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What Is the Meaning of ‘Mechashefah?’

Exodus 22:17 commands that one is not allowed to let a מכשפה live. But what precisely is a מכשפה and what is the meaning of its root כשף? We have one example of kishuf in the Torah, in addition to the general prohibitions at Exodus 22:17 and Deuteronomy 18:10. The one example is Exodus 7:11. Here the Egyptian mechashfim are able to turn their rods into serpents just like Aaron did. So kishuf seems to be a form of magic (i.e., an attempt to defy the laws of nature.) Can we see anything like this in the root כשף? After all, words generally start with concrete meanings, and not with broad meanings like “do magic.”

Here are some attempted explanations, ones which at least claim an etymological basis:

כשף  has a meaning of “cut.” There is an Arabic cognate with this meaning. The reference can be to someone who cuts herbs to make a magic brew.

כשף has a meaning of “cut.” There is an Arabic cognate with this meaning. The reference is to self-mutilation as a method of making requests to the Gods (see, e.g., Kings I, 18:28).

כשף is related to חשׂף with its meaning “reveal.” Acts of kishuf reveal the hidden or the future.

Admittedly, all of these suggestions are difficult. (For another suggestion, see Rav Hirsch’s long etymological discussion at Exodus 7:11.)

Our word has a cognate in other ancient Semitic languages such as Ugaritic and Akkadian.

Outside of the Torah, there are nine places in Nach where people who do kishuf are mentioned. But the passages are not helpful in determining the precise activity they performed. Also, the meaning of the term may have evolved over the centuries.

There is a mishna (Sanhedrin 7:11) that tells us what kishuf is not: one is not punished for kishuf if one pretends to do kishuf but merely tricks someone. But this mishna does not tell us what kishuf is. (Daat Mikra—commentary to Exodus 22:17—comments that the Tanach, Talmud, Rambam and Acharonim are all unclear about the precise activity that is considered kishuf!)

At Jeremiah 27:9, the noun for sorcerer lacks the initial mem: (kashafeichem). I have not seen anyone suggest a distinction between the two nouns.

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Several times in Tanach, there seems to be a connection between kishuf and idolatry. See, e.g., Kings 2, 9:22 and Michah 5:11. Also, at Exodus 17-19, we have prohibitions in the following order: kishuf, sexual relations with animals and sacrificing to idols. Is this random or is there some connection here?

The scholar, Umberto Cassuto, is able to give an approach that answers these questions. First, he explains the prohibition (commentary to Exodus 7:11): “An act of magic is actually an attempt to achieve a given object outside the laws of natural causation, which would otherwise be impossible. The magician believes that he has the power—or others believe so—to compel, by his acts and utterances, the forces of nature and the demons, and even the gods, to do his will. Obviously, there is no room for such views in Israel’s religion. The laws of nature were established by the Creator, and it is impossible for a human being to change them in any way … Consequently, the Torah is absolutely opposed to all forms of magic … ”

Cassuto continues (commentary to Exodus 22:17): “Every magical act, even for a purpose that is not evil, is forbidden, since it constitutes an attempt to prevail over the will of God, who alone has dominion over the world.” Now we understand why kishuf is linked with idolatry. We also understand the connection to verse 19, the prohibition on sacrificing to idols.

But what about 22:18, sexual relations with animals? Cassuto points out that there are many references to such practices in pagan mythology. For example, in Ugaritic poetry, Baal had relations with a cow. In the epic of Gilgamesh, Ishtar had relations with various animals. (Also, Rabbi Dr. Hertz suggests that relations with animals were part of many ancient idolatrous cults.)

In Cassuto’s view, verses 17-19 are one unit representing laws against three idolatrous customs (all punished by death). (Rambam includes the prohibition of kishuf in Hilchot Avodat Kochavim, at 11:15. See also Moreh Nevuchim 3:37.)

Cassuto also points out that in the ancient Near East what was prohibited was only magic intended to harm. In contrast, Cassuto understands the Torah to be prohibiting all kinds of magic. See similarly Encyclopaedia Judaica 11:703. (The cognate in Akkadian, “kashapu,” was a term used only for magic intended to harm.)

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A common question is why the prohibition at Exodus 22:17 seems to be in the female form. Everyone agrees that a male who engages in the same behavior is equally punished. (See, e.g., Mechilta and Sanhedrin 67a.)

A widespread answer is that the Torah used the female form because most of the individuals who engaged in kishuf were women. (This answer is given in both the above sources and in Rashi.) An added suggestion is that the Torah needed to stress that even a woman needed to be killed, since people have more mercy on women. (See, e.g., Moreh Nevuchim 3:37 and Daat Mikra at 22:17.) Finally, a third answer is that the form of the word מכשפה does not have to imply only females. It is just a collective noun, a name for the group. In the same manner, דגה does not imply only female fish and חסידה does not imply only female stork. (This last answer is given by Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach in his sefer “HaRikmah.”)

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There are many other words in Tanach for those who do mystical activities: אשף, ידעני, לחש, נחש, ענן, שחר, אוב, חבר, חרטם and קסם. For most of these words, we have a better understanding of their meanings. These terms can be categorized into three groups: magic, divination and astrology. Kishuf, at least originally, seems to have belonged in the first category.

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Going back to the meaning of כשף at Exodus 22:17, Onkelos translates it with the word חרשא (charasha). This means, “sorcerer” or “magician.” (It probably gets this meaning from the “silence” meaning of חרש, and initially referred to those who recited mystical formulas silently or with murmuring.)

In the translation of the Torah into Greek (third-century BCE, Egypt), the word used is consistently something like “pharmakeia.” This seems to mean either “herbalist” or “poisoner.” (My experience is that what is found in the Greek translation is always interesting but there is little chance that it reflects what the word meant originally.) The Hertz Chumash follows this interpretation. See the comments on Exodus 22:17 and Deuteronomy 18:10. (At least this interpretation has a sound etymological basis, but only to the Greek translation!)

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A final question is why the punishment is not expressed as: “She must be put to death.” What is expressed instead is: “Do not let her live!” The most interesting answer is provided by Bechor Shor and Chizzekuni. The phrasing teaches that you are entitled to kill her before she goes to beit din. If you wait, she will use her magic and escape! (Perhaps twitching her nose like Samantha!)


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. As you might have guessed, he used to enjoy the TV show “Bewitched” as a child.

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