Jewish Divination: An Introductory Discussion
"Who is wise? He who foresees the results of his deeds (Tamid 32a)."
In one of my first blogs, "Can You Even Be A Jewish Witch?" I address many points brought up in the discussion of witchcraft and Halakha. In the months since I posted it, I have received hundreds of comments asking to further discuss divination and its place within Judaism, and truthfully, I have avoided it, as it is such a long and complex topic. However, today I am going to give a short, non-comprehensive primer of the general discussions of divination within Judaism.
Frequently, we see discussions of divination as strictly forbidden, but the reality is far more complex, as it always is within Judaism.
According to Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis, author of The Encylopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, there were three kinds of divination practiced in ancient Judaism, "serendipitous omens, impetrated omens, and mediumistic divination. The first consists of the reading and interpretation of omens and prodigies in naturally occurring phenomena, such as the weather, abnormal births, or astral signs. The second practice consists of asking questions by means of divinatory devices, such as casting lots or reading entrails, and the third involves the consulting of human oracles or divine forces channeled through a person, such as prophecy." (1)
Specific acts of divination were eventually translated to become sweeping declarations again divination that clashed horribly with other Jewish practices, but as per Jewish tradition, the conflicting practices and texts were simply accepted as Judaism evolved.
The line "You shall not eat anything with its blood. You shall not practice divination or soothsaying" of Leviticus 19:26 seems damning; however, according to Sanhedrin 66a, it "is referring, for example, to those who divine and receive guidance according to what happens to a weasel, to birds, or to fish."
It further expands with,
"MISHNA: Also liable to be executed by stoning is one who desecrates Shabbat by performing a matter that for its intentional performance one is liable to receive karet and for its unwitting performance one is obligated to bring a sin-offering.
GEMARA: By inference, there is another matter that is a desecration of Shabbat, and it is prohibited by the Torah, but for its unwitting performance one is not obligated to bring a sin-offering, nor does one receive karet for its intentional performance."
According to the commentary of Ibn Ezra, "it was an Egyptian custom to offer sacrifices to demons; and if one has not dashed the blood against the Altar in the name of God, it is apparent that one is eating in the name of demons. For this reason the commandment is juxtaposed to Do not believe in omens: The Egyptians used to eat on blood, and stray after the demons; the Canaanites used to believe in omens, and in propitious times."
(Image by atlantajewishtimes.timesofisrael.com)
Ibn Ezra's commentary leads to a common ground: do not take on the practices of other cultures and religions, which is a common feature of Judaism.
Some Rabbis had even grander ideas of what a soothsayer was (and by extension, what the act of soothsaying was), as referenced in Leviticus, "The Sages taught: What is the definition of the soothsayer mentioned in verse: “There shall not be found among you…a soothsayer” (Deuteronomy 18:10)? Rabbi Shimon says: This is one who applies seven types of semen [zekhur] to one’s eye in order to perform sorcery." (Sanhedrin 65b:19). So, while Rabbi Shimon was undoubtedly a wise rabbi, his beliefs regarding soothsaying didn't quite line up with the practices of any modern practitioners that I know of, nor did it apply to the methodologies practiced by Jews of the time.
According to Sefaria, Leviticus 19:31 states, "Do not turn to ghosts and do not inquire of familiar spirits, to be defiled by them: I the LORD am your G-d," which is quite frequently used to discuss the supposed ban on all divination.
However, according to the commentary, "; ידעני is one who puts a bone of an animal the name of which is ידוע into his mouth and the bone speaks (Sanhedrin 65b)".
This is consistent with Chabad's interpretation of the line as, "Do not turn to the idols called ov or yidoni." According to Chabad, "The 9th prohibition is that we are forbidden from performing the practice of yidoni. It is also a form of idolatry, in which the person takes a bone from the bird called yadu'a,1 places it in his mouth, burns incense, utters certain words, and performs certain actions, until he reaches a state similar to unconsciousness, when he goes into a deep sleep and predicts the future. Our Sages said,2 "Yidoni is when the person places a bone from a yadu'a in his mouth, and it speaks by itself." (2).
There is even clarity here on the nature of the sentence not being used as a sweeping generalization regarding all forms of divination, "Do not think that this prohibition is a in the category of a "general prohibition." (2).
The very same scholars that discuss the permissibility were the very same that acted upon it. Dennis continues with, "Talmudic Sages were extremely sensitive to serendipitous omens, and were avid observers of the stars, the trees (Suk. 28a), and the behavior of birds (Git. 45a) and other selected animals. Biblical verses elicited from children can be read as signs." (2)
Maimonides, the RAMBAM, who was famously opposed to mysticism, believed that astrology was the divination that was called against in Leviticus 19:26; though his commentary is often included in arguments against magical practices due to his typically rationalistic position. He went as far as to rail against other Talmudic scholars of the time.
In many interpretations, the Tanakh forbids:
nahash;as a noun, nahash translates as snake, and as a verb it literally translates as hissing. The verb form can be extended to mean whispering.
onan; literally translates as clouds, possibly referring to nephomancy.
kashaph; is of ambiguous meaning, being either from a root meaning mutter, or from a compound of the words kash (herb) and hapalah (using) - hence meaning herb user. The Septuagint renders the same phrase as pharmakia (poison).
being a ba'al ob; literally means master of spirits. The corresponding parts of the Septuagint refer to eggastrimuthos. This term is also used to describe the Witch of Endor, whom Saul enlists to summon the shade of Samuel in 1 Samuel 28
being a yidde'oni; literally means gainer of information from ghosts* through the ritual above
being a doresh el ha-metim; literally means (one who) questions corpses
qasam qesem; literally means distributes distributions.
khabar kheber; literally means join joining.
(this list is courtesy of Wikipedia)
Though the list appears formidable and extensive, its overall impact is quite low on practitioners of divination. The references are against the use of dead bodies (which is in line with the beliefs of Judaism that make dead bodies ritually unclean) and against the adoption of acts from other religions.
The other main issue found within the act of divination is attempting to know the will of G-d and subverting it through the use of divination. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Z''TL expands on how in Judaism "we believe that we cannot predict the future when it comes to human beings. We make the future by our choices. The script has not yet been written. The future is radically open." (4).
Even our prophets did not accurately tell the future at all times, rather their speaking of the future was, in many cases, a means of warning us of a possible outcome should we not change our behaviour. There are of stories of prophets making declarations, only for their declarations to be thwarted through prayer.
We find that the conclusion regarding worries about divination are threefold: defiling the dead, abandoning Judaism to practice other religions, and allowing divination to make our futures, rather than acting with free will as we are meant to act.
In all actuality, arguments about divination's halakhic validity did nothing to stop Jews from practicing divination. As we've progressed, experienced oppression, and assimilated, we have lost our methods and come to adopt newer methods as a result of said assimilation. Whether or not you agree that divination is halakhically permissible, it is a deeply Jewish practice.
There are as many types of divination as there are stars. If you can think of it, you can do it. As long as you assign value to what you see, you are in charge of interpreting it.With that in mind, I will be only going over a select few types of divination, primarily the ones most commonly found within traditional Jewish circles. Not all of them were encouraged by Biblical Jews, nor are all still practiced. Again, this is a non-exhaustive list. There are many more that I will not discuss here.
I also encourage you to remember that these forms of divination also exist outside of Judaism. As Judaism evolved as a minority religion for the entirety of our history, our practices have been influenced by those around us as we were forced to assimilate, and our practices have also been stolen. Nothing listed below is a "closed practice" to Judaism, though some methodologies are specific to us.
We first encounter dream interpretation within the Torah as Jacob interacts with HaShem in his dreams. Throughout the Torah, we witness Jacob and Joseph receive divine prophesy through dreams, with Joseph's life being saved by his ability to interpret the dreams of others.
"A dream not interpreted is like a letter not read. As long as it is not interpreted it cannot be fulfilled; the interpretation of a dream creates its meaning." Brachot 55a."
The Talmud states that each dream requires interpretation, like any form of divinaiton. Without interpretation, it is meaningless. This belief systems, in my opinion, applies to all divination. Without interpretation, a tarot card is just a picture, a pendulum just a swinging rock, and a dream just a collection of visions without meaning. The meaning lies solely within our interpretation.
Brachot 57b states that, "a dream is one-sixtieth of prophecy". The chapter itself is dedicated to dreams, describing and assigning value to certain things appearing in dreams, from Biblical figures to animals, wise rabbis, and fruits and vegetables. For a culture supposedly against the use of divination, it spends quite a time discussing the use of it through dreams.
For an in depth look into Jewish dream interpretation, try The Jewish Dream Book: The Key to OPening the Inner Meaning of Your Dreams by Vanessa L. Ochs.
The study of the cosmos is one that is incredibly important within Judaism. We have a lunar-solar calendar, which you can read more about here, we have zodiac signs, and our term for luck/joy is even named after the stars.
The Orthodox union writes, "In Judaism, Astrology is not regarded as “idol worship,” even though the generic name for “idol worship” is “Avodat Kochavim U’Mazalot,” Worship of the Stars and the Signs of the Zodiac.” From the Jewish perspective, the stars are not unrelated to events on earth. It is not irrelevant whether one was born on Pesach, or Yom Kippur, or Lag Ba’Omer or on any particular day. Each day is special and has a unique imprint." (6)
Orthodox Union also references how the Talmud states that if one is born under Mars, they are more likely to spill blood, an example of a natal placement.
In Kabbalah, the number 13 is believed to be auspicious as it demonstrates our ability to overcome the zodiac (12 signs) and live outside of the foretold restrictions set by the stars. For example, not all Taureans love luxury, not all Virgos are compulsive, etc.
For more discussions regarding Jewish astrology, check out my blog post on the months of the Hebrew Year.
Not only was cleromancy (casting lots) seen as a way of diving into the future, it was also a practical method of making decisions. Lots were cast, frequently in batches of four, and the most consistent answer was seen as the correct interpretation. It could be used for yes or no questions as well as open for further interpretation.
While it is originally believed that the lots were stones or sticks, throughout the centuries it evolved to use a wide variety of materials including gems, slips of paper, knives, arrows, and even dice. (5).
For a great guide on building your own set, check out Mysticmachmirs guide, available for $5.
In German it is known as Bleigießen, or literally “lead pouring”. In Yiddish, it is known by a similar name, often spelled out “Blei Gissen” or “blay gisn”. The true name is Molybdomancy. This method asks you to meltdown a small portion of lead and quickly pour it into cool water. The beautiful shapes that form are then interpreted. But the silver shapes aren't just used to divine the future—in many traditions, the casting of the lead could be used to remove the evil eye.
Book lovers rejoice. This traditional divination method is simple. Open a book, preferably a prayer book or sacred text, and pick a line. Use that line to interpret. Some people choose to add dice to pick page numbers and lines, but this is entirely optional. Others may choose a number in their head before opening the book. Traditional methods included looking at where the thumb landed on the page naturally. (7).
It was often believed that if a child should spout a line from the Torah, it could be interpreted as either a good or bad omen, depending on the verse.
It was also commonly believed that when a person was gravely ill, opening the Pentatuach and adding the first seen name from that page to their name could avert the decree against them.
During Yom Kippur, it is a tradition to light a soul candle. For centuries, it was said that if the candle burnt out before it reached the end, the person for whom it was lit would not last through the year. (8).
This divination method is less frequent than others, but it is often applied during other times as well. As we associate the candle with the human soul, it is used as a measuring rod for ones well being. Should a candle burn badly, break its glass, etc, it can be interpreted as being representative of the state of a persons soul.
Hepatoscopy (inspecting a liver)*
This method is one of the least kosher practices on this list. As Judaism seeks to cause as little harm to animals as possible, the practice of slaughtering an animal purely for the sake of divination was not widely accepted or practiced. However, as livers typically have a gleaming, shiny surface, it could be used to interpret the future. (3)
Lecanomancy and Hydromancy
The art of reading water in oil or oil in water is one that can be traced back to Biblical times. Joseph himself used a silver chalice to divine the future, as found in Genesis 44:5. "It is the very one from which my master drinks and which he uses for divination."
It is also believed that wine could be used in the place of water. Some Jewish practitioners have discussed using blessed wine from Shabbat or Havdallah, though I have been unable to find historical documentation of this outside of anecdotal stories.
A more recent superstition is that the way in which a dreidel falls can answer questions as well as predict your future. If you have worse luck with the dreidel, expect a difficult year. If you find that you are coming up lucky, that can foreshadow your year as well.
Spinning a dreidel for an answer is simple:
Gimmel = Yes
Nin = No
Hei = Maybe
Shin = Try again
At Havdallah, the closing ceremony of Shabbat, it is tradition to gaze into one's fingernails using the light of the candle. Though there are many rationalizations for why we do this (our nails always grow, so we look at them so we might also always grow, etc.), “the only one that satisfactorily explains the varying attitudes and the various rationalizations is the one which regards looking at the nails as a means of divination. We know that has always been a common practice of a nation by looking up bright and shiny objects. Further we know that the time at the outgoing of the Sabbath has been and is still considered an appropriate time to ask for a favorable and lucky week. It is therefore not at all out of place for people to practice some form of a nation at the outgoing of the Sabbath." (3).
When it comes to actually performing divination, there are many methods employed by modern Jewish practitioners. Some begin with a prayer (usually beginning with Baruch Atah Adonai), while others light and bless candles, light incense, invoke angels, or otherwise prepare themselves.
For many, it depends on the context of the divination. When speaking to different Jewish practitioners who utilize divination, I was given various methodologies that vary by what kind of divination is being performed and for whom.
Some will bless tarot decks, books, wine, lots, and candles, others will ask HaShem for dreams, while others still rely solely on their own personal interpretation as opposed to divine intervention.
Jews have been practicing divination since the days of old and as we move forward, we are revitalizing the old methods and finding new and improved ways to honor ourselves, our ancestors, and HaShem through them.
FINESINGER, SOL. “THE CUSTOM OF LOOKING AT THE FINGERNAILS AT THE OUTGOING OF THE SABBATH.” Hebrew Union College Annual, 12/13, 1937, pp. 347–365. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23503650. Accessed 11 Jan. 2021.