May I Divine?
Question #1: Skipping the Thirteenth Floor
“May a frum builder skip the number 13 when naming the floors of a building?”
Question #2: Snakes and Ladders
“Is there a halachic source that one should change his plans if he sees a snake when he leaves on a trip?”
Question #3: Monkey Business
As I was preparing this article, Reuvein asked me the following question: “I am in the middle of negotiating the acquisition of a business. On the way to the meeting, a quirk accident happened. Should I interpret this as a reason to avoid the deal?”
Several mitzvos of the Torah prohibit different practices used to predict the future. Many of these are mentioned in parshas Kedoshim, including the prohibitions against ov and yide’oni, both ancient methods of necromancy (Vayikra 20:27), and the commandments: Lo senachashu velo se’oneinu (Vayikra 19:26), which I will translate as Do not make use of omens and do not divine times. These four prohibitions are repeated together with three similar others in parshas Shoftim (Devorim 18:10-11): Lo yimatza’ei becha… koseim kesamim, me’onein, umenacheish umechasheif… vesho’eil ov veyide’oni vedoreish el hameisim, “There shall not be found among you… a soothsayer, a diviner of times, an interpreter of omens or a sorcerer… or one who asks of ov or of yide’oni or one who consults the dead. Subsequently, in parshas Shoftim, the Torah commands Tamim tih’yeh im Hashem Elokecha, “You shall be whole-hearted with Hashem, your G-d” (Devorim 18:13). This means that we should not allow our relationship with Hashem to become diffused by placing confidence or decision-making in the hands of superstitions or worse.
Practicing omens, in Hebrew, nichush or nachash, includes taking action or avoiding taking action because of superstitious reasons. Divination, me’onein, can be defined as “attempting to foretell future events by use of supernatural powers,” although, as we will soon see, the Torah’s prohibition is more inclusive. According to the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:37), all of these practices are forbidden because they are similar to idol worship.
The basics of the prohibition of nichush are that one should not use methods that are outside of Torah to try to determine whether one should pursue a particular course of action. What exactly is included within these prohibitions? As we will see shortly, the rules here are not at all obvious and, indeed, are often disputed by the rishonim.
A beraisa, quoted by the Gemara (Sanhedrin 65b-66a), presents the following list of situations that are prohibited because of nichush. In each of these, someone was planning a course of action, perhaps leaving on a business trip or similar mission, and then, because something occurred, he changed his plans. The situations listed are:
His bread fell out of his mouth.
He dropped his walking stick.
His son called him from behind (presumably as he was leaving the house).
He heard the call of a raven.
A deer crossed his path.
He saw a snake on his right side or a fox on his left.
Apparently, during the time of the Gemara, there were superstitious beliefs that any of these events bode poorly for the results of the trip. One can compare this to contemporary superstitions about black cats or the number thirteen. This Gemara teaches that one may not base a decision on an omen or other factor that bears no rational influence on the planned course of action. In all of the above cases, someone who changes his plans because he feels that he has just seen a bad omen violates a Torah law.
Snakes and ladders
At this point, we can answer one of our opening questions: “Is there a halachic source that one should change his plans if he sees a snake when he leaves on a trip?”
Quite the contrary, there is a halachic source that prohibits changing one’s plans under these circumstances.
Should I pay my taxes?
The above-quoted passage of Gemara continues with several other applications of this prohibition:
Someone requests from the tax collector, “Don’t begin your collecting with me,” because he feels that this is a bad omen. Similarly, someone who postpones paying a debt at the beginning of the week or the month because of a belief that this will portend a bad week or month also violates the prohibition of nichush.
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 66a) concludes its discussion there by quoting a different beraisa: The Rabbis taught: Do not use omens or lucky times – such as those who use omens of weasels (in Hebrew, chuldos), birds or stars. (Although our text of the Gemara says fish, the Rambam, Commentary to Mishnah, Avodah Zarah 4:7, and other rishonim cite stars as the correct version.) Similarly, a person who changed his plans because a black cat crossed his path violated a prohibition of the Torah. Someone who knowledgeably does this would be invalid as a witness for a wedding, because he has violated a lo saaseh of the Torah.
No causal connection
The Ran (Sanhedrin ad loc.) explains that nichush is prohibited when there is no logical causal connection between the event that transpired and the plans that one is changing. The only reason one is changing his plans is because of a belief that the events (the bread falling, the deer crossing the path etc.) are meant to foretell something.
On the other hand, it is permitted to change your plans because of a logical reason. For example, someone planning a trip who sees thunderclouds on the horizon may change his travel plans for the day, because it appears that it will rain, making the traveling unpleasant or even potentially dangerous. Since this is a logical reason to postpone his trip, it has nothing to do with the prohibition against nichush (Ran). Similarly, it is permitted to follow a procedure that can be shown to have medical benefit, as we will now explain (Moreh Nevuchim; Meiri, Shabbos 67a).
Locust eggs and fox teeth
The Mishnah (Shabbos 60a) rules that an ill person who has a need to, may wear a ke’meia, an amulet, whose efficacy is established, into or through a reshus harabim, a public area on Shabbos. For someone ill, this is considered the halachic equivalent to wearing an ornament or a garment (Rashi ad loc.). A later Mishnah (Shabbos 67a) cites a dispute whether one is permitted to walk through a public area on Shabbos while wearing the egg of a grasshopper, the tooth of a fox or the nail used to hang someone from a gallows. The tanna who permits this considers these items halachically the same as an amulet whose efficacy is established. The tanna who forbids wearing these items prohibits doing so even on a weekday, because he considers this to be a form of nichush (see Rashi). The Gemara concludes that, since the medical value of this treatment is demonstrable, wearing it does not violate the laws prohibiting nichush. We rule according to this tanna.
Dispute among rishonim
At this point, we need to introduce a dispute concerning the extent of what the Torah prohibited. The precise question is whether the Torah prohibits being influenced only by prevalent superstitious practices, or whether any method of foretelling the future not firmly grounded in Torah is forbidden. In other words, we know that the Torah provided methods to foretell the future by consulting the urim vetumim worn by the kohen gadol or via information gained from a prophet. These are certainly permitted. There is, however, a dispute regarding whether one may create one’s own method as a basis to decide whether to proceed with a specific course of action. In the Rambam’s opinion, anything that one would rely upon to base one’s decision or plan of action is prohibited (Hilchos Avodas Kochavim 11:5). However, according to the Radak (Shmuel I 14:9), only practices that are based on superstition, sorcery, idol worship or similar nefarious bases are prohibited. It is permitted to do something as a sign or symbol, because this strengthens one’s resolve. (See also Ra’avad, Hilchos Avodas Kochavim 11:4, 5, who also follows this approach). Shortly, I will show a few examples of this dispute.
Dependent on this dispute will be two very different ways of understanding the following passage of Gemara (Chullin 95b), quoting the great amora, Rav: “Any nachash that is unlike what was performed by Eliezer, the slave of Avraham, and unlike that performed by Yonasan, the son of Shaul, is not a nachash.” Prior to presenting the two approaches to understanding this Gemara, let us examine the two events quoted.
The story of Eliezer
When Eliezer was on his mission to find a wife for Yitzchak, the Torah describes that upon his arrival in the city of Nachor, he asked Hashem for a specific sign to identify the woman that he was seeking. Eliezer prayed for G-d to send him the chosen woman on the following basis: Should he ask her to provide him with a bit of water, and she would respond, “I will also provide water for your camels,” this girl is to be Yitzchak’s bride, without any other questions or research (Bereishis 24:14). According to some rishonim, what Eliezer did qualifies as an act of nichush, since he made his action totally dependent on an outside factor.
The story of Yonasan
The other example mentioned by the Gemara is that of Yonasan, the crown prince son of King Shaul. At a time when the Jews had almost no weapons and were the underdog in an incredibly lopsided war against the Pelishtim, Yonasan, accompanied only by his armor-bearer, advanced towards a garrison of Pelishtim soldiers. Yonasan told his armor-bearer, “If they say to us, ‘wait until we reach you,’ we should remain in our place and not advance towards them. However, if they say, ‘come forward to us,’ then we should attack, because this is our sign that Hashem has given them over to our hands (Shmuel I 14:8-10).” This, not withstanding that Yonasan and his armor-bearer were only two attacking an entire garrison!
Why did the Gemara refer to what Yonasan did as an act of nachash, divining?
We find a major dispute among the rishonim how to interpret the words of the Gemara, “Any nachash that is unlike what was performed by Eliezer, the slave of Avraham, and unlike that performed by Yonasan, the son of Shaul, is not a nachash.”
Most early rishonim (Rashi, Rambam, Tosafos) understand the Gemara to mean that anyone who follows an approach similar to what Eliezer or Yonasan did has violated the prohibition of nichush. This approach contends that other than prophecy or the use of the urim vetumim, using events over which I have no control to determine my course of action is included under the prohibition of nichush.
Of course, the obvious problem with this approach is that if these actions indeed violate the prohibition of nichush, why were Eliezer and Yonasan permitted to perform them? Here are some of the answers provided for this question.
The prohibition against nichush applies only to Jews and not to bnei Noach, and Eliezer had the status of a ben Noach (Tosafos, Chullin 95b s.v. Ke’eliezer).
According to this approach, the story of Yonasan is difficult to explain, since he certainly did not qualify as a ben noach.
Another problem with this answer is that the Gemara (Sanhedrin 56b) records a dispute whether the prohibition against nichush applies to gentiles. Should one hold that the prohibition against nichush does apply to gentiles, one would answer that Eliezer did not rely on Rivkah’s offering the water to propose the marriage to her, but waited until he had verified that she was indeed family of Avraham’s (Tosafos, Chullin 95b s.v. Ke’eliezer).
Tosafos and the Ran (ad loc.) explain that Yonasan was planning to attack and was not using the nichush to make a decision. He used the nichush only so that his armor bearer would be more confident that their attack would be successful. Since Yonasan was planning to proceed regardless of the outcome of his test, it was permitted to make the sign.
The Radak’s approach
On the other hand, other rishonim dispute the understanding of the mitzvah of nichush and, furthermore, understand the passage of Gemara in a very different way. In their opinion, the prohibition of nichush applies only to things that are commonly perceived to have value, either because of superstition, sorcery, idolatry or other similar reason. However, to base a decision on a sign that has no superstitious or clairvoyant basis is permitted. Therefore, neither Eliezer nor Yonasan was in violation of any halachic issue by using their signs to divine. The Gemara’s purpose, when referring to Eliezer and Yonasan as examples of nichush, has nothing to do with the prohibition of the Torah banning nichush, but is teaching us that the simanim used by Eliezer and by Yonasan were both effective (Ra’avad, Hilchos Avodah Zarah, 11:4). This opinion holds that proper use of simanim is halachically permitted, but, as a matter of advice, should not be used, unless one can be reasonably certain that the siman is effective.
The entire passage
Having explained the dispute defining what is included within the prohibition of nichush, I’ll now present the entire passage of Gemara in which we find this quote. Rav was traveling to the house of his daughter and son-in-law, Rav Chanan. The trip required crossing a river, which usually meant getting to the riverbank and waiting until appropriate transport showed up. As Rav approached the river, he saw that a ferry was approaching; this would shorten the time for him considerably. Rav then said: “The ferry came in my direction; we will have a celebration as a result!”
When Rav arrived at his daughter’s house, they were in the process of butchering an animal. With the meat of that animal, Rav’s family made a lavish meal in his honor, yet Rav did not partake in any of the meat. The Gemara suggests that Rav did not eat any of the meat because, since Rav had declared that the ferry’s proximity had indicated a good omen which would be a reason for celebration, this would violate the Torah’s law against nichush. The Gemara retorts that Rav himself had defined nichush as something similar to what was done by Eliezer, Avraham’s slave, or by Yonasan the son of Shaul; any other practice does not constitute nichush. The Gemara’s conclusion is that Rav did not eat meat for a completely unrelated reason — because he never participated in a festive meal unless it was a seudas mitzvah (Chullin 95b).
According to the Radak, Rav’s original statement would never be a prohibited nichush practice, since the proximity of the ferry was not commonly used as a superstitious omen. Therefore, one may use such a sign as a means of deciding on a future course of action.
How do we rule?
The Rema (Yoreh Deah 179:4) cites both opinions without reaching a clear conclusion, and then closes by saying that one who lives his life sincerely and is confident in Hashem’s ways will be surrounded by kindness, thus implying that it is better not to follow such signs.
The pesukim of children
The Gemara (Chullin 95b) shares with us that Shmuel “checked with seforim” and Rabbi Yochanan “checked with children.” What does this mean? According to most authorities, this means that when planning what to do, Shmuel used some method of having the words of seforim assist him in his decision what to do. This is probably similar to, or identical with, the famous goral haGra, literally, the Gra’s lottery, which involves turning pages a certain way for divine direction as to what to do in difficult circumstances. Rabbi Yochanan relied on a different approach, in which he would ask children what verses of the Torah they had just learned and would rely on their answer for direction. Some early authorities explain that relying on a pasuk of a child is like relying on the answer of a prophet, which is permitted (Semag; Ran; Shach, Yoreh Deah 179:5). Notwithstanding this approach, the Rambam still feels that one should not use either holy books or children’s verses to choose what to do, and Shmuel and Rabbi Yochanan also did not do so. They would simply note, after the fact, that what resulted could have been foretold on the basis of these methods, but they would not use these methods to plan in advance what to do.
As Rav Hirsch, explains, serving Hashem is something that we must do in a whole-hearted way, and includes understanding that all that Hashem does is for the good. Hashem alone decides our future, directs and guides our actions. The sole criterion to decide whether we should or should not do something is Hashem’s Will. The goal of the truly sincere person is to perform what Hashem wants from him at the moment, and he will thus be impervious to worry (Commentary, Devorim 18:13).