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Magic—As Innocent As It Seems?

The “magic industry” of western society has filtered through to many areas of our lives. We are well-accustomed to small-scale magic shows for birthday parties, larger-scale shows for public entertainment, and over-the-counter magic tricks of varying levels and complexity, for the private home.

If our son or daughter would come home excitedly, rattling off his tale of how a friend had barely finished whispering ‘abracadabra’ before the ball simply vanished in front of his eyes, we would barely bat an eyelid. But what is the Torah outlook on such matters? Does this involve an an issue of geneivas da’as, whereby our child has been tricked into believing that the magical abracadabra really did something? Should we perhaps be batting an eyelid, or even more?

The answer to this opens with the teaching of the Rambam in his Sefer Ha-Mitzvos (Negative Mitzvah 32): “A me’onen (see Devarim 18:10) is someone who deceives the eye (achizas einayim), using trickery, such as slightness of the hand, to perform deeds that appear wondrous. For instance, someone who takes a rope, places it under his garment, and extracts a snake, or someone who throws a ring into the air, only to find it in the mouth of a member of the audience. This is a form of sorcery, and one who practices it receives lashes, as well as [transgressing the offence] of stealing the heart of people (geneivas da’as).”

Modern-day magic, we deduce, is not just a fad of modern western culture—it was around at the time of the Rambam, who apparently forbade it for two reasons: a form of sorcery, and theft of the heart.

In fact, we likewise find “magic tricks” recorded in the Gemoro itself: Rav said to Rabbi Chiya, “I once saw an Ishmaelite who took out his sword and cut a camel into pieces. Then he rang a bell, and the camel stood on its feet!” Rabbi Chiya responded, “Did you see the blood and excrement of the camel? Rather, it was [nothing but] deceit of the eyes” (Sanhedrin 67b).

The Gemoro (ibid.) teaches that one does not receive the punishment of lashes for mere deception of the eye: there is a prohibition, but one is exempt from punishment. The Rambam cites this ruling (Avodah Zarah 11:15)—a seeming contradiction to the above teaching of Sefer Ha-Mitzvos, and to a neighbouring halachah (11:9) which states that deception of the eyes is penalised by lashes.

Bach (Yoreh De’oh 179) solves this contradiction by distinguishing between two forms of deception: one that uses sorcery, and one that does not. In his opinion, deception that relies on mere slightness of the hand is more stringent than deception of true sorcery. According to this, deceptive magic tricks transgress a full Torah prohibition. Shach (Yoreh De’oh 179:17) cites the ruling of Bach, and agrees with it, as does Chayei Adam (89:6) and Mishnas Chachamim (47; see also Pischei Teshuvah Yoreh De’oh 179:7 and Darkei Teshuvah 37).

Chayei Adam adds that one who orders and pays for such a magician would thus transgress the prohibition of placing a stumbling block in front of the blind, and that it is likewise prohibited to view a magic show in which such tricks are presented.

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