Is Divining Divine?

In the last decade or two, many practices of alternative medicine have gained popularity among frum Jews worldwide. As they became commonplace, rabbanim began to deliberate whether some of them were prohibited under several possible prohibitions.


As alternative medicine begins to gain traction in the mainstream, and specifically in Jewish circles, halachic questions abound as to the acceptability of various methods of healing. We are taught in the Torah that avodah zarah, sorcery, and witchcraft are forbidden. On the other hand, medicine is encouraged and saving lives is a mitzvah. To this end, when examining the sorts of healing that the scientific world does not recognize, we are walking a tenuous tight rope under which could very well be a lethal minefield.

A good analogy from the world of conventional medicine would be the recently resurrected debate on brain death. If, in fact, brain death is deemed halachic death, then harvesting the organs of a brain-dead person is permitted and is in fact a mitzvah, in that many lives can be saved. If, on the other hand, brain death is not deemed death then harvesting the organs is nothing short of murder. The issue of alternative medicine is a similarly high-stakes question. On the one hand are serious prohibitions related to avodah zarah. On the other hand, if these practices are permitted, many noninvasive therapies are available to us (though their efficacy is subject to fierce debate).

The issue of alternative medicine is also highly charged due to the inherent tension that exists at it core. Those who are pro-science tend to have a disdainful view toward practices that are inconsistent with orthodox medicine, and are thus predisposed to prohibit them. People whose education and culture are less infused with the ascendancy of science are more open to the validity of these practices.

One thing should be perfectly clear at the start: The permit and mitzvah to heal oneself is certainly not linked exclusively to a therapy that passes “the scientific method.” According to the scientific method —  as we all recall from our high school years —  a statement can be said to be fact only if one forms a hypothesis, conducts an experiment with predictable results, and then analyzes the results. For a therapy to be permitted under halachah it need not undergo that process. The Rambam, whose denial of all unnatural forces is well known, is generally associated with scientific medicine. Yet the Rambam wrote treatises on health based on the writings of Galen, whose biology was rooted in the idea of the four humors —  a concept that has long since become extinct because it did not pass the test of science. Certainly, nobody would accuse the Rambam of committing kishuf and the like! Perforce, the scientific method is not needed to permit the practice of medicine. What, then, is the guideline?

Each alternative medicine practice requires its own analysis, but in this essay we will confine our examination to the practice called “dowsing,” or its more common name, “the pendulum method.”

Tapping Into the Nervous System

Dowsing, also called radiesthesia, uses a pendulum, a wooden stick, or metallic rods to determine the answers to questions. Traditionally, dowsing was used to determine the location of underground water. More recently, however, it has been used in diagnostic medicine.

In the case of a pendulum, a weight is attached to string or a chain. One observes whether the pendulum starts circling clockwise or counterclockwise. Generally, a clockwise motion means yes and a counterclockwise means no, although for some people the responses are reversed. Alternatively, a dowser holds two L-shaped rods horizontally in his hands while asking a question. The short vertical portion serves as a handle to hold the rod in the hand, and has a plastic sheath around it, allowing the long portion extending horizontally to revolve freely. Depending on whether the rods turn in and cross each other, or turn out and away from one another, the answer is interpreted either as yes or no. According to Dr. Robert M. Stone, MS, in his article titled “A Key to Unlimited Consciousness: Subconscious Communication with the Pendulum,” when one self-tests, he is connecting with his own subconscious.

Dr. Stone asserts that the easiest way to communicate with the subconscious is through physical means. Since the subconscious controls the autonomic nervous system, which controls, among other things, the involuntary muscles, it can control voluntary muscles as well. Utilizing this method, one can ask any question to the subconscious, though the question has to be worded properly to ensure that the answers will be interpreted correctly. (Dowsing is also used to diagnose others. However, in order to examine another person, one would require access to the patient’s “chi” or energy field. We will elaborate on this below.)

Certainly, all this sounds odd to the Western mind, but let me cite : “I know very well that many scientists consider dowsing as they do astrology, as a type of ancient superstition. According to my conviction this is, however, unjustified. The dowsing rod is a simple instrument which shows the reaction of the human nervous system to certain factors which are unknown to us at this time.”

Einstein’s endorsement is in no way conclusive proof of the efficacy of dowsing. Sir Isaac Newton was known to believe in all sorts of strange ideas, such as alchemy. But it does show that intelligent people did and do accept its validity. In fact, in the late 1960s, during the Vietnam war, some US Marines used dowsing to attempt to locate weapons and tunnels. On the other hand, several studies have demonstrated that the results of dowsing are not significantly greater than chance.

The Halachic Aspect

On a halachic level, the most serious issues that arise are: 1) nichush, omens, in that one is determining his behavior on unfounded basis; 2) kishuf, sorcery, due to the supernatural, “magical” character of the pendulum reaction; 3) kesimah, which prohibits ascertaining information through means that do not have a logical progression; (4) and darkei Emori, a prohibition against participating in events and actions that may have roots in avodah zarah.

There may also be problems involving avodah zarah when testing another person, since before accessing another’s “chi,” the dowser has to “ask” the chi for permission to access it.

In truth, each of these possible prohibitions requires a complete and thorough analysis. In our limited space, we will present an abbreviated sketch of the basic prohibitions and then present the explanation as to why some feel it is permitted nevertheless.

Nichush / Omens

The issur to follow omens is written twice in the Torah (Vayikra 19:26; Devarim 18:10). The Gemara in Sanhedrin (65b) teaches that a menacheish is someone who says, “Since my bread fell out of my mouth or my staff fell from my hand, I will not go to this place today, for if I go, I will not be successful,” or, “Since a fox passed on my right ,I shall not go out of my house today, for if I go out, I will fall prey to a bandit.”

The implication is that this applies to decisions made based on trivialities that have no real relevance to the issue. The Sefer HaChinuch writes this explicitly, and explains in Mitzvah 249 that since the Jewish people are the chosen nation of the Ribono shel Olam, we should not be basing our actions on falsehood and foolishness. Further, he warns that these sorts of actions have the potential to weaken our emunah and may even lead to heresy.

The Ramban (ad loc) maintains, however, that the prohibition applies even where there may be some legitimacy to the nichush. For instance, nichush includes the art of interpreting the chirping of the birds and the movement of their wings. In his opinion, there is substance to these omens, but since such observations are highly speculative, determining one’s actions upon them is prohibited. (Anything that is not as speculative, but is reliable, such as astrology — in his opinion — does not fall under the transgression of “lo senachashu.”) According to other Rishonim, the prohibition of nichush applies only when one wishes to divine the future, and not the present or past. (See Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 11:8 with commentaries.)

Dowsing would seem to be a violation of this prohibition according to all these Rishonim, because one is determining his actions based on a completely arbitrary thing, such as the rotation of the pendulum.

Defenders of this practice argue that a) nichush is prohibited only if one uses it to predict future events, not when it is used to determine the present; and b) dowsing, which monitors the biofeedback response of the body to mental stimuli, reflects a reality. The varying patterns of movement of the pendulum are amplified versions of tiny, involuntary hand movements of the person being tested, which are triggered by his thoughts or his metabolism. It is therefore a means of communication, not an arbitrary omen.

The notion that the muscle responds to thought is reasonable, and is even accepted in scientific medical circles.

Kishuf / Sorcery

Sorcery is Biblically prohibited (Devarim 18:10) and a violator is subject to the death penalty (Shemos 22:17). The Rishonim debate the nature of kishuf and why the Torah was so stringent with a sorcerer. Rambam maintains that magic does not exist at all and is simply a falsehood. However, since it grew out of pagan beliefs and is associated with them, the Torah forbade them and made them subject to the death penalty. The Gra (Yoreh Dei’ah 179:13) is severely critical of Rambam, and asserts that all Rishonim understand sorcery to be effective; a sorcerer can alter the laws of nature temporarily. In their view, the Torah applied the death penalty to the sorcerer because he or she is manipulating and corrupting the world that the Ribono shel Olam fashioned at Creation.

Dowsing as a mere diagnostic tool certainly does not involve any corruption of Hashem’s world. As to whether it is unfounded and therefore fits into Rambam’s definition of kishuf, practitioners argue that it certainly does exist. Furthermore, the kishuf described by the Rishonim is a complicated means of manipulating nature. Dowsing, on the other hand, does not require preparation or special training, and nearly anyone can do it effectively with just a few lessons.

Darkei Emori

Most Rishonim understand this to be a Biblical prohibition, found in the verse “Do not go with their laws” (Vayikra 18:3), which prohibits one from practicing pagan customs that have no logical justification. The Maharik (shoresh 88) asserts that the point of the prohibition is twofold. Since a Jew is performing an action that is illogical, a “chok,” we can explain his actions only as an implicit trust in the ways of the avodah zarah. Alternatively, his actions can be seen as an expression of a desire to assimilate with the pagans.

The Gemara (Shabbos 67a) gives a general principle: “Anything done as a means of healing is not prohibited as darkei Emori.” Most Rishonim understand this applies even when the therapy does not have a logical basis, so long as it has been firmly established as an effective cure. This is evident from the topic of amulets, the efficacy of which can only be established after three successful experiences. (We do not require a double-blind study and testing for placebo effects!) See Teshuvos HaRashba 1:413; Rema, Yoreh Dei’ah 171:1; Binyan Tziyon 1:67.

In this regard, it is essential to note that the Rashba (ibid.) asserts that treatments need not be understood scientifically to be permitted, and that segulah healings are likewise permitted. Only practices that are explicitly mentioned in Chazal as being darkei Emori, or those which are obviously devoid of value, are prohibited. Dowsing is not explicitly prohibited in the Gemara, and is, at the very least, arguably effective. It is thus not included in this prohibition.

Kesimah / Divining

The prohibition against being koseim kesamim, or what can be colloquially known as “divining,” is found in the Torah in Devarim 18:10. Sifri offers the example of one who grabs a stick and asks: “Shall I go or shall I not go?” The prophet Hoshea (4:12) alludes to such a practice: “My people ask counsel of their stick and their staff tells them.”

The Smag understands that it is prohibited because the diviner retrieves information by swearing in angels or the like.

Others explain that the diviner takes chips of wood off a stick and throws them to the ground, interpreting how the chips land as either good or bad omens.

Ramban learns the prohibition as applying not only to divining through unverifiable actions, but even through real predictors of the future, inasmuch as these have the potential to negatively affect one’s trust in Hashem.

Rambam (Sefer HaMitzvos 31) and others assert that kesimah involves the diviner attempting to completely empty his mind of all thoughts. For instance, the diviner will bang the earth with a stick and yell until his head is cleared, at which point his imagination is stirred and he predicts future events. The Radbaz adds that the diviner also swears in demons and uses other kochos hatumah.

Although dowsing may involve sticks, it clearly differs from all the issues described above. The fact that the dowser has to focus on the question may make it appear like kesimah, but in reality all that dowsing requires is concentration and focus. The dowser must refrain from thinking about other things and ask his questions with an unbiased point of view. Though he cannot be disturbed, this does not imply that he is entering a trance or altered state of consciousness.

Dowsing for Another Person

One area that is quite problematic is the process of dowsing for another person. When doing so, it is common practice to ask the patient’s chi (“universal energy” or “aura”) for permission to communicate with it. This clearly would seem to be avodah zarah, in that one is apparently communicating with an independent entity. Defenders argue that testing another person is not an issue, because the intention of the dowser is merely a means to communicate with the patient’s subconscious. They assert that the energy system is the seat of the subconscious of an individual, and although the patient has visited the doctor for healing, he subconsciously may not want to be healed from his condition. In order for the testing to work, one must make sure that the patient is fully cooperative and willing to be tested. So in reality, the dowser is merely asking permission from the deepest levels of the person’s consciousness — not from a higher entity — to heal him, which should not pose a halachic problem.


Researching this article left me with the feeling of a cat trying to catch its tail, for if dowsing is in fact effective, it would seem to fall under the permit of “whatever is for healing is not prohibited as darkei Emori.” Defenders would claim that its effectiveness proves that it is a real and not an imagined phenomenon. And since it is certainly not harmful, it does not “corrupt” creation.

If, however, the doubters are correct, and it is not effective at all and merely the product of chance, then it may be prohibited under darkei Emori.

As strident as the doubters are in their cynicism of dowsing, so too is the belief in these practices from the perspective of the practitioners.

So who is to be believed?

Personally, I am a skeptic, but in the spirit of full disclosure, as a son of physicist, I am predisposed to reject nonscientific ideas. My personal bias cannot play a role in the halachic process.

The Gemara speaks of some therapies that are permitted that clearly are not “scientific.” For instance, the Gemara permits a therapy involving the tooth of a fox and a nail taken from gallows. Yet many “lachash” incantations are prohibited.

Halachically, the difference seems to be as follows: If the therapy addresses a universal force, chi, or energy that has no “personality” or free will, then the therapy is in no way related to avodah zarah. But if the therapy seeks to address or appease a force that does have “personality” and free will, we have crossed over to the arena of avodah zarah. The practitioners of dowsing claim to merely tap into a heretofore unseen force or subconscious reality. Although this force cannot be scientifically verified, they do not assign to it any personality or free will. Although according to their claims, dowsing does not seem to be avodah zarah, the term “energy permission” is quite problematic in that one asks permission from an independent, free-willed reality. If practitioners argue that they mean only to begin communicating with the person’s subconscious, I would suggest they change their nomenclature to something other than “permission.” Inasmuch as some religions refer to these forces as independent entities with personality, it must be clear they are distancing themselves from such ideas.

In fact, many poskim, including the gaavad Rav Tuvia Weiss, Rav Moshe Shternbuch, Dayan Falk, and Dayan Krausz of Manchester permit dowsing, whereas other poskim, such as Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, are quite wary of these practices. Those who prohibit dowsing consider it too closely associated with religions in which it is avodah zarah–related.

Practically, then, one cannot censure the practitioners since significant halachic arbiters back them. But perhaps caution is advisable, and other more-traditional avenues should be explored first, with dowsing utilized only as a secondary option.


(Originally featured in Kolmus, Issue 19)

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