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Parashat Chaye Sarah

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Hayye Sarah 5760/1999

The Sign of Abraham's Servant Eliezer:

Divination or a Test of Character?

Dr. Alexander Klein

Bar Ilan Department of Mathematics and Ashkelon College

Maimonides wrote in Hilkhot Avodah Zarah (11.4):

One must not practice divination the way idolaters do, as it is said: "You shall not practice divination" (Lev. 19:26). What is meant by divination? Like those who say: since my bread fell from my mouth, or since my staff fell from my hand, I shall not go to such and such a place today, for if I go, my wish will not be done... and he who sets a sign for himself: if such and such happens to me, I will do so and so, and if it does not happen to me, I shall not do so, like Abraham's servant Eliezer. All are forbidden, and whoever takes action on the basis of these things is to be flogged.

Maimonides' words indicate unequivocally that the sign which Eliezer, Abraham's servant, set himself to determine whether Rebecca was worthy of being Isaac's wife falls into the class of divination forbidden by the Torah: "Let the maiden to whom I say, 'Please, lower your jar that I may drink,' and who replies, 'Drink, and I will also water your camels'--let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master" (Gen. 24:14).

On the face of things, Maimonides was not making a new assertion. After all, Tractate Hullin 95b reads: "Rav said: any divination which is not like that of Abraham's servant Eliezer or like that of Saul's son Jonathan is not considered divination." As Rav noted, Saul's son Jonathan also used the help of divination. In I Samuel 14:9-10 we read how Jonathan set out with his arms-bearer to attack the Philistine camp. To check whether success was assured him, he said to his servant: "If they say to us, 'Wait until we get to you,' then we'll stay where we are, and not go up to them. But if they say, 'Come up to us,' then we will go up, for the Lord is delivering them into our hands. That shall be our sign." Even though Maimonides did not refer explicitly to Jonathan's act, according to his definition, this act as well was forbidden by the laws against divination.

Abraham Ben David of Posquieres (loc. sit.), as is characteristic of him, opposed Maimonides' view and attacked him sharply:

This is a gross mistake, for such a thing is indeed permitted. How could he think that such righteous men as Abraham's servant Eliezer and Saul's son Jonathan, who also used a sign in his war with the Philistines, ... that they used divination and transgressed the biblical injunction: You shall not practice divination? As for the words of the Sages (Hullin 95b)--"Any divination which is not like that of Abraham's servant Eliezer or like that of Saul's son Jonathan is not considered divination"--this was not said by way of prohibition, but to indicate that one should not rely on other divinations where the condition is not stipulated beforehand as in the case of Eliezer and Jonathan ... If they were alive today, he would receive at their hands fiery lashes.

The disagreement between Maimonides and Rabad is two-fold. First, Maimonides understood the words of the Gemara in Tractate Hullin as laying down a rule of halakhah, defining what sort of divination is forbidden by the Torah. Along with this, he believed that one should not view divination as beneficial, as he wrote in Hilkhot Avodah Zarah (11.16): "All these things are a lie and delusion, ..., and it does not befit Israel, who are indeed wise people, to be drawn to such nonsense or to think that they might be of some benefit." Divination is thus both useless and prohibited.

Rabad, on the other hand, believed that divination was both allowed and efficacious. The Gemara in Tractate Hullin, cited above, was actually defining what sort of divination is useful. Thus he clearly had no doubts about the truth of divination under certain circumstances.

We can easily resolve Rabad's surprise at Maimonides -- "How could he think that such righteous men as Abraham's servant Eliezer and Saul's son Jonathan ... could have practiced divination, transgressing against the precept, 'You shall not practice divination'?" Eliezer was not of Abraham's progeny, and even those who feel that the patriarchs observed all the laws of the Torah (Yoma 28b) would admit that Eliezer was bound only by the Noahide laws. The Gemara itself (Sanhedrin 56b) is divided whether or not the offspring of Noah were admonished against witchcraft. According to Kesef Mishneh, Maimonides ruled that the offspring of Noah were not admonished against witchcraft. Thus it follows that Eliezer did not violate a biblical proscription. As for Jonathan son of Saul, the fact is that Maimonides did not mention his case at all.

Be that as it may, commentators felt uneasy about this "divination" and tried to explain that Eliezer was not following an omen, but devising a test of character (as Nehama Leibowitz describes it). In his commentary, Gur Aryeh, the Maharal emphasized:

Even if he relied on the sign he set, this is not divination, since without divination it was reasonable in and of itself; the proscription against divination only applies when the sign itself makes no sense without magic.

Why was this sign "reasonable in and of itself"? Kli Yakar explained this metaphorically:

He was only testing Rebecca to see if she looked kindly on people... The Sages said, "Any bride who has goodly eyes, need not be checked regarding the rest of her." But this is something contradicted by the facts, for how many unseemly maidens are there with beautiful eyes. A further difficulty: why would the Sages advise checking for external beauty, for is not "grace deceptive, beauty illusory" (Proverbs 31:30) ? Rather, they surely advised looking into the woman's deeds, to see if she looks kindly on others [Heb. ba'alat ayin yafa, lit. 'the possessor of a good eye', which then becomes a metaphorical interpretation of the Talmudic dictum above about 'goodly eyes'] and does good deeds. If she is kindly to human beings, then she surely is a paragon of virtue, and this the Sages learned from Eliezer, who examined her only regarding this trait, since it is the prototype of all other virtues.

In the same way commentators also attempted to explain Jonathan's actions logically. According to the Tosafists, "Jonathan son of Saul, it should be noted, said what he did in order to encourage his arms-bearer, but regardless he would have gone up against the enemy." This point is expressed in greater detail by Judah Kiel in Da'at Mikra:

What Jonathan said was not divination; rather, he determined his actions on the basis of the enemy's behavior... Jonathan intended to mislead them and attack when they least suspected. Therefore he reasoned if the Philistines say, "Come up to us," it was a sign that they were not afraid of being attacked, but he hoped that G-d would help him to surprise the Philistine camp when they least expected it.

Why was it important for commentators to show that there was no divination here? Radak explained: "If it had been forbidden, G-d would not have helped him." It is implicitly assumed by the commentators that something wrong, even if not expressly forbidden, could not possibly be beneficial and certainly would not be recounted in Scripture, which should present the reader an example to be followed.

What was Maimonides' view on all this? He did not say explicitly how he understood the episode concerning Abraham's servant Eliezer, but one may surmise according to his remarks in Hilkhot Avodah Zarah that he did not think Eliezer behaved properly for a servant of Abraham (even if what he did was not strictly forbidden to him). Apparently he also believed that Jonathan transgressed an explicit proscription in the Torah. After all, the are plenty of instances where the Torah does not refrain from telling us about important people's transgressions.

Also Radak's comment, that if it had been forbidden, G-d would not have allowed it to work, is not an insurmountable difficulty. G-d wished for Isaac to meet his destined bride, and He wanted Jonathan to win an impressive victory over the Philistines. Human beings, who have freedom of choice, cannot undo G-d's will. Even if they choose means which are not altogether "kosher," that is no reason for G-d to change His plans.

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