Edited Feb 2, 2006
Today's post discusses the Chartumei Mitzrayim, the Egyptian court magicians who attempted to duplicate Moshe's miricales. According to the Sages, these men tapped into legitimate black magic, forces that God built into creation, and manipulated it to create wonders. For a time, these wonders deceived Pharoh into rejecting Moshe's demands.
Except, some Sages says it's all nonesense. Notably, the Abarbanel writes that the court magicians were never able to replicate a single miracle. He says they either used David Copperfield-type illusions to trick Pharoh, or simply spread false rumors of their abilities. (My hunch is that Hasidic-miracle workers operate the same way, and I eagerly wait a James Randi expose of their methods.)
The strongest argument that the Egyptians magicians were frauds is made by Samason Rephael Hirsch and it is a textual argument.
R' Hirsch points out that the Torah never actually says that the magicians were able to turn water to blood, or produce frogs, rather it says "And the magicians of Egypt did so with their enchantments [v'yasu chen... b'latayhem]" According to Hirsch this doesn't mean that the magicians were successful, only that they imitated Aaron, ie: After Aaron hit the water or the dirt with his stick, the magicians copied his action with the powerless tools of their own impotent trade.
He also asks (I'm paraphrasing)"Why would the magicians want more frogs and more lice? Wouldn't it make more sense if they were trying to remove the plauge?" And, in fact, the word the Torah uses to describe the intention of the magicians(l'hotzi) can mean both to "bring up" and to "remove."
Here then are the relevant passages as Samson Rephael Hirsch understands them with my own interpolations in blue:
6 And Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt; and the frogs came up, and covered the land of Egypt.
7 And the magicians copied Aaron's with their magic charms, [nontheless] frogs covered the land of Egypt. [How do we know the magicians were trying to remove the frogs, and failed? Because right away Pharoh calls for help. See next verse.]
8 Then Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron, and said, Intreat the LORD, that he may take away the frogs from me, and from my people; and I will let the people go, that they may do sacrifice unto the LORD. [Doesn't sound like someone with much faith in magicians, does he?]
17 ...Aaron stretched out his hand with his rod, and smote the dust of the earth, and it became lice in man, and in beast; all the dust of the land became lice throughout all the land of Egypt.
18 And the magicians copied Aaron's action with their magic charms to remove (l'hotzi) the lice, but they could not: so there were lice upon man, and upon beast. [This verse is the best proof of the magicians intentions, if you, follow SRH, and read l'hotzi as "remove": Immediately after we're told that the magicians could not "l'hotzi" the lice, the text says they were everywhere.]