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Class Notes - Class #23

Mitzvot #510 - 515 return us to the topic of occult practices. We encountered this topic much earlier in our study.  The specific prohibited practices are hard to define because the halachic sources tend to give examples rather than conceptual definitions.

According to what our author said earlier, mitzvah #249 prohibits acting based on omens.  For example, I may not refrain from doing some behavior because my bread fell on the buttered side or a black cat crossed my path.  Mitzvah #249 also prohibits consulting astrological predictions.  Mitzvah #250 prohibits trying to determine auspicious times for doing various activities.  It also prohibits slight-of-hand magic, the kind of tricks modern magicians perform.  Mitzvah #255 prohibits conjuring voices by way of ceremonies like burning incense, etc.   The author mentions the voices coming from the conjurer’s armpit.  Mitzvah #256 prohibits predicting the future by way of ceremonies like burning incense, speaking with a bird’s bone in one’s mouth, inducing seizures and fits, etc. 

The mitzvot in this series prohibit similar practices. The behavior prohibited by mitzvah #511 is particularly obscure.  It involves using many small items, herbs or stones, attaching them together, often at specific times.  Our author says this behavior is well known, and our author was undoubtedly familiar with this behavior. Mitzvah #62 mandates a death penalty for someone who violates this mitzvah.  Mitzvah #512 prohibits using incantations to cause good or bad results.  Mitzvah #513 prohibits trying to obtain messages from the dead, in particular using some procedure whereby the voice of the dead person comes from the underarm of the medium.  Mitzvah #514 prohibits consulting someone who seeks occult communication that comes from a bone placed in the medium’s mouth.  Mitzvah #515 prohibits seeking communication from the dead by doing things like fasting or sleeping in cemeteries.

Mitzvah #510 prohibits using occult practices to induce a trance and predict the future.  Our author says people can violate this mitzvah by looking for patterns in thrown pebbles or other small items.  The author says he often sees the Moslems among whom he lives doing this.  Rambam describes having seen someone who induced a trance by shrieking and repeatedly pounding the ground.  The point of the prohibited activity, though, is to help the person enter a kind of deep concentration in which the person tries to predict the future.

We all try to predict the future, and we could not survive without predicting the future.  If I have an infection, I predict that I will recover if I take an appropriate antibiotic.  If I keep food out on the counter rather than in the refrigerator I predict I am likely to get food poisoning.  These predictions are based on observations of past events. We also try to predict the future in less concrete ways.  For example, we redistribute our investments based on our predictions of the economic future.  These predictions are more speculative.  Typically we do not try to put ourselves into a trance before we make predictions.  But the problem inherent in this mitzvah is how to tell the difference between permitted and prohibited predictions.

That issue is made more complex because the way we test whether someone is an authentic prophet is to see whether the putative prophet’s predictions come true.  We saw Rambam’s opinion that, except for Moses, prophets receive communication from God in a dream or trance and that the prophet has to work hard to achieve a state of prophecy.  It seems the description of what a prophet does fits the definition of the behavior that violates this mitzvah.

Our author suggests several ways to distinguish prohibited from permitted prediction. It is entirely permitted to search for patterns in nature and rely on those patterns to predict future events.  That happens often in medical situations, so that any action taken to enhance healing is permitted even if it mimics what non-Jews do.  In many cases it is easier to predict the near future than it is to predict the far future.  Some people are better at predicting than others.  In this context the author discusses the practice of reciting psalms when someone is ill.  If someone recites psalms to focus the mind on the content of the psalms, which will encourage having faith and trust in God, that is a praiseworthy act.  But someone should not recite psalms thinking that the act of recitation will provide protection.

But this list of factors does not fully distinguish between permitted and prohibited actions. Our author explains that many acts we might think are forbidden by these mitzvot are explicitly mentioned in the Talmud as permitted.  Someone who serves as a judge in a case arising from these mitzvot must be familiar with occult practices and know what they mean and why people do them.

These prohibitions are very serious, potentially subject to capital punishment. That makes the job of articulating a shoresh particularly important.

Our author gave several theories in his earlier discussions of the mitzvot forbidding occult practices.  These prohibited practices are utter nonsense and Jews should have nothing to do with utter nonsense.  The practices have the potential to mislead naive people, people with a minimal education, who might see in them some alternative to the power of God.  Those people might come to think that the events of their lives are controlled by magical forces rather than by God.  This is especially dangerous since some of the time the predictions of these occult practitioners will come true.  The author says these practices have a hint of idol worship about them. 

The author reinforces these notions in discussing this series of mitzvot.    No one graced by God with any sense at all would get involved with such practices. Jews should stay focused on serving God and not be distracted. Whatever signs these practitioners are sensitive to are unreliable because God could change the operations of the natural world, the configuration of the stars and constellations for the benefit of deserving people.  That’s why Jews are not subject to astrological forces.  And that’s why Joshua had the power to get the sun to stand still.  (See Joshua 10.)  

Our author says these practices are nonsense, but he also says that there are people who can concentrate hard and predict the short-term future correctly. Those people are likely to get most but not all of their predictions right.  Nevertheless, that behavior is forbidden. Only real prophecy allows someone to predict the long-term future.

Understanding the opinions of earlier authorities is also difficult because those authorities lived in a very different intellectual world than we live in. We take for granted that we can tell the difference between factual reality and the imagination.  We are children of the scientific revolution: fact is something that can be tested and proven, and all the rest is speculation.  And we can easily research whether something is scientific fact or speculation; try an encyclopedia or the internet. The line between reality and imagination was much less clear in the ancient world.  Before easy communication and the scientific revolution the line between reality and fantasy was much foggier.  People could and did watch the results of different actions, but they were much less systematic about testing for consistent results.  And people had no way to check on the reality of animals, plants and phenomena they heard about.

In discussing the prohibition on consulting a “yidoni” in mitzvah #514, our author describes a creature called a “yiddo’a” that he has seen described by earlier rabbis.  This is a kind of plant/human creature that reaches out to devour anything that gets close enough and can only be killed by severing its connection to the ground with arrows.  (It brings to mind “Little Shop of Horrors.”)  The name of this creature sounds like the name of the prohibition, and perhaps the author chose to describe it to enhance the interest value of his discussion.  Like other magical practices, the author had no way to know if this creature was real or mythical.

Except for the prohibition on slight-of-hand magic in mitzvah #250, the occult practices forbidden by these mitzvot are rare in our modern culture. 

Mitzvot #516 – 519, about prophecy, contrast with the mitzvot about occult practices.  Earlier we discussed Rambam’s understanding of prophecy.  We saw obligations to ignore someone prophesying in the name of an idol and to avoid nagging a proven prophet for excessive authentication.

Mitzvah #518 is a direct prohibition on prophesying in the name of an idol.  That includes claiming that God commanded that people worship an idol or that an idol or natural object threatens some harm or promises some reward if people behave a specific way even if the particular behavior coincides with behavior mandated by the Torah.  A specific Biblical verse, Deut. 18:20, prescribes the death penalty for someone who violates this mitzvah.  We know there has to be a specific verse to prohibit behavior and a different verse that defines the punishment, but it is hard to find a verse that specifically prohibits this prophesying on behalf of an idol.  Our author relies on Ex. 23:13, the source verse for a prohibition on swearing by an idol.

Mitzvah #516 requires Jews to obey instructions from an authenticated prophet.  The prophet must be obeyed even if the prophet is making temporary changes in mitzvot, although a prophet who instructs people to worship idols should not be obeyed.

Our author speaks passionately about the exalted status of the prophet, and his discussion echoes Rambam’s description of prophecy that we summarized earlier.  Prophecy is the highest spiritual level a person can reach.  Prophecy is the source of the most reliable knowledge because that knowledge is coming directly from God. Our entire tradition depends on accepting the prophecy of Moses. Very few people attain that exalted status.  When someone does attain that status we are all required to follow the prophet’s instructions.

An authentic prophet must convey the received message absolutely accurately.  Mitzvah #517 prohibits an authentic prophet from conveying his or her message inaccurately.  The prophet may not say things on behalf of God that God did not tell the prophet.  The prophet may not convey as his or her own prophecy a message that a different prophet received.  If the tradition of Torah depends on authentic prophecy, inaccurate prophecy can lead to corruption of that tradition.  Even if the content of an inaccurate prophecy is innocuous, a false message brings the reputation of prophecy into question and that threatens the Torah tradition.  Similarly, when someone conveys a prophecy the speaker never received, the speaker gets the reputation as an authentic prophet and people are likely to follow the speaker’s instructions when they ought not to.

Someone who violates this prohibition is subject to death by strangulation, and mitzvah #519 forbids our hesitating to inflict the death penalty out of fear.  It is hard to see how that death penalty would come about since only the speaker knows whether or not the prophecy was real.


Mitzvah #522 prohibits moving a landmark that defines the boundary between land owned by different people.  If I move the marker a little farther into my neighbor’s property, that part of my neighbor’s property is likely to be considered mine either because over time the real line will be forgotten or because I can more easily lie and claim that the real boundary and the marker were never moved. Thus, this mitzvah prohibits an act that could lead to a specific form of theft.

            Our author says this mitzvah applies in Israel. Someone who forcibly moves a landmark in Israel violates this mitzvah and also the prohibition on “g’neivah,” whereas someone who stealthily moves a landmark violates this mitzvah and the prohibition on “g’zeilah.”  At the end of the essay our author says this mitzvah applies everywhere.  The translator suggests that this language is a scribal error, or that our author means that outside of Israel the person moving the landmark would be violating those other mitzvot.  Someone who violates this mitzvah is not punishable with malkot because the person could make restitution by returning the misappropriated land.