Ov and Yedoni – A Present Day Problem

Rabbi. Dr. Darrel Ginsberg

Parshas Kedoshim spells out in detail, a myriad of new commandments, traversing a wide spectrum of concepts and halachas that are mixed in with references to the kedusha of God and Bnai Yisrael. There is also considerable mention of the area of nichush (superstitions, the belief in signs and omens, etc.), both the prohibition itself and its different manifestations. One of these involves the use of ov and yidoni, which is mentioned three different times in the parsha. It is the last mention of this prohibition that stands out. 

As the parsha comes to a close, God explains how Bnai Yisrael must separate between the different types of animals (tahor or tameh), and the necessity to avoid those that are tameh. 

The Torah (Vayikra 20:26) then tells us:

“You shall be holy to Me, for I, Hashem, am holy and I have distinguished you from the [other] peoples to be Mine [and to serve Me].”

This would seem to be a fitting end to the parsha, an accentuation of the concept of our being a sanctified nation. Yet, the following pasuk brings the parsha to a close:

“If among the men or women there will be a medium (ov) or an oracle (yidoni) they shall surely be put to death. You shall stone them to death, their blood is on them.”

With this, Parshas Kedoshim comes to an end. 

Why end with this warning? Rashi (ibid 27) points out that this is the third mention of this sin, with the Torah now clarifying that the punishment (with witnesses and a warning) is stoning (sekila). While certainly it is crucial to know the punishment for this act, how does it tie in to the previous verse? On a thematic level, it seems completely out of place.

What exactly is the Torah referring to with ov and yidoni? There is considerable debate as to the particulars, but a general consensus exists in the Torah Shebal Peh (Oral Law) as to the overall concept. The ov, according to many, involved a person claiming communication with the dead, but channeling the voice of the dead through his armpit. The yidoni would use a bone to project a voice, whether from the dead or not. In either case, the person would address the purveyor of this information, asking questions about his future, and the answers would be communicated through these mediums.

Today’s sophisticated, refined, culturally advanced society would laugh at such nonsense. The average Jew could easily see through a trick like this. Who would believe that a voice projecting from an armpit can tell the future?

Why the insistence by the Torah of this prohibition? Are we to worry about this today? 

The Sefer HaChinuch (255) offers an enlightening explanation as to the problem of ov/yedoni. He writes as follows:

“At the root of this commandment lies the reason we wrote about the prohibition on practicing nichush. For all these forms of vapid nonsense cause a man to leave the essential, true religion and belief in the Eternal Lord, and he will thus turn to follow the nonsense; and he will believe that all that happens to him comes upon him by way of chance, and it lies in his power to better his fortune and remove every harm from himself by those questions [to the medium] and those tricks that he will do. Yet all this will avail him nothing, since everything is decreed by the Lord and Master of the world, and according to the worthy or sinful activity that a man will do, new events, good or bad, will occur for him - as it is written, ‘For according to the work of a man will He requite him’ (Iyov 34:11). It is fitting for a man to center all his thoughts and attune all his affairs about this. This is the way of thinking of every man among good, worthy Israelites... ”

In writing about the general prohibition of nichush (249), he explains again that a person who apprises himself of this type of thinking will “reckon that all his good and bad fortune, all that happens to him, is a matter of chance occurrence, not by the watchful care on the part of his Creator...”

The Chinuch is elucidating an important foundation of Judaism – the existence of a system of schar v’onesh – Reward and Punishment – and our conviction in this system. The belief in this is one the fundamental concepts in Judaism. The Rambam bases his eleventh foundation, as noted in his thirteen foundations of faith (Introduction to Perek HaChelek), on the acceptance of this concept. We understand there is a system of reward and punishment based on God’s justice, and that this is tied into man’s actions, good or bad. In other words, that which happens to mankind is always tied into his actions. The specifics –how the infinite causes and effects play out, why one person is deserving of this or that – are beyond man's comprehension.  The Torah, given to us by God, outlines for us that which is the “good” and that which is the “bad.” The guide, the derech Hashem, directing us in how to live our lives properly, is contained within the Torah. One who follows the Torah and internalizes the concept of this being the derech Hashem, is demonstrating an adherence to schar v’onesh. 

It is important to note that a person should not believe that the performance of a mitzvah will necessarily produce an immediate, tangible reward (and vice versa regarding sin). Our dedication to the Torah is based on the concept that it brings us to a greater knowledge of God and helps perfect ourselves. To perform a mitzvah on the expectation of a reward removes the value of the mitzvah and intimates that man has detailed knowledge of God’s providence, which he does not. The main idea here is that a person should recognize that there is an overall system of schar v’onesh, and it is tied into man’s overall performance of mitzvos and aveiros. 

However, when a person turns to nichush, he is abandoning the belief in the system of Reward and Punishment. A person who relies on this false method is conceding that God’s justice has no link to man’s actions. Accordingly, living life correctly or incorrectly, has no bearing on that which occurs to him. He asks the baal ov about what will happen to him – he seeks information about the good or bad that will occur. He believes that the good or bad has nothing to do with his actions – the “chance” the Chinuch speaks of – which indicates a disbelief in God’s justice. To be punished or rewarded must be tied into one’s correct or incorrect actions – otherwise, there is no justice regarding that which occurs to mankind. Once a person disengages from the belief in man’s actions affecting his “standing” with God, he is denying the fundamental foundation of schar v’onesh.

We may scoff at the more primitive-sounding methods; after all, who today would make use of a person who claimed to determine one’s fate through a voice emanating from a bone? Yet the same silly, nonsensical thinking, as characterized by the Chinuch, is still prevalent in many religions, and even within Judaism. There are many Jews who attach their fates to actions involving inanimate objects or unworthy human sources. They want to ascribe causal relationships that distinctly deny any semblance of a system of Reward and Punishment. Superstitions abound, the segula business is thriving, red strings are everywhere and people are continually shying away from the firm concept that it is through the understanding and observance of the derech Hashem that will ultimately determine our fates. The ideology of the ov/yidoni is as manifest today as it was thousands of years ago. 

One could therefore see why this warning ends the parsha. The basis for kedushas Bnai Yisrael stems from our acceptance of the system of mitzvos. It is a system predicated on our using our minds in the pursuit of serving God. It serves as the moral compass, guiding us towards the good and far from evil. Our acceptance of the Torah – by definition – is an admission of schar v’onesh that reflects God’s justice. It is an integral part of our belief in God – God is the one and only source of power in the universe. To pursue one’s fate through these other means is completely contradictory to the entire acceptance of mitzvos, usurping the element of kedusha – sanctity – that is tied to our identity as God’s chosen nation.