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Parsha Mitzvot: Tetzaveh: Divine Names

The high priest wore a headband on which was inscribed, “Holy to God.” This has raised all sorts of issues for Jews over the ages. For example, Rav Hai Gaon was asked a number of questions concerning the use of various Divine Names for the performance of white magic. The questioners wanted to know whether there is any truth in the reports that the holy men can use Divine Names in order to perform such marvels as making themselves invisible. When they first put this question to him, the rabbi replied that it was all nonsense and that these things could not possibly happen.

The questioners were surprised to receive such a curt dismissal, which contradicts the testimony of many reliable reporters who claim themselves to have witnessed the Saints performing such miracles. There are reliable reports of sages writing a Divine Name on an olive leaf and then throwing it at robbers, causing them to become rooted to the ground unable to move.

There are also many tales of men traveling great distances in the twinkling of an eye. These “Masters of the Name”  have been observed by trustworthy witnesses in one place on the eve of the Shabbat and in another place, many days distant, the same day.

There is a tradition among Spanish Jews that Noatronai, Gaon of Sura, (853-58) traveled in just such a miraculous fashion from Babylon to teach the Spanish Jews the Torah and then returned the way he had come.

Furthermore, we have in our possession numerous books of Divine Names together with detailed instructions for their use. People have been known to practice this kind of magic, though admittedly some of them lost their lives in the process.

Can all this be sheer delusion? Moreover, the Talmud (Gittin 68a) contains references to the use of Divine Names for magical purposes, as in this story of Solomon and Ashmodai, and in many other instances. And what of those holy men, some of whom it we know personally, who fasted and recited certain verses so that they saw visions? There is even a report that Rav Haim himself has a family tradition regarding a certain Divine Name effective in prayer! Will he consent to share this knowledge?

Finally, the questioners wish to know which kind of magic is forbidden and which is permitted and what is the difference between miraculous acts performed by witchcraft and acts of the same nature performed through the prophetic gift?

In this question is all the tension inherent in the situation in which credulous Jews, accepting the Talmudic accounts at their face value, are puzzled by the apparent contradiction between the strict injunctions against witchcraft and the resort to magic why the rabbinic heroes. We know, furthermore, that the Karaites ridiculed their rabbinic opponents for their belief in magic and superstition.

In his reply, Rav Hai seeks to preserve the balance between extreme rationalism and sheer credulity. He first remarks that he remains convinced that all reports of men making themselves invisible by the Divine Names are false. God is not a divine conjurer and He exercises a strict economy in preforming performing His miracles. God has ordained the natural order, from which miracles are a radical departure. The force of a miracle consists in its infrequency. If miracles were diffuse they would be self-defeating, for they would then themselves be part of the natural order. That is why miracles must be rare. They are performed chiefly by a prophet in order to substantiate his claim that his message is from God.

Supposing you were told, argues Rav Hai, that an elephant and a camel were locked in mortal combat before your eyes but that you cannot see them and are looking straight through them. Would you believe it for one moment? Or supposing someone told you that there was an invisible man in front of you, only God had not given you the ability to see him. Would you not treat the one who made such an assertion as insane?

True, Torah does speak of God opening men’s eyes to see Angels, but that is because angels are refined spiritual beings normally invisible to the human eye but there all the same. With invisible men, however, the matter is quite different. If a man is invisible he does not exist at all, and that is an end of the matter.

As for the report of Natronai Gaon’s miraculous journeys through space, if they really happened it must’ve been a man masquerading as Natronia, but, in fact, after the most careful investigation into the report, says Rav Hai, we have been unable to discover the slightest trace of evidence that it is true. In all such matters Scripture has laid down for us the great principle: “The fool believes everything.” (Proverbs 14:15) Credulity is evidence of stupidity.

Rav Hai does, however, believe in the power of amulets, since these are mentioned in the Talmud, but their efficacy depends on the worth of the person who writes them and they are not always effective even when written by one skilled in the art. Nor does Rav Hai deny the power of the Divine Name to work miracles, but he points to the many strong injunctions against such use except by the very greatest of saints.

Rav Hai continues at length in this vein, proceeding to discuss the whole question of the divine names and how, in the main, we are ignorant of both their nature and their use. (Teshuvot HaGeonim, Chagigah, Page 16)

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