As part of the back-and-forth between Hashem and Moshe, when Hashem wished to appoint Moshe to be the leader who will redeem the Children of Israel from Egypt, Moshe raised the problem of the people’s belief in him: “And Moshe answered and said: But behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken to my voice, for they will say: Hashem has not appeared to you” (Shemos 4:1).
Responding to this claim, Hashem gave Moshe three miraculous signs. The first was performed with Moshe’s staff, which turned into a serpent upon being thrown to the ground and returned to its original form after Moshe picked it up by its tail. The second was a sign of leprosy. At the Divine instruction, when Moshe placed his hand into his cloak, it emerged leprous, as white as snow. He placed his hand once more in his cloak, and it was restored to health. The third sign that Hashem gave was similar to the first of the ten plagues: the turning of Egyptian waters into blood.
This exchange, and the concept of sign (osos) that Hashem gave Moshe to prove his Divine agency, leads us to dedicate this week’s article and next week’s to exploring the matter of signs and omens.
How significant is the concept of signs in our belief in prophecy and in Hashem? And what is the Torah’s approach towards reliance on signs and omens in general? These questions, among others, are discussed below.
The Rambam: Incomplete Belief by Signs and Wonders
The Rambam writes (Yesodei HaTorah 7:7) that when a prophet is sent on a mission to a city or a kingdom to inform them of their evil ways and to urge them to desist and to repent, then, “…he is given a sign or a wonder [to perform], so that the people will know that G-d has truly sent him.”
The Rambam explains that the sign he performs does not conclusively verify his status as a true prophet of Hashem:
“Not everyone who performs signs or wonders should be accepted as a prophet: this is reserved for a person who is known as fit for prophecy by virtue of his wisdom and his [good] deeds surpassing those of all his contemporaries. If he follows the paths of prophecy in holiness, separating himself from worldly matters, and afterwards performs a sign or wonder and states that he was sent by G-d, it is a mitzvah to listen to him, as it states (Devarim 18:17): Listen to him.”
The Rambam adds that it is possible that a person will perform a sign or wonder even though he is not a prophet. Instead, the sign will have some other cause. Nonetheless, in spite of the inherent doubt involved, we are bound to heed his words:
“It is nevertheless, a mitzvah to listen to him. Since he is a wise man of stature and fit for prophecy, we accept [his prophecy as true], for so have we been commanded. […] Considering these matters and the like, the verse states: ‘The hidden matters are for Hashem, our G-d, but what is revealed is for us and our children” (Devarim 29:28), and “Man sees what is revealed to the eyes, but G-d sees into the heart’ (I Shmuel 16:7).”
From the regular prophets, the Rambam moves on to the specific prophecy of Moshe Rabbeinu. Concerning our greatest leader and prophet, he explains that the people’s belief was not contingent on wonders, since belief through wonders is by definition flawed: It is possible to perform wonders through other means (magic, sorcery, slight of hand). He therefore writes (Yesodei HaTorah 8:1):
“All the wonders performed by Moses in the desert were not intended to serve as proof of his prophecy, but rather were performed for a purpose. It was necessary to drown the Egyptians, so he split the sea and sank them in it. We needed food, so he provided us with manna. We were thirsty, so he split the rock. […] What is the source of our belief in him? -the revelation at Mount Sinai. Our eyes saw, and not a stranger’s; our ears heard, and not another’s.”
The Rambam then explains (8:2) that before the revelation of Sinai, the people’s belief in Moshe Rabbeinu was incomplete. It was a faith that allowed for suspicion and doubt. It was because of this inherent doubt that Moshe responded to Hashem, “They will not believe me” (Shemos 4:1). In giving him the signs, Hashem did not intend that they will establish faith in Moshe for all generations to come. Rather, they were intended only as a temporary measure, until faith in Moshe was established forever at the revelation at Sinai.
Ramban: Importance of Miracles
The Rambam therefore places a limited value in signs and wonders. First, he writes that one should only pay attention to wonders after carefully scrutinizing the person working them. Only after ensuring that he is a deeply-G-d-fearing person, a great scholar who is scrupulous in his interactions and holy in his ways, can the wonders he performs be considered proof of his prophecy.
Even after all this, proof from wonders remains inconclusive. Nonetheless, there is a Torah mitzvah to follow the prophet’s instruction, and to assume the veracity of his prophecy, regardless of any lingering doubt. The prophecy of Moshe stands out as an exception to this standard. Since the people gained firsthand knowledge of its truth at Sinai, the great wonders of Egypt are secondary to the Sinai revelation.
The Ramban, however, places far greater value on signs and wonders. Reflecting on the wonders of Egypt, he explains (in his commentary to the Torah, at the end of Parashas Bo) that the purpose of the miracles was to demonstrate, at the inception of the Jewish People, Hashem’s total mastery over the world. From the great and revealed miracles, we appreciate Hashem’s direction over the world, and specifically over that which happens to us:
“Through the great and famous miracles man recognizes the hidden miracles that are the foundation of the whole Torah. For a man has no part in the Torah of Moshe Rabbeinu until he believes that all our happenings are miracles, without any involvement of nature or the everyday operation of the world, be it for the many or for the individual. Rather, if a person performs the mitzvos he will enjoy their reward, and if he transgresses them he will suffer their punishment—all by decree from Above” (Commentary to Torah, Shemos 13:16).
The wonders of Egypt instilled within the Jewish People a deep belief in Hashem, as a result of their experience of the miracles. So great is the centrality of the miracles, which establish our fundamental faith in Hashem, that many mitzvos recall the redemption. The effect of an experience, however powerful it might be, fades over time. In order to continually strengthen our faith, many mitzvos hearken back to the redemption from Egypt, recalling the great miracles and reinvigorating our faith in Hashem.
Halachic Approach to Signs and Omens
A different yet related dispute between the Rambam and the Ramban relates to the idea of divination: the use of signs to make decisions concerning our future. The practice was prevalent, both among the nations of the world and even among Jews. For non-Jews, a person might attribute significance to a black cat that crosses his path (as a bad omen); for Jews, the Gemara itself mentions a number of omens, such as a solar or lunar eclipse, which are construed as a good (solar) and bad (lunar) sign for the nation of Israel.
This practice whereby people search for extra-natural guidance (in the absence of prophecy) is known as nichush, and may involve a Torah prohibition. The Torah instructs us to be “wholehearted with Hashem” (Devarim 18:13), and this precludes the practice of nichush. However, as we will see, the Rambam and the Ramban take very different approaches to the matter.
After discussing the prohibitions of witchcraft, sorcery, divination, necromancy, and other prohibitions related to the ways of idolaters, the Rambam concludes the eleventh chapter of the Laws of Idolatry with a passage that expresses his general approach to such practices. True to his approach to signs in the context of prophecy, the Rambam does not give much weight to the use of signs and omens:
“All these matters are matters of falsehood and deceit, and it was with these that the early idolaters made the other [non-idolatrous] gentiles deviate and follow them. It is not fitting for Jews […] to use such nonsense, or even to think that they are of any use. […] Those people who are wise and of a perfect mentality know very clearly that all these things that the Torah forbade are not wise, but are merely nonsense which those lacking in knowledge follow and because of which they abandon the ways of truth. Because of this, when warning us against these nonsense things, the Torah says: You shall be wholehearted with Hashem, your G-d.”
In other words, the Rambam maintains that all Torah prohibitions related to soothsaying, enchantment, divination, and so on—me’onen, menachesh, kosem, and so on—mean to distance us from acts that are inherently phony, bereft of all benefit and profit, which idolaters of old used to practice. The intention of the instruction to be wholehearted with G-d is to compel us to avoid these foolish ways of idolaters.
The Ramban’s Approach
By contrast, the Ramban presents a different picture of the instruction to be wholehearted with Hashem. According to the Rambam (Laws of Idolatry 11:8-9; Commentary to Mishnah, Avodah Zarah 4:7), consultation with stargazers is included in the prohibition of divining (me’onen), or in the prohibition of reading signs (nichush). According to Rabbi Yehudah b. HaRosh (Zichron Yehudah, no. 91), consulting a stargazer violates both prohibitions—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, the practice does not violate any of the prohibitions defined by the Torah, because it is a branch of wisdom rather than a matter of divination and sorcery. The Ramban therefore rules that if one receives unsolicited advice from a stargazer, it is permitted to follow his advice. However, consulting with stargazers is prohibited by the Torah, for it violates the principle 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 explicitly prohibited.” It obligates us to rely on Hashem, and not to seek to live our lives according to the words of future-tellers and soothsayers—even those whose practice does not violate any prohibition.
The Ramban does not consider the various practices of divination as being nonsense. He places value in the signs and omens, and views them as a form of wisdom. However, consulting with an omen-based future-teller involves a departure from a person’s wholehearted trust in G-d, which the Torah prohibits. 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 constellations, horoscopes, or demons.”
The influence of the constellations might be real, but as People of G-d the nation of Israel are instructed to transcend them, to rise beyond the stars—as Avraham Avinu did (Shabbos 156a)—and to be wholehearted with Hashem.
Practices of Signs and Omens
Notwithstanding the obligation of being wholehearted with Hashem, and the various related prohibitions, we find many precedents for the use of signs and omens in Jewish tradition.
We have already mentioned the symbolism noted by the Gemara for a solar and lunar eclipse (Sukkah 29a). More familiar to us is the use of the simanim on Rosh Hashanah, to evoke a positive message for the coming year. In the first passage of the Mordechai on Maseches Yoma, he questions the permissibility of putting the traditional simanim on our tables, the head of a fish indicating a good year to come, and so on. In view of the prohibition of using signs and omens, why is this universal practice permitted?
In addition to signs and omens, we find that a number of Torah leaders over the generation would consult different forms of goralos, lotteries that involve opening the Chumash (or other Torah books) at certain places for guidance to resolve difficult 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. Is this, too, not a form of divination? Why is it permitted?
These halachic questions pertain to our daily lives, and it is important to discuss which methods are permitted (and sometimes endorsed) by halacha, and which are forbidden. Please G-d, we will continue the discussion in next week’s article.