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Institute for Dayanim: Parshah Shoftim -- Signs and Lots

Institute for Dayanim: Parshah Shoftim -- Signs and Lots

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Published by DanielALevine
Institute for Dayanim: Parshah Shoftim -- Signs and Lots - This week's Parashah includes the instruction to be "tamim" with Hashem. What does this instruction involve? Does it prohibit consulting a horoscope? What about relying on omens, good or bad? And what of using various forms of goralos? These, and other related issues, are studied in this week's article.
Institute for Dayanim: Parshah Shoftim -- Signs and Lots - This week's Parashah includes the instruction to be "tamim" with Hashem. What does this instruction involve? Does it prohibit consulting a horoscope? What about relying on omens, good or bad? And what of using various forms of goralos? These, and other related issues, are studied in this week's article.

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Published by: DanielALevine on Aug 13, 2010
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08/13/2010

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Of 
 
Omens
 
and
 
Goralos
 
You
 
shall
 
be
 
wholehearted
 
with
 
Hashem,
 
your
 
G
d
 
(Devarim
 
18:13)
 
Signs and Omens
It is prevalent, both among the nations of the world and even among Jews, to attribute significance and meaning tovarious signs and omens. For non-Jews, a black cat that crosses one's path is a well-known bad omen; for Jews, theGemara itself mentions a number of omens, such as a solar or lunar eclipse, which are construed as a good and badsign for the nation of Israel, respectively.In addition to signs and omens, we find that a number of Torah leaders over the generation would consult differentforms of 
goralos
, "lots" that involve opening the Bible (or other Torah books) at certain places in order to resolvedifficult dilemmas. One of the most renowned of these
goralos
is the
goral ha-Gra
(attributed to the Vilna Gaon),and even today some continue to practice various forms of 
goralos
.This article will study the halachic issues pertaining to the employment of omens and
goralos
. The Torah, as clearlydelineated in our
Parashah
, prohibits the use of signs and omens, and obligates "wholeheartedness" with G-d. Wewill briefly elaborate on the parameters of this prohibition/obligation, and attempt to find the halachic ramificationswith regard to the said issues.By way of introduction, it is interesting to note the first passage of the
 Mordechai
in
 Maseches Yoma
. The
 Mordechai
questions the permissibility of eating
simanim
, foods that are meant to evoke or indicate, through theirsymbolism, positive experiences for the upcoming year. For instance, we eat the head of a fish so that we will merita quality year, the head denoting good fortune. Why, in view of the prohibition of using signs and omens, is thisuniversal practice permitted?
The
 Rambam's
View of Wholeheartedness
We will return to the answer given by the
 Mordechai
towards the end of the article. In order to reach someunderstanding of the issues involved, we will first introduce a fundamental dispute between the
 Rambam
and the
 Ramban
concerning the nature of the prohibition of 
nichush
(divination) and the instruction to be wholehearted withG-d.After discussing the prohibitions of witchcraft, sorcery, divination, necromancy, and other prohibitions related to theways of idolaters, the
 Rambam
concludes the eleventh chapter of the Laws of Idolatry with the following passage:"All these matters are all matters of falsehood and deceit, and it was with these that the early idolaters made theother [non-idolatrous] gentiles deviate and follow them. It is not fitting for Jews … to use such nonsense, or even tothink that they are of any use.… Those people who are wise and of a perfect mentality know very clearly that all
Parshas
 
Shoftim 5770
22
This week's Parashah includes the instruction to be "tamim" with Hashem. What does this instruction involve?Does it prohibit consulting a horoscope? What about relying on omens, good or bad? And what of usingvarious forms of goralos? These, and other related issues, are studied in this week's article.
 
these things that the Torah forbade are not wise, but are merely nonsense which those lacking in knowledge followand because of which abandon the ways of truth. Because of this, when warning us against these nonsenses, theTorah says, 'You shall be wholehearted with Hashem, your G-d'".In other words, the
 Rambam
maintains that all prohibitions related to soothsaying, enchantment, divination, and soon, mean to distance us from acts that are inherently false, bereft of all benefit and profit, which idolaters of old usedto practice.According to the
 Rambam
, this is also the intention of the instruction to be wholehearted or "perfect" with G-d,compelling us to avoid the foolish ways of idolaters. Accordingly, the
 Rambam
does not mention the instruction inhis list of the 613
mitzvos
of the Torah. As the
 Megillas Esther 
explains, according to the
 Rambam's
interpretationthe instruction to be wholehearted with G-d is inclusive of a number of Torah prohibitions (divination, necromancy,and so on). As such, it is a
mitzvah koleles
(inclusive
mitzvah
), a type of 
mitzvah
that the
 Rambam
does not list.
Transcending the Stars
The
Ramban
presents a somewhat different picture of the instruction to be wholehearted with G-d.According to the
 Rambam
(Laws of Idolatry 11:8-9; Commentary to Mishnah,
 Avodah Zarah
4:7), consultation withstargazers is included in the prohibition of divining (
me'onen
), or, alternatively, in the prohibition of reading signs(
nichush
). According to Rabbi Yehudah b. HaRosh (
 Zichron Yehudah
, no. 91), consulting a stargazer violates bothprohibitions—apart from violating the instruction to be wholehearted with Hashem.The
 Ramban
(
meyuchasos
, no. 283), however, sees the practice of stargazing in a different light. In his opinion, thepractice does not violate any of the negative prohibitions defined by the Torah, because it is a branch of wisdomrather than a matter of divination and sorcery. The
 Ramban
therefore rules that if one receives unsolicited advicefrom a stargazer, it is permitted to follow his advice—for instance, to increase one's performance of 
mitzvos
so as tooverturn the decree. However, the
 Ramban
concedes that actual consultation with stargazers is prohibited, for itviolates the instruction of 
tamim tihiyeh
, the obligation to be wholehearted with Hashem.Elaborating on the same theme, the
 Malbim
(
 Hatorah Vehamitzvah
, no. 66) writes that the instruction of wholeheartedness with Hashem relates to all forms of future-telling, "
even to those forms that are not prohibited 
." Itobligates us to rely on Hashem, and not to seek to live our lives according to the words of future-tellers andsoothsayers—even those whose practice does not violate any prohibition.In the light of the above dispute, we can understand that the
 Ramban
(
Sefer Hamitzvos
, Omissions of the
 Rambam
,no. 8) does not concur with the
 Rambam
over the listing of 
tamim tihiyeh
among the 613 mitzvos, claiming that thisis one of the
mitzvot 
omitted by
 Rambam
. In the
 Ramban's
view, the
mitzvah
is distinct from the various prohibitionsof divination and sorcery, instructing us to place our trust wholeheartedly on Hashem, avoiding even those branchesof wisdom that allow us a glance into the future.Consulting with a future-teller of any type involves a departure, to some degree, from a person's wholehearted trustin G-d, a division the verse means to prohibit. In the words of the
 Ramban
himself (in his sermon entitled
Toras Hashem Temimah
), the
mitzvah
instructs us to be "entirely part of Hashem, completely detached from theconstellations, horoscopes, or demons." The influence of the constellations might be true, but as People of G-d thenation of Israel are instructed to transcend them, to rise beyond the stars—as Avraham Avinu did (
Shabbos
156a)—and to be wholehearted with Hashem.
Prohibited Omens
We find a similar dispute between the
 Rambam
and the
 Raavad 
concerning the use of omens. The Gemara(
Sanhedrin
65b) cites two Tanaic sources defining the biblical prohibition of using omens. The first source lists suchcommon omens as food falling from one's mouth or a deer crossing one's path. The second source lists studying theconduct, communication, or migratory patterns of fish or birds. The events listed in the first source, as well as thenatural phenomena of the second, were elements which were classically used as omens to predict the future.In his redaction of the prohibition, the
 Rambam
(Laws of Idolatry 11:5) includes these omens, but extends theprohibition to include any and every sign used to predict the future—even a personal one. For example, the
 Rambam
 rules that it is forbidden for someone to determine his future actions based on personal episodes. Thus, the methodof determination practiced by Eliezer in his search for a bride for Rivka, in which he decided to select a bride forYitzchak based on the generosity extended to him, is in fact forbidden (see
 Bach
,
Yoreh De'ah
169, concerning theacts of Eliezer and the determination practiced by Yehonasan concerning going to war).According to the
 Rambam
,
any
foretelling of the future, including even the "science" of stargazing and reliance onpersonal episodes, involves a deviation from the ways of reason—and is therefore prohibited. Notably difficult, inview of this position, are a number of Talmudic anecdotes (
Chulin
95b) detailing signs and omens that were used byvarious Sages of the Mishnah and Gemara. Rabbi Yochanan, for instance, employed the omen of asking children
 
which verse of the Torah they were studying; according to Rabbi Shimon b. Elazar, it is permitted to utilize a house,child, or woman, as a sign. In order to resolve this difficulty, the
 Rambam
suggests a novel interpretation of theseanecdotes:It is permitted to make statements like, "This house that I built is a good sign for me," or, "This woman that Imarried (or animal that I bought) is blessed, for once I obtained her (or it) I became rich," or to ask a child toread a verse [of his choice] and to declare the child's reading of a verse from the blessings as a good sign.These statements are permitted because by making them one has not decided upon a course of action orrefrained from doing something—one has just accepted whatever it is as a good sign for what has all readyhappened.Faithful to his position, the
 Rambam
understands that it is only permitted to make use of omens with regard toevaluating the past. With regard to the future, the use of omens is universally prohibited.
Omens of War
The
 Raavad 
disagrees with the
 Rambam
, claiming that personal signs and determinants, such as the sign utilized byEliezer, are permitted. The omens the mentioned in the Tamud as having been employed by the Sages, according tothe
 Raavad 
, were used to make decisions for the future, and not merely as yardsticks of the past.The
 Radak 
, in his commentary to Shmuel (I 14:9), offers an explanation to this position. The verse describes howYehonasan based a decision upon a personal sign, instructing his arm's bearer: "If the Pelishtim will respond to ourbeckoning by saying, 'Come up to us,' we will attack for it is a sign that we will certainly be victorious. If, however,they order us to stop, we will not continue with our attack." According to the
 Rambam
, this would constitute aviolation of the prohibition of 
nichush
.Coming to the defense of Yehonasan, the
 Radak 
explains that the prohibition applies only to signs which wereemployed by professional seers to help predict the future. Once these signs became institutionalized they wereforbidden. However, individual signs which a person sets for himself are completely permissible, and were thereforeemployed both by Eliezer and Yehonasan. The
 Raavad's
position is well understood in the light of 
 Radak's
 explanation.
Permitted Omens
The dispute between the
 Rambam
and the
 Raavad 
has the same foundation as the above dispute between the
 Rambam
and the
 Ramban
. According to the
 Rambam
, all signs and omens are prohibited with regard to predictingthe future. There is no room, according to the
 Rambam
, for predicting the future—not by means of stargazing, andnot by means of any signs. According to the
 Ramban
, however, we have seen that the science of astrology is notincluded in the Torah prohibitions of divination and the like, and the same would apply to signs that have a "natural"foundation, of that follow principles of logic (including personal experience).We therefore find the
 Ran
(
Sanhedrin
65b), a disciple of the
 Ramban's
school, stating (in the name of RabbeinuDavid) that the prohibition of 
nichush
applies only to those who consult meaningless signs, such those examplescited in the Gemara (bread falling out of one's mouth, a deer crossing the path, and so on). Those who consultauthentic systems, which can indeed provide a glimpse of the future, do not violate the prohibition.Rabbeinu David reinforces his position from a statement of the Gemara (
Pesachim
113a), which states that one whoconsults with stargazers (the Talmudic word is "Chaldeans," which is interpreted by several
rishonim
to meanstargazers; see
 Beis Yosef 
,
Yoreh De'ah
179) violates the positive commandment of "
tamim tihiyeh
," the obligationto be wholehearted with Hashem. The
only violation
is the positive instruction of purity of faith in Hashem—and notthe negative commandments of divination and the like.This, of course, is the same position as quoted above from the
 Ramban
. Yet, unlike consultation with stargazers,which involves an infringement of the positive instruction of 
tamim tihiyeh
, the employment of various omens isentirely permitted. As the
 Ran
writes, the pure faith in Hashem prohibits consultation with horoscopes, but does notprohibit reliance on signs. Personal signs, and signs that work natural means, are thus entirely permitted.We may now return to the question posed by
 Mordechai
: why is it permitted to eat
simanim
, foods that evoke orindicate positive experiences for the upcoming year?
 Mordechai
answers that the
simanim
are based on verses of theTorah, and therefore they involve no prohibition. Rather than involving magic or prohibited mysticism, they blessthe coming year with references to the Torah. Being based on verses, they certainly do not distance their users fromHashem.
Summary and Halachic Rulings
In summary of the above:

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