Divine Magic

  • Rav Jonathan Mishkin




by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik







Divine Magic

by Rav Jonathan Mishkin



Parashat Tetzaveh describes the fashioning of the Kohen Gadol's breastplate - a well-known image.  Twelve precious stones, each representing one of Israel's tribes, were arranged in four rows of three stones each.  On the stones themselves were engraved the names of the tribes in the order of the birth of the sons of Jacob.  What is less known is that the breastplate was actually folded over to create a pocket and that inside the Choshen HaMishpat were placed the URIM and the TUMMIM.  The Torah commands the following: "Inside the breastpiece of judgment you shall place the Urim and Tummim, so that they are over Aaron's heart when he comes before the Lord.  Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision for the Israelites over his heart before the Lord at all times" (Exodus 28:30).


The nature and function of the Urim and Tummim is the subject of this week's essay.  Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, 11th century) explains what the Torah means by Urim and Tummim: This was the writing of the Divine Name which he (Moses) placed inside the folds of the breastplate by means of which he shed light ("Or" - related to the word Urim) upon his words and made perfect ("Tamam" - related to the word Tummim) his words.  Rashi is referring to the traditional function of the breastplate which was to serve as a sort of oracle.  With the name of God within the pouch serving as a type of power source, letters comprising the tribes' names lit up in answer to questions posed by the Kohen.  The Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 13th century) adds that deciphering the message required a certain level of divine inspiration which was provided by the Tummim.  Since the highlighted letters could be arranged to spell out any number of sentences, the Kohen wearing the breastplate would need a bit of assistance to arrange the letters into their coherent and correct meaning.  Details for the divination procedure are given in the Talmud, Yoma73a-b.


Our Rabbis taught: How were the Urim and Tummim inquired of?  The inquirer had his face directed to him who was consulted, and the latter directed himself to the Divine Presence.  The inquirer said [for example] "Shall I pursue after this troop?"  (I Samuel 30:8)  He who was consulted answered: "Thus saith the Lord: Go up and succeed!"  Rabbi Judah said: He need not say, "Thus saith the Lord' but only 'Go up and succeed.'"  One does not inquire in a loud voice ...  One should not put two questions at the same time; if one has done so, only one question is answered...  How was it effected?  Rabbi Yochanan said: The letters stood forth.  Reish Lakish said: They joined each other.


The Gemara alludes to David's usage of the breastplate to form his strategies in his flight from Saul and during his various campaigns.  In I Samuel chapter 23, for example, David must decide whether he can trust the townsfolk of Ke'ila to protect him from Saul or not.


When David learned that Saul was planning to harm him, he told the priest Abiathar to bring the ephod (the apron to which the breastplate was tied) forward.  And David said "O Lord, God of Israel, Your servant has heard that Saul intends to come to Ke'ila and destroy the town because of me.  Will the citizens of Ke'ila deliver me into his hands?  Will Saul come down, as Your servant has heard?  O Lord, God of Israel, tell Your servant!"  And the Lord said "He will" (verses 9-12).


What we have been discussing so far seems rather to describe what is known as a Ouija board.  Here, the popular '20's apparatus is described in Laurance Sparks' book "Self-Hypnosis:" "This device consisted of a flatiron-shaped object that would slide over a card on which the letters of the alphabet were imprinted.  The fingers of the operator were supposed to be placed lightly upon the surface of the movable piece in such a manner as to cause it to act as a pointer.  A question would be thought of, whereupon the piece would point out, one by one, the letters forming a message or an answer to the question."


It would seem forbidden for a Jew to act on advice given by a Ouija board since divination is a practice expressly outlawed by the Torah.  Leviticus 19:26 states: "You shall not eat anything with its blood.  You shall not practice divination or soothsaying."  Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon 12th century) in Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 11:4 explains what the prohibition entails: What is divination?  For example, those people who say 'Since my bread fell out of my mouth, or I dropped my stick, I shall not go to my planned destination because I will be unsuccessful today.'  Or those who say, 'Since a fox passed me on the right I shall stay indoors for if I go out, I will be taken by a cheat.'  Still others make signs for themselves saying 'If such and such happens, I will do one thing, and if it doesn't happen, I will not do it.'"  Why should such statements be forbidden?  Why does the Torah forbid belief in portents?  Sefer HaChinukh, mitzva #249, explains simply that all of this is pure nonsense.  It is not befitting a holy people chosen by God to dabble in drivel and lies.  Another explanation for this prohibition might be that the Torah is concerned that its adherents will believe that there are forces in the world other than God which determine events.  Fearing that the presence of a black cat will negatively affect one's day is not only goofy but suggests that a cat has the power to determine your fate.


If this understanding is a correct explanation of the problem of omen interpretation, then it is obvious that the Torah draws a definite distinction between the power of the Urim and Tummim and the false claims of soothsaying.  When David employs the breastplate he makes it quite clear that he is turning to God for assistance.  He recognizes that the stones have no power on their own to reveal or control the future.  He is directing his questions to God.


But what about the Ouija board?  If we declare that it too is a conduit for God's message, does that make belief in its power acceptable?  One of the Bible's most dramatic tales tells of seeking a divine message in a similar fashion.  I refer to the opening chapter of the Book of Jonah and the determination that Jonah is responsible for the storm that threatens the sailors' lives.


But the Lord cast a mighty wind upon the sea, and such a tempest came upon the sea that the ship was in danger of breaking up.  In their fright, the sailors cried out, each to his own god; and they flung the ship's cargo overboard to make it lighter for them.  Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the vessel, where he lay down and fell asleep.  The captain went over to him and cried out, 'How can you be sleeping so soundly!  Up, call upon your god!  Perhaps the god will be kind to us and we will not perish." The men said to one another, "Let us cast lots and find out on whose account this misfortune has come upon us."  They cast lots and the lot fell upon Jonah (Jonah 1:4-7). 


The rest of the chapter is well-known - Jonah admits to being the cause of the storm and the men hesitatingly heave him into the water to pacify the sea.


Now, it is unclear exactly what method the seafarers used to settle on Jonah - straws, dice or names in a hat, but it's unlikely that they had a copy of the Urim and Tummim with them.  And yet, in addition to the mariners' clear belief that casting lots would reveal the truth, the text itself allows us to think that this technique was a meaningful way of discovering the will of God.  Are we to learn from this that anything we determine to be a sign, if attributed to God, speaks for Him?  Can I flip a coin and state that 'heads' means that God is telling me to buy a Coke and 'tails' means God wants me to buy Pepsi?  I think that the obvious answer to these questions is 'no.'


There are several reasons why the Jonah story does not support indiscriminate divine communication.  Firstly, it is significant that the sailors do not act on the lots alone.  They ask Jonah to provide some explanation for their predicament, which really means they are asking whether the lottery speaks the truth.  Jonah confesses to running from the Lord, showing that despite the lots, an additional admission of guilt was required to condemn him.  Secondly, it is Jonah himself who suggests a course of action to save the ship.  It is not the lots which stated he must be cast overboard but Jonah himself.  How did Jonah know that that would end the threat to the ship?  The text does not say.  But remember that Jonah was a prophet to whom God spoke directly and so we might surmise that he possessed levels of understanding or knowledge which are unknown to us.  What I am suggesting is that this episode cannot be seen as an ordinary case of people using some random method for coming to a decision.  It is likely that this is an exceptional tale of divine intervention and communication which cannot serve as a model for deciding when God is relaying a message to mankind.


And so, I must return to my initial claim that if God communicates to man via physical media, He does so using established techniques.  The Urim and Tummim - Choshen Mishpat combination, however, is not the only method outlined in the Torah for reading the will of God within tangible objects.  There are two other systems described which use a form of divination to discover hidden knowledge, practices which share a remarkable feature with the Urim and Tummim.


The first one is the case of the suspected adulteress wife - Sota, discussed in Numbers chapter 5.  If a husband suspects his wife of adultery, he brings her to the priest who stands her before the Lord.  "The priest shall then take sacral water in an earthen vessel and, taking some of the earth that is on the floor of the Tabernacle, the priest shall put it into the water ...  The priest shall adjure the woman, saying to her 'If no man has lain with you, if you have not gone astray in defilement while married to your husband, be immune to harm from this water of bitterness that induces the spell.  But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and have defiled yourself, if a man other than your husband has had carnal relations with you'" - here the priest shall administer the curse of adjuration to the woman, as the priest goes on to say to the woman - "'May the Lord make you a curse and an imprecation among your people, as the Lord causes your thigh to sag and your belly to distend, may this water that induces the spell enter your body, causing the belly to distend and the thigh to sag.' And the woman shall say 'Amen, amen.'  The priest shall put these curses down in writing and rub it off into the water of bitterness.  He is to make the woman drink the water of bitterness that induces the spell, so that the spell inducing water may enter into her to bring on bitterness." (verses 17, 19-24)


The Torah is prescribing here something that looks a lot like magic.  If the woman has indeed been unfaithful to her husband, the magic potion will cause her belly to swell.  If the suspicions are false, she will emerge unchanged from the ordeal.  Commenting on this phenomenon, Ramban writes that this is the sole instance where the Torah promises a miracle will reveal the truth.  There is no test to prove, for example, whether an accused criminal has indeed killed somebody.  Here, however, the Torah wishes to preserve the sanctity of the nation and to avoid problems of paternity.  The remarkable feature of this procedure is that it involves writing the name of God on a parchment, as it appears within the paragraph quoted above, and dissolving the entire passage in the bitter waters.  The elixir's power demands an essential ingredient - as with the Urim and Tummim, it is the presence of God's name which effects the miracle.


We move now to Leviticus 16 where the Torah describes the Yom Kippur service.  Two he-goats are selected to participate in the atonement procedures.  One of these goats will be sacrificed as a sin-offering and the other is banished to the wilderness.  "Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man.  Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness" (verses 21-22).


In actuality both goats were killed; the one taken to Azazel - the wilderness - was pushed off a cliff.  This goat symbolically takes the place of all sinners who deserve to die for their sins.  What is of concern to us in this story is the method of choosing which goat serves as the sacrifice and which as the scape-goat.  While it wouldn't seem to make much of a difference which goat received which fate there was actually a procedure to follow which made this not a human decision but a divine one.


A special wooden box called a Kalpi was prepared and inside were placed two wooden lots.  The Kohen Gadol shook the box and brought up the two lots - one in each hand.  On one was inscribed 'For the Lord' and on the other 'For Azazel.'  The lot that was brought in the right hand determined the fate of the goat standing on his right, and the lot held in the left hand determined the fate of the goat standing on his left (see Mishna Yoma 4:1).  The significance of this lottery should be obvious.  Both goats seem to symbolize the nation: one goat is involved in a holy act of sacrifice and is taken up to God; the other has the nation's sins heaped upon him and sent out to die a nasty death in the desert.  It is entirely appropriate that God Himself should decide which goat is accepted and which is rejected, for it is only God Who decides which people face forgiveness and which punishment.  We know that God is involved in deciding the goats' fates because once again the name of God is used to reveal the undetermined.


The three cases we have examined thus share the same message: the Torah does allow practices that seem like divination - consulting lit stones, drinking magic potions, a High Priest ceremoniously asking the fates to pick a goat to be damned.  And yet the true nature behind each of these cases is contained in the usage of the divine name.  God does reveal secrets to man using common objects and in the presence of a priest, but it is crucial that the people understand that only God can communicate in such a fashion and not some other imaginary power.