Magic and Judaism: How Is It Possible? (Parsha Balak)

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Parsha Balak (Numbers 22:2-­‐25:9): Judaism and Witchcraft

Balak, the king of Moab, summons the prophet Balaam to curse the people of Israel. On the way, Balaam is berated by his ass, who sees, before Balaam does, the angel that G‐d sends to block their way. Three times, from three different vantage points, Balaam attempts to pronounce his curses; each time, blessings issue forth instead. Balaam also prophesies on the end of the days and the coming of Moshiach (

If our God is the God of the Universe, then how can magic exist?

Judaism does not view the word “Satan” with the same connotation as other religions….the word Satan indicates “accuser,” “hinderer,” or “tempter.” Satan is more an obstacle in one’s way, such as temptation and evil doings (

Although God was the sole creator of the universe, He created an autonomous system of “nature” that serves as an intermediate layer between God and man. (

How has magic been treated throughout Jewish history? Negatively!

“A sorcerer shall not be allowed to live.” (Exodus 22:17)

“For you are coming into a land that God is granting to you; do not learn the ways of the abominations of the native people. There shall not be found amongst you … a sorcerer, soothsayer or engager of witchcraft … or one who calls up the dead. For it is an abomination before God, and it is on account of these abominations that God is giving you their land.” (Deut. 18:9-­‐12)

On the one hand, the rabbis condemn magic as one of the “ways of the Amorites” (Mishnah Shabbat 6:10), and they sanction its practitioners to death by stoning (Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:7). One who so much as whispers over a wound the words of Exodus 15:26 (“I will put none of the diseases upon you that I have put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord who heals you”) is said to lose his place in the world to come (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1). Indeed, it is reported that to quell magical practices, Simeon b. Shetah hung 80 witches on a single day (Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:4) (

On the other hand…

Red strings, hamsahs, tefillin, mezuzot could be reinterpretations of good luck charms from pagan cultures (see Robert Alter’s Five Books of Moses). Also, magical ritual of sotah, meant to kill a woman who has committed adultery against her husband (Parsha Naso)

Is there a way of reconciling this?

Jews’ scientific training made the Jewish people superior “magicians” in the popular view, and every triumph of Jewish medicine enhanced Jews’ reputation for “sorcery” (

Golden Calf (Exodus 32:4) versus the Bronze Serpent (Numbers 21:4-­‐9)

Bottom line: nothing exists in a vacuum. It’s not the things you do (sinning vs. not sinning), but everything that surrounds it.


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