Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. , at sacred-texts.com
THE precepts of the second class are those which we have enumerated in the section "On idolatry." It is doubtless that they all tend to save man from the error of idolatry and the evil practices connected with it; e.g., observing the times, enchantment, witchcraft, incantation, consulting with familiar spirits, and the like. When you read the books which I mentioned to you. you will find that witchcraft, which will be described to you, is part of the customs of the Sabeans, Kasdim, Chaldeans, and to a higher degree of the Egyptians and Canaanites. They caused others to believe, or they themselves believed, that by means of these arts they would perform wonderful things in reference to an individual person, or to the inhabitants of a whole country, although no analogy and no reasoning can discover any relation between these performances of the witches and the promised result. Thus they are careful to collect certain plants at a particular time, and to take a definite number of certain objects. There are many things comprised by witchcraft; they may be divided into three classes: first, witchcraft connected with objects in Nature, viz., plants, animals, or minerals. Secondly, witchcraft dependent for its performance on a certain time; and thirdly, witchcraft dependent on the performance of certain acts of man, such as dancing, clapping, laughing, jumping with one leg, lying on the ground with the face upward, burning a thing, fumigating with a certain material, or speaking intelligible or unintelligible words.
These are the various kinds of witchcraft. In some cases all these various performances are required. Thus the witches sometimes order: take a leaf of a certain plant, when the moon is seen in a certain degree [of the Zodiac] in the east point or in one of the other cardinal points [of the horizon], also a certain quantity of the horn, the sweat, the hair and the blood of a certain animal when the sun is, e.g., in the middle of the sky, or in some other definite place; and a portion of a certain mineral or minerals, melted at a certain conjunction of sun and moon, and at a definite position of the stars; speak then, and say certain words, and fumigate with those leaves or similar ones to that molten image, and such and such a thing will happen. In other instances of witchcraft it is assumed that one of the above performances suffices. In most cases the condition is added that women must perform these actions. Thus it is stated in reference to the means of obtaining rain, that ten virgins dressed with diadems and red garments should dance, push each other, moving backwards and forwards, and make signs to the sun: the result of this long process was believed [by the idolaters] to be a downpour of rain.
It is further stated that if four women lay on their back, with their feet spread and lifted up, said certain words and did certain things whilst in this disgraceful position, hail would discontinue coming down in that place. The number of these stupid and mad things is great; in all of them without exception women are required to be the agent. Witchcraft is intimately connected with astrology; those that practise it assign each plant, animal, or mineral to a certain star, and believe that the above processes of witchcraft are different forms of worship offered to that star, which is pleased with that act, word, or offering of incense, and fulfils their wishes.
After this remark, which you will understand when you have read such of their works as are at present extant, and have been mentioned by me, hear what I will tell you. It is the object and centre of the whole Law to abolish idolatry and utterly uproot it, and to overthrow the opinion that any of the stars could interfere for good or evil in human matters, because it leads to the worship of stars. It was therefore necessary to slay all witches as being undoubtedly idolaters, because every witch is an idolater: they only have their own strange ways of worship, which are different from the common mode of worship offered to those deities. But in all performances of witchcraft it is laid down as a rule that women should be employed in the chief operation; and therefore the Law says, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Exod. xxii. 17). Another reason is the natural reluctance of people to slay women. This is also the cause why in the law of idolatry it is said "man or woman" (Deut. xvii. 2), and again repeated a second time, "the man or the woman" (ibid. ver. 5)--a phrase which does not occur in the law about the breaking of Sabbath, or in any other law; for great sympathy is naturally shown to women. Now the witches believed that they produced a certain result by their witchcraft; that they were able through the above-mentioned actions to drive such dangerous animals as lions, serpents, and the like out of the cities, and to remove various kinds of damage from the products of the earth. Thus they imagine that they are able by certain acts to prevent hail from coming down, and by certain other acts to kill the worms in the vineyards, whereby the latter are protected from injury; in fact, the killing of the
worms in vineyards, and other superstitions mentioned in the Nabatean Agriculture, are fully described by the Sabeans. They likewise imagine that they know certain acts by which they can prevent the dropping of leaves from the trees and the untimely falling of their fruit. On account of these ideas, which were general in those days, the Law declares in "the words of the covenant" as follows: The same idolatry and superstitious performances which, in your belief, keep certain misfortunes far from you, will cause those very misfortunes to befall you. "I will also send wild beasts among you" (Lev. xxvi. 22), "I will also send the teeth of wild beasts upon them, with the poison of those that creep in dust" (Deut. xxxii. 24)." The fruit of thy land, and all thy labours, shall a nation, which thou knowest not, eat up" (ibid. xxviii. 33). "Thou shalt plant vineyards and dress them, but shalt neither drink of the wine nor gather the grapes, etc. Thou shalt have olive trees throughout all thy coasts, but thou shalt not anoint thyself with the oil" (Deut. xxviii. 39, 40). In short, in spite of the schemes of idolaters to support and firmly establish their doctrine, and to make people believe that by idolatry certain misfortunes could be averted and certain benefits gained, worship of idols will, on the contrary, as is stated in "the words of the covenant," prevent the advantages and bring the troubles. The reader will now understand why, of all kinds of curses and blessings, those mentioned in "the words of the covenant" have been selected by the Law, and particularly pointed out. Note also the greatness of the benefit [of these laws).
In order that we may keep far from all kinds of witchcraft, we are warned not to adopt any of the practices of the idolaters, even such as are connected with agriculture, the keeping of cattle, and similar work. [The Law prohibits] everything that the idolaters, according to their doctrine, and contrary to reason, consider as being useful and acting in the manner of certain mysterious forces. Comp. "Neither shall ye walk in their ordinances" (Lev. xviii. 3). "And ye shall not walk in the manners of the nation which I cast out before you" (ibid. xx. 23). Our Sages call such acts "the ways of the Amorite"; they are kinds of witchcraft, because they are not arrived at by reason, but are similar to the performances of witchcraft, which is necessarily connected with the influences of the stars; thus ["the manners of the nations"] lead people to extol, worship, and praise the stare. Our Sages say distinctly, "whatever is used as medicine" does not come under the law of "the ways of the Amorite"; for they hold that only such cures as are recommended by reason are permitted, and other cures are prohibited. When, therefore, the dictum was quoted: a tree that casts off its fruit may be laden with stone or dyed with red colour, the following objection was raised: The loading of the tree with stones may be justified on the plea that it serves to weaken the strength of the tree, but why should it be permitted to dye the tree with red colour? This question shows that the dyeing of the tree with red colour, and all similar things which are not explained by analogy from nature, are prohibited as "ways of the Amorite." For the same reason our Sages said, "The uterus of animals which have been selected for the Sanctuary must be buried; it must not be suspended from a tree, and not buried in the cross-road, because this is one of 'the ways of the Amorite.'" Hence you may learn how to treat similar cases.
It is not inconsistent that a nail of the gallows and the tooth of a fox have been permitted to be used as cures: for these things have been considered in those days as facts established by experiment. They served as cures, in the same manner as the hanging of the peony over a person subject to epileptic fits, or the application of a dog's refuse to the swellings of the throat, and of the vapours of vinegar and marcasite to the swelling of hard tumours. For the Law permits as medicine everything that has been verified by experiment, although it cannot be explained by analogy. The above-named cures are permitted in the same way as the application of purgatives. Learn, reader, these noteworthy lessons from this my work, and keep them; "for they are a diadem of grace for thy head" (Prov. iv.).
We have explained in our large work that it is prohibited to round the corners of the head, and to mar the corners of the beard, because it was the custom of idolatrous priests. For the same reason, the wearing of garments made of linen and wool is prohibited: the heathen priests adorned themselves with garments containing vegetable and animal material, whilst they held in their hand a seal made of a mineral. This you find written in their books. The same is also the reason of the precept, "The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man" (Deut. xxii. 5). You find it in the book Tomtom, that a male person should wear coloured woman's dress when he stands before Venus, and a female, when standing before Mars, should wear a buckler and other armour. I think that this precept has also another reason; namely, that the interchange of dress creates lust and leads to immorality.
It is easily understood why it is prohibited to derive any benefit whatever from an idol. For sometimes a person buys it with the intention to break it, but keeps it, and it becomes a snare to him. Even if he broke it, recast it, and sold it to a heathen, he must not use the money which he received in exchange for the idol: because people frequently mistake accidental circumstances for essential causes: thus most people say of a certain person that he has become rich and wealthy after having dwelt in a certain house, or bought a certain animal or vessel; and that these things were a blessing to him. In the same way a person may be successful and make a good profit on the business in which he employed the money received for the idol; he might then think that the idol was the cause of his success, and that the blessing of the money received for it brought him the profit; he would then believe in the idol: a belief which is just the reverse of the chief object of the Law, as is clearly seen in every word of it. For this same reason, we are forbidden to turn to our use the covering of the idol, its offerings and vessels. We are thus guarded against the idea [of ascribing our success to idols]. In those days the belief in the stars was very strong; it was generally assumed that life and death, good and evil, depended on the stars. The Law employed therefore strong means, as covenant, witnesses, great oaths, and the abovementioned [blessings and] curses, in order to overthrow that belief. We are thus commanded to abstain from taking any portion of the idol, and deriving any benefit from it: and God tells us that if money received for idols be mixed with any person's property, it will bring loss and ruin to that property. This warning is contained in the words: "Neither shalt thou bring an abomination into thine house, lest thou be a cursed thing like it" (Deut. vii. 26).
[paragraph continues] How much more wrong must it he to believe that there is a blessing in idols. When you examine all the precepts that relate to idolatry, you will find that their reason is obvious, and that they serve to make us abandon this evil belief, and keep at the greatest possible distance from it.
We must also point out that originators of false, baseless, and useless principles scheme and plan for the firm establishment of their faith; and tell their fellow-men that a certain plague will befall those who will not perform the act by which that faith is supported and confirmed for ever; this plague may one day accidentally befall a person, who will then direct his attention to the performance of that act, and adopt idolatry. It being well known that people are naturally most in fear and dread of the loss of their property and their children, the worshippers of fire spread the tale, that if any one did not pass his son and daughter through the fire, he will lose his children by death. There is no doubt that on account of this absurd menace every one at once obeyed, out of pity and sympathy for the child; especially as it was a trifling and a light thing that was demanded, in passing the child over the fire. We must further take into account that the care of young children is intrusted to women, who are generally weak-minded, and ready to believe everything, as is well known. The Law makes, therefore, an earnest stand against this practice, and uses in reference to it stronger terms than in any other kind of idolatry; namely, "he defileth my sanctuary, and profaneth my holy name" (Lev. xx. 3). The true prophet then declares in the name of God that the very act which is performed for the purpose of keeping the child alive, will bring death upon him who performs it, and destruction upon his seed. Comp. "And I will set my face against that man and against his family," etc. (ibid. xx. 5). Know that traces of this practice have survived even to the present day, because it was widespread in the world. You can see how midwives take a young child wrapped in its swaddling-clothes, and after having placed incense of a disagreeable smell on the fire, swing the child in the smoke over that fire. This is certainly a kind of passing children through the fire, and we must not do it. Reflect on the evil cunning of the author of this doctrine; how people continued to adhere to this doctrine, and how, in spite of the opposition of the Law during thousands of years, its name is not blotted out, and its traces are still in existence.
Idolaters have acted similarly in reference to property. They made it a law that a certain tree, the asherah, should be worshipped, and that of its fruit one part should be offered, and the rest consumed in the temple of the idol: this is stated in the regulations concerning the asherah. In the same manner, they made it a rule, that the first-fruit of every fruit-tree should be partly offered as a sacrifice and partly consumed in the idol's temple. It was also a widespread belief that if the first-fruit of any tree was not treated in this manner, the tree would dry up, its fruit would be cast off, its increase would be diminished, or some disease would come over it; just as they spread the belief that every child, that was not passed through the fire, must die. People in their anxiety for their property obeyed also this precept unhesitatingly. The Law, in opposition to this doctrine, commanded us to burn the produce of fruit-trees the first three years; for some trees bear fruit after one year, whilst some begin to yield fruit after two, and others after three years. The law is based upon the nature of trees grown in an ordinary
way, namely, in one of the three well-known methods: planting, propagation, and inoculation (neti‘ah, habrakah, and harcabah). The Law does not take notice of the case that a kernel or stone is sown; for the ordinances of the Law are based on the usual condition of things, and as a rule a young tree in Palestine bears fruit for the first time not later than the third year after it has been planted. According to the divine promise, the waste and destruction of this first-fruit of the tree will be followed by years of plenty of fruit; for it is said, "that it may increase unto you the fruit thereof" (Lev. xix. 25). The fruit of the fourth year we are commanded to eat before God, instead of [the heathen custom of] eating ‘orlab, "the fruit of the preceding years," in the temples of the idols, as has been described by us.
It is further mentioned in the Nabatean Agriculture that the ancient idolaters caused certain things named in that work to rot, waited till the sun stood in a certain degree [of the ecliptic], and then they performed many acts of witchcraft. They believed that that substance should be kept ready by every one, and when a fruit-tree is planted, a portion of that rotten substance should be scattered round the tree or under it; the tree would then grow quicker and produce more fruit than is generally the case. They say that this process is very extraordinary; it acts like a talisman, and is more efficient than any kind of witchcraft in accelerating the productiveness of fruit-trees. I have already shown and explained to you how the Law opposes all kinds of witchcraft. The Law, therefore, prohibits us to use the fruit yielded by a tree in the first three years after it has been planted, so that there should be no opportunity for accelerating, according to their imagination, the productiveness of any tree. After three years most fruit-trees in Palestine yield fruit by the ordinary course of nature, without the application of those magical performances which were very general in those days. Note this remarkable fact.
Another belief which was very common in those days, and survived the Sabeans, is this: When a tree is grafted into another in the time of a certain conjunction of sun and moon, and is fumigated with certain substances whilst a formula is uttered, that tree will produce a thing that will be found exceedingly useful. More general than anything mentioned by the heathen writers was the ceremony of grafting an olive branch upon a citron tree, as described in the beginning of the Nabatean Agriculture. I am of opinion that the book of medicines which Hezekiah put away (B: T. Pes. 56a) was undoubtedly of this kind. They also said that when one species is grafted upon another, the branch which is to be grafted must be in the hand of a beautiful damsel, whilst a male person has disgraceful and unnatural sexual intercourse with her; during that intercourse the woman grafts the branch into the tree. There is no doubt that this ceremony was general, and that nobody refused to perform it, especially as the pleasure of love was added to the (supposed) future results of the grafting. The Law, therefore, prohibits us to mix different species together, i.e., to graft one tree into another, because we, must keep away from the opinions of idolaters and the abominations of their unnatural sexual intercourse. In order to guard against the grafting of trees, we are forbidden to sow any two kinds of seed together or near each other. When you study the traditional explanation of this precept, you will find that the prohibition of grafting, the principal element in this commandment,
holds good for all countries, and is punishable by forty stripes: but the sowing of seeds one near the other is only prohibited in Palestine. In the Nabatean Agriculture it is further distinctly stated that it was the custom of the people in those days to sow barley and stones of grapes together, in the belief that the vineyard could only prosper in this way. Therefore the Law prohibits us to use seed that has grown in a vineyard, and commands us to bum both the barley and the produce of the vineyard. For the practices of the heathen, which they considered as of a magic and talismanic character, even if not containing any idolatrous element, are prohibited, as we have stated above (p. 334) in reference to the dictum of our Sages, "We must not hang upon a tree the fœtus of an animal belonging to the Sanctuary." The Law prohibits all heathen customs, called by our Sages "the ways of the Amorite," because they are connected with idolatry. On considering the customs of the heathen in their worship, you will find that in certain kinds of worship they turn toward stars, in others to the two great luminaries; frequently they choose the rise of signs in the Zodiac for sowing and fumigating; and as to the circuits made by those who plant or sow, some complete five circles, corresponding to the five planets, with the exclusion of the two luminaries: others go seven times round, according to the number of the planets, when including sun and moon. They believe that all these practices are magic charms of great efficiency in agriculture. Thus those practices lead to the worship of stars: and therefore all practices of those nations have been prohibited, in the words, "Ye shall not walk in the manners of the nation which I cast out before you" (Lev. xx. 23). Those practices which were more general and common, or were distinctly connected with idolatry, are particularly pointed out as prohibited; e.g., eating the fruit of a tree during the first three years, intermixing of species and the mixed species sown in a vineyard. I am surprised as the dictum of Rabbi Joshiyah, which has been adopted as legally binding, in reference to the mixed seed in a vineyard, viz., that the law is only transgressed when wheat, barley, and the stone of a grape are sown simultaneously. He must undoubtedly have seen the source of that kind of the ways of the Amorite. It must now be clear to you, and no room can be left for any doubt, that the prohibition of wearing garments of wool and linen, of using the fruit of a tree in the first three years, and of mixing divers species, are directed against idolatry, and that the prohibition against adopting heathen manners serves to remove anything which leads to idolatry, as has been shown by us.