Superstitions & Divinations: Parshas Shoftim

Being Whole-hearted

Due to the sometimes long quotes and nuanced subject matter, this can make for somewhat of a longer read. As such, I have supplied synopsis sections conspicuously labled TL;DR, so if you’d rather just rely on my summaries, or find your eyes glazing over – skip to there. As always, all the translations are my own (except for the ones with thou and thy – goodtimes!) and if you’d like to critique them, I’m all ears!

This week I had a hard time choosing which topic to write about. I really wanted to also write a post about the limits of לא תסור מן הדבר אשר יגידו לך: when blind obedience is called for – and when it’s not. Perhaps I will if I can get around to it. But first, let’s talk about this פסוק (verse):

תמים תהיה עם ה’ אלהיך

Thou shalt be whole-hearted with the L-RD thy G-d.
–Deuteronomy 18:13

The verses leading up to this one talk about the prohibitions against superstition, fortune-telling, astrology and witchcraft. Rashi explains that the meaning of תמים comes from תמימות – roughly meaning simplicity or lack of guile

תמים תהיה עם ה’ אלהיך. הִתְהַלֵּךְ עִמּוֹ בִתְמִימוּת, וּתְצַפֶּה לוֹ, וְלֹא תַחֲקוֹר אַחַר הָעֲתִידוֹת, אֶלָּא כָּל מַה שֶּׁיָּבֹא עָלֶיךָ קַבֵּל בִּתְמִימוּת וְאָז תִּהְיֶה עִמּוֹ וּלְחֶלְקוֹ:

Walk with Him with simplicity, put your hope in him and do not search after divinations, rather, whatever comes to you simply accept whole heartedly, and then you will be with Him and become His.

So it would seem as though the searching ways to reveal the future, at least via divination or astrology are frowned upon by the Torah (and by that I mean outright forbidden).


TL;DR

It is forbidden to engage in superstitious behavior and fortune telling, besides the explicit prohibitions involved, one is also guilty of not being “whole-hearted with the L-rd thy G-d”.


Here is what Maimonides writes in chapter 11 of the laws of idolatry (law 4):

אין מנחשין כעכו”ם שנאמר לא תנחשו. כיצד הוא הנחש כגון אלו שאומרים הואיל ונפלה פתי מפי או נפל מקלי מידי איני הולך למקום פלוני היום שאם אלך אין חפציי נעשים. הואיל ועבר שועל מימיני איני יוצא מפתח ביתי היום שאם אצא יפגעני אדם רמאי. וכן אלו ששומעים צפצוף העוף ואומרים יהיה כך ולא יהיה כך. טוב לעשות דבר פלוני ורע לעשות דבר פלוני. וכן אלו שאומרים שחוט תרנגול זה שקרא ערבית. שחוט תרנגולת זו שקראה כמו תרנגול. וכן המשים סימנים לעצמו אם יארע לי כך וכך אעשה דבר פלוני ואם לא יארע לי לא אעשה, כאליעזר עבד אברהם. וכן כל כיוצא בדברים האלו הכל אסור וכל העושה מעשה מפני דבר מדברים אלו לוקה:

One may not be superstitious as the idolators are. How is one “superstitious”, like someone who says “since my bread or my staff fell I will not go to this or that place today, because if I were to go, I would not be able to accomplish my aims.” Or similarly, “since a fox passed by on my right today I will not leave my house because if I do I will run into a trickster”. Also, anyone who hears birds chirping and says “this will occur and that will not” and/or “it is good to do this and bad to do that” (based on the chirping). Similarly, someone who says “slaughter this rooster who crowed at night” or “slaughter this hen who crowed like a rooster”. Similarly, someone who makes “signs” for himself “if this happens to me I will do that and if not I will not”, like Eliezer the servant of Avraham. These or anything similar are all forbidden and anyone who acts upon these things receives lashes (for violating a Biblical commandment).

So naturally, one should expect that throughout millenia, Jewish practice basically would be pretty much in line with the likes of the Skeptics Society or Reason Magazine (you know, minus the whole atheism thing) but surprisingly(?), it seems it was not. Let’s explore this further. In the very next law (5), Maimonides qualifies his statement:

מי שאמר דירה זו שבניתי סימן טוב היתה עלי. אשה זו שנשאתי ובהמה זו שקניתי מבורכת היתה מעת שקניתיה עשרתי. וכן השואל לתינוק אי זה פסוק אתה לומד אם אמר לו פסוק מן הברכות ישמח ויאמר זה סימן טוב כל אלו וכיוצא בהן מותר הואיל ולא כיון מעשיו ולא נמנע מלעשות אלא עשה זה סימן לעצמו לדבר שכבר היה הרי זה מותר:

Someone who says: “This house that I built was a good omen for me”, or “This wife that I wed and animal that I bought has been blessed (Editor’s note: yes, I know what you’re thinking, but let’s stay on topic and just agree that the comparison may be in poor taste), from the day I acquired her/it I have prospered. Likewise, someone who asks a child which verse he learnt that day, and if the child recites a verse of blessing he rejoices and says “This is a good omen for me” and alike – this is permissible, since he is not abstaining from anything but rather making an omen for himself – it is permissible.”

From the words of Maimonides it would seem that the prohibition only includes acting out based on superstition, but a distinction is made between actions based on superstitions and the mere belief in superstitions. We could still assume that these beliefs are not endorsed and are even frowned upon, it’s just that holding these beliefs is not “technically” forbidden. But we will soon see whether a deeper look at the sources will lead us to this conclusion. We will also see that even the prohibition of acting based on superstition in these circumstances is quite controversial.


TL;DR

Maimonides rules that holding superstitious beliefs is permissible but acting upon them is not. We will soon see that this ruling is quite controversial. Also, the distinction between actions and beliefs will be clarified


I’ll try to finish this post sometime today or Motzai Shabbos

DewofyourYouth

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

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