July 19, 2024
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Sotah 47: Sufficiently Advanced Technology

Arthur Charles Clarke — the British science and science fiction writer—expressed what is known as Clarke’s three laws:

(1) When a distinguished, but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

(2) The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

(3) Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Our sugya on Sotah 47a reminded me of Clarke’s third law. A baraita instructs that even as we might disapprove of someone’s actions from a religious perspective, we should take care not to push them away with two hands. We should not follow the lead of Yehoshua ben Prachya nor the Navi Elisha—who pushed away their respective students—with disastrous results.

Elisha had cured Naaman’s leprosy and not accepted a reward. Geichazi ran after Naaman and pretended to speak in his master’s name to request silver and clothing for two bnei nevi’im. Elisha then cursed Geichazi with Naaman’s leprosy (Melachim II, verse 5). Sotah 47 describes how Elisha later went to convince Geichazi to repent, but that latter noted that he had heard a tradition from Elisha himself that whoever causes the masses to sin isn’t given the opportunity to repent.

There are three opinions as to how Geichazi caused the masses to sin: (A) He hung a lodestone (magnetite, אֶבֶן שׁוֹאֶבֶת) from the King Yeravam’s golden calf (or calves), thus suspending it from heaven and earth. (B) He engraved into its mouth (the ineffable name) and it would say the first two dibrot, namely, “I am Hashem your God” and “You shall have no other gods before me.” (C) Based on verse juxtaposition, Geichazi would push the sages away from coming before Elisha.

Magnetic Levitation

As for (A), taking this as historically accurate is difficult, because it does not seem possible to maintain stable levitation using regular magnets. With modern technology, of course, it is possible; but unless we say the ancients had advanced technology such as electromagnets—subsequently lost—we’d have to say this was based on incorrect speculation of what was possible.

Now, historical accuracy isn’t the same as being intended literally. A midrashic author might have thought it true and intended it as literal even though—historically speaking—it was not, in fact, what happened. Similarly, the existence of contradictory midrashim just means that the interpretation is a matter of dispute, not necessarily that any midrash was intended allegorically. Dustin Lowe discusses the prevalence of this belief in, “Suspending Disbelief: Magnetic and Miraculous Levitation from Antiquity to the Middle Ages.” Thus, Pliny the Elder (died 79 CE) discusses it as this process that was intended by an architect to levitate: “Using magnetic stone, the architect, Timochares, had begun to vault a temple to (Ptolemy II’s late sister-wife) Arsinoe at Alexandria, so that the iron statue in it would seem to hang in the air. This was interrupted by his own death and by that of King Ptolemy, who had commissioned it for his own sister.” So it was an unfulfilled idea.

Similarly, in Augustine’s “City of God,” around 410 CE—so, about Rav Ashi’s time: “The marvels that they call ‘contrivances,’ made by human skill through manipulating God’s creation, are so many and so great that those who don’t know better think them divine. So it happened that in a certain temple, where magnets were placed in the ground and the vault in proportion to their size, an iron statue was suspended in mid-air between the two stones. To those unaware of what was above and below, it hung as if by divine power.”

I’d note that Yeravam’s calves were of gold—not iron—so Geichazi would have to attach the magnet to it, rather than having the magnet surrounding it. So too, in Avodah Zara 44a, discussing the verse that David’s crown was a talent of gold, Rabbi Yossi and Rabbi Chanina explains that there was a lodestone in it that would pull it upward, so that it wasn’t so heavy. Thus, the gold itself isn’t being attracted by the magnet, but it is attached to the gold.

If we wanted to contemplate allegorical aspects of these explanations, we could consider that both (A) and (C) involve a poetic measure for measure. Geichazi was famous for pushing people away. In the preceding perek, Melachim II, verse 4, Geichazi had literally pushed away the Shunamite woman—וַיִּגַּ֨שׁ גֵּיחֲזִ֜י לְהׇדְפָ֗הּ. Now, Elisha has pushed Geichazi away with both hands. And Geichazi’s causing the masses to sin in (C) matches his flaw—he pushed the sages away from Elisha. So too, the אֶבֶן שׁוֹאֶבֶת in (A) has the effect of attracting, and in the opposite direction, repelling. It is, perhaps, literally ironic.

Permitted Magic?

Consider Sanhedrin 67b: אָמַר אַבָּיֵי הִלְכוֹת כְּשָׁפִים כְּהִלְכוֹת שַׁבָּת יֵשׁ מֵהֶן בִּסְקִילָה וְיֵשׁ מֵהֶן פָּטוּר אֲבָל אָסוּר וְיֵשׁ מֵהֶן מֻתָּר לְכַתְּחִלָּה. הָעוֹשֶׂה מַעֲשֶׂה בִּסְקִילָה הָאוֹחֵז אֶת הָעֵינַיִם פָּטוּר אֲבָל אָסוּר מֻתָּר לְכַתְּחִלָּה כִּדְרַב חֲנִינָא וְרַב אוֹשַׁעְיָא כָּל מַעֲלֵי שַׁבְּתָא הֲווֹ עָסְקִי בְּהִלְכוֹת יְצִירָה וּמִבְּרֵי לְהוּ עִגְלָא תִּלְתָּא וְאָכְלִי לֵהּ. Fourth-generation Abaye lays out three levels of magic. Actual sorcery is biblically prohibited. Illusory magic, achizat einayim, is only rabbinically forbidden. The actions of Rav Chanina and Rav Oshaya (third-generation Amoraim who were Rabba bar Nachmani’s brothers)—who repeatedly engaged in hilchot yetzira and created a calf to eat on Shabbat—were in the realm of permitted, spiritually positive and kosher magical creation.

Now (A), using a magnet, might be achizat einayim—rabbinically forbidden illusory magic. (B) involves harnessing truly supernatural forces, but using them to evil ends. I’d guess that this is in the third, kosher class of magic, but maybe we should consider it illusory? Regardless, the reason Geichazi couldn’t repent wasn’t the magical action, but the effect.

Finally, we find a midrashic parallel to (B) related to the predecessor of Yeravam’s golden calf. (see Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tisa 19, cited by Rashi in Shemot 32:4). That is, Aharon merely cast the gold into the melting pot and the golden calf arose by itself. Either sorcerers approached and performed magical feats or else that Micha (the child saved by Moshe from the walls of Egypt) possessed a divine name, as well as in the case of Moshe’s tablet. The Egyptians had sunk Yosef in a lead coffin in the Nile, and—according to one midrash—Moshe cast a tablet that had the words: עֲלֵה שׁוֹר עֲלֵה שׁוֹר (compared to Bereishit 49:22, בָּנוֹת צָעֲדָה עֲלֵי שׁוּר) into the Nile and the coffin rose up. This same tablet—and, thus, positive spiritual manipulation—was being repurposed to an evil goal.


Rabbi Dr. Joshua Waxman teaches computer science at Stern College for Women, and his research includes programmatically finding scholars and scholastic relationships in the Babylonian Talmud.

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