Thoughts on Judaism

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Magic and Judaism

With the storms created over science and Torah, we seem to overlook a very big chink in the armor of the debate, magic. How do we begin to play with notions that the Chachamim understood relativity, string theory or quantum mechanics from the Torah and Talmud, when they seem to promote the notions of nonsense, such as astrology, black magic, fortunetelling, magic medicine and superstition. In fact, the debate in the Torah is whether the Torah forbid them because they are true, but we cannot use them (e.g. the Ramban et al), or whether they are forbidden because they are simply foolishness (e.g. the Rambam et al). A good summary of this debate can be found here; (Sorry, I will learn to code HTML one day and link this properly.)

Where does that leave us, the modern people who do not believe in these things?

Worse, it seems that major portions of the Jewish community believe in magic so much that even non-Jewish magic will do. Alternative medicine is big business and alternative practitioners abound in the Jewish community. Acupuncture, the manipulation of imaginary "meridians" through imaginary organs, to promote the flow of imaginary "chi", is immensely popular. (See and search for a full discussion of these subjects) Homeopathy, the outdated and scientifically disprovable notion from the late 1700s that like cures like when diluted to nonexistent levels is still the favored method of treatment and cure for many people. And the Rabbis are just as supportive of these things as anyone else.

In Israel, mekubalim are running around giving psychic advice, giving out "kamia" (magic amulets), even giving medical advice or doing magic cures, all with tacit support from rabbis, or at least wink wink from rabbis and authorities.

How deeply does the Orthodox Jew have to be involved or at least believe in magic in order to remain frum?

As a test case, I would like to propose a simple test for the infamous pidgeon cure for hepatitis. If you have been around hassidic or other hareidi type communities for any length of time, you have no doubt heard of the ability of some people to cure hepatitis by placing pidgeons on the patient's navel. This procedure requires no double blind procedure, since the effects are apparent. Let us set up a study of 100 patients who have untreated hepatitis, and administer the pidgeon cure. Measure bilirubin and any other liver health factors before the procedure, immediately after the procedure and at regular intervals for a short time thereafter. Since, we are dealing with a potentially deadly illness, obviously, medical professionals should be involved so as not to prevent a patient from getting actual effective treatment in due time. At the end of the study, we would have plenty of actual numbers to talk about that are not affected by the placebo effect or other factors. Either we will finally scientifically dispense with this notion, or we will find some medical paradigm that cures a deadly disease.

Also, I have heard it claimed that this treatment has some ancient Jewish source, but I am unable to find anyone who can locate it, proponent or opponent. Can anyone refer me to an old Jewish source of this pidgeon practice?


  • I think it does need to be double-blinded, to avoid the placebo effect, which in this case could be stronger, because the patient has emunah that the cure works. But I think it could be done, block the patient's vision with a sheet or blindfold (consult with a stage magician who can help make sure the patient really can't see), the placebo group have someone do the procedure wrong. I don't know all the details, but find out what the practicioners say would definitely render it ineffective: different breed of pigeon, hold it upside down (would the feeling of its feet give it away?) etc. I've also heard that the procedure kills the pigeon, so if the pigeon squawks at first and later stops, put headphones on the patient and play sounds of pigeons so he can't tell what's live and what's recorded, or white noise, or loud music (kosher music, so religious patients will agree).

    I don't think this study will ever be done. The patients and practitioners believe that this is part of Judaism, and will likely think that it is wrong to put it to a test.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:03 AM  

  • I approached someone who does this procedure and asked if he would do a test. He replied that he did not want the magic to get out, nor does it always work.

    Since it would be very difficult to double blind, I would rely on real physical effects, like measurement of bilirubin etc. over a time. Placebos just cannot change the medical measurements appreciably.

    I still contend that I cannot find a Jewish source for this practice. It is simply a gyishe superstition until proven otherwise. A medical doctor I spoke to says that there isn't even a physical connection between the liver and the navel except for, perhaps, a tendon. Nothing that could convey the "poison" or "bile" as practitioners contend.

    If we were to double blind the procedure, I would agree that a magician would be the correct resource. They truly know how to fool people and how people fool themselves. Perhaps, if someone showed enough success at this, the Amazing Randi himself would devise a test for the procedure.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 11:06 AM  

  • 'Magic' could be relabelled 'kochos hanefesh', i.e. the ability to use the potential inherent in the nefesh. Of course in order to do this in a disciplined and organised fashion you need to have a good control of the faculties of nefesh. In halocho such a person is called a 'baal nefesh'; in non jewish terms you would think of a shaman-healer (Iatromantis). The Rambam clearly appears to have functioned at this level in his medical practice - look in Shmone Prokim 1 where he identifies two types of doctors, the 'rofe haguf' and the 'rofe hanefesh'. This would be entirely in line with his understanding of Greek philosophy, as the Greeks were shamans, (Chochmas Yavan) although this is distorted in the 'modern' understanding of their culture (there is no such thing as Chochmas Edom). The stories of the Rambam suggest that he did not spend time asking his patients questions and examining them, but merely looked at them, which would be perfectly acceptable if he had shaman-type healing abilities - he would 'know' what was wrong with them intuitively. Your understanding of the world is, as you say, modern. The 'modern' conception rests on an abandoning of the flawed Christian understanding of nefesh so that there is no longer any non-physical part to a person, and of course magic does not make sense, nor can it be practiced in a meaningful way.

    Having sorted out your nefesh, you are of course prepared to connect to and receive the Torah, which is neshomo level, and as the Sfas Emes says, 'lemaalah mehanefashos'

    Have fun!

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  • I don't know what happened to the pidgeon cure discussion... i witnessed this with my own eyes as we brought in a practioner when my husband was hit with hepatitis... he was already over the worst of it so it's hard to say how much faster this helped him pull through, but we are still left with a question science cannot answer. Why do the pidgeons die? They are fine and sit quietly on the navel until a certain point, where they lift their heads up and appear to be "gasping" silently for a few seconds - and then they die. It does not appear that the pidgeon handler is doing anything to hurt them, and I just can't believe that a practice so widespread would be perpetrated by "charlatans" who are then listed in their local community directories as being available for anyone in need. So many attest to being helped... isn't it worth taking seriously?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:07 PM  

  • GB

    Pigeons have a very small lung capacity. Chances are that you witnessed what you described, a pigeon dying of suffocation by held in one position for too long.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 12:40 AM  

  • 1. We examined the pigeons after the treatment, they died from suffocation.
    2. Our local physician has seen thousands of dead pigeons, but no cures.
    3. There is no source for this treatment before the 1850s so it has no connections with Jewish sources or kabbalistic thought.
    4. The source is Taamei HaMitzvot. On the next page, he has footnote on his cure for rabies. "Do not waste your time on this nonsense. I just read that Prof. Pastuer has a real cure. Get on the next train."
    5. Pigeons are disease vectors. It would be unethical to expose sick people to pissatosis and chlymidia.

    By Blogger aryeh, at 8:25 AM  

  • Aryeh

    Thank you for your comment. How and when did you perform his study or observation and with how many subjects? Under what circumstances? Any more details? I will duly post at the top of the blog.

    What is the 1850s source? I have heard that their may be a similar reference in a predominant (nonJewish) magic book from the early 1800's. The book is posted on the Internet but I was unable to find the reference so far.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 10:07 AM  

  • my brother had it done about 18 years ago in jerusalem,a few pigeons died but as the last one survived my brother got better and well and thank g-d has not had any recurrance since.we come from a science background but this was witnessed first hand and we dont have alterior motives to advocate this treatment .take it for what its worth.refuah shleimah

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:33 AM  

  • I was in Israel In 1989 and saw with my own eyes because I was very skeptical myself about this when I heard the concept. An american student who I can easily track down was yellow with hepatitis. he went to a medical doctor who was observant, the doctor suggested he try the pigeons. They bought around 20 or 30 birds and did the treatement in the patients dorm room in Kfar Habad, Israel around summer of 1989.
    The birds were Gently held not by the neck but with thier rear ends over the navel. I saw with my own eyes how they slowly died.
    After all the birds had been 'used' (for lack of a better word), he was up and out of his bed walking around and said "wow, I feel a lot better, first time I am out of bed in a while" His color had also returned although not completely.

    All this talk about suffocating the birds is hogwash and an attempt by some in my opinion to explain away what they cant believe. I only regret I did not have a camera handy to videotape this. I would have millions of hits on Youtube by now. The point is, had I not seen this with my own eyes I would also dismiss it by I did see it and cannot deny what my eyes saw.

    By Blogger elie, at 2:47 PM  

  • The pigeons die from ruptured spleens according to a study reported by Fred Rosner in 1992, at least in the version he witnessed and autopsied the birds.

    Birds also become "hypnotized" very easily, by being held in one position, and they have a very small lung capacity so it takes very little pressure to suffocate them.

    Hepatitis is self healing in 80% of cases, so what you report is expected by chance 4 out of 5 times. It is the other 1 I worry about.

    It is easy to convinced by what we see with our own eyes. It really looks like she is being sawed in half.

    By Anonymous rebeljew, at 12:09 AM  

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