The Sorcerer Rabbi? Rabbi Eliezer and His Sorcery [Talmud Tuesday]
The most famous sorcery done by a rabbi in rabbinic literature is that by Rabbi Eliezer, the late first century rabbi. Not only does rabbinic literature portray him as being the most knowledgeable about sorcery, but even engaging in some!
Rabbi Akiva, a student of Rabbi Eliezer, tells us that Rabbi Eliezer used to teach 300(!) laws about witches (tSanhedrin 11:2) and Rabbi Yehoshua, son of Hananiah, a colleague of Rabbi Eliezer, also tells us that Rabbi Eliezer used to expound 300 laws from the discussion of witches (ySanhedrin 7:13). While these are quite impressive and shows us that Rabbi Eliezer really knew a lot, some perhaps by tradition and some that he expounded on his own, the greatly fascinating glimpse of what he could do is found in his own words:
פעם אחת אני והוא מהלכין היינו בדרך
אמר לי רבי למדני בנטיעת קשואין
אמרתי דבר אחד נתמלאה כל השדה קשואין
אמר לי רבי למדתני נטיעתן למדני עקירתן
אמרתי דבר אחד נתקבצו כולן למקום אחד
When we was sick and Rabbi Akiva and other rabbis came to visit him, he told them that he was walking with Rabbi Akiva, who had requested that he teach him about planting of cucumbers. Rabbi Eliezer then said something and the whole field had cucumbers filling it. Rabbi Akiva, prodding Rabbi Eliezer, then asked him about their plucking, which Rabbi Eliezer then proceeded to say yet another word and they all were gathered in one spot (bSanhedrin 68a).1 This is certainly fascinating because not only are we informed of a rabbi committing sorcery, but he is telling us (and his fellow rabbis) himself(!). Moreover, it’s interesting that Rabbi Akiva was asking him how to do it!
It is shocking that Rabbi Eliezer could get away with not only committing sorcery – in front of his student, Rabbi Akiva, no less – but also that he is telling his colleagues(/students) about it. Perhaps he feels that, since he is sick (not clear whether it’s his deathbed, though, or he’s merely sick), he might die anyways. Another possibility is that he is merely creating the illusion of planting them and plucking & gathering them, although, one could ask, why not just say that he was merely illusion-creating?
Another possibility is that “For the Talmud, it is only the Rabbi who is permitted to practice magic, while others, especially women, are forbidden, since the Rabbi’s powers and purpose is derived from the sacred and women’s powers are from another source, thought to be evil.”2 Nevertheless, the “Bavli’s anonymous scholastic voice (stam) is uncomfortable with the [reworked] baraita‘s claim that Rabbi Eliezer performed magical acts”,3 and suggests that doing sorcery for teaching purposes is acceptable (bSanhedrin 68a)!
This ability of Rabbi Eliezer’s to use sorcery seems to not only appear in these particular texts, but may appear elsewhere, as well, in one of the most famous stories in the Babylonian Talmud. The story of the Akhnai Oven pits Rabbi Eliezer against his colleague, Rabbi Yehoshua and his colleagues in deciding the purity/impurity of an oven shaped like a snake. In their argument, Rabbi Eliezer appeals to nature to help his cause: having a carob tree uproot itself and move far away, having a river flow back upon itself, and having the walls of the study house fall in on the disputants (bBava Mezia 59b). The question of how it could be that such things occurred is certainly a great question, since people typically do not have such power. One may think that the power of his argument is such that nature is even bending to his will to agree with him.
However, it may be that he utilized his knowledge of sorcery to get the tree to move and the river to flow back upon itself, as well as the walls of the study house to fall in on themselves. This may also explain why Rabbi Yehoshua and his colleagues are not impressed out of their minds as to why these things are occurring – they may be familiar with his abilities with sorcery.
1. “Rabbi Eliezer is portrayed, not as possessing three hundred laws regarding cucumber magic, but three hundred legal insights regarding the subject of sorcery, and the proper juridical interpretation of the death penalty prescribed for sorcery in Exodus. Only one of these three hundred applies to cucumber magic.” (Shamma Friedman, “Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Can Source-Criticism Perform Magic on Talmudic Passages about Sorcery?”, Rabbinic Traditions between Palestine and Babylonia, ed. Ronit Nikolsky and Tal Ilan (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2014), 58.)↩
2. Simcha Fishbane, “‘Most Women Engage in Sorcery’: An Analysis of Female Sorceresses in the Babylonian Talmud”, in Simcha Fishbane, Deviancy in Early Rabbinic Literature: A Collection of Socio-Anthropological Essays (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2007), 81.
3. Friedman, “Now You See It, Now You Don’t”, 59.↩