Divination

Throughout history, Jews have been suspicious of manticism and clairvoyance, while still practicing many diviner's arts.

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Clairvoyant divination (revealing a hidden current reality) is less common, though veridical dreams are acknowledged as a way for mortals to understand God's will (Genesis 20:3; I Samuel 3:3-10; I Kings, 3:5-15). Other acceptable forms of clairvoyance include the casting of lots to determine who enjoys God's favor (I Samuel 10:20-24) and conferring with a seer to find a lost possession (I Samuel 9:6), though the evidence is more ambiguous here; given their narrative context, careful readers must decide whether we are meant to regard these two practices as efficacious, or merely ruses by the prophet to further God's inscrutable purpose.

Biblical Diviners

Many types of diviners are mentioned in Scripture. Under the general category of oracular prophets, there is the navi (prophet), the roeh (seer),and the ish elohim (man of God). There are also several terms formantics separate from the Israelite institution of prophecy, all of them being targets of condemnation: baal ov, itztzim, kosem kesamim, menahesh, meonen, and yeddioni.

The exact meaning of these terms is tentative, as the usage and meaning may well have changed within the time frame of the thousand years over which the Bible was composed. And, as in English, some terms may not even reflect technical distinctions, but are merely synonyms, often borrowed from other languages.

Talmudic Attitudes

The talmudic sages were extremely sensitive to serendipitous omens, and were avid observers of the stars, the trees (Sukkah 28a), and the behavior of birds (Gittin 45a) and other selected animals. Biblical verses elicited from children can be read as signs.

All the same, the rabbis condemned those forms of operational divination they associated with kesem/nahash (sorcery/witchcraft). An extended discussion of witchcraft and divination appears in Sanhedrin 65b. In that passage, "performance" or impetration, such as the use of divining rods, is the primary criteria for determining that a form of manticism is illicit. The sages are not consistent on these points, and the line between licit and illicit forms of divination is often blurred beyond useful distinction.

Into the Middle Ages

The medieval Sefer Hasidim continues with this ambivalence, condemning forms of impetrated divination while recording dreams and omens and teaching their interpretation. In his book Hokhmatha-Nefesh, Eleazer of Worms lists a variety of bodily omens and their meaning. Hayyim Vital consults witches, sorcerers, and visionaries in dizzy variety in his quest to confirm through paranormal means his own spiritual genius (Sefer ha-Hezyonot).

The dead continue to be regarded as an excellent source of mantic knowledge, even though necromancy is roundly condemned. Here the distinction seems to be that when the dead initiate the communication, it is acceptable, but if the living attempt to initiate a seance, it is not (this too changes under the influence of Spanish Kabbalah). Astrology, lamps, cocks, bibliomancy, and mirrors were all acceptable sources of advanced knowledge by the Middle Ages.

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Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis

Geoffrey Dennis is rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, TX. He is also lecturer in Kabbalah and rabbinic literature at the University of North Texas.