SALT - Wednesday, 19 Cheshvan 5778 - November 8, 2017

  • Rav David Silverberg
            Yesterday, we noted a disagreement among the classic commentators as to whether Avraham’s servant altered the facts when telling Rivka’s family about his encounter with Rivka at the well outside her city.  A cursory reading of the Torah’s account of this encounter in Parashat Chayei-Sara (24:22) indicates that the servant gave Rivka jewelry – essentially designating her as Yitzchak’s bride – even before asking who she was.  Rashi (24:47) indeed writes that as soon as Rivka gave water to both the servant and his camels, after he requested water only for himself, he determined that she was the girl chosen by God to marry Yitzchak, as he had stipulated.  However, in the servant’s report of his experiences to Rivka’s family, he imprecisely told of his giving Rivka jewelry only after learning that she belonged to Avraham’s extended family and was thus suitable as a wife for Yitzchak.  The Ramban and the Radak (24:22), however, understand the Torah’s account differently.  In their view, the servant did not give Rivka jewelry until after he inquired about her family and discovered that she was Avraham’s great-niece.  According to this reading, then, there is no discrepancy at all between the Torah’s account and the servant’s report.
            Interestingly, these different readings of the text may yield halakhic implications.  The Gemara in Masekhet Chulin (95b) points to the story of Avraham’s servant – who is commonly identified as Eliezer – as an example of forbidden nichush (use of omens).  Eliezer randomly determined that the girl who would offer water to both him and his camels is the one chosen to marry Yitzchak, and the Gemara comments that this kind of omen falls under the Torah prohibition of nichushTosefot, working under the assumption that Eliezer – as is commonly assumed – was a righteous man who followed Avraham’s ideals and teachings, raise the question of how Eliezer violated this prohibition.  According to one view cited by the Gemara in Masekhet Sanhedrin (56b), the Torah’s prohibitions against superstition, sorcery and witchcraft apply even to gentiles.  As such, Eliezer was forbidden from practicing nichush.  How, then, according to this view, did Eliezer choose a bride for Rivka based on this kind of omen, which the Gemara says falls under the nichush prohibition?
            Tosefot answer that those who apply the prohibition of nichush to gentiles must necessarily understand the story of Eliezer differently.  They read the Torah’s account to mean – like the Ramban and Radak explain – that Eliezer gave Rivka the jewelry only after she told him of her family background.  Eliezer did not, according to this view, make the selection of Rivka dependent exclusively on her offering water to his camels.  Even after she drew water for his camels, he did not definitively determine that she was Yitzchak’s intended bride until after discovering that she was his relative.  Therefore, as his decision was not based entirely on his omen, this did not qualify as nichush.  The passage in Masekhet Chulin stating that Eliezer’s omen indeed qualifies as nichush disagrees with this view.  It understands that Eliezer gave Rivka gifts immediately after she drew water for his camels, and it follows the view that the prohibition of nichush does not apply to gentiles, and thus it was permissible for Eliezer to make use of an omen that is forbidden for Am Yisrael
            According to Tosefot, then, these different readings of the text indirectly affect the question as to whether gentiles are bound by the Torah prohibition of nichush.  If we follow Rashi’s reading, that Eliezer gave Rivka jewelry before inquiring about her identity, then we must conclude that the prohibition of nichush does not apply to non-Jews.  According to the Ramban and the Radak’s reading, that Eliezer gave the gifts only after learning that Rivka belonged to Avraham’s extended family, this episode does not involve nichush at all, and thus reveals nothing about the parameters of the nichush prohibition.
            A much different approach to this topic is taken by the Ra’avad, in his critique of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 11:4).  The Ra’avad there asserts that as Eliezer was a righteous figure, his use of an omen incontrovertibly proves that omens are permissible.  When the Gemara points to Eliezer’s omen as a model of nichush, the Ra’avad boldly asserts, it means to say that one should not place his trust in such an omen.  Although such omens are permissible, the Gemara advises against reaching decisions in such a manner.  In the Ra’avad’s view, then, the Gemara there does not intend to point to Eliezer’s omen as an example of forbidden nichush.