The onset of the Ten Plagues in Egypt is presented as a magical dual between Moses and Aaron on the one hand, and Pharaoh’s sorcerers on the other. Pharaoh has his magicians successfully perform the same feats as God’s messengers no less than three times, shape-shifting their staffs into serpents, turning the River Nile blood-red, and spontaneously generating frogs (Exodus 7:11; 7:22; 8:3). Yet they are inexplicably stymied in their efforts to reproduce the third plague of lice, exclaiming: “this is the finger of God!” (Exodus 8:15). Rashi, the great medieval exegete, explains this development by quoting a bizarre magical rule-of-thumb from the Talmud.
Rabbi Eliezer says: It is derived from here that a demon[ic force] cannot create an entity smaller than the size of a barley grain. (b. Sanhedrin 67b)
Where does this curious rule come from, and what might it teach us?
The Palestinian Talmud – which often more accurately preserves rabbinic statements than its younger sibling, the Babylonian Talmud – presents the text slightly differently, with a mosquito replacing the barley-seed, and people coming together, rather than a demonic force. These tiny details betray a connection with another, almost identical midrashic statement by the same sage, regarding a biblical reference to “the soul that they [Abram and Sarai] made in Haran” (Genesis 12:5) before their journey to Canaan.
If everyone in the world got together they still could not create even a single mosquito and put a soul in it, and yet you say “the soul they made in Haran?!” Rather, these are the converts whom they had converted…which teaches you that whoever brings an idol-worshiper close to Divine worship and converts him, it is as if he created him.” (Genesis Rabbah 39:14)
Using the tools of philological reasoning, it is possible that this comment, which emphasizes the impossibility of creating any kind of life, even in its smallest insectile form, later evolved into the magical rule that sorcerers cannot create small – mosquito or barley-sized – life-forms. Whether or not that explains the origins of the strange talmudic rule, it is surely suggestive how the midrashic comment about the soul Abram and Sarai made rejects the possibility of magically creating any form of life at all, while reminding us that transforming someone religiously is the truest form of magic.
On further thought, this must be the magic “trick” that Pharaoh’s sorcerers could only dream of, and which Moses and Aaron were about to accomplish during the Exodus, when the Israelites would grow from a downtrodden, enslaved people into an elevated “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Shai Secunda is a professor of Jewish studies at Bard College, and writes regularly for the Jewish Review of Books on Jewish scholarship and culture.
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