
  • 1
    It turned out to be a RaDak on the the third passuk in Yechezkel, that I was thinking of. He does not say anything about magic there, but he states that water is a purifying medium and the large body of water allowed Ezekiel to have a prophecy outside of Israel. There's also this:media-1.web.britannica.com/eb-media/47/93447-004-BB23D797.jpg
    – zaq
    May 18, 2012 at 14:10

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