I have a question regarding the Torah prohibition of Nichush.

It seems from the Rambam and halacha that signifying occurrences in life with an importance, what is termed hasghacha protis in certain situations, would violate this prohibition.

Why is it not considered nichush in certain instances where religious people see occurrences in life as Divine messages?

For example, there is a story about a couple that filed for divorce and got the get, but as it was being written or signed, coffee spilled on it and therefore the couple abrogated the divorce. The question of nichush was raised to HaRav Zilberstein shlita and I guess he said that it did not fall under the prohibition of nichush, because there seemed to be a logical connection to between the coffee spill and the writing of the get. (Now, I've only heard this, so I don't know the full veracity of the event.)

But the Rambam gives, as an example of nichush, a person's not traveling on his journey because his staff fell (Hilchos Avodah Zarah 11:4). Wouldn't it also be a logical deduction to say that the staff, an item of travel falling, is a bad omen to continue traveling? So I don't understand where the distinction lies; I was wondering if you could help me understand that.

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    Welcome to Mi Yodeya, user4895, and thanks for your detailed question. I hope you stick around and enjoy the site. I recommend our tour page, and (unless you're attached to the number 4895) you may wish to change your username. – msh210 Feb 5 '14 at 19:25

The story you cite can be found here. Rabbi Zilberstein also discussed ניחוש in the second volume of his והערב נא, on לך לך.

The prohibition against divination does not include a logical prediction based on science. So there's no prohibition for someone to decide to carry an umbrella based on the forecast. On the other hand, it would be a problem if he were to buy a heavy coat if a groundhog saw his shadow on February 2!

Furthermore, it's not considered divination if the person doesn't rely on the omen entirely. Eliezer didn't rely solely on the signs when he gave the gifts to Rivka. He had first inquired about her family. See here for a brief treatment.

Rabbi Zilberstein in the above cited והערב נא discusses a case of someone who was planning a trip. The money set aside for the plain ticket was kept in a drawer. The night before, a fire broke out in the apartment- and was extinguished. There was no damage, except to the very drawer in which the money was kept in. The individual inquired whether he should take this as a sign not to travel, or whether such concerns would be considered divination. Rabbi Zilberstein writes that in case of "דבר של פלא"- a wondrous occurrence, one can be concerned and not violate the prohibition of ניחוש. (This case can be read here.)

Now spilling a cup is not an unusual event. (In fact, someone just spilled a cup as I was typing!) But here, the event happened at the last possible moment. And it wasn't an event that was unconnected to the matter of the divorce (consider, in contrast, if a bird would have flown in through a window at that moment). The spilling had a direct effect on the divorce. At the very least, it would have delayed it by requiring the writing of a new גט. Arguably, one could say this was not some common omen, but a highly rare happening- a פלא.

I will also make an assumption about this couple's circumstances. I doubt that this was a case where remaining married would have been madness- i.e. where there was abuse, etc. In a case like that, it's unlikely that the both parties would have paid attention to the omen and spend the rest of life in misery. That both the husband and wife were willing to stay married indicates that the marriage was worth salvaging. When they decided not to proceed with the divorce, they implicitly decided to spend more effort at repairing their relationship. (Of course, this is somewhat speculative, but I believe it to be very reasonable.) Thus, they didn't rely entirely on the sign when making their decision.

Thus, this case had two aspects that would avoid the prohibition: it was a very rare bizarre occurrence, and the couple relied on other factors when they made their decision. Both these aspects are absent in the case of someone dropping a walking stick. (By the way, is it correct to translate מקל specifically as "walking stick" as oppose to a "staff" in general?)

  • BSD Hey thanks.I have a question on this. Who deems somthing as rare? What if it is only rare to me? For example, I had emailed a Rabbi a question in the past . He never emailed me back. I asked another Rabbi and got an answer. Now one day, I used the computer to check something, which didnt have to do with that question but sort of did to me. I turned on my tablet and the email appeared not in my email box but on the front menu something that never happened ever! This Rabbi gave me info that contradicted the other rabbi. Does this make his advice more sacred or would that be nichush? – user4895 Feb 6 '14 at 7:10
  • @user4895, I just provided some general principles based on my understanding what I read. I don't think that this is a forum for discussing specific cases. In any case, why would you need an omen in this case? Doesn't halacha deal with situations where one receives contradictory psakim? – Ephraim Feb 6 '14 at 10:22
  • Actually, the Gemara and Rambam use Eliezer as the example of nichush! – mevaqesh Apr 24 '15 at 21:06
  • It would be interesting to know what the sources are that one may follow omens if they are uncommon. I dont recall seeing this distinction in the Rambam. – mevaqesh Apr 24 '15 at 21:08
  • I added a link for the ticket story. He cites his sources there. – Ephraim Apr 28 '15 at 20:09

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