David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

Parshat Shofetim — When birds speak

Chickens eating. (Public Domain/ Max Pixel)
Chickens eating. (Public Domain/ Max Pixel)

Spare a thought for Publius Claudius Pulcher, a Roman consul who died around 246 BCE. He commanded the Roman fleet against the Carthaginians in the First Punic War.

Before the Battle of Drepana, in 249 BCE, Pulcher consulted the sacred chickens, brought specifically for this purpose. He spread grain before the birds, but they refused to eat. This was considered a very bad omen indeed.

However, Pulcher wasn’t going to let a little superstition get in the way of his battle. So he threw the birds overboard and announced, “If they won’t eat, let them drink.”

Unsurprisingly, Pulcher lost the battle, 93 ships were destroyed and somewhere between 8,000 and 20,000 men were killed. It was Rome’s worst naval defeat of the war.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, by Bertel Thorvaldsen as copy from roman original. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Pulcher returned to Rome and was put on trial. Not because of his incompetence — that could have been excused. But because of his sacrilege in ignoring the message of the chickens. He was convicted and exiled, and his political career was over.

A short while later, Lucius Junius Pullus was defeated at the Battle of Phintias and lost all but two of his ships. He also failed to heed the warning of the sacred chickens. Rather than face trial in Rome, Pullus committed suicide.

Cicero wrote (On Divination, Book II):

In my opinion the consuls, Publius Claudius and Lucius Junius, who set sail contrary to the auspices, were deserving of capital punishment; for they should have respected the established religion and should not have treated the customs of their forefathers with such shameless disdain. Therefore it was a just retribution that the former was condemned by a vote of the people and that the latter took his own life.

Notably, he doesn’t say the consuls deserved the death penalty because they rejected the augurs, but because they did not honor the customs. Though Cicero himself was an augur, he noted the fact that augury didn’t seem to work. “A year later Paulus did obey them [the prediction of the birds]; and did he not lose his army and his life in the battle of Cannae?”

Delphi, Greece. (CC BY-SA, tamara semina/ Wikimedia Commons)

Yet, Cicero still thought the Roman method was the best. The Chaldeans used astrology to predict the future. Cicero cites many Romans who show the foolishness of believing that stars can accurately show what will happen to a person.

The Greeks divined the future by consulting with oracles at Delphi and other places. But Cicero also rejects this, quoting the Athenian, Euripides:

The best diviner I maintain to be
The man who guesses or conjectures best.

The Romans were not the first to see omens in the behavior of birds. The 14th century BCE Amarna letters mention an “eagle diviner” who had to come from Egypt. In The Iliad, Homer writes of Calchas, who explained the behavior of the gods by watching birds.

Augur, Nordic Family Book. (Public Domain/. Wikimedia Commons)

But auspices (literally “one who looks at birds”) became closely associated with Rome. Perhaps it was because the founding of the city involved signs from the birds.

According to Roman legend, the twin founders of the city disagreed precisely where it should be built. Romulus wanted Rome to be on the Palantine Hill but Remus argued that the more strategic Aventine Hill would make a more easily fortified location for the city. They agreed to let the birds decide.

They each took up positions some distance from each other.and almost immediately six vultures perched near Remus. However, shortly afterwards, 12 vultures came to join Romulus. Since it was unclear whether the decision was to be made on who had the first birds or who had more birds, each claimed victory.

The Capitoline she-wolf with the boys Romulus and Remus. Museo Nuovo in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Romulus immediately set about building a wall around the Palantine. Remus mocked his brother by jumping over the wall, showing how easy the city would be to conquer. Romulus was so incensed by this that he killed Remus. And that is why the city became known as Rome, rather than as Reme.

From that time on, the augur — who interpreted the meaning of the birds’ behavior — held an important position in Roman society. No decision or military campaign could be taken without consulting the augurs, though they did not have the final say. In early Roman history, the augurs were always from the upper patrician class. However, the plebeians thought this was unfair, and from 300 BCE onwards, there were nine augurs, five of whom had to be plebeians, granting the lower classes the opportunity to interpret the will of the gods.

Perhaps today we consider it foolish to base major military decisions on the behavior of some sacred chickens, or to plan a city according to the behavior of vultures. But throughout history there have been literally hundreds of different methods of divining the future.

From Aeromancy (predicting the future based on atmospheric conditions) to Carromancy (divining using melting wax) through Gyromancy (where the diviner spins in a circle marked with letters until he falls down with dizziness and then uses the letters where he falls to make a prediction) to Phyllorhodomancy (divination based on the sound of a rose petal slapping against the hand) right through to Zygomancy (divination through weights) there was a predictive method to suit every taste and every circumstance.

Tea leaf reading showing a dog and a flying bird. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

In New York in the 1920s and 1930s there were tea rooms with staff dressed in stereotypical gypsy or Romani style who offered to read tea-leaves as a way to entice diners.

According to the New York Herald Tribune “a peep into the future is offered as inducement toward purchase of tuna fish salad with mayonnaise dressing, nut bread and pimento sandwiches, a dill pickle, ice cream, tea, and angel cake.”

Unfortunately, the tea-leaf readers predictive abilities failed them when undercover police officers nabbed them for illegally charging for their services. Policewomen Mary Vaughan and Lillian Harrison obtained 100 convictions in the first half of 1930 in their battle against “tea rooms of occult nomenclature.”

Interior view of the Mad Hatter Tea Room. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

The rabbis of the Talmud also used various methods of predicting the future: Dream interpretation (e.g. Berachot 56a), asking a child to say a random Bible verse (e.g. Hagiga 15a), interpreting names (e.g. Yoma 83b), by means of a random voice or bat kol (e.g. Bava Metzia 59b), based on the alignment of stars at birth (Shabbat 156a) or even by consulting with the dead (e.g. Berachot 18b).

Just like the Romans, the rabbis ascribed predictive abilities to birds. Rabbi Yirmiya ben Elazar explained the verse, “For the bird of heaven will carry the voice,” (Ecclesiastes 10:20) as referring to augury based on the behavior of ravens (Vayikra Rabba 32:2).

Birds flying in the sky. (CC BY-SA, Maryam.7654/ Wikimedia Commons)

The Talmud relates (Gittin 45a) that Rav Ilish was once taken captive, and shared a prison cell with someone who “knew the language of birds.”

A raven came and called out to Rav Ilish. He asked, ‘What is it saying?’ He replied that the raven was saying, ‘Flee Ilish, flee Ilish.” Rav Ilish said, ‘The raven is a liar and I don’t rely on it.’

As this was happening a dove came and called out. He said, ‘What is it saying?’ The bird interpreter replied that the dove was saying, ‘Flee Ilish, flee Ilish.’ Rav Ilish said, ‘The Jewish people is likened to a dove. I learn from this that a miracle will occur for me.’

Rav Ilish followed the augur’s advice and miraculously escaped.

Yet, this week’s Torah reading specifically forbids any type of divination (Deuteronomy 18:9-14).

There shall not be found among you… a diviner, a soothsayer, a charmer or a sorcerer; or one who casts spells, a medium, a spiritualist or a necromancer… You shall be wholehearted with the Lord, your God.

There is a fundamental dispute between the Jewish medieval authorities as to why these practices are forbidden.

Menasseh ben Israel 1642. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Nahmanides (Ramban) wrote (on Deuteronomy 18:12) that there exist supernatural powers which can be accessed using these different forms of divination. But, he explains, their predictions are limited and not entirely accurate. The Torah warns Jews not to use those powers, which are an “abomination,” but should instead rely solely on God and His prophets.

Many others, including Rabbi Yosef Albo in Sefer Ikarim, took the same line as Nahmanides. Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, who came to London in 1665 to convince Oliver Cromwell to readmit the Jews to England, wrote (Nishmat Chaim 3:19) that these practices are tried and tested.

However, Maimonides (Rambam) wrote (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 11:18) that all of these methods are false and misleading. He writes:

It is not appropriate for Jews, who are smart and wise, to be drawn after that foolishness or to think there is any benefit in it… Anyone who believes in these things and thinks they have validity and contain wisdom… is nothing more than a fool lacking intelligence… The wise and those of pure intellect know with clear proofs that all these things that the Torah forbade are not matters of wisdom but are worthless.

Similarly, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (on Leviticus 19:31) writes that:

Those with empty minds said that if divination and sorcery were not true the verse would not have forbidden them. But I say the opposite of their words. For the Torah did not prohibit the truth, but rather falsehood.

So we have the majority of medieval commentators accepting divination as valid, though forbidden, while a minority of those rabbis say it is simply foolishness.

And how were the rabbis of the Talmud permitted to use such means to predict the future?

Rabbi Yosef Karo (in Beit Yosef, Yoreh Deah 179) explains how each of their actions was permitted and did not fall under the category of forbidden divination. He makes very fine distinctions between what is prohibited and the decisions the rabbis made based on the birds, dreams, names, voices, stars or dead spirits

Yet it is clear that the main idea the Torah is presenting is that we should not rely on signs, but should make decisions on our own. The idea of not trying to predict the future is repeated several times in the Torah. It seems clear that we are supposed to take responsibility for our own decisions. Of course, that often involves doing research, consulting with others and thinking deeply. But it does not have to include tea leaves or chickens’ breakfasts.

We have been given the awesome responsibility to make our own choices in life. We cannot control the outcome. But we can take charge of our own decisions.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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