Superstitions and Divinations (Part III)

This is the third part of a series on the topic of תמים תהיה.

So far we have noticed an apparent contradiction between the prohibitions of the prohibitions mentioned in Parshas Shoftim and Sanhedrin, and the seeming widespread superstitious behaviour sanctioned in the Talmud. We saw that the מהרש”א differentiated between optimistic superstition and pessimistic superstition, but then we saw two clearly pessimistic cases.

Let’s see what Tosafos has to say about this in Bava Metzia 27b:

כיס וארנקי משום דמסמני. וא”ת והכתיב לא תנחשו וי”ל בשלהי במה אשה (שבת דף סז.) אמרינן כל דבר שיש בו משום רפואה אין בו משום דרכי האמורי

A money pouch and wallet because it’s a bad omen. Perhaps you will ask that it says “you shall not behave superstitiously?” It could be said that it says in Beshelihi Isha (Shabbos 67a) that “anything with is medical (healing) is not considered to be darchei haEmori (the ways of the Ammorites).

This answer needs some decoding. We will first clarify two main points. Firstly, what is darchei haEmori? Secondly, what does any of this have to do with medicine? Darchei haEmori is a catch-all phrase for the ways the Canaanite nations behaved. In all places where superstition is mentioned in the Pentateuch, there is mention of how the dweller’s in Canaan before us where into superstition and witchcraft and where thus expelled from the land. We will soon see that there is some ambiguity as to whether the main problem with the behavior is that it is superstitious, or that it is similar to the way in which the Amorites behaved.

There are quite a few Responsa that seem to permit almost any form of superstition, so long as it isn’t explicitly mentioned in the Talmud (for instance, see Teshuvos HaRashba, Vol I: Responsa 107, 413 and 825 where he endorsed a custom which involving making the form of a Lion for aiding pregnant women and claim that even Nachmanides did this. This view is brought by the Chida in Birkei Yosef and I am told in accepted by the Sephardic Rabbis.) It is clear from Tosafos that he did not subscribe to this view, because if so he would have never asked the question in Shabbos that there is a prohibition against superstition. (Of course, the view of the Rashba is a very big innovation and it is quite surprising that he is so lenient about a Biblical prohibition.) So let’s explain Tosafos.

From a survey of Rishonim in Shabbos 67a (Rashi, the Ran and specifically the Riaz brought in the Shiltei Gibburim there who is exceptionally lucid on this point) it is clear that they did not take Refuah in this context to mean Medical, but rather to mean – apparent in its effectiveness. I haven’t quoted them here for lack of time, perhaps I will at some other time, meanwhile, you know where to find them. Yes, this was the standard, apparently effective. So now you will ask me, what does apparently effective mean? What is apparently effective about blatant superstitions? Here is my opinion on the matter after some exhaustive research reading various medical compositions and scientific writings written in the times of the Rishonim (and sometimes by Rishonim).

It would seem that the term “medical” here is supposed to mean something similar to what we would term “scientific”. Suffice it to say that before the invention of what we call “The Scientific Method”, the standard of apparent proof was much lower than it would be to us. For instance, the Talmud relates that if an amulet was given to an invalid three times, and he got better three times, that amulet was considered an amulet of proven effectiveness (that could be worn on Shabbos). This is hardly a clinical trial! (It should be noted here that Talmud says explicitly in numerous places that most invalids eventually get better.) Many things were thought to work based on a logical premise or an archetype or Biblical phrase, even when little or no phenomenological evidence existed. The line between science and superstition was exceedingly blurry as no-one knew quite how things worked anyway. But what is apparent from the aforementioned interpretation of Shabbos 67a is that the rubric should be its apparent effectiveness. While the Riaz clearly states that it is based on the Rabbi’s estimation of what is effective, this would seem appropriate at a time when Science was in its infancy and required less knowledge and more critical faculties. Based on this interpretation, it would seem reasonable that all thing considered superstitious, including those practices mentioned in the Talmud, should be included under the prohibition. (I have various other proofs that support the theory that this is indeed Tosafos’ opinion, but this was originally intended as a quick article and feel I have exhausted the subject matter for this format.)

(Disclaimer: Nothing written here is meant to be taken as instructive halacha, all opinions stated here, all summaries given and all translations provided are the author’s alone. Note that this is only the author’s interpretation of Tosafos and, as we have demonstrated, the Ramban, Rashba and Chida all disagree. Also, those familiar with normative Halacha will immediately realize that this assertion opens up a whole can of worms most would like to keep sealed, I will oblige them and stop here.)


Rabbi, web developer, banjo enthusiast and dad blogging about whatever interests me at the moment.

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