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I've heard that the Rambam says that when the Torah speaks about magic it is meant as a parable. If this is the case, how does he explain Pharoah's sorcerers and other incidents in Tanakh such as prophet Shmuel's séance?

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    Not dupe but similar: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/13696/… – mevaqesh Jan 27 '16 at 0:41
  • Note that the "witch" was astonished by the appearance of Shmuel as well. According to the Rambam, she was attempting to generate an illusion but Hashem caused a miracle and actually sent Shmuel to give the message. – sabbahillel Jan 27 '16 at 15:03
  • @mevaqesh: Thanks for the link, it is an interesting and informative post. Do you know of any other places where the Rambam mentions sorcery? – DonCorleone Jan 28 '16 at 3:19
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Regarding the plagues in Egypt, his son R. Abraham writes in his Torah commentary (Exodus 7: 11) in the name of R. Saadya Gaon (9th-10th century) that when the Torah states that "they too did so with magic" it means that they tried to do it.

He brings evidence that the term "they too did..." does not mean that they succeeded, from the later verse (8: 14) that states that "the magicians did so with their charms, to bring forth lice, but were unable".

וַיַּעֲשׂוּ־כֵ֨ן הַחַרְטֻמִּ֧ים בְּלָטֵיהֶ֛ם לְהוֹצִ֥יא אֶת־הַכִּנִּ֖ים וְלֹ֣א יָכֹ֑לוּ

Evidently the term "they did so" does not mean that they succeeded.

The following is the citation of R. Abraham:

ביאר ר׳ סעדיה ז״ל שטעמו רצו לעשות והביא עדות ממאמר ויעשו כן החרטמים בלטיהם להוציא את הכנים ולא יכלו

Given Rambam's statement in Hil. Avodah Zarah (11: 15-16) that anyone who believes in magic is a fool, it seems probable that he would have concurred with his son here.

Regarding Prophet Samuel's seance, Radak writes in his commentary to I Samuel (28: 24) that all of the Geonim (heads of academy in Babylonia) agree that that necromancy is ineffective. However they disagree regarding the interpretation of the passage in Samuel.

Rabbi Saadya Gaon and Rabbi Hai Gaon (10th-11th century) explain that really necromancy is ineffective, but in this instance God performed a miracle and brought Prophet Samuel:

רב סעדיה ורב האיי הגאונים ז"ל אמרו אמת הוא כי רחוק הוא שתדע האשה העתידות וכן שתחיה היא את המת בחכמת האוב אך הבורא יתברך החיה את שמואל כדי לספר לשאול את כל הקורות העתידות לבא עליו והיא האשה אשר לא ידעה בכל אלה נבהלה כמו שנאמר ותזעק בקול גדול

Rabbi Samuel bar Chofni Gaon explains that she was faking the whole thing and using her intelligence to fake Prophet Samuel's side of the conversation:

יש מהם אומרים כי לא דבר שמואל עם שאול וחס ושלום לא עלה שמואל מקברו ולא דבר אבל האשה עשתה הכל ברמאות כי מיד הכירה כי שאול הוא... זהו פי' רב שמואל בן חפני הגאון ז"ל

It seems probable that Rambam would adopt one of these approaches, or a similar one.

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    Radak, and the opinions he quotes, are specifically discussing necromancy and seances, not "magic" in general. R' Sa'adya and R' Hai both said the woman was a faker, not that necromancy is impossible generally. Radak himself disagrees and says she was a legitimate necromancer. He also quotes the Rambam (Hil. 'Avoda Zara 6:1), who indicates that the client perceives a voice; while the Rambam is ambiguous about the true source of that perception, he does cast aspersions on all sorts of magic in Hil. 'A"Z 11:16 (as you mentioned). – Fred Jan 28 '16 at 7:46
  • @mevaqesh, thanks a lot for this answer, it is very well written and informative:) – DonCorleone Jan 28 '16 at 18:35
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    @DonCorleone you are entitled to your opinion. Personally, I think that Chaim nicely describes one of the shortcomings with his approach in writing: that he interprets Rambam without "any presuppositions". That is he attempts to read Rambam without the benefit of the context of The views of the Geonim in general, and Rav Saadya in particular who were great influences on him. And without the context of of his son Rabenu Avraham who was tremendously influenced by his father. And without the context of Rambam's own rationalist approach in general. – mevaqesh Jan 28 '16 at 23:26
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    @DonCorleone And without the context of Rambam's explicit and sharply worded comments in Perush Hamishnayot. It is relevant to paraphrase Rav Qafih's commentary to the Mishneh Torah there (Avodah Zara). If I heard people falsely claiming that magical phenomena are real, I would be silent. But when they go so far as attributing this view to Rambam of all people, we must take issue. – mevaqesh Jan 28 '16 at 23:29
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    @Chaim That being said, in the quote he carefully measures his words explaining that not everyone is of the incorrect opinion that magic is effective, since there are the enlightened minority who realize that it is all a scam. The vagueness is about what percentage of the population believes in a false belief; a demographic fact that is not knowable. His vagueness is not about the beliefs themselves. – mevaqesh Jan 29 '16 at 4:21
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In Hilchos Avodat Kochavim 11:15, the Rambam differentiates between the punisments for a person who actually does magic, versus a person who merely used slight of hand:

המכשף חייב סקילה והוא שעשה מעשה כשפים אבל האוחז את העינים והוא שיראה שעשה והוא לא עשה לוקה מכת מרדות

I'm sure plenty of readers would love to play with these words and adapt them to their vision of the Rambam's opinion, but he clearly is saying that you're only deserving of the death penalty if you actually perform magic, not if you use slight of hand to make it seem as though you're performing magic.

Ironically, many people quote the following Halacha as a proof of the Rambam's "disbelief" in magic:

ודברים האלו כולן דברי שקר וכזב הן והם שהטעו בהן עובדי כוכבים הקדמונים לגויי הארצות כדי שינהגו אחריהן ואין ראוי לישראל שהם חכמים מחוכמים להמשך בהבלים אלו

Since he refers to magic here as non-reality (falsehood) and trickery, out of context it could certainly seem as if he is denying it's existence. However, seen in context he must be adding something else.

I humbly suggest that he understands magic to be part of a non-holistic vision of reality, where shortcuts and simple solutions are used to make your way through the world. Thus he ends the Halacha with:

אלו הדברים שאסרה תורה אינם דברי חכמה אלא תהו והבל שנמשכו בהן חסרי הדעת ונטשו כל דרכי האמת בגללן ומפני זה אמרה תורה כשהזהירה על כל אלו ההבלים תמים תהיה עם ה' אלהיך.

He describes these things as Tohu, chaotic, non-holistic/non-scientific, and thereby are approaches which destroy all paths of reality. People with simple minds get drawn into this, he says, because they aren't connected to a Temimus and wholesomeness which focuses a person on the bigger picture. It's like buying into some new-age treatment you read about online because "This has worked on 100 people!". A person on the path of Truth and reality doesn't involve himself in things which are disconnected from the universal functionality of the world; he doesn't look for shortcuts to getting all your prayers answered, for having all your wishes fulfilled by rubbing the genie's bottle. Rather, he lives life on its' own terms, and looks to the patterns of Creation as expression of a reality which God wishes to share with us.

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    In fact you should go answer there as this doesn't really answer the q here imo – Double AA Jan 28 '16 at 20:21
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    @DoubleAA, You may be right about how Chaim's wording, but how else can one translate המכשף חייב סקילה והוא שעשה מעשה כשפים אבל האוחז את העינים והוא שיראה שעשה והוא לא עשה לוקה מכת מרדות? I read the other post but I think that when Rambam says something he is very particular about the words he uses. – DonCorleone Jan 28 '16 at 22:28
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    @DonCorleone I don't mean to say the Rambam is not particular! Chas Veshalom! Just Maaseh Keshafim doesn't have to mean actually using 'real' magic. Given that 'real' magic is impossible, and that some action is prohibited as "magic", we need a term to describe an act which violates said prohibition. Hence the phrase: "Act of magic". Really quite reasonable. Why would you suggest that the Rambam is not consistant and reasonable for using that term? – Double AA Jan 29 '16 at 4:21
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    To emphasize how silly the logic in this answer is, note that if you switch the presentation of the two Halachos, the logic still follows. Consider: [Halakha 16 says plainly that magic is false.] "Ironically, some people quote the previous Halacha as a proof of the Rambam's 'belief' in magic" [Halakha 15 says magic is true] "Since he refers to magic here as actual reality (truth), out of context it could certainly seem as if he is affirming it's existence. However, seen in context he must be adding something else." – Double AA Jan 29 '16 at 4:26
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    @Double AA "Given that 'real' magic is impossible" with all due respect, in what way is this a logical argument? To say that he [Rambam] must mean something with no explanation of why? In Chaim's answer he gave a logical reason as to why Rambam would so adamantly say that magic doesn't exist even though he implies strongly that it does exist . Rambam seems to contradict himself, to me it makes more sense to say that everything he wrote was meant exactly as it was written and explain it, than "this doesn't mean this, it means that". – DonCorleone Jan 29 '16 at 4:43

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