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    We believe in fighting honorably in the rare, unfortunate case in which fighting is necessary. But does that mean that we have to be at a disadvantage? If our enemy fights with sneaky tactics, do we have to be his victim?

    I. Moving the Boat

    The Gemara (Shabbos 81b) tells the story that once Rav Chisda and Rabbah Bar Rav Huna were traveling on a small boat and a suspicious woman asked to join them. They declined to give her a ride in their boat. In revenge, she said an incantation to prevent the boat from moving. They responded by saying an incantation that freed the boat from her capture and allowed it to move on its course.

    This story offers a number of lessons and raises questions, as well. The Vilna Gaon (Bi’ur Ha-Gra, Yoreh De’ah 179:13) quotes this case as an example of Talmudic stories about witchcraft and incantations as a refutation of Rambam’s view that incantations accomplish nothing (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 11:11). Normally, Meiri explains Gemaras of this nature along the lines of Rambam’s view. However, he does not address this story. I suggest that perhaps Rambam understood it as follows: The woman said an incantation, which scared the boat’s sailors into inaction. Rav Chisda and Rabbah Bar Rav Huna said a counter-incantation, which calmed the sailors’ fear and allowed them to continue to sail.

    How could Rav Chisda and Rabbah Bar Rav engage in kishuf (witchcraft)? Whether it is real or merely a ploy, it still falls under the same Talmudic category. Rashi (Shabbos 81b s.v. amri) says that they did not use witchcraft but rather a divine name to counter her incantation. However, Rashi seems to have retracted this explanation. Elsewhere Rashi (Chullin 105b s.b. amri) says that they were experts in kishuf and used it to save themselves from this pitfall. He says that some say they used a divine name but that explanation isn’t compelling.

    II. Self-Defense

    Rav Yosef Te’omim (18th cen., Germany; Rosh Yosef, Chullin 105b) suggests that some hold that kishuf is only forbidden if you believe in it. You are allowed to learn it in order to understand it. However, this only explains how Rav Chisda and Rabbah Bar Rav Huna knew the incantation. It does not explain how they used it. Unless Rav Te’omim means that kishuf works in a practical sense, even if the underlying belief system is wrong. We know (presumably) from experience that it works even if the beliefs and explanations attached to it are wrong. Therefore, you can use kishuf as long as you believe properly in G-d and not in witchcraft. Rav Shlomo Ben Aderes (Rashba, 13th cen., Spain; Responsa 1:413) discusses kishuf at length and seems to conclude similarly, that it is permitted as long as you believe that salvation comes from G-d. However, Rav David Ben Zimra (Radbaz, 16th cen., Egypt; Responsa 3:405) seems to say that kishuf is always forbidden, without any exception.

    Rav Shlomo Luria (Maharshal, 16th cen., Poland; Responsa, no. 3, also published in Yam Shel Shlomo, Chullin 8:13) quotes a responsum from Rav Menachem Metz in which he says that it is permissible to learn witchcraft from a practitioner in order to be used for defensive purposes. Maharshal brings a proof from our text to Rav Metz’s ruling. Since Rav Chisda and Rabbah Bar Rav Huna said an incantation to save themselves, it must be permissible to use kishuf in that situation.

    Similarly, Rav Ya’akov Reischer (18th cen., Poland; Iyun Ya’akov, Chullin, ad loc.) says that you are allowed to use kishuf in order to neutralize and deflect kishuf. He points to the members of the Sanhedrin great court, who were required to know kishuf (Sanhedrin 17a). Rav Reischer says that these judges need to know kishuf in order to neutralize it, i.e. in order to deploy kishuf against someone else’s kishuf.

    According to Maharshal and Rav Reischer, why are you allowed to use kishuf against kishuf? If it is forbidden, it should always be forbidden. And if it is permissible, it should always be allowed.

    III. Leveling the Playing Field

    Perhaps the answer lies in a surprising ruling of Rabbeinu Asher (Rosh, 14th cen., Germany-Spain). Rosh (Bava Kamma, ch. 3 no. 13) rules that if someone is hitting you, you may hit back and are completely exempt from damages. He started it so you may defend yourself. While you must use minimal force to end the situation, you may physically defend yourself or others against an attack.

    Similarly, Sefer Ha-Chinuch (13th cen., Spain; no. 338) says that the prohibition to insult someone does not apply when someone insults you first. While it is praiseworthy to hear your own insults and refrain from responding, this practice is not obligatory.

    In other words, you are allowed to fight fire with fire. While normally it is forbidden to insult or hit someone, if they insult or hit you first, you may respond in kind. It seems that similarly, if someone uses kishuf against you, you may respond likewise with kishuf.