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As Arthur C. Clarke famously said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

The idea here actually generalizes much further. Today's technology would have been considered magic even a few hundred years ago (e.g., the variety of our electronic devices), as well as science (e.g., relativity, QM).

In fact, it can be argued that anything, no matter how magical or out-of-this-world it seems, can eventually somehow be explained with an appropriately suited scientific theory. And, then, it becomes just a 'natural phenomenon.'

If that's the case, what is the practical demarcation line of the prohibition against practicing magic (kishuf, sorcery)? It seems like however "magic" is defined, the set of things encompassed under that definition will shrink as science advances. And from the argument above, that set's size will be 0 (at least in potentia).

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    The point is that at the time something is presented as magic. For example someone installs a voice operated switch, but pretends to pray to an idol to get the light to turn on. – sabbahillel Feb 26 at 23:16
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    Notably this is not a new issue, since the Rambam already thought non-scientific magic didn't exist – Double AA Feb 27 at 2:00
  • @רבותמחשבות Duplicate? – DonielF Mar 4 at 20:44
  • science has a long list of things it can't explain. i disagree with your premise – michael Mar 7 at 12:05
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R. Menachem Meiri (Beis Habechirah Sanhedrin 67b) writes as follows:

כל שהוא נעשה בפעולה טבעית אינו בכלל כשפים אפילו ידעו לברא בריות יפות שלא מזווג המין כמו שנודע בספרי הטבע שאין הדבר נמנע רשאים לעשות שכל שהוא טבעי אינו בכלל הכשוף ודומה לזה שיש בו משום רפואה אין בו משום דרכי האמורי כמו שיתבאר במקומו

Anything which is done via a natural act is not included in sorcery. Even if they know how to create beautiful creatures without sexual reproduction — as is known in the books of nature that this is not impossible — it is permitted to do, because anything which is natural is not included in sorcery. And similar to this, [anything] which is medicinal is not [a problem of] the ways of the Emorite, as will be explained in its place.

  • Right, but what is a "natural act"? My question was that a sufficiently advanced science can describe any physically occurring phenomenon, and so every act is "natural". And if so, what does the prohibition against kishuf actually prohibit? – user9806 Feb 27 at 23:29
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    @user Meiri clearly didn't think that a sufficiently advanced science could describe anything. You keep claiming that but there's no proof for it and other people definitely didn't think it was true. – Double AA Mar 1 at 11:49
  • @user9806 How do you know that technology will eventually be capable of doing anything and everything? You might instead ask how we are supposed to know whether something is magic, rather than if it is magic. – Alex Mar 1 at 15:53
  • I'm not saying science or technology will be able to actually do anything and everything. But perhaps it can explain most things. (We can theorize about the inner workings of a black hole without ever being able to go inside one). – user9806 Mar 3 at 4:21
  • @DoubleAA I think it's fair to say that virtually any observable phenomenon on Earth nowadays can be explained scientifically (even if phrases like "the exact mechanism is still unknown" or "more research is needed" are a part of this explanation). Or at the very least, it's believed that it can be explained some day (e.g., dark matter/dark energy). But that's not even the point: it doesn't matter if the explanation is correct or not. What matters is if the person performing the magic believes in this explanation. If he does, does that exempt him, since he thinks he's doing science? – user9806 Mar 3 at 4:37
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Although his commentary to Chumash is not such a halachic source, Rav David Zvi Hoffman discusses this in his commentary to Shemot 22:17. Somewhat along the lines of Sabbahillel, according to my read, he seems to understand that it depends on the understanding of the performer and viewers. If it is understood and presented in a scientific way, it is not magic. If, however, it is portrayed and understood as a supernatural force, it is problematic.

Using magnetism as an example, if a sorcerer said that a magical force drags a piece of metal towards the magnet (and the audience believes that), that might be Kishuf, but if a scientist says that the rules of nature are such that a metal object is attracted to a magnet, it is not.

Here's the text, read for yourself, because it's kind of ambiguous (my rough translation):

רש״ר מאמץ את דעתו של רמב״ם שהכשף אינו אלא רמאי העושה עצמו כמי שמסוגל לעשות מעשים על-טבעיים בעזרתם של רוחות ושדים, ומתחזה כמי שאמנם קשור לכוחות עליונים. ברם, מותר לראות בדעה זו דעה שנדחית הן בתנ״ך הן בדברי חז״ל. כי הנה מפורש הוא במס׳ סנהדרין (סז ע״א): ״המכשף העושה מעשה – חייב, ולא האוחז העיניים״. ועוד יותר צריך לתמוה על רמב״ם הפוסק בהל׳ עבודה זרה (פי״א הט״ו) ״האוחז עיניים – פטור״, ומיד לאחר מכן (טז) הוא כותב: ״הדברים האלו כולן דברי שקר הן״. ובאמת, רק בדוחק אפשר יהיה לפרש את כל הכתובים שבהם מדובר בכישוף ובמאגיה וכד׳, אם מניחים שאין אלה אלא שקר וכזב. ואמנם אין זה כך. הכישוף, והפעולות המאגיות האחרות, לא היו כולן כזב. לפחות חלק מעושיהן ידעו על אודות כוחות נסתרים שאפילו היום המדע לא גילה עדיין. אפשר שכוח-משיכה וחשמל, כוחות שבשעתם לא היו ידועים, שימשו ליודעיהם אמצעים למעשי ״כישוף״. אבל גם כוחות אחרים שעד היום לא נתבהרו, שימשו לביצוע פעולות על-טבעיות לכאורה. עושיהן לא למדו להכיר כוחות אלה בדרך המדעית ולא השתמשו בהם אפוא בדרך המותרת... ועוד פחות יהיה זה מן החכמה להכחיש את כל העדויות ההיסטוריות בכגון דא רק משום שאין אנחנו מבינים אותן. הן באותה מידה מותר יהיה להכחיש ח״ו את ענין הנבואה או הנס.

RSR supports the (Rambam’s) opinion that a sorcerer is only a cheater who makes himself look as if he is performing supernatural acts with the help of spirits, and seems as if he is in control of higher powers. However, this opinion has been rejected both within Tanach as well as in the words of Chazal. Behold it is clearly stated “A sorcerer who performs a real act of sorcery is liable, but not one who deceives the eyes” (Sanhedrin 67a). It is even more bewildering that Rambam writes “one who deceives the eyes is exempt” (Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 11:15), and immediately following that, he writes “these actions are entirely falsehood and trickery” (11:16). In truth, it is very tough to explain all of the verses that refer to magic and sorcery if we assume that they are falsehood and trickery. But this is not the case. The sorcery and other magical actions were not all false. At least some of their performers knew about some hidden powers that even today, science has not yet revealed. It is possible that magnetism and electricity, forces that at that time were unknown, acted for those who knew them as acts of magic. But even other forces that have still not been clarified, may have served as supernatural powers. Their performers did not understand these forces in a scientific way, and did not use them in an appropriate way… And it would be even less wise to deny all of the historical testimonies such as this just because we do not understand them. By the same measure, it would then be permitted to deny (G-d forbid) the concepts of prophecy or miracles!

  • Wait, he's saying someone using E+M before it was understood would be chayav misa? That's a major chiddush! – Heshy Mar 1 at 15:38
  • Is it possible that he's saying that the very definition of magic is "using technology that we don't understand"? – Alex Mar 1 at 15:57
  • @Alex that is absolutely how I understood it. – רבות מחשבות Mar 1 at 16:08
  • @Heshy no, he is saying that understanding and presenting it as a non-natural force. We don't understand many things that we view as natural – רבות מחשבות Mar 1 at 16:09
  • So according to this, it seems that all it would take for a sorcerer to escape punishment would be to present what he's doing as a natural ('scientific') practice? And would his own belief in it matter (though one can convince himself of anything if he tries long enough), or would he just have to present it as natural? – user9806 Mar 3 at 4:43
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In keeping with the comment from SabbaHillel and also the sentiment expressed by Meiri quoted by Alex, looking at the uncensored text of Sanhedrin 43a helps to shed light on this subject.

וכרוז יוצא לפניו לפניו אין מעיקרא לא והתניא בערב הפסח תלאוהו לישו והכרוז יוצא לפניו מ' יום ישו יוצא ליסקל על שכישף והסית והדיח את ישראל כל מי שיודע לו זכות יבא וילמד עליו ולא מצאו לו זכות ותלאוהו בערב הפסח The mishna teaches that a crier goes out before the condemned man. This indicates that it is only before him, i.e., while he is being led to his execution, that yes, the crier goes out, but from the outset, before the accused is convicted, he does not go out. The Gemara raises a difficulty: But isn’t it taught in a baraita: On Passover Eve they hung the corpse of Jesus the Nazarene after they killed him by way of stoning. And a crier went out before him for forty days, publicly proclaiming: Jesus the Nazarene is going out to be stoned because he practiced sorcery, incited people to idol worship, and led the Jewish people astray. Anyone who knows of a reason to acquit him should come forward and teach it on his behalf. And the court did not find a reason to acquit him, and so they stoned him and hung his corpse on Passover eve.

In essence, sorcery is leading people to deny the truth that אין עוד מלבדו, there is nothing other than G-d, no alternate force, Creator, other opposing power or god.

And this is in keeping with the explanation found in Sefer Kehillat Yaacov, Erech מכשף which quotes the Zohar to say that כשוף is a Roshei Teivot for כפיר, ותנין, שחל, פתן.

  • @Yaakov - I. You have inaccurately quoted this passage in two places: (a) it does not say 'after they killed him by way of stoning' and (b) 'and so they stoned him'. II. According to the Gospel accounts, (1) Was Yeshu a sorcerer? (2) Did he incite people to idol worship? (3) Did he lead the Jewish people astray? (4) Was he preceded by a crier for forty days before his death? (5) Was he stoned to death? Joseph Klausner in Yeshu ha-Notzri (pp. 27-28) points out that the only thing this passage in the Talmud says which agrees with the Gospel accounts is that Yeshu was hung on Passover eve. – Clifford Durousseau Mar 4 at 21:49
  • You inaccurately quoted the passage in a third place (which I have corrected): it does not say: 'On Passover eve they hung the corpse of Jesus the Nazarene . . .' It says: 'On Passover eve they hanged Yeshu [the Nasarean]' (full stop). 'the Nasarean' is found only in MS. M. – Clifford Durousseau Mar 4 at 22:03
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    III. Finally, how does Sanhedrin 43a offer a 'practical demarcation line of the prohibition against practising sorcery (kishuf)? Does it explain why Yeshu was believed to be a sorcerer and to have practiced sorcery? Yeshu the Nazarene was hung because he claimed to be the Messiah. – Clifford Durousseau Mar 4 at 22:12
  • @CliffordDurousseau I did not make this translation. If I did, I would have set it apart from the source quotation. The source is from Sefaria.com. All I did was copy and paste. If you have issue with their translation and understanding, you should take it up with them. In general, as I understand it, quotations are not to be disputed. The 'why' he was convicted for practicing sorcery is found in other censored portions of the Talmud. As far as I know, "claiming to be the Messiah" is not a prohibited nor punishable act. – Yaacov Deane Mar 4 at 23:07
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    I'm having trouble seeing how this answers the question (other than your opening point, which is just echoing other answers), and what relevance your source has. (Also, as an aside, if a translation isn't yours, you should give it credit in the actual post, which sometimes has the side effect of stopping people from bothering you about it.) -1 – רבות מחשבות Mar 5 at 3:00
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'What is the practical demarcation line of the prohibition against practicing magic (kishuf)?

There are two laws making use of the root kashaf that forbid sorcery: Shemoth 22:17 ('You shall not allow a sorceress to live') & Devarim 18:10-11 (' . . . not . . . among you . . . a sorcerer , . . .').

Bavli Sanhedrin 67a states very simply:

A SORCERER, IF HE ACTUALLY PERFORMS MAGIC, IS LIABLE [TO DEATH]. BUT NOT IF HE MERELY CREATES ILLUSIONS. R. AKIBA SAID IN R. JOSHUA'S NAME: OF TWO WHO GATHER CUCUMBERS [BY MAGIC] ONE MAY BE PUNISHED AND THE OTHER EXEMPT: HE WHO REALLY GATHERS THEM IS PUNISHED: WHILST HE WHO PRODUCES AN ILLUSION IS EXEMPT.

Sanhedrin 67b further clarifies:

Abaye said: The laws of sorcerers are like those of the Sabbath: certain actions are punished by stoning, some are exempt from punishment, yet forbidden, whilst others are entirely permitted. Thus: if one actually performs magic, he is stoned; if he merely creates an illusion, he is exempt, yet it is forbidden; whilst what is entirely permitted? — Such as was performed by R. Hanina and R. Oshaia, who spent every Sabbath eve in studying the Laws of Creation, by means of which they created a third-grown calf and ate it.

Footnote: It thus all depends as to whose help is invoked in performing the miraculous.

'Throughout the Talmud it is implied that impermissible 'real' magic is magic that employs demons (shedim) to create real effects' (Philip S. Alexander).

Technology, which produces actual magic-like results but whose wonders are not the magic of sorcery (kishuf), would obviously not be considered capitally punishable by Talmudic law.

For Further Study: Simcha Fishbane, 'Most Women Engage in Sorcery': An Analysis of Sorceresses in the Babylonian Talmud,' Jewish History, Vol. 7, Num. 1 (Spring, 1993): 27-42@JSTOR.com; see also in Related on this page, 'Did the prophets practice magic?'

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I'm sorry I didn't read the long comments, but I didn't see addressing my answer in other answers.

The line is simple - one who attributes the act and the result to "other" or "dark" forces, to Satan, idols or similar is considered a מכשף.

On the other hand, one who uses the most advanced technology but attributes it to nature to the ways that Hashem created the world, or uses the Holy names to do miracles will never be a מכשף.

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