In the spirit of the recent Mi Yodeya discussion of the Rambam's view of magic, a question that has bothered me for some time:

The Rambam ostensibly doesn't accept that there is any reality to magic, everything is done through slight of hand and trickery, and the Torah's prohibition is against exactly that trickery. (See here for more on that.)

However, in Yesodei HaTorah 8:1 the Rambam writes that Moshe would not have been relied upon absolutely due to any of the wonders he performed, because they could have been done through magic:

משה רבינו לא האמינו בו ישראל מפני האותות שעשה. שהמאמין על פי האותות יש בלבו דופי שאפשר שיעשה האות בלט וכשוף.

The Jewish people did not believe in Moshe Rabbeinu as a result of the wonders that he performed, for one who believes according to wonders always has some doubt in his heart, maybe it was done through magic.

The Rambam then procedes to give examples of some of those miracles which were not done to produce belief. All the examples seem difficult to pull off as a slight-of-hand trick, but here's just one:

היה צריך להשקיע את המצריים קרע את הים והצלילן בתוכו

He needed to drown the Egyptians, so he split the sea and sunk them in it

If magic is fake, how could these things have possibly been performed through "magic"?

  • 4
    Perhaps: Even the Rambam assumes that Average Joes don't realize magic is foolish. So splitting the sea might not have convinced them.
    – Double AA
    Jan 29, 2016 at 4:36
  • 1
    Perhaps: judaism.stackexchange.com/a/13895/759
    – Double AA
    Jan 29, 2016 at 4:37
  • 2
    @yEz Is it that problematic to think many of them weren't philosophers? They had been slaves their whole lives, in a land where clearly the popular belief was magic existed (eg. Chartummim)
    – Double AA
    Jan 29, 2016 at 5:03
  • 1
    @mevaqesh chapter? Jan 29, 2016 at 13:55
  • 3
    +1 more credence to the Maaseh Rokeach in one of the answers there.
    – user6591
    Jan 29, 2016 at 19:04

5 Answers 5


The idea is not that we can reproduce the trick. The idea is that people have accomplished great things which we thought were impossible, and perhaps he did this with trickery and I have no idea how — yet. People have managed to hide bridges.

The Rambam was not using קריאת ים סוף for an example of what we could do with trickery. He is mentioning it after establishing that miracles in general are not solid enough evidence, and that they are done out of necessity.

  • 1
    Interesting idea. Any sources regarding this interpretation?
    – mevaqesh
    Jan 29, 2016 at 20:28

it says there was a wind there all night. so people could somehow pretend to use magic but really the wind pulled it off.

  • 1
    I recall hearing somewhere that the wind was specifically brought in to give an ability to those naysayers who are always looking for a reason/excuse to deny something. As crazy it might be to say "well, it was just some sort of natural phenomenon due to the winds causing a tsunami-like effect of the water receding and returning", if someone really wanted to attempt to deny G-D and look for other excuses, G-D helps out in that way as well. Jan 31, 2016 at 13:53
  • @Salmononius2 judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/67814/…
    – michael
    Jan 31, 2016 at 17:16
  • @m.r. Well, I guess about half a page above where I wrote my comment would be a good place to start when looking for a source... :P For the record, I also recall hearing it in the name of one of the more classical commenters, when explaining why the verse mentions that there was a strong wind blowing overnight. Jan 31, 2016 at 22:42
  • @Salmononius2 judaism.stackexchange.com/a/13895/4794 (and comments there) Feb 1, 2016 at 1:32
  • But the pillar of fire is not so easily dismissed.
    – Joshua
    Nov 1, 2021 at 17:43

R. Joseph Albo's formulation of this argument (Sefer HaIkarim 1:18) is worded slightly differently, which may help address the question:

Similarly the performance of miracles is doubtful as a test, for something like them may be performed by some natural science or device.

(Husik translation, Vol. I p. 161; my emphasis)

Shortly thereafter he identifies this as Rambam's argument mentioned in the question here:

This is the meaning of the words of Maimonides in the book "Madda'" in the eighth chapter of the treatise on the Foundations of the Torah.

(Husik translation, Vol. I p. 162)

And then he restates it again:

all these things are not essential proofs of prophecy, for one may foretell the future through astrologers or by means of familiar spirits. Some of the miracles could be performed for good and pious men who are not prophets, like Rabbi Hanina the son of Dosa, Rabbi Phinehas the son of Yair, and his associates; or they might be performed by means of natural devices, as the rabbis say concerning Hezekiah, the king of Judah, that Ahaz his father caused him to pass through the fire, and yet he was saved, because his mother anointed him with oil of the salamander; or they might be performed by magic and sorcery, as the magicians of Egypt did, or by means of one of the sacred names of God. The divine names are like His instruments, having the virtue of performing miracles.

(Husik translation Vol. I p. 163-164; my emphasis)

So when Rambam said שאפשר שיעשה האות בלט וכשוף, it may simply be an inclusive phrase for "things non-miraculous". Alternatively, he may have meant that the people would think it was magic. This indeed seems to be the simple reading of המאמין על פי האותות יש בלבו דופי.


According to the 2nd answer to the question you posted, who actually quotes a source: http://www.hebrewbooks.org/rambam.aspx?mfid=35765&rid=372, which says clearly that the Rambam holds magic is real, in fact; see there for details.

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

  • It seems clear the OP knew this and was asking according to the other more mainstream opinions
    – Double AA
    Nov 28, 2018 at 0:45
  • This directly contradicts your other answer which claims Rambam's Mishneh Torah needs to be understood literally as it is a work of Halakha, and he wouldn't use extreme analogy or metaphor therein.
    – Double AA
    Nov 29, 2018 at 14:08
  • @DoubleAA It doesn't contradict anything because the actual COMMENTATORS on Rambam themselves say this explanation, you can't know what is the literal meaning without commentaries who actually know what they're talking about, and these are the same commentaries who took the Rambam's age of the world literally as well, this is not opinion; it is fact.
    – user8832
    Nov 30, 2018 at 0:32
  • How do you explain the fact that the vast majority of the ACTUAL COMMENTATORS take the Rambam at face value and assume he was serious when he wrote dozens of times explicitly that magic is fake and not real? And that multiple other Geonim and Rishonim make similar claims as the Rambam, and none of them qualify it as hyperbole. That's the fact. This opinion you brought is a minority opinion that's extremely forced and difficult to understand. It's the opposite of Pshat.
    – Double AA
    Nov 30, 2018 at 0:35
  • @DoubleAA It's more difficult to understand than saying that the Rambam went against so many stories in Tanach and the Gemara, just like the commentaries said. And even if there ARE other commentaries who lived closer tothe Rambam's time than the one quoted
    – user8832
    Nov 30, 2018 at 1:08

Good question. Since magic does not exist, how on earth could Moshe have caused the Sea of Reeds to drown the Egyptians? The answer is: he didn't. It's simply impossible for man to control a huge body of water. As G-d works through nature, it follows that the parting and descending of the sea was a natural event. Though the Bible attributes it to G-d because as the Rambam said, G-d is the first cause. Ultimate cause. In any event, G-d made a pack with nature (metaphorically) that the Sea of Reeds would part as the Exodus, Talmud, and the Midrash says; a strong east wind. Thus Maimonides said it was a strong wind.

Although the Rambam says that the use of magic could have been performed by Moshe, it should be noted that he does not dismiss the possibility out of hand since anything is technically possible but, ever consistent with his line of thinking, he is convinced that magic was not involved.

[1] Moshe could have constructed a barrier or a dam and ordered it to break, allowing the waters to kill the Egyptians but that would be impractical and in any event, not magic.

  • I’m not sure this answers the question. Rambam seems to say that it could have been done by magic, yet he also seems to reject magic as a reality. Does this answer provide a reconciliation to that?
    – Alex
    Oct 2, 2019 at 3:02
  • @Alex good question. The Rambam rejects magic out of hand and resolves that it does not exists. Thus, Maimonides did not think that magic was used. It was a natural event as explained above. Natural law is fixed. It is foolish to suggest that people can alter nature by use of sympathetic magic, or superstitions.
    – Turk Hill
    Oct 2, 2019 at 3:24
  • That all might be true, but does it address the specific question that was asked here?
    – Alex
    Oct 2, 2019 at 3:32
  • Yes because the question asked whether magic could be implemented and the answer was that there is no possible way this can happen. Even Rambam admitted that this was impossible.
    – Turk Hill
    Oct 2, 2019 at 3:46
  • I don't think the question really asked whether magic could be implemented. It's asking for an explanation of the Rambam's comment that magic could have been implemented, in light of the Rambam's rejection of magic. Your answer reiterates the rejection of magic, but it doesn't explain the Rambam's comment that prompted the question.
    – Alex
    Oct 2, 2019 at 3:48

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