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Question 12.22:
What is the Jewish position on communicating with the dead?


Judaism has a strong prohibition against sorcery and divination. Deut. 18:10 says "There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, one that useth divination, a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or one that consulteth a ghost or familiar spirit, or a necromancer. For whosoever doeth these things is an abomination unto the Lord".

The Hertz commentaries note that in Judaism the spritual part of man was not conceived as ghostly, but under the attribute of holy. It notes that stories of ghosts or apparitions are almost absent from the Torah, and necromancy is considered especially abhorrent.

There is one instance in the Torah where communication with the dead is mentioned. In the first Book of Samuel, (Chapter 28, we read about Saul the first monarch of Israel seeking out the witch of Endor (Baalat Ov at Ein Dor) to perform a "seance" and call up the dead prophet Samuel on the eve of a battle with the Philistines. The witch seemingly succeeds but the blistering message supposedly imparted by Samuel can hardly bring comfort to Saul: "..For G-d has rent the kingdom out of your hand, and given it to your neighbor, to David." [1 Samuel 28:17]

Does this incident imply that consultation with the dead is acceptable in some situations? No. Rabbenu Samuel Ben Chafni Gaon (in the Responsa of the Gaonim, Ginzai Shechter, part 1, pages 299-30) writes as follows: "In actuality (the witch) did not raise up Samuel from the dead, but the BAALAT OV deceived Saul; it is impossible that G-d would bring Samuel back to life with the strength of witchcraft, because this is against nature, and the only ones who have mystical powers are prophets, and she was not a prophet. She deceived him [Saul] into believing that she had that power."

Further, the incident did not leave Saul in good standing. Regarding Saul it is written, "Wherever he turned, he did badly" (Samuel I 14:47) [i.e., he did not merit rendering decisions in accordance with the Halachah --Rashi] (Eruvin 53a)

Judaism has no need to communicate with the dead; G-d has given us prophets instead. This is confirmed in Rashi, 18:14: 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.

The above is the traditional view. There appear to be no specific Reform Responsa on the subject; it appears that in this area Reform Judaism does not differ from traditional Judaism.

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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