Thursday, October 28, 2010

A King, a Ghost and a Witch

Across the Western world, children are reveling in the realm of the un-dead, an off-shoot of a distinctly non-Jewish holiday (Halloween). Yet the underlying interest in ghosts, goblins and witches has valid Jewish sources. Take, for instance, the story of King Saul and Samuel’s ghost (I Samuel 28:4-20):

At the end of his reign, surrounded by the Philistine army, King Saul tried, unsuccessfully, to communicate with God. Terrified of defeat, Saul ordered his servants to find him “a woman who speaks by ghosts,” and they brought him to the witch of Endor. Reluctantly, the woman agreed to call forth the ghost of the prophet Samuel. The ghost immediately asked Saul, “Why have you disturbed me and brought me up?” and then reiterated what Saul already knew, that he had lost God’s favor. The ghost then told Saul that he was doomed to perish the next day.

This is a simple summary from which there is much to learn. King Saul is a conflicted personality who had, prior to this incident, commanded the people to “put away those that divined by a ghost or a familiar spirit out of the land” (28:3) (accounting for the witch’s reluctance to practice her witchcraft.) This was in accordance with Deuteronomy 18:10-11: “There shall not be found among you ... a soothsayer or a sorcerer ... or one that consults a ghost or a familiar spirit, or a necromancer.” But Saul’s desperation drove him to violate the law. The story does, however, teach us not to immediately assume that all talk of witches and spirits is mere foolishness.

And what of Samuel’s ghost? Rabbi Abahu explained (Shabbat 152b) that the witch was able to call Samuel’s spirit forth because “it was within twelve months of his death...For it was taught: For full [twelve months] the body is in existence and the soul ascends and descends...” --affirming as well that ghosts are not necessarily a figment of the imagination.

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