Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed PR photo

In ancient times, almost all humans worshiped idols and believed they were able to save them from calamity and enhance their prosperity and health, and Jews sinned in this matter as well * Many people are convinced there are individuals who can magically influence objects, or humans * The vast majority of Jewish law arbiters are of the opinion that such spiritual powers exist, but the Torah forbade turning to them

Is sorcery real? Are there magical powers, which people with extraordinary skills are able to use to their advantage, or is it an illusion? This question naturally pertains to pagan beliefs -are there real forces of impurity that pagans have been able to avail themselves of, by means of various rites?

In Ancient Times People Believed Idols Had Power

In ancient times, before the influence of Am Yisrael spread in the world, almost all human beings worshiped idols, and believed they were able to save them from calamity, and enhance their prosperity and health. Jews also sinned in this matter, as we have learned that when the prophet Jeremiah (34: 1-14) reproved those who went down to Egypt after the destruction of the Temple, saying that if they continued to serve in Egypt the “m’lechet ha’shamayim,” (queen of heaven) after having worshiped avodah zara and already been punished with destruction, killing, starvation and exile – there would be no remnant or refugee left of them who would return to Eretz Yehuda, they rudely replied that when they had served avodah zara in Jerusalem, precisely then, things were fine: “For then we had plenty of food; everything was fine, we didn’t experience anything unpleasant. But since we stopped offering to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have lacked everything, and we have been destroyed by sword and famine” (Jeremiah 44: 17-18).

Psychological Reinforcement

Some explain that the success described by the pagans stemmed from the psychological reinforcement they received from their faith, which gave them confidence that what they wanted was indeed good and just, for they were acting not only in their own name, but in the name of the idols justifying their aspirations and conduct.

This was not an invented belief for them, because faith is inherent in a person, and spurs him to explain reality, and give it meaning. And since their pagan conception grew out of the deep and powerful experiences they had, and from observing the great forces of nature and man, the pagan explanation about what was happening in the world was a necessity for them, and gave them spiritual powers.

Spiritual Forces that Become Forces of Impurity

Apart from that, many explain that just as there are natural forces in the world that man can harness to his needs, thus above them are spiritual forces, called angels and demons, that activate the forces of nature, and spiritually deep people are aware of how they operate, and by means of pagan rites, connect to them and draw from them power in order to increase their wealth and status, or use them against their enemies.

Thus, there is evidence of people being able to know hidden things or fortunes, and there is no rational way to explain their ability without assuming that indeed, they do possess certain mystical powers. Beyond that, many are convinced there are people who are able to magically influence objects or people, that just as anyone can physically push an object, likewise, there are people who are able by magical techniques to change things in a spiritual world that affects events in this world.

In a similar vein, the Torah tells us that Balak, king of Moab, turned to the wicked Balaam, prophet of the idols, asking him to curse Israel, “For I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:6). Our sages said (Sanhedrin 105b), that Balaam knew how to determine the moment when there is anger in the world, and to divert it by cursing to whomever he wanted. In the end, however, his curse turned into a blessing for Israel, and he himself lost his life in this world, and the next.

This is the case with all idol worshippers: even when they succeed in activating the forces of nature, as forces of impurity detached from their root, in the end, the forces of nature return to connect to their root, and lead to their destruction.

The Controversy over Forces of Impurity

Gedolei Yisrael (the eminent Torah scholars) were divided about the explanations we have learned. According to Rambam (Maimonides), the idols had no effect whatsoever, and it was all in the imagination of the people, based on the beliefs and lies spread by the priests of the various religions. Also, in his opinion, no man has the ability to influence things that will occur. by means of magical powers On the other hand, many say that pagan rites had an effect on events in the world, and there are people who can magically act on things that happen in the world, but this is done by the forces of impurity, and is therefore forbidden and harmful. This is what Ramban (Nachmanides) and many others thought. Both opinions are based on the Tanakh, and the words of our Sages.

Those Who Believe that Idols and Sorcerers Have No Influence

When the prophets of Israel reproved Israel not to stray after the idols, they emphatically stated that the idols were false and of no use at all: “Do not turn away after useless idols. They can do you no good, nor can they rescue you, because they are useless” (Samuel 1, 12:21), “They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves” (Jeremiah 2:5), “Of what value is an idol carved by a craftsman?… he makes idols that cannot speak… It is covered with gold and silver; there is no breath in it.” (Habakkuk 2: 18-19). And also the prophet Isaiah (44: 6-20) mocked the idolaters who took a tree, on half of whom they roasted meat, and the other half made a statue, and bowed and prayed, as if he could help. Also in the Psalms (115: 4-7) it is written: “But their idols are silver and gold.”

Rambam also clarified that all pagan rites and words of witchcraft and divination are vain, and the Torah forbade them in order to distance Israel from engaging in these false words, that the foolish are attracted to, but the wise know in clearly they are vain (Laws of Avodah Zara 11: 16; Moreh Nevuchim 3: 37). This is also the opinion of Meiri (Avodah Zara 54b).

Those Who Believe There are Forces of Impurity

On the other hand, we have learned in the Torah that Balaam had the power to curse and bless, but that God turned his curse into a blessing for Israel (Numbers 22: 6; Deuteronomy 23: 6). We also learned that Pharaoh had chartumim (master symbolists, or astrologers) that with the help of magical tricks could cast their staff and turn it into a viper, but that Aaron’s staff swallowed theirs, because God is the ruler of all (Exodus 7: 11-12). We are also told about the medium who had the power to raise up the prophet Samuel to speak to King Saul (Samuel I, Chap.28). We have also found in the words of our Sages that sorcerers had power to influence events in the world (Sanhedrin 67b, and other places). We also find that our Sages related to the reality of demons as a fact (Berachot 6a; Yevamot 122a, and other places).

Indeed, the opinion of the vast majority of the Rishonim and Achronim that these spiritual forces are real, but the Torah forbade us from turning to them (Ramban Deuteronomy 18: 9; Rabbeinu Bahai, Sefer HaIkarim, RaN, Rivash, Abarbanel, Radbaz, Gra, Ramchal, and many others).

Their Opinions can be Dovetailed

It seems that it is possible to explain that indeed, there are mystical forces by means of which pagans and sorcerers are sometimes able to succeed in predicting fortunes and influencing nature, but in the overall account, they do not gain, rather, on the contrary, lose out. This is because the prognostications they predict are inaccurate, and consequently, one who relies on them, to a certain extent, forfeits the mental effort to plan his own ways, and since this is the case, in practice, he errs more often. Thus, it turns out that the magical “blessing” received through their auspices, is always less than the blessing that comes from the diligence based on proper thinking and planning.

Therefore, although on the one hand there were people who with the help of pagan rites were able to predict fortunes and change events in the world, in the overall statistical account, there was no advantage to the idolaters and those who followed the advice of sorcerers, rather, quite the opposite.

Therefore, on the one hand, it is possible to accept the perception that spiritual impurity forces in pagan rites have an effect on reality, but on the other hand, it is possible to say that it is all false, since in practice, in the overall account, no blessing has arisen from them.

Similar to Drugs

A possible example of this may be given in relation to hard and dangerous drugs. Some will say: yes, indeed drugs provide a user temporary happiness, however, it is bad and harmful – this is similar to what the vast majority of Rishonim and Achronim wrote about the forces of impurity that indeed have the power to benefit in the short term, but in the long run, one who uses them, loses out. Thus, it can be said that the forces of impurity are a lie, because in the end, there is no benefit from them.

A Combination of Real Forces and Deception

While many agree that there are sometimes idol worshippers or sorcerers who manage to magically influence reality or predict fortunes, in practice, even those extraordinary people fail to repeat their power on a regular basis. This is because unlike the known natural forces, which operate in a systematic way, magical forces are elusive to humans, and consequently, such people are not able to activate them systematically.

Sometimes young, innocent and humble people experience various mystical incidents, and magically caused things to happen, but once they became famous, had a hard time recreating those magical experiences and abilities. Since they are very eager for it, even though they are not sure if they have succeeded, they tend to deceive themselves and imagine that they have experienced a certain mystical experience and were able to manipulate reality with it, or predict the future. If they did so with the help of impressive rituals, accompanied by alcohol or drugs, could convince themselves of this more easily.

Some of them knew they had no magical powers, but to gain money and respect which believers give to pagans and sorcerers, learned to conduct ceremonies and create the impression that they were capable of influencing reality, and prophesied in vague and ambiguous language so they could always claim to have predicted the future.

The Virtue of Truth

However, Hashem’s seal is truth, and servants of Hashem must refrain from using lies to strengthen emunah. For the liar causes the Shechina (Divine Presence) to depart, and fails to illuminate him (Sotah 42a), as is written: “He who speaks falsehood shall not dwell before My eyes” (Psalms 101:7)).

Therefore, if a person strengthens himself in emunah by way of lies, his emunah is avodah zara.

This article appears in the “Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew