“Astrology, Witchcraft and Spiritualism in Judaism”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shoftim, the Torah describes the vital role of the prophet. Moses proclaims in Deuteronomy 18:15: “Nah’vee mee’kir’b’chah may’ah’cheh’cha kah’mo’nee, yah’kim l’chah Hashem Eh’lohkehcha, ay’lov tish’mah’oon,” The Lord, your G-d, will raise up a prophet for you from the midst of your brethren, like me [Moses]. You shall listen to him. Although no succeeding prophet would ever rise to the rank of Moses, each generation will have their spiritual leader who will serve, not so much as a predictor of the future, but as a spiritual teacher and religious guide.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 13, already informed the People of Israel that the Hebrew prophets will offer signs and wonders. But signs and wonders are not sufficient to prove the veracity of a prophet’s message. To protect the people from false prophets, the Torah warns the people that even if a prophet arises and offers predictions that come true, if the prophet attempts to seduce the people away from the word of G-d, he is clearly a false prophet–signs and wonders notwithstanding.

Jewish history is replete with tales of imposter prophets who claim to speak in the name of G-d, but lead the people astray. Consequently, even before describing the role of the prophet, parashat Shoftim warns the people that magic, witchcraft and spiritualism are dangerous practices, and forbidden in Judaism.

The Torah tells us in Deuteronomy 18:9 that when the Jewish people enter the land of Israel they must not follow the abominable practices of the nations that reside there. It is strictly prohibited to cause a son or a daughter to pass through the fire, to practice divination or astrology, or to visit one who reads omens. Patronizing a sorcerer, an animal charmer, one who inquires of the Ov or Yidoni, or one who consults the dead is forbidden. The Torah tells the people clearly that to follow these practices is an abomination in G-d’s eyes. In Deuteronomy 18:13, scripture adjures the Jewish people: “Tah’mim teeh’yeh im Hashem Eh’loh’keh’chah,” You shall be wholehearted with the Lord, your G-d. Clearly, the Torah is not at all supportive of the magic or spirituality of the ancients!

Yet there is little doubt that the ancient Israelites were influenced by astrology. The rabbis in the Talmud say that because Jews are under direct Divine influence, “Ayn mazal l’Yisrael” (Shabbat 156a), stars have no influence over the Jews. Despite these rabbinic pronouncements, strong traces of those beliefs are still to be found. The expression “Mazal Tov,” which means literally a good star or orbit, is commonly used. A “shl’mazal” is one who has no mazal, one upon whom fortune does not shine. The Code of Jewish Law Yoreh Deah 179:1 finds it necessary to state categorically that one should not consult astrologers, nor should one cast lots to determine the future.

In light of the importance ascribed to astrology by the ancients, it is quite extraordinary that Maimonides (the Rambam, great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204), virtually alone in the middle ages, rejected belief in astrology. In a letter to the rabbis of Southern France, he distinguishes between astronomy, as a true science, and astrology, which he deems to be sheer superstition. Many hundreds of years passed until the Western world came to the same conclusion. Maimonides boldly declares that in Judaism a person’s fate is determined by G-d alone, not by the stars.

Fascinating is the difference of opinion between Maimonides and Nachmanides (Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) with regard to the efficacy of witchcraft and magic. As already noted, Maimonides completely denies any power to witches or witchcraft, whereas Nachmanides (Deuteronomy 18:9-13) acknowledges that there may be powers that witches can employ. Substantiation of Nachmanides’ position may be found in the story of the Witch of Endor (I Samuel 28). At the request of King Saul, the witch successfully raises the spirit of Samuel. When the prophet appears, he is terribly angry, proving that it is forbidden to disturb the dead. Maimonides, however, maintains that the Witch engaged in fraud, pure and simple, and that the vision was probably slight of hand.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, 1865-1935) in a letter dated 1912 replies to a questioner on this subject as follows: “It is proper for a holy nation to cleave only to the Lord, G-d of life.” Clearly, those who cleave to the “Lord, G-d of life” should be concerned with the human relationship to G-d on this side of the grave, and not beyond the grave!

May you be blessed.