Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Does Rashi reject the very *idea* of magical objects?

So I was reading through some of the divrei Torah at YBT. Here is the beginning of an interesting one, from Rabbi Reuven Mann:
The idea that objects possess supernatural powers is absolutely contrary to Torah. The Torah makes it clear that nature operates according to fixed laws. Thus, objects only possess the natural powers they are endowed with. Whenever something occurs outside the frame of natural law the only cause is the Divine Will, i.e., what we call Providence. In the war against Amalek when Moshe lifted his hands the Jews would prevail and when he lowered them they would falter. Yet Rashi asks, "can the hands of Moshe wage war?" So too in the case of the copper snake those bitten would gaze upon the snake and be healed. Would you say that the copper snake had a special power to heal? Here too Rashi asks, "Can a snake heal?" and continues to explain that when the Jews subordinated their hearts to G-d then He would cure them.The same is true regarding the hands of Moshe. From the question of Rashi we can clearly deduce that he rejected the notion of ascribing non-natural powers to physical objects. It is important to remember the Chizkiyahu destroyed the copper snake when the people began to attribute powers to it. The jar of manna and many other objects were hidden for the same reason.
And it continues. The examples given here which supposedly show that "the Torah makes it clear" instead are examples where Rashi's interpretation of the Torah appears to make it clear. These Rashis, in turn, are based on gemaras, which are indeed Torah she'baal peh. Even so, if other interpretations are available, and indeed, Rashi and the gemara had to go out of their way to explain it contrary to the simple meaning, that the Torah is not making it very clear. Other examples of the (written) Torah clearly demonstrating this would be in order.

As to this interpretation of Rashi, this avoidance of supernatural power rooted in physical objects need not necessarily reflect Rashi's motivation. Firstly, he is citing gemaras, so it might simply reflect the attitude of the particular speaker of that midrashic statement in the Mishna. One of the Rashis:

whoever is bitten: Even if a dog or a donkey bit him, he would suffer injury and steadily deteriorate, but a snake bite would kill quickly. That is why it says here [regarding other bites], “will look at it”-a mere glance. But regarding the snake bite it says “he would gaze”-“and whenever a snake bit [a man], he would gaze” (verse 9), for the snake bite would not heal unless one gazed at it [the copper snake] intently (Yer. R.H. 3:9). Our Rabbis said, Does a snake cause death or life? However, when Israel looked heavenward and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven, they would be healed, but if not, they would waste away. — [R.H. 29a]כל הנשוך: אפילו כלב או חמור נושכו היה נזוק ומתנונה והולך, אלא שנשיכת הנחש ממהרת להמית, לכך נאמר כאן וראה אותו ראיה בעלמא, ובנשיכת הנחש נאמר והביט, והיה אם נשך הנחש את איש והביט וגו', שלא היה ממהר נשוך הנחש להתרפאות אלא אם כן מביט בו בכוונה. ואמרו רבותינו וכי נחש ממית או מחיה, אלא בזמן שהיו ישראל מסתכלין כלפי מעלה ומשעבדין את לבם לאביהם שבשמים היו מתרפאים, ואם לאו היו נמוקים:

That Mishna, in Rosh Hashana 29a:
מתני  (שמות יז, יא) והיה כאשר ירים משה ידו וגבר ישראל וגו' וכי ידיו של משה עושות מלחמה או שוברות מלחמה אלא לומר לך כל זמן שהיו ישראל מסתכלין כלפי מעלה ומשעבדין את לבם לאביהם שבשמים היו מתגברים ואם לאו היו נופלים כיוצא בדבר אתה אומר  (במדבר כא, ח) עשה לך שרף ושים אותו על נס והיה כל הנשוך וראה אותו וחי וכי נחש ממית או נחש מחיה אלא בזמן שישראל מסתכלין כלפי מעלה ומשעבדין את לבם לאביהם שבשמים היו מתרפאין ואם לאו היו נימוקים חרש שוטה וקטן אין מוציאין את הרבים ידי חובתן זה הכלל כל שאינו מחוייב בדבר אינו מוציא את הרבים ידי חובתן:
Even if the author of the Mishna did intend it this way, this does not mean that other members of Chazal did not argue.

For example, here is a gemara and a set of Rashis which appear to solidly indicate that some members of Chazal, and Rashi, did believe in objects imbued with magical powers. From Eruvin 64b:

אמר מר ואין מעבירין על האוכלין אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי שמעון בן יוחאי לא שנו אלא בדורות הראשונים שאין בנות ישראל פרוצות בכשפים אבל בדורות האחרונים שבנות ישראל פרוצות בכשפים מעבירין תנא שלימין מעבירין פתיתין אין מעבירין אמר ליה רב אסי לרב אשי ואפתיתין לא עבדן והכתיב  (יחזקאל יג, יט) ותחללנה אותי אל עמי בשעלי שעורים ובפתותי לחם דשקלי באגרייהו
and Rashi writes:

פתיתין אין מעבירין עליהן - אלא נוטלין אותן דליכא למיחש לכשפים:
ואפתיתין לא עבדן - כשפים:
דשקלן באגרייהו - פתיתי לחם לעשות כשפים מדברים אחרים והכי קאמר נביא בשביל פיתותי לחם שנותנים לכן בשכרכן חיללתן את שמי בתוך עמי שהייתן עושות בהן כשפים לנביאי הבעל להטעות את עמי:
It seems pretty straightforward that the Tannaim, Amoraim, and Rashi, did believe that the bread was imbued with some sort of power due to witchcraft. (Yes, one can argue that the bread was poisoned as a result of the physical acts of witchcraft, but that does not seem to be the straightforward implication.)

Even from the next perek in sefer Bamidbar, in parashat Balak, it seems that Rashi believed that there was such a thing as magic objects:

7. So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian went, with magic charms in their hands, and they came to Balaam and conveyed Balak's message to him.ז. וַיֵּלְכוּ זִקְנֵי מוֹאָב וְזִקְנֵי מִדְיָן וּקְסָמִים בְּיָדָם וַיָּבֹאוּ אֶל בִּלְעָם וַיְדַבְּרוּ אֵלָיו דִּבְרֵי בָלָק:
with magic charms in their hands: All types of charms, so he could not say,“I don’t have my tools with me.” Another interpretation: The elders of Midian took this omen (קֶסֶם) with them, saying, “If he comes with us this time, there is something to him, but if he pushes us off, he is useless.” Thus, when he said to them, “Lodge here for the night” (verse 8), they said, “He is hopeless” ; so they left him and went away, as it says, “The Moabite nobles stayed with Balaam” (ibid.), but the Midianite elders left. — [Mid. Tanchuma Balak 5, Num. Rabbah 20:8]וקסמים בידם: כל מיני קסמים, שלא יאמר אין כלי תשמישי עמי. דבר אחר קסם זה נטלו בידם זקני מדין, אמרו אם יבא עמנו בפעם הזאת יש בו ממש, ואם ידחנו אין בו תועלת, לפיכך כשאמר להם לינו פה הלילה, אמרו אין בו תקוה, הניחוהו והלכו להם, שנאמר וישבו שרי מואב עם בלעם, אבל זקני מדין הלכו להם:

(Yes, one could say that these tools were only within their own false beliefs, but this is not the straightforward implication.)

There is also the pasuk, and Rashi, on Vaera:

11. [Then,] Pharaoh too summoned the wise men and the magicians, and the necromancers of Egypt also did likewise with their magic.יא. וַיִּקְרָא גַּם פַּרְעֹה לַחֲכָמִים וְלַמְכַשְּׁפִים וַיַּעֲשׂוּ גַם הֵם חַרְטֻמֵּי מִצְרַיִם בְּלַהֲטֵיהֶם כֵּן:
with their magic: Heb. בְּלַהִטֵיהֶם [Onkelos renders בְּלַחֲשֵהון], [meaning] with their incantations. It [the word בְּלַהִטֵיהֶם has no similarity in the [rest of] Scripture. It may, however, be compared to “the blade of (לַהַט) the revolving sword” (Gen. 3:24), which seemed to be revolving because of a magic spell.בלהטיהם: בלחשיהון ואין לו דמיון במקרא, ויש לדמות לו (בראשית ג כב) להט החרב המתהפכת, דומה שהיא מתהפכת על ידי לחש:

Rashi understands that they enchanted their objects, namely their staffs, with their incantations, and the staffs became snakes.

What, then, shall we make of that Rashi about the non-magic and Moshe's non-magic hands? Either he is relying on and simply repeating a maamar Chazal which maintained that, or else there is something deeper than just disbelief in magic objects.

Perhaps the reason it appears in that Mishna, in context of blowing the shofar, is that one should not think that merely hearing the shofar (the previous Mishna had where someone heard and did not recognize, yet fulfilled) has the desired spiritual impact. It is not some magic ritual, like the (non-magic chatzotzrot). Rather, it is supposed to move people to teshuva. So too the healing power of the snake and the winning of the war. Not that there is (necessarily) no such thing as magical objects, but that it does not make good sense theologically for Hashem to relate to klal Yisrael in this way in each of these two instances. (And this in an important point to make in light of how they turned the snake into an idol, Nechushtan.) Moshe was not performing a mere magic trick with his hands; and Hashem was not commanding Moshe to construct a magic talisman to save the Israelites from snake bites. This was rather a spiritual battle, and the snakes were punishment for a spiritual failing. And furthermore, in each case the point is that the power was put into the hands of each Israelite himself.

If there is a strong theological point here being made, and it is one which is tangential to the existence or non-existence of magical talismans, then I don't believe that we can conclusively prove the inefficacy of magical talismans from the sources cited. Especially if there are other sources -- in Rashi and Chazal -- which quite strongly appear to state otherwise.

Rabbi Mann ends the devar Torah with:
Finally it is not our burden to disprove an idea which is contrary to Torah and common sense understanding of Torah. It is the burden of the person asserting a notion which runs contrary to the basic principals of Torah to demonstrate through authoritative and unimpeachable sources that his strange interpretation is authentic.
I don't know whether my sources are authoritative and unimpeachable. It probably depends on who is considering the question, and whether he will consider my reading of Rashi to be a "strange interpretation". But even if I haven't proven this of Rashi -- which I believe I have -- there are certainly others, including great talmidei chachamim, who believed that certain objects had magical properties. For one random example, the magical lion talisman discussed by Abba Mari and the Rashba, both of whom assumed its efficacy. (See here, page 4.)

The rationalist position has not historically been the only position taken by great rabbis, and we should not pretend otherwise. Even if this is the only way to delegitimize magic in the eyes of the hamon am, who will see such sources and mistakenly think that it is therefore a matter of legitimate dispute, or one decided in the "mystical" direction, rather than something empirically determinable.

That said, of course there is no such thing as magic.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"The rationalist position has not historically been the only position taken by great rabbis, and we should not pretend otherwise." I believe this Rabbi (Mann) actually personally takes the rationalist position and regards any other position as completely untenable no matter how great a rabbi, rishon, acharon or otherwise, he was... ~TorahJew


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