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Balak – A Halachic Glance at Magic

For there is no divination in Yaakov and no sorcery in Israel…
(Bamidbar 23:23)

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 a tale of how a friend had barely finished whispering ‘abracadabra’ before a ball simply vanished in front of his eyes, we would barely bat an eyelid. For many of us, magic tricks are part of the culture we live in.

But what is the Torah outlook on such matters? Does this involve an issue of geneivas daas, whereby our child has been tricked into believing that the magical abracadabra really did something? Furthermore, does it involve a witchcraft-related prohibition? Should we perhaps be batting an eyelid, or even more?

Geneivas Daas—Deception

We open with the question of geneivas daas, literally “theft of the heart,” or deception. What does this prohibition involve, and could it be pertinent to the issue of magic tricks?

After introducing the general prohibition of trickery and falsehood, and the obligation to keep our verbal expression in line with our inner thoughts, Rambam (De’os 2:6) adds the following:

It is forbidden to steal the heart of creatures, even the heart of a non-Jew. How is this so? 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 knowledge 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 Torah transgression, derived from the instruction not to steal, which includes all forms of theft (even “theft of the heart”). Thus Semag (Negative Commandment 155) and Shulchan Aruch Harav (Onaah 11) note that the prohibition is a Torah law, whereas Semak (262) and Bach (Choshen Mishpat 228) write that the prohibition is of rabbinic nature (Rambam makes no mention of the prohibition in his Sefer Ha-Mitzvos).

One way or another, Chazal note the special severity of geneivas daas. Tosefta (Bava Kama 7:3), as cited by Ritva and other rishonim, states that of several forms of theft, geneivas daas is the most severe. Ordinary theft relates to the most external part of man: his possessions; geneivas daas strikes at the innermost layer of the human heart.

Not Every False Impression is Deception

However, 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 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: not to deceive, but to flatter.

A similar application is found in one of the halachos referred to in the above citation from Rambam, which teaches 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 burning desire to serve and wait upon the invitee. Through creating this impression, the inviter hopes to extract future favors from the other.

If, however, one invites another to be one’s guest, once again in the full knowledge that he won’t accept, but 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 that he will decline the offer. The prohibition of geneivas daas is a matter of deception; when the intent is purely positive, there is no prohibition.

As we will see later, this line of reasoning might to be of relevance to the halachic status of performing magic tricks.

Sorcery or Slightness of Hand

We now turn to the words of halachic authorities concerning magic. The magic tricks of today are not merely fads of Western culture—although their form and nature have evolved with society. Magic has been around for many a year, as we find in the following words of 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).

The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 7:11; 67a) states one who merely “deceives the eye” is exempt from punishment. According to Kessef Mishnah and Lechem Mishnah, this implies that there is no punishment at all for “deception of the eye”—not even the punishment of malkus (lashes) (Avodah Zarah 11:15). Others, however, point to Rambam’s commentary on the Mishnah as proof that the punishment of malkus does apply, for the prohibition is a Torah offence (see also Ramah, Sanhedrin 67b).

Indeed, Rambam himself seems to contradict himself on this issue. Whereas in one place he quotes the words of the Gemara exempting “deception of the eye” from punishment, elsewhere he writes as follows: “A me’onen (see Devarim 18:10) is someone who deceives the eye (achizas einayim), using trickery, such as sleight of  hand, to perform deeds that appear wondrous. Examples of this phenomena are, 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 malkus, and transgresses the prohibition of deception” (Sefer Ha-Mitzvos, Negative Mitzvah 32).

Bach (Yoreh De’oh 179) resolves this contradiction, together with a seeming contradiction with an additional ruling of Rambam (Avodah Zarah 11:9, which states that deception of the eyes is penalized by malkus), by distinguishing between two forms of deception: one that uses sorcery to make it appear that he did something when in actuality he did nothing, and one that does not use witchcraft but actually does something with sleight of hand. In his opinion, deception which relies on mere sleight of hand but actually does something involves a full transgression of the prohibition of me’onen, and obligates those who practice it in a penalty of Torah malkus. An act of deception that manipulates true sorcery to make it appear that something has happened but actually nothing did, however, is exempt from malkus, because there is no actual “deed”.

Differing Views of Different Generations

According to Bach, deceptive magic tricks thus transgress a full Torah prohibition of me’onen, aside from the transgression of geneivas daas, deception, mentioned by Rambam. Shach (Yoreh De’oh 179:17) cites the ruling of Bach, and concurs, 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. He further states that it is likewise prohibited to view a magic show in which such tricks are presented.

Harav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, however, finds this ruling most difficult to accept (Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’oh 4:13). It is implausible, he reasons, that mere sleight of hand should involve a Torah prohibition. Surely, he continues, we find that individuals gifted with wondrous 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 proving the sale of Me’aras Hamachpeilah to Yaakov from Egypt.

The same, states Harav Feinstein, is true of sleight of hand with regard to magic tricks. Furthermore, whereas Shach cites a ruling of Rema (responsa 67) to back the ruling of Bach, Iggros Moshe uses the same reponsa to refute Bach, demonstrating that there is no prohibition on deceiving the eyes through natural means alone. Harav Feinstein maintains this to be true even according to Rambam.

Being wary of disputing those who prohibit it, Iggros Moshe thus concludes that if he would be asked, he would attempt to shy away from answering the question; were he 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, Harav Betzalel Stern (Betzel Hachochmah 4:13) cites several Rishonim who imply that the prohibition of deception of the eye applies solely to the use of supernatural powers such as witchcraft. Based on a statement of Chinuch (mitzvah 250), the Kloisenberger Rebbe (Divrei Yatziv, Yoreh De’oh 57) also writes (in a speculative rather than Halachic manner) 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.

True Deception?

Based on the above introduction concerning the prohibition of geneivas daas, we might explain the different opinions based on changes in the general attitude of people towards magic tricks.

Whereas in medieval times supernatural forces were widely believed in, today (certainly in the Western world) they are largely dismissed. While in generations past the first impression of an audience would be to see a magic trick as a supernatural phenomenon, today’s audience will be largely unmoved, thinking more of how the trick was done than about supernatural powers.

This might explain why medieval authorities saw magic tricks as deception, and also ascribed them the prohibition of me’onen, whereas modern authorities treat them as a permitted form of entertainment. As 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. For audiences that are fully aware of the natural means of magic tricks, the argument for leniency becomes highly convincing.

Because nobody is being tricked into believing in supernatural forces, the issue of deception is not raised—the “deception” that takes place is done for the sake of entertainment, and not for the sake of true deception. 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 is perhaps the rationale for Radvaz’s explanation of the Rambam. 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 responsa (1695), Radvaz accordingly rules that other than deception, there is no prohibition on performing such magic tricks.

Radvaz does, however, concede that in the opinion of Rambam all magic is prohibited, yet attributes this stance to the general opinion of Rambam concerning witchcraft and supernatural forces, which Rambam maintained to be falsehoods that one should not reckon with (see Biur Hagra, Yoreh De’oh 179:13). Because Rambam maintains that supernatural forces do not exist, the prohibition must be understood as causing others to believe in non-existent supernatural powers. Under 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).

Yet, it should be noted that there are many types of magic shows and acts, the more sophisticated of which may well enter into areas within the halachic dispute. In particular, the bending of spoons and similar tricks are 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!

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