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P A R A S H A - P A G E
by Mordecai Kornfeld
of Har Nof, Jerusalem
Founder of the Dafyomi Advancement Forum

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(Our discussion this week has been excerpted, with permission, from Harav Moshe Sosevsky's fascinating article "In Defense of Sha'ul." The article was originally printed in "Jewish Thought" (Vol. I Number 1), an excellent Torah journal for which Rav Sosevsky serves as editor.)



"How have the mighty [Sh'aul and his son Yonatan] fallen!" (Shmuel II 1:19)

King Sha'ul was deemed as unique in his deeds (Shmuel I 8:9), and was introduced by the prophet Shmuel to the assembled nation of Yisrael with the words, "there is none like him in all the nation" (ibid. 10:24). Yet this selfsame Sha'ul, who had personally "abolished the sorcerers and the oracles from the land" (ibid. 28:3) later trudges clandestinely and incognito to a sorcerer, in order to conjure up the prophet Shmuel in seance (Shmuel I 28:5-7)!

Such behavior appears to be in direct defiance of the Torah's general prohibition against sorcery and divination. It seems inconceivable to assume that the righteous King Sha'ul in fact committed so blatant a transgression. How are we to rationalize Sha'ul's bizarre behavior?

This paradox has more general implications. Given the attitude of Chazal regarding the righteousness of the early generations (cf. Gemara Temurah 15b, Shabbat 56a), how we are to account for the numerous transgressions attributed by the Bible to outstanding personalities such as King Sha'ul and King David?

The Talmud and Midrash, in their assessments of these luminaries, seem to retain the basic premise that they did not sin outright. Any transgression attributed to them is to be considered as due to one of two causes: (1) faulty Halachic judgment on their part, or (2) their failure to have attained the lofty moral level of behavior expected of one with their great spiritual stature. Hence, what appears in the Bible as an actual violation of the law, is in reality either comprised of error, or assessed according to more demanding standards. (Notwithstanding, the Bible records their transgressions in a very dramatic manner. The reasons for this are elucidated in D'rashot ha'Ran (c. 1400 A.D.), Ch. 6, and is matter for another discussion.)

How are we to apply these teachings in the case of Sha'ul and the sorcerer?


In light of an examination of the relevant sources, King Sha'ul's sins appear to have resulted from faulty Halachic judgment. His sins are an example of the first basis outlined above to explain transgressions attributed to individuals of exceptionally great spiritual stature. This assessment is implied in a number of Talmudic references. The Talmud offers the following comparison between King Sha'ul and King David:

David's understanding of texts was clear; Sha'ul's was not. Regarding David it is written, "Those who fear and respect You will see me and be happy (Tehillim 119:74) [because his Halachic statements would accurately reflect that which is prohibited and permitted --Rashi]. Regarding Sha'ul it is written, "Wherever he turned, he did badly" (Shmuel I 14:47) [i.e., he did not merit rendering decisions in accordance with the Halachah --Rashi] (Eruvin 53a)

It seems that, in the assessment of Chazal, King Sha'ul, while unquestionably greatly learned and immensely G-d fearing, apparently lacked both the dogged persistence and divine guidance upon which the capacity to derive Halachically warranted conclusions is based. We may proceed to analyze King Sha'ul's visit to the sorcerer in light of this conclusion.


After unsuccessfully attempting to invoke his spiritual powers to curse the nation of Yisrael, the gentile prophet, Bil'am son of Be'or, proceeds to laud the unique relationship between Hashem and the nation of Yisrael by emphasizing the absence of divination in their midst:

For there is no divination in Yakov, nor enchantment in Yisrael. It shall now be told to Yakov and to Yisrael what Hashem has wrought [for them]. (Bamidbar 23:23)

"There is no divination in Yakov nor enchantment in Yisrael" -- they have no need for diviners and enchanters. "It shall now be told to Yakov and to Yisrael what Hashem has wrought" -- whenever it is necessary that it be told to Yakov and to Yisrael what the Holy One Blessed be He has wrought and what are His decrees above, they do not divine and enchant. Instead, the decree of the Omnipresent One is told to them by their prophets, or the Urim v'Tumim recount it to them. (Rashi ad loc.)

Bil'am's words suggest that it is because the Bnei Yisrael have access to the Urim v'Tumim and the prophets, that it is not necessary for them to divine and enchant.

The manner in which the Torah presents the prohibition of witchcraft in this week's Parasha corroborates this. The words of the Torah suggest that witchcraft was prohibited because the Bnei Yisrael have a more direct relationship with Hashem that allows them to see into the future without resorting to necromancy:

There shall not be found among you one who... divines by omens, or practices witchcraft, or charms, or consults sorcerers or wizards, or inquires of the dead... Hashem your Lord has not given you such. A prophet from your midst, from among your brethren like me -- you shall hearken to him. (Devarim 18:9-15)

"Hashem your Lord has not given you such" -- He has not permitted you to hearken to diviners and enchanters, since He has caused the divine presence to rest upon the prophets and the Urim v'Tumim. (Rashi ad loc., 18:14)


In this light, we may then ask: what is to be done if the prophets do not notify, and the Urim v'Tumim do not respond? Is it possible to assume that under such circumstances, one may be permitted to inquire through alternate channels, that are otherwise forbidden?

Let us remember the circumstances confronting King Sha'ul at this fateful juncture:

Sha'ul saw the Phillistine encampment, and he feared and trembled greatly. Sha'ul inquired of Hashem and Hashem did not answer him, neither by dreams, nor by the Urim, nor by the prophets. Sha'ul said to his servants, "Seek for me a sorcerer, and I shall go to her, and I shall inquire of her. (Shmuel I 28:5-7)

With the Philistines encamped at Shunem and ready to attack, and King Sha'ul unsure of his capability to lead Yisrael to victory, he first inquires of Hashem through all legitimate channels. Only after coming to the frightening realization that all these avenues of inquiry were sealed to him, does Sha'ul seek a sorcerer.

The very juxtaposition of the verses seems suggestive of King Sha'ul's rationalization for his action. Sha'ul reasoned that Hashem forbade the use of divination to learn of future events solely because He provided Yisrael with pure and holy means, such as prophesy and the Urim v'Tumim. With such means rendered inaccessible and the nation of Yisrael in such grave danger, Sha'ul concluded that he would be permitted to seek other, less acceptable sources of information. While erroneous, we can readily empathize with his error, given the immense duress under which he was constrained to act. [See also Ha'amek Davar on Devarim 18:14, who uses a similar line of reasoning. He extends it so far as to proclaim Sha'ul to be Halachically *correct*!]

We may add, that out of the many forms of divination, Sha'ul chose the seance, asking the sorcerer to conjure up the prophet Shmuel himself. Even when resorting to sorcery, he used it only as a means to get an audience with his mentor, the prophet Shmuel.

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