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Who Was Eliezer?

Question #1: Who

Who was the greatest talmid chacham in history to have been born in Syria?

Question #2: Was

Was Eliezer a tzadik or a rosha? What difference does it make to us?

Question #3: Eliezer?

What halachos do we derive from Eliezer’s actions?

Introduction:

The Jewish community of Syria has been home to some of the greatest gedolei Yisroel the world has ever known, such as Rav Chayim Vital, the primary disciple of the Arizal and the source of virtually all our knowledge of the Arizal’s kabbalistic teachings. Rav Chayim’s son, Rav Shmuel Vital, the major conduit of kabbalistic teaching in his day, lived most of his life in Damascus. And yet, for most of its Jewish history, Damascus has played less prominence than its northwestern neighbor, Aleppo, famed as Aram Tzovah, home of generations of gedolei Yisroel. And these two Jewish communities, which share a massive diaspora spreading from Argentina, through Panama, Mexico, New Jersey, New York, and Jerusalem, are only two of the major Torah communities that once thrived in the northern part of the Levant. At one time in history, there were literally hundreds of proud Jewish communities scattered throughout what are today Syria, Lebanon, Kurdistan, and southern Turkey; each was justifiably proud of its own minhagim, Jewish traditions and Torah scholars; each had its own Jewish language or dialect.

But this discussion is taking us afield from today’s topic. One of the greatest individuals who hailed from Syria to have walked the face of the earth may have been Eliezer, Avraham’s servant. In its only reference to any personal data about him, the Torah calls him Eliezer the Damascene. (By the way, the chief rabbinate position there, once a highly coveted post, is unfilled at the moment, should you happen to know someone looking for a rabbinical post with a prestigious history.)

The Midrash Rabbah explains that Eliezer was in total control of himself, meaning that he was a highly spiritual individual, a big tzadik, who had mastered his yeitzer hora, his personal inclination to do evil. To quote the midrash, “Eliezer ruled over himself on the same level that Avraham ruled over himself” (Bereishis Rabbah 59:8; see also Yerushalmi Berachos 9:5; Shir Hashirim Rabbah 3:5). The Gemara’s description of Eliezer certainly sustains this impression of his personal greatness. In Yoma (28b), the Gemara describes him as an elder who spent his unoccupied time studying in the yeshivah.

This statement is even more unusual, in that we have a general rule that a gentile is forbidden to study Torah, and, if he does so, he is chayov misah, understood to mean that he will incur the punishment of misah bidei shamayim, a premature death (see Tosafos, Yevamos 2a s.v. Va’achos). Presumably, because Eliezer lived before the Torah was given to the Jewish people, his achieving massive Torah scholarship is viewed favorably by Chazal.

The same passage of Gemara creates a drosha on the reference to him as a Damascene, Damasek. The Gemara explains the word to mean that Eliezer “ladled” liberally from the Torah of Avraham and taught others. In other words, not only was he a regular participant in the yeshivah’s Torah discussions, he was a lecturer and a meishiv in the yeshivah, what we would call a ra’m (rosh mesivta) in the greatest yeshivah of his era, that was established by Avraham Avinu and attended by his disciples. Without question, this Gemara bills him as the greatest Torah scholar in history to have hailed from Syria. Prior to the birth of his sons, who does Avraham consider his worthy heir, as he tells Hashem in parshas Lech Lecha (Bereishis 15:2)? According to Chazal, who accompanies Avraham and Yitzchak on their way to the Akeidah? This is the individual whom Avraham employed to find a shidduch for his cherished son Yitzchak, and for virtually all his endeavors. And whom does Avraham use as his lieutenant commander, when he fields his army to save his nephew Lot?

Germane to this war, the posuk says that Avraham had 318 men in his army when he went to fight the victorious, powerful and world-conquering four armies of Kedorla’omer (Bereishis 14:14). The Gemara (Nedarim 32a) notes that the gematriya of the word Eliezer is 318. Based on this hermeneutical source, the Gemara interprets that Avraham Avinu’s winning battalions contained only two soldiers – Avraham and Eliezer. In other words, Avraham and Eliezer vanquished the Kedorla’omer dragon with the archetypical, traditional Jewish army of only generals and no soldiers. I will continue to explain this midrash later, but, for our purposes now, suffice it to say that this demonstrates Eliezer’s tzidkus and his level of faith and confidence in the Almighty. Who else would attack an army with only one associate, particularly if that associate’s commanding officer is so well-trained and experienced in military tactics as Avraham?

Avraham’s resources

Eliezer is referred to as the “elder of Avraham’s household, who rules over all that he owns.” He was a fully trusted, senior manager of all of Avraham’s property, including all his employees, his servants and slaves. Eliezer was what we would call the CEO or COO of Avraham’s extensive business and personal holdings.

How wealthy was Avraham? Chazal tell us that he owned the entire world (Bereishis Rabbah, 43, 5 and Shemos Rabbah 15, 8). That Avraham entrusts all his worldly possessions to Eliezer reflects one of two things: either that Avraham has little concern for his physical property – he realizes that “you can’t take it with you” — or, alternatively, Avraham has such confidence in Eliezer’s total commitment to fulfill what Avraham asks that he trusts Eliezer completely and has no need to verify what is done. (The likelihood is that both of these factors are true.) History is replete with individuals who were given this amount of trust, and employers and rulers who learned to regret this decision. But not Avraham…

Yitzchak’s shidduch

This incredible tzadik, Eliezer, was then given virtually complete control over the most important matter in Avraham’s life. Avraham has a son, born when his parents are quite aged and, therefore, almost certainly destined for early-orphaned status. Avraham defies all odds and is still alive and alert to direct Yitzchak’s shidduch search.

Yitzchak will clearly continue Avraham’s legacy, that to which he has devoted his entire life. Yitzchak follows in his father’s footsteps perfectly, and even looks exactly like his father, notwithstanding that Avraham is his senior by one hundred years [until Avraham requests that his appearance reflect his age] (Bava Metzia 87a).

For Yitzchak to fulfill his legacy, he needs a wife capable of being his life’s partner, one who can proudly and boldly challenge the entire world. To quote Chazal, Avraham is called “ha’ivri,” not because he descended from the great Torah scholar and Rosh Yeshivah, Eiver, and also not because he was the original “Hebrew,” but because he stood alone opposed to the values of the entire world at his time. As Chazal express it, the entire world stood on one side and Avraham on the other. This mission can be continued only by Yitzchak, who must have descendants devoted to the family business, and for this he needs a wife appropriate to her role.

Who gets entrusted with making sure that this legacy will be perpetuated? Eliezer. Yet, it seems that Eliezer should be the least likely candidate for the position. As Rashi notes, he himself has a daughter for whom he is desperately trying to find an appropriate shidduch – and, to Eliezer, Yitzchak appears as the perfect shidduch! This sounds like the classic case of appointing a fox to guard the chicken coop!

Why is Avraham sending someone to carry out a difficult assignment, when this agent has a vested interest in its collapse? Furthermore, Avraham provides Eliezer with an excuse for failure of the mission – a claim, verified or not, that he located an appropriate girl, but she refused to travel with a group of unknown men, preferring that her suitor come for her. Is this not the accepted approach in all societies until modern times, and, certainly, the seemingly most appropriate and tzeniyus-dik way to do things?!

Tzadik or rosha?

At this point, let us discuss the second of our opening questions: “Was Eliezer a tzadik or a rosha?”

How can we even ask such a question? Did we not already demonstrate that he was one of the greatest tzadikim of all time!

This brings to mind a criticism leveled at Rabbi Akiva, who identified the mekosheish (the person who violated the laws of Shabbos – Bamidbar 15:32) as Tzelofchad, even though the Torah does not mention his name.: “Akiva, either way, you will be punished in the future. If you are correct, the Torah hid this information and you are revealing it. If you are wrong, you are libeling that tzadik” (Shabbos 96b).

Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer

This criticism can be leveled equally at Rabbi Akiva’s great rebbe, the tanna,Rabbi Eliezer ben Harkinus (no relation to Eliezer of Damascus, our protagonist). Although several passages of Gemara and numerous midrashim indicate that Eliezer was an incredible tzadik, we find other midrashim that provide a very different perspective about Eliezer, painting him in a very nasty way. The primary midrash source for this latter approach is Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer (Chapter 15 ff.), which states that Eliezer was quite evil and was rewarded with much respect and access to wealth as Avraham’s right-hand man in order to receive recompense for his good deeds in this world, leaving his nefariousness deeds to be punished in the next!

Is this not strange? Where else do we find such a major dispute regarding whether a Tanach personality was righteous or evil? Even regarding Noach, about whom we find two disputing approaches in Chazal, all agree that he was a “great tzadik in his generations.” Since Noach performed some questionable acts, Chazal dispute whether to interpret the term, “in his generations” as a compliment, or as a limiting factor: considering the generations in which he lived, he was, indeed, relatively speaking, a great tzadik, but would not have been considered anything unusual had he lived during Avraham Avinu’s(and Eliezer’s) era, when there were such great tzadikim.

Regarding Eliezer, the fact is that no posuk describes him as a tzadik. He is clearly a very devoted servant, and the level of trust placed in him by Avraham implies that Eliezer is a very righteous individual. However, Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer implies that, although trusted by Avraham, Eliezer had major personal faults. We might want to compare him to Do’eig, Achitofel or Elisha ben Avuyah, all of whom were great Torah scholars, but whose shortcomings led them to become major sinners.

What difference?

Let me complete the second of our opening questions. What difference does it make to us whether Eliezer was a tzadik or a rosha? In other words, is there a practical difference whether one or the other of Chazal’s interpretations of Eliezer’s character is accepted?

The answer to this question is halachic. If Eliezer was a great tzadik and talmid chacham, as understood by the Gemara and Rashi, we can derive halacha from his actions. After all, studying the behavior and conversation of great people teaches the proper way to act and speak. To quote Chazal, “the conversation of the servants of our forefathers is more valued than the Torah of their descendants” (Bereishis Rabbah 24, 34).

On the other hand, when we study the behavior of Do’eig, Achitofel and Elisha ben Avuyah, we must proceed with caution. Although Chazal are replete with instances in which we derive insights into proper conduct from resha’im¸ we must be hesitant when we do so. Should we be analyzing Eliezer’s deeds to understand the proper way to act? Thus, whether we can learn from Eliezer’s actions depends on this dispute between the Gemara and Rabbi Eliezer ben Harkinus.

Eliezer’s approach to shidduchim

Upon arriving in the city of Nachor, the Torah describes Eliezer’s prayer to Hashem to send the chosen woman, in the following way: The lass should appear at the well. Eliezer will ask her to provide him with a small amount of water, and she will respond, “I will also provide water for your camels.” This is absolute proof that this girl is to be Yitzchak’s bride, without any other questions or research (Bereishis 24:14). The contemporary equivalent would be that, when looking for a shidduch for your son, obviously the best available bochur in his yeshiva, you appear at the local watering hole and ask one of the available young ladies for a drink. Should she offer refreshment to your thirsty, humped entourage, she is certainly the future mate to make your son happy and build a Torah house together. It is time to arrange the vort and coordinate schedules, so that his rosh yeshivah can be mesadar kiddushin.

This system certainly simplifies arrangements, saves a lot of time and spares discovering sordid details about others. So, perhaps it has much merit. However, halachically this is not the correct approach. It is our responsibility to research potential shidduchin very carefully.

What about nichush?

Furthermore, Chazal question whether Eliezer’s method is indeed permitted, as this might violate the Torah’s prohibition against nichush, sorcery! The Gemara (Chullin 95b), quoting the great amora, Rav, states that what was performed by Eliezer, the slave of Avraham, constituted nichush!

Let me explain:

In parshas Kedoshim (Vayikra 19:26) and parshas Shoftim (Devorim 18:10-11), the Torah forbids any form of nichush, practicing the use of omens. It is prohibited to employ methods that are outside Torah to determine whether to pursue or avoid a particular course of action. According to the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:37), these practices are forbidden because they are similar to idol worship. Our relationship with Hashem may not be diluted by placing confidence or decision-making in the hands of superstitions, or worse.

Despite the issue of nichush, many commentators discuss Eliezer’s actions, thereby implying that they consider Eliezer a knowledgeable tzadik worthy of emulation, whose actions serve as a basis to learn how one should act. How can this be?

One technical answer is that, perhaps, Eliezer did not feel that the prohibition against nichush applied before the Torah was given, or that it does not apply to non-Jews (see Sanhedrin 56b).

Genealogy

Aside from the problem of nichush, there is another concern about Eliezer’s actions. He had been instructed to choose a wife from Avraham’s kin, but not every resident of Nachor was related to Avraham. So, how could Eliezer make the decision contingent on whether the anticipated young lady happened to be in the right place, at the right time, and generously offered to provide water?

Tosafos suggests that Eliezer did not rely exclusively on Rivkah’s offering the water to propose the marriage, but first verified that she, indeed, held the correct pedigree (Chullin 95b s.v. Ke’eliezer).

Dispute regarding nichush

According to many rishonim (see Ra’avad Hilchos Avodas Kochavim 11:4, 5; Radak (Shmuel I 14:9), only practices founded on superstition, sorcery, idol worship or similar nefarious bases are prohibited because of nichush. Thus, according to the Ra’avad and the Radak, Eliezer’s condition did not violate the prohibition of nichush.

However, the Rambam does not accept this distinction, prohibiting using anything without a logical or halachic basis to make a decision or follow a plan of action (Hilchos Avodas Kochavim 11:5). 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, implying that it is better not to follow such signs.

Nevertheless, we can justify Eliezer’s actions, even according to the Rambam, based on a beraisa, quoted by the Gemara (Sanhedrin 65b-66a), that allows deciding what to do based on a logical reason for the planned course of action (see Ran ad loc.). In other words, to cancel travel plans today because it appears that it will rain is not a violation of nichush. All opinions agree that nichush does not prohibit undergoing a medical procedure that appears beneficial (Moreh Nevuchim; Meiri, Shabbos 67a), even if no one understands why it helps. Similarly, demonstrating chesed the way Eliezer asked is a good indication that the young lady has the qualities to be Yitzchak’s wife.

Conclusion

I quoted above a passage of Gemara that stated that the entire army that vanquished the four powerful kings led by Kedorla’omer consisted of two soldiers, Avraham and Eliezer. Although this passage is certainly intended to be a midrash and not to be taken literally, the concept the midrash is conveying is that, to Hashem, He Who wages all wars, there is no difference between an army of two (or one, for that matter) and an army of two million. If they have absolute trust in Hashem, He can have them win, even if they are two unequipped and untrained octogenarians, and if He is not interested in their success, two million highly trained Navy SEALS will suffer defeat.




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?”

Introduction:

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.

First source

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.

Eliezer’s heter

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).

Yonasan’s heter

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.

Conclusion

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).