Egypt, The Magical Capital of the Ancient World

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In ancient times, Egypt was known as the magic capital of the world and its magical powers are recorded in the Torah. The Egyptian magicians seemed to be able to turn water into blood and make frogs appear from nowhere. They only got stuck by lice, which they couldn’t seem to produce because it was too small. Many more stories can be found in the Gemara Shanhedrin. We also know that the Torah forbids the use of magic as well as the art of Ov and Yedoni. While it is common knowledge that nowadays all of magic is nothing but the clever art of deception and it is impossible to defy the laws of nature, most people believe that in ancient times there existed genuine magic or sorcery. These were secret incantations, a spell that witches used to wreak havoc on the laws of nature and make the impossible happen. They would change water to blood or make frogs; snakes or elephants appear or disappear at will. They claimed that they could talk to the dead or fly into the heavens simply by uttering some magical words. TheMidrash tells us that Lovon possessed an idolatrous head that he claimed had magical powers. One wonders why this ancient art has been totally forgotten and none of these magical incantations are known today. Today, black magic is totally extinct!

This leads us to a very remarkable Rambam (Hilchos Avodah Zarah 11:16), which says that there was never such a thing as real magic or sorcery, and all of black magic is nothing but the clever art of deception and illusion. According to the Rambam, (and there are others that agree with him) no one can defy the laws of nature with any magical incantations or spells, and those who seem to have done so have merely performed clever trickery. The meforshim find this Rambam extremely difficult to comprehend. How does the Rambam explain both the stories in the Torah as well as the many stories of magic found in Chazal?

Perhaps the answer is that the Rambam doesn’t say that the episodes that are mentioned in the Torah or in Chazal never happened.  Chas v’shalom! That would be heresy.  All he is saying is that what people saw was just an illusion. It’s like seeing yourself in the mirror. While it may look like it’s you, you know that it’s just a mirror image.

Imagine someone watching a western movie and at the exact moment that the cowboy fires his gun, the person sitting next to him cries out that he has been shot. The police are called and see the person lying on the floor with a bullet hole through his chest. The man sitting next to him claims that it all happened at the very moment the cowboy in the picture pressed the trigger and therefore he must have done it. Certainly no sensible police officer would buy this story since everyone knows that it is impossible. The Rambam too, holds, that it is impossible for anyone to change the laws of nature, and therefore all of the stories must be done by deception. Obviously someone holding a gun must have shot the man at the very same instant the cowboy in the picture pressed the trigger. There can be no other explanation.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin) in fact tells us, that Yerovom Ben Nevot suspended the two golden calves he had set up for people to worship, by using hidden magnets.  Nevuchadnetzar was able to get his large golden idol to talk and the Jews were able to make a Golden Calf by evoking the powers of G-d’s Sacred Name and not through any magic.

The Radak and others say that the witch who supposedly brought up Shmuel from the dead actually deceived Shaul, as do all those who claim to possess this power nowadays. In fact all those who claim to have this power nowadays have been proven to be frauds. You may want to read a book entitled “The Psychic Mafia” by Lamar Keene, which reveals how as a priest, he and others used this trickery for many years. He conducted séances in which his participants swore that they actually talked and even touched the dead. Yet in his book he reveals how every supposed miracle he performed was a fraud, a lie and trick played on his gullible victims. In his book he exposes the secrets of the séance room and tells the tricks used by mediums to exploit believers. This classic work of a confessed charlatan gives us an incredible insight into the fraudulent world of spiritualism and black magic.

While there are still some spiritualists that make preposterous claims and use crystal balls to foresee the future or claim that they can bend metal spoons by using their great psychic powers, they have all been proven frauds and all their claims have been exposed as being nothing but clever tricks that any good magician can duplicate, (See book by James Randy on Uri Geller a psychic superstar who fooled millions into believing he could bend metal by using the power of his mind alone, and that he could see while blindfolded), Any good magician can easily “change” water to blood, “change” a stick into a snake, or “pull out” rabbits and frogs from an empty hat. Some great magicians like David Copperfield can make elephants appear and disappear right in front of the eyes of his spellbound audience. He can suspend people in midair or cut them into two and bring them back to life again. He, as well as the world famous Harry Houdini could perform the most amazing feats, but always made sure to tell their audience that it’s all done through illusion, and that there is no such thing as real magic and that nobody possess any psychic abilities. (See such books as “The Right Way to Do wrong,” “Miracle Mongers and their Methods” or “A Magician Among the Spirits.”)

According to the Rambam, the Torah forbids the use of magic because it is a fraud and based on the art of deception. Magic can easily be used by charlatans to convince people that avoda zarah has real powers when in fact it is all deception. This art can be very dangerous. Idol worship relied heavily on the use of fraudulent miracles and people’s blind faith of the occult. Just imagine a priest healing a blind person and claiming that his idol has godly powers and therefore must be worshipped. In fact these tricks have been used by priests for decades and caused people to serve idols. Evangelists are still doing it to the present day.

There are many good books exposing their clever tricks. Peter Popoff, an evangelist minister has fooled thousands into believing that he can heal every imaginable sickness and that god reveled to him all hidden secrets was caught by James Randy using a hidden radio transmitter to fool his millions of spectators. Though a multitude of these quacks have been exposed, millions still believe in them. Joseph Smith who founded the Mormon Church, first worked as a conjuror in New York and was even charged and convicted in court with being an imposter. The famous Fox sisters (1848) who even fooled scientists with their clever seances publicly confessed before their death that it was all a trick and showed how it was done. This may be why the Rambam says that the Torah also forbids sleight of hand.  After all, this too, is just another form of deception.

People are easily fooled by psychic claims or by supernatural powers. The great success of present day evangelists who claim all sorts of miracle cures only proves how dangerous this fake art can be.  Lately a storybook based on magical spells has captured the imagination of millions and turned into a best seller. That’s because people have always been fascinated by magic and believe that it can be used to make the impossible come true.

In 1891 a man named Osten claimed that his horse, called Clever Hans, knew math and could add, subtract, multiply and divide. People flocked to see him perform. The owner would ask him math questions such as how much is 2 plus 2, and the horse would stamp its foot four times. While he fooled thousands of spectators and even clever scientists, one person soon discovered the trick. When the owner would look directly at the trained horse it would begin stamping its foot. When the owner turned his head slightly downward to look at its foot, the horse would stop stamping.

Every day people seek the help of psychic surgeons who claim that they can extract deadly tumors and other body parts by operating with their hands without even a trace of an incision on the body. Little do the people realize that the entire procedure is done through sleight of hand. It consists of secretly placing blood and other material upon the body and making believe that an operation is being performed. A good conjurer can put on a very realistic performance and fool lots of people. In fact this original Filipino scam has now spread worldwide. People just want to believe that magic is real, no matter how absurd and foolish it may sound.

According to the Rambam, all magic is nothing but virtual reality. It may indeed look very realistic but the moment one takes off his special 3D glasses one realizes it is all a fake.  This is why the Rambam tells us that the Jews did not believe in Moshe based only on the miracles he performed but rather only after they themselves heard Hashem speak to them on Mount Sinai. Anyone who bases his belief only on miracles “yesh belibo dofi”  – there is skepticism in his heart  – says the Rambam. This is also why the Torah warns us not to listen to a prophet who speaks in the name of avoda zarah even if he performs signs and wonders to prove his point.

It should be quite obvious that the Ten Makkos were not done through magic and that Moshe’s stick was not a magical stick but rather a “mate Elokim”  – a G-dly stick, given to him by G-d that empowered him to perform miracles. All Moshe did was lift or stretch out Hashem’s stick and Hashem’s angels changed nature. Moshe was no different then a conductor who waves his flag and the train begins to move. Only a fool believes that the conductor’s flag makes the train move. Any intelligent person knows that it is the train engineer that makes it move at the moment the conductor waves his flag.

In fact, from the Rambam’s description of the workings of the magic called “ov” and “yidoni,” it would seem to appear very similar to self-hypnosis that is based on the powerful use of the imagination. A good hypnotist can get his subject to actually feel hot or cold, feel pain or relieve pain. The power of hypnosis is so great that the hypnotist can get his subject to imagine anything he wants him to. He can get his subject to hear or see things that are non-existent. Under hypnosis one can easily convince someone that he is talking with the dead or that he is a reincarnation of someone from a previous generation.

The magician who claims his magic is real is in effect saying that he has the power to defy G-d’s laws of nature or perhaps that there are other godly powers chas v’shalom, which he is able to evoke. Maybe this is why the Gemara says that when one declares “ein od milvado” all magic dissolves: When one truly believes there is nothing beside the laws with which Hashem created heaven and earth, he will realize that magic cannot exist. Any good magician nowadays can easily make a stick turn into a snake, make water turn into blood or pull out frogs from a hat. Most magicians can even do much better than that. The Malban in his commentary on Chumash actually tells us how he thinks Pharaoh’s magicians pulled it off. To human eyes it may seem to defy the laws of nature, but it’s only a clever illusion. The hand is quicker than the eye.  It’s like seeing a moving picture on a screen. To the human eye it may seem to be moving, but in reality it is simply millions of tiny dots being refreshed at a very fast speed giving the appearance of movement.

Many machines that we have today would have been explained as magic had they existed thousands of years ago. Just imagine what they would have said about the telephone, radio, video machine or airplane.

There are many commentators, however, such as the Ramban (see Shoftim 18:9) that disagree with the Rambam and say that there are powers of tumah upon which black magic is based.  Rashi as well as others say that the powers of tumah come fromHashem’s Sacred Names as we see that it was His Name that was used to give life to the golden calf and to Nevuchadnetzar’s idol.

Let’s remember that there are certain things that remain beyond the realm of science. The existence of tumah and kedusha are only known because the Torah tells us of their existence. So far, we have no instrument that can detect them. Years ago, no one knew the existence of radiation or how to detect it. It was Bacquerel who first discovered that certain elements in nature give off radiation that can be very harmful. It was Geiger who invented the Geiger counter that could detect these invisible rays.  Imagine a haunted house in which everyone who lives there dies very young. In ancient times, people may have said that it was bewitched or inhabited by demons (shadim) spooks or ghosts. Nowadays scientists may find that it contains radioactive material. (Note: The topic ofShaidim also referred to as goats or “s’irim” in the posuk, is not covered in this essay.) And so while we can’t prove that black magic never really existed, neither can we ever prove that it did!