Rabbi Moshe Har-Noy
Former Rosh Kollel in Detroit
The Gemara (BT Chulin 95b) addresses the prohibition of nichush (divination):
“Every nachash (one who practices divination) who is not like Eliezer, the servant of Avraham, and Yonatan, the son of Shaul, is not a nachash.”
What does this Gemara mean? Did Eliezer really practice nichush?
According to Rashi, Eliezer did, in fact, rely on nichush when he went to find a wife for Yitzchak. In other words, Avraham’s servant Eliezer sinned by requesting that HaKadosh Baruch Hu show him which girl was the right one for his master’s son.
The Rambam (Hilchot Avodah Zarah 11:14) concurs:
“And similarly, one who makes signs for himself – if such and such will happen to me, I will do a certain thing; and if it will not happen to me, then I will not do it – like Eliezer, the servant of Avraham… this is forbidden. And anyone who does something because of these matters – lokeh (is punished with lashes).”
In contrast, Tosafot opines that Eliezer did not rely only on nichush. After all, after Rivka offered to provide water to him and his camels, Eliezer interrogated her about her family. He did not place the jewelry on her arms until he was satisfied with her responses (as he himself attests when recounting the story to Lavan and Betuel in their home).
The Ritva takes an intermediate approach. He notes that an ordinary person is prohibited from doing what Eliezer did, because not everyone has the right to “bother” HaKadosh Baruch Hu. However, Eliezer, who did rely fully on nichush, was permitted to do so, because he had Avraham Avinu’s merit to back him up.
L’halachah, the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 179) rules:
“Some say that a person may make himself a sign that something will occur in the future, just as Eliezer, the servant of Avraham, or Yonatan did. But some forbid this, and ‘one who walks in innocence’ (Mishlei 10:9) ‘and trusts in Hashem, kindness will encompass him.’ (Tehillim 32:10)”
In Rav Pa’alim (Yoreh De’ah 30), the Ben Ish Chai notes that there is a difference between vocalizing nichush and merely thinking about it:
“One who thinks in his heart etc. and says, ‘if such and such happens, I will do a certain thing, and if not, I will not do it,’ and relies on [nichush] like Eliezer and Yonatan – this is not prohibited, since he did not utter anything with his mouth. It was only in his thoughts.”
The Ben Ish Chai’s rationale is that nichush is prohibited because of issur avodah zarah (idolatry). (The Rambam even includes the prohibition of nichush in the chapter dealing with avodah zarah and its derivatives.) Idolaters used to practice divination by speaking, and hence, the Ben Ish Chai rules that there is no prohibition against practicing nichush in one’s heart.
On a lighter note, I heard an interesting idea from Rav Aviner, shlita. If you’re asked to donate money to tzedakah (charity) and the ink runs out just as you start writing the check and you can’t continue writing, don’t think that Heaven is sending you an omen to refrain from giving tzedakah. Rather, you should take this as a sign that… it’s time to buy a new pen!