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The word עונן seems to describe a type of divination. Sometimes, the individual practicing it is called an עונן and other times a מעונן. I am assuming there is no distinction.

These words appear a few times … But, the reason this topic is a challenge is that the Tanach does not give us enough clues to know precisely what these individuals did. Nor do we have any evidence from non-biblical sources.

When you do not have sources, you just have to stare at the word and guess its root and hypothesize from there. Some possibilities for the root are עין (eye) and ענן (cloud). Another possibility is perhaps ענה, with a “time” meaning. One can also look at other Semitic languages for clues to the meaning of עונן.

We do get the sense from the various verses that our words refers to a type of divination (predicting the future):

At Jeremiah 27:9, the prophet warns: “As for you, give no heed to your prophets (root נבא), augurs (root קסם), dreamers (root חלם ,ענניכם,) and sorcerers (root כשף), who say to you, ‘Do not serve the king of Babylon.’”

At Leviticus 19:26, the prohibition on עונן is next to the prohibition on ניחוש.

At Deuteronomy 18:14 “meonenim” are mentioned parallel to קסמים .ניחוש is a form of divination. As to קסם, scholars are able to determine from this unusual root and other Semitic languages that those who engage in this are predicting the future and using lots. See Ernest Klein’s etymology work, page 585.

At Michah 5:11, “meonenim” are mentioned in the context of “keshafim.” “Kishuf,” at least in its original meaning, seems to have been a form of “magic.” (Those who engage in mystical activities are often categorized into three groups: magic, divination and astrology.) But just because “meonenim” are mentioned in the same verse as “keshafim” does not mean a precise parallel was intended. (This verse is prose—not poetry—where parallelism is more common.) Also, the meaning of “kishuf” (and of “onein/meonein”) could have expanded over time.

The King James Bible translates our word as “soothsayer.” This means someone who attempts to predict the future and speak “sooth.” “Sooth” is an archaic word for “truth.” (Later, it expanded into the “soothe” meaning, as speaking truth helps to mollify people.)

At Sanhedrin 65b, we have three interpretations of “meonein:”

Rabbi Shimon: Those who pass a certain item over their eye. (I am too embarrassed to write what this item is. Probably, their unusual activity is then performed with this aid.)

The Sages: One who is “ochez et ha-einayim” (grabs the eyes). (The meaning is probably tricking others into thinking you are performing wonders.)

Rabbi Akiva: Those who calculate times “ittim (עתים) ve-shaot” and say: “Today is a good day to travel. Tomorrow is a good day to purchase property. The eves of seventh years are destined to be bountiful in the growth of wheat …”

Rashi—in Leviticus 19:26—takes the approach of Rabbi Akiva, adjusting it slightly, and writing “onot (עונות) ve-shaot.” Rabbi Hertz, page 503, follows this approach as well. (But at page 826, he suggests “cloud-gazer.”) Rambam first follows the approach of Rabbi Akiva. But then, he adds the approaches of the Sages as well. See Avodat Kochavim 11:8-9. (I do not understand why he feels free to adopt two different approaches. Not surprisingly, he leaves out the approach of Rabbi Shimon.)

Over the centuries, here are some of the other interpretations that have been suggested:

One who predicts the future by looking at cloud forms and movements (Ibn Ezra and many others)

One who presents magical illusions with the use of smoke (see The Living Torah, page 351, citing Rabbi Menachem Recanati, 13th century)

There is a similar word in Arabic that means “hum of insects.” Based on this, some interpret our words as one who interprets the hums of insects and whispers of leaves. See Brown-Driver-Briggs, page 778.

There is a similar word in Arabic that means “appear.” So our words may refer to those who deal in extraordinary appearances (Brown-Driver-Briggs, page 778) or who make the dead appear and consult them about the future (Encyclopedia Judaica 6:114).

For a few more speculations, see the Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon, page 857.

I became interested in this word when writing my column on the word “onah” (see Exodus 21:10) which will appear next week. If this word refers to the husband’s obligation to have relations with his wife, it may do this with “onah” having a “dwelling” meaning, i.e., activity of the dwelling. Another possibility is that we get this result via a “time” meaning, since the obligation is time-related in two possible ways. (See next week’s column.) “Onah” did have the meaning “time” by the era of the mishna. See, e.g., Masechtas Peah 4:8 and Ketubot 5:6. But the issue is whether it had such a meaning in the time of Tanach. If “onein” and “meonein” derive from a “time” meaning, this would give more credence to time-related meanings of “onah” at Exodus 21:10.

After researching and writing this column, I do think that a “time” origin to our divination words is a real possibility. The extra “nun” is not that problematic.

On a related matter, here is a quote from Rambam’s letter on astrology written to the Sages of Lunel in 1194, in response to their earlier query:

“I myself have investigated much into these matters. The first thing I studied is that science which is called judicial astrology—that is (the science) by which man may know what will come to pass in the world or in this or that city or kingdom and what will happen to a particular individual all the days of his life … Know, my masters, that every one of those things concerning judicial astrology that (its adherents) maintain—namely, that something will happen one way and not another, and that the constellation under which one is born will draw him on so that he will be of such and such a kind … all those assertions are far from being scientific; they are stupidity … Know, my masters, that the science of the stars that is genuine science is knowledge of the form of the spheres, their number, their measure, the course they follow, each one’s period of revolution, their declination to the north or to the south, their revolving to the east or to the west, and the orbit of every star and what its course is … This is an exceedingly glorious science. By means of it, the onset of the eclipses of luminaries may be known and when they will be eclipsed at any given place; by means of it there may be known the cause for the moon’s appearing just like a bow, then waxing great until it is full, and then gradually waning; by means of it there may be known when the moon will or will not be seen; and the reason why one day will be long and another day short … ”

(Rambam had addressed the issue of astrology in his Mishneh Torah, completed around 1177. But this work had not yet reached the above community, in Southern France, at the time they wrote their letter to him asking about it. In this letter, he explained to them that they should be getting their Mishneh Torah soon, probably, even before they got this response!)


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He is much better at understanding ancient history than at prognosticating.

P.S. My recent book, “Words for the Wise: Sixty-Two Insights on Hebrew, Holidays, History and Liturgy,” is available at kodeshpress.com and at Jewish bookstores.

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