Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Beast Masters and Snake Charmers

I've been accused of various sins, but recently I was accused of something that was not only a novelty for me - it's a sin that I've never heard anyone being accused of!

The charge from a museum visitor was that I am guilty of "chover chaver." That's a curious prohibition, mentioned in Devarim 18:11. Rashi defines it as "someone who gathers snakes or scorpions or other wild animals into one place." I do all three - QED!

Of course, creating a zoo or a Biblical Museum of Natural History is not what the Torah is talking about. As the context of the verse makes abundantly clear, it's talking about gathering these animals via incantations. It's not referring to purchasing them from breeders!

Now, as with all prohibitions relating to the apparently supernatural, the meaning of this is subject to the famous medieval dispute between rationalists and mystics. Rambam, representing the rationalist approach, stated emphatically that there is no such thing as magic, and that the Torah prohibits these things because they are folly. The mystical approach, on the other hand, maintains that these practices work, but they are forbidden.

With either approach, it is a little difficult to understand exactly why this is prohibited. What's so terrible about someone controlling animal behavior, or even mistakenly believing/ fooling people into thinking that he can? It is said that King Shlomo "knew the language of the animals" - didn't he ever tell them to do anything? It seems that a precise understanding of the nature of this practice has been lost in the mists of history.


While researching this topic, I came across something intriguing. Rambam, in his commentary to Avos 2:10, discusses how wise men reject the efforts of those who try to falsely ingratiate themselves with them. He says, "They will not listen to the voice of a charmer, like the seraf (a type of snake) does not listen to it, as it stated (Psalms 58:6), "Which does not hear the voice of charmers."

But is the verse saying that this snake cannot be charmed? If we look at the full context of the verse, it states as follows:

"The wicked have been corrupt since birth; liars from the womb, they have gone astray. Their venom is like the venom of a snake, like that of a serpent stopping its ears, so as not to hear the voice of the charmer, or the enchanter with cunning spells."

The verses are not saying that snakes in general cannot be charmed; they are speaking about how the wicked are like a figurative snake which has its ears stopped up, and therefore cannot be charmed. But Rambam seems to be quoting the verse as saying that a snake cannot be charmed. Did he somehow read these verses that way? Or was he simply short-handedly referring to a snake which has its ears stopped up?

I'm wondering if Rambam was of the view that snake-charming is like chover chever - a deceptive practice that does not actually work. In fact, contemporary science says that it is only partially deceptive. The snake does not actually hear the sound of the instrument, since it lacks an outer ear, though it does perhaps sense the vibrations of the sound. Still, the key to what is happening is the movement of the charmer. He is not hypnotizing the snake, per se; rather, he encouraging it to follow certain patterns of natural behavior when faced with a threat - in this case, the instrument.

(As to how to explain the verses, which imply that snakes are charmed by the sounds that they hear, that would simply be another case of "the Torah speaking in the language of man.")

6 comments:

  1. It's important that the Rambam explicitly in very strong language how foolish the chover is. See his Hilkhot Avoda Zara 11:10:

    אֵיזֶהוּ חוֹבֵר זֶה שֶׁמְּדַבֵּר בִּדְבָרִים שֶׁאֵינָן לְשׁוֹן עַם וְאֵין לָהֶן עִנְיָן וּמַעֲלֶה עַל דַּעְתּוֹ בְּסִכְלוּתוֹ שֶׁאוֹתָן הַדְּבָרִים מוֹעִילִין... וְכֵן אָדָם שֶׁאָמַר עָלָיו הֶחָבֵר אוֹתָן הַקּוֹלוֹת וְהוּא יוֹשֵׁב לְפָנָיו וּמְדַמֶּה שֶׁיֵּשׁ לוֹ בָּזֶה הֲנָאָה מַכִּין אוֹתוֹ מַכַּת מַרְדּוּת מִפְּנֵי שֶׁנִּשְׁתַּתֵּף בְּסִכְלוּת הַחֹבֵר.

    "Who is a chover? Someone who speaks in a language unlike that of the people, and are nonsensical words, and he thinks in his stupidity that they are effective... Similarly, a person who a chover incants toward and he thus sits before [the chover], thinking it will benefit him, he gets lashes of rebellion for joining the chover's stupidity."

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    1. So... speaking in tongues, then? This has nothing to do with animals, AFAIK. Some branches of Christianity believe in the validity of that. I admit that I barely know what it is.

      Or is he talking about magical words the way we think of "spells," like Hocus Pocus, Bibbidy Bobbidy Boo, and Expecto Patronum? (Of course, many words we associate with magic spells all have some linguistic derivation/evolution - real in the case of Abracadabra and Hocus Pocus, and invented with Harry Potter. I do not know about Bibbidy Bobbidy Boo. Not that this grants them magical powers or anything.)

      [just for the few people out there who are still unaware, Abracadabra is from the Gemara: Abra k'dabra = I will create as I speak]

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  2. "Rambam, representing the rationalist approach, stated emphatically that there is no such thing as magic..." I am extremely confident that Rambam is correct. There is no REAL magic. All magic, telepathy, telekinesis, melting lead diagnosis, witchcraft, seances etc: are trickery. The fool and his/her money are soon departed.

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    Unknown said...
    If you go to Cebu City Philippines you will find the whole city to be a Chover Chaver. I lived there for a year. Once I went to the Lubovich Center there to donate and even the Rabbi was a crocodile. Don't go there.

    September 20, 2019 at 4:28 AM

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  4. Regarding the "famous medieval dispute between rationalists and mystics":

    For a long time it has appeared to me that if sages like the Ramban, Nachmanides, who believed in things like magic, were living in today’s modern age, when science and technology have made such major advances and dispelled the darkness of ignorance and superstition, then surely they would recant their previous ideas and come to agree with rationalists like Rambam.

    Recently I found this idea clearly presented in an article entitled “U-Madua Lo Yeresem,” by R’ Asher Benzion Buchman, published in the 2nd volume of “Hakirah, The Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought.” This important article was written in support of you, R' Slifkin, shortly after the unfortunate Rabbinic ban on your books. The article may be read online at Hakirah’s website “hakirah.org”- http://www.hakirah.org/Vol%202%20Buchman.pdf

    R’ Buchman explains that Ramban, too, was a rationalist, committed to the scientific method, only he went along with the prevailing "science" in the medieval period that was still so primitive, and if Ramban would be living in today's world he would agree that Rambam’s rationalist views are correct.

    What was the reaction to this article? Did it gain any traction, or was it simply ignored, or worse scorned, by other Jewish religious thinkers?

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  5. Just wanted to thank Moshe for sharing that article as I am throughly enjoying reading it.

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