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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
Originally, prophesying by the flight of birds; but later the term was applied to all forms of foretelling (augur = avi-gur, οἰωνὸς, οἰωνισταί, etc.).
Augury was first systematized by the Chaldeans. The Greeks were addicted to it; and among the Romans no important action of state was undertaken without the advice of the augurs. In fact, the belief in augury has existed at all times, among the uncivilized as well as the most civilized nations, to the present day, the wish to know the future continually giving rise to some art of peering into it.
Kinds of Augury.
The various species of Augury, however, depend on the conditions of external nature, race peculiarities, and historical influences. The future was foretold by the aspect of the heavens (see see ASTROLOGY); by dreams, lots, oracles, and such things; or spirits were invoked (NECROMANCY), and the TERAPHIM and URIM AND THUMMIM were questioned. As these forms of prognostication, as well as the pagan method, DIVINATION, are treated under their several headings, this article will be devoted to Augury in the strict sense of the word, including, however, all predictions dependent on chance happenings. All signs and intimations coming under the concepts "niḥush" (whisper) and "siman" (omen) belong to Jewish Augury, the history of which may be divided into Biblical, Talmudic, and medieval periods.
Flight of Birds.
—In Bible Times:
The observation of the flight of birds for the purpose of prophesying, or as a prognostication, is not expressly mentioned in the Bible. That it was not unknown, however, is shown in Ecclesiastes 10:20, "for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter." This knowledge may also be assumed in view of the fact that among the Arabs the raven was a bird of omen. The Greek version several times translates "naḥash" by οἰωνòς; but this word, like the Latin "augurium," means any kind of prognostication, and not merely that by the flight or the cry of birds. It is nevertheless a curious fact that tradition also originally applied the prognostication designated by naḥash to the omens derived from animals.
Hydromancy, Rhabdomancy, and Belomancy.
Joseph practised hydromancy. He divined (naḥash) the future by pouring water into a cup, throwing little pieces of gold or jewels into the fluid, observing the figures that were formed, and predicting accordingly (Genesis 44:5, according to Dillman's commentary). Laban found out in a similar way (naḥash) that God blessed him on account of Jacob (Genesis 30:27). King Manasseh also practised this species of divination (2 Kings 21:6; 2 Chronicles 33:6). Another method consisted in observing the signs from staves planted upright or flung on the ground ("Cyril of Alex." in Winer, "B. R." 2:673), a method that is not identical with the arrow oracle (Hosea 4:12; perhaps Ezekiel 8:17; compare Numbers 17:16 et seq.). Ezekiel (21:26 [A. V. 21]) speaks of the arrow oracle of the king of Babylon; but the prophet Elisha also directs the Israelite king Joash to shoot two arrows through the window in order to find out whether Joash will vanquish the Aramaic king (2 Kings 13:14-19).
Omens, Accidental and Others.
Accidental occurrences (ἄψυχα) are of great importance in divination, and may be taken as omens (σημεῖα = "siman"). Eliezer, Abraham's servant, said: "I stand at the well . . . and the damsel to whom I shall say, Let down thy pitcher, I pray thee, that Imay drink; and she shall say, Drink, and I will give thy camels drink also, let the same be the wife appointed by God for Isaac "(Genesis 24:12-19). Jonathan, when he is about to attack the Philistines, says: "Behold, we will pass over unto these men, and we will discover ourselves unto them. If they say thus unto us, Tarry until we come to you; then we will stand still in our place, and will not go up unto them. But if they say thus, Come up unto us; then we will go up: for the Lord hath delivered them into our hand; and this shall be a sign unto us" (1 Samuel 14:8-11). The prophet Isaiah even gives to the pious king Hezekiah a sign, as an indication that he will get well (2 Kings 20:9). The Lord commands Gideon to choose those warriors who lap the water with their tongues like a dog, but to reject those who get down on their knees to drink (Judges 7:5). The diviners advised the Philistines to send back the Ark of the Lord in order that the deaths among them might cease:
"Now therefore make a new cart, and take two milch kine, on which there hath come no yoke, and tie the kine to the cart, and bring their calves home from them. And take the ark of the Lord, and lay it upon the cart; and put the jewels of gold, which ye return him for a trespass offering, in a coffer by the side thereof; and send it away, that it may go. And see, if it goeth up by the way of his own coast to Beth-shemesh, then he hath done us this great evil: but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that smote us; it was a chance that happened to us. . . . And the kine took the straight way to the way of Beth-shemesh, and went along the highway, lowing as they went, and turned not aside to the right hand or to the left"
King David listens to a sound in the tops of the trees when he asks God whether he shall go against the Philistines (2 Samuel 5:24), a fact that reminds us of φυλομαντεία and "siḥat deḳalin" (compare below; also "elon me'onenim," Judges 9:37; and Baudissin, "Studien zur Vergleichenden Semitischen Religionsgesch." 2:194, note 4). The incident of Balaam, who attempted prognostication on a hill, refers perhaps to some divination of this kind, since he too uses the characteristic word "naḥash" (Numbers 23:23). It is highly improbable that the Hebrews prognosticated from the drifting of the clouds, as has been assumed from (derived from , cloud); nor was any attention paid to the lightning flash, which belonged to Augury among the Romans.
The Law strictly and repeatedly forbade all Augury (Leviticus 19:26; Deuteronomy 18:10, etc.). The interpretation of signs, however, as in the case of Eliezer and Jonathan, where nothing was done in the way of conjuration, was not considered to be Augury.
—The Talmudic Period:
Augury is more frequently referred to in post-Biblical times, but it would be rash to assume therefore that it was more widely practised. As among the classical peoples of antiquity and among the Germans to-day, the arts of Augury proved effective only with the person who believed in them, and only such a person was injured by them (Yer. Shab. 8d; Bab. Ned. 32a; L. Blau, "Das Altjüdische Zauberwesen," p. 77, note 4). The prohibition in Leviticus 19:26 (, "neither shall ye use enchantment") is referred by Sifra on that passage (ed. Weiss, p. 90) to divination by means of weasels, fowls, and stars, meaning the omens found in the flight and cries of birds and in similar signs; while Sifre, Deut. 171 takes it in a still more general sense, saying: "Who is a menaḥesh [enchanter]? He, for instance, who says: 'My bread fell out of my mouth'; or 'My staff out of my hand'; or 'A snake crept to my right'; 'A fox ran to my left and his tail crossed my path'; furthermore, he who says: 'Do not begin anything to-day, because it is the new moon'; or 'It is Friday'; or 'It is the Sabbath evening.'" In the parallel passage, Sanh. 65b, other evil omens are added; namely, if a man's son calls after him; if a raven croaks at him, or a deer gets in his way; and more explicitly, if one avoids being the first to pay the tax.
The belief in animal omens was widely spread among the Babylonians, who also divined by the behavior of fish, as was well known (Lenormant, "Die Magie und Wahrsagerei der Chaldäer," p. 473; Blau, c. pp. 45 et seq.; Pauly-Wissowa, "Real-Encyklopädie der Classischen Alterthumswissenschaft," 4:1397, ἰχθυωμαντέια). Snake and cloud omens were also known (Levy, "Chal. Wörterb." 2:102b).
Flight and Cries of Birds.
Augury proper was known among the Jews, but was considered as a foreign Roman or Arabic art. Josephus narrates ("Ant." 18:6, § 7; 19:8, § 2) that a bird (an owl) alighted on the tree against which Agrippa was leaning while a prisoner at Rome; whereupon a fellow prisoner, a German, prophesied that he would become king, but that if the bird appeared a second time, it would mean he would die. The third of the Sibylline Books (line 224) says about the Jews: "They do not consider the omens of flight as observed by the augurers." In the account of the martyrdom of Isaiah ("Ascensio Jesaiæ," 2:5) it is stated that in the time of King Manasseh not only magic and other crimes increased, but also Augury by the flight of birds, which is denoted by "we-niḥesh" (2 Kings 21:6). According to the Aristeas Letter (§§ 165 et seq.), the weasel is the symbol of the informer. This apparently has some connection with the auspicium.
Augury and astrology are "the wisdom of the East," mentioned in 1 Kings 5:10 (Pesiḳ. 33b, ). By the "bird of the air" (Ecclesiastes 10:20) is meant the raven, in Augury, says a Palestinian teacher of the Talmud of the third century (Lev. R. 32:2; compare 'Aruk, s. ; Blau, c. p. 48, note 2). The Arabic expression itself, as well as the mention of the raven, the bird of omen of the Arabs, proves that Arabic Augury is here referred to. When Rab 'Ilish was in prison a man who understood the language of the birds interpreted to him the cry of a raven as meaning "'Ilish" (flee!), "'Ilish" (flee!). Rab paying no attention—the raven being proverbially a liar—a dove addressed him, and when her cry was interpreted in the same way, he obeyed the warning and escaped, since the dove means Israel; that is, the dove is Israel's bird of omen (Giṭ. 45a, bottom). The place where the flight of birds was observed is also mentioned ( Targ. Yer. to Numbers 31:10; compare Sifre on the passage, and Levy, c. 2:157a). With one exception the doves of Herod cried Kύριε, Kύριε (lord, lord!); and when this one was taken to task by the others, she cried χείριε; that is, "Herod was a slave"—whereupon shewas killed by the followers of Herod. R. Kahana understood this conversation (Ḥul. 139b; 'Aruk, s. ; Levy, c. 2:324a).
The Romans also understood the language of the birds (Pauly-Wissowa, c. , 77:51; 86:29). Judah does not dare, even in a whisper, to advise the emperor Antoninus to proceed against the nobles of Rome; for the birds carry the voice onward ('Ab. Zarah 10b; compare Lenormant, c. p. 451). God is angry each day for one minute (Psalms 30:6) during the first three hours; that is the time when the comb of the cock turns white, or when not a single red stripe is to be found in his comb, and he stands on one leg. R. Joshua ben Levi, who wanted to seize this moment to curse a heretic who had offended him, tied a cock and watched him intently, and in doing so he involuntarily fell asleep (Ber. 7a; 'Ab. Zarah 4b; Sanh. 105b).
The Babylonians divined also by flies (Lenormant, c. p. 472). In this connection arose perhaps the saying that no fly alighted on the table of the prophet Elisha (BEELZEBUB). The language of trees, which the ancient peoples, especially the Babylonians, are said to have understood, was probably known to the Babylonian Jews as early as the eighth century (Blau, c. p. 47; "Knistern des Lorbeers Glückbringend," in Pauly-Wissowa, c. 1:66, note 24). Thus Abraham learned from the sighing of the tamarisk-tree that his end was nigh (ABRAHAM, TESTAMENT OF). Leviticus 19:26, is translated by the Septuagint κληδονίξεσθαι; e., to divine by sounds and noises (compare Grünbaum, in "Z. D. M. G." 31:253 et seq.).
To interrogate Chaldeans (Pes.113b, etc.) or to practise divination in general is not permitted. He who abstains from so doing is admitted into a section of the heavens which even the ministering angels may not enter (Ned. 32a). But since desire often outbalances precept, a fundamental difference was made by setting up the rule: "There is no such thing as divination, but there are prognostications" ( , Yer. Shab. 8c; Bacher, "Ag. Pal. Amor." 2:25, note 5). The Romans also distinguished between greater and lesser divinations, calling the latter signs (σημεῖα, "signa," ; see Derenbourg-Saglio, "Dictionnaire des Antiquités Grecques et Romaines," 2:293b, bottom). Such, for instance, are the signs of Eliezer (Genesis 24), of Jonathan (1 Samuel 14), and also Genesis 38:11, and 42:36; the last-named also leading to the conclusion that every sign had to be repeated three times. In consequence of this distinction even the most eminent amoraim. made use of certain signs. Rab looked upon it as a favorable omen if the ship that ferried him came to meet him, but as a bad omen if it was not ready. Samuel opened his Bible for a chance intimation. Johanan made a boy recite a Bible verse with the same purpose. When in passing a school he heard a boy say "Samuel has died" (1 Samuel 25:1), he took it as an omen and did not visit the amora of that name as he had intended to do. The expression "a house, a wife, and a child give signs" must mean that signs may be taken from them, Rashi to the contrary notwithstanding (Yer. Shab. 8c, bottom; Ḥul. 95b; Gen. R. 85:5, commentaries).
Boys were often used by diviners to peer into the future, being for that purpose bewitched by magic formulas (Pauly-Wissowa, c. 4:1399). The Talmud says, curiously enough (B. B. 12b, where two cases are cited): "Since the destruction of the Temple, prophecy has been given into the hands of the insane and of children." The Jewish view is not far removed from the Greco-Roman one; namely, that the insane were possessed by demons. Bewitchment was strictly forbidden, as was generally the interrogation of demons, except by means of oil or eggs, to find a lost article; but "the princes of oil and of eggs lie" (Sanh. 101a; see compare Demonology and DIVINATION). This view of R. Johanan (died 279) explains that he often sought advice from boys with the formula, "Tell me thy verse!" meaning the verse which the boy had just learned, or which came into his mind at that moment (Ḥag. 15a; Meg. 28b; Giṭ. 57a, 68a, etc.; Horowitz, "Sammlung Kleiner Midrashim," p. 69, "mah pasukekem"). The same teacher of the Talmud says that if any one happens to remember a verse of the Bible early in the morning, it is a prophecy in miniature (Ber. 57b), the prophetic element being in such cases the accidental. He looked upon a voice which he heard accidentally behind him as being a divination, and followed it; for it is written (Isaiah 30:21), "Thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it." But, says the Talmud, the voice must be an unusual one, such as a man's voice in a city, or a woman's voice in a desert (Yer. Shab. 8c; Bab. Meg. 32a). Other teachers of the Talmud also paid attention to this kind of voice, which was called BAT ḲOL. Two persons intending to visit a sick teacher said, "We will be guided by the Bat Ḳol," whereupon they heard one woman say to another, "The light has gone out." Then they said, "It shall not go out, and may the light of Israel never be extinguished" (ib.). As among other peoples, the Jews also considered the last words of the dying as divinations. Thus Eliezer ben Hyrkanus and Samuel ha-Ḳatan prophesied the martyrdom of several scholars (Sanh. 68a and 11a; Pauly-Wissowa. c. 1:92. note 11).
Some other omens must be mentioned, called "siman," although not all strictly belonging to the subject in hand. It is a bad sign for any person to make a mistake in his prayers, but a good sign to know them fluently (Mishnah Ber. , end; compare Talmud 34b, bottom, and 24b, top). It is a bad sign for the remainder of the year if it rains after Nisan or at the Sukkot festival; or if the wine does not turn out well; or if the Feast of Weeks fall on the fifth of the month. If there is fine weather on the day of that feast it is a good omen for the world (Mishnah Ta'anit 12a, 2a; Ab. R. N. 1:4; Tosef., 'Ar. 1:9; see Ab. R. N. 2:33 and Sifre 1:112, and in general Levy, "Neuhebr. Wörterb." and Krauss, "Griechische und Lateinische Lehnwörter," under the word ). It is a good sign for sick people to sneeze (Blau, c. p. 163; Tylor, c. 1:98-100, German ed.). Generally much attention was paid to omens (, an omen is a thing to be considered). In order to find out if one will live the year through, one must take a candle during the tendays between New-year and the Day of Atonement, and light it in a house where there is no draft; if the candle burn to the socket, that one will live the year through. In order to know if some matter of business will succeed, one must feed a hen; if she grow fat and plump, the matter in hand will succeed. In order to know if one will return home from a journey, one must go into a dark room, and if one see there the "shadow of the shadow," one will return. The Talmud discourages, however, recourse to these oracles given by R. Ami, as a person becomes lowspirited if they are unfavorable (Ker. 5b, bottom; Hor. 12a). The first form of Augury reminds of pyromancy; the second, of the feeding of chickens (the "tripudium" of the Romans).
—In the Middle Ages:
It may be said in general that the philosophers were averse to Augury, as well as to any other form of superstition. This is true especially of Maimonides, who, although bound by the Talmudic tradition, was not inclined to make any concessions on this point (Hilk. 'Ab. Zarah 11:4,5). The Talmudists, again, for whom the Talmud was the decisive authority, could not accept all the utterances and stories found therein. Hence a curious discrepancy between theory and practise arose, as indeed is found in the Talmud itself. While, on the one hand, everything that at all suggests idolatry is strictly forbidden, much, on the other hand, is permitted, or practised in spite of the interdiction, probably in consequence of overwhelming popular opinion (see Ṭur and Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah. 178-179, together with the commentaries). Expressly heathenish practises, however, were mercilessly condemned. The mystics readily accepted all such beliefs, since all superstitious practises coincided with their views of the world. Moreover, a part of the people could never wean itself from these views.
Germany and France.
As Güdemann has shown in his "Gesch. der Cultur der Juden in Frankreich und Deutschland," the Jews of Europe were greatly influenced by the superstitions of the peoples in the midst of whom they were living. A few examples only may here be given. Judah the Pious (died 1216 at Regensburg), who was highly venerated by his contemporaries, and especially during the thirteenth century, gives in his "Book of the Pious" a mass of superstitions. He condemns on the whole the "interpretation of signs, which to-day is so much practised in Israel," and declares that the choosing of a day (for instance, starting children in their schooling only on the new moon) is idolatry. He admits, however, that there are certain reliable signs, of which he would rather not speak in order not to lead others into superstition. Thus the itching of the foot indicates that one will go to an unknown place; of the ears, that one will hear something new; of the eye, that one will see or read something new; of the hand, that one will receive money (Güdemann, c. 1:200 et seq., §§ 59 and 162). This superstition is so firmly rooted as to be given credence to-day. Any one who, during the night or the day, sees his own shadow or form with closed mouth and eyes will die soon (c. § 547).
R. Moses of Coucy (about 1250) explains (Deuteronomy 18:10) to be a form of divination still practised in Slavonia at his time. Slivers of wood, from which the bark had been removed on one side, were thrown into the air, and according as they fell on the peeled or on the barked side, the omen was favorable or unfavorable. Flames leaping up on the hearth indicated that a guest was coming. Cup and nail divination was practised. Children were made to look into glasses filled with water, into crystals, etc., while invoking a demon, the pictures they saw being then interpreted. For nail divination the children looked upon the finger-nail (Güdemann, c. §§ 82 and 208, note 1). Asher ben Jehiel thought it permissible to find out a thief by means of divination (Yoreh De'ah, 179), a proceeding that elsewhere is described in detail (Güdemann, c. § 208, note 1). In France and Germany in the thirteenth century the future was foretold by means of the "name of interpretation" ( "shem ha-meforash"), a species of the name of God, to the astonishment of the Spaniard Naḥmanides (c. § 222).
The book "Nishmat Ḥayyim," by Manasseh ben Israel, a celebrated Dutch rabbi, is a mine of information respecting all kinds of superstition. Although a highly educated man, well versed in the knowledge of his time, one who could even enter into negotiations with Cromwell regarding the return of the Jews to England, the author believed in every superstition. In the nineteenth chapter of the third treatise of his book he rejects the opinion of Maimonides, who declared all the black arts to be lies and deceptions, and refers for the veracity of rhabdomancy even to the Chinese and the wild Africans. He knows the kinds of divination mentioned above, and speaks also of chiromancy and others.
The cabalistic works, to which Manasseh's book belongs, include of course also other directions for foretelling the future, a practise that obtains even to-day among the uneducated and among persons given to mysticism. In Baden, Germany, coins and beans are used, the diviner prognosticating according to their position and the stamp on the coins. An earlier form of divination, for finding a drowned person, was to let a wooden bowl float on the water. Wherever it stopped, the corpse lay on the bottom (Grünwald, "Mitteilungen," 1:111). On pagan methods of prognostication (κατ' ἐζοχήν), DIVINATION.
- Winer, B. R. 2:672;
- Hamburger, R. B. T. , supplement 3;
- A. Dillmann, Handbuch der Alttestamentlichen Theologie, Leipsic, l895;
- R. Smend, Lehrbuch der Alttestamentlichen Religionsgesch. 1st ed., 1893, 2d ed., 1899;
- T. W. Davies, Magic, Divination, and Demonology, London and Leipsic, 1899;
- D. Joel, Der Aberglaube und die Stellung des Judenthums zu Demselben, Breslau, 1881;
- L. Blau, Das Altjüdische Zauberwesen, Strasburg, 1898;
- Güdemann, Gesch. der Cultur der Juden in Frankreich und Deutschland, Vienna, 1880;
- Lenormant, Die Magie und Wahrsagerei der Chaldäer;
- Daremberg-Saglio, Dictionnaire des Antiquités Grecques et Romaines, 1:550;
- Pauly-Wissowa, Real-Encyklopädie der Classischen Alterthumswissenschaft, 2:2313;
- Ennemoser, Gesch. der Magie, p. 142;
- E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture, s. Augury.
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Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Augury'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/a/augury.html. 1901.