Overpowering Black Magic (Shabbos 81)

Rav Chisda and Rabba bar Rav Huna were once setting sail. A certain noblewoman said to them, “Let me ride with you.” But, sensing her evil intentions, they did not agree to her request. Sure enough, she uttered a magical incantation, which immobilized the boat. In response, they too uttered something (MiLTa), and released the boat from her spell.

Exasperated, she said to them, “What can I do to affect you?  I am powerless over you, as you do not wipe with an earthenware shard, nor do you kill lice on your garments, nor do you pull out a vegetable and eat it before you untie the bundle that was tied by the gardener.”

רַב חִסְדָּא וְרַבָּה בַּר רַב הוּנָא הֲווֹ קָא אָזְלִי בְּאַרְבָּא, אֲמַרָה לְהוּ הָהִיא מַטְרוֹנִיתָא: אוֹתְבַן בַּהֲדַיְיכוּ! וְלָא אוֹתְבוּהָ. אֲמַרָה אִיהִי מִילְּתָא — אֲסַרְתַּהּ לְאַרְבָּא. אֲמַרוּ אִינְהוּ מִילְּתָא — שַׁרְיוּהָא. אֲמַרָה לְהוּ: מַאי אֶיעְבֵּיד לְכוּ דְּלָא מִקַּנַּח לְכוּ בְּחַסְפָּא, וְלָא קְטִיל לְכוּ כִּינָּא אַמָּנַיְיכוּ, וְלָא שְׁלִיף לְכוּ יַרְקָא וַאֲכִיל לְכוּ מִכִּישָּׁא דְּאָסַר גִּינָּאָה.

The Baal Shem Tov explains that the rabbis did not utter a magical incantation to cast off the spell of the sorceress. They simply quoted the verse in the Torah, “Mechashefa Lo Techayeh” – “You shall not let a sorceress live.”  Their “utterance” was actually an abbreviation of the verse that forbids us from giving any life to sorcery. (In old manuscripts, the word is indeed spelled with abbreviation marks).

How did their declaration release the boat from her spell? When she cast her spell, the ship’s crew were paralyzed. They were so convinced of her magical powers that they were unable to move forward. The rabbis then announced that her words were only as significant as the value the sailors accorded them. If they believed in their ability to immobilize the boat, then they would be paralyzed by that belief. If, however, they heeded the Torah’s commandment, “You shall not let a sorceress live,” and gave no ‘life’ to the sorcery by virtue of disbelieving its effects, then it would fail to impact them.

Frustrated by their response, she acceded to the fact that she had no power over them, for they did not wipe themselves with an earthenware shard, did not kill lice on their garments, and did not eat vegetables before untying them. What is the meaning of her strange statement?

The Gemara explains that broken pieces of pottery were used and reused in the restroom. The Jewish community deplored such conduct as improper. Undoubtedly recognizing the practice as unhygienic, our Sages ascribed a black-magical concept to it, thereby distancing the general populace from engaging in it. Along with other practices such as washing one’s hands subsequent to relieving oneself, these laws distanced the Jews from the world around them, protecting them not only spiritually, but physically. When diseases broke out, the Jews were often shielded, on account of the strict hygiene enactments in force. Thus, casting a spell upon a Jew calling for him to take ill would have far less effect.

Why did the sorceress bemoan the fact that we didn’t kill lice upon our clothing?  Certainly, on Shabbat such an act is forbidden, as one may not take any life, even an insect. But lice have never bothered us in the same way that others were disturbed. Unlike the first two plagues in Egypt, which Pharaoh’s magicians were able to duplicate, they were dumbfounded when the lice appeared. “It is the finger of God,” they cried.  And the Talmud explains that sorcery has no power over anything smaller than a barleycorn.  In other words, the noblewoman acknowledged that we see God in every aspect of our lives and don’t live according to superstitious beliefs.  When you see God in the tiniest aspects of your life, no harm can befall you.  The answer to every challenge is, whatever happens is God’s will.

Her third issue was that we don’t eat vegetables without untying them first.  What she meant was that we do not consume any item in this world without making a bracha.  When we thank God prior to eating, we release the food from the physical, earthly realm, and elevate it to the realm of spirituality.  Not only do we perceive everything that happens as being the Divine will, we play an active role in elevating this world to become Divine, as we utter our holy incantations prior to engaging with any physical item.  The ‘Gardener’ has tied up this world and hidden the Divine sparks in the forces of impurity, and it is our job to release and elevate them.

Ultimately, the primary reason that her magic failed was the rabbis’ declaration that they would give no life to the magic.  When you believe that Hashem is in control, you are able to proceed through life without becoming paralyzed by the superstitious tricks of the mind.  The Talmud (Pesachim 110b) indicates that magic and superstition only affect the person who believes in their power.  Rav Moshe Feinstein (EH 3:26) suggests that the same may be said of ayin hara, the evil eye.  If you believe in its power, then it can have an immobilizing effect upon your life.  But if you lead your life with the belief that the Almighty is the only Arbiter of the world around us, then nothing will impede your ability to prosper.

From time to time, medical articles appear exploring the power of prayer on healing.  Whilst we certainly believe that beseeching Heaven’s mercy can mitigate the Divine decree, first and foremost, prayer is effective for a fundamental reason.  The individual of faith believes that the Almighty is in control and lives with the positivity that He has the capacity to heal.  That knowledge itself is powerful enough, in many instances, to impact the outcome.  The sailor who is paralyzed by the incantation he has heard stands far less chance of survival than the faithful person who believes that God has the final say.  That positive outlook alone serves as a powerful force to muster the body’s ability to fight the disease that is attacking it.

You live ‘in’ this physical world.  But as a child of the Supreme King of Kings, you are not ‘of’ this physical world.  May you rise above the powers of this world by ‘dispelling’ any negative thoughts that come your way!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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