There is a Biblical prohibition against ‘Nachash’ or incantations. This generally refers to using various signs to interpret what the future holds. The examples given by the Gemara include one who says that since my bread fell out of my mouth or my walking stick fell from my hand I will not go to a particular place today.
However the Gemara elsewhere offers a list of signs that one may do. “Rav Ami says: If one wants to know how a business venture or a trip will go he should raise a rooster. If it develops nicely, that is a sign that things will go well”. After citing several similar examples the Gemara then says “Abaye said, now that we have established that ‘simanim’ or omens are significant, on Rosh Hashanah one should see a gourd, fenugreek, leek, beets, and date.” The reason for this list is because all of these items have names or charachteristics that are consistent with blessing. [The Gemara uses the term see, indeed some Poskim say the simanim may be merely seen and don’t have to be eaten].
Rav Ami and Abaye are seemingly fundamentally different. Rav Ami is discussing predicting the future, and Abaye is extrapolating to making a good omen on Rosh Hashanah. Explains the Derishah, once Rav Ami had established that we are not concerned with the prohibition of Nachash, Abaye then allows us to use omens and not be concerned with Nachash their either.
So it would seem that at least with regard to the various omens that we do on Rosh Hashanah, there is no problems as far as divination and incantation are concerned.
The Meiri, in his commentary on the Gemara elucidates this. He explains: Divination of any form is definitely forbidden. However when done as an inspiration for Teshuva and not as a serious sign it is permitted. It is therefore imperative, says the Meiri, to recite the Yehi Ratzon as an introductory prayer to the siman to show it is not being eaten as an omen rather as a prayer and inspiration.
The Tur brings the Gemara quoted above, and adds that it was the custom in Ashkenaz to eat apple dipped in honey. The Beis Yosef in his commentary on the Tur notes that the Tur made no mention of the Yehi Ratzon and holds that it wasn’t necessary. It would seem that he wasn’t concerned with the superstitios divinations that may be associated with eating the simanim.
The Mharsha takes an interesting middle sort of approach. He explains that the only divination that is forbidden is when predicting a bad event. When predicting a good event a ‘sign’ is permitted. The rationale is that Hashem showers down a constant stream of good to us. Therefore predicting good is only affirming our belief in Hashem’s goodness. Bad events are caused by our missteps and wrongdoings. They are fully preventable and reversible. Therefore to predict a future bad event as a certain thing would demonstrate a disbelief in Hashem’s constant benevolence and is therefore forbidden.
This concept is debated elsewhere as well. The Gemara in Chullin 95b declares: “any Neichush that is not as the Neichush of Eliezer and of Yonasan are not considered Neichush.” The Gemara is referring to the two well known divinations in Tanach. The first one is where Eliezer declared that the first young lady who offers him and his camel’s water will be the match for Yitzchak. The second was where Yonason was penetrating the Philistine camp and said that if they invite us in it’ll be a sign that Hashem has given them into our hands.
Tosfos asks: How could Eliezer and Yonason do so? Isn’t that nachash? Answers Tosfos that they didn’t mean it as a sign, they just meant it as an extra chizuk. If things wouldn’t have gone as they had divined they would have gone ahead with their plans anyway.
The Radak (quoted by Rav Akiva Eiger) has a different approach. He differentiates in intention. If one divines from a certain event that has already happened that he should or should not act in a particular way, that shows that he is ascribing powers to the stick or bread or black cat that its telling him to act in a certain way, and is forbidden. If however one asks Hashem to give him a sign that he should go ahead with his plans, as Eliezer and Yonason did, and it happened as he had asked, that is just a sign of trust in Hashem and is permitted.
The Rambam prohibits asking for a sign and saying that if such and such happens then he will act in a particular way. As an example of what is forbidden he brings Eliezer! The Raavad very strongly says “He has made a great mistake, for what Eliezer did was fully permitted!”
It would seem that the dispute between Rambam and Raavad as the same dispute as between Tosfos and the Radak.
Kesiva Vechasima Tova – May we all be blessed with a happy sweet New Year