The Bible Says What? ‘It’s forbidden to speak to the dead’

The Bible Says What? ‘It’s forbidden to speak to the dead’

Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers takes a controversial issue from the Torah and applies a progressive response

An old Jewish headstone in a cemetery
An old Jewish headstone in a cemetery

“Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead”. Deuteronomy 18:10-11

It was Shabbat morning in a foreign shul and a warden I knew vaguely asked me how my father (whom he’d never met) was.  I hesitated, and he cut in with: “It’s in his head.”

     We had days earlier been informed that dad would be returning to hospital for a second session of brain surgery. While I looked stunned by the warden’s remark, he explained: “I just see things.”

For the next hour he astounded me, and comforted me. I consciously didn’t ask him any questions or prompt him in what he was telling me. But as our time drew to an end, I did ask him, in light of the above verse, how permissible his visions were.

He said he had consulted local rabbis who had told him: “It is forbidden to speak to the dead”. His response? “But what if they keep speaking to me?”

This strange experience actually left me with a huge appreciation for the Torah’s rejection of these practices; eight months later when my dad finally died, it was comforting to remember the assurances I had received that ‘once they are on the other side, they are fine’.

But the temptation to jump on a plane to find the warden and try to make contact was also real. Jewish mourning rituals are there to allow us to process and feel our grief, and to continue living well beyond it.

In banning necromancy, we aren’t necessarily being told it is bunkum, but that we mustn’t allow ourselves to be drawn into a temptation to cling to those who are gone; our tasks are here and we must re-embrace life and the living.

  •  Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers is Reform Judaism’s community educator

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