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Not in Heaven? Supernatural Revelation in Halachic Rulings

Among the Bigdei Kehunah, the priestly garments that Moshe was instructed to prepare for Aharon and his children, we find the Choshen: “You shall place into the Choshen Ha-Mishpat the Urim and the Tumim; and they shall be upon the heart of Aharon when he comes before Hashem. And Aharon shall carry the judgment of the Children of Israel upon his heart before Hashem, always” (Shemos 28:30).

The Urim and Tumim functioned as a kind of spiritual aid to revealing the truth. This was not the only spiritual means used in former times to help in the dispensation of judgment. We likewise find use of a bas kol, of nighttime visions in dreams, of the Holy Spirit and of revelations of Eliyahu the prophet.

In spite of these phenomena, as a general rule a judge and a rabbi are charged with rendering their decisions based on Torah law as derived by human knowledge and logic. The principle is found in its most extended case in the famous Talmudic dictum, “It is not in Heaven,” whereby even an instruction given from Above is overruled by human decision.

In the present article we will briefly survey the spritual aids that assisted judges in finding the correct decision. How were these used? What limitations are there in relying on such extra-natural means of revealing the truth? How does reliance on such means agree with the principle of “It is not in Heaven”? We will address these questions, among others, below.

The Urim and Tumim

According to the Gemara (Archin 16a) the High Priest’s wearing of the breastplate – the Choshen – atoned for the Court’s mistakes in judgment. The Urim and the Tumim, however, which were inside the breastplate, dispensed a judgment of their own.

Rashi explains that when the Jewish People needed to know something of great import, the Urim and Tumim could be consulted to reveal Divine will (see Bamidbar 27:21). The words “Urim” and “Tumim,” according to Rashi, refer to a special Name of Hashem that was written and placed in the fold of the breastplate. The breastplate was lit up by the Name, illuminating and clarifying its message. The Gemara writes that the word “Urim” relates to the word “or” (light) and the word “Tumim” to the word “tam” (perfect).

The Ramban describes the phenomenon in detail, explaining that the Urim involved writing holy Names, by whose power the letters on the stones of the breastplate lit up and could be seen by the priest who was asking for judgment. For example, when they asked, “Who should lead the way for us to fight against the Canaanites?” the priest would concentrate on the Divine names which are the Urim, and the letters would light up to his eyes.

The letters revealed by the Urim were not ordered properly, and for this purpose the Tumim was required: “There were also other holy names called Tumim, by whose power the heart of the priest was made perfect in the knowledge of the meaning of the letters which lit up to his eyes, for when he concentrated on the Urim andthe letters lit up, he then immediately meditated on the names which are the Tumim.” Thus, the priest would receive the Divine answer to the question at hand.

The Urim and Tumim were often consulted in early Biblical times (in later times, after the construction of the Mikdash, we do not find consultation thereof; see Meshech Chochmah Bamidbar 27:11). Some noted examples are the conquest of the Land of Israel from the Canaanites (which tribe should lead in battle), the war against Binyamin on account of that tribe’s evil deeds (Shofetim 20), Shmuel’s selecting Shaul as king (I Shmuel 10), and David’s war against the Philistines (ibid. 23; see also Berachos 3b).

Scope of Rulings Based on the Urim and Tumim


The Mishnah (Yoma 7:5) teaches that not just anybody could present a question and receive a response from the Urim and Tumim. According to the Mishnah, this privilege was reserved for a king, the Av Beis Din (the judge presiding over the Sanhedrin), or for somebody representing the general community in an important communal matter.

Moreover, it is clear that the Urim and Tumim were rarely used, and then only for decisions with national significance, such as the issues noted above. The Mechilta (Mishpatim, Nezikin 15) rules explicitly that the Urim and Tumim cannot be used for deciding a case between two litigants or to adjudicate a criminal case. Chazal cite the verse “he whom the judges find guilty” (Shemos 22:8) as indicating that only judges – and not any other agency – can find a person guilty.

Likewise, we do not find any indication that the Urim and Tumim were used for purposes of halachic decision. This stands to reason in view of the general principle, “It is not in Heaven” – halachic rulings cannot be made by spiritual or metaphysical sources, but only through human decision.

Thus, although the Urim and Tumim could be used as a means of procuring Divine guidance for important national decisions, they could not be used for conflict resolution and in Jewish Law in general.

The Divine Spirit

An unusual expression occurs in the Raavad. He writes, “The Divine Spirit has appeared in our study hall” and revealed the halachah. The statement appears with regard to a ruling of the Rambam (Lulav 8:5), whereby a hadas whose top has been cut off remains kosher for use as one of the Four Species. On this ruling, the Raavad comments: “The Divine Spirit already appeared in our study hall several years ago, and we ruled that it is disqualified.”

How can a purely halachic decision be given based on the revelations of “Divine Spirit?”

The Chasam Sofer (1:208) explains that the intention is not that the halachic ruling was revealed by the Divine Spirit as a kind of prophecy, but rather than the Divine Spirit rested upon those who toiled in Torah study, assisting them in reaching the correct halachic conclusion.

The Divine Spirit strengthened the mental powers of the Torah scholars, and gave them an extra edge in reaching the true verdict.

Revelations of Eliyahu

The Rambam (Introduction to Commentary on the Mishnah, Mosad Ha-Rav Kook p. 27) stresses that a prophet has no advantage over a sage in halachic decisions: “If a thousand prophets, all like Eliyahu and Elisha, interpret [the law] according to one interpretation, and a thousand-and-one sages offer an opposing interpretation, one must follow the majority. The law is in accordance with the words of the thousand-and-one sages, and not the thousand great prophets.”

The Gemara goes a step further and writes that even if Eliyahu the prophet should come and reveal to us a halachic decision – the relevant discussion refers to using a particular type of shoe for the chalitzah procedure – the decision is not acceptable. The custom (to use another type of shoe) is binding, and defers Eliyahu’s decision.

This seems to raise a question concerning an expression mentioned in the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 3:4) that an issue is left open “until Eliyahu comes.” This expression is specifically used in a circumstance where there is a dispute between parties, and there is no human way of reaching a verdict – specifically, as in a case of a person who cannot recall which of two claimants a deposit belongs to. How can Eliyahu decide these seemingly halachic matters?

A number of approaches to this question are suggested. According to the Maharatz Chajes (Toras Ha-Neviim, Chap. 2), Eliyahu will not issue a decision based on his special status as a prophet, but will rather give the decision in his capacity as a sage (see Rambam in his introduction to Mishneh Torah, where Eliyahu is listed as a link in the chain of Torah tradition). Because there is nothing supernatural about the decision, it qualifies as a regular halachic ruling.

Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman suggests a different approach, whereby all parties will be so ashamed to practice fraud in the face of Eliyahu, that his very presence will lead to the resolution of doubts and conflicts (Kuntress Shiurim, Bava Basra no. 640). A third approach is that the expression “until Eliyahu comes” should not be understood literally, but means that the matter will remain unresolved indefinitely, unless one of the two claimants admits the falsity of his claim (see Rambam, Laws of Loans and Deposits 5:4).

Dreams in Halacha

Can a revelation made in a dream form the basis for a halachic ruling?

In this context it is important to mention that an entire book – Shut Min Ha-Shamayim, written by one of the Ba’alei Ha-Tosafos in France (Rabbi Yaakov of Merosh) – records halachic rulings based on dreams. In this book the author published a great number of Responsa which were revealed to him from Heaven in dreams.

Some authorities have relied on the rulings of Shut Min Ha-Shamayim. The Chida, for instance, relied on one of the teshuvos to permit women to recite a blessing upon taking the lulav and esrog (Yosef Ometz 82). Moreover, he writes that if the Shulchan Aruch would have seen the teshuvah, he would not have ruled that women cannot recite a berachah.

As to the claim that the Torah cannot descend from Heaven, the Chida writes that where there is a dispute in the matter, a revelation can serve to decide the case.

This reasoning does not appear to agree with what we have seen above – namely, that supernatural revelations cannot decide halachic rulings, even in cases of disputes. It is possible that dreams have a different status from other revelations, because they draw not only from a Divine source, but even from the intellect of the dreamer. A number of authorities (such as the Shibolei Ha-Leket, no. 157) write that one cannot rely on such rulings (see at length Yecheveh Daas, Vol. 1, no. 68).

In this spirit the Noda Biyhuda (TinyanaYoreh De’ah 30) stresses that even the dream of a great person cannot be relied upon, even for purposes of stringency, and all the more so for leniency. The Shach (Choshen Mishpat 333:25 and 336:2) likewise rules out reliance on dreams for matters of halachah (note that he disagrees in this with the weighty authority of Maharam of Rottenberg).

Yet, we also find accepted halachic practices based entirely on the revelation of a dream. A notable example of this is the placing together of the Esrogwith the other species (Shulchan AruchOrach Chaim 651:9, based on a dream of the Rekanati). Thus, although as a general rule it can be said that dreams are not reliable halachic sources, this rule has exceptions.

For more details on halachic reliance on dreams, please see the two previously published articles on the subject.

The Heavenly Voice

The famous Talmudic passage stating the principles whereby halachic ruling is “not in Heaven” (Bava Metzia 59b) relates to a decision that came to the world by means of a Bas Kol – a Heavenly Voice.

In this case, the Voice decided the halachah in a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. Although the Divine Voice came out in favor of Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua proclaimed that this could not form the basis for a halachic decision, because the Torah is no longer in Heaven. Once given to flesh and blood, it is up to man to decide halachic rulings, based on his human knowledge and intellect alone.

Another instance in which a Heavenly Voice intervened in halachic matters was the decision to follow Beis Hillel in disputes with Beis Shammai (Eruvin 13b). A Heavenly Voice proclaimed: “These and these are words of the Living G-d – but the halachah follows Beis Hillel.”

Tosafos (Berachos 52a) explain that this was only possible because the decision to rule according to Beis Hillel in any case followed earthly halachic guidelines: Beis Hillel was in the majority, and therefore normally halachah should follow their opinion. However, a doubt crept into the hearts of the sages, on account of the superior intellectual sharpness of Beis Shammai. The Heavenly Voice only dispelled this doubt and did not issue a positive ruling.


From the short analysis above, it is clear that although the relationship between Hashem and His people finds expression in a number of supernatural phenomena by which Hashem reveals His will and His guidance to sages and leaders, this intervention generally remains outside the sphere of halachah. In Torah law, rulings must be issued by means of human decision, based of course on Torah interpretation.

Indeed, one passage of the Talmud (Bava Metzia 86a) describes a dispute between Hashem and the Divine academy, and the need for human decision:

There was an argument in the Heavenly Academy: If the baheres precedes the white hair, the person is impure. If the white hair precedes the baheres, the person is pure. What happens in a case of doubt? The Holy One, blessed be He, says pure, and the Heavenly Academy says impure. They said: “Who is present? Rabba bar Nachmani is present, for he said: ‘I have unique knowledge in Negaim. I have unique knowledge in Ohalos.’” They sent a messenger for him. The Angel of Death could not approach him because his mouth never stopped learning Torah. In the meanwhile, a wind blew and the reeds rustled. Rabba thought that troops of horsemen were after him. He said: “Let that fellow [meaning himself] perish and not be handed over to the authorities.” When he was passing away, he said: “Pure, pure.” A heavenly voice proclaimed: “Fortunate is Rabba bar Nachmani whose body is pure and who left the world in purity.”

Remarkably, the Rambam (Tumas Tzaraas 2:9) rules against both Hashem and Rabba (the Ran explains that this was the majority verdict). Once the Torah was given to man, it is his to interpret by great Torah scholars whose only guiding principle is the unadulterated truth. Even the Giver of the Torah does not intervene in this process. By His own choice, His opinion, as it were, is not definitive.

A bit similar to the interpretative power of the judiciary in some modern systems, which is independent of the legislator, the Jewish people were given the laws of the Torah and the laws are afterwards, by means of the great Torah scholars, there’s to interpret. This concept, which only found a modern equivalent (in the form of separation of powers) several millennia later, has always been a central part of Torah law.

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