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?


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.