Auspicious Times: Idolatrous or Not?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Mordechai: This week’s Torah portion Kedoshim prohibits superstitions: “…you shall not practice divination or soothsaying” (Lev. 19:26). Rashi explains:

Divination refers to those who foretell the future from the cry of a weasel or the twittering of birds (Sifra, Kedoshim, 6:2; Sanhedrin 66a), or from the fact that the bread falls from his mouth or that a deer crosses his path. A soothsayer is one who says, “This day or that day ensures success for beginning a project; this or that hour endangers the start of a journey” (Sanhedrin 66a).

Thus, Torah prohibits gauging our actions based on fantasy, as we attempt to secure success or avoid failure. Just as a bird’s twitter is unrelated to my stocks rising, a calendar date or the day of the week is unrelated to events. For dates and days are abstract measurements that don’t exist physically, while events are real earthly activities. Similarly, color is unrelated to motion; they are disparate categories that don’t intersect. Belonging to this category too are lucky horseshoes, red bendels, mezuzas, and any object in which one invests unwitnessed powers.

Now, if one proceeds to gauge his activities on such unrelated phenomena, if he feels Tuesday is better to work than Wednesday and does so, or if he feels a black cat is a “sign” of bad luck and stays home, he violates Torah prohibitions of these superstitions. In other words, it is idolatrous (superstitious) to act in a manner believing A causes B, when they are unrelated. Doing so, one believes in fantasy and not in reality. He does not follow what his senses and events verify. But he follows what is imaginary. He succumbs to fears of insecurity, seeking assurance from mystical beliefs.

Based on this prohibition, how do we understand the Rabbis teaching that the month of Adar is an auspicious time for joy, and that Av is a time to refrain from legal disputes, as it is an auspicious time for bad tidings? 

From when Av begins, one decreases acts of rejoicing. Rav Yehuda, son of Rav Shmuel bar Sheilat, said in the name of Rav: Just as when Av begins one decreases rejoicing, so too when the month of Adar begins, one increases rejoicing. Rav Pappa said: Therefore, in the case of a Jew who has litigation with a gentile, let him avoid him in the month of Av, when the Jews’ fortune is bad, and he should make himself available in Adar, when his fortune is good. (Taanis 29b)

Rabbi:  Ritva (Ibid.) suggests that Av and Adar partake of heavenly decrees of sorrow and fortune respectively. Thus, the months themselves are not invested with power, but God decreed these times for reward and punishment. Talmid Arachin elaborates:

Rabbi Yossi says, “A fortunate matter is brought about on an auspicious day, and a deleterious matter on an inauspicious day.” As the Sages said, “When the Temple was destroyed for the first time, that day was the Ninth of Av,” a date on which several calamities had already occurred; and it was the conclusion of Shabbat, i.e., it was on the day after Shabbat, a Sunday; and it was the year after a Sabbatical Year; and it was the week of the priestly watch of Jehoiarib and the priests and Levites were standing on their platform and singing song. And what song were they singing? They were singing the verse, “And He brought upon them their own iniquity, and He will cut them off in their own evil” (Psalms 94:23). And they did not manage to recite the end of that verse “The Lord our God will cut them off,” before gentiles came and conquered them. And likewise, the same happened when the Second Temple was destroyed. (Arachin 11b)

“A fortunate matter is brought about on an auspicious day, and a deleterious matter on an inauspicious day” means God embellishes His lessons. The Rabbis do not say Av causes evil or that Adar causes success. The reason we minimize joy during Av is to demonstrate our recognition of God’s punishments. God selected Av to punish the Jews on many occasions. Our punishments fall out on the day of our sin when we slandered Israel. To teach us of our sin, God aligned punishments on the precise day of our sin. We slandered Israel on the 9th of Av, and on that date God destroyed both Temples, the Battle at Betar was lost, and the Romans plowed the Beit Hamikdash. Thereby, the relationship between our sin and God’s punishments which occur on the same date are undeniably related, aimed at teaching us our faults. To rejoice during this time is to ignore our sins and God’s providence. Therefore, “the month of Av, when the Jews’ fortune is bad”  does not mean the month is invested with power. But that we must act to demonstrate belief in God’s reward and punishment. Conversely, in Adar when God saved us, we rejoice. We recognize God’s positive providence. But in neither in Av nor in Adar do we attribute any power to those times. 

Maimonides teaches another lesson:

Although it is always well to cry out and repent, but during the space of the 10 days' time between Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur it is exceedingly better, and the supplication is immediately accepted, as it is said, “Seek the Lord while He may be found” (Isaiah 55:6). (Laws of Repentance 2:6)

Again, this period of time is not invested with power. But as man typically fears God will seal his yearly fate for evil, he is on his best behavior during these 10 days. “Seek the Lord while He may be found” refers to when man shows his true values, so God readily accepts his repentance. But during the year, life’s demands and troubles derail man’s focused path towards God. Since man is not necessarily expressing his true values, God may not immediately accept his repentance. 

Radak quoting his father says, “Seek the Lord while He may be found” refers to when one seeks out God with his “entire” heart, as it says, “God is close to all who call Him, to all who call Him in truth” (Psalms 145:18).

Radak also quotes Yonasan ben Uzziel who says, “Seek the Lord while He may be found” refers to prior to death: “For one can only call to God while alive, and not after he dies.” His reasoning: “For there is no action, no reasoning, no learning, no wisdom in death, where you are going” (Koheles 9:10) 

Dates and days are not substances, they are not material…they are abstract ideas that mark calendar durations and events. But this does not invest powers into these dates and days. Just as my act of measuring my height does not suddenly alter reality, an new day arriving at sunset has no affect on natural laws: Tuesday transitioning into Wednesday does not stop the rain and does not suddenly change my financial success. This is because Tuesday or Wednesday do not exist outside our minds. These days are mere mental labels just like our names John and Sue. Changing a name changes nothing. A black cat crossing my path or a new day’s arrival cannot affect reality, these notions are fantasies. Whereas God designed us with senses to live within reality. 

Once we separate reality from fantasy, we can abandon our belief in fantasy having any affect on reality. Then we can disavow superstitions as we realize they are fantasies. We then take control of our lives and employ only what is real to lead happier lives. 

Parshas Kedoshim teaches that divination and soothsaying—superstitions and dates—are false. Because they are false, they are prohibited. I will close with a profound quote:

Those with empty brains say, “It is because fortune tellers and magicians are true, that Torah prohibits them.” But I (Ibn Ezra) say just the opposite of their words, because the Torah doesn't prohibit that which is true, but it prohibits that which is false. And the proof is the prohibition on idols and statues (Ibn Ezra, Lev. 19:31)