Numbers 22:2 – 25:9
What Is Divination and Soothsaying? What is the problem with working magic?
As 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
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 means “toothpicks.” 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.
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
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” |
“כי הגוים האלה אשר אתה יורש אותם אל מעוננים |
ואל קוסמים ישמעו |
ואתה לא כן |
כל המאמין בדברים האלו |
וכיוצא בהן |
ומחשב בלבו שהן אמת |
ודבר חכמה |
אבל התורה אסרתן אינן |
אלא מן הסכלים |
ומחסרי הדעת |
ובכלל הנשים |
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’ |
“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
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 is grouped among the “wives”
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]
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.”
| kelavi yakum
| vecha’ari yitnasa
| lo yishkav
| ad-yochal teref
| vedam-chalalim yishteh.
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.
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,
fights their battles
and strikes them [their attackers] down dead
הן עם כלביא יקום וגו‘: |
כשהן עומדים |
משנתם שחרית, |
הן מתגברין כלביא |
לחטוף את המצות, |
ללבוש טלית |
לקרוא את שמע |
ולהניח תפילין: |
לא ישכב: |
בלילה על מטתו |
עד שהוא אוכל ומחבל כל מזיק |
הבא לטרפו. |
קורא את שמע על מטתו |
ומפקיד רוחו |
בא מחנה |
וגייס להזיקם, |
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: |