Tag Archives: Magic

Parshat Bo (5774)


Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

Jews Sure Have a Lot of New Years Celebrations!

The New York Ball in 1978

I would like to wish a happy New Year to all my friends and fellow students in Torah learning. I start our lessons off excited after a celebrating our emergence into the new civil year. Which gets me thinking, us religious Jews sure have a lot of New Year days.

If you think about it, we are just a few months off from Rosh haShanah (Hebrew, “the head of the year,” the start of the year) which begins our civil calendar; this the fiscal year in Jewish legal terms. And of course we have TuBiShvat, the new year for the trees which marks the renewal of nature; this comes later this month

However in the Torah, we have one New Year identified for us. Here in this week’s parsha, we are told that the first of the heads of the months (“rosh chadashim”) will begin here (“rishon hu lachem l’chad’shai hashanah / to you it shall be the first of the months of the year”). From the month of Nissan, the month of liberation from Egypt and the celebrating of Passover, we are told to begin counting our months. This is one of the first mitzvot the Torah relays to us, one that is given even before the full revelation of the Torah at Sinai, it is for us to observe the months. Starting here, starting now.

This year I found myself with great revelry celebrating the coming of the civil new year as it passed this week. Generally I’ve been ambivalent about the Gregorian New Year, the reboot point set for the common culture. But this year I found so many legal and civil things coming to fruition with the New Year (the start of the Affordable Care Act, important new environmental ordinances, etc.) I just had to celebrate. Plus I get to leave a lot the financial and emotional stress of the last year behind me, and take a sigh of relief.

I think that is what the observance of the New Year is about. It’s about having a chance to start over. To draw a line, and on the other side leave behind all the burdens of the that we need to leave to the past.

Our Torah does reinforce this view, when the suffering of the children of Israel becomes too much G-d has them start over with a new year and challenges them to demand their freedom. I would hope that as we come into a new year we celebrate a new and better self, and then we work like mad to achieve that freedom.

Though it may seem annoying to many other people that we have so many new years observances in out Jewish culture, and even more so as we observe the new years observed by our own local cultures though out the world. But I think it is beautiful that we have all these points to start again. And the truth is we can start over at any time, if we just choose to recognize it and celebrate it.

Now you might have a lot of problems, you might be finding it hard to let go. You might be asking yourself how people can even ask you to celebrate, even though you still have all these hang ups? The truth is a new start always begins in misery and darkness.

Our Torah tells us that the children of Israel, and both Moses and Aaron, were to observe the start of their new-found freedom while they were still in Egypt, a fact that is revealed at the start of this discussion about the activities of the exodus and Nissan in Exodus chapter 12.

As the moon passes into the New Moon cycle Moses points to the sky and tells them that this is the sign of the start of these new months. But if we think about it, as he reveals the start of the months there is no moon in the sky to signal this new start. The sky and the land below is dark.

New starts generally begin in darkness. This is truth that has been recognized to be so since the most ancient times. Whereas the first spring month of Aires has always been observed as the start of the actual year, and has been so for scientific and previously for legal purposes for as long as humans remember, when the sun is bright and triumphant over winter.

The months conversely have been classically recognized to begin in darkness, at the New Moon. This understanding was often exploited by pagans and magical workers, who would begin the workings in the darkness of the month in hopes their spell would follow the cycle of the moon and grow stronger as the moon waxed bright in the heavens. The hope was that when the full moon came the problem would go away, or something dramatic would happen to change their fate.

While we might frown upon and mock the superstitiousness and occultism of these people, in some ways our culture also has some touches of this type of observance. This earthy, cyclical mindset can be applied even to Judaism as well. And it is even mandated by the Torah, being reclaimed in a different fashion for a holy purpose.

Immediately after we begin counting the months, Moses prescribes for the Hebrews the actions of preparing for Passover. They begin early in the 10th day of the month of Nissan, exactly 180-degrees opposite Yom Kippur – the day of atonement – which falls six months later on the 10th of Tishrei. As the moon has begun to grow to a crescent one is to prepare for their sacrifice, and then clear out all the chametz – the leavening in one’s home and possession. So that on the 14th of Nissan, on the full-moon of the month of Spring, we can observe the Passover Seder in order to celebrate the miracle of our freedom.

We keep an ancient tradition, though with the thought in mind that we are working towards something good. We aren’t just engaging in wishful thinking, hoping that our struggle will be magically resolved for us. The Torah shows us that this process of acquiring freedom and redemption is an active process. There is more to this victory than showing up at the winners circle!

Coming out of so many civil holidays, one might even get a bit annoyed that I bring up Pesach now. Because Passover is a lot of work! More so than any other time of the year. Most all of us are familiar with the difficulty of cleaning for the holiday. Literally everything in our house is inspected for chametz. It is this substance, leavening and its agents, that we seek to get rid of as they are representative of sin and pride in our lives. In that time of renewal and rebirth, we work harder than any other time of the year in order to achieve a new level of freedom and liberation in ourselves. Free from the negative “additives” that will ferment and sour in our lives.

On the first Pesach, they started their process of deep introspection and inspection four days before. When they started the processes of keeping the pascal lamb. For four days they kept the animal for the sacrifice close by. Not just so they could proudly display the animal they chose for the mitzvah, but to also continuously inspect the unblemished nature of their sacrifice.

Though the Torah says in this case we are to take the lamb on the fourth day, it does not necessarily mean that future sacrifices were mandated to be done on that day. Today in the modern age, we don’t have the ability to observe the mitzvah of the sacrifice so we don’t worry about the animal aspect. We instead focus more so on this cleaning away of the chametz, the sin and pride inside of us. And we begin this process much earlier, purely out of necessity as the complications of modern life has caused the fermentations of chametz to creep into the oddest place in our daily lives.

For a new start, we need to commence with inspecting our sacrifice. For us religious Jews, we need to consider our service before G-d. Is our avodah pure, complete and unblemished? Our being and our homes, are they chametz-free, or are there some odd bits of sin and arrogance still riding along with us? Have we shelved some of this away unwittingly? Has some of this fallen into the cracks and is need of being removed from our lives?

Freedom can start today if you want it. The Hebrews weren’t free yet when all this is spoken to them, yet they began to prepare their lives and ready themselves in an pure fashion. They did their part, with the understanding that G-d would reciprocate and do His part to aid their liberation. They corrected their lives, and got ready to walk into a new way of life. But it all really began with the children of Israel following G-d’s command to observe that they were starting over, to put the past behind and start counting from the here and now.

Now even though the break for a new start might not be obvious right away, we need to realize and observe it as our new rosh – our new starting point. Like the new moon which is hidden, it might not be obvious right away and we need to be patient. Though the fact is our fresh start begins at the blackest part of the night, during the moonless nights of new moon. Renewal and redemption most often begin when its darkest in our lives.

We need to prepare ourselves and do this hard work of self-inspection first. If we are committed to this then our passover will surely come, and we will be able to be free and unashamed as we celebrating in the full moonlight!

You can decide to start over any time, my friends. You can start with a new year and new resolutions at any time. And it doesn’t need to be connected to any religion or culture.

In our spiritual lives as Jews, we can also find many places to make a fresh start. Every month, we also have another starting point that we can easily mark; every time Rosh Chodesh comes. The truth is we can start over at any time. You don’t need to wait for another New Years day to come in order to get a chance to restart. Freedom starts today, if you recognize it and do something about it.

Happy New Year, here’s to a fresh start!

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Parshat Balak (2012)


Parshat Balak
Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

What Is Divination and Soothsaying? What is the problem with working magic?

CharmsAs we come into this parsha we need to once again remember that the majority of this story is going to surround the actions of Balaam, and not Balak from whom this parsha is named. (see Parshat Balak 2011) The Torah expresses that he possessed some sort of prophetic abilities, even though it is quite obvious that he is not an Israelite. His gentile status is revealed in how he is astonished by Israel and considers them “the other” in his utterances. Though we are not sure exactly where he was from, early Torah translations and variations identify his land of Pethor as being in Ammon; this is north of Moab, being north of the Dead Sea and east of the Jordan River. This is supported by us finding verses here and in other places that further identify the area as Amon, and being in Mesopotamia; simply put, the present day Syria. The king of Moab sent for him in order to curse the camps of Israel.

What we have to ask ourselves first is what type of prophet is this? How can we consider this person a prophet at all? We cannot deny that he had an ability to connect to the Divine because he even refers to G-d by His explicit name; Havayah – Hashem, the Ineffable Name of G-d (יהוה). He knew G-d well enough to understand who He was, and how wrong his involvement was all throughout the story and yet still goes along with the scheme. I would suggest that he possessed prophetic abilities, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a prophet. He had spiritual sensitivity, but was not in-tune enough to hear the voice of any moral conscience. He was driven more by greed than mysticism. At best all we can consider him some sort of mercenary prophet.

In reality, he is really more of a magician than a prophet. Even then we must understand that by considering him a prophet we aren’t saying much about the quality of the individual or their abilities. A navi was always understood as more of being a person who speaks for an official purpose, generally regarding things that are of contemporary concern to the people whom they represent. In our scriptures we have other examples of people who were not morally right who experienced the state of navuah – the state of prophetic utterance; the officers of the evil King Saul and even the king himself were said to be overcome and immobilized by a state of prophecy when they were on their campaign of oppression and murder. (see 1 Samuel 19:18-24) Their appointed status seems to merit their spiritual experience, not their character. And so it is with Balaam.

In fact there is nothing all that mystical about the word prophecy in Hebrew anyhow. Navuah is not magic. If we look at the roots for the word navuah we find that the scriptures reveal that its source word Niv means “sayings.” A Navi is just a person of official capacity that is good with words, so G-d utilizes them. (see Isaiah 57:19) They know how to entice people with the G-d-given ability to provide the sweetened fruit of their lips.

For all his spiritual abilities and exceptional nature, we need to remember the bottom line is that he was a man whose morals were for sale. He was an opportunist and corrupt, but he wasn’t exactly dishonest. He fully disclosed that he had no real abilities other than what G-d would allow. (see Numbers 22:18) He had no true power at all, he was just able to read the signs around him. And even then, not even well enough to control the ecstatic state of prophecy that would overtake him. He wasn’t all that impressive in the end. He was just a magician, using good observations and a lot of dramatic tricks. This was the norm. So much so the norm that he would instead point out the exceptionalism of Israel in this matter. In astonishment he would declare the words:

“For there is no sorcery in Jacob,

and there is no soothsaying in Israel.

And in time it will be said of Jacob

and of Israel: ‘What has G-d done?’”

| Ki lo-nachash beYa’akov

| velo kesem beYisra’el

| ka’et ye’amer le-Ya’akov

| ule-Yisra’el mah-pa’al El

Numbers 23:23

In his observations about the spiritual practices of Israel he points out that there is no nachash in the descendants of Jacob, also called Israel. Generally we understand this to mean divination or sorcery. What this mean is to figure out something by use of omens, augury (observance of animal related omens) or spell-casting. A nachash is a spell or enchantment.

Actually enchantment (nachash; noun, masc.) is probably the best way of describing this in biblical terms. You see there is a drawn mental image that might explain the entomology of the word. Nachash (also a noun, masc.) is also understood to mean a snake as well. Charming snakes is one of the oldest tricks in the books. In the book of Exodus we see Moses’ rod turns into a nachash, a snake or viper (see Exodus 4:3). But this was so well achieved as a parlor trick that even Pharaoh’s magicians accomplished a similar feat with water-serpents (see Exodus 7:9), so they felt unimpressed.

To us modern Hebrew speakers, an everyday and more common understanding isn’t so impressive for us either. We are less than impressed with the practice of nachash, as sorcery and enchantment. To nichesh (verb) is generally understood merely to mean to guess, to speculate, hypothesize and make conjecture.

This is the cheesy side of magic. We generally see magic as a bunch of tricks and performance art. Modern people like us don’t see anything special about “magic.” Which we comely associate with the everyday word kesem, this is the more correct word when it comes to magic. To kosem means to captivate a person, to entice them, to allure them; thus when we call a person a kosem, we are calling them a magician but what we really mean is soothsayer because they are just using mysticism and spiritual tones to pacifying people.

In purely secular terms the correct word for kesem would be illusionism. A kosem does things that seem impossible ordinarily, but have logical explanations for the phenomenon in the end. The skill of their “craft” was more dependent on being good at entertainment in the end.

But there was some element of actual physical craft that was part of this of the kosem’s profession. A kosem in the biblical age was a person that someone went to for a physical form of divining, it was not something nearly as passive and suggestive as nachash. Kesem bares similar roots for many words that relate to cutting, specifically with the connotation of wood or fruit cutting. For this reason it is associated with wooden pieces used as lots for divining. So much so that in modern Hebrew keisamim meanstoothpicks.” By reading the way they portioned themselves once cast one would decipher a person’s fate; in Arabic they still utilize a word for this, qismah to this day; from this is derived the Turkish word adopted into the English language for fate, kismet.

The kosem wasn’t okay with just letting things be. Balaam was not willing to do any form of physical sorcery, it seems. But not everyone is so upright. Sure, Balaam was a wicked man by any measure. But he was only willing to go so far. Not everyone is so reserved when it comes to this. Naturally when one involves themselves in tapping into magical arts they often find themselves taking it to another level and try to change their presumed fate though witchcraft. This reality is driven home to us by the fact that the messengers of Balak seem to have expected him to resort to this.

And they came, the elders of Moab

and the elders of Midian,

with charms in their hands

and they came to Balaam and they spoke

to him the message of Balak.”

| Vayelechu ziknei Moav

| vezikney Midian

| uksamim beyadam

| vayavo’u el-Bil’am vayedaberu

| elav divrei Valak.

Numbers 22:7

Again whereas nashash can seem to be more passive, through suggestiveness and seeking intuition; kesem is more active and includes physical acts. To mikasim, engage in magical arts and to spell-cast (mak’sim), is completely related to people using physical items in order to work their magic. Notice the commentary of Rashi:

And divination in their hands:

with all forms of charms (kesamim)

so that he could not say:

‘I don’t have any ritual items with me.’

Another way of read it is

this omen

the elders of Midian took with them…”

וקסמים בידם: |

כל מיני קסמים, |

שלא יאמר |

אין כלי תשמישי עמי. |

דבר אחר |

קֶסֶם זה |

נטלו בידם זקני מדין |

Rashi on Numbers 22:7

One of the points that is pointed out by our rabbis in their translations and their commentaries on the Talmud is that the acts of a kosem is to take ordinary things, enchant them in order to reflect their desires, and then cast them as an act of the Divine Will. Instead of being in-tuned with the situation and proactive in adverting their disaster by their own actions, they instead want to change the world around them. They do that sympathetically by taking items created by G-d, manipulating them in a certain way and then trying to strong-arm the orders of the universe to submit to their will. Instead of mitigating and preparing, all too often the simpletons think they can change they whole world to suit them. By taking elements of nature and tweaking them, they mistakenly believe they can manipulate the Divine Will and the order of the universe. (see Talmud Sanhedrin 81b; also related commentary of 19th century American Talmudist Rabbi Marcus Jastrow)

The Rambam has the following to say regarding magic:

ודברים האלו כולן |

דברי שקר וכזב |

הן והם שהטעו בהן |

עובדי כוכבים |

הקדמונים לגויי הארצות |

כדי שינהגו אחריהן |

ואין ראוי לישראל |

שהם חכמים מחוכמים |

להמשך בהבלים אלו |

ולא להעלות |

על לב שיש תועלת |

בהן שנאמר |

“כי לא נחש ביעקב |

ולא קסם בישראל” |

ונאמר |

“כי הגוים האלה אשר אתה יורש אותם אל מעוננים |

ואל קוסמים ישמעו |

ואתה לא כן |

וגו’” |

|

|

כל המאמין בדברים האלו |

וכיוצא בהן |

ומחשב בלבו שהן אמת |

ודבר חכמה |

אבל התורה אסרתן אינן |

אלא מן הסכלים |

ומחסרי הדעת |

ובכלל הנשים |

והקטנים |

שאין דעתן שלימה |

אבל בעלי החכמה |

ותמימי הדעת |

ידעו בראיות ברורות |

שכל אלו הדברים |

שאסרה תורה |

אינם דברי חכמה |

אלא תהו והבל |

שנמשכו בהן חסרי |

הדעת ונטשו כל דרכי האמת |

בגללן ומפני זה |

אמרה תורה |

כשהזהירה על כל אלו ההבלים |

“תמים תהיה |

|

עם ה’ |

אלהיך”: |

|

“And all of these things

are matters of falsehood and lies,

and they are the very means through which

the idol worshipers

fooled the nations of the world

into following them.

And it is not proper for Israel,

who are exceptionally wise,

to follow after these vanities,

nor to entertain the possibility

that they have any benefit.

As it is said [in the Torah]

“there is no divination in Jacob,

nor charming in Israel.”

And it is stated,

“For these nations that you will inherit

listen to the omen-readers and charmers;

but for you, it is not so

[…that Hashem, your G-d, should permit you to do

so].” (Deut:18:14)

|

Anyone who believes in these things

and things like them,

and thinks in his heart that they are true

and wise matters,

even though the Torah has prohibited them,

he is one of the mindless

and ignorant,

and is grouped among the “wives”

and immature

whose mind is lacking.

But those who possess wisdom

and sound mind

knows by clear demonstration

that all of these things

that the Torah prohibits

are not things of wisdom;

rather, they are emptiness and vanity

that fools stray after,

and all of the paths of truth

have been corrupted because of them.

Because of this the Torah states,

when it warns us about these vanities,

“You shall be simple

[or perfect; uncomplicated; whole-hearted]

with Hashem,

your G-d:” (Deut. 18:13)

[see Parshat Chukat 2011]

Mishneh Torah, Avodah Kohavim, Chapter 11, § 16

Rambam, Rabbi Mosheh ben-Maimon, Maimonidies;

the 12th Century Spain and Egypt

It is undeniable that our tradition forbids the use of charms and magical items. It is our goal to be unison with the seasons of blessing. We want to be on the same page as nature and G-d so that we don’t miss out. But we aren’t so foolish enough to think that we can change the order of the world to suit our own purposes. Anything that we hold as a charm is forbidden to us, we can’t warp the world nor should we warp our minds minds with such foolishness.

But do we not as Jews hold certain items as sacred? Are not certain ritual items held in high regard, and when we take them upon ourselves do we not feel a sense of protection and a good atmosphere surrounding us? Yes. But it is not at all the same. Balaam apparently recognized the difference, when he said:

Behold, they are a people

that rises up like a lioness

and raises itself like a lion;

it does not does not lie down

until it eats its prey

until it drinks the blood of it’s kill.”

| Hen-am

| kelavi yakum

| vecha’ari yitnasa

| lo yishkav

| ad-yochal teref

| vedam-chalalim yishteh.

Numbers 23:24

Rashi would acknowledge that we do have ritual items and ceremonial acts that we as Jews engage in. But we should understand that we are not enchanting or spell-casting through our acts or rituals. Rashi points this out in his commentary for this verse:

Behold a people etc.:

For when they awaken from sleep

in the morning

they strengthen themselves as a lioness

and like a lion

in grabbing mitzvot;

to don a tallit,

to recite the Shema,

and put on tefillin

|

Does not lie down:

at night until he consumes and destroys

any harmful thing

that comes to tear him.

How so?

He recites the Shema on his bed

and entrusts his spirit

into the hand

of the Omnipresent [Heb. ha-Makom].

Should an army or any troop

come to harm them,

the Holy One, blessed is He,

protects them,

fights their battles

and strikes them [their attackers] down dead

הן עם כלביא יקום וגו‘: |

כשהן עומדים |

משנתם שחרית, |

הן מתגברין כלביא |

וכארי |

לחטוף את המצות, |

ללבוש טלית |

לקרוא את שמע |

ולהניח תפילין: |

|

לא ישכב: |

בלילה על מטתו |

עד שהוא אוכל ומחבל כל מזיק |

הבא לטרפו. |

כיצד? |

קורא את שמע על מטתו |

ומפקיד רוחו |

ביד |

המקום, |

בא מחנה |

וגייס להזיקם, |

הקבה |

שומרם |

ונלחם מלחמותם |

ומפילם חללים. |

Rashi on Numbers 23:24

When the morning comes a Jew should be quick to rise in the morning with enthusiasm in order to take on their daily responsibilities. (see Tikkun Chatzot; and Modeh Ani) Sure we have ritual items, and we hold them so dear that as religious Jews that we start our day with taking upon ourselves the ritual-items of our faith. But we don’t do it for the protection of the items. We do it because they enable us to be able to meet our responsibilities of prayer and devotion; with the reciting of the Shema day and night. This is our avodah, our service and our work before Hashem, that we are to do as faithful people. These symbols of our faith are not charms, they are items that meant to help connect us to our spirituality and to the Torah; to help us get in touch with the consciousness of the Omnipresent. We don’t try to fight against G-d’s works and creation, instead we try to be in sync with it.

We must keep in mind that our faith is not at all passive, but it does not allow us the possibility of believing we can change the universe and nature. We aren’t allowed the luxury of sympathetic magic in order to try to bring blessing and good fortune to us. What is the working principle and the distinction between the nations and Israel, as far as Balaam can see, is that they have the drive to go out and grab their fortune for themselves. Like a lion they get up with strength and eagerness to grab hold of what they desire, and don’t stop until they are satisfied.

We don’t try to fight the Divine Will, nor try to mold it to our own shallow and short-sighted desires. Instead we engage ourselves in the works of Torah and mitzvot that are given to us by G-d. We engage in His works. And at the end of the day when we finally do lay down to rest we need not rely on our own strength or any type of magical power; instead we entrust ourselves to G-d and He does the work of protecting us.

For this reason it is said this parsha, in this first verse we have discussed, that:

“For in time it will be said of Jacob

and of Israel: ‘What has G-d done?’”

כָּעֵת, יֵאָמֵר לְיַעֲקֹב |

וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל, מַה-פָּעַל, אֵל: |

Numbers 23:23


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