Shaul Hamelech and the Baalas Ov

Lo yimatzei becha … sho’eil Ov v’Yidoni (Devarim 18:10–12)

At the end of King Shaul’s life, the Philistines amassed a large and intimidating force to attack the Jewish people. Shaul was frightened by the sight of their army and sought guidance from Hashem via the prophets and Urim V’Tumim, but Hashem refused to answer him. After these attempts were unsuccessful, Shaul told his servants to seek out for him a necromancer of whom he could inquire (Shmuel I 28:7). She proceeded to summon up the spirit of the dead prophet Shmuel, who informed Shaul that the Philistines would defeat the Jewish army the next day, and they would kill Shaul and three of his sons.

This episode is very difficult to understand. How is it possible that Shaul, for all of his shortcomings and mistakes in judgment, could think that it was permissible to inquire of the dead using necromancy, something which is explicitly forbidden by the Torah in Parashas Shoftim and was a prohibition with which Shaul was clearly familiar because he had spearheaded a campaign to eliminate all of its practitioners from the Land of Israel (Shmuel I 28:3)? The commentators discuss this perplexing incident at length and offer several justifications for Shaul’s conduct.

The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh and Oneg Yom Tov point out that the verses following the prohibition against inquiring of necromancers state (18:14–15): “For these nations that you are possessing, they hearkened to astrologers and diviners, but Hashem your G-d has not given this for you. A prophet like me from your brethren in your midst shall Hashem your G-d establish for you; to him you shall listen.” In other words, the Torah seems to indicate that the reason Hashem forbids us to turn to sorcerers and necromancers is because these were the practices of the non-Jews who inhabited the Land of Israel before us, but we do not need them because Hashem will give us prophets and the Urim V’Tumim that we can ask instead.

With this understanding, Shaul reasoned that it is only forbidden to consult necromancers if one has an alternative of going to a prophet or the Urim V’Tumim. However, in a situation where that is not a viable option, such as in Shaul’s case when he attempted to do so but was not answered, the prohibition would not apply and he would be permitted to ask the necromancer. Although the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh claims that Shaul was incorrect in this interpretation and only offers this explanation as a way of understanding his mindset and judging him favorably, the Netziv maintains that not only was this Shaul’s rationale, but that he was in fact correct about it, as in a dangerous situation where there is no prophet and guidance is needed, it is legally permissible to consult a necromancer or sorcerer.

Along these lines, the Shach (Yoreh De’ah 179:1) rules that because we do not have prophets to ask, if somebody is ill, it is permissible to use magic and sorcery to determine how to heal him. The Maharshal (Shu”t Maharshal 3) disagrees and writes that if the person is merely sick but not in mortal danger, it is forbidden to resort to such methods. However, this seems to imply that if somebody’s life is truly endangered, it would be permissible to engage in sorcery or necromancy as a means to save his life, which is in accordance with the Netziv’s opinion about the propriety of Shaul’s actions.

Parashah Q & A

Q: When a corpse is found in the field, the elders of the nearest city are required to announce that they did not spill the blood of the deceased (21:7). Rashi explains that the sages clearly aren’t suspected of cold-blooded murder, but rather they must testify that they didn’t see this wayfarer leaving their city and allow him to continue without escorting him and providing him with food. In what way would their providing a traveler with food protect him from a would-be murderer?
A: 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  The Malbim answers that their declaration refers not to the victim but to the murderer. If they allowed him to leave their community without giving provisions for his journey, he may have been forced to murder to acquire food, and they bear partial responsibility for his actions. The Maharal explains that when a person is part of a larger community, he is able to benefit from their accumulated merits. This may protect him even if his own merits are insufficient. Escorting him on the beginning of his journey and giving him food allows him to maintain his link to the community even when he is traveling on his own. The Ibn Ezra suggests that if the murderer sees his intended victim being escorted by the community, he will be afraid to attack somebody who has so many friends who could take revenge against him. The Darkei Mussar questions this explanation, as the mitzvah of escorting a guest applies only to the first four cubits (6–8 feet) of his journey, and perhaps the murderer only saw his victim after this time. Instead, he answers that if the hosts properly performed the mitzvah of hosting and escorting their guest, an angel would have been created as a result of the mitzvah which would protect the traveler on his journey. Finally, the Alter of Kelm explains that if the townsmen escort the guests and provide him with food, he will feel important and cared about. His increased self-confidence will allow him to fight against attackers with greater strength and to successfully fend off potential killers.