Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Rambam on Demons and Segulos (updated)

The Gemara is replete with discussions about demons, in both aggadic and halachic contexts. In my monograph, Wrestling with Demons: A History of Rabbinic Attitudes to Demons, I documented how most authorities accepted the reality of demons (and for understandable reasons). Several authorities, however, rejected the existence of demons, notwithstanding the fact that Chazal believed in their existence. The most prominent of these was Rambam. While many religious authorities did not accept that Rambam denied the existence of demons, this appears to have been because they could not accept it, due to their own religious convictions - I have yet to discover a scholar who does not believe in demons, and yet thinks that Rambam did believe in them. But there were certainly plenty of authorities who recognized that Rambam denied the existence of demons - most significantly, the Vilna Gaon.

The topic of demons is of some relevance to the topic of Chazal and science. After all, here we have Rambam and other Rishonim denying the existence of creatures whose existence was attested to by Chazal. For most of us, however, when considering Rambam's attitude to Chazal and science, it's not especially significant to look at his view on demons. The reason for this is that Rambam already wrote explicitly in the Guide that "You must, however, not expect that everything our Sages say respecting astronomical matters should agree with observation, for mathematics were not fully developed in those days; and their statements were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science." There is every reason to presume that if this is what Rambam felt about astronomy - an area of science with great relevance to Torah and halachah - all the more so would this be true of other areas of science.

On the other hand, for Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, Rambam's position on demons would be extremely relevant. This is because Rabbi Meiselman denies that the quotation above from the Guide demonstrates that Rambam believed Chazal to be limited to the science of their era. He insists - extremely unreasonably, as I have demonstrated previously - that Rambam was only saying that Chazal erred in a few limited cases of astronomy. With everything else that Chazal said, Rabbi Meiselman claims, Rambam believes that Chazal were correct.

Furthermore, the existence of demons, as the Vilna Gaon makes clear, is inherently related to other supernatural phenomena such as segulos. Rabbi Meiselman devotes an entire chapter to the topic of Rambam and segulos, which he states to be of relevance to the topic of Torah and science, since it demonstrates Rambam's views regarding non-scientific phenomena. Rabbi Meiselman claims that Rambam did indeed believe in the efficacy of segulos - and he further argues that this is the "mainstream view." However, while Rashba - who was passionately committed to the existence of non-scientific phenomena - did indeed ascribe this view to Rambam, numerous others understood that Rambam denied the efficacy of segulos.

In a recent post at Torah Musings, Rabbi Gil Student states that although Rabbi Meiselman claims that Rashba's interpretation of Rambam “was adopted by many other authorities,” Rabbi Meiselman does not name any, and Rabbi Student does not know of any. Rabbi Student further points out that despite Rabbi Meiselman's claim that the view of Radvaz, that Rambam denied the efficacy of segulos, was “not adopted by any other major interpreter of the Rambam," it was actually echoed by no less than the Chida and the Vilna Gaon, amongst others.

I do not know if Rabbi Meiselman considers himself wiser than the Vilna Gaon and all the other authorities who stated that Rambam denied the existence of demons and segulos. However, even if he considers them to be wrong, he should still acknowledge the existence of their views.

The reason why he doesn't acknowledge their views is obvious. It's because they fatally flaw his entire book, which is dedicated to claiming that no mainstream figure ever held that Chazal could be wrong in their claims about the world.

UPDATE - In the comments section, it was pointed out to me that the Vilna Gaon accuses Rambam of falsely reinterpreting the Gemara, not of disputing it. Thus, the Vilna Gaon's statement would not be relevant to claims about Rishonim stating that Chazal were wrong.

Did Rambam believe himself to be disputing Chazal, or did he convince himself that Chazal also did not believe in demons? I'm still looking into it. On the one hand, it's impossible to imagine how one could convince oneself that Chazal did not believe in demons. On the other hand, Rambam certainly convinced himself of very strange things regarding the Neviim.

If we consider the situation with astrology, Rambam claims that only a few sages believed in it (whether he was being diplomatic, or actually genuinely thought so, is an interesting question that is difficult to answer). However, even if only a few sages mistakenly believed in astrology or demons, that is still fatal to Rabbi Meiselman's claims.

37 comments:

  1. can you comment on whether even during the week the Rambam would allow segulah healing in place of traditional healing? Would it be permitted to non bnai brit?
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  2. If you ask a scientist or a modern "enlightened" person, he/she would tell you that angels don't exist either. Yet, Torah speaks about them.

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  3. "I have yet to discover a scholar who does not believe in demons, and yet thinks that Rambam did believe in them."
    Jose Faur in the beginning of his Iyyunim be-Sefer Madda thinks that the Rambam believes in demons, because their existence was accepted by Arabic philosophy of his day, but I suspect that he does not believe in them (though that is conjecture.)

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  4. Lazar, are you trying to say that since the Rambam must have believed in angels he probably also believed in demons, not withstanding the Chida and Gra's opinion to the contrary?

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  5. R. Slifkin, did Rambam hold that Chazal mistakenly believed in demons, or did he claim that Chazal did not believe in them?

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  6. In many cases, Rambam reinterpreted Chazal's statements, perhaps being diplomatic. In other cases, Chazal gave a demon-related reason for a halachah, and Rambam gives a different reason. It would have been impossible to claim that Chazal never referred to demons. See Marc Shapiro's essay in Studies in Maimonides and his Interpreters.

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  7. Lazar, no Jew since at least the time of Onkelos, "enlightened" or not, believes that Hashem has limbs, and yet the Torah speaks of them.

    And I'm pretty sure the Rambam didn't believe in angels either, or at least not the way you seem to.

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  8. Rambam did not believe that Chazal believed in demons. His "diplomatic" explanations may have been how he in fact understood their intent. Even the fact that they give demon-related reasons for halakhos is not conclusive, as the Meiri points out in Pesachim, they said these things as a result of the populace believing in them

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  9. Brooklyn Refugee SheygitzDecember 18, 2013 at 12:18 PM

    I have to admit that I don't understand that comment of the Meiri from Pesachim (if that's what it says there). That implies that there was an intellectual elite caste who were smart enough not to believe in demons but somehow still played to the dumb, analphabetic "amcha" public who just nebech, were ignoramouses who believed in demons and such.
    That calls into a question a whole lot of things that chazal did - like g'derot to prevent sins and such. If I become "enlightened" enough to not believe in demons, so maybe then I am "enlighted" enough to be able to walk on wet grass without committing a violation? or to have yichud with a married woman? or enlightened enough to be able to remember to leave a shofar in the beot knesset before rosh hashana that falls out on shabbat.
    the list goes on....

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  10. Nachum wrote:
    no Jew since at least the time of Onkelos, "enlightened" or not, believes that Hashem has limbs, and yet the Torah speaks of them.

    I'm sorry, but I don't think you are correct on this point. Firstly, Onkelos himself does occasionally refer to G-d's body. Secondly, the Gemara (which came centuries after Onkelos) refers often to G-d's body (in even more explicit terms that the Torah does). And finally, many of the baalei Tosefot (and Rashi) do not refute or reject the plain meaning of those Talmudic statements that G-d has a body. One of their challenges on Rambam was his claim that G-d has no body. The French Rabbis held that it is heresy to place limits on G-d's abilities (to appear in physical form if He should desire to).

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  11. To Nachum:
    The Rambam certainly believed in the existence of angels as real, live, spiritual beings and that they interacted with people's minds. He describes them and their function in detail throughout in the Moreh.

    But he did not believe that they interacted with physical world.

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  12. "It would have been impossible to claim that Chazal never referred to demons."

    But if that's the case, why did the Rambam bother reinterpreting ANY of Chazal's references to demons if at the end of the day, he was forced to recognize they referred to them as you claim?

    What's the point of doing a half a job to be diplomatic?

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  13. "The reason why he doesn't acknowledge their views is obvious. It's because they fatally flaw his entire book, which is dedicated to claiming that no mainstream figure ever held that Chazal could be wrong in their claims about the world."

    The very Gra you have cited takes for granted that the Rambam did NOT mean Chazal were wrong. He accuses him rather of deviating from the plain meaning of the Gemaras to accommodate philosophy.

    To paraphrase this post:I do not know if Rabbi Slifkin considers himself wiser than the Vilna Gaon. However, even if he considers him to be wrong, he should still acknowledge that his view of the Rambam's attitude toward Chazal differs from his own.

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  14. Mea culpa. That's what happens when I write a post from memory without rechecking the sources. Indeed, the Vilna Gaon accuses Rambam of falsely reinterpreting the Gemara, not of disputing it.

    Did Rambam believe himself to be disputing Chazal, or did he convince himself that Chazal also did not believe in demons? I'm still looking into it. On the one hand, it's impossible to imagine how one could convince oneself that Chazal did not believe in demons. On the other hand, Rambam certainly convinced himself of very strange things regarding the Neviim.

    If we consider the situation with astrology, Rambam claims that only a few sages believed in it (whether he was being diplomatic, or actually genuinely thought so, is an interesting question that is difficult to answer). However, even if only a few sages mistakenly believed in astrology or demons, that is still fatal to Rabbi Meiselman's claims.

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  15. May I suggest we're all prisoners of language?
    "Malachim" are not angels. They are messengers. Due to the overwhelming presence of Chrisian icons we automatically define angels as either Aryan uber-males with long wings or obese winged toddlers with bows and arrows.
    It's the same with "mazikim". They are damaging forces, not demons just as the Satan is a malach in God's retinue, not an independent anti-God ruling over Hell.
    All this discussion on Rambam and demons seems to suggest that he first translated mazik into the English demon with all its Chrisian implications and then went back to the original Talmud with that understanding. I doubt that's what happened.

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  16. Distinguish angels of the Bible from angels in the Talmud. Even within the Bible one must distingusih between the various periods, and here one must confront Biblical Criticism. (Eg, if I recall correctly, the book of Daniel is the only book to mention the names of angels, and that book is divided into two distinct sections, and according to biblical source criticism, was written long after the period it purports to describe.)

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  17. The issue for rationalists v. non-rationalists is not what the Rambam held, or even less relevant, what others held the Rambam held. That's ancient history. The question is right now, in 2013: Does anyone believe in demons and leprechauns? If so, how can he credibly explain that neither he, nor his father nor his grandfather, nor anyone else in the world, has ever seen one. How one tackles these questions is what rationalism is all about.

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  18. That might be your issue, but it's not the issue of this post!

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  19. I think this quote from the mishna torah is important (this is an excerpt from a blog post I did about Rambam and his disbelief in demons, I even go through some gemaras and show how the Rambam would read them: http://markset565.blogspot.ca/2010/07/rambams-view-of-sheidimdemons-in-gemora.html) :

    To further reinforce our knowledge that the Rambam did not believe in magic, astrology or mystical demons we must turn to the Mishna Torah in the Laws of Idol Worship (11:16):

    All these matters [i.e. necromancy, enchantment, et cetera] are all matters of falsehood and deceit, and it was with these that the early idolaters made the other [non-idolatrous] gentiles deviate and follow them. It is not fitting for Jews, who are the cleverest of the clever, to use such nonsense, or even to think that they are of any use, for it is written, "Surely there is no enchantment in Jacob, or divination in Israel" (Bamidbar 23:23), and it is also written, "For these nations, whom you shall dispossess, listen to soothsayers and diviners; but as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so" (Devarim 18:14). Anyone who believes in these or similar things and privately thinks that they are true and wise, but that [we don't practice them because] the Torah forbade them, is a fool and lacks knowledge, and is in the category of women and children, who are lacking in knowledge. But those people who are wise and of a perfect mentality know very clearly that all these things that the Torah forbade are not wise, but are merely stuff and nonsense which those lacking in knowledge follow and because of which abandon the ways of truth. Because of this, when warning us against these nonsenses, the Torah says, "You shall be perfect with the Lord your God". (Devarim 18:13)

    Another important excerpt, with specific regards to Demons, can be seen here:

    In order to do this, it is imperative that we understand what the Rambam's view of Sheidim (demons) is so that we can explain it. Luckily, the Rambam talks about this in the Moreh Nevuchim (The Guide for the Perplexed 1:7):

    As regards the words, "the form of Adam, and his likeness," we have already stated (ch. i.) their meaning. Those sons of Adam who were born before that time were not human in the true sense of the word, they had not "the form of man." With reference to Seth who had been instructed, enlightened and brought to human perfection, it could rightly be said, "he (Adam) begat a son in his likeness, in his form." It is acknowledged that a man who does not possess this "form" (the nature of which has just been explained) is not human, but a mere animal in human shape and form. Yet such a creature has the power of causing harm and injury, a power which does not belong to other creatures. For those gifts of intelligence and judgment with which he has been endowed for the purpose of acquiring perfection, but which he has failed to apply to their proper aim, are used by him for wicked and mischievous ends; he begets evil things, as though he merely resembled man, or simulated his outward appearance. Such was the condition of those sons of Adam who preceded Seth. In reference to this subject the Midrash says: "During the 130 years when Adam was under rebuke he begat spirits," i.e., demons; when, however, he was again restored to divine favour "he begat in his likeness, in his form." This is the sense of the passage, "Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and he begat in his likeness, in his form" (Gen. v. 3).

    The Rambam believes that Sheidim (demons) are regular human beings that are immoral and cause harm to others. This is an important tool for understanding the Gemaras that talk about sheidim (demons) according to the Rambam.

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  20. Like my previous post shows, Rambam believed in Demons, he just thought "demons" were wicked people.

    This was pointed out to me by my 12th grade rebbe. He would always tell us to watch out for the demons in the park playing basketball. When I asked him what he was talking about he said, "Those anti-semites that attack Jews in the park."

    He then showed me the Rambam inside and it appeared he was right. The Rambam did believe in sheidim, but not supernatural beings, just wicked people.

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  21. But still, the Rambam holds that only some members of chazal believed in demons while others did not. Regardless of which passages he chooses to reinterpret, he is asserting that those who did believe in demons were mistaken. Likewise regarding astrology.
    The Gra suggests Rambam is reinterpreting gemaras to fit with philosophy. Whose philosophy? The Rambam's. Therefore according to the Gra, rambam is prioritizing his convictions about the world over certain statements of chazal. That is one way of saying chazal were wrong. Maybe a more polite way by the rambam in this case but clearly saying chazal were wrong.

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  22. Jewish Observer - Do you know of a source (aside from plowing through the M"N!) that sums up Rambam's view on how angels interact with this world?

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  23. In that last one I may have misspoken in the first part. I don't know if Rambam considered that only some of chazal believed in demons or truly convinced himself that none did. Either way, the point stands that Gra is suggesting Rambam believes chazal to be wrong and his philosophy (aristotelian) to be right..

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  24. Brooklyn Refugee SheygitzDecember 18, 2013 at 6:47 PM

    Don't misunderstand my previous comment on the meiri - I agree with this post.
    I just don't think that anyone can reasonably suggest that there were two levels of tolderated belief at the time of chazal and that chazal somehow "hid" their true beliefs from the flock they led.
    If anything chazal (i.e. the pharisees) were about the move away from temple, priest based religion with secrets of the divine service and religion held by only a few, and a move towards educational egalitarianism.

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  25. About Rambam and angels:

    MN II:42 (translation mine:)
    We have already explained that everywhere that seeing an angel or hearing from him is mentioned, that is in fact in a prophetic vision or dream, whether or not it says so explicitly. [] This important principle was suggested by one of our great Sages, R' Hiya the Great, regarding the verse, "Hashem appeared to him in Elonei Mamrei". First there is a general statement, that Hashem appeared to him, and then it is followed by the details of the form of that appearance. That is, first, he saw three men, and ran and said what he said to them. The one who gives this explanation said, that Avraham's statement, "“My lords, if it please you, do not pass by your servant.”, is retelling what Avraham said in a prophetic vision to one of them. R' Hiya said: "to the greatest of them he said this", and you should realize that this is a mystery among mysteries.
    Similary, it says regarding Yaakov, where it says "A man wrestled with him", that it was through prophecy, as it is ultimately revealed that it was an angel. The format here is exactly the same as with Avraham, in that first there is an introduction of "Hashem appeared to him, etc", and then it explains how it was, so, too, regarding Yaakov, it says, "The angels of G-d met him", and then it explains what happened until they met him, that is, that he sent messengers to Esav and set everything up, and then "Yaakov was left alone..and the man wrestled with him", and those are the angels of G-d that were mentioned above. The struggle and the conversation was all in a prophetic vision.
    So, too, the entire account of Bilaam, what happened on the road and the words of the donkey, was all in a prophetic vision, being that it was made clear at the end of the account that an angel of Hashem was speaking to him.
    It is inconceivable that there is such a thing as seeing an angel or hearing an angel outside of a prophetic vision or a prophetic dream. The principle is, as it says :"In a vision I make Myself known, or in a dream I speak to him" (Bam 12:6).
    You should know that Hagar the Egyptian was not a prophetess, nor were Manoach and his wife prophets. The information that they heard or that came into their heads are a form of Bat Kol that our sages mention often, and that is something that can come to a person who is not prepared for prophecy, and it is easy to mistake because of the same words used for prophets and angels. Consider what it says: "An angel found her by the spring of water", and it says by Yosef, "A man found him while he was wandering in the field", and the Midrashim all say that it was an angel.


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  26. Rabbi Sedley: First, Onkelos is known for going out of his way to remove anthropomorphisms.

    Second: OK, that's Rishonim. Find one Jew today, even the most charedi, who would argue that God has a body.

    Jewish Observer: I meant physical. The chumash says that the angels ate what Avraham served them. The Rambam would disagree.

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  27. The question is right now, in 2013: Does anyone believe in demons and leprechauns? If so, how can he credibly explain that neither he, nor his father nor his grandfather, nor anyone else in the world, has ever seen one.

    http://xkcd.com/1235/

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  28. Comment I left on Hirhurim: Where does the Rashba say that the Rambam accepted the segulot that are mentioned by chazal? On the contrary, the Rashba’s list of questions against the Rambam assumes that the fact that chazal believed in these things is proof against the Rambam. Only in one line does he suggest as a tentative possibility that the Rambam would accept those things that are mentioned in the Gemara, but he then goes back to asking questions on the Rambam from the gemara.

    Here is the relevant quote from the Rashba:
    ואולי יאמר הרב ז"ל שאפי' מה שתלה בספריה' לסגלה לא נאמין לפי שעיקר ענינם לתוהו ולהבל בעניני המכשפים. אבל מה שאמרוהו חכמים ז"ל נאמין ונסמוך לעשות מעשה מצד מה שהתירו ונתאמת להם לסגלה. ושמנו הרב ז"ל במבוכה רבה. ועוד אני חוזר ושואל על זה לפי שאני רואה בגמרא דברים רבים יראה מהם שהתירו מכלל הנחשים והלחשים ומן המכשפי' וההתעוננות בשבת וחולין ועבודה זרה וגיטין וסנהדרין בגמרא ובירושלמי בשבת. באותן שנאמרו בשילהי פרק במה אשה יוצאה (דף פ"ז). כתוב בספרינו אין בהם משום דרכי האמורי ואין באחד מהן אפי' אחד שיגזור העיון הטבעי

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  29. Re: the Rambam arguing with the Gemara, R. Yosef Zechariah Stern, in his discussion of the Rambam's rejection of שדים (Tahalukhot ha-Aggadot, p. 22, http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=37881&st=&pgnum=22&hilite=) cites the Kessef Mishneh (Bi'at Mikdash 4:8) who quotes the Mahari Korkos that the Rambam rejects the Gemara's question, and therefore paskens differently:
    וכתב הר"י קורקוס ז"ל דאיכא למידק דבגמרא אקשו לר"י ושני דקסבר דטומאה הותרה בצבור ומאחר שפסק רבינו בסוף הפרק שטומאה דחויה היא בצבור הוי תרתי דסתרן. ותירץ שסובר רבינו שאותה קושיא אינה מוכרחת לומר כן ותירץ לו כן לרווחא דמילתא והאריך בדבר להוכיח כן.
    In response to the שאגת אריה's objections (סי' לח) R. Stern says:
    אולם במאמרי על פסקי הלכות הארכתי מכ"מ בדהרמב"ם בסגנון זה וכמ"ש בעצמו בתשובת פאר הדור דאשנויא לא סמכינן, וכפסחים יא ב' ויבמות צא ב' וב"ב קלה א' ועי' בתוס' שבת עב סע"א, ועירובין קד א' סוד"ה הכי וב"ק כג ב' ד"ה מכלי, ורש"י שבת קכד א' ד"ה מדוכה ור"ן נדרים סו"פ השותפין סוד"ה הלכה וריטב"א עירובין יט ב' סוד"ה בעא ורא"ש ריש קידושין וכ"מ פי"ח מפסוהמ"ק דין כ' ובכמ"ק לאין מספר, ועי' במקום שמואל סי' מ"ט ואבני השהם סי' ל"ו בתשובת הגרא"ב וזכרון יוסף חא"ח סי' י"ב ד"ה עמ"ש מר כו' מדרה"ן ואכמ"ל בפרט זה

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  30. Somebody has to explain to me how we can go wrong by not believing in demons. In says specifically, ` ein od bilvado`, none besides Him. We aren`t even supposed to read those silly horoscopes, and they`re telling us that demons are real???

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  31. Brooklyn Refugee,

    Just for the record, yichud with a married women is an issur d'oraisoh.

    Peretz,

    Ein od milvado doesn't exclude the existence of people, malachim or sheidim. It simply means that He is the only genuine power, and all else is under his control.

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  32. why would the rambam have to change the literal meaning of the gemara according to the vilna gaon if he could have just explained that in the gemora's time they believed in it but in the rambams time they knew it not to be true.

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  33. Somebody has to explain to me how we can go wrong by not believing in demons. In says specifically, ` ein od bilvado`, none besides Him. We aren`t even supposed to read those silly horoscopes, and they`re telling us that demons are real???

    Peretz,

    Ein od milvado doesn't exclude the existence of people, malachim or sheidim. It simply means that He is the only genuine power, and all else is under his control.


    This question seems to go back a while. Chulin 7b

    אין עוד מלבדו (There is none beside him) Rabbi Chanina said "even with regard to witchcraft". There was a woman who tried to take dirt from under the feet of of Rabbi Chanina. He said to her, "Take it. It will not help you. It is written אין עוד מלבדו (There is none beside him)." But did not Rabbi Yochanan say "Why are they called 'כשפים'? Because they impair the heavenly household (a natrikon)." Rabbi Chanina was different because his merit was great.

    It appears that R' Chanina felt that witchcraft could have no effect on him because there is no power but God's. However the Stam, in accordance with R' Yochanan, maintained that R' Chanina was protected only because of his great merit.

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  34. Comment I left on Hirhurim: Where does the Rashba say that the Rambam accepted the segulot that are mentioned by chazal?

    Mr. Buckley,

    You make an excellent point. R. Meiselman interprets the Rashba that way, but your interpretation seems more compelling.

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  35. When you read the Mishnah in Perek
    Chelek, without the Gemara's qualifications, it is easier to believe that many members of Chazal took a dim view of incantations.

    ... ואלו שאין להם חלק לעולם הבא
    והלוחש על המכה ואומר כל המחלה אשר שמתי במצרים לא אשים עליך כי אני ה׳ רופאך

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  36. Is there a reason that everyone (except e-man) is ignoring that the Rambam did hold by all of these things but understood them as referring to things which actually exist? (see e.g. the moreh 1:7, and the meiri on brachot daf 4 or the rambam's general discussion in the introduction to peirush hamishnayot and chelek about aggada, or the rambm's son about aggadah)

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  37. "Rambam certainly convinced himself of very strange things regarding the Neviim."
    -Is this your opinion? What strange things?

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