We learn in Parashas Balak (according to the Ramban) that “there is no enchantment against Yaakov, nor is there any divination against Israel” (Bamidbar 23:23). Sorcery and magic, exclaimed Bilam, cannot take hold against Israel, for their destiny is in the hands of Hashem alone.
While it seems distant from the sorcery of Bilam, the magic industry of Western society has filtered into many areas of our lives. We are all familiar with small scale magic shows for birthday parties, more impressive magic shows for public entertainment, and over-the-counter magic tricks of varying levels and complexity for the private home.
Magic tricks, at their varying levels, are simply a part of the culture we live in.
What is the Torah outlook on such matters? Is there a prohibition against magic tricks? Can there be an issue of geneivas daas, or even a witchcraft-related prohibition, in innocent looking magic tricks? Should we take magic more seriously than we tend to? We will address these questions, among others, below.
We open with the question of geneivas daas, literally “theft of the heart,” or deception. What does this prohibition involve, and is it relevant to modern magic tricks?
As we have discussed in the past (concerning the prohibition of lying), the prohibition of deception is especially severe—a severity noted by Chazal. The Tosefta (Bava Kama 7:3), which is cited by the Ritva and other rishonim, states that of several forms of theft, geneivas daas is actually the most serious. Ordinary theft relates to the most external part of man: his possessions. Geneivas daas strikes at the innermost layer, the human heart.
Thus the Rambam, having introduced the general prohibition of trickery and falsehood and the obligation to keep our verbal expression in line with our inner thoughts, adds the following (De’os 2:6):
“It is forbidden to steal the heart of creatures, even the heart of a non-Jew. How is this? One may not sell non-kosher meat to a non-Jew, under the pretense that the meat is kosher … one may not plead insistently with one’s fellow that he should dine with him, in the foreknowledge that he will not do so … one may not open numerous barrels in someone’s presence, feigning that he is opening them in his honor, while in fact he must open them for trading purposes. This, and anything similar—even a single word of deception—is forbidden. Rather, one’s tongue should be true, one’s spirit sincere and one’s heart pure of all corruption and crookedness.”
According to certain authorities, the prohibition of deception is a full Torah transgression, derived from the instruction not to steal, which includes all forms of theft (even theft of the heart). Thus the Semag (Negative Commandment 155) and Shulchan Aruch Harav (Onaah 11) note that the prohibition is a Torah law, while the Semak (262) and Bach (Choshen Mishpat 228) write that the prohibition is only of rabbinic nature.
Could the prohibition against deception apply to magic?
Not Every False Impression is Deception
Not every case of incorrect representation is considered deception.
The Gemara (Eiruvin 100b) teaches that a man should appease his wife by telling her of his intention to buy her an exquisite garment, thereby expressing her elevated stature as deserving of such grandeur. Ultimately, however, he reveals the truth: he lacks the means to purchase the gift. The original declaration is not considered deception because of the intention behind his words: he does not intend to deceive, but only to flatter.
A similar application is found in the Rambam (as noted above), who rules that one may not repetitively invite another to one’s house, in the full knowledge that he will not come. The essence of this prohibition is that the inviter gives a false impression of a desire to serve the invitee. Through creating this impression, the inviter hopes to extract future favors from the would-be guest.
If, however, the invitation is extended (even in the full knowledge that it won’t be accepted) for the genuine purpose of honoring the invitee, no prohibition is transgressed. On the contrary, it is considered good manners to offer a guest a cup of tea or a glass of water even when one is entirely sure he will decline the offer. The prohibition of geneivas daas is a matter of deception; when the intent is purely positive, no prohibition is transgressed.
As we will explain further below, this line of reasoning can also be applied to the halachic status of magic tricks. In general, magic tricks are not performed to deceive. They are performed to entertain, generally with the knowledge of the audience that some trick (whether sleight of hand, or other) is at work. This may distance them from the problem of geneivas daas.
Sorcery or Sleight of Hand?
But other than deception, the concept of magic raises a concern for the sinister prohibition of sorcery. Magic tricks of today are not inventions of modern Western culture. Although its form and nature has evolved with society, magic has been around for many years. It is therefore not surprising to find halachic authorities who address the issue.
The primary sources for the matter are in the Mishnah and Gemara. For instance, the following incident is recorded by the Gemara: “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).
Moreover, the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 7:11; 67b), which notes the different Torah prohibitions against sorcery and divination, states that one who merely “deceives the eye” (and doesn’t perform actual sorcery) is exempt from lashes. According to Kessef Mishnah and Lechem Mishnah, this implies that there is no punishment at all for deception of the eye—meaning that no prohibition is transgressed (Avodah Zarah 11:15). Although the Rambam (in his commentary to the Mishnah) notes that one who does so receives lashes, the Tosafos Yom Tov explains that this only on a rabbinic level (see also Ramah, Sanhedrin 67b). Deceiving the eye is wrong and forbidden, but not on a Torah level.
There is, however, an apparent contradiction in the Rambam, who writes in Sefer Hamitzvos: “A me’onen (see Devarim 18:10) is someone who deceives the eye (achizas einayim), using trickery, such as sleight of the hand, to perform deeds that appear wondrous” (Sefer Hamitzvos, Negative Mitzvah 32). The Rambam proceeds to give an example of somebody who takes a rope, places it under his garment, and takes out a snake; or someone who throws a ring into the air, only to find it in the mouth of a member of the audience. The Rambam concludes that these are forms of sorcery, “and one who practices it is liable for lashes, as well as [transgressing the offense] of deception.”
The Bach (Yoreh De’ah 179) notes that several approaches are suggested to resolve this contradiction. One is a distinction between deception that relies only on sleight of the hand, which does not involve a Torah prohibition, and deception that relies on true sorcery, which is a Torah offense.
The Bach, however, suggests another distinction, between somebody who performs an action, and somebody who does not. The one kind of deception, relying of sleight of the hand, requires the magician to perform some actual deed (a physical action) to pull off the trick. Since a concrete action is involved, the act is punishable by lashes. The other type, however, entails no concrete action-it is just something which deceives the eye (similar to the Gemara mentioned earlier). When no action is involved, the deed is not punishable by lashes.
Differing Views of Different Generations
According to the Bach, it thus emerges that deceptive magic tricks that rely on sleight of the hand transgress a full Torah prohibition of me’onen (aside from the transgression of geneivas daas-deception mentioned by Rambam). The Shach (Yoreh De’ah 179:17) cites the ruling and concurs, as does the Chayei Adam (89:6) and Mishnas Chachamim (47; see also Pischei Teshuvah, Yoreh De’ah 179:7 and Darkei Teshuvah 37).
The Chayei Adam adds that one who orders and pays for such a magician would therefore transgress the prohibition of placing a stumbling block in front of the blind. He further states that it is likewise prohibited to view a magic show in which such tricks are presented.
However, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l (Shut Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 4:13) finds this ruling difficult to accept. It is implausible, he reasons, that mere sleight of the hand can invoke a Torah prohibition. Surely, he continues, we find that individuals gifted with special powers are permitted to make use of them, even if others will inevitably think that supernatural forces are at work.
Shimshon could therefore make use of his supernatural strength against the Philistines, and Naftali could run at incredible speed to fetch the document of proof (for the sale of Me’aras Hamachpeilah to Yaakov) from Egypt. There was no concern for the prohibitions of deceit or for sorcery.
The same, states Rav Moshe, is true of sleight of the hand for magic tricks. Furthermore, whereas the Shach cites a ruling of the Rema (responsum 67) to reinforce the ruling of the Bach, Rav Moshe uses the same reponsa to refute the Bach, demonstrating that there is no prohibition on deceiving the eyes through natural means alone. Rav Moshe maintains this to be true even according to the Rambam.
Though wary of disputing those who prohibit it, the Iggros Moshe thus concludes that were he asked, he would attempt to avoid answering the question; if unsuccessful, he would permit the performance of magic tricks, provided the magician declares that his acts are perfectly natural, and involve no supernatural phenomena.
In a similar vein, Rav Betzalel Stern (Shut Betzel Hachochmah 4:13) cites several Rishonim who imply that the prohibition of deception of the eye applies solely to the authentic use of supernatural powers. Based on a statement of the Chinuch (mitzvah 250), the Kloisenberger Rebbe (Shut Divrei Yatziv, Yoreh De’oh 57) also writes (in a speculative rather than decisive way) that one may be lenient concerning the matter, provided the magician makes it clear that no supernatural forces are involved.
Harav Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvos Ve’hanhagos 1:655) also mentions, in the name of the Chazon Ish, that no prohibition applies when the audience is aware that it is only a trick.
Between Trick and Sorcery: The Generational Gap
Reflecting on the difference of opinion concerning the halachic status of magic tricks, it is possible that there is a distinction between days of old, when sorcery and supernatural forces were a part of popular culture, and the modern age where this is not the case.
In generations past, the first impression of an audience who sees a magic trick would have been to perceive it as a supernatural phenomenon. By contrast, an audience of today will be largely unmoved. Rather than considering the trick an act of sorcery, the audience will be thinking more of how the trick was done.
This might explain why medieval authorities saw magic tricks as deception, and even ascribed them the prohibition of me’onen, whereas modern authorities treat them as a permitted form of entertainment. As the Rambam and Chinuch (mitzvah 250, at greater length) explain, the evil of deception of the eyes is that people will come to believe the impossible to be possible, and even reach conclusions that contravene basic Jewish faith.
For today’s audience such conclusions are unlikely, to say the least. Audiences today are fully aware of the natural means of magic tricks, so the argument for leniency becomes highly convincing.
Because nobody is being tricked into believing in supernatural forces, the issue of deception is also not raised. As to the prohibition of sorcery, we might suggest that according to opinions that prohibit deception of the eye as a form of me’onen, the prohibition applies only to natural means that are made to resemble supernatural forces.
This seems to emerge from the explanation offered by Radvaz into the opinion of Rambam. The Radbaz himself (Metzudot David 61) maintains that the Torah only prohibits acts of true sorcery, and not deceptive acts that rely on natural phenomena. In a responsum (1695) he thus rules that other than deception, there is no prohibition on performing such magic tricks.
However, the Radvaz concedes that for the Rambam all magic is prohibited, yet attributes this position to the general opinion of Rambam concerning witchcraft and supernatural forces. According to the Rambam, all these are absolute falsehoods that one should not reckon with at all (see Biur Hagra, Yoreh De’oh 179:13). Because the Rambam understands that supernatural forces simply do not exist, the prohibition must be understood as causing others to believe in non-existent supernatural powers.
In today’s circumstances, where there is little chance that audiences will be convinced to believe in the supernatural, there is therefore room for leniency (as ruled by the authorities above) even according to the Rambam—as Rav Moshe rules.
Yet, it should be noted that there are many types of magic shows and acts, the more sophisticated of which may well enter the range of the halachic dispute. Furthermore, bending spoons and similar tricks are often presented as manifesting some sort of supernatural power, and their permissibility is thus questionable. Before ordering the next magician—and surely before entering the profession—it might thus be wise to consult a halachic authority!