The Torah forbids necromancy [Lev. 19:31 and 20:6,27; Deut. 18:11]. Yet King Saul goes to the witch of Endor, who brings up the dead prophet Samuel for him. Samuel responds:

Why have you disturbed me and brought me up? ... Why do you ask me, seeing that the Lord has turned away from you and has become your adversary? ... The Lord has torn the kingship out of your hands and has given it to your fellow, to David, because you did not obey the Lord and did not execute His wrath upon the Amalekites. That is why the Lord has done this to you today. Further, the Lord will deliver the Israelites who are with you into the hands of the Philistines. Tomorrow your sons and you will be with me; and the Lord will also deliver the Israelite forces into the hands of the Philistines. [1Sam 28:15-19]

What does traditional Judaism conclude from this story?

(1) That there is an afterlife, and that communication with the dead is possible, but God does not want us to attempt it?

(2) That necromancy is bogus and that the witch of Endor was a gifted ventriloquist? (But Samuel's prophecy was fulfilled.)

Do you have sources, particularly for (2)? As for (1), did the rabbis actually mention that episode as a proof of an afterlife?

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    (3) that necromancy is bogus, but G-d made a miracle this time, and she was as shocked as anyone but pretended it was the normal result?
    – Heshy
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 19:22
  • Witchs do not exist. King Saul has an imagination. Think of it this way, the Bible does not ban idols because they are real but because they are fake and damaging to a sound mind. View of Ibn Ezra.
    – Jonathan
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 19:22
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    I always was taught like #1, that communication with the dead is possible, but God does not want us to attempt it. Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 19:23
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    All these options exist in traditional Jewish sources. I suspect you know that. Are you asking us to decide between them?
    – Double AA
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 19:46
  • 1
    Possibly a duplicate of judaism.stackexchange.com/q/96654 or judaism.stackexchange.com/q/67700
    – DonielF
    Commented Dec 20, 2019 at 3:32

1 Answer 1


The story of the witch of En-dor in I Samuel 28 is obscure and seems rather strange. The Torah prohibits communication with the dead and yet Saul does just that.

“So Saul disguised himself, dressed in other clothes, and he and two men went and came to the woman at night.”

It is well known that mediums prefer to work at night since the darkness hides their schemes in which they use to trick their clients. Thus I argue here that the rising of Samuel was a trick by the witch.

However, some Jews feel that the Torah prohibits magic, necromancy, idolatry, and witchcraft because they work. I even once heard a rabbi say that were the prohibition of talking to the dead only a fable the Torah would not have prohibited it.

Ibn Ezra would disagree. Writing in his commentary to Leviticus, 19:31, he writes: "Those with empty brains say 'Were it not that fortune tellers and magicians were true, the Torah would not prohibit 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."

Additional sources who accepted the idea that witchcraft works were some talmudic rabbis (BT Sanhedrin 65a). Rashi, Radak, Altschuler, and Malbim accepted the Talmudic view. Saadiah, Hai Gaon, and Nachmanides felt that witchcraft does not always works, only on special occasions or when G-d allows.

Yet others, such as the rationalist Jews, such as Maimonides, ibn Ezra, Gersonides, and Samuel ben Hofni Gaon contend that the witch tricked Saul by pretending to be rising Samuel out of the dead. They support their view with Saul's question of a description of what she saw (verse 13); he saw nothing and blindly accepted what she told him.

If we accept the rational view that this was a trick then it would seem that part of her trick was to show her power in that she not only raised Samuel from the dead but recognized Saul in his new clothes. On the other hand, Saul did not see the Samuel. This is further evidence that she was tricking Saul. From this reading, we see that she did nothing. Radak writes that she knew who Saul was and that she was aware that he was seeking aid, specifically from Samuel.

Furthermore, it is significant that Samuel allegedly rose out of the earth, not from heaven (above) as would be excepted. Even more significant is the fact that Samuel does not rebuke Saul for using divination. Further evidence that the witch was tricking him. For if it was really Samuel, he would be aware of Torah laws. For example, I Chronicles 10:13 recounts that Saul paid for his transgressions when violating Leviticus 20:27 (which states that they should be killed) and Deuteronomy 18:11 (which considers it an abomination, we are commanded to drive them off the land).

Since it was a trick it follows that it was not a prophecy from Samuel, since this was not Samuel but a trick. Already showing signs of weakness and insecurity, and dwelling in a daydream: “Saul saw the Philistine camp, he was greatly afraid and his heart trembled greatly.” (Samuel I, 28:5) Realizing that his next activity was war, Saul sought aid from useless idolatry. When he turned to fantasy and imagination, he began to see forces that did not exist. His insecure mind failed him in battle which led to his ultimate death.

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    If it was all a trick, how did she correctly predict what would happen on the next day?
    – Dani
    Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 3:08
  • @Dani If “tomorrow” is taken literally. However, “tomorrow” can be understood as “soon.” In any event, it was probably coincidental. I explained how Saul died due to his insecurity. If Samuel was raised from the dead one would have to account for Samuel's seemingly lack of knowledge of Torah laws. Also, many a rationalist Rishonim felt that the witch was tricking Saul. Nothing more.
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 3:14
  • @TurkHill Rashi on 28:8 says that וַיָּבֹ֥אוּ אֶל־הָאִשָּׁ֖ה לָ֑יְלָה really means that it was daytime. And why would it be expected for Shmuel to come from the sky?
    – Shmuel L
    Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 3:27
  • Who is Altschuler? Also can you cite where Nachmanides says what you say he says, as I'm sceptical.
    – robev
    Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 3:31
  • @ShmuelL Rashi generally relies on imaginative midrashim, not on the plain meaning of the biblical text.
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 3:38

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