(c) 2000 Dr Hendel; 1st appeared in Torah Forum (c) Project Genesis

Date: Sun, 19 Mar 2000 20:11:58 -0500 (EST)
From: Russell Hendel <  rhendel@mcs.drexel.edu>
Subject: Re: Witches

QUESTION: (Concerning the verse to sentence witches to death)
<  <  ...What relevance does this verse have to modern times? I'm told that, by
virtue of this very verse, thousands of women were put to death, both in
Europe and the American colonies during the sixteenth and seventeeth
centuries...>  >

Yes, this verse does have relevance and can be rationally explained. The
following is a brief synopsis of my understanding of the matter:

The Ralbag (Gersonidees) on 1Samuel28 states that <  seance makers caused the
participants to have visions even though there was nothing physically out
there to see>   (I interpret this to mean that seance makers cause

This is only a theory but using it we can explain the Rambam in Idolatry
Chap 11:15. (a) Actual witchcraft = causing hallucinatory experiences---
using witchcraft methods, is a capital crime while (b)just 'grabbing the
eyes'--appearing to cause hallucinations but not doing so (perhaps Magic
tricks which look like hallucinations but are not) would only be
rabbinically prohibited (Also see Kesef Mishnah on 11:9).

Notice that such a theory that WITCHCRAFT=HALLUCINATIONS and MAGIC SHOWS=
GRABBING THE EYES is consistent with the following statements in Idolatry
11:15 (a) Witches don't really change reality (they just cause
hallucinations) (b) doing witchcraft or magic shows is a waste of time
since Jews should only engage in bona fide wisdom and the study of Torah.
(Note: I infer from this Rambam that watching Magic Shows is rabinically
prohibited.. a view not shared by all legal authorities)

This is also consistent with History. Historical records suggest that the
Salem witch trials happened because of a bad crop and lack of refrigeration
(rye when it rots can produce chemicals that cause hallucinations). So if a
person served rotted rye and it caused hallucinations then people would
suspect them of being witches.  (Note that according to the Rambam you need
more than Hallucinations...you also need 'the way of witches'--which might
involve eg causing hallucinations for purposes of procurement of
abusing/using the victim) (This interpretation of the Salem witch trials is
actually suggested in some books though I forget their titles).

This is ONLY a theory...but I believe it makes sense. After all...one can
certainly understand why the Torah WOULD impose a death penalty on
organized movements of people who caused hallucinations for procurement of

I hope these ideas help understanding of this difficult topic

Russell Jay Hendel;Phd ASA
MOderator Rashi is Simple, http://www.shamash.org/rashi/