Talking About Magic Tricks with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

by Arthur Kurzweil

October 25, 2011


Imagine having a private conversation with Rabbi Akiva or Maimonides or the Baal Shem Tov. What burning question or particular topic would you be eager to bring to such a person of wisdom?


Perhaps there is a secret you want to confess, or a question about God or faith you feel you need to explore? You require advice concerning a family problem, or are looking for help untangling a theological paradox?


For almost 30 years I have been driving to John F. Kennedy International Airport in time for the 5:30 a.m. landing of EL AL Flight # 001. My assignment is always the same: When Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, arguably the most influential and highly regarded Jewish teacher and scholar of our generation, comes to New York, I am his designated driver. I have just learned the Rabbi will be arriving soon, and one item on his agenda involves the second annual Global Day of Jewish Learning on November 13th. I am giving serious thought to the topic I want to bring to the car ride.


While Rabbi Steinsaltz is perhaps best known for his unprecedented translation of and commentary on the entire Talmud, he is also a teacher of Kabbalah, and a scientist, and he is regarded as a spiritual genius, an unparalleled teacher, and man of deep wisdom and insight.


Each of the last few times I have driven Rabbi Steinsaltz, I have asked about magic tricks and magicians.


I have been interested in magic since third grade when my father purchased my first magic trick. Today, in addition to writing and teaching, I design, manufacture, and sell magic tricks with my son, Moshe, and often perform a Jewish theological magic show for adults only called “Searching for God in a Magic Shop.”


Not long ago, Rabbi Steinsaltz and I talked about the famous magic word, “abracadabra” and its possible Aramaic origins in the phrase, “abra kedabra,” – create as I say. I also vividly recall the conversation Rabbi Steinsaltz and I had about E.S.P.; he believes that such phenomena are certainly possible and even quite likely. I once told Rabbi Steinsaltz of the Israeli chemistry professor in the audience who volunteered to help me with a so-called E.S.P. demonstration. Afterwards, this highly educated scholar absolutely insisted that I had special psychic powers. I told her it was a magic trick, but she would not budge: I was a mind reader. 


Once, Rabbi Steinsaltz and I discussed the section of the Talmud where the major sin of the magician is explored. The Jewish magician has an obligation to avoid making the claim of having special powers; the audience must know that magicians only perform illusions--clever, ingenious, but they are all just tricks.


Rabbi Steinsaltz and I have also had a number of serious talks about Jewish theology and magic. In my show, while demonstrating some rather cool tricks, I raise the eternal question: why would the Almighty create a world with so much suffering in it? As our Sages teach, we humans do not have the ability to see and grasp everything the Almighty does. A magic show can always remind us of this aspect of Jewish faith. The audience does not see everything the magician is doing—and that is how tricks work. And we do not see everything that God is doing—that is how the world works.


Today, I feel an urgent need to talk with the Rabbi about “magical thinking.” If you’ve ever avoided cracks in the sidewalk to escape bad luck, that was magical thinking. Magical thinking assumes there is a causal relationship between performing a ritual and an expected benefit. I am wondering how magical thinking sneaks into our Jewish lives. How often do we reduce our time honored rituals to a belief in a kind of magic that does the work for us? On Succot, for example, how many of us examine the Etrog so carefully, looking for the slightest imperfection, yet we fail to examine our own words and deeds with nearly as much care?


When my interest in magic connects with my passion for Jewish tradition, it is a joy. But, in fact, just about every subject imaginable can be found within the texts and literary treasures of our ancestors.


On Sunday, November 13th, in the spirit of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s call to “Let my people know,” Jews in over 200 communities throughout the world will participate in a Global Day of Jewish Learning, where we will again experience how Jewish texts can connect and speak to us personally, thereby discovering the truth to the ancient adage, “Turn it (the Torah) and turn it again, for everything is in it” (The Sayings of the Fathers).



For more information on the Global Day, please visit


Arthur Kurzweil is the author of On the Road with Rabbi Steinsaltz, Kabbalah for Dummies, and several other books. He is a member of the Society of American Magicians.