Between Magic and Religion: Sympathetic Magic in the World of the Sages of the Mishnah and Talmud

Review of Rabbinic Judaism, 5.3 (2002), pp. 383-399  Meir Bar-Ilan


If familiarity with magic was previously associated with curiosities lacking real value, it now seems generally agreed that knowledge of magic in the past is but one aspect of knowledge of religion and also of the society in which magic is investigated. This condition also applies to magic in the world of the Talmudic sages, a broad culture of many years with many receptors for magic. One of the questions that have occupied investigators for over a century is: to what extent were the sages of the Mishna and Talmud participants in magic activity and was there a gap between religion and magic in antiquity. The thrust of the following treatment is to add to this subject, the investigation of the Jewish religion in antiquity, by focussing on textual analysis and methodological examination of the problems facing the student of the sources.1


A few years ago an article was published claiming to survey Jewish magic in the period of the Mishna and Talmud, and viewing it, among other things, through its parallelism to Hellenistic magic.2 The student of this article encounters some of the problems characterizing the research on Jewish magic, problems that consequently turn the modern conclusions into an obstacle rather than providing a new view for advancement of the research. Here are some examples: First, there are various categories of magic and there is no reason to lump them together, especially in a treatment that is short and not penetrating. For instance, mentioning astrology in association with magic shows a basic lack of understanding of astrology in antiquity. It should be recalled that one of the great scientists of the second century, Claudius Ptolemy, delved not only into astronomy, geography and music but also into astrology. Obviously, all these subjects were regarded as science, and one who considers astrology as magic exemplifies modern thought, and not that of the contemporaries of the period treated in the survey.3 In any case, it appears that all categories of magic should not be treated as a single subject.4

A separate problem is the lack of distinction between the categories of sources, with regard to both their time and place. In other words, if one reads Talmudic literature and compares Babylonian sources to Palestinian sources, he may be in error; though it is likely that this comparison is not necessarily detrimental. On the contrary there was no basic difference between the magic of the Jews of Palestine and of the Jews of Babylon.5 However, in comparing one period with another, the situation is more problematical. For instance, when a modern view of the world is applied in the investigation of past manifestations, like the essential definition of magic, we risk harming the sources by applying to them an external principle. Similarly if we cite a Biblical source for treatment of Jewish magic, we are obligated to cite later sources and to examine how the Talmudic Sages understood the Biblical story. Clearly the way of relating to the subject, whether the magical element is stressed or minimized reveals the Talmudic Sages’ attitude to magic.

But the central research problem lies in the internal contradiction between the different testimonies. On the one hand there is the tendency to make declarations along the lines: "The Rabbis did not engage in magic," statements apparently drawn from the apologetic school. On the other hand there is an awareness that Talmudic literature retained more than a few stories about Tannaim as performers of magic - and even performers of miracles. This dualism is joined by the awareness that one of the bases of the Jewish religion, fixed in the Bible, is the absolute prohibition of dealing in sorcery or turning to the various sorcerers; it is understood that the Tannaim accepted this religious position (m. San 7:4). This internal contradiction gave rise to a dichotomy of views as pointed out above, that is: the Sages were distanted from magic and magic was distanted from them. But this approach does not stand up under criticism. And so, although this recognition is shared by researchers from across the spectrum, the nature of magic in the world of Talmudic sages is not yet clear. It is hoped that the following treatment will clarify the subject by focusing on a specific, limited category of magic.

A. Sympathetic Magic: Examples from Rabbinic Literature

Sympathetic magic is one of the most widespread categories of magic in all human cultures.6 On the other hand, which is apparently the same, sympathetic magic is considered to be one of the oldest types of magic, practiced in many “primitive” societies until this very day, and have its examples in ancient Egypt and Persia as well,7 some of which penetrated Jewish sources. The basic concept behind it is "like with like" and it can be illustrated in negative and positive areas at the same time. For instance, transference of negative qualities from a doll resembling the enemy to the enemy himself, a phenomenon known from El-Amarna (Egypt, second millenium B.C.E.); it may also be mentioned in the Bible (Ezekiel 13:17-23).8 However, sympathetic magic is not meant only for nefarious purposes (in modern terms: black magic) but also to benefit people. The underlying assumption is that what is harmful can be beneficial (at times "through inversion"). If the source of the problem is an animal or the object X, in the way that the person was harmed - in the same way he can be cured (in modern terms: white magic). Such cures are definitely found in Mesopotamia,9 but it is not accurate to say that sympathetic magic was invented there. On the contrary, the fact that this type of magic is seen in so many cultures forces us to set aside, at least for the time being, the question of the spread of this magic and its influences. The following treatment will focus on sympathetic magic (white) as it is known from the Rabbinic literature and from the Bible as was understood by the Rabbis.

1. Cure of a dog bite through a dog

The following baraita is cited in b. Yoma 84a:10

For it was taught: R. Ishmael son of R. Jose reported three things in the name of R. Matthia b. Heresh: One may let blood in the case of asphyxia on the Sabbath, and one whom a mad dog has bitten may be given to eat the lobe of its liver, and one who has pains in his mouth may be given medicine on the Sabbath, whaeras the Sages hold: These are not considered cures.11

The dispute between R. Matthia ben Heresh and the Rabbis is exactly the same as the one that has engaged physicians and Rabbis from antiquity to modern times: to what extent folk medicine is of scientific value.12 In any case, especially important is the second medical incident mentioned, "one bitten by a mad dog,"13 for it is a clear example of sympathetic magic medicine and the use of magic in the daily life of the Sages of the Oral Law.14 R. Matthia ben Heresh was exiled from Palestine to Rome; later Midrashim relate that he preformed miracles and was cured miraculously after overcoming Satan and conducted a dialogue with the angel Raphael, the Lord's minister of cures.15 This is not the place to deal with the historicity of this wonderful miracle story and the remarkable personality of R. Matthia ben Heresh. The important point is that the wise man who knew how to cure a person bitten by a mad dog was one who was intimate with angels and was cured by them (according to later sources). What is important for us is that according to this Tanna we are dealing with the cure of like by like: the patient was hurt by a dog,16 so the cure is by (the same) dog, paralleling the retaliatory concept called measure for measure.17 The hand that sinned is punished (Deuteronomy 25:12); the liver that caused the sickness will be eaten and will cure: repair of the world according to Lex Talionis.18

It appears that the particular emphasis on the liver as medication reflects the concept of the "origin of the sickness". That is, the sickness was caused by the liver, whether because of the abundance of blood in it or because, prior to the recognition of the circulation of the blood, the liver was considered more important than the heart. Furthermore, it appears that the focus on the "entrance to the liver" (the "protuberance" of the liver in Biblical language) emphasizes the "scientific" approach according to which the "entrance to the liver" is the entrance of the blood into the liver (seen as consisting of lobes). It has a greater flow of blood and is therefore responsible for life in accordance with "for the blood is the life" (Deuteronomy 12:23).19 Since this explanation regarding the need for the liver as medication follows automatically, this focusing (on the entrance to the liver) can be seen as the beginning of scientific thinking. According to this hypothesis the blame can be assigned to the madness of the dog in the entrance to the liver, the essence of the dog’s life. This subject will be dealt with further below in the comprehensive discussion. For now it is worth pointing out that the procedure mentioned here is the clearest incident of sympathetic magic medicine in Talmudic literature, recording a specific patient, treatment and medication, data not clearly found in other incidents.

2. Cure of snake bite through a snake

Numbers 21:6-9 describes the following:

And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses, and said: ‘We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; Pray unto the Lord, that He take away the serpents from us.’ And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole; and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live.’ And Moses made a serpent of brass, and set it upon the pole; and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked unto the serpent of brass, he lived.

Indeed, it has to be admitted that this description lacks any overt connection to magic. Nevertheless, investigators have pointed out that this excerpt reflects sympathetic magic as can be seen by comparison with the cure of one bitten by a dog. The time gap between the texts does blur the comparison. Moreover, parallels to the story happened to be found in the ancient East as metal snakes, snakes that apparently served therapeutic goals.20 Thus, particularly with the background of the modern perception of magic in this Biblical excerpt, we have to pay attention to the evolution of this tradition in additional places. First, it is told of King Hezekiah that he was righteous in the eyes of the Lord and (II Kings 18:4): “He removed the high places, and broke the pillars, and cut down the Asherah; and he broke in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made; for unto those days the children of Israel did offer to it; and it was called Nehushtan.’ That is to say, the copper serpent was considered an idol (to which they offered incense). Thus it is seen that already in the time of the First Temple there was a certain restrain from this action of Moses. This tradition of contempt for the copper serpent appears in a berayta at the end of m. Pesahim 4:9:

Six things did King Hezekiah: with three they consented and with three they did not consent. He dragged the bones of his father on a bed of ropes - and they consented, He ground small the bronze serpent - and they consented. He hid away the scroll of healings - and they consented. etc.21

That is to say, the sages of the Mishna saw in Hezekiah King of Judah a kind of precedent for a man with whom they could identify. They identified with Hezekiah on three points; understanding these points helps in understanding the world of the sages no less than understanding the world of Hezekiah. As for "dragging his father's bones," clearly the meaning is disgracing the dead for the idolatrous practices of King Ahaz (II Kings 16:3-4). The idea behind this action is, apparently, that the punishment of the bones creates a sort of atonement for the soul of the dead. As for hiding the book of medications, it is almost certain that the intent was to prohibit application of cures that included magic, as has already been pointed out.22 Thus, the king's action in crushing the bronze serpent lies between magic and combating idolatry, since the sages of the Mishna saw using the copper serpent as idolatry or magic or both together. And, with this determined opposition there is an additional stance of the Rabbis, in a teaching at the end of Chapter 3 of the Mishna Rosh Hashana:

Now does that serpent [on the standard] kill or give life? [Obvious not.] But: So long as the Israelites would set their eyes upward and submit to their Father in heaven, they would be healed. And if not, they would pine away.23

It appears that the approach in the Mishna can be designated as righteous, for according to this Tanna not only is there nothing wrong with Moses' action but, on the contrary, his action served to bring Israel close to its Heavenly Father. Thus the preacher reveals his opinion that from his point of view it is possible to erase from both the Bible and the Mishna anything about Hezekiah and the crushing of the serpent. In any case, it is clear that the world of the sages contains differring opinions regarding the action of Moses: on the one hand, disregard of the magical aspect (the Tanna in m. Rosh Hashana is consonant with the Biblical text of Numbers). On the other hand, the sages stated their opposition to the copper serpent (like the Biblical text of II Kings), opposition that should be seen as part of the opposition to idolatry. In light of the proximity of the subjects, it can be seen as opposition to sympathetic magic as well.

3. Cure of bitter water with poison

In Exodus 15:23-25 it is written:

And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. Therefore the name of it was called Marah. And the people murmured against Moses, saying: ‘What shall we drink?’ And he cried unto the Lord; and the Lord showed him a tree, and he cast it into the waters, and the waters were made sweet. There He made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there He proved them.

This description appears "natural" and there is no trace of magic resembling the description of the serpent cure analyzed above. According to the plain interpretation of the text, Moses performed miracles and this is one of the miracles performed for Israel in the desert. Yet, a probe into Rabbinic literature reveals an additional element in this text. In the Mekhilta - a Rabbinic midrash on Exodus - explanations are cited pertaining to the (branch of) tree thrown into the water. It is written:

“…and the Lord showed him a tree”:
R. Joshua says, “It was a willow.”
R. Eliezer the Modiite says, “It was an olive, for you have nothing more bitter than an olive.”
R. Joshua b. Qorha says, “It was an ivy.”
R. Simon b. Yohai says, “It was a teaching from the Torah that he showed him: ‘And the Lord taught him a tree’ [is what is written here]. What it says is not ‘showed’ but ‘taught,’ as in the following: ‘And he taught me and said to me’ (Prov. 4:4).”
R. Nathan says, “It was a cedar.”
And some say, “It was the root of a fig and of a pomegranet.”…
Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel says, “Come and and take note of how far from the ways of mortals are the ways of the Omnipresent.
“In the case of mortals the sweet healsthe bitter, but in the case of the One who spoke and brought the world into being it is not that way, but it is with the bitter that he heals the bitter.
“How so? He puts what causes damages into what is damaged so as to carry out a miracle.”
Along these same lines you interpret as follows:
“And Isaiah said, Let them take a cake of figs." (Is. 38:21):
Now is it not the fact that, in the case of raw flesh, if you put a cake of figs on it, it forthwith turns rotten?
How so? He puts what causes damages into what is damaged so as to carry out a miracle.
Along these same lines you interpret as follows:
“And he went forth to the spring of the waters and cast salt therein and said, Thus says the Lord, I have healed these waters” (2 Kgs 2:21).
Now the case of potable water, if you put salt into it, it forthwith turns sour?
How so? He puts what causes damages into what is damaged so as to carry out a miracle.24

Before these statements of the Tannaim are explained, it is necessary to point out that in ancient times human qualities were conferred on water, qualities called animation, as water is called “living water” in the Bible (Genesis 26:19). Clearly something live can get sick. If the water gets sick, the Lord can cure it as is written regarding Elisha (2 Kings 2:20-21): “And he said: ‘Bring me a new cruse, and put salt therein.’ And they brought it to him. And he went forth unto the spring of the waters, and cast salt therein, and said: ‘Thus saith the Lord: I have healed these waters” etc. Indeed the sayings of the Tannaim in the Mekhilta emphasize the similarity between the deeds of Moses and of Elisha.25 They also make it clear that the cure of bad water is achieved through salt, that is, like with like (and in a new cruse symbolizing the new creation of the water).26 And now that we have clarified the nature of the sickness, we can consider the nature of the remedy.

It appears that the nature of the explanation reveals that it connects the cure of the water to magic, but clarification of the matter hinges on an issue designated "botanic", namely, the nature of the wood thrown into the water. However, before clarification of the explanation of the Tannaim, the reader is reminded of a similar "botanic" dispute regarding the tree from which Adam and Eve ate.27 It is indeed naive to assume that the dispute is exclusively botanic. It is evident that the exact identification of the tree is intended to teach a definite lesson even if it is not entirely clear. In any case, in the incident of the unidentified wood thrown into the water, three answers are given. In the opinion of R. Joshua it was a willow, of which it is said "It has neither flavor nor fragrance,"28 a plant that for the sake of the present discussion can be designated neutral. As for the olive tree, R. Eliezer of Modi'in already pointed out that we are dealing with a bitter plant, a fact that will soon be clarified. However, as for ivy, it has not been studied thoroughly. It is a plant widespread to this day in Israel and is identified with Scorzonera Sp.29 This plant is one of the few growing in Israel that is considered poisonous and sheep refrain from eating it. The Tannaim taught in m. Hulin 3:5 about an animal or a bird: “...and one which has eaten oleander, and one which has eaten chicken excrement, or which has drunk dirty water – is valid. [If] it ate deadly poison, or if a snake bit it, it is permitted in respect to terefah, but it is prohibited as a danger to life.”30 That is to say, hardofani is considered a poisonous plant but not at the level of a fatal poison (different toxic activity). Therefore, it appears that the identification by R. Joshua ben Qarha of the wood as ivy expresses the extreme bitterness of the tree and strengthens the magic character of throwing the wood into the water. Since the water was bitter or poisonous, Moses threw in a wood that was bitter or poisonous, an ultimate sympathetic magic, like feeding dog liver to one bitten by a dog.

As for the bread (of figs) as a cure, at first glance it does not seem to relate to sympathetic magic, but this possibility cannot be excluded.31 As is known, honey is used as a cure to a bee sting to this day, and it is possible that the fig bread on the infected skin is intended to cure like with like: the bread and the bare flesh seem to lack structure and the fruit serves as a kind of "bandage." In any case, whether the cure by the fig bread was magical or not, it appears that the explanation of the Tannaim regarding the identification of the tree matches the magical thinking as well as the medical thinking. Today, too, foul water is "cured" with chlorine, a substance poisonous at a high concentration. It must not be forgotten that the production of antidotes is based on the uses of poisons as has been accepted from antiquity to modern times.32

In summary of this section on the understanding of the Rabbis concerning curing of bitter water with bitter or poisonous wood one should be aware of the way the Sages built their biblical past as testifies to their own understanding of their present, a world full of Magic reshaping the past by adding to it magic colors. Moreover, we have to pay attention to the image of the therapist: Moses our teacher. That is to say, Moses is portrayed in the Pentateuch as executing the word of the Lord, like other prophets who received an assignment from the Lord. The identification of the wood by the Tannaim made clear that Moses performed a magical act (that is not clear-cut in the Biblical text); thus the world view of the Tannaim approaches the Hellenistic traditions that saw Moses as a magician.33 It is also noted that whoever saw the cure of the water as a magical act has to remember that in the cure of bitter by bitter, poison by poison, reveals the first scientific understanding. Whoever sees science as deriving from magic can definitely cite this material as an example. That is to say, at the time that the modern reader thinks he is viewing a magical act, he may also be viewing scientific rationalism, the beginning of scientific thinking with roots in magic and the peak in the DNA code.

4. Cure of blood flow with blood

An example of folk cure operating on the same principle of like with like is seen in a legend about the illness and cure of Pharaoh King of Egypt. The Midrash is as follows:

“The King of Egypt died” (Exodus 2:23) - he acquired leprosy and the leprous is considered dead, as it is said: "Let her not be as one dead" (Numbers 12:12) and "In the year that King Uzziah died" (Isaiah 6:1). The Israelites were groaning [under the bondage and cried out] (op. cit.) Why did they groan? Because the Egyptian magicians advised: Your only cure is to slaughter 120 Israelite children in the morning and 120 in the evening and bathe in their blood twice daily.34

Thus, Pharaoh became ill with leprosy and this illness (without entering into the issue of identification of this illness) is manifested as wounds on the skin, from which liquid or blood oozes. Hence, since the illness is manifested in blood - the cure is by blood, serving as a good example of a sympathetic magic cure. The interpreter (of the text) inferred reasonably a cure by blood, a remedy known and tested in ancient Egyptian medicine (though by drinking rather than bathing).35 Curing by blood was recognized in Hippocratic medicine and in Hellenist medicine and is also recognized by Pliny.36 That is to say, the interpreter knew this custom of cure by blood and attributed this practice to Pharaoh in the course of adding a dramatic touch to his story.

5. Removal of a bone from the throat by means of a bone

In b. Shabbat 67a the Gemara deals with the m. Shabbat 6:1 which permits removal of various objects on the Sabbath (contrary to the Halacha) since the subject is medicine and remedial acts supersede the Sabbath.37 In contrast, R. Meir has the opinion that all (such acts) are prohibited - and not just on the Sabbath - "because of the ways of the Amorites" since these practices of the gentiles (designated "Amorites' as one of the seven nations that dwelt in the Land of Israel according to the Pentateuch) and such practices are prohibited as idolatry.38 First the Gemara in Shabbat cites a basic position of the great Babylonian Amoraim: "Abaye and Raba both maintain: Whatever is used as a remedy is not [forbidden] on account of the ways of Amorite " and presumably this tradition of the Amoraim (Gemara) is based on words of the Tannaim (Mishna). In any case, various other situations are cited and the text then states:

A tanna recited the chapter of Amorite practices before R. Hiyya b. Abin. Said he to him: All these are forbidden as Amorite practices, save the following: If one has a bone in his throat, he may bring of that kind, place it on his head, and say thus: ‘One by one go down, swallow, swallow, go down one by one’: this is not considered the ways of the Amorites. For a fish bone he should say thus: ‘Thou art stuck in like a pin, thou art locked up as [within] a cuirass; go down, go down.’39

That is to say, according to Rabbi Hiya bar Avin, a Babylonian Amora of the third century, the practices cited previously are clearly idolatrous, as stated in the preceding text: "We learned in the Baraita: A tree that drops its fruit, one paints it red and loads it with stones." This practice is based apparently on the principle of causing similarity, that is, since the tree does bear fruit, the owner of the tree places an example before it and "trains" it how to be: he paints it red to show it how to behave and he loads it with stones resembling the fruit, though it is clear from the Gemara that in Babylon this practice was explained differently.40

In the subsequent text the editor quoted Rabbi Hiya bar Avin (that may have said his comment on the Mishna and not necessarily on the tree that was barren and required a cure). In any case, important for this discussion is the remedial approach for one who has a bone stuck in his throat. According to this approach a bone is brought from the "same species," and the spell is based on the same principle. The words "one by one go down and swallow, swallow go down one by one" are interpreted as "one after the other go down and be swallowed, be swallowed and go down one after the other."41 What is unique in this spell is its symmetrical nature and the description. Its structure is AABC - CBAA and the words make the matter clear: just as the bone went down and got stuck, it should come out through a reverse process.42 However, not only do the words depict the desired action, in their content and reversed repetition, but this is a clear incident of sympathetic magic, treating one bone through its companion by "training" it how to behave. It is reasonable that the spell directed to a fish bone derives from a different source for it does not have the attributes found in the first spell; it is not recognizable as belonging to the category of sympathetic magic but to verbal magic, not through deeds but through words. With the completion of the description of various magical and medical acts, it is worth noting that, apparently, we have not presented all the incidents of sympathetic magic in Talmudic literature. Thus, for instance, Temple rituals are known in which the principle of "like through like" operates, as in “Nisukh” of water.43 Also "bridegrooms’ knots" are connected to this subject, “knots” (bonds or bindings) whose magical nature was recognized from early periods,44 but it appears that the sources cited are sufficient for the evaluation of sympathetic magic in the world of the Mishna and Talmud.

B. Comprehensive Treatment: Attitude of the Sages towards Sympathetic Magic

These are five incidents of sympathetic magic in Rabbinic sources all dealing with curing: dog bite, snake bite, bitter water, leprosy and a bone in throat. These incidents represent the world of the Talmud sages, a world standing on its own (dog bite, bone stuck in throat) or a world describing its past, the Biblical period, through its great hero Moses (successful treatment of snakes and water) or anti-hero Pharaoh (treatment of leper not shown to be successful).45 We have to note that the word magic is in no way mentioned in the texts discussed above. That is to say, the relation of the text to magical deeds is the product of the thought of the modern commentator, not the transmitters of the traditions. Even in the dispute between the sages and R. Matthia ben Heresh regarding the eating of the dog's liver, the dispute is not so much about the attitude towards magic, for it is entirely clear that the dispute pertains to the issue of forbidden foods. As is known, Jews are forbidden to eat a dog, and the issue in such a case is whether "saving of life" supersedes observance of the commandments.46 That is to say, the debate between the sages and R. Matthia ben Heresh resembles a modern debate between doctors regarding the effectiveness of a medication: is dog liver effective and therefore permitted as a medication or is it ineffective and therefore forbidden as a food for being meat from an impure animal. The only thing one can learn with certainty from the dispute is that the sages did not recognize the usefulness of sympathetic medicine whereas one Tanna (exiled from Palestine to Rome) believed in the validity of this remedy. A similar dispute exists today, for example, regarding acupuncture, a remedy not derived from Western scientific medicine; doctors are divided regarding its value. Regarding the cure of snake bites, to the extent that the Biblical text presents a magical deed, the Tannaim emphasize its closeness to idolatry and indeed the serpent was crushed hundreds of years before their time, reducing the significance of the preacher who saw in the copper serpent a deed of closeness to God but certainly not a magical deed. Even in the "botanic" interpretation of the wood thrown into the water, it is hard to see a magical interpretation, but the explanations of the Tannaim inverted the Biblical text from a Biblical miracle story into a story resembling magic, even though the Tannaim did not say so explicitly. That is to say, in all the tales described above, it is hard to find actual magic, except in the spell spoken on the stuck bone, a spell with a clear magical character, a deed that does not require a religious hero or whisperers of spells and sorcerers, but the spell can be uttered by anyone in time of need. That is to say, we are not dealing with "professional" magic but with an approach to life, one in which sympathetic magic is recognized but it has no religious character.

Another small matter calls for clarification. All the acts described above were intended to help people. Whoever sees in them sympathetic magic has to add that we are talking about "white," positive magic as against "black" magic, consistent with the dichotomous view of the 19th century. Indeed, it is clear that society could not allow itself the luxury of attaching a label of magic on these remedial acts. Attachment of a label was bound by its nature to create a negative stigma while the society desirous of life was interested in being helped by whoever could help; the concept of the "end justifies the means" is expressed in best form in the manner of curing Pharaoh. That is to say, even if society realized that, like therapy, sorcery can also kill and cause harm, there still was no benefit to society to invalidate the therapeutic acts by defining them as magic. It is therefore reasonable that it is just the modern distinctions regarding magic, those suitable for classification as magic in secondary forms previously unknown, that teach us to be very careful about seeing these acts as magical acts. The fact that in both the pagan-Hellenist world, as proven in the past,47 and the Jewish world, as proved here, therapeutic acts were not considered magic, instructs us that, with all due respect for the modern definitions, they do not match the historical reality.

And so, the investigators of Hellenism have struggled over the question of the gap between magic and religion, a gap in which some saw a deep split and those who dealt with one did not deal with the other, whereas others saw only a very thin distinction between magic and religion. However, it is now proposed to see the matter in a different light; instead of judging the estimated gap between religion and magic, it is proposed to examine the angle of view. That is to say, the examples cited above, and they do not necessarily constitute a model for all ancient acts of magic, illustrate the problem presented here, for of the five incidents described here, the modern investigator sees all of them as sympathetic magic whereas for ancient people four incidents were entirely religious and only one (the fish bone) could be considered sympathetic magic. And it is just this one that was permitted by the Amoraim, presumably for lack of any connection to religion.

The activities discussed above seem to have two aspects, one is seen by contemporaries and those who dealt with the activities, the other is seen through modern eyes. For the people of the Biblical era and also for the sages, Moses is not a sorcerer but a man working on a mission for God for the benefit of the people of Israel. This attitude is in line with the testimony of the Bible: “And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses.” (Deuteronomy 34:10). This is from the Jewish point of view, though it must be admitted that an Egyptian would see Moses as a sorcerer since he brought various illnesses and plagues on Egypt. That is to say, the phenomenon of sorcery is relative: for a Jew, Moses is a miracle worker who saves Israel while the wise men of Egypt are sorcerers. In contrast, for an Egyptian the wise men of Egypt are priests of their religion who appeal to the gods of Egypt while Moses, the leader of the Jews, is a sorcerer. As proof, the Egyptian can point to the way the plague of boils was inflicted on the Egyptians through "black" magic: Moses and Aaron threw the soot of the kiln skyward (Exodus 9:8-9), magic recognized through its sympathetic character,48 a symbolic act illustrating that as the soot is spread by the winds in all directions in the air, so the plague of boils spreads in Egypt. He is saying that the man Moses who spoke with God at the bush, is the one who sweetens the water and the bitten Israelites and is also the one who inflicts illnesses on Egypt. This background clarifies why it was in Egypt that the image of Moses as sorcerer developed, supported by the Jewish sources. Magic is apparently the religion of the "other".49

In those days, when medicine and religion worked hand-in-hand, the image of the religious leader close to God found its expression in therapeutic capabilities, since God was the source of both illness and remedy. In contrast, in the modern world where medicine has autonomous status independent of a deity, any curative activity not based on a scientific approach perforce derives from a magic approach entitled pseudo-medicine (idol medicine). In this light, it appears that whoever wants to understand the world of past generations has to see how they understood reality and remedial procedures and to consider everything they saw as a legitimate religious activity. Hence, the difference between magic and a religious act is now seen as a matter of perspective: depends on who is the actor (and in the name of which deity) and whether his goal is to cure or to harm.


This discussion of five incidents of sympathetic magic in Jewish sources is instructive for the understanding of religion and magic as well as the status of medicine in antiquity. We are dealing with therapeutic activities before the development of scientific medicine and the approach to treatment was based on the concept of "like with like." It is evident that of the five incidents, two performed by Moses, only one can serve as an example of sympathetic magic (removal of a stuck bone). The fact that this action was permitted by the Talmudic sages shows the extent to which their concepts regarding magic differ from those of the modern world, especially regarding "white" magic, and it is all a matter of perspective.

* Translated by: Rachelle and Saul Isserow, Ein Rogel 16/3, Jerusalem 93543.

1. For a comprehensive bibliography on ancient Jewish magic, see:

2. Brigitte (Rivka) Kern-Ulmer, ‘The Depiction of Magic in Rabbinic Texts: The Rabbinic and The Greek Concept of Magic’, Journal for the Study of Judaism, 27 (1996), pp. 289-303.

3. James H. Charlesworth, ‘Jewish Interest in Astrology during the Hellenistic and Roman Period’, W. Hasse (ed.), Aufstieg und Niedergang der Romischen Welt (ANRW), II.20.2 Berlin – New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1987, pp. 926-950; Tamsyn S. Barton, Power and Knowledge: Astrology, Physiognomics, and Medicine under the Roman Empire, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994.

4. In contrary to the Kern-Ulmer’s study see a recent one that deals with one aspect of magic only, in a very fine way: Y. Harari, ‘Power and Money: Economic Aspects of the Use of Magic by Jews in Anceint Times and the Early Middle Ages’, Pe’amim, 85 (2000), pp. 14-42 (Hebrew).

5. S. Lieberman, Greek in Jewish Palestine, New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1942, pp. 110-111.

6. R. C. Thompson, Semitic Magic: Its Origins and Development, (1908), reprint, New York: Ktav 1971, pp. 142-174; James G. Frazer, ‘Sympathetic Magic’, William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt, Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, New York – Evanston – London: Harper & Row, 1965 (2nd ed.), pp. 300-315; G. Luck, Ancient Pathways and Hidden Pursuits, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2000, pp. 206-207.

7. Robert K. Ritner, The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice, Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 1993, pp. 54, 115, 225; K. Seligman, Magic, Supernaturalism and Religion, New York: Pantheon Books, 1971, pp. 16-19.

8. W. H. Brownlee, ‘Exorcising the Souls from Ezekiel 13 17-23’, JBL, 69 (1950), pp. 367-373.

9. K. van der Toorn, Sin and Sanction in Israel and Mesopotamia, Assen/Maastricht: van Gorcum, 1985, pp. 133-135 (with figurine); Hector Avalos, Illness and Health Care in the Ancient Near East, Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1995, pp. 202-206 (with dogs).

10. A parallel text in p. Yoma 8:5, 44c: “He who was bitten by a crazy dog – they do not feed him a piece of its liver lobe. And R. Matthia ben Harash permits doing so.” From: J. Neusner, The Talmud of the Land of Israel: Yoma, 14, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, p. 221.

11. I. Epstein, The Babylonian Talmud: Seder Moed, 7, London: The Soncino Press, 1938, p. 414. This is according the printed version. In manuscript 218 at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America: "R. Elazar bar R. Jose" and other minor differences. This bereita is based on the m. Yoma 8:6 but here the sages are also cited.

12. John M. Riddle, ‘Folk Tradition and Folk Medicine: Recognition of Drugs in Classical Antiquity’, John Scarborough (ed.), Folklore and Folk Medicines, Madison, Wisconsin: American Institute of the History of Pharmacy, 1987, pp. 33-61.

13. See: S. Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1962, pp. 188-191. I do not know why this excerpt is not discussed.

14. However, in the preceding generation it was written apologetically that the Jews were engaged in "spells and oaths... (by) people who were ignorant of Torah." See: G. Alon, Researches in the History of Israel, I, Tel Aviv 1957, p. 281 (Hebrew). R. Matthia ben Heresh who is mentioned dozens of times in Talmudic literature, maintained contact and learned from various sages, showing his central role in the world of the sages.

15. Midrash Tanhuma, Buber edition, p. 131, addition to the portion Hukath; a Midrashic parallel in: S. A. Wertheimer, Batei Midrashot, new edition, Jerusalem 1980, I, p. 161.

16. On the dog in magic-therapeutic application in the Hellenistic period, see: Hans D. Betz, ‘Jewish Magic in the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM VII.260-71)’, P. Schafer and Hans G. Kippenberg (eds.), Envisioning Magic: A Princeton Seminar and Symposium, Leiden - New York - Koeln: Brill, 1997, pp. 45-63 (p. 61 n. 62). On additional curative constructions of this type in the Roman world, in the Middle Ages, and in additional places and times, see: Allbutt, Greek Medicine in Rome, pp. 53, 353-356; Brigitte (Rivka) Kern-Ulmer (n. 2), esp. n. 55.

17. The principle of "measure for measure" is a key principle for the understanding of various texts in the Pentateuch. See: Yael Shemesh, “Measure for measure in the Biblical narrative," Beth-Mikra, 44/158 (1999), pp. 261-277 (Hebrew).

18. This is an opportunity to mention that, to all appearances, this is also the explanation sought for the custom (considered modern) of curing jaundice by means of a dove. The doves are "sacrificed" (= die in a miraculous way) because they are considered transmitters of the sickness, an accusation that is not basically refuted. Incidentally, in an overwhelming majority of the cases, the person sick with jaundice is indeed cured.

19. The Holy Scriptures, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1955. All Biblical quotations are taken from there.

20. Hector Avalos, Illness and Health Care in the Ancient Near East, 337-349.

21. H. Danby, The Mishnah, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933, p. 141. Since the text is seems to be not “original” in its position, it doesn’t appear in: J. Neusner, The Mishnah: A New Translation, New Haven and london: Yale University Press, 1988, p. 236.

22. Arthur J. Silverman, ‘Censorship of Medical Works: Hezekiah and “The Book of Remedies”’, DINÉ ISRAEL, 7 (1976), pp. 151-157; D. Halperin, ‘The Book of Remedies, the Canonization of the Solomonic Writings, and the riddle of Pseudo-Eusebius’, JQR, 72 (1982), pp. 269-292.

23. Neusner (op. cit.), pp. 304-305. The Mishna continues with a Halachic matter but it appears that the chapter continued with a scribe’s erroneous insertion and the preaching (with a parallel in the Mekhilta) was originally intended to end the lesson (=chapter). See: D. Noy, "Legends as completions of the tractates of the Mishna," Mahanaim, 57 (1961), p. 44-59 (Hebrew).

24. J. Neusner (translaor), Mekhilta According to Rabbi Ishmael, I, Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1988, pp. 236-237 (Vayassa 1).

25. Ernst R. Wendland, ‘Elijah and Elisha: Sorcerers or Witch Doctors?’, Bible Translator, 43 (1992), pp. 213-223.

26. The requirement of a new dish is typical for purification rituals and is common in books of sorcery such as Sefer Ha-Razim, M. Margaliot edition, Jerusalem1967, Heaven 1 (line 96): "And take a new dish and put oil in it," etc.; ibid. (1,177): "new glass phiale."

27. Bereshit Rabba 15; L. Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, I, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1909, pp. 75. It is assumed that R. Nehemia who thought (b. Berakhot 40b) it was a fig tree had in mind a sympathetic magic since he took the fig that is mentioned later meant to “cure” the former sin.

28. Vayikra Raba 30,12, Margaliot edition, p. 710; Y. Feliks, Biblical Botany, Ramat-Gan, 1968, second edition, pp. 113-114 (Hebrew).

29. A. Feldman, Plants of the Mishna, Tel-Aviv (undated), pp. 169-170 (Hebrew).

30. Neusner (op. cit.), p. 772.

31. See: Y. Zakowitz, "2 Kings 20:7 - Isaiah 38: 21-22," Beth-Mikra, 17/50 (1972), pp. 302-305 (Hebrew); A. Rofeh, Stories of the Prophets, Jerusalem 1986, pp. 116-117 (Hebrew); Fred Rosner, Medicine in The Bible and the Talmud, Augmented edition, New York: Ktav Publishing House – Yeshiva University Press, 1995, pp. 85-89.

32. V. Nutton, From Democedes to Harvey: Studies in the History of Medicine, London: Variorum Reprints, 1988, ch. IX.

33. John G. Gager, Moses in Greco-Roman Paganism, Nashville, New York: Abingdon Press, 1972, pp. 134-161; idem., ‘Moses the Magician: Hero of an Ancient Counter-Culture?’, Helios, 21 (1994), pp. 179-188.

34. Shemot Raba 34:1 (according to Shinan edition).

35. Von B. Ebbell, ‘Die aegyptischen Krankheitsnamen’, Zeitschrift fuer aegyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde, 62 (1927), pp. 13-20 (esp. 15).

36. Pliny, Natural History (LCL, translated by: W. H. S. Jones), Cambridge, Massachusettes, 1963 (rep. 1989), vol. VIII, book XXVIII chapters. II, X, XLI, XLII, LVIII, LX, LXIII, LXVIII (pp. 5 [blood from man], 33 [man], 103 [horse, bull, goat, he-goat], 107 [boar], 141 [kid], 145 [boar or pig], 153 [jackass], 159 [goat]), and more. The first to note the connection between the legend about Pharaoh and Pliny was: E. Ben Amozeg, Em Lamiqra: Deuteronomy, Livorno 1863, 60a (Hebrew).

37. A. Goldberg, Commentary on the Mishna: Tractate Sabbath, Jerusalem 1976 (Hebrew).

38. Y. Avishur, "'Ways of the Amorites,' The Canaanite-Babylonian Background and the Literary Structure," H. Rabin (and others, eds), Meir Wallenstein Book, Jerusalem 1979, pp. 17-47 (Hebrew).

39. Epstein (op. cit.) Shabbath, p. 321 accordind the printed text. In Munich manuscript 95: "Except for these two (situations)" (that is also the fish bone, see below) and there are additional changes in the second spell. In Vatican manuscript 108 "had hadad" (an impossible version according to the subsequent explanation).

40. Also see: R. Patai, Adam ve-Adama, Jerusalem 1943, II, pp. 27-28 (Hebrew); S. Lieberman, Tosefta Kifshuta, II, New York 1955, p. 492 (Hebrew).

41. The repetition of the noun emphasizes continuity activity like "day day" meaning: every day (see Rashi's commentary on Ezekiel 12: 3) and "in the morning in the morning " (as in Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 6:5) meaning every morning.

42. One of the styles of magic is "retroactive" statement and here the matter is seen "in action." That is to say, the idea is that just as the incident occurred, the spell comes and says it in reverse so that it cures. For retroactive statements in the Sefer Harazim, look into the following ‘heaven’ (and lines): 2:19, 3:19, 3:57, 4:30, 5:50.

43. R. Patai, Adam ve-Adama, II, pp. 161-192 (Hebrew).

44. Robert K. Ritner, The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Pratice, pp. 142-144; M. Bar-Ilan, "Examination of the style, erotic matters and magic activities in the Song of Songs", Yearbook for Scripture and Investigation of the Ancient East, 9 (1987), pp. 31-53 (Hebrew).

45. It should be noted that the Midrashic account does not match the text of Genesis 12:17, where it is written that Pharaoh suffered great afflictions but it is not stated later that he was cured; whereas the analogous tale about Abimelech (Genesis 20:17) relates that God cured him (see the commentary of Ibn Ezra on Genesis 20:2).

46. T. Shabbat (Lieberman, p. 40) 9:22: "One does not suck from an alien or from an impure animal, but if there is a hazard, nothing stands in the way of treatment when life is at stake."

47. Alan F. Segal, The Other Judaisms of Late Antiquity, Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1987, pp. 79-108. For other opinions of A. D. Nock and P. Shafer: M. Bar-Ilan, "Exorcism of demons by Rabbis: a contribution on the dealings of the Talmudic sages with sorcery", Da‘at, 34 (1995), pp. 17-31 (Hebrew).

48. Compare: Sefer Harazim, Heaven 1, line 233: "If you sought to release him, cast from the water to the sky", etc., ibid. Heaven 2, line 24: “throw the ash in either the city or the state." Also see: E. A. Budge, Egyptian Magic, London and Boston: Routledge (rep. of 1899), 1972, p. 6.

49. Stephen D. Ricks, ‘The Magician as Outsider: The Evidence of the Hebrew Bible’, Paul V. M. Flesher (ed.), Studies in Judaism: New Perspectives on Ancient Judaism, V, Lanham – New York – London: University Press of America, 1990, pp. 125-134; J. Neusner, ‘Science and Magic, Miracle and Magic in Formative Judaism: The System and the Difference’, J. Neusner and others (eds.), Religion, Science, and Magic, New York – Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 61-81.