Thursday, April 29, 2010

Egyptian magic and barley seeds

A short response to a DovBear post on Chumash, alas in error. The post is a rant on how Chumash is taught. An excerpt:
If you're like me, you have several friends who pontificate about Egyptian magic. All of their knowledge comes from Rashi, and one of the "facts" they confidently cite is that Egyptian magic had no power over anything smaller than a barley seed.

They're confident of this fact, not because they've done any research, or made any observations, but merely because Rashi reports it. Unfortunately, they've missed the boat.
In the case of the barley seed midrash  Rashi quotes the midrash accurately but provides us with only one of two opinions

Turn to BT Snahedrin  67b. You'll find an argument between  R. Eliezer and R. Papa. R. Eliezer is of the opinion that magicians can produce creatures from nothing, but only if the creature is larger than a barley seed. When he shares this theory with R. Papa, however, it is met with what appears to be anger and disgust:
R. Papa said: By God! [this is an exclamation] he cannot produce even something as large as a camel.
R. Papa goes on to say that the magicians had the power of summoning, but not of creating. R. Papa's view is not recorded by Rashi, and is therefore ignored by the thousands, if not tens of thousands, of O.J so-called scholars who pride themselves on their Torah knowledge, but don't seem able to remember what they have presumably seen on the pages of the Talmud when they discuss Chumash.
The first problem is that DovBear assumes Rashi is basing himself on Rabbi Eleazar, rather than Rav Papa. But see the Rashi:

14. And the necromancers did likewise with their secret rites to bring out the lice, but they could not, and the lice were upon man and beast. יד. וַיַּעֲשׂוּ כֵן הַחַרְטֻמִּים בְּלָטֵיהֶם לְהוֹצִיא אֶת הַכִּנִּים וְלֹא יָכֹלוּ וַתְּהִי הַכִּנָּם בָּאָדָם וּבַבְּהֵמָה:
to bring out the lice: To create them (another version: to bring them out) from someplace else. להוציא את הכנים: לבראותם ממקום אחר:
but they could not: Because a demon has no power over a creature smaller than a barleycorn. — [from Sanh. 67b, Tanchuma, Va’era 14, Exod. Rabbah 10:7] ולא יכלו: שאין השד שולט על בריה פחותה מכשעורה:

Note the words ממקום אחר. That, in and of itself, implies summoning, rather than creating. Judaica Press also cites a variant girsa of Rashi which has "to bring them out" (likely, lehotziam, but I am not researching it right now) which would make the summoning even more explicit.

The second problem is that even if Rashi was basing himself on Rabbi Eleazar, Rav Papa doesn't really argue. Rav Papa argues on the ability of shedim to create rather than summon, but Rav Papa agrees that in summoning, they have no power over something smaller than a barleycorn.

This is explicit in the aforementioned gemara in Sanhedrin:
Then the magicians said unto Pharoah, This is the finger of God:  R. Eleazar, said: This proves that a magician cannot produce a creature less than a barley corn in size. R. Papa said: By God! he cannot produce even something as large as a camel; but these [larger than a barley corn] he can [magically] collect [and so produce the illusion that he has magically created them], the others he cannot.
DovBear only produced the first half of Rav Papa's statement. The second half is all about the barleycorn distinction. 

And so, Rashi is likely going according to Rav Papa, and even so, correctly cites this distinction. Note that Rashi says שולט and not בורא.

Midrash Tanchuma has this as action, rather than creation or bringing, thought it does likely mean creating:
ויעשו כן החרטומים בלטיהםאמר רבי יוחנן:
בלטיהםמעשה שדים.
בלהטיהםמעשה כשפים.
לפי שאין השד יכול לעשות פחות מכשעורה.
Midrash Rabba has the same as the gemara, with Rabanan instead of Rav Papa:
ויעשו כן החרטומים להוציא את הכנים ולא יכולו אמר רבי אלעזר:
מכאן אתה למד, שאין השד יכול לבראות פחות מכשעורה.

ורבנן אמרי:
אפילו כגמלא לא מצי בראו, אלא האי מכניף ליה והאי לא מכניף ליה.

ויאמרו החרטומים אל פרעה אצבע אלהים היא כיון שראו החרטומים, שלא יוכלו להוציא הכנים, מיד הכירו שהיו המעשים מעשה אלהים ולא מעשה שדים, ועוד לא חששו לדמות עצמן למשה להוציא המכות: 
But even so, by saying אלא האי מכניף ליה והאי לא מכניף ליה, they agree to the barleycorn distinction.

And so, DovBear's friends seem to be absolutely right! Because:
one of the "facts" they confidently cite is that Egyptian magic had no power over anything smaller than a barley seed. 
and there is no dispute about that.
(If not for the fact that demons and magic are not real, of course.)


DovBear said...


You didn't even deal with the point of the post here, and I hope that doesn't mean you missed it.

As for the technicalities:

(1) You are right, Rav Papa would agree that the magicians had power, but no power over something smaller than a barley seed

(2) You are wrong that Rashi is going with Rav Papa. I can prove it, I think, but for now, I don't have time to do anything but ask you to trust me. Sorry. Hopefully more later.

joshwaxman said...

i assume by the broader point that you mean people, in general, cite the lucky midrash without realizing that it is a matter of dispute. if so, then yes, it is true in the general case. i don't think that this is an instance which proves it.

in terms of the gemara itself, i would add that the beginning of rav papa's statement seems like disbelief of magic in general. but that it may well be meant to be understood in light of Abaye's statement and Rav Oshaya's statement immediately preceding, where there is a distinction between creation (via sefer Yetzira) and other magic, as permitted vs. non-permitted. this might be an argument towards the inferiority of gentile magic, which would manifest in whether they could create.

kol tuv,


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