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Was Abraham’s Servant Performing Divination?

Was Abraham’s Servant Performing Divination?

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Dear Rabbi,

The story is told in Genesis of Abraham’s faithful servant Eliezer’s search for a wife for Isaac. We read his prayer on approaching the city where he is to find her (24:13-14):

Behold, I am standing by the water fountain, and the daughters of the people of the city are coming out to draw water. And it will be, [that] the maiden to whom I will say, “Lower your pitcher and I will drink,” and she will say, “Drink, and I will also water your camels,” her have you designated for your servant, for Isaac

And that is indeed what happened (17-19):

And the servant ran toward her, and he said, “Please let me sip a little water from your pitcher”…and she said, “I will also draw for your camels…”

To me this seems like divination, where a person makes conditions with G‑d, saying that if there is a certain omen, he or she will take a certain action. Isn’t divination prohibited according to Jewish law?

Answer:

That is a great question, and you are not the first to ask it! Great Jewish scholars discuss this very issue.

Let us begin by looking at the source for the prohibition of divination, in Leviticus (19:26): “You shall not act on the basis of omens or lucky hours.” This Divine commandment was given at Mount Sinai many years following the story of Eliezer. While the Sages do state that our forefathers observed all of Judaism even before the giving of the Torah, Eliezer most definitely is not included among them.1

Even if Eliezer was “allowed” to use divination, we are still left with an interesting question: Did Isaac’s marriage come about based on divination; or maybe this was not considered divination at all?

The Talmud learns from the story of Eliezer that there is a specific requirement that makes relying on an omen the kind of divination that is Biblically prohibited:

Rav said, “Any actions performed through divination, only if they are like Eliezer, the servant of Abraham or Jonathan the son Saul,”2 [where one’s actions totally rely upon the foretelling, is it considered divination].3

The Talmud learns from the story of Eliezer that when it comes to superstition, the only time it would be considered divination is if the action is made totally conditional on the omen.

It would seem from here that our Sages did consider Eliezer to have practiced divination.

Rabbi Nissim Gerona (1290(?)-1376), known as the Ran, explains that in fact the cases in the Talmud are not divination.

Divination, explains the Ran, is only when there is no intellectual reasoning involved, for example, if one says, “The bread fell out of my mouth, therefore, I will not go to this and this place today.” However, when there is a reason behind the omen, it is not considered divination. He further explains that in the story of Eliezer,4 there was clear, logical reasoning. He was looking for a wife for Isaac who was caring and good-hearted. These traits would be present in a girl who would offer him and his camels water. And that is exactly what Rebecca did, thus showing her to be a fitting wife for Isaac.5

Let us now examine the other proof in the Talmud, the story of Jonathan from Samuel I.

The story goes that Jonathan wanted to attack the Philistine army; however, he was greatly outnumbered. He said: Let’s approach the enemy; if they say “Stop until we reach you,” we will not attack. However, if they say, “Come to us,” we will attack. The Philistines said. “Come up to us,” and Jonathan attacked them and won the battle.6

Rabbi David Kimchi (1160-1235), known as the Radak, explains that this could not be divination, or how else would we explain that G‑d was on their side. Rather, he explains that divination is when belief is placed in something besides G‑d. When someone believes that there is some spirit, other than G‑d, that caused the bread to fall out of his or her mouth, and therefore will not go to work today, that is a problem. However, it is okay to pray to G‑d and ask for a sign.7

The same explanation would apply to the story of Eliezer, Abraham's servant, as he placed his faith in G‑d to guide him in finding the right spouse.

According to the interpretations of the Ran and the Radak, the Talmud was not saying that these stories are divination, rather it was using them to illustrate total reliance on an omen, which is one of the conditions of divination.

To conclude, in a gloss on the Code of Jewish Law, Rabbi Moses Isserles (1520 -1572), known as the Rama, writes that there are those who say that one is allowed to make a sign for the future and those who say that one should not, "And those who place their trust and complete heart in G‑d will be surrounded by kindness."8

See Isaac’s Marriage and War with the Philistines from the Jewish History section.

Footnotes
1.

Whether a Noahide is prohibited from divination (as a part of the prohibition against idolatry) is disputed in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 56b.

2.

See Samuel I, chapter 14.

3.

The Talmud, Khulin 95b, and Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, Rashi, on ibid., s.v. “kol nakhash she-ainoi.”

4.

See Maimonides, in his work on Jewish law, Avodah Zarah 11:7 and Rabbi Abraham Ben David, the Raavad, on ibid.

5.

Ran on Khulin, ibid.

6.

Samuel I, 14:9-10.

7.

Radak on Samuels 1 14:9. Note that the Ran's reasoning would also apply here, since Jonathan also used reason.

8.

Rama on Yoreh Deah 179:4.

Dovid Zaklikowski is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. Dovid and his wife Chana Raizel are the proud parents of four: Motti, Meir, Shaina & Moshe Binyomin.
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Dr. Simcha Baker Modi''in, Israel December 30, 2011

Divination? - NOT I don't understand this whole divination question as related to these individuals, especially Eliezer. Eliezer was requested by Abraham, his master, to perform a difficult task - to find a suitable wife for Issac, his son.
Not a simple task by any means considering all of the uncertainties involved - like finding a needle in the haystack. Under these circumstances, Eliezer seeks the support of the only One Who can provide a proper solution. Don't we all pray for resolution of troubling times in our own lives, don't we all request blessings from G-d and don't we express thanks to G-d for all that occurs, good and bad? Seeking G-d's guidance and 'intervention' for legitimate assistance to fulfill any worthwhile mission is spiritual intelligence, NOT divination. Only G-d orchestrates and rules. We must never forget that! Reply

Feigele Boca Raton, Florida December 29, 2011

Process by Elimination! He was not predicting the future since he was not sure if any of the women would have the right answer. He was merely making a decision how to choose among all the women. Therefore, it was not divination but a way to select the right one by elimination. Reply

Chaim/Graham Los Alamitos, CA/USA December 29, 2011

Isaac's besherte I have a suspicion that Isaac's final blindness was already in its early stages of development and that his ocular handicap was a consideration in Abraham's sending his trusted Manager on this quest without him..
Isaac, with due respect for his being one of the three Holy Avot seems to have caused little or nothing to be reported on but rather was at effect of anything in which he was involved.
I find it hard to believe that Hashem led Rebecca into influencing her son into sinning by virtually placing a stumbling block before a blind man, much more so his father. Reply

Rose Collingwood, Canada December 29, 2011

pendulums Article was very informative. thank you. Funny but I always thought that divination was the use of pendulums. Reply

Jerry Schwartz New Britain, CT December 29, 2011

Jonathan's "divinination" It would seem to me that Jonathan was primarily assessing the morale of the Philistine army. The Philistines, by saying "Come up to us", were choosing a defensive stance rather than an offensive, more aggressive, stance. Reply

Alexandra New York, NY December 29, 2011

Eliezer's prayer I think that the prayer of Eliezer was divinely inspired. Both Abraham and Eliezer prayed for divine guidance at the onset of Eliezer’s mission. At the moment he was praying, the girl was already approaching the well. His prayer did not manipulate reality. Instead, he prophetically articulated the sign that G-d was about to give him.

We all receive guidance in a similar way. Sometimes, we have a feeling of what the sign may be, but most of the time we miss that moment and don’t pay attention to the sign. May we attune ourselves to the guidance that we receive. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA December 29, 2011

Does this mean, by extension, that Astrology and horoscopes are forbidden? Tarot cards and all that hocus? Reply

izzy December 21, 2011

Interesting. thanks for the article - very insightful. Reply

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