"If the Torah is so Adamant, Then That Must Mean Something Huge" Series: Why Does the Torah Relate to Kishuf with Such Severity?
“A machshefah shall not live.”
Machshefah (often translated as sorceress or witch) comes from the word kishuf (kee-shoof—often translated as magic, sorcery, witchcraft, divination, or occultism).
(And despite the feminine noun used, all the commentaries state that the prohibition definitely includes men: warlocks, wizards, sorcerers, etc.)
The translation causes confusion when people want to know whether this verse also prohibits magic shows and the like.
Modern Hebrew labels sleight-of-hand magic shows as kosmut (kohss-moot) and their magician as a kosem (koh-sem)—an “enchanter.”
It’s not real magic.
The magician relies on fancy handwork, gimmicks, assistants, and mirrors to achieve his “magical” results, which his delightful audience finds enchanting.
Nonetheless, halachic sources throughout the ages find even the gimmick-based magic shows problematic, albeit less so today because in our times, even young children respond to a magic trick by asking, “How did you do that?”—meaning, they know it’s not supernatural, but accomplished using very natural strategies.
Basically, the magician in a magic show must include a disclaimer that he is not performing real magic, but merely entertaining tricks with very rational strategies behind them.
However, acts in which the performer wishes to convince the audience that he uses supernatural or psychic powers (like bending a spoon with his mind) are problematic.
Rav Yehoshua Pfeffer (the author of the below articles) advises consulting with a halachic authority before entering the profession or arranging for a magic show.
For a comprehensive discussion of Jewish Law on the topic, please see:
2 Types of Forbidden Kishuf
There are 2 types of forbidden kishuf (sorcery, witchcraft, magic):
- The fake, sleight-of-hand, gimmick-based magic mentioned above, but one that is used to deceive people into believing in the power of the occult & causes them to question, doubt, or deny Hashem’s power.
- Real kishuf. Meaning, the medium uses occult tactics or entities to achieve the desired effects. Such a person accesses the powers of harmful tumah (impure spirituality) to carry out his or her objectives.
This post focuses on the second type of kishuf: those involved in the occult—also known as those who utilize kochot hatumah (the powers of impure forces).
My Journey from the Rational Approach to the Supra-Rational
That’s because I grew up with Halloween & its appealing presentation. In addition, the mainstream outlets presented kishuf as imaginary & fun.
Furthermore, old-time spiritualists & modern Wiccans emphasized the concept of “white magic” & “white witchcraft”—in other words, kishuf used for neutral (like finding a parking spot) or even for good (like healing others).
(You’ll see in a later post why even “white” kishuf is a problem.)
The only people I knew who took kishuf seriously were my church-going classmates & neighbors.
But I found it hard to take THEM seriously.
After all, these are the same people who insist on cultivating in children the belief that a dangerously obese man in a red wool suit rides around on a reindeer-driven sleigh & slides down chimneys to fill stockings & arrange presents under indoor fir trees—this belief cultivated by the same people who believe that 1 equals 3.
(Or that 3 equals 1? Whatever.)
They also related stories of people they knew struck by demonic possessions and cured by exorcisms.
My high school classmates even returned from a church youth group weekend retreat with stories of another classmate who displayed signs of demonic possession (uncontrollable shaking, etc.), and for whom only the intervention of their heroic minister ended the crisis.
Convinced only rational explanations existed, I refrained from arguing with them, but mentally chalked up such things to group hypnosis, the power of suggestion, bias confirmation, hysteria, etc.
Wholly secular at the time, I couldn’t even entertain the possibility of something supernatural occurring in those situations.
So I remained unmoved in my conviction of rational explanations only.
And those rational explanations really could have explained their experiences.
However, with their unintentional harnessing of themselves to the powers of tumah (there is no “son of God”—so to whom exactly are their prayers & religious energies going?) and the compulsion of some church leaders to create possession events, they really could be accessing the occult—even though that’s the very dynamic they claim to oppose & fear.
When I first started keeping Torah & mitzvot, my Orthodox community consisted of Jews who maintain strict allegiance to the rationalist stream of Judaism—mostly based on the Rambam.
I felt very comfortable there & continued to grow in my newfound Torah Judaism.
Much later, I began to realize that Judaism cannot be fully embraced within a 3-dimensional world of the strictly rational.
Too many questions remained unanswered.
For example, I found the concept of suffering impossible to accept without the concept of gilgul—reincarnation.
Gradually, I realized that the world must comprise far more than just 3 dimensions.
Quantum physics—still undiscovered in the Rambam’s time—opened up new venues of understanding.
Furthermore, I couldn’t help noticing that the most brilliant & holy minds of Jewish history overwhelming believed in the existence of worlds within our world, of unseen entities, a variety different dimensions, and much more outside the strictly 3-dimensional rational.
Not only that, they understood how this all worked, knew how to deal with them when encountering them (and they DID encounter them, even if they didn't want or mean to), and they also knew how to protect themselves from it all.
In fact, a significant chunk of the standardized Jewish daily prayer provides protection from harmful entities, like prosecuting angels (mekatrigim) or demons and that whole subset associated with harmful entities mazikin or nezikin (damagers), chitzonim (outsiders, externals), klippot (impure "shells" which imprison holy sparks), and so on.
These prayers are a gift from those same brilliant & holy minds for our protection.
In her book, To Play with Fire: One Woman’s Remarkable Odyssey, Tova Mordechai recalls the faith healings & spiritual highs she either observed or experienced during her years trapped in a church cult.
A rav explained to her that these events utilized kochot hatumah—the powers of spiritual impurity.
She noted how the rav's explanation finally explained why the aftermath of the spiritual high of these tumah-based “faith healings” always left her feeling depleted, with a dark emptiness inside.
Former practitioners of Eastern occult systems (who later became frum) also recall a dark empty feeling that replaced their initial spiritual high, leaving them feeling irritable.
Furthermore, aside from experiences with spiritual tumah, strange events occur to people that defy any rational explanation. (And I mean documented events by reliable people, not just claims by eccentrics.)
Books like Chessed L'Avraham & Kav Hayashar & Minchat Yehudah (or the Zohar itself) testify to all sorts of entities & events far beyond the realm of the rational.
Gradually, I made the shift to accept a world full of other worlds and beings.
Paradoxically, Judaism now made more sense than ever.
The Truth of Torah shined brighter too.
And with this, the capital severity of kishuf also became more understandable.
The Infamous 80 Witches of Ashkelon
Throughout history, thousands of people also lost their souls to these charlatans.
Ultimately, poverty, homelessness, rancor, illness, and death resulted from following such “magical” deception.
That’s reason enough for the death penalty.
But the implementation of supernatural kishuf deceives just as dangerously, with equally harmful results.
Its very hiddenness make it impossible to stop without executing the practitioner.
The classic story of this involves Rebbi Shimon ben Shetach’s handling of a mountain coven of 80 witches who were “destroying the world.”
One rainy day, Rebbi Shimon gathered 80 disciples wearing clean garments, and also 80 vessels. He instructed the disciples of their mission to deal with these 80 witches, then explained his strategy: They would all make their way to the cave of the coven, their clean garments kept bone-dry in the firmly sealed vessels.
Upon arriving at the coven, Rebbi Shimon planned to engage the witches, then he would whistle once—that was the signal for the men to don the dry clothes.
A second whistle was meant to summon the men to come rushing into the cave.
And that’s what happened.
Rebbi Shimon reached the cave, his disciples hidden nearby. He called out to the witches, posing as an occult master like them.
They let him in.
Then, in what seemed to be a demonstration of skill & a challenge to this newfound "master wizard," one witch conjured up a loaf of bread out of thin air. Another conjured up a cooked meal while another conjured up wine.
“What can you do?” they challenged.
"I will whistle twice,” replied Rebbi Shimon, “and 80 men wearing clean clothes will come here to make you happy."
“We want them!” said the lascivious witches.
Rebbi Shimon whistled once, and the hidden disciples donned their clean, dry clothing.
He whistled a second time and they rushed into the cave.
He hinted to them that each one must take a witch and raise her up off the ground because the loss of contact with the ground nullifies the occult power.
He told the one who conjured up bread, “Bring bread!”
She could not.
So Rebbi Shimon said, “Hang her!”
And so on throughout the remaining 80 witches.
Back at the ranch (so to speak), this caused quite a stir because Jews don’t judge 2 capital cases in one day, Rebbi Shimon handled the whole situation wildly differently than capital cases are handled, he did not follow halachic protocol, etc.
(Like any other capital case, a person accused of being a machshefah must be tried in a court of justice by a group of Sages possessing high-level wisdom & discernment.)
Why did the great Rebbi Shimon ben Shetach make such a radical detour in his handling of the 80 witches?
First of all, the occult acts were performed directly in front of the judge (Rebbi Shimon ben Shetach himself); there was no doubt involved.
Secondly, it was an emergency situation.
The witches were ruthless, conniving, and in possession of powerful supernatural powers.
They were said to be destroying the world with their hidden machinations.
It was either now or never.
So Rebbi Shimon acted upon the opening he’d created in that moment.
The Machshefah Midwife
It relates the story of a machshefah who portrayed herself as a master midwife.
The women in her town suffered extremely difficult labors in which the baby seemed to get stuck and only her appearance on the scene seemed to finally enable the birth.
You can imagine how much the people revered her. You can imagine how willing even the poorest were to pay her whatever she demanded for her special “service.”
What they discovered, however, was that she both caused & enabled the births via kishuf.
She kept special sealed jars full of I-can’t-remember-what; the sealed jar associated with each birthing woman obstructed the delivery of the baby.
Whenever she was summoned to a stuck birth, she secretly brought the sealed jar with her. Upon arriving, she found a place where she could break open the jar undetected, then return to the birthing woman and “miraculously” deliver the baby.
At one point, she was killed.
(I can’t remember whether the court sentenced her to death or whether, upon the chilling discovery of her jars, something happened that killed her. But I think she was actually executed.)
This story stands out as an outlier because ever since the starring role of Shifra & Puah, Judaism shows a lot of appreciation for midwives.
The old-time Jewish midwives in Morocco or Yemen brought their emunah & Jewish compassion, along with their practical skills, into their midwifery.
In fact, one Yemenite midwife became a well-known healer of infertility after coming to live in Tiveria in Eretz Yisrael. I believe her name was Simcha Demari and she used reflexology & herbs & homeopathy to help women get pregnant.
(In fact, one of her successful patients told me that Simcha gave her capsules of myrrh & frankincense—both used in Ketoret—to assist with fertility. Now Simcha's daughters-in-law carry on the practice.)
In contrast, if you ponder the machshefah midwife for a moment, her heartless cruelty stands out.
For example, despite what many natural-birth proponents claim, unmedicated births can be excruciatingly unbearable (ask me how I know...).
(Just by way of brief explanation: The unmedicated birthers either don’t experience excruciating births or they love the idea of both facing & overcoming pain, feeling like triumphant winners when the ordeal ends. But many of us definitely do NOT feel that way.)
To intentionally cause a laboring women so much pain & emotional anguish is unforgiveable.
Furthermore, we all know that babies can suffer serious damage (or even death, Gd forbid) if they get stuck in the birth canal.
It can also harm the woman, with internal tearing or even a fractured tailbone.
The extreme distress caused to the woman and those attending her, the fear for her life and that of her baby—all so this machshefah could acquire power, honor, and wealth?
And even if she promised to never indulge in such kishuf again, how could anyone trust her?
She already proved herself to be a merciless, greedy, conniving psychopath.
Can you trust her proclaimed repentance?
Furthermore, due to the easy concealment of kishuf, how could you ever supervise her future conduct?
Once again, if the Torah so strongly condemned a certain practice, then that means something.
This Verse is Not a Call to Harm Others Nowadays
We can better understand why something so dangerous—and so incredibly easy to hide—demands such a severe consequence.
Having said all that, we no longer judge capital cases in rabbinical courts.
We haven't done so for centuries.
We also don't commit vigilante justice.
For example, no one kills a Sabbath-transgressor (even though the Torah demands the death penalty for transgressing Shabbat).
Instead, we try to encourage the Sabbath-transgressor to learn more about Shabbat & Judaism so that he or she develops on their own a desire to keep Shabbat.
The reason why the response changed is discussed copiously in scintillating detail throughout millennia of rabbinical scholarship and too much to explain here.
But the end result is that no one executes Sabbath-transgressors, nor does anyone want to.
- Part II: What's the Problem with Kishuf?–A Torah Discussion of Witchcraft, Sorcery, and the Occult from Both the Rationalist & Supra-Rationalist POV