I want to talk about something that I find interesting but that I really know nothing about, and that has implications for הלכה למעשה. So don’t anything I say seriously and certainly ask your rabbi if you have real questions. The halachic aspects come from a small sefer by Rabbi Ari Storch of Baltimore, about magic and astrology in halacha, called תפארת אריה.
It’s a nice story, and we understand it: it is a test for the girl who would be the עזר כנגדו of יצחק אבינו. The בית הלוי explains the subtlety of the test:
But the בית הלוי throws a monkey wrench into our understanding with his comment about ניחוש וסימן, omens and signs. Where did that come from?
So the gemara calls the actions of Eliezer ניחוש. And that’s a bad thing:
What is wrong with ניחוש? The Torah explains:
And the Ramban elaborates:
So the problem with ניחוש is that it evinces a lack of faith in ה׳. It is reasonable to want to have ways to “predict” the future; that’s the only way to make plans. But setting up signs is not the way Jews do it. We are supposed to rely on the voice of G-d, though the נביא or other, קדוש, means. So was Eliezer’s test really wrong? The Rambam says it was:
And the ראב״ד takes him to task for this:
But according to the ראב״ד, what is the sin of ניחוש? It clearly is forbidden! The ר״ן explains in a way that fits with the way we understand the world:
So there are two criteria that must be met in order to violate the sin of ניחוש: first, it must be a practical sign or test, like that of Eliezer or Jonathan. Simply saying “a black cat crossed my path; it will be a bad day” doesn’t count. Second, the sign must be one that אין הסברא נותנת, that isn’t logical. That is what Eliezer and Jonathan got right; their tests were logical. How do we understand סברא here?
If I told you I had a magic mirror, that when I waved my hands over it in just the right way, it would predict tomorrow’s weather. Would that be ניחוש? If I told you that there was an icon engraved on the back of my mirror, of a partially eaten apple, would that change the הלכה? The problem is that we use things today that we completely don’t understand. In Arthur C. Clarke’s words, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. I have no way of knowing if Foxconn is trapping demons by sacrificing goats at the full moon in order to create my iPad, and I have no way of telling. There certainly isn’t any logic here. The only way I can understand סברא here is that is about attitude. What do I think is going on? Do I think my omen is a result of the mechanical application of the laws of nature, or is there mystical control of the forces of טומאה that gives it its power? The reality underlying it can’t be the determining factor, since I have no way of knowing that, and (קידושין נד,א) לא ניתנה תורה למלאכי השרת.
ניחוש is acceptable if I am using only what I feel are what we now call “science”, not “magic”. But how does that accord with the Ramban’s explanation, that looking for signs outside of the explicit tools given in the Torah means we are lacking faith in ה׳?
As a scientist at heart, I think the answer is that there is no contradiction. ה׳ created a world that runs according to predictable, knowable laws, (ירמיה לג:כה) חקות שמים וארץ. Using those laws, and incorporating out understanding of the workings of the universe into our decision-making is demonstrating our faith in ה׳ no less than going to a נביא or consulting the אורים ותומים.