Jewish Journal

Should We Rely Upon Signs?

by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

November 28, 2012 | 4:19 pm

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

Polls have revealed that about one in eight people admit to believing that bad luck will ensue if they allow a black cat to cross their path, if they walk under a ladder, or if they break a mirror. In addition, while fewer than one in ten acknowledge seeing the number 13 as unlucky, it is rare to find a building with a 13th floor. The irrational belief in the significance of “signs” is prevalent in contemporary society, as it has been since the beginning of time. Jewish thought provides an array of approaches to this phenomenon, but the rational one as articulated by the Rambam is most compelling.

We find this old tendency in the book of Genesis, when Eliezer has a mission to find Yitzchak a wife. He travels, looking for a specific sign to determine who the correct bride will be. Tosafot in Chullin 95b questions Eliezer's methods in selecting a wife for Yitzchak, suggesting that he is violating the prohibition of nichush (found in Vayikra 19:26).The Gemara (Sanhedrin 65b) gives examples of this biblical prohibition against making decisions based on omens and random events, such as food falling from one's mouth or a deer crossing one's path, or on the supposed significance of natural occurrences such as the migratory patterns of fish or birds.

There is an important argument between the Rambam and the Ra'avad on this subject (Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim u-Mazalot 11:5), particularly as it relates to the Eliezer story. The Ra'avad is lenient on Eliezer, arguing that the only prohibited cases of nichush are the examples explicitly enumerated in the Gemara and that the signs validated and followed by Eliezer are actually permitted.  Additionally, the Ra’avad connects the prohibition of nichush with that of kishuf (magic), and argues that since Eliezer is using the value of kindness demonstrated by Rivka, rather than an omen or magic, as a sign, this is not a problem.

In contrast, for the Rambam, nichush is about a lack of faith in G-d, who provides good without resorting to the occult. The Rambam is not lenient on the Eliezer case, and he not only includes the specific omens brought in the Gemara but extends the prohibition to include any and every sign used to predict the future—even one based on a personal experience.  He writes: “One must not say 'if the following occurs I will take a specific action and if not I will refrain.'”  This activity, practiced by Eliezer, is forbidden: “Anything like this is completely prohibited, and one who commits such an action is punished with lashes.” Ra’avad is furious at this approach:  ”How is it possible that he [the Rambam] thought such righteous people would have engaged in such a sin? If I were they, I would send tongues of fire into his nostrils.”

One might thus argue (like the Rambam) that attempts to predict the future trivialize the capacity for rational thought, intellectual deliberation, and thoughtful reflection, and that religious life should not be tolerant of this. On the other hand, we may note that, as some cognitive psychologists have argued, humans are unique in their capacity for planning and looking toward the future: While most of our daily thoughts are involved in memory of the past and tasks in the present, about 12 percent of our thinking is about the future. Thus, planning – setting goals, hopes, and dreams – is part of our being. Since we have this special capacity, we can ask, how do we, as religious people, think about the future, about expectations, and about dreams or desires? How do we use our memory actively to plan for our future?

In our own times, we can see the importance of forward thinking to our happiness and sense of self. The philosopher Robert Nozick imagined the possibility of a virtual reality machine, through which one could have any chosen experience and not have it ruined by the knowledge that he or she is hooked up to the machine. Nozick asked, “Would one choose to be hooked up?” He concluded, perhaps idealistically, that no one in their right mind would choose to be hooked up to this machine, even if it means constant pleasure, since it could not bring happiness at all. Fulfillment of purpose must be real and deliberate, not accidental or virtual. A meaningful life is a contemplated one that involves will, choice, planning, and perhaps struggle.

There are countless “signs” and systems in place in our lives that prompt us to act in a certain way: When I see a red light, I stop; when I hear the baby crying, I go to soothe her. Here I would argue that we are mostly discussing our most meaningful life decisions and roles rather than our way of getting through daily tasks. These signs also are necessary to the task and not arbitrary. Still, there should be moments of reflection before a stimulus produces a result. 

To return to Eliezer’s case, even when his motives seem to be the most pure, as he was looking for positive qualities so as to find a match for Yitzchak, the Rambam teaches that one must not rely upon signs. It is not fitting for one striving to max out one’s human potential as a meaning-making being to trust in omen and superstition. And so I would argue that this is the reason that Eliezer’s name is not mentioned in the parsha. He is the generic “eved,” or “ish.” When one relies upon signs, one gives up one’s uniqueness as a future-looking and thinking person, indeed one gives up one’s very personality. Reliance upon signs transforms a person from being a religious agent into a mere sign checker.

When we use random occurrences and connect this to key decisions, we make mistakes. The fact that I saw a black cat actually has no connection to my stubbing a toe and certainly does not mean that I need to sell off my investments. Superstitions can cause one to make poor decision or poor cause/effect connections.

Finally, what is the source of truth and good that we rely upon in life in making our core decisions? How in touch with our decision-making process are we, and do we reevaluate it from time to time? According to the Rambam, religious life demands not only the commitments of our actions and the commitments of our thoughts and intellectual strivings. It also commands the connection between the two: which thoughts lead us to which actions. The stakes are high but G-d has faith in us. Do we have faith in ourselves?

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"

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Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz...

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