In this week’s Parsha, Kedoshim, we read of the commands regarding Nichush and Onane; not to follow the heathen practices of setting signs, setting times for our activities, or inquiring of fortune tellers and the like. An example of setting a sign would be if a person, whose food falls from his mouth says, “this is a sign not to leave the house, as I will be unsuccessful, or I will meet with a tricky individual”. Another example is one who says, “a black cat crossed my path, and therefore I will restrict my actions because of this event.” Both are prohibited.
Why did the Torah group together, the setting of signs and the setting of times? Also, why is fortune telling and speaking to spirits grouped together, and why were these given the additional command “not to inquire”?
The flaw in these activities is the regression to the infantile state of insecurity. In such a state, one seeks security from the external world, instead of engaging one’s own mind to determine which activities he should do. (Our article on Idolatry goes into detail of the basic definitions.)
The Torah’s way of life is where man uses his mind to arrive at conclusions. He engages the world, determines his needs, and plans the best routes. However, what these aforementioned individuals do is abandon thinking, viewing coincidental phenomena as if they are “willed”, and happening as a message; “This cat crossed my path, that must be a sign”. “If I wear a red bendel, I will be protected”. How foolish they are, and how contrary to God’s plan. God endowed us with intelligence, to understand that He alone controls all, and that we must engage this intelligence to realize how the world operates, and to live by its laws.
When describing those who believed in demons (Lev. 17:7), Ibn Ezra says, “Fools see demons.” Meaning they are not real, but phantasms. Ibn Ezra says further, “Anyone who seeks them and believes in them estranges himself from his God. Can one think that there is anyone that can do good or do bad except for God, the Honored and Awesome?” Ibn Ezra clearly states that there are no powers, only God. Besides God, man is the only other intelligence on Earth.
With minimal reasoning, these prohibited practices of imagined security can easily be shown as fallacious. Ask someone, “Is a black cat knowledgeable? Does this stray cat recognize you? If it was a brown cat would you feel the same?” The answers to all these questions will be “no”, and the person should see his error. Again ask, “If the bendel was green, would it protect you? If it was half red and half blue? If you wore it on your head and not your wrist? If it was made of metal and not thread?” These questions will place the person in a position where he realizes he has no reasoning for his actions. It will then make sense to him to abandon such foolish practices. (See Tosefta Shabbos, Chap 7 for the prohibition against red bendels.)
To answer our initial questions, Nichush and Onane are attempts to establish a false sense security. One seeks assurance that his actions are the ‘right’ moves. Nichush and Onane are grouped together as the violator feels self sufficient to interpret events himself. However, fortune telling and speaking to spirits is a phenomenon where one individual would seek counsel from “another” who feigned to be a mystical enchanter or warlock with “powers”, or possessing connection with spirits. This expression of idolatry is where the seeker needs another person to assist. He is more infantile in that he cannot determine matters independently. He needs the psychological comfort of “another” that will direct him. This is also why we are forbidden to inquire, as this act of inquiring is the expression of a need for another, guiding human personality.
Torah commands man to utilize his intellect to realize the fallacy of these sins, and to live his life independently, abandoning the childhood need for security.
There are no powers, only God. This follows reason. God created everything. Nothing that can override His control of man’s affairs. God also says that each man is punished for his sins, and rewarded for his good. This can only be true if man is free from all imagined “forces”, alone to blame when he sins, and solely the cause of his good. Reward and punishment are true fundamentals of Judaism. If one deserves God’s punishment, wearing a red bendel, or following other superstitions prohibited in our Torah, cannot stand in the way of God’s punishment. Conversely if man does good, natural causes will be no opponent to God’s rewards.