ABSTRACT: 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


In this article the attitude to magic of the sages of the Mishna and Talmud will be examined by focusing on a specific class of magic: sympathetic magic. First we will deal with the status of the research and then explain briefly the unique character of sympathetic magic.

Five instances of sympathetic magic are cited from Rabbinic literature: the cure of a person bitten by a mad dog, the cure of people bitten by snakes (the Biblical incedent as interpreted by the Rabbis), the purification of bitter water (once again: as interpreted by the Rabbis), the cure of a leper, and the removal of a bone stuck in the throat. These incidents are described by Talmudic sages either in relation to their own times or in relation to the Biblical past. Each incident is treated from the textual aspect and is explained from the medical and magic aspect.

The detailed textual examination is followed by a comprehensive treatment of the nature of magic in the ancient world. The careful examination of the deeds cited above reveals that the people of that period did not see them as magic but as medical acts; it is proposed that the "white" magic, consonant with its modern definition, be seen not as magic but as therapeutic procedures. A new method is proposed for the examination of the difference between magic and religion, a difference derived not from a qualitative difference but because of the different perspective of the observer.