Nachmanides on Curses and Magic[1]



The biblical portion Nizavim, Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20, offers us an opportunity to observe some problematic ideas of the great thirteenth century Spanish Jewish sage, Nachmanides, ideas common among people of his time, but rejected by many people today.


Idolatry, magic, and divination

Nachmanides’ view of life – his contention that the world is affected and dependent upon the metaphysical – is exemplified in his view of idolatry, magic, and divination. Idolatry, he maintained, is not prohibited because it is a false belief in the existence of other gods. The opposite is true. Idols live and are powerful. But Jews are forbidden to worship idols because Jews are God’s people and must be loyal and not reject God by seeking help, which would be efficacious, from the idols.[2] Nachmanides was not alone in holding this view. The mystical book Zohar also contends that the “gods of the nations” that are mentioned in the Bible are not mere material but actual celestial beings with real albeit limited powers to influence the world and people.[3]



Similarly, although Nachmanides was convinced that the sun, moon, stars, and constellations have power over people and influence them for good and bad, Jews are forbidden to worship these celestial constellations.[4] The same applies to magic and divination, which works as is “well known to the eyes of all viewers.”[5] Unlike Maimonides, who strongly criticized those who believed in the foolishness of astrology, Nachmanides was convinced that it worked.[6]

Nachmanides used his belief in astrology to explain[7] that Moses did not include the tribe of Simeon in his blessings because, among other reasons, Moses needed to divide the tribe of Joseph into two and this would have resulted in thirteen blessings. Simeon had to be excluded to bring the count back to twelve to correspond to the number of constellations.[8]

Bachya ben Asher, who frequently accepts Nachmanides’ views, refers to an opinion in the Babylonian Talmud[9] that anyone who knows how to use astrology and fails to do so is like the people mentioned in Psalms 82:5, who “neither knew nor understood, but make themselves walk in darkness.” He states[10] that the Jewish people are not affected as a nation by astrological forces because God protects the Jewish nation; however, “the fate of individual Jews is subject to the influences of the horoscope.”


Bible predicts future events

Nachmanides saw the curses in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 27 as an oracle forecasting what would occur during and after the destruction of the first and second temples, respectively. He does not discuss the difficulty, raised by this view that this understanding that celestial beings control people appears to deny the concept of free will.[11] Zohar, Sforno, and Bachya agree with Nachmanides. (Rashi and Rashbam appear to do so as well, but not as explicitly. Abarbanel states that both biblical sections foretell the destruction of the first temple and its aftermath. Midrash Pesikta states that Deuteronomy predicts the destruction of the first temple and Leviticus the second. In view of these differences, and the possibility of various, even contrary interpretations, it is clear that the chapters are not as explicit as commentators suppose.) Ibn Ezra and Maimonides reject the idea that the Bible is relating future events that will occur. They understand the verses to warn of dire consequences if the Israelites refuse to obey God’s laws, but not a promise that the misfortunes will happen.[12]



[1] This essay is from my book “Unusual Bible Interpretations: Five Books of Moses” that will be published on October 1, 2014.

[2] See the notes in the next section, Astrology.

[3] See 2:7, 2:67, and 2:237.

[4] Bachya ben Asher to Genesis 5:23 states that the Bible said Enoch “walked with God” because although Enoch recognized the power of astrology, he also realized the source of the astral powers is God.

[5] Commentary on Deuteronomy 18:9, 21:12, 13.

[6] As did ibn Ezra and most other sages of Nachmanides’ generation. In contrast, see Maimonides’ Letter on Astrology, written in 1194, written about when Nachmanides was born, and an analysis in R. Lerner, Maimonides’ Empire of Light (University of Chicago Press, 2000), pp. 56–64, 178–87.

[7] In Deuteronomy 33:6.

[8] Compare Numbers Rabbah 14:29.

[9] Shabbat 75.

[10] Commentary to Genesis 15:5.

[11] Nachmanides believed in free will. See also Nachmanides to 4:25, Leviticus 26:12, and Deuteronomy 30:1. Nachmanides states that the latter oracle did not yet occur, but it will happen in the future.

[12] Ibn Ezra’s view can be seen in his commentary to these chapters and in his general approach to prophecy. Similarly, the Maimonidean concept is apparent in his statements about prophecy being the natural thinking of wise people and in his comments on these chapters in the Guide of the Perplexed 3:36.