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Signs and Omens in Halacha

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Parsha Halacha – Parshat Chayei Sharah

How was Eliezer allowed to use a sign to find Rivkah?

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The Torah portion of Chayei Sarah describes how Eliezer, the servant of Avraham, found a wife for Yitzchak. After traveling to Charan, he prayed to G-d and said, “O L-rd, the G-d of my master Avraham, please cause to happen to me today, and perform loving kindness with my master, Avraham. Behold, I am standing by the water fountain, and the daughters of the people of the city are coming out to draw water. And it will be that the maiden to whom I will say, ‘Lower your pitcher and I will drink,’ and she will say, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels,’ her have You designated for Your servant, for Isaac, and through her may I know that You have performed loving-kindness with my master.”[1]

 

The reason that Eliezer used this test to find a wife for Yitzchak is that the best way to test someone is to see how honest or deceitful and how generous or stingy they are with their property as the verse says, “A refining pot is for silver, and a furnace is for gold, but the L-rd tests the hearts.”[2] The Kli Yakar explains this verse to mean that if one wishes to test a person, he should see how he behaves with his silver and gold (i.e., his money and possessions). If he remains righteous in monetary matters, it can be assumed he is completely righteous. If he fails to remain honest and generous with his possessions, then his true character is revealed. This is why Eliezer tested Rivkah to see if she was generous and kind.

 

Even before he finished his prayer, Rivkah was walking out to draw water from the well.

The verse describes her as “a virgin who was not known by any man.” The Kli Yakar explains that Rivkah, being of very modest character, would generally not go out, so no one knew of her. This is why Eliezer had to ask her directly who her family was as the other maidens didn’t know her.

When Eliezer asked her for a sip of water, she rushed to give him water and proceeded to draw water for his ten camels as well.

At this point, the Torah says, “The man took a golden nose ring, weighing half a shekel, and two bracelets for her hands, weighing ten gold shekels.”[3] In the next verse he asked her who she was, and she responded that she was the daughter of Betuel, Yitzchak’s first cousin. He then bowed to G-d, thanking Him for sending him the perfect match for Yitzchak.

When Did Eliezer Give the Jewelry?

The simple reading of the verse is that he gave her the rings and bracelets before asking her who she was. This is the understanding of Rashi[4] and the Babylonian Talmud.[5] Some say, however, that these verses are written out of order and that he did, in fact, inquire about her lineage before giving her the jewelry.[6] They point out that when Eliezer recounted the events to Betuel, he said that he first asked her who she was and then gave her the jewelry.[7]Some of them point out that the wording of the verse support their view.  “Now it came about, when the camels had finished drinking, the man took a golden nose ring, weighing half a shekel, and two bracelets for her hands, weighing ten gold shekels. And he said, ‘Whose daughter are you?'”[8] They explain that Eliezer simply took the nose ring and bracelets for her hand and had them ready to give her. But he only gave them to her after he found out who she was.

But, as mentioned, according to the Talmud, it seems that Eliezer relied completely on the sign he had made:  that the girl who would offer water to both him and his camels would be the wife for Yitzchak. This is problematic as it is prohibited to decide one’s course of action based on signs (see below).

Eliezer was not Jewish

Tosfot points out that since Eliezer, the servant of Avraham, was not Jewish, he was not prohibited to use omens according to some opinions[9]. On the other hand, since there are opinions that this prohibition applies to gentiles as well,[10] Eliezer’s actions will have to be explained according to those opinions.

The commentaries offer many explanations. But first I will summarize the laws regarding making signs and omens.

Omens

The Torah says, “You shall not act on the basis of omens or lucky hours.”[11]

The Rambam writes,[12] “What is meant by acting on the basis of omens? For example, those who say, ‘Since my piece of bread fell out of my mouth, or my staff fell from my hand, I will not travel to this place today since if I were to go, I would not be able to accomplish my desires. [Or] Since a fox passed on my right side, I will not go out of my door today since if I were to go out, I would meet a deceiver.’ Similarly, this category includes those who hear the chirping of a bird and say, ‘This will happen or this will not happen; it is beneficial to do this or it is detrimental to do this.’ It also includes those who say: ‘Slaughter this rooster that crowed like a raven; slaughter this hen that crowed like a rooster.’ Similarly, a person who sets up omens for himself; e.g., ‘If this and this happens, I will do this. If it will not happen, I will not do it,’ as Eliezer, the servant of Abraham did, and things of the like – all this is forbidden.[13] Anyone who does one of these things because of such omens is liable for lashes.”

Several reasons are given for these prohibitions:

·         These omens are absolute idiocy and foolishness, and it is not appropriate for the holy chosen nation to be involved in false matters.[14]

·         Following omens can remove one from belief in G-d and the holy Torah as a person believes that the positive and negative things that occur to him are mere happenstance rather than from G-d’s providence.[15]

·         In addition, these practices were associated with idol worship. As the Rambam writes, “All the above matters are falsehood and lies with which the original idolaters deceived the gentile nations to lead them after (idolatry).”[16]

Despite this prohibition we find another story in Tanach where an omen was used. That is with Yonatan, the son of King Saul, in his battle with the Philistines.

Yonatan and his Arms-Bearer

The story of Yonatan, described in Samuel I, chapters 13 and 14, happened in the beginning of King Saul’s reign when the Jewish people were suffering under the domination of the Philistines. The Jewish army, numbering only 600, under the leadership of King Saul, were facing a seemingly impossible battle against more than 36,000 Philistine troops.[17] In addition, only two of the Jews, King Saul and his son Yonatan, possessed swords, as the Philistines had forbidden smiths from fashioning armaments for the Jewish people. [18]

The two armies were camped opposite each other for several days, when Yonatan and his arms-bearer crossed a narrow pass and approached the Philistine camp. Yonatan said to his arms-bearer, “Come, and let us go to the garrison of these uncircumcised ones; perhaps the L-rd will act on our behalf, for with the L-rd, there is no limitation to save with many or with few.” He used the following sign to see if they would be successful in their daring attack.”Behold, we are approaching the men, and we shall reveal ourselves to them. If they say… to us, ‘Wait until we reach you,’ then we shall stand in our place, and we shall not go up to [attack] them. And if they say… ‘Come up to us,’ then we shall go up, for the L-rd has given them into our hand, and that will be the sign for us.”

When they approached the Philistine camp, the Philistine guard said, “Come up to us, and we shall tell you something.” They took this as the positive sign they were looking for and began attacking and killing the Phillistines. Their surprise attack brought great confusion to the enemy camp. Soon enough, King Saul and the rest of the Jewish army (as well as many Jews who had been hiding and had been afraid to fight against the Philistines) joined the fray and completely routed the Philistines. This battle was described as a “great salvation in Israel.”[19]

Learning from Eliezer and Yonatan

The Talmud says that, “Any usage of omens (nichush) that is not similar to that of Eliezer, the servant of Avraham, and that of Yonatan, the son of Shaul, is not a usage of omens.”[20]Thus, the Talmud is using these cases as quintessential examples of forbidden divination.[21]How could these two righteous men have transgressed with such a sin?

There are four approaches to answering this question that I have found in the commentaries:[22]

Both Sides of the Coin

The Maharsha[23] explains that it is only forbidden to make a sign if one says both the positive and negative possibilities, i.e., if this happens, I will do such and such, and if not, I will not do it. This is based on the opinion that it is only forbidden to use signs if one expressly states that he is doing so. Whereas if one simply acts based on a sign but does not expressly say that he is doing so, it is permissible. For example, one may not say “Don’t collect a debt from me tonight because it’s Motzoei Shabbat.”[24] (It was believed that it was a bad sign to start the week with paying debts.[25]) But one may simply say (according to this opinion) that he prefers to pay at a different time without explaining the reason for this.[26]

Based on this, some say[27] that Eliezer did not expressly say that if the girl does not fill the water for his camels that she is not going to be Yitzchak’s wife. Therefore, this would not be a forbidden sign. (This would not explain the sign of Yonatan since he specifically stated that if the Philistines would tell him to stay in his place, he would not go into battle.)

Total Reliance

Tosfot say[28] that it is only forbidden to use a sign if one relies on it completely and adjusts his actions accordingly. Whereas if it is only one factor in making the decision, it is permissible. Thus, in the case of Yonatan, he suggests that Yonatan really planned to battle the Philistines regardless of what they would say. He only made the sign (of whether they would say “come up to us” or “stay where you are”) to strengthen the heart of his arms-bearer.

Similarly, it can be said that even if Eliezer gave her the jewelry before asking who she was, it was still not a final decision.[29] He only finalized it later upon learning who her family was. Thus, the sign was not the single determining factor.

Alternatively, it can be said that he believed that the first girl who would come out would be the right girl, due to the merit of Avraham, and the sign he made was just an extra proof that he made for himself.[30]

Signs that Make Sense

The Ran[31] explains that it is only forbidden to use an omen that makes no sense. For example, “Since my piece of bread fell out of my mouth, or my staff fell from my hand, I will not travel to this place today.” [32]  Whereas if one makes a sign which is logical, for example, if one says, “If it’s raining I won’t travel today, but if there’s good weather I will,” it is permissible.

Thus, Eliezer’s sign was logical: that if the girl is kind and generous, she would be an appropriate wife for Yitzchak. These are very important characteristics when looking for a wife (see above), so it was a rational sign and thus permissible.

The same is true regarding Yonatan, the son of King Saul. If the guards would tell them to remain in their places, it meant that the guards were not afraid to leave their camp and examine them. This would indicate that the enemy was confident, and it would not make sense to attack them at that time. Whereas if the enemy would say, “Come up to us,” it would mean that they were afraid to confront the Jewish men outside of their camp. This would prove that they were fearful, and it would be a good time to attack as it is not unusual for two or three brave men to rout an entire group of cowards.[33]

With Prayer

Some say[34] that the reason it was permissible for Eliezer and Yonatan to make these signs is that they didn’t rely on the sign itself. Rather, they prayed to G-d to show them a sign. Since (one of) the reason(s) for the prohibition against using omens and signs is that it may remove one’s belief in G-d (see above), it does not apply if one specifically asks G-d to show them a sign. This strengthens one’s belief in G-d rather than weakens it and is therefore permissible.[35]

May Hashem “grant us a sign for good”[36] with the coming of the immediate redemption!

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a Good Week!

Copyright 2017 by Rabbi Aryeh Citron

 


[1] Gen. 24:12-14

[2] Proverbs, 17:3

[3] See Ba’al HaTurim on verse 47 that he was careful not to touch her when he placed the nose ring and bracelets on her.

[4] See Rashi on verse 47

[5] This can be inferred from the fact that the Talmud (Ta’anit, 4a) criticizes Eliezer and says that it was an improper request as he may have ended up with a girl who was lame or blind. Thus, it is clear, that according to the Talmud, he planned to take the girl who would offer water to his camels, regardless of any other factors.

[6] See Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Ramban and Chizkuni.

[7] Verse 47

[8] Verse 22 and 23

[9] See Sanhedrin, 56b

[10] See ibid, Zohar vol. 3, pg. 51b, and Pit’chei Teshuvah, Y.D. 179:2

[11] Levit. 19:26

[12] Hilchot Avodat Kochavim, 11:5 based on Sanhedrin 65b and 66a

[13] As to why Eliezer did this, the Kessef Mishnah explains that the Rambam is of the opinion that the prohibition against making signs and omens do not apply to gentiles.

[14] Sefer HaChinuch, mitzvah 249

[15] Ibid

[16] Hilchot Avodat Kochavim, ibid, halacha 16

[17] The verse says that the Philistine army had thirty thousand chariots, six thousand riders, and people as numerous as the sand on the seashore. See Samuel I, 13:5.

[18] Samuel I, 13:5

[19] 14:45. But see there that the battle ended early due to Yonatan’s eating honey from the floor of the forest when King Saul had made the people swear to not eat on that day.

[20] Chullin, 95b

[21] But see the Raavad on the Rambam, Laws of Avodat Kochavim (11:5) who understands this passage differently.

[22] Also cited in the Shas Metivta and in the Yalkut Biurim there.

[23] Chiddushei Aggadot on Chullin, 95b D.H. Mavra Ka’ati

[24] Sanhedrin, 66a

[25] In addition, it can add vitality to the impure forces (Sha’arei Halacha UMinhag, vol. 1, page 324).

[26] See Rama Y.D. 179:3

See also, Sha’arei Halacha UMinhag, vol. 1, page 323, that the Rebbe Rashab would tell his wife to ask him on Friday for any money that she might need on Motzoei Shabbat, since “on Motzei Shabbat we don’t give out money.” See the Sicha of Motzoei Shabbat, 5739, ot 40, where the Rebbe explained that it is possible that the reason it was allowed was that the Rebbe Rashab didn’t specifically say, on Motzoei Shabbat, that he doesn’t give out money on Motzoei Shabbat.

[27] See sources quoted in Pardes Yosef

[28] Chullin ibid D.H. UcheYonatan. This explains the story in Chullin where Rav said that since the ferry boat arrived just as he came to the river, it was going to be a good day. Rav was planning to take the ferry in any case and when it came immediately, he did not do anything differently as a result. He was therefore allowed to say that he believed it was a good sign.

 [29] See Rashi on verse 14 “If she is from his family and fitting for him, I will know that You were kind.” This indicates that Eliezer didn’t finalize the arrangement until finding out her family background and whether she was appropriate for Yitzchak in other ways.

[30] Ritva on Chullin, ibid, D.H. UcheYehonatan

According to the interpretation, when the Talmud says that any nichush that is not like that of Eliezer and Yonatan is not a nichush, it means that if people don’t rely on the sign alone, as Eliezer and Yonatan did according to the simple reading of the text, is not a forbidden nichush.

[31] Chidushei HaRan on Chullin, ibid, D.H. Veha’amar Rav

[32] Sanhedrin 65b

[33] According to this interpretation, when the Talmud says that any nichush that is not like that of Eliezer and Yonatan is not a nichush, it means that nichush is only forbidden if one acts on it as Eliezer and Yonatan did. But in terms of their sign being logical, it was not forbidden.

[34] Tiferet LeYaakov (by Rabbi Yaakov Gezundheit of Warsaw, 1816 – 1878) on Chullin, ibid, D.H. Omnam. The Yalkut Biurim on the Metivta Shas quotes the same answer in the name of the Radak on Shmuel I, (14:9). It seems to me, however, that the Radak is saying the same answer as Tosfot (see above).

[35] According to this interpretation, when the Talmud says that any nichush that is not like that of Eliezer and Yonatan is not a nichush, it means that nichush is only forbidden if one acts on it as Eliezer and Yonatan did. But in terms of their sign being accompanied by prayer, it was not forbidden.

[36] Tehillim 86:17

 Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

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