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Parshas Shoftim - Vol. 8,
Compiled by Oizer Alport
When a person is convicted of a capital crime, the execution is carried out in a public manner. Rashi writes that the Sanhedrin waited to carry out the execution until the next Yom Tov, when people would travel to Yerushalayim to fulfill the mitzvah of aliyah l'regel (ascending to the Temple), so that everybody would hear and talk about it. This was to inspire maximum fear in the populace in the hopes that future executions would become unnecessary. However, the Mishnah in Makkos (7a) quotes the opinion of Rav Elozar ben Azaria, who maintains that a Sanhedrin which carries out one execution in 70 years is considered violent and bloody. If executions were so infrequent, how were they able to accomplish the desired deterrent effect?
Rav Aharon Bakst answers that this question may be asked only by one who has become accustomed and desensitized to the loss of human life. In the times of the Beis HaMikdash, the Jewish nation understood and appreciated the value of every person and every life to the extent that one public execution in 70 years caused such a national trauma that another one became superfluous for at least that long. If we appreciated life with the proper perspective, we would be so shaken up by events like the Holocaust and recent tragedies in Israel that they would remain in our collective memory forever, inspiring us to proper repentance and rendering future reminders unnecessary.
At the end of King Shaul's life, the Philistines amassed a large and intimidating force to attack the Jewish people. Shaul was frightened by the sight of their army and sought guidance from Hashem via the prophets and Urim V'Tumim, but Hashem refused to answer him. After these attempts were unsuccessful, Shaul told his servants to seek out for him a necromancer of whom he could inquire (Shmuel 1 28:7). She proceeded to summon up the spirit of the dead prophet Shmuel, who informed Shaul that the Philistines would defeat the Jewish army the next day, and they would kill Shaul and three of his sons.
This episode is very difficult to understand. How is it possible that Shaul, for all of his shortcomings and mistakes in judgment, could think that it was permissible to inquire of the dead using necromancy, something which is explicitly forbidden by the Torah in Parshas Shoftim and was a prohibition with which Shaul was clearly familiar because he had spearheaded a campaign to eliminate all of its practitioners from the land of Israel (Shmuel 1 28:3)? The commentators discuss this perplexing incident at length and offer several justifications for Shaul's conduct.
The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh and Oneg Yom Tov point out that the verses following the prohibition against inquiring of necromancers state (18:14-15): For these nations that you are possessing, they hearkened to astrologers and diviners, but Hashem your G-d has not given this for you. A prophet like me from your brethren in your midst shall Hashem your G-d establish for you; to him you shall listen. In other words, the Torah seems to indicate that the reason Hashem forbids us to turn to sorcerers and necromancers is because these were the practices of the non-Jews who inhabited the land of Israel before us, but we do not need them because Hashem will give us prophets and the Urim V'Tumim that we can ask instead.
With this understanding, Shaul reasoned that it is only forbidden to consult necromancers if one has an alternative of going to a prophet or the Urim V'Tumim. However, in a situation where that is not a viable option, such as in Shaul's case when he attempted to do so but was not answered, the prohibition would not apply and he would be permitted to ask the necromancer. Although the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh claims that Shaul was incorrect in this interpretation and only offers this explanation as a way of understanding his mindset and judging him favorably, the Netziv maintains that not only was this Shaul's rationale, but that he was in fact correct about it, as in a dangerous situation where there is no prophet and guidance is needed, it is legally permissible to consult a necromancer or sorcerer.
Along these lines, the Shach (Yoreh Deah 179:1) rules that because we do not have prophets to ask, if somebody is ill, it is permissible to use magic and sorcery to determine how to heal him. The Maharshal (Shu"t Maharshal 3) disagrees and writes that if the person is merely sick but not in mortal danger, it is forbidden to resort to such methods. However, this seems to imply that if somebody's life is truly endangered, it would be permissible to engage in sorcery or necromancy as a means to save his life, which is in accordance with the Netziv's opinion about the propriety of Shaul's actions. Alternatively, the Radvaz (Shu"t Radvaz 1:485) justifies Shaul's decision to consult the necromancer based on the concept that a king is allowed to perform actions that would otherwise be prohibited by using a hora'as sha'ah - temporary judgment that an extraordinary situation requires unusual measures. In this case, the Jewish people were under attack by the Philistines, and Shaul was terrified by the presence and size of their army. He tried every avenue at his disposal to obtain guidance from Hashem, but he was unsuccessful. Because of the potentially significant consequences of his decision about how to proceed regarding the imminent confrontation with the Philistines, Shaul felt that under the circumstances, he was permitted to turn to necromancy as a last resort.
Finally, in his work Doveir Tzedek (4), Rav Tzaddok HaKohen explains that Shaul knew that what he was doing would normally be forbidden. However, there is a legal concept known as pikuach nefesh which permits a person to transgress virtually every prohibition in the Torah in order to save the life of another Jew. In this case, Shaul reasoned that because so many Jewish lives were in mortal danger due to the Philistine threat, it was considered a case of pikuach nefesh and under the circumstances he was allowed to ask the necromancer to summon the spirit of Shmuel to advise him how to proceed.
As far as why the other commentators don't give this seemingly straightforward answer, the Radvaz notes that saving a person's life does not take precedence over the prohibitions against murder, idolatry, and forbidden relationships. However, this exception is not limited to cases that involve transgressing these three actual prohibitions; it also applies in a case of avizrayhu - lighter accessory forms of the prohibitions - which are also not pushed aside even to save somebody's life. The Radvaz argues that sorcery and necromancy are considered avizrayhu d'avodah zara - accessory forms of idolatry - which may not be performed - except by the king in exceptional circumstances - even when Jewish lives are at stake.
If a murdered body is found in a field, the Torah requires the elders of the nearest city to perform a ritual known as eglah arufah (the axed heifer), in which they slaughter a cow in a valley with an axe to atone for the innocent blood which was shed. How does this procedure help rectify the fact that an innocent Jew was murdered?
The Targum Yonason ben Uziel writes that after the elders properly perform this ritual, a large swarm of insects miraculously emerges from the belly-button of the dead cow and flies straight to the house of the murderer of the unidentified corpse. At this point, the Sanhedrin is able to judge him for committing this atrocity.
Rav Menachem Recanati suggests an interesting hint to this concept by noting that the last letters of the words in our verse - which speaks of removing the innocent blood from your midst - spell the word "rimah" (insect). Additionally, the Seichel Tov notes that "ha'agalah" (the cow) has the same numerical value as "ha'toleah ba" - the bug will come.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to understand how the Sanhedrin is permitted to punish a person based solely on the miraculous actions of the insects in the absence of the two required witnesses to the murder. However, this would be resolved according to the version of the Paneiach Raza, who writes that the bugs themselves attack the murderer and put him to death.
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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):
1) It is forbidden to plant a tree anywhere on the Temple Mount (Rashi 16:21). Is it permitted to plant a tree next to a synagogue? (Hagahos Rav Akiva Eiger Orach Chaim 150, Shu"t Maharam Schick 79, Shu"t Binyan Tzion 9, Shu"t Maharsham 1:127, Torah L'Daas Vol. 8)
2) When a corpse is found in the field, the elders of the nearest city are required to announce that they did not spill the blood of the deceased (21:7). Rashi explains that the sages clearly aren't suspected of cold-blooded murder, but rather they must testify that they didn't see this wayfarer leaving their city and allow him to continue without escorting him and providing him food. In what way would their providing a traveler with food protect him from a would-be murderer? (Ibn Ezra, Maharal Chiddushei Aggadah Sotah 45b, Malbim, Darkei Mussar)
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