Our Greatest Desire:

Self Preservation & Fearing What’s Next

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Self-preservation is our greatest desire. There’s no escaping it, and it’s a good thing. With it, we ensure greater longevity to achieve God’s will for our lives. But as God gave us a soul—intelligence—He wills that we engage it in all decisions including self-preservation. But God also designed us with imagination, the faculty that helps us arrive at answers, solutions and growing insight into all God created, from nature to Torah. But if abused, imagination can lead us to sin and to believe in things that do not exist. 

Idolatry and superstitions are man’s imagined securities. As they are only imagined and non-existence, God prohibits such beliefs and actions. Maimonides offers insight:

Soothsaying is Prohibited

Soothsaying (omens) as do idolaters, is forbidden. For example, those who say, “Since a piece of bread fell out of my mouth, or my staff fell from my hand, I will not travel to this place today, since I will not be successful. Or, since a fox passed on my right side, I will not go out of my door today. Similarly, a person who sets up omens saying, “If A happens, I will do B. If A will not happen, I will not do B,” as did Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, and similar things…all this is forbidden. (Laws of Star Worship 11:4)

Diviners are Prohibited

What is a diviner? It is a person who performs certain deeds to cause him to fall into a trance and have his mind cleared of all thoughts until he can predict the future, saying, “This will happen” or “This will not happen,” or saying, “It is proper to do this; be careful to do that.”  (Laws of Star Worship 11:6)

Fortunetellers are Prohibited

Who is a fortuneteller? A person who tries to predict auspicious times, using astrology and saying, “This day will be a good day,” or “This day will be a bad day,” “It is appropriate to perform a particular task on a certain day” or “This year” or “This month will not be opportune for this particular matter.”  (Laws of Star Worship 11:8)

Maimonides says it is prohibited to act on omens, “as do idolaters.” But regarding diviners and fortunetellers, Maimonides includes no such condition of, “as do idolaters.” Meaning “all” divining and fortunetelling are prohibited, but not “all” omens are prohibited. Thus, certain omens are permitted. This is startling! I have always assumed “all” omens to be idolatrous…unconditionally. But as Maimonides is famous for his precise wording and halachic formulations, we must think into his distinction: how are certain omens permitted?

Maimonides starts cluing us in by saying that the model of prohibited omens is Eliezer. But Eliezer was Abraham’s servant! He prayed to God to show him a wife for Isaac. Eliezer sought the sign of a wife worthy of Isaac: “Let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’—let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac” (Gen. 24:14). God then answered him before he even finished praying (Ibid. 24:15). God endorsed his omen! How then can Maimonides state that the model of prohibited omens is Eliezer?!

Maimonides remains the master logician. With his words above, “Soothsaying as do idolaters, is forbidden,” Maimonides thereby teaches that it is only the unreasonable “idolatrous” omen that is forbidden. Assuming a black cat crossing my path has some effect on reality, is without reason; that is an idolatrous omen. But if one acts rationally, seeking certain character traits as signs of worthiness for his master’s son’s wife, and then takes that perfected girl as his wife, that is not unreasonable. Thus, omens have 2 forms: a prohibited and a permitted form.

Now, when Maimonides says Eliezer is the “model” of a prohibit omen, he means one must “act” upon an omen to violate the prohibition, just as Eliezer “acted” when taking Rivkah for Isaac. He does not mean Eliezer violated anything. He means that one does not violate omens unless he alters his behavior like Eliezer; he must act on his omen. But the psychological “belief” that a black cat is unlucky, is no violation of omens, unless the person alters his behavior due to that belief. 

Thus, omens like good character indicating a woman’s worth are accurate omens, but black cat omens are purely superstitious and prohibited. Omens have 2 forms. But diviners and fortunetellers have no redeeming qualities; they are absolutely and always prohibited, as such notions are false and idolatrous. Thus, they are always forbidden: there are no dates that guarantee success, and there exists no human knowledge of the future.