“Schrödinger’s Crystal Ball” Parashat Shoftim 5775

I wonder what tomorrow has in mind for me, or am I even in its mind at all. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to look ahead and see, soon as I find myself a crystal ball.” These words were made famous[1] by Tommy Shaw in 1976. Judaism, on the other hand, relegates crystal balls to the same category that it relegates cheeseburgers. The Torah commands us [Devarim 18:10-12] “There shall not be found among you anyone who passes his son or daughter through fire, a soothsayer, a diviner of [auspicious] times, one who interprets omens, a sorcerer, a charmer, an Ov[2] sorcerer, a Yido’a sorcerer, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to Hashem, and because of these abominations Hashem is driving them out from before you.” A Jew must not try to see into the future. In the summarizing words of the Torah [Devarim 18:13] “Be wholehearted (tamim) with Hashem.”

But what if a Jew really needs to know what is going to happen tomorrow? The Torah is prepared for this contingency [Devarim 18:14-15]: “These nations which you are to possess listen to diviners of [auspicious] times and soothsayers, but as for you, Hashem has not given you [things] like these. [Instead] a prophet from among you, from your brothers, like me, Hashem will send you – listen to him!” If you want to know who is going to win the Mets game tomorrow, do not go to a necromancer. Rather, you should consult with your local Jewish prophet. Obviously the Torah is not going down this road. But we must ask ourselves: what is the difference between a soothsayer and a prophet? What is the difference between a Dumbledore and a Jeremiah? And what does “being wholehearted” have to do with anything?

I asked these questions to my seventeen-year-old son to see what he thought. First I asked him what he thought the difference was between crystal balls and prophets. He gave me just the answer that I was looking for. He said that a crystal ball tells us what is going to be, while a prophet tells us what we must do. Let me distil his explanation into four words: There is no future. Man was blessed by Hashem with the freedom to do as he chooses. If he does good then he will be rewarded, and if he does evil he will be punished. One of the greatest paradoxes in quantum theory is the paradox of Schrödinger’s Cat. According to, “We place a living cat into a steel chamber, along with a device containing a vial of hydrocyanic acid. There is, in the chamber, a very small amount of hydrocyanic acid, a radioactive substance. If even a single atom of the substance decays during the test period, a relay mechanism will trip a hammer, which will, in turn, break the vial and kill the cat. The observer cannot know whether or not an atom of the substance has decayed, and consequently, cannot know whether the vial has been broken, the hydrocyanic acid released, and the cat killed. Since we cannot know, according to quantum law, the cat is both dead and alive, in what is called a superposition of states. It is only when we break open the box and learn the condition of the cat that the superposition is lost, and the cat becomes one or the other (dead or alive).

Here is a Talmudic version of Schrödinger’s Cat: “We place a living cat into a steel chamber, along with a pistol and a human being. The human being can choose whether or not to shoot the cat. If he does shoot the cat, he will have committed the sin of ‘Tza’ar ba’alei chayim’ – ‘Causing pain to a living creature’. The observer cannot know what the human has chosen to do and consequently, cannot know whether the cat has been killed. Since we cannot know, according to Torah law, the cat is both dead and alive, in what is called a superposition of states. It is only when we break open the box and learn the condition of the cat that the superposition is lost, and the cat becomes one or the other (dead or alive).” The Torah sees the future as an infinite array of possibilities. Beginning from a known current state, the future is formed via an endless series of bifurcations, with each bifurcation dependent upon the decisions taken by human beings. It is this set of decisions that we make that determines which one of the possible futures becomes the future.

Rabbi YY Rubinstein gives a most wonderful shiur on the Torah’s outlook on the Harry Potter series of books, specifically on how magic fits into a Torah outlook. One of the points that Rabbi YY makes regarding magic is that if the Torah prohibits magic, it must be that magic works. Otherwise we’d soon realize it was all nonsense and we’d throw away our crystal balls. I suggest that when a crystal ball does succeed in predicting the future, it reveals exactly one future from the infinite set of potential futures. And this, teaches Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch, is precisely the problem. When a human being is told what will be, he will tend to let things happen as they were “meant to happen”. The human will slowly but surely relinquish his choice and the prophecy will become self-fulfilling.

Now we can understand my son’s explanation of the difference between a crystal ball and a prophet. The prophet sees what can potentially occur given society’s current trajectory and his mission is to influence man to act in a way that will result in a better future. The prophet Jonah enters the town of Nineveh, a town that Hashem has decided to destroy because of their misdeeds, and he calls out [Jonah 3:4] “In another forty days Nineveh shall be overturned!” The townsmen hear Jonah’s words, they repent, and Nineveh is saved. But wait a minute – Jonah is a true prophet, he has seen the future, and in the future Nineveh is reduced to rubble. Does this detract in any way from Jonah’s powers of prophecy? Absolutely not. Jonah’s role as a prophet was to do all that he could to prevent his prophecy from transpiring. In this he was completely successful[3].

A closer look shows how the Torah chooses its words most carefully in order to highlight the difference between crystal balls and prophets. When referring to the forbidden types of crystal balls, the Torah says “There should not be…” There is no kind of positive action, just “being”. This is the kind of behaviour that the Torah is coming to prevent: passively heading into the future under the power of inertia. But when the Torah talks about prophets, we are told “Listen to him”. When the Torah uses the word “listen”, it means “obey”[4]. We must obey Hashem and His Torah, because by doing so we are free to shape our own future.

And now we can understand what it means to be “wholehearted”. Rav Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter from Gur, writing in the “Sefat Emet”, connects the word “tamim” – wholehearted –  with the verse [Tehillim 18:9] “Torat Hashem temima” – “Hashem’s Torah is perfect”. What is the connection? One of the basic tenets of the philosophy of the Rambam is that man can and should strive for prophecy, even today. The Rambam writes that [Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 7:1] “[a prophet’s] knowledge should always overpower his [evil] instinct” This, I believe, is the way the Rambam explains the word “wholehearted”. The first step in attaining prophecy is in learning Torah and keeping the mitzvot, and by doing so, to understand that the future is largely dictated my cause and effect, reward and punishment.

The last prophet was Malachi[5] who lived about 2500 years ago. How do we best choose our future today now that there are no prophets? The answer lies in the word “wholehearted”. Most of the words of the prophets are exhortations to keep the Torah, even though the circumstances and the mores might dictate otherwise. The ability of the prophet to see into the future gave him a keener sense of right and wrong. In lieu of a prophet, we must shape our future by keeping the Torah. The rest comes from Hashem. All we can do for now is to ensure that we are ready and to wait until He is ready.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka

[1] At least for us Styx fans.

[2] The translation of these terms is difficult. I have relied on the translation of

[3] Indeed Jonah had a huge problem with this, and he tells Hashem [Jonah 4:2] “Please, Hashem, was this not always my contention? For this reason I hastened to flee to Tarshish, for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, with much kindness, and relenting of evil.” Jonah knew that his prophecy would never transpire and he felt like a fool.

[4] Rabbi Sacks notes that there is no word in biblical Hebrew that means “to obey”.

[5] Or possibly Zachariah, it is not clear.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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