Parashat Shofetim 5766/ August 26, 2006
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Wholehearted Devotion vs. Astrology
Dr. Yair Barkai
You must be wholehearted [Heb. tamim] with the Lord your G-d. (Deut. 18:13)
The preceding verses prohibit recourse to augurers, soothsayers, diviners, and sorcerers. Because of this context, our verse was interpreted as forbidding recourse to astrology in general, and to pagan fortunetellers in particular. Apparently, attempting to know the future through these shamans prevents worshipping the Lord wholeheartedly.
This is spelled out in the Babylonian Talmud (Pesahim 113b):
Rav said in the name of Rabbi Yosi of Hutzal: Whence do we know that one is not to inquire of pagan fortunetellers? Because it is said: “You must be wholehearted with the Lord your G-d.”
Tractate Shabbat 156b contains two stories that attest to the struggle between knowledge of the future that is derived from forbidden sources and the desire to maintain wholeheartedness with G-d.
Rabbi Akiva had a daughter. The Chaldeans (pagan fortunetellers) said to him: On the very day your daughter gets married, a snake will bite her and she will die. This worried him greatly. The same day she took her hair clip and stuck it into a crack in the wall. It happened to land in a snake-hole. In the morning, when she took her hair clip, the snake came out, stuck to it.
Her father said to her, “What did you do?” She answered, “In the evening a beggar came by and called at the door, but everyone was busy with dinner and no one heard him. So I got up, took the portion you had given me, and gave it to him.” “You did a good deed,” he said.
Rabbi Akiva went and delivered the following lesson: “Charity saves from death” (Prov. 10:2), meaning not from an unusual or cruel death, but from death itself. 
The first question that arises on reading this story is how Rabbi Akiva could have transgressed the prohibition against turning to pagan fortunetellers?
Ritba, Rabbi Yom Tov ibn
Concerning the case of
Rabbi Akiva … there if no difficulty in reconciling this with the passage in Sanhedrin
(Pesahim 113b) that it is forbidden to inquire of pagan fortunetellers
because we are commanded to be wholehearted with G-d; for there it says that asking
them is forbidden, but if he were told by them of their own accord something
about which he should be concerned, it is fitting to heed their words, since
many a time they speak the truth in telling the future, as it is written (Is.
47:13), “Who announce … whatever will come upon you” – whatever and not all
that [meaning that they are right some of the time].
Therefore, the righteous person will
heed their words and pray for mercy, doing charitable deeds and the like, for
that can abrogate a harsh decree. For
we believe that there is no mazal for
The main thrust of Ritba’s argument is based on the assumption that Rabbi Akiva did not initiate turning to pagan fortunetellers, rather that they turned to him. As for Rabbi Akiva’s concern, it stemmed from the fact that “many a time they speak the truth in telling the future.” This contradicts Maimonides’ opinion, expressed in Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim (11.16): “Anyone who believes in such things, considering in his heart that they are true and are words of wisdom, although the Torah forbade them, such a person is but a senseless fool.”
One can see that the characters in the story take noticeably different stands:
The Chaldeans look into the future and report it to those whom it concerns. They have nothing to do with forces connected with what is foretold, and in any event do not suggest ways of coping.
Rabbi Akiva believes it the duty of human beings to worship the Lord wholeheartedly and to trust that the Lord will reward a person for good behavior by preventing the foreseen evil from happening.
His daughter is unaware of the Chaldean’s prophecy, but faithfully worships the Lord, wholeheartedly observing His commandments. By virtue of her righteousness, the Lord averts the evil that lay in store for her.
This summarizes Rabbi Akiva’s religious understanding of the events, which he proclaimed in the Beit Midrash, and comprises the educational message of the legend.
Rabbi Nahman bar Isaac’s mother was told by the Chaldeans: Your son will be a thief. So she did not permit him to bare his head, saying to him, “Cover your head so that the fear of Heaven be upon you, and pray for mercy.” But he did not know why his mother had said that to him.
One day, as he was sitting and studying Torah under a palm tree, his tallit fell off his head, he saw the palm tree and, taken over by his evil inclination, he climbed up and broke off a branch of dates with his teeth.
Even if secretly, in her heart, the mother refused to believe the Chaldean’s prediction, as a sensitive and devoted mother she decided to take the initiative in an attempt to avert the evil decree. Since the prediction was that the son would behave immorally, like a person who has no regard for the law, she understood that the way to prevent him from degenerating to such a state was to insist on the outward indicators that help a person control his weaker nature and remind him of the duty to obey the commandments and fear G-d, as the commandment of tzitzit is supposed to remind a person of the Torah’s commandments and help him fight against his evil inclination. The mother decided to require her son to strictly observe two things: punctiliously covering his head, as the Maharsha interprets this text (see Hiddushei Aggadot): “She was punctilious about covering his head, that he be extra mindful.” We all know that a person’s garb sometimes affects behavior, and hence the rule of halakhah instructing a talmudic scholar to be mindful of how he dresses. But since dress is only external and could be hypocritical if the person wearing the clothes does not have the inner content that goes along with the outer appearance,  the mother made a second request of her son: “and pray for mercy.”
The connection between outer form – head-covering – and praying for mercy is not merely technical; rather, the one complements the other and only when they appear together as a single unit are they capable of helping someone fight his evil inclination or even avert a harsh decree.
This explains the importance of the continuation of the story: “But he did not know why his mother had said that to him.” The narrator does not tell us why the mother chose not to explain the reason for her request to her son. Did the mother do so because she feared that knowing would cause him to be tense and worried all his life, and that itself might have a detrimental effect (like a self-fulfilling prophecy)? Or was she afraid her son would not take her request seriously if he were to find out that it stemmed from a prediction of pagan fortunetellers? Apparently she thought that even without explaining her reason he would comply with her request, obediently doing as his mother commanded, as the Halakhah expects of a person.
Be that as it may, the narrator believes that the mother was not correct to conceal her motives, since the moment the external indicator became separated from the inner action, nothing would remain to ward off the evil inclination. Had Rav Nahman been aware of what the pagan fortunetellers had said, presumably he would have interpreted his tallit falling off his head as part of his challenge to cope with his evil inclination and would have fought against that by “praying for mercy.” Lacking this knowledge, he did not have the link that connected the two things, and thus he failed. Since the palm tree did not belong to him, he transgressed the prohibition against taking something without the owners’ permission.
In both stories, the parents who heard predictions by pagan fortunetellers chose not to tell what they had heard to their children. In the first story, the daughter passed the test and was saved from death by the merit of the good deed she performed, whereas in the second story, the son did not pass the test. Although Rabbi Nahman did not become a thief, Heaven forefend, nevertheless his misdeed surely tormented him for a long time. The mother’s attempts did not succeed in preventing the act. Even though her thoughts were in the right place, her failure to communicate properly proved to be her undoing.
In conclusion, although “all is foreseen” (Mishna Avot 3, 15) and there exist people who can foretell the future, nevertheless, unlike the Chaldeans, who represent the determinist faith of idolaters, Judaism believes that human beings have free choice (Avot ibid.), enabling them to change the foreseen future. A faithful Jew, who does not turn to fortunetellers because he knows that it is his own deeds that will determine his future, thus upholds the commandment of being “wholehearted with your G-d.”
Translated from the Hebrew, the translation from Aramaic to Hebrew being
 Cf. J. Frankel, “Ahdut shel Tokhen ve-Tzurah,” in Sippur ha-Aggadah – Ahdut shel Tokhen ve-Tzurah.