Category Archives: Vaera

Slight of hand and magic shows

Aaron cast his staff before Pharaoh and before his servants and it became a serpent. Pharaoh too summoned the wise men and the magicians; and the necromancers of Egypt also did likewise with their (lahat) magic. (Exodus 7:10-11)

The Torah explicitly prohibits the use of different types of black magic. Categories of such practices include koseim (soothsaying), me’onein (use of omens), menacheish (superstitions) and kishuf (sorcery) (Deuteronomy 18:10, Leviticus 19:26 and Rashi ibid.). Lahat implies the use of incantations (Rashi on Exodus 7:11).

Rashi (d. 1105) also brings the opinion of the Gemara that a me’onein is someone who performs achizas einaim (lit. seizing the eyes) which implies sleight of hand (Rashi on Deuteronomy 18:10). Rashi does not clarify any further and so there is some discussion regarding the nature of achizas einaim.

Rabbi Yoel Sirkis (d. 1640) explains it as witchcraft (Bach on Yoreh Deah 179) whereas Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Zimra (d. 1573) explains it as the use of demons (Metzudos Dovid 61).

The other explanation of achizat einaim is that it does not employ supernatural phenomena or beings but rather creates an illusion which defies logic, such as magic tricks which simply employ sleight of hand. Maimonides (d. 1204) explains achizat einaim as an illusion produced by well rehearsed, agile and subtle movements (Sefer Hamitzvot Lo Ta’aseh 32).

Rabbi Avraham Danzig (d. 1748) prohibited magic shows even though the tricks used did not attempt to employ supernatural forces (Chochmat Adam 89:6). When asked whether modern day magic shows fall under the category of achizat einaim and would therefore be prohibited according to the Torah, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (d. 1986) concludes that there would be grounds to prohibit magic shows if the audience genuinely believed that supernatural forces were being used. Since it is well known that the performer is only using sleight of hand, he permits the performance of magic shows (Iggrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 4:13).

Similarly, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef rules that magic shows are permitted provided that the performer announces that he is just tricking the audience (Yabia Omer Yoreh Deah 5:13).

Sorry Mr. Daniels, that’s not magic.

The plagues and personal growth

Rebbi Yehudah’s enigmatic acronym for the ten plagues found in the haggadah apportions them in groups of three דְּצַ”ךְ עֲדַ”שׁ בְּאַחַ”ב. One explanation is that after Pharaoh’s response to Moses (Exodus 5:2) ‘Who is this G-d that I should listen to Him to send out Israel? I do not know G-d’, G-d used the plagues to establish Himself in Egypt as the One True G-d.

Before the first plague G-d told Moses to tell Pharaoh (Exodus 7:17) ‘Through this you shall know that I am G-d’. At the end of the plague of lice, the Egyptian magicians failed to replicate the miracle and declared (Exodus 8:15) ‘This is the finger of G-d’. The first three plagues were therefore brought to rectify Pharaoh’s ignorance of G-d by launching an assault against the idols of Egypt, such as the River Nile.

When G-d sent the second triplet plagues, which began with wild animals, G-d said (Exodus 8:19) ‘On that day I shall set apart the land of Goshen upon which my people stands, so that there shall be no wild animals there, in order that you will know that I am G-d in the midst of the land’. Rashi explains that G-d was teaching Pharaoh that although He exists transcendentally in Heaven, His decrees are also immanent, directly influencing the physical world.

The purpose of the third triplet of plagues was (Exodus 9:14) ‘…so that you will know that there is none like me in the land.’ The first of this group was the plague of hail which the Torah describes as having fire within it (Exodus 9:24). Here G-d demonstrated his dominion over the physical laws of the universe. If G-d decrees it, even nature itself can be suspended to allow fire and water to coexist. Finally, the plague of the death of the firstborn demonstrated that G-d’s dominion also extends to the realm of life itself. It is ultimately G-d Who decides who will live and who will die.

These four stages also resonate with the different levels of faith we often experience. Some do not believe in G-d at all. Then there are those who believe in some form of higher spiritual being, but are not willing to accept that this being interacts with the world. There are some who accept that G-d exists and that He directly interacts within the world, but that there are rules of nature which also have an influence. Then there are those who accept that G-d controls everything, including nature, but cannot accept that ultimately life and death is also governed by Him.

What is clear however, is that faith is not something we either possess or lack, but rather something which must be developed and nurtured within us. Each stage is critical for our growth so that we may also ‘know that He is G-d’.

 

A version of this article appeared in Daf Hashavuah

Two types of inheritance

I will bring you to the land, which I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, and I will give it to you as an inheritance (morasha); I am the Lord. Exodus 6:8

God assures Moses that He will redeem the Jewish people from the slavery of Egypt and bring them to the Land of Israel which they will inherit forever. Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, the 13th Century commentator known as the Baal HaTurim points out that there are only two places in the Torah which speak about a morasha – an inheritance. One is here in our verse and the other is the verse Torah tzivah lanu Moshe morasha kehilat Yaakov – Moses commanded us a Torah, the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob (Deuteronomy 33:4). This is the first verse a parent is obligated to teach to their child.

Rabbi Chaim Elazary (d. 1984) formerly a Rabbi in Canton Ohio, makes another observation. He asks why the term morasha is used instead of the more common Hebrew word for inheritance, yerusha.

He explains that the term yerusha implies that the inheritor receives the inheritance exclusively. There is therefore no obligation on the inheritor to do anything once the inheritance has been received. Morasha however implies a type of inheritance which must not only be received, but which must be passed on to the next generation; beneficiary must become benefactor.

Just as the Torah, which was commanded to us by Moses, must be received from our parents and grandparents and passed on to our children and grandchildren, so too our people’s eternal bond with the Land of Israel must be strengthened in each generation. The Torah is teaching us that our inheritance is to internalise and value our ancient connection to the Land of Israel and inspire the next generation to do the same.

 

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.