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Parashat Mishpatim 5758-1998
"You shall not tolerate a sorceress" (Ex. 22:17)
Dr. Meir Bar-Ilan
Department of Talmud and Jewish History
The Torah's proscription against sorcery is well-known. Several references can be cited forbidding various kinds of sorcery (e.g., Lev. 19:31, "Do not turn to ghosts and do not inquire of familiar spirits"), although no punishment is stipulated (as in other cases, such as, "Thou shalt not murder"). What is unique about the verse in question, however, is that sorceress [Heb. mekhashefa] is specified in the feminine: as if a sorceress were forbidden, but a sorcerer allowed.
Rashi, knowing there was no difference between sorcery by a woman and by a man, explained the use of the feminine as follows: "[In using the feminine term] Scripture speaks of what is usually the case; for it is mostly women who practice witchcraft" (there are variant texts). Rashi made this comment in the wake of rabbinical sources (Mekhilta de-Nezikin 17; Sanhedrin 67a), where the following baraitha appears: "The Rabbis teach that "sorceress" refers equally to men as to women. Then why is the feminine used? Because it is mostly women who practice witchcraft." Indeed, an explicit prohibition against men practicing witchcraft appears elsewhere: "A man or a woman who has a ghost or a familiar spirit shall be put to death" (Lev. 20:27), to teach us that Scripture views men and women equally in this regard. Clearly Scripture did not intend to exclude men from the prohibition against sorcery. Nevertheless, the question remains, why the word "sorceress" was used instead of the more general masculine, which could (and perhaps should) have been used. Below we present a linguistic and an historical analysis of this question.
R. Jonah ibn Janah, the medieval Spanish grammarian, noted that mekhashefa is not the feminine of mekhashef [sorcerer] but a collective noun, just as daggah is not the feminine of dag [fish], but a collective noun denoting fish in general. (A similar distinction exists in English, where fish may be either singular or the collective plural, while "fishes" denotes various sorts of fish.) Likewise, tziyyah (wasteland) is not the feminine of tzi (fleet); dayyah, a sort of bird, is not the feminine of day, meaning enough; and hassidah (stork) is not the feminine of hassid, a person devoted to G-d. Thus, we see that although the Hebrew suffix ah generally denotes the feminine form, this is not always the case, as is proven by mekhashefa, the collective of witches. According to ibn Janah, mekhashefa is a collective noun form; but since most Hebrew nouns do not have a collective form, there is no set structure or morpheme for collectives and hence this meaning of the word mekhashefa was overlooked.
To sum up, the word mekhashefa, at least as it appears in the text at hand, is a collective noun. The Torah instructs us that all sorts of witches, sorcerers and sorceresses, are not to be tolerated.
In the opinion of the tanna cited in the baraitha, "mostly women practice witchcraft." Was this indeed the case? Is this reliable historical fact, or ad-hoc commentary stemming from the problem presented by the feminine form?
Scriptures mention several women who practiced witchcraft, foremost Jezebel, to whose "countless sorceries" Jehu refers (II Kings 9:22); as well as the woman of En-dor who consulted ghosts (I Sam. 28:7). Nevertheless, it must be admitted that most of the sorcery in the Bible was practiced by men, beginning with Pharaoh's magicians (Ex. 17:11), through Nebuchadnezzar's sorcerers (Dan. 2:2), and ending with the Jewish sorcerers in Malachi (3:5). It seems the picture was similar in the Talmudic era, as well. Despite the tannaim saying that most (Jewish) women did magic (Berakhot 53a; Eruvin 64b, and elsewhere), it turns out that men did magic no less, if not more.
This is attested, albeit indirectly, by two books on witchcraft written in the Land of Israel during the Talmudic period -- Harba deMoshe [Moses' Sword] and Sefer ha-Razim [The Book of Secrets] -- which, judging by their content and their use of the masculine, were probably written by men. Should one wish to claim that women were more involved in magic, following Hillel's saying in Pirke Avot 2,7, "Many possessions mean many cares; many women, many spells," one has but to observe that the collections of magic amulets from the Land of Israel and Babylonia dating to Talmudic times show that men resorted to magic no less, if not more, than women. Moreover, a copper amulet found in Hurbat Kannaf in the Golan had the following Aramaic inscription: "O Lord, dispel all evil destructive spirits, and do not let them harm Rabbi Eleazar ben Esther." We see that even men with the title of Rabbi did not refrain from using amulets-- but one should not judge a suffering person until one stands in his shoes.
To sum up, it seems that Jewish men were involved in magic no less than women. For social reasons which cannot be discussed in this limited format, women were portrayed as more involved in magic, although this was not the case.
 According to R. Jonah ibn Janah, Sefer ha-Rikmah, D. Goldberg ed., Frankfurt, 1856, pp. 39, 186, 235. Also cf. H. Heller, Peshitta -- Shemot, Berlin, 1929, p. 100.
 J. Naveh and S. Shaked, Amulets and Magic Bowls, Jerusalem - Leiden, 1985, p. 50. This article, as well as other material on Jewish magic, including other articles and a bibliography, may be found at the internet site: http://www.biu.ac.il/~barilm/home.htm