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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Apple Dipped in Honey – Siman or Superstition?

There is a Biblical prohibition against ‘Nachash’ or incantations. This generally refers to using various signs to interpret what the future holds. The examples given by the Gemara include one who says that since my bread fell out of my mouth or my walking stick fell from my hand I will not go to a particular place today.

However the Gemara elsewhere offers a list of signs that one may do. “Rav Ami says: If one wants to know how a business venture or a trip will go he should raise a rooster. If it develops nicely, that is a sign that things will go well”. After citing several similar examples the Gemara then says “Abaye said, now that we have established that ‘simanim’ or omens are significant, on Rosh Hashanah one should see a gourd, fenugreek, leek, beets, and date.” The reason for this list is because all of these items have names or charachteristics that are consistent with blessing. [The Gemara uses the term see, indeed some Poskim say the simanim may be merely seen and don’t have to be eaten].

Rav Ami and Abaye are seemingly fundamentally different. Rav Ami is discussing predicting the future, and Abaye is extrapolating to making a good omen on Rosh Hashanah. Explains the Derishah, once Rav Ami had established that we are not concerned with the prohibition of Nachash, Abaye then allows us to use omens and not be concerned with Nachash their either.

So it would seem that at least with regard to the various omens that we do on Rosh Hashanah, there is no problems as far as divination and incantation are concerned.

The Meiri, in his commentary on the Gemara elucidates this. He explains: Divination of any form is definitely forbidden. However when done as an inspiration for Teshuva and not as a serious sign it is permitted. It is therefore imperative, says the Meiri, to recite the Yehi Ratzon as an introductory prayer to the siman to show it is not being eaten as an omen rather as a prayer and inspiration.

The Tur brings the Gemara quoted above, and adds that it was the custom in Ashkenaz to eat apple dipped in honey. The Beis Yosef in his commentary on the Tur notes that the Tur made no mention of the Yehi Ratzon and holds that it wasn’t necessary. It would seem that he wasn’t concerned with the superstitios divinations that may be associated with eating the simanim.

The Mharsha takes an interesting middle sort of approach. He explains that the only divination that is forbidden is when predicting a bad event. When predicting a good event a ‘sign’ is permitted. The rationale is that Hashem showers down a constant stream of good to us. Therefore predicting good is only affirming our belief in Hashem’s goodness. Bad events are caused by our missteps and wrongdoings. They are fully preventable and reversible. Therefore to predict a future bad event as a certain thing would demonstrate a disbelief in Hashem’s constant benevolence and is therefore forbidden.

This concept is debated elsewhere as well. The Gemara in Chullin 95b declares: “any Neichush that is not as the Neichush of Eliezer and of Yonasan are not considered Neichush.” The Gemara is referring to the two well known divinations in Tanach. The first one is where Eliezer declared that the first young lady who offers him and his camel’s water will be the match for Yitzchak. The second was where Yonason was penetrating the Philistine camp and said that if they invite us in it’ll be a sign that Hashem has given them into our hands.

Tosfos asks: How could Eliezer and Yonason do so? Isn’t that nachash? Answers Tosfos that they didn’t mean it as a sign, they just meant it as an extra chizuk. If things wouldn’t have gone as they had divined they would have gone ahead with their plans anyway.

The Radak (quoted by Rav Akiva Eiger) has a different approach. He differentiates in intention. If one divines from a certain event that has already happened that he should or should not act in a particular way, that shows that he is ascribing powers to the stick or bread or black cat that its telling him to act in a certain way, and is forbidden. If however one asks Hashem to give him a sign that he should go ahead with his plans, as Eliezer and Yonason did, and it happened as he had asked, that is just a sign of trust in Hashem and is permitted.

The Rambam prohibits asking for a sign and saying that if such and such happens then he will act in a particular way. As an example of what is forbidden he brings Eliezer! The Raavad very strongly says “He has made a great mistake, for what Eliezer did was fully permitted!”

It would seem that the dispute between Rambam and Raavad as the same dispute as between Tosfos and the Radak.

Kesiva Vechasima Tova - May we all be blessed with a happy sweet New Year

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Meet Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Haber

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch HaberRabbi Tzvi Hirsch Haber is sought after by all who know him for his Halachic and practical advice. His keen ability to put complicated matters into a digestible perspective coupled with his ability to get the facts, make him the perfect blogger to help us all “Do It Right”.

A native of Buffalo, NY, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Haber spent his childhood globetrotting with his family. His pioneering spirit first surfaced in Melbourne, Australia, where he was excited to be a member of the opening class of Mesivta Bnei Torah. From Australia the Haber family settled down in Monsey, NY. Ever the maverick, Tzvi promptly left home to study in Yeshiva Ohr Hameir in Peekskill, where he became a mainstay of the Yeshiva, and inspired his younger brothers as well as several friends from the Mesivta in Melbourne to follow him. He then joined his chaburah in Jerusalem, first at the Mir Yeshiva and then at the Bais Medrash of Rav Dovid Soloveitchik, a senior scion of the famed Brisk dynasty. As his globetrotting family returned to Jerusalem, Tzvi returned to the US, to freeze in the famed, yet comparatively chilled Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood.

 In 2004 he met his wife, Suzanne Schor, a native of the warmer Los Angeles climate, and the couple settled in Lakewood, where he focused his pioneering and independent strengths on the study of Halacha, or Jewish law. His innovative spirit and innate ability to help others seeking to clarify the finer points of Judaism and integrate them into their daily lives inspired his decision to commute daily from Lakewood to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in order to bask in the day to day exposure to the world renowned Posek, HaRav David Feinstein. The daily commute was more than compensated for when he received Semicha from Rav Feinstien and the Kollel L’Torah U’lhorah (a division of Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem) in Tamuz 5768, June 2008.

In August 2009, the Habers moved west, heading toward Los Angeles where Rabbi Haber joined the LINK-LA Kollel. After being an active member of the Kollel for several years, he joined the business world, however he is still actively involved in teaching and learning in LA.

Actively involved in all aspects of TorahLab, Tzvi has taken upon himself a quasi-role as administrator of quality control and has effectively improved and upgraded many of the smaller yet vital details involved in our site. His advice is eagerly sought and gracefully given.

Rabbi Haber is now living in the La Brea section of Los Angeles with his wonderful family. He can be contacted at tzvi@torahlab.org