Thursday, 1 November 2018

Loan Interest in the Modern World (part 2)


In part 1 I discussed heter iska, and whether it is a genuine solution to the problem of taking interest. Here I will try to clarify whether the provision of loans with interest may be permissible under certain circumstances, without the need for heter iska.

Limited Companies

Different alternatives to heter iska exist, although they are mostly applicable only in localised cases.[1] I am aware of only one that could cover a large percentage of the problems- the use of companies limited by shares. As almost all banks fall into this category, there is the potential here to find far-reaching leniencies.

In a limited company, the liability of members or subscribers of the company is limited to what they have invested in it. In other words, the company is an abstract legal entity of its own which can have assets, and owe or be owed money. The members are not independently obligated by the debts of the company (nor do they have an independent claim to the debts owed to the company). The big question is whether halacha recognises such an entity, or if not, how does halacha relate to a situation where such an entity has been created by secular law.

R' Moshe Feinstein understands that halacha also recognises the concept of a limited company. Therefore he writes that there is no problem to receive interest from a limited company, as no individual has any personal obligation to pay this debt. However, the prohibition of interest does apply when the borrower is an individual, even if the lender is a limited company.[2]

R' Shlomo Zalman Auerbach disagrees. His assumption is that even when the borrower is a limited company, the obligation to pay is equivalent to the owners (shareholders) having an obligation to pay from specific assets. He proves from various cases in the gemara that even when the obligation of the borrower to pay is limited to specific property, taking interest is forbidden.[3]

I believe that the basis of this dispute is the question of how far we take the principle that 'any condition to a monetary agreement is valid.'[4] R' Shlomo Zalman understands that although two parties can stipulate any condition, no-one can create a new type of independent halachic entity (in this case an inanimate, abstract body that has independent financial obligations). R' Moshe Feinstein assumes that this possibility does exist, and in the case of a limited company there is no human who has any obligation to pay the debt from any property whatsoever.[5]

Futures Trading

To decide how to rule in this dispute, it helps to find precedents based on similar principles. One such example is the issue of the purchase of something that does not yet exist (e.g. produce that has not yet grown). In the gemara there are two opinions about whether such a purchase is valid, but the halacha clearly follows the view that it is not valid.[6]

The question is whether this rule is set in stone and unchangeable. We know that although the gemara has rules for how transactions can be carried out, when the custom is to use alternative acts of acquisition, this is recognised by halacha.[7] What happens when the custom is to acquire things that do not yet exist?

This question was already raised by early authorities. The Mordechai quotes Rabbeinu Yechiel (13th century, Paris/Eretz Yisrael) who says that there is no way that something that does not yet exist can be acquired.[8] However, the Rosh (1250-1327, Germany/Spain) writes straightforwardly that when the clear custom is to buy things that do not yet exist, it works.[9]

The Chasam Sofer (1762-1839, Germany/Hungary) writes that really all agree that the custom is binding here. The transaction that Rabbeinu Yechiel ruled was invalid was not done in accordance with the custom at the time. He explains that the only reason that the gemara said that one cannot acquire something that does not exist is because of a lack of full understanding on behalf of the parties involved. When the custom is to carry out such transactions, the required understanding does exist and thus the acquisition is valid.[10]

Although not all agree with the Chasam Sofer,[11] the existence of advance purchase of things that do not yet exist has long since been recognised as valid by all batei din. In a world where such transactions happen every minute of the day, it simply would not make sense to fight this reality. The entire concept of ownership and transactions preceded the Torah and was based on custom, and it would not be logical to think that the Torah wanted to stop this.

I believe that the same is true when it comes to limited companies. When the whole concept of a limited company was new and had little effect on everyday life, it may have been relevant to debate whether halacha recognises such an entity. Nowadays, when every individual has dealings with such companies, it is not relevant. The clear understanding when opening accounts with banks, the electricity company etc. is that they will be dealt with in the way that civil law defines them, and there is no reason for halacha to treat them differently.

Can a limited company be Jewish?

R' Moshe Feinstein's leniency only helps us with a small part of the problem. While savers can relax if they know it is ok to take interest from banks, borrowing from banks is a problem on a much larger scale. However, if we are consistent with our acceptance of the legal definition of a limited company, we can question why it should be a problem to pay interest to a limited company.

The prohibition of borrowing with interest only applies if the lender is Jewish.[12] According to what we have seen so far, a limited company is not even human. How then can paying interest to it be prohibited?[13]

To answer this, it helps to consider the relative ease in starting a limited company. Two Jewish partners could make their company limited, becoming the only shareholders and appointing a director. If this company lends money, it would be hard to argue that the interest is merely being paid to an independent, inhuman entity. The two partners have full control, and the director runs the company is merely their agent. If he acts against their wishes, he could be fired at any time.[14] Clearly then, taking interest under such circumstances is forbidden.

The same should be true with a thousand or a million equal shareholders, as being in a partnership does not exempt us from the prohibitions of the Torah. Theoretically, it could be forbidden for a Jew to own shares in a company that lends to Jews with interest (or a company that owns chametz on Pesach, as well as other examples).

Elsewhere, R' Moshe Feinstein explains why in reality this is not the case. As the main owners of the company usually keep enough shares for themselves to ensure that they maintain control, the vote that a regular shareholder gets is merely a fictitious pretence. Thus the regular shareholders do not really own part of the company, and all they have bought is the right to a share in the profits. Buying enough shares to get a significant say is indeed forbidden.[15]

It is clear to me that this is also the reason that R' Moshe does not allow borrowing from a 'Jewish' limited company with interest. If the majority shareholder or some of the significant shareholders are Jewish, he or they own part of the loan. Only the portion of the company 'owned' by the insignificant shareholders can be described as a loan from an inhuman entity.

Thus a person looking for a mortgage who does not want to rely on heter iska needs to find a bank whose significant shareholders are not Jewish. This is no easy task in Israel,[16] so we need to be a bit more creative. A bank with no major shareholders would not help, as then even the shares of the regular shareholders would be meaningful.[17]

Communal bodies

The only real solution I can think of is the use of a limited company whose major shareholders themselves are abstract, inhuman entities. The classic example is the government, whose funds should not be extractable by any individuals under any circumstances. One who borrows from the government is genuinely not borrowing from a Jew, irrespective of how religious the ministers may or may not be.

To the best of my knowledge, nowadays none of the Israeli banks are government owned. This is unlikely to change in the near future (nor would I want it to), but we don't need the government to help us here. All we need is to create a similar model, a body that has no real owners who can dissolve the company and take the funds for themselves. Any institution like a shul or community centre, or a network of such institutions, could be used.

It may sound unrealistic, but I believe that if there was enough will for it from serious religious Jews, it could be done. If such a plan was implemented and banks relying on heter iska lost some of their income, it may also encourage a more serious application of the 'iska' rules (see part 1).


[1] For example, if the main intention is for a payment to be made on time with no interest, penalties for late payment may be justifiable halachically.
[2] Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2, siman 62
[3] Minchas Shlomo, part 1, siman 28. The proofs seem watertight, but are only relevant according to his understanding of how to view limited companies.
[4] See Kiddushin 19b
[5] Although the person employed by the company responsible for this area must carry out his responsibility, this is not a personal debt. If he resigns from his job before the payment date, this responsibility will pass to someone else. There is not even any person who is ultimately responsible, as the shareholders can also sell their shares to others.
[6] See for example Yevamos 93a, and Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 209:4.
[7] This principle is known as situmta, based on the custom mentioned in the gemara in Bava Metsia 74a.
[8] Hagahos Mordechai, Shabbos section 473.
[9] Responsa of the Rosh 13:20.
[10] Responsa of the Chasam Sofer 5:65.
[11] See Pischei Teshuva, Choshen Mishpat 201:2.
[12] Mishna Bava Metsia 70b. Lending to a non-Jew with interest is forbidden rabbinically, although here many leniencies exist which are beyond the scope of this post.
[13] In fact some write that it is permitted. See R' Osher Weiss's article in T'chumin, volume 33.
[14] They also can dissolve the company at any time, taking the interest for themselves. In contrast, if the company borrows money, the lender cannot demand payment from the partners. The responsibility to pay (from the funds of the company) is the director's, and even if the director resigns all the shareholders have to do is to appoint a new director.
[15] Igros Moshe, Even Haezer 1:7
[16] Information about ownership of banks in Israel is available here (in Hebrew).
[17] If such a bank existed even outside Israel it would be problematic to borrow from it, as even one Jewish shareholder would be considered a genuine part-owner.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Loan Interest in the Modern World


Introduction

The Torah's prohibition on taking interest is well known. Seen by Chazal as a stealthy form of robbery,[1] one may question whether seeking ways to circumvent the issue is similar to finding ways to give a hechsher to pork.

Nevertheless, not only are leniencies found and implemented widely, but there is very little opposition to them. I have yet to see any recognised poskim who have rejected 'Heter Iska' (the mechanism used to evade the prohibition of interest) outright, although some impose certain limitations.

The reason for this is clear. World business revolves around interest. New discoveries and technology often need substantial funds, which could not be raised by generosity alone. The same is true on a smaller scale for private businesses.

Perhaps more critically in some eyes, most individuals in Eretz Yisrael also need to make use of heter iska when they take a mortgage on a home (if the loan is from a 'Jewish' bank). Even for those who don't, avoiding heter iska entirely is almost impossible. Almost every contract signed with a bank or other service provider contains clauses that involve the possibility of paying interest, halachically problematic even if it never ends up being paid.

The most fundamental question that needs to be addressed is whether ideally we would like to change all of this, and abolish interest payments entirely. Secondary issues are the validity of heter iska itself, and whether better alternatives could be found for those interested in the world as it is today.

Iska

Before we attempt to answer these questions, we need to describe the way that Chazal proposed to invest money for profit. If one person has a business idea but is short of capital for it, he can enter a partnership with an acquaintance who has the money. Both will take a share in any profits, but both will also have to absorb a share of any losses. As the 'borrower' is the one doing the actual work, he must be paid for this. Subsequently, his share in the losses must be lower than his share in potential gains.[2]

The halachic mechanism that this is based on is known as an iska. Part of the money is taken as a loan, and this part must always be paid back in full with no interest. The other part is a deposit and not a loan.[3] It remains the property of the investor, and profits or deficits made on it are his.

For example, the agreement could be that half will be a loan and half will be a deposit, and the payment the borrower receives for his time could be 10% of the profits. The net result is that the investor receives 40% of the profits, but must absorb 50% of any losses. If he doesn't want to take such a big risk, he could agree to take just 5% of the profits, or 10% of the losses (90% loan and 10% deposit, with 5% of the profits as the fee for the borrower's time).

The major difference between this system and loans with fixed interest is the risk factor for the lender. With a pure loan, the only risk involved is the potential inability of the borrower to pay back. The debt itself will always remain fixed, and can only be completely lost if the borrower dies or is bankrupted.[4] Even this risk can be decreased dramatically in the case of a mortgage.

With an iska, the 'lender' is really an investor. He enters into a business partnership with the 'borrower,' and if he has any sense he will only do this if he has great confidence in his partner. He may lose a large percentage of his investment, although he also has the potential to profit without limit.

In a world that only had iska arrangements and no loans with interest, one great advantage would be the care that people would have to take before investing. Worldwide financial crashes would probably not exist. Large companies would also have no incentive to exploit the more vulnerable by persuading them to take loans that they can't afford.

The possible disadvantage is that the hugely increased risk factor would mean that investors would not be nearly as free with their money. A person who does not have the funds to buy a house outright would not be able to take a mortgage as we know it. Payments of any money 'lent' for the house would be dependent on the property price, and such risk would make it impossible for banks to offer 50% mortgages.

I say that this is only a possible disadvantage, as lack of availability of mortgages would also drive house prices down. I invite the economists out there to describe more fully and clearly what all the results would be.[5] At the moment, I am unconvinced that the world with loan interest is better than it would be without.[6]

Heter Iska

However, this doesn't mean that we can ignore the situation around us. Whether we like it or not, the financial world of today revolves around interest. If only religious Jews stopped using heter iska, they would not get most of the benefits described above. We need to explain how heter iska works, and try to clarify when it can be used.

Heter Iska is an extension of the Iska principle described above. Let's say that someone needs a loan of twelve thousand shekel to start a business, to be paid back over a year. The lender wants total interest of 5%, so the twelve monthly repayments will be 1,050 shekels each. A similar result could be achieved by an iska, if for example the agreement is that the lender/investor takes a third of the profits, and the actual profit made by the business is 15%.

Obviously, the problem is that no business can guarantee to make a profit of 15%. Furthermore, the business could also lose money, in which case the investor would have to agree to absorb more than a third of the losses (let's say 50%). How can we come to arrangement when the lender does not want this risk (the normal situation)?

Heter Iska takes advantage of the fact that the amount of profit (or loss) made by the receiver of the money is often not provable. The two sides agree to an Iska with an additional agreement, that if the receiver cannot prove the contrary, the assumption will be that he made a certain profit (in our example, this would be 15%). Furthermore, any proof brought will only be valid if the receiver is willing to take an oath to ascertain the truth of his claim.[7][8]

The assumption is that given such conditions, the chances of the 'borrower' being able to prove a loss or a low profit are minimal. Thus under normal circumstances, the 'iska' will yield the same result as a loan with interest. Nevertheless, as I mentioned before, it is hard to find any condemnation of this as halachic trickery.[9]

I believe that heter iska is generally accepted because a situation where the investor loses out shouldn't really be that far-fetched. In some cases the 'borrower' is a company whose income and expenditure are meticulously recorded, and verified by auditors. It is true that even in these cases, the investor may be able to claim that a small element of doubt exists, and insist on the receiver taking an oath. But what if the receiver is willing to take an oath? And what if the investor believes the receiver?[10]

Theoretically, these cases are the ones that save heter iska from a halachic perspective. However, practically they could destroy its effectiveness. An honest investor who understands how heter iska works will be concerned at the fact that his profit is by no means guaranteed. As with other investments, he may well lose.

What actually happens?

The reality is that even when heter iska is used, the investor losing is unheard of. Whether cases have been brought before batei din or secular courts, the rulings have been similar. Although usually the validity of the heter iska itself has not been questioned, the courts have always found technical ways to reject the claims of the 'borrower' who suffered a loss. Such borrowers have even been criticised for trying to find excuses to get out of paying interest, and causing chilul Hashem!![11]

The reason that this happens is clear. If the borrower could avoid paying interest in these circumstances, the banks would soon stop using heter iska. 'Kosher' banks would not be financially viable, a situation that nobody wants.

It is hard to say whether this means that heter iska nowadays is null and void. Not enough has been written, either by batei din or by secular courts, to clarify exactly how it is viewed. Therefore my position is that although using heter iska is far from ideal, we cannot forbid it outright. Alternatives should always be pursued, but if there are none, those who need to use heter iska (i.e. almost everyone in Eretz Yisrael) are not transgressors.

To be continued

I still need to discuss possible alternatives to heter iska, and how we might be able to work to improve the situation. However, doing this now this would make this post too long, so it will have to wait for next time.


[1] See Bava Metsia 61a (the question of Rava there is difficult and not necessarily agreed upon, but at least after the Torah forbade taking interest it is considered equivalent to robbery).
[2] Bava Metsia 68b (see Rashi there).
[3] Bava Metsia 104b
[4] Under secular law. In Torah law, bankruptcy never absolves the borrower from paying (although it can delay payment until he is able to survive paying).
[5] I publicised this question here, but as yet the answers I have received are not sufficient.
[6] See also this article (in Hebrew), which concludes that is impossible to calculate which system would be better economically.
[7] Historically, many people were scared to take oaths even when they knew that they were telling the truth, and even when money was at stake. See the Ramban's critiques to Sefer Hamitzvos, Mitzvas Asei 7.
[8] See Terumas HaDeshen siman 302, the earliest source of such an arrangement (fifteenth century).
[9] See Shu"t Minchas Shlomo 1:26-8 where R' Shlomo Zalman Auerbach raises various problems he has with heter iska, but nevertheless states that he does not doubt the legitimacy of it at all.
[10] Another potential problem is that many loans are taken out to cover costs of non-profitable items. A mortgage on a home can definitely be considered an investment, whereas a loan needed to buy a car certainly cannot. This problem is circumvented by writing in the contract that the loan is also for the purposes of maintenance of all existing property of the 'borrower.' So even if the real reason for the loan is the purchase of a new car, we view it as covering the costs of the 'borrower' not selling his house to pay for the car. See also Shu"t Sho'el u'Meshiv, volume 1, part 3, siman 160.
[11] See this article (in Hebrew)

Friday, 21 September 2018

Superstition and the Supernatural


The Torah contains many commandments against various forms of witchcraft and superstition. Nevertheless, there seem to be several examples of superstition approved of by Chazal. In order to attempt to resolve the apparent contradictions, we need to try to clarify how we are supposed to relate to witchcraft, and what exactly the Torah is forbidding.

Necromancy

The first description that we have of use of a forbidden means of divining is when Shaul HaMelech asks the ov-woman to wake Shmuel HaNavi from the dead. We are told that Shaul knew that it was Shmuel, and that Shmuel admonished Shaul for awakening him. He then repeated a previous message that the kingdom has been taken from him, and added that tomorrow he (Shaul) would be with him (Shmuel, i.e. dead[1]).[2]

The language that Shaul knew that it was Shmuel seems to imply that it really was. The apparent corollary is that the prohibition of consulting an ov was made despite the fact that it really works. However, the Radak quotes a dispute between the Geonim about how to understand what happened, and all are in agreement that the actions of the ov are 'nonsense, empty, false and futility.' Some say that it was all a trick performed by the woman (and the word 'knew' is not meant literally). Others explain that in this case Hashem decided to resurrect Shmuel, shocking the ov-woman.

This position is corroborated by the Rambam, who writes: "All of these things (forms of divining) are false and dishonest, and they are the means that the early idolaters used to mislead the nations into following them. It is not fitting for Yisrael, who are the most wise, to be drawn after these nonsenses or to consider that they have any purpose. … Anyone who believes in these things or similar, and thinks that they are truth and a matter of wisdom, just that the Torah forbids them, is nothing but one of the fools and those lacking in understanding …"[3]

The Ramban disagrees, claiming that the results of divining have 'already been publicised in front of viewers.' He explains that when Hashem made the world He implanted in it a nature which would lead to various events, but He also gave the stars and other forces the power to change it. The Torah forbids Jews from using these forces to change the natural order, put in place by Hashem.[4]

The Vilna Gaon goes further, criticising the Rambam sharply. He writes: "Philosophy lead him (the Rambam) astray with most of its teachings, to explain the gemara all metaphorically and to detach it from its simple meaning. I do not, chas v'shalom, believe them, not part of them nor their multitudes. Rather, all the words (of Chazal) are according to their simple meaning, although they have depth. Not the depth of the philosophers, which must be thrown into the waste as it is really superficial. Rather, (the depth) of the possessors of truth."[5]

The Gaon is referring here to many cases where Chazal do seem to describe real powers of witchcraft. His strong belief in literal interpretations of Agada is extreme (see Drush and Divrei Agada), but in this case I am inclined to agree with his understanding of Chazal in the places that he quotes. However, this does not necessarily mean that this is the only view in Chazal.[6] And even if it was, this does not forbid us from thinking differently (see Divine Providence, Free Will and Coincidence).

Halachic Implications

The issue that is perhaps more bothersome for rationalists like myself is the seeming occurrence of halachos based on a real understanding of witchcraft. The clearest example of this is the distinction made between a 'magician' who 'does an action' and one who merely creates an illusion. One who does an action is punishable by death, whereas one who creates an illusion is exempt from (human) punishment.[7] If 'magic' has no real power, what is 'doing an action'?

In reality, this should not trouble us any more than the agaddic sources in Chazal that mention the power of witchcraft. Although the words of Chazal are absolutely binding for halachic purposes, this has very little relevance here. If someone 'did an action' of sorcery he would be liable to the death penalty, but any beis din has the right to decide that no action was done.[8]

Demons

We also find halachic sections of gemara that relate to the occurrence of demons. A mishna tells us that one who hears a voice coming from a pit giving instructions to write a get for his wife, may act upon these instructions as the agent of the one trapped in the pit.

The gemara questions why we are not concerned about the possibility that the voice might be that of a demon, deliberately misleading us. The gemara concludes that the rule of the mishna only applies if the one hearing the voice can also see a 'reflection of a reflection' of the person in the pit. Demons do not have a 'reflection of a reflection,' thus we can be sure that the one giving the instructions is a human being.[9]

The Rambam seems to ignore this explanation of the gemara. He states that one who hears a voice coming from a pit may carry out the instructions to write the get, without stipulating the need to see a 'reflection of a reflection.'[10] Various suggestions have been made as to how this fits into the gemara,[11] but to anyone familiar with the writings of the Rambam it is clear that a concern for demons was not something that he would be willing to consider as legitimate. There simply are too many laws related to mysticism that he omits from Yad HaChazaka.

What right did the Rambam have to do this? No-one can argue with halachic rulings of the gemara! Presumably, the answer is that when a halachic ruling is based on a certain perception of physical reality, we do have the right to reject this perception based on improved scientific knowledge (based on an assumption that Chazal would also have ruled differently with the benefit of the same knowledge). Only when it comes to understanding of the Torah, the authority of Chazal is absolute.[12]

Simanim

When it comes to defining what is forbidden as witchcraft, the rulings of the gemara are definitely binding. The gemara tells us that "regarding a house, a child and a woman, although there is no sorcery, there is a siman."[13] Rashi explains that the case is a person who built a house, had a baby or got married and subsequently succeeded or failed in a business venture (three times according to the conclusion of the gemara). It is forbidden to rely on this as a guarantee that this trend will continue, but there is a good chance that it will.

The Rambam explains differently. In all of these cases it is still forbidden to act differently based on the siman (even without relying on it a hundred percent). The only thing that is permitted is to comment after the fact that building a house, getting married etc. was a good siman.[14]

With this in mind, we can try to understand the idea behind simanim practice more widely. Elsewhere, the gemara says that since simanim are a genuine concept, a person should be used to seeing (some texts read: eating) a gourd, fenugreek, leek, beet and a date on Rosh Hashana.[15] The various commentaries explain that these things symbolise the things we want for the year ahead.

What exactly is the gemara saying we can achieve by seeing (or eating) these fruits? According to Rashi, perhaps these simanim may have some effect on the year ahead (although one mustn't rely on this). However, these simanim seem much more far-fetched than building a house, getting married or having a baby.

According to the Rambam, the only way I can see to resolve this gemara halachically is by explaining that the purpose of the simanim is not to directly affect the year ahead. They are to remind us that all the things we want in the year ahead are being decided on Rosh Hashana, and to act accordingly.

In reality, the Rambam does not mention these simanim at all in Yad HaChazaka (or anywhere else). It could well be that he felt that it contradicts the gemara about the house, the child and the woman. If it is forbidden to act differently based on simanim, it certainly is forbidden to orchestrate simanim in order to attempt to influence the future.

Miracles

Our distance from superstition is not because we are afraid of believing in anything supernatural. At least in my view, the various miracles performed by Hashem described by the Torah are to be taken reasonably literally, and not explained as naturally occurring phenomena.[16] I am aware that different opinions exist,[17] but I believe that there is not sufficient justification to stray from the simple meaning of the pesukim.

The severity that the Torah attaches to witchcraft and superstition is because we are supposed to direct our service to Hashem, and not to other imaginary forces (or even to real forces according to those who believe in them). The Rema quotes a dispute about making a siman for something in the future, and concludes (based on Tehilim 32:10): "The one who acts wholesomely and trusts in Hashem will be surrounded by kindness."[18]


[1] See also Brachos 12b, where Chazal explain that this is an allusion that his death would atone for his sins and bring him to Olam Haba.
[2] Shmuel 1, 28:7-19.
[3] Hilchos Avoda Zara 11:16
[4] Commentary on the Torah, Devarim 18:9-12. There seems to be an explanation there as to why Hashem gave such power to 'change His plans,' but at least for the moment I do not understand it.
[5] Bi'ur HaGra, Yoreh Deah 179:13
[6] See for example Avoda Zara 55a.
[7] Sanhedrin 67a
[8] Practically, this question would only come up after the Sanhedrin is restored, as until then beis din does not have the power to judge capital cases. And the Sanhedrin will have the right to reject even halachic rulings of Chazal, making the whole problem redundant.
[9] Gitin 66a
[10] Geirushin 2:13
[11] See for example Kesef Mishne ibid.
[12] In other words, Chazal's understanding of a Torah law is binding, but their understanding of science is not. For example, Chazal define for us what is considered melacha and thus forbidden on Shabbos. They decided that killing any creature that reproduces sexually is considered melacha, and we cannot argue with this definition. They also decided that lice do not reproduce sexually and thus may be killed on Shabbos (Shabbos 107b), but as this has been proved inaccurate by science this leniency should not be relied on (this topic is more complicated, see for example this article at length).
[13] Chulin 95b
[14] Avoda Zara 11:5. He also explains the case of the child differently, asking a child which passuk he is learning and inferring a good omen from it.
[15] Horayos 12a
[16] See Moreh Nevuchim 2:25, where the Rambam explains that the main proof that the world was created (and is not eternal) is from the supernatural wonders in the Torah.
[17] See for example Bechor Shor, Shemos 9:8
[18] Yoreh Deah 179:4