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Parshas Shoftim - Vol. 11, Issue 48
Compiled by Oizer Alport
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 - ancillary 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 - ancillary forms of idolatry - which may not be performed - except by the king in exceptional circumstances - even when Jewish lives are at stake.
Just before the Jewish army goes off to war, a Kohen who is specially anointed to oversee military affairs addresses the assembled soldiers and informs them that several groups are exempt from fighting. Specifically, a person who has built a new house and not yet inaugurated it, somebody who has planted a vineyard but not yet redeemed it, and one who has betrothed a woman but not yet married her are all excused from going off to battle. Curiously, in his commentary on the last category of exemptions - a soldier who betrothed a woman but did not yet marry her - Rashi writes that if such a person disregards the Kohen's instructions and insists on going off to fight in spite of his dispensation, he deserves to die in battle. While it is understandable that somebody who disobeys the Kohen's directives warrants punishment, it is difficult to comprehend why Rashi waited to make this comment until the final group of excused soldiers. Why wouldn't the same rationale also apply to somebody who built a new house and didn't yet inaugurate it, or who planted a vineyard but didn't yet redeem it, and nevertheless continues to the battlefield?
Rav Mordechai Druk explains that when a person wishes to be stringent and go beyond the strict letter of the law, it is generally commendable. However, in the case of a soldier who is exempt from fighting but doesn't feel right abandoning his brethren in a time of national need, Rashi informs us that our evaluation of his choice to fight depends on the reason for his original dispensation. If he is excused from fighting due to a new house that he built or a new vineyard that he planted, his decision to remain with the army is indeed praiseworthy. If, however, he belongs to the third category - those who have betrothed a woman and not yet married her - his commitment to be stringent and fight impacts not only himself, but also his wife, especially as he risks his life in the process. In such a case, Rashi is teaching us that while chumros (stringencies) are often quite laudable, when they affect others as well, they are inappropriate and misguided.
To illustrate this concept, Rav Druk recounted a story involving Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, who lived in Yerushalayim at a time when poverty was rampant. Once as he was walking, he discovered a golden Napoleon, which was an extremely valuable coin that could sustain his family for an entire year. Based on the circumstances, he discerned that it had been dropped by a non-Jew, and he was therefore legally entitled to keep it (Choshen Mishpat 266:1). Another Jew observed the scene and approached Rav Sonnenfeld to clarify his plans for the coin. Upon hearing that he intended to keep it for himself, the other Jew reminded him that even though he was technically permitted to keep it, the Shulchan Aruch adds that it is commendable to sanctify Hashem's name by going beyond the strict letter of the law and returning it to its rightful non-Jewish owner.
Rav Sonnenfeld replied that while it is indeed praiseworthy to sanctify Hashem's name, he had to balance this consideration against his responsibility to his family, which was afflicted by terrible poverty, and he therefore concluded that it would be unjust to cause them additional suffering by returning the coin when not required to do so. Unsatisfied with this explanation, the other Jew persisted in attempting to pressure him into returning the Napoleon to its original owner.
At that point, Rav Sonnenfeld proposed that because the man was so convinced of the need to sanctify Hashem's name by returning the coin, he would lend it to him so that he could do so, and over the course of the upcoming year, the man would slowly pay Rav Sonnenfeld back for the value of the Napoleon, which he maintained was far inferior to the reward that would be generated by returning it. Upon hearing this suggestion, the other Jew ran away and quickly fled the scene. As Rav Druk explained, while it may seem quite easy to come up with stringencies for others, a chumra whose consequences will be unwillingly borne by anybody other than oneself is in reality nothing but misplaced piety.
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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):
1) In warning judges against accepting bribes (16:19), the Torah commands, "You (singular) shall not take a bribe, because a bribe will blind the eyes of the wise (plural) and pervert the words of the righteous (plural). Why does the Torah switch from the singular to the plural within the same verse? (Toras Chacham)
2) The Torah admonishes (16:19) judges against accepting bribes and warns that doing so will blind the eyes of the wise and twist the words of the righteous. Why does the Torah forbid the judge to take a bribe but not similarly prohibit the parties from giving a bribe? (Tosefes Beracha)
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