What's in a Word?

For the week ending 21 January 2023 / 28 Tevet 5783

Vaera: The Trick of Magi

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

After Aaron performed the miraculous feat of turning his staff into a snake, the Pharaoh called on his wiseman and magicians to do the same. As the Bible reports, the Egyptian chartumim (usually translated as “necromancers”) also replicated this feat using their lahat (Ex. 7:11). Similarly, after Moses and Aaron brought about the Plague of Blood, said chartumim once again replicated the miraculous feat with their lat (Ex. 7:22). The same happened with the Plague of Frogs: the chartumim used their lat to replicate what Moses and Aaron did (Ex. 8:3). Finally, when it came to the Plague of Lice, the Egyptian chartumim once again tried with their lat to replicate what Moses and Aaron had wrought upon them, but could not do so. This time, they finally admitted that the plagues that Moses and Aaron brought come from “the finger of God” — which is more powerful than they are (Ex. 8:14-15). In the chartumim’s first attempt, they used their lahat, yet in their subsequent tries, they were said to use their lat. Although these two words are similar to each other, they seem to reflect two different methods used by the Egyptian magicians. What then is the difference between lat and lahat?

Targum Onkelos (to Ex. 7:11, 7:22) translates both lat and lahat as lachash (“whispering/incantation”). In doing so, Onkelos takes the position that these two words mean the same thing, effectively rendering them synonyms. On the other hand, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 67b) assumes that lat and lahat are not synonymous and do not mean the exact same thing. Instead, the Talmud adduces that lat refers to the use of sheidim (loosely translated as “demons”), and lahat refers to the use of kishuf (loosely translated as “witchcraft”). As we will see below, the various commentators and exegetes adopt some variation of one or the other of these two approaches.

Rashi (to Ex. 7:11) cites Onkelos’ understanding of lahat (that it means lachash, just like lat), but comments that we do find another example of the Hebrew word lahat in the Bible meant in this sense. Afterwards, Rashi compares this usage of lahat to the same word when it appears in a verse describing Adam’s banishment from the Garden of Eden: “He [Hashem] placed the Cherubim and the flame (lahat) of the ever-turning sword to guard the way to the Tree of Life” (Gen. 3:24). Rashi explains that although the word lahat in that context means something else (“flame”), it is still related to the lahat as “incantation,” because the nature of the ever-turning sword appears to the on-looker as though it were enchanted by way of some sort of incantation or spell that causes it to continuously turn. When it comes to the word lat, Rashi (to Ex. 7:22) simply comments that it implies something said quietly, again following Onkelos’ approach that lahat and lat mean the same thing.

However, Rashi (to Ex. 7:22) also cites the Talmud’s explanation, albeit without explaining what exactly it means. In his commentary to the Talmud, Rashi (to Sanhedrin 67b) clarifies what the Talmud meant: lahat is something performed by the practitioner himself, while lat adjures sheidim to act on one’s behalf. The Talmud itself actually cites the aforementioned verse that about the ever-turning sword and, as Rashi explains it, the Talmud’s point is that this sword gives off the appearance of being enchanted on its own, as opposed to constantly being turned by outside forces (that is, sheidim).

In another explanation of the Talmud’s point, the Tosafists (Moshav Zekenim to Ex. 7:11) write that lahat refers to feats performed via sleight of hand (i.e., magic tricks, that do not actually affect reality), while lat refers to forcing sheidim to do one's bidding. Rabbi Avraham Saba (1440–1508) in Tzror HaMor (there) also seems to explain the Talmud by writing that lat refers to the chartumim's use of verbal speech-acts (like magical incantations, or oaths to adjure sheidim) to bring about what they were trying to achieve, while lahat refers to their use of magical instruments (like magic wands) to perform their acts of witchery.

Nachmanides (to Ex. 7:11) explains that when the Talmud says that lahat refers to kishuf, this implies the use of destructive angels, because angels are elsewhere (Ps. 104:4) described as aish lohet (“enflamed fire”). When the Talmud says that lat refers to sheidim, Nachmanides understands this to mean that the word lat is derived from the biliteral root LAMMED-TET, “clandestine” (see I Sam. 18:22), as the presence of sheidim are not usually discernable or palpable to humans, so one using sheidim is being sneaky and undercover.

Let’s discuss the root LAMMED-TET: Menachem Ibn Saruk, Ibn Janach, and Radak all maintain that the triliteral root LAMMED-ALEPH-TET means “covered/hidden,” but that sometimes the middle ALPEH might disappear, or morph into a VAV (like in I Sam. 21:10, Isa. 25:7). Based on this, Ibn Janach and Radak suggest that the words lahat and lat both derive from this root, as well, with the middle ALEPH disappearing in the case of lat, and morphing into a HEY in the case of lahat. By offering this explanation, Ibn Janach and Radak follow Targum Onkelos’ approach that lahat and lat mean the same thing.

Menachem lists the word lahat under the root LAMMED-HEY-TET, which has two meanings: “flame/blade” and “type of kishuf.” Radak also entertains this possibility, suggesting that some forms of magic call for the use of a sharp sword (think of the old magic trick of sawing someone in half). Unfortunately, Menachem never lists the word lat in his lexicon Machberet Menachem, so we do not know if he would categorize it under LAMMED-HEY-TET (like he did with lahat) or under a different root (like LAMMED-ALEPH-TET or LAMMED-TET).

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) in Cheshek Shlomo discusses the biliteral root TET-LAMMED, which he defines as "folding." He relates it to the term mentioned above regarding "hidden/concealed," by explaining that something “folded over” conceals the part that is hidden from view. Similarly, he explains lat as referring to a type of magic trick whereby one puts a stone in a folded cloth, and suddenly pulls a bird or animal out of the cloth (seemingly, an early version of pulling a rabbit out of a hat). He then explains that lahat in the sense of "blade/flame" also relates to “folding,” because the blade appears as though it were “folding," or otherwise contorting itself, in order to cut through whatever is being cut (and the same is true with a flame "contorting" itself to burn through whatever it is consuming). In a borrowed sense, lahat came to refer to magic tricks, because they are performed by sleight of hand, which resembles the fast movement of a flame or blade. In Yerios Shlomo, Rabbi Pappenheim writes that lat and lahat mean the same thing, with both terms referring to the speed and dexterity needed to pull off a sleight of hand magic trick.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ex. 7:11) explains that lahat refers to the magician’s use of a shiny object to distract his audience, while lat refers to the quick movement of the hand that the magician does while his audience is distracted.

What’s fascinating is that there is another root which is seemingly related to all of this, namely, ALEPH-TET, yet I have not found anyone who explicitly connects lat or lahat to that root. That root yields the word l’at and its cognates, which mean “slow/paced” (Gen. 33:14, II Sam. 18:5, Isa. 8:6, Iyov 15:11). There is a question amongst the lexicographers whether the initial LAMMED is actually part of the root or not. Either way, Menachem Ibn Saruk and Radak see the word ittym (Isa. 19:3) as derived from the two-letter root ALEPH-TET, which they define as a type of kishuf. Ibn Janach similarly traces that word to that root, but defines it as a type of “astrologer.” In discussing the two-letter root ALEPH-TET, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that its core meaning is "slow movement," and ittym refers to magicians who would deliberately move slowly when performing magical rites in order to create a more dramatic effect and convince those watching of the efficacy of their acts. [Interestingly, Rashi (to Isa. 19:3) explains ittym as the name of an idolatrous deity, often identified as the Egyptian god Atum or the Sumerian Ittyi.]

All this said and done, Ibn Ezra (to Ex. 7:11, 7:22) insists that lahat and lat are two different words, rejecting the notion that lat simply has a missing HEY, because Ibn Ezra asserts that the radical HEY does not appear in the middle of a triliteral root. Instead, he explains each word on its own: lahat refers to the lightning-fast speed (which resembles the flash of a moving/turning flame) needed to properly pull off a trick using sleight of hand. Ibn Ezra thus explains lahat as trickery by way of prestidigitation and legerdemain. Lat implies something done undercover/clandestinely (like in Jud. 4:21). Thus, the two words lahat and lat focus on different aspects of the same magic trick. It is well-known that Ibn Ezra was a great admirer of Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi (1075–1141) — some even claim Ibn Ezra married his daughter — and indeed in Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s commentary to Exodus, a very similar explanation is proffered.

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Exegetes like Rabbi Saadia Gaon (882–942), Rabbeinu Chananel ben Chushiel (965–1055), Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, and Rabbi Avraham Maimuni (1186–1237) deny the existence of sheidim and the efficacy of kishuf. These so-called “Rationalist” commentators instead explain that when the Bible reports that the chartumim “also did” like what Moses and Aaron did, this does not actually refer to them doing something that yielded the same results as the miracles performed by Moses and Aaron. Rather, it refers to the chartumim performing the necessary speech-acts needed to replicate what Moses and Aaron were able to pull off, but these “dry actions” did not result in creating any new entity, they only seemed to copy Moses and Aaron.

Rabbi Saadia Gaon (in Emunah v’Deos Maamar #3) and Gersonides (to Ex. 7:11, 7:22) explain that lahat and lat both mean something done in a “concealed” or “clandestine” way. In this case, the parlor tricks performed by the Egyptian chartumim were achieved through sleight of hand, thus using "hidden" methods to give off the illusion of changing the staff into a snake, or replicating the Plagues of Blood and Frogs. In those cases, they were successful in producing the illusion of being able to copy Moses and Aron. However, when it came to the Plague of Lice, the chartumim were not even able to pull off the illusion of successfully copying Moses and Aaron.

As mentioned above, the Talmud says that lat refers to the use of sheidim,and lahat refers to the use of kishuf. How does this explanation jibe with the Rationalist approach that denies the validity of both of those modalities? [In fact, the Vilna Gaon in Biur HaGra (Yoreh Deah §179:13) offers a variation on this question to dismiss the Maimonidean position on kishuf, by noting that the Torah itself seemingly attests to the efficacy of the chartumim’s efforts!]

Rabbi David HaNaggid (Maimonides' great-great-grandson) offers an answer to this in his work in Kelil HaYofi (to Ex. 7:11). He axiomatically assumes that the chartumim did nothing more than a mere illusory ploy that only seemed to mirror what Moses and Aaron brought on. Based on this, he explains that there were two dimensions to this trick: One aspect is called lahat, which recalls the aspect of the chartumim’s trick that employed sleight of hand (like all kishuf). The second aspect of their trick entailed arousing the on-looker’s imagination and enticing him into thinking that he sees something that does not actually reflect reality. This relates to the Maimonidean conception of sheidim as reflecting the wild imaginations of those less intellectually disciplined (see Guide for the Perplexed 3:46), and is the idea referred to as lat.

The relevant excerpts from Rabbi David HaNaggid’s Klil HaYofi were first published by Rabbi Moshe Maimon (of Jackson, NJ) in Mechilta vol. 4 (Sept. 2022). That work cites Rabbi Saadia Gaon and Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s lost commentaries to Exodus. I thank Rabbi Maimon for his assistance in helping me prepare this essay.

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