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Parshat Mishpatim – Divination and Spells Versus Divine Service


Exodus 21:1-24:18

Witchcraft and Sorcery Defined

“You shall not allow a sorceress to live”

(Exodus 22:17).

In the Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 511) this commandment is defined as a prohibition against the practice of witchcraft or sorcery. In order to understand this commandment, we have to know how the Torah defines a מכשפה, machshefa (“sorceress”), as well as what is considered כישוף, kishuf (“sorcery”) Another question that we must ask is, why is the Torah so strict about the practice of black magic? One reason given for this mitzvah is that witches, or sorcerers—all varieties of people who exert occult power over natural processes, are essentially doing something that contradicts the Will of G-d. Yet, there are many types of behavior that achieve that precise effect; why is witchcraft or sorcery punished with death?

What are witchcraft and sorcery? Every item in creation has a certain mazal, or pattern of spiritual confluence, that governs it. The sorcerer takes item A and item B, which are both governed by their respective mazalot, and combines them in an unnatural fashion to bring about item C. Since C is a new item, not part of the system G-d put in place at the moment of Creation, the witch or sorcerer has intervened improperly in His system. Witchcraft carries the ultimate penalty; how scientific interventions which do exactly this are permitted remains a question.

Removing the Harm From Our Midst

Part of the answer: alchemy alone is not enough to render Merlin and Morgana liable to capital punishment. Our Sages distinguish between types of witchcraft. Generally, the term kishuf refers to witchcraft performed to generate an effect that is dangerous and damaging to human beings. We have a mitzvah to remove danger from human habitation, such as a nasty Rottweiler or a flimsy ladder (or pollution, for that matter), and in this respect, because the witch is the source of the danger, we must remove her from our environment as well. Perhaps no place is a safe place to store a person who can utter spells and manipulate natural forces for untoward results, and therefore the only solution is to execute the witch.

When occult practices have beneficial effects, such as healing, however, they are not forbidden on account of their origin in sorcery, as we can see from the many incidences in the Gemara (Shabbos 66b-67a) of our own Sages who utilized spells and consulted with practitioners who were able to heal through proven methods. There is a general rule in Judaism that even if a certain practice originates in non-Jewish superstition, it is permitted if we know it effects a cure. There are many people who nonetheless will avoid making use of any occult practice.

The Right Path: Faith and Prayer

I heard a story about Rabbi Doniel Frisch zt”l, a great Yerushalmi scholar and author of volumes of commentary on the kabbalah. There was a certain woman in his neighborhood who was known to be effective in curing a certain health problem through mystical means. Scores of people apparently had been cured by her. Rabbi Frisch reluctantly went, but on the condition that he would meditate on the Name of G-d unremittingly during the procedure. While she was doing her thing, no results were forthcoming. She noticed that Rabbi Frisch z”l was intensely concentrating, and asked him what he was doing. When he told her, she requested that he stop focusing on the name of G-d because it was impeding the procedure. At that point, he got up and left.

A similar theme is mentioned in Rabbi Nachman’s Story of the Cripple, where a certain tzaddik possessed a veritable phone directory of all the demons in the world; knowing their names would have allowed him to control them and their influence on the forces of nature. Yet, he refrained from using it, even though he would be able to do so in holiness and purity. A righteous person knows that the combination of faith and prayer is always the right path.

But if it is basically forbidden to tamper with the natural system set up by G-d, why are we allowed to pray, and particularly why are we allowed to pray when the aim of our prayer is a change in the natural system or sequence of events that are occurring? How can one pray for the speedy recovery of a person who seems clearly to be knocking at death’s door, when the natural thing for the elderly or infirm–well, in fact, all human beings–is to die? Why are we allowed to ask G-d for a change in our circumstances, physical, financial or social, when these things seem to be following a course of natural events?

I suggest that the difference lies in what we consider to be the source of power. Sorcery, witchcraft, psychic and other supernatural phenomena rest on an assumption that one can manipulate the universe in accordance with one’s wishes, and that the power to do so originates in the individual. Having removed G-d from the equation, the practitioner attempts to force nature to produce a desired result, irrespective of whether that aim contradicts G-d’s desire. He or she is unconcerned with the morality or environmental soundness of his or her endeavor.

Prayer: the Logic of the Heart

Prayer, on the other hand, assumes that all power is in G-d’s Hands; one who prays does nothing other than ask Him for what he needs, knowing that it is G-d Who does and causes everything. Factored into this is some calculation that what we ask for must be in accordance with His wishes, which is why Jewish prayers conclude with “may the utterances of my lips and the logic of my heart be pleasing before You, my Rock and my Redeemer” (liturgy).

May we be blessed to deepen our prayers, never giving up on G-d’s ability to help us in every way, as we say, “hope to G-d, be strong and let your heart take courage, and hope to G-d” (Psalms 27:14).

By Rabbi Tani Burton

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