King Saul Conjuring Samuel’s Soul

How was King Saul permitted to go to a witch and have her conjure up Prophet Samuel’s soul (I Samuel 28)? Aren’t such practices forbidden? That story altogether has some details which I couldn’t really understand, such as how the necromancer suddenly realized it was the king who came to her.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

You are right that all forms of necromancy are forbidden by the Torah – See Leviticus 20:27 and Deut. 18:11. In fact, King Saul himself banished such practices from the nation, as the witch herself attested (I Samuel 28:9).

Why did the king himself engage a necromancer here? He felt it was a critical matter of national security – to properly prepare for the pending battle against the Philistines. Saul had already tried all regular means of seeking Divine counsel and had not received any direction (v. 6).

In general, kings, as well as prophets and high courts, can make one-time exceptions to Torah laws (except for laws pertaining to idolatry) in cases of serious need. This was how Elijah the Prophet was able to offer sacrifices on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18), although we may not offer sacrifices outside of the Temple (Leviticus 17:1-9). The basis for this is a verse in Psalms (119:126): “At a time to do for God, they annulled Your Torah.” A great person may “annul” (temporarily) God’s laws for the greater good. King Saul felt his situation was equally desperate and acted accordingly (Teshuvot Radvaz 485, brought in ArtScroll edition of I Chronicles, 10:13).

Nevertheless, although technically justified, the Torah faults King Saul for his decision, and blamed his death partially upon that (I Chronicles 10:13-14). Even if Saul broke no actual law, he should have turned only to God for counsel. And if God did not respond, he should have taken that as a sign of God’s displeasure with him and accepted it – rather than attempting to go through a “back door” – seeking Heavenly guidance via necromancy.

In terms of the details of the story, the commentators, based on the Talmud and Midrash, explain how that type of necromancy (“oav”) works. When the deceased’s soul is invoked, the necromancer himself sees the soul but hears nothing, while the one for whom the soul rose (i.e., the person who requested the necromancer’s services) hears but does not see. This is why Saul had to ask the witch what she saw, while he himself heard Samuel’s words.

The commentators further explain that normally, summoned souls ascend upside down, but when a soul is summoned for a king, it rises right-side up, out of respect. In Saul’s case, the witch saw Samuel’s soul rise right-side up. This is why she suddenly screamed saying that the man who came to her must be Saul (v. 12). (Saul had disguised himself when he came to her.) The witch feared for her life – suspecting that this was all a trap set up by the king to catch secret witches.

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