Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Friday, July 08, 2005

The Ways of the Amorite - Shabbat 67

One of the trickiest lines to draw is that between miracles and magic: miracles are divinely-authorized supernatural interventions, while magic is a non-God-related supernatural intervention. Those more secularly inclined don’t see much of a difference between the two, but to strict monotheists and monolatrists [worshipping ONLY one God] like the Rabbis, there is a big difference. The fear was that magic power like that drawn on in incantations and amulets would in fact be worshipping other gods, which was strictly forbidden.

Rabbi Jokhanan’s suggestion to cure an inflammatory fever by cutting one notch in a cord each day while reciting progressive verses from God’s encounter with Moses in a burning bush in Exodus 3 is entirely acceptable, since you are using both God’s text and his power. For an abscess, we are told to speak of the angels could cure boils and then say the magic words: “bazak, bazik, bizbazik, mismasik, kamun kamik” – even Rashi admits they have no meaning but are part of the incantation, like "abra-cadabra." And there are similar incantations against demons, even a “demon of the privy”! Here we begin to get into the murky waters of angels, demons, and other supernatural powers not strictly under the umbrella of direct divine authority. And certainly foreign to our experience today, where much more can be plausibly explained using natural cause and effect.

So how can you tell what kind of incantations are forbidden? The Rabbinic phrase for them is yesh bo mishum darkhei ha-emori [there is in it something of the way of the Amorite], and Raba and Abaye agree that anything that has a cure in it is not “the way of the Amorite.” But the Talmud does give plenty of examples of what is forbidden: asking one’s luck to be lucky, or a husband and wife exchanging names (probably to avoid evil), saying “I will drink and leave over” twice, dancing and counting 71 fledgling chickens so they won’t die, or requires silence to cook lentils, or the woman who urinates in front of her pot to speed its cooking – in all of these behaviors yesh bo mishum darkhei ha-emori. Evidently there is a difference between kosher magic and treyfe [not kosher] magic – but to me, it’s all magic and make-believe.

Rabbi Adam Chalom