How Could Shaul Engage in Sorcery?

V’ha’nefesh asher tifneh el haOvos … liznos achareihem v’nasati es panai banefesh ha’hu v’hichrati oso mikerev amo (20:6)

The Torah commands us in no uncertain terms not to turn for guidance or assistance to practitioners of sorcery and necromancy, discussing the prohibition against doing so three times in Parashas Kedoshim alone. Toward the end of Shaul’s life, he was faced with a battle against an army of Philistine forces (Shmuel 1 28). When Shaul saw their army’s encampment, he was terrified and confused about what to do, and he attempted every technique at his disposal to inquire of Hashem for guidance about how to proceed, but Hashem ignored Shaul and refused to answer him through his dreams, through prophets, and through the Urim v’Tumim.

After Shaul had exhausted all of his traditional options without any success, he told his servants to seek out for him a ba’alas Ov (sorceress), and he proceeded to enlist her services to summon the spirit of the deceased prophet Shmuel to advise him about how to proceed. The tremendous difficulty with this episode is: How is it possible that Shaul, for all his shortcomings and mistakes in judgment, could think that it was permissible to inquire of the dead using sorcery, something which is explicitly forbidden by the Torah?

The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh (Devarim 18:14) and Oneg Yom Tov (Introduction) explain Shaul’s reasoning by pointing out that the prohibition in Parashas Shoftim against turning to sorcerers and necromancers is immediately followed by the following explanation for the mitzvah (Devarim 18:14-15): “For these nations that you are possessing hearken to astrologers and diviners, but not so has Hashem your G-d given for you. Hashem your G-d will establish for you a prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren; to him shall you hearken.”

In other words, the Torah seems to say that the reason Hashem does not want us to turn to magicians and sorcerers is because these were the practices of the non-Jews who inhabited the land of Israel before us, but we do not need them since Hashem gives us prophets whom we can consult instead. As such, Shaul assumed that it is only forbidden to consult a sorceress or necromancer if one has an option of going to a prophet instead.

However, in a situation in which that is not an option, such as in this case where he tried to do so but was not answered, Shaul thought that the prohibition did not apply and he was allowed to go to the ba’alas Ov.

Although the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh and Oneg Yom Tov maintain that Shaul was incorrect in his judgment and they only give this explanation as a way of understanding Shaul’s thought process and judging him favorably, the Netziv (HaAmek Davar 18:14) writes that not only was this Shaul’s rationale, but he was in fact correct in his logic, as in a time of danger when no prophet is available to be consulted, it is in fact permitted to consult a sorcerer or necromancer for guidance.

Along these lines, the Shach (Yoreh De’ah 179:1) rules that if a person is ill, it is permissible to use magic and sorcery to heal him due to the fact that we do not have prophets to ask. Although the Maharshal (Shu”t Maharshal 3) disagrees and maintains that if the person is merely sick it is forbidden to do so since it is not a case of pikuach nefesh; this implies that it would be permissible if somebody’s life is truly in danger, just like the Netziv writes regarding Shaul.

Q:  Parashas Acharei Mos begins by describing the special Avodah that was performed by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur to effect atonement for the entire Jewish nation (16:2-34). However, although the passage refers to Aharon by name seven times, it makes no mention of his position until near the end of the entire discussion (16:32), even though the Avodah can only be done by the Kohen Gadol. Why does the Torah go out of its way to avoid mentioning Aharon’s title, which made him eligible to perform this job?

A: Harav Zalman Sorotzkin, zt”l, explains that the Yom Kippur Avodah was complex and required intense concentration and physical dexterity. It was the only time when the Kohen Gadol was permitted to enter the Kodesh Kodashim.

The Mishnah teaches (Yoma 7:4) that after making it through an emotion-laden day fraught with danger and successfully completing his job, the Kohen Gadol made a celebratory feast for his friends and family. Due to the unparalleled holiness of Yom Kippur and his unique role in bringing about atonement for the Jewish people on this day, the Kohen Gadol may be tempted to haughtily take credit for his accomplishments.

Accordingly, the Torah goes out of its way to repeatedly refer to Aharon not by his title but by his name, as a way of symbolically warning him, and all future High Priests who follow, of the need to remain humble. Even though they have important titles and fill powerful and irreplaceable roles, the Torah specifically reminds them that at the end of the day, they are still just Aharons, regular people who need to ensure that their power and prestige doesn’t go to their heads.

Q: How is it possible that a healthy person ate on Yom Kippur a quantity of edible food larger than the size of a large date in a normal manner and in less than two minutes, and yet he is exempt from punishment for eating on Yom Kippur (16:29)?

A: The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 612:6) rules that if a person eats food at the beginning of Yom Kippur, when he is still so full from the meal he ate before the fast began that he finds the food loathsome and has no benefit from it, he is exempt from punishment.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email