I want to look at this בעלת אוב and its implications for הלכה למעשה. But 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. Much of this shiur is based on one I gave last year on פרשת חיי שרה.
To recap from last time, the Rambam holds that magic is דברי שקר וכזב:
The Ramban, on the other hand, holds that the universe that G-d created is more complicated than that:
And the Ramban is as vehement as the Rambam in arguing against his opponents:
And the Vilna Gaon is even stronger:
So who is right? I have no problem claiming that magic as described by the Ramban is not real (though I have to be honest and claim that it is not real today; I can’t prove anything about the past). And the שלחן ערוך holds that way להלכה as well, as we will see. But on a deeper level, the Ramban is right and the Rambam is wrong. Note their respective definitions of objective truth: ראיות ברורות vs. דברים יתפרסמו לעיני רואים. The Rambam is a rationalist; he is looking for logical proofs. Things that do not make sense cannot be real. The Ramban is an empiricist: if we experience something, it is real. We may misinterpret what we are seeing, but reality is. The universe we live in is clearly one that the Rambam would not accept. I believe in general relativity, quantum mechanics, DNA translation and all sorts of things that don’t “make sense”, and can be philosophically proven to be false. An understanding of how the world works (a “theory”) is scientific if it makes specific observable predictions, and those predictions are not contradicted by experiment. “Making sense” just isn’t one of the criteria.
Nonetheless, the text here clearly assumes that אבות and ידענים have some reality; the בעלת אוב is not presented as a liar or villian. If we accept that it isn’t really possible to call up the spirits of the dead by controlling the כוחות הטומאה, how are we to understand this?
Yoram Hazony has an interesting insight that lets me (a scientist and empiricist at heart) understand what may be going on. He deals with “false prophets” but it may apply to other forms of divination as well.
So even from Rambam’s perspective the בעלת אוב isn’t necessarily intentionally lying; she and her audience may truly be inspired without any magic, any manipulation of higher powers but without malice.
I would propose that the נביא here does not view the אֹב as עבודה זרה; we will see that the text does not condemn Saul that strongly for his actions. Seeking after אבות and ידענים is certainly a sin, but the prohibition is more subtle than straight-out עבודה זרה. So what is the nature of that prohibition?
First, we have to understand that what we are discussing is not עבודה זרה:
So what is it?
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 (in דרשות הר״ן י״ב) explains in a way that fits with the way we understand the world (the following is a paraphrase from the כסף משנה):
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. It has to lead to action. This serves as a possible out for Saul. Even with the bad news that he would get, he still goes forward into battle. It does not change his plans.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 Ran (which is too long to bring here but well worth looking at inside) explains סברא here 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 itself 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.
There’s another side of the prohibition of magic that lets Saul off the hook:
The comment about אפילו בשבת is a side point about things that are forbidden to talk about on שבת:
But the underlying idea, that פקוח נפש overrides the prohibition of כשוף, is used by the Netziv to understand our story:
יתחפש literally means “he disguised himself” (compare (מלכים א כב:ל) ויתחפש מלך ישראל ויבוא במלחמה) but the Midrash puts a stronger spin on it:
And then ironically, Saul swears in the name of ה׳:
When the woman describes איש זקן עלה והוא עטה מעיל, Saul immediately knows that this is Samuel. The מעיל was the symbol of Samuel:
But it had even greater meaning for Saul himself. The image of Samuel עטה מעיל is the reminder of Saul’s fate:
And with this Saul knows he has finally irretreviably failed.
We have one more question to address: if necromancy is false, what is this vision of Samuel? The Malbim summarizes the approaches in the commentators:
So the Malbim is willing to accept that necromancy works. I am hesitant to say this, and I would take the approach of the Akedat Yitzchak, with a slightly different angle from the רדב״ז:
So my understanding is:
Whether or not the necromancy would truly work, the בעלת אוב was going to do something. Saul was going to hear what he was prepared to hear. The חילול ה׳ would have been overwhelming. So ה׳ allowed Saul to have this little hint of נבואה; nothing that told him anything he didn’t already know, but to finally tell Saul to face his destiny. The בעלת אוב cries out in shock because her magic actually worked; it was completely different from what she had ever done before. She realized that this was in fact Saul and her life was in danger. But she continues the séance, and we will deal with the substance of Samuel’s message next time.