Moshe Ben-Chaim

My friend Jessie's daughter Sarah wondered what the Torah's position is on magic.  So Sarah, this article is written for you. I hope you find the answer I provide satisfactory.

Defining our Terms

When we say "Torah," we refer to the verses found in either the Five Books, Prophets or Writings. I am paying no attention to people or even Rabbis and Jewish teachers, even from long ago and until today, who "believe" in magic, since belief is not proof. Furthermore, the Torah is our authority, as these are God's words. And we follow God over man when there is a conflict. Apparently today, many Jews wish to believe in magic. So let us use our reason and the Torah to guide us to the truth.

When we say "magic," we refer to events where the natural cause is not apparent. For example, a magician makes a tiger suddenly appear on a stage, when there was no tiger beforehand. Since there was no apparent cause for the appearance of the tiger, we call this magic. But if a trainer walked a tiger onto the stage, we don't call this magic, as we see the natural cause for the appearance of the tiger. But of course we know this was not "magic." The proof is that magicians always cover the cage with a sheet before making the tiger appear. Why? Because he must hide the trap door under the cage, or the hidden hole in the curtain behind the cage, from where the tiger comes out. But never does a magician perform this act without a sheet. Additionally, why must magicians charge for performances? If they could truly perform magic, wouldn't it be easier to simply make money appear, instead of all the time and labor required to perform to get paid?

God's Will

God desires that man view the world truthfully. This is why He gave us 1) senses and 2) reason. God gave us only these two faculties to determine what is true or false. It follows that with these faculties alone, we possess all that is required to determine truth from falsehood. This means that we are not to accept as real, anything that is not 1) perceived, or 2) based on reason. If we do believe in magic, we violate God's will, expressed in His design of the human being. This must be clear.

He also created a world where laws are constant. He wishes that we are convinced that fire is always extremely hot, and is never cold. He allows us to trust our senses, and to plan our daily activities around this conviction that natural laws do not change. This is important. For if laws changed, how could God command man to bring fire for sacrifices, if fire would burn only sometimes, and sometimes freeze? Thus, we are to trust our senses and reason, and we are to be convinced that laws are constant.

Rejection of Sinai & Torah

If we accept magic, we thereby suggest God is not truly the Creator, since man too can make things appear. So maybe it was man who created the event at Sinai, and the Torah. But as God said we must never forget Sinai which He performed, it means that this event was His doing, and not man's doing. 

Furthermore, God prohibits us from following a false prophet instructing us to violate the Torah, even if he performs signs or wonders (Deut. 13:4). The Torah also prohibits magic (Exod. 22:17) and Ibn Ezra says what is prohibited, is false (Lev. 19:31):

"Those with empty brains say 'Were it not that fortune tellers and magicians were true, the Torah would not prohibit them.' But I (Ibn Ezra) say just the opposite of their words, because the Torah doesn't prohibit that which is true, but it prohibits that which is false. And the proof is the prohibition on idols and statues." 

Now, if God commanded us not to follow false prophets and magicians, and He also wants us to believe what is true…it must be that these two personalities are liars.

What about the stories of Pharaoh's magicians and all the Talmudic accounts that refer to humanly performed miracles or magic? Saadia Gaon made some important statements (Emunos v'Daos):

"I say also that it was for this very reason that God made the prophets equal to all other human beings in so far as death was concerned, lest man get the idea (and say wrongly to himself) 'Just as these prophets were capable of living forever, in contradistinction to them, so were they also able to perform marvels in contradistinction to them'."

He adds:

"Man has no power over the elements".

Saadia Gaon also remarks that Egypt's magic was sleight of hand, and nothing more. They imitated the Plague of Blood using red dye, and they imitated the Plague of Frogs by placing chemicals in the Nile River that caused the frogs to leap from those poisons. (“The Book of Beliefs and Opinions”, p 153) Saadia Gaon clearly says that magicians and prophets have no powers. Why was he so convinced of this? It is as we have said: what is not provable, does not exist. 

And the Talmudic stories about Rabbis performing miracles must be understood as King Solomon, Maimonides and all intelligent leaders said, "The Rabbis speak in riddles and metaphors". A wise Rabbi offered a beautiful quote: 

"To paraphrase Shmuel Hanagid(1), the value of Aggadah (allegory) is found only in the gems of wisdom one derives from it. If one derives nonsense, it has no value. Very few people are capable of 'diving into the deep water and coming up with pearls'. [Ramban metaphor] Other individuals have no business delving into Aggadah. They would do better refraining from trying to interpret that which is beyond them. "Bmufrosh mimcha al tidrosh". Such people cannot discern between something literal or metaphorical." (1) See "Mavo HaTalmud" (Intro to the Talmud) found at the end of Tractate Brachos

Motivation to Believe

What motivates people to believe in magic, when they have no proof? You must understand that people are attracted to "mystical" things. What they cannot explain, is intriguing. Believing in powers or magic, people can also believe their wishes will come true. So it is not the intelligent person who accepts magic; it is the person who lives in dreamland, who lives like a child. Yet, these same believers in magic will not believe magic will heal them if they are sick, or that magic will get them their rent or money to buy food. In these matters that are important to them, suddenly they don't believe in magic. This must show you that they are in a contradiction. They really don't believe in magic, since they have not witnessed any proof that "magic will provide their real and important needs. They truly do not live in a way where they believe in magic.

In the end, our reason, senses and our Torah refute magic as real.