Letters June 2006
Dear Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim, In reference to your article regarding the validity of segulas I would share the following experience with your readers:
My wife and I struggled with infertility issues for 9 years before we were blessed with the first of what would be 3 children. During that time a family member approached us with several of these segulas from a leading rabbinical leader in Eretz Yisrael. While the intentions of the family member were clearly well placed, I had to point out to them that there were, beyond the halachik issues pointed out in your article, very practical halachik issues on which there are no disputes.
Segulah #1- The woman should purchase a “gartel” for a sefer Torah. She should go to the shul and replace the gartel on one of its sifrei Torah with the new gartel. She should then take the used gartel and wear it about her mid-section as much as possible.
Problem: The gartel on the Sefer Torah is considered to be Tashmishei Kedusha. It is considered to be a denigration of that status as Tashmishei Kedusha to use the Sefer Torah gartel for any other purpose than to wrap a Sefer Torah and therefore such a use would be prohibited.
Segulah #2- Brew a tea out of the leaves of a particular plant. The husband and wife are to drink this tea together while saying the “Anah HaShem Hoshiya Na” (Psalms 118) repeatedly.
Problem: Other than the fact that a physician said that this brew would likely make us both quite sick, the saying of the verse presents another problem. Namely, the verse as it appears in Psalms 118 encompasses both of the “Anah HaShem’s” as said in Hallel. When said within the framework of Hallel, where each part of the verse is repeated independently, this follows the directive of the Sages who formulated the Hallel based on the Psalms. However, to say only the first part of the Pasuk repeatedly with the “Shaym HaShem” would most likely be a violation of the prohibition of “Lo Sisa es Shaym HaShem la shav”- taking the name of God in vain. It also represents a distortion of the pasuk, which presents another problem.
Needless to say, we did not take either of these suggestions.
Yet another “segulah” comes to mind and unfortunately is practiced in shuls far and wide. It is the practice of giving the husband of an expectant woman in her 9th month the kibud of Pesicha -the opening of the ark for the removal and replacement of the Torah. Supposedly, this segulah is for ensuring an easy delivery.
I would point out to those who practice this, the following:
1. Let us assume that there is some type of validity to this that is beyond our understanding. Shouldn’t the soon-to-be father be limited to opening the ark only for the removal of the Torah? One can see a correlation between opening the ark for removal of the Torah, but clearly none for the replacement of it. (Although many bleary-eyed parents might wish they could “put the baby back” during those 3:00 AM feedings)
If the curtain or doors were to jam, would that then be a sign that labor would be difficult? Should a husband risk his wife’s health and well-being?
Why is there no practice for the prospective father to avoid pesicha up until the point where the fetus is viable and could live outside the mother’s body? If pesicha has some effect on bringing on labor, then perhaps it should be avoided until such time that premature labor would not be detrimental to the health of mother and child?
And if one pursues this logic, perhaps no husband whose wife might even possibly be pregnant should open and close the ark lest he “tempt the ayin harah” and cause his wife to miscarry?
2. Let’s assume that there is a psychological benefit to this practice. Akin to the 2 segulas above (the gartel and the tea which both involve the woman), wouldn’t it make sense for the woman to open the ark? Or at minimum her husband should have to inform her that he opened the ark? If one assumes a psychological benefit, wouldn’t the pregnant woman require some awareness of what transpired at shul?
Clearly all these practices are foolishness. When I have confronted those in shul with the illogical nature of the practices they are quick to laugh at how absurd they are, and yet, they persist in practicing them regularly. They insist “it can’t hurt”.
Yet every time it happens it only serves to reinforce the superstitious beliefs that have weaved their way into our culture and must be rejected.
As you have pointed out, when we look into the Torah we find that our Avos and Imahos had but one singular response to the pain of infertility, namely Tefilah. They clearly understood that our prayers are to be directed towards the Creator and that such foolish practices have no place.
Thank you for your most cogent presentation.
RJF, Rockville, MD
This letter was sent by a friend to another person, attempting to explain segulas, and submitted this week to share her thoughts:
I’m a good friend of Ch-------- ‘s, and she probably passed this on to me because she suspected that I am opposed to these types of things ;)
First, I’d like to say that it sounds like what happened to you was horrible. To be so harshly accused when your only intention is to do chessed is a slap in the face. It’s so nice that you are so concerned for the community and are making such an effort to help people out.
Certainly you are not, as you put it, an “evil anti-Torah person!” You made very clear arguments that this is prevalent in the Jewish community, that people acknowledge hakol bidei shamayim (everything in the hands of Gd) but still do silly things, and that this can have a positive psychological impact. Implying you are a rasha (wicked person) is not the most effective way to give tochacha (rebuke)! And it’s unfair because it’s not rishus if someone is trying to help people! At worst, it would be shogeg (accidental). I can see from your arguments that you are a clear thinker who values helping people. The best approach would have been to have a discussion with you, not to accuse you! The thought of you being accused like that makes me outraged on your behalf.
I remember Ch----- telling me that her Rav permitted this practice. I believe he permitted it on the grounds that there is a strong mind/body connection and things that psychologically give a woman hope are permitted. It is true that for it to work psychologically, the woman has to on some level be superstitious, but clearly although this is not the bravest level of functioning the rabbi did not assur (forbid) it. As I myself confront infertility and severe pregnancy losses, I am very familiar with the desperation and superstition that comes from the loss of control. It has been my experience that these customs of doing superstitious things manifest in areas of loss of control: sick people, people who need parnasa, people who are trying to get married; in other words, all people who have tzoros. I personally do think that the Jewish ideal is to attempt to not act on these fears (I will explain further), and that it is not ideal to encourage a desperate woman to engage in superstition. That being said, I also understand how desperate people can be and telling them that they are engaging in idolatrous behavior is most likely not going to be helpful!
The basis of my understanding of the Torah approach to superstition is from Devarim 18:9-13. Specifically, there is a prohibition of nichush (superstition) and inun (signs). This is grouped together with idolatry, psychics, séances, consulting the dead, and performing magic (not sleight of hand). Pasuk 13 says “tamim tehiyeh im hashem elokecha,” that we should be tamim, whole or complete, with Hashem. Rashi says on that pasuk: “Go after Hashem completely and put your hopes in Him and do not chase after the futures (fortune telling, etc.); rather, whatever will happen to you accept with wholeness and then you will be His nation and His portion.”
I understand from this that all of these behaviors come from a person trying to know the future, to gain control over a situation where he is powerless. The Torah urges us not to give in, but rather, to be tamim with Hashem. You yourself recognized that doing these things is a contradiction on some level to total acceptance of Hashem’s supremacy. We know from Yaakov Avinu when in trouble when meeting with Eisav, the 3 things he did: 1) he planned for war, 2) sent a present, and 3) prayed to Hashem. He did 2 things using the laws of nature, and one thing to access hashgacha (Divine Providence). All we have are the laws of nature (medical treatments, psychology, etc.) and Hashem’s help (teshuva, tefilla, tzedaka). Segulas, unless they fall into these 2 categories, are not part of the formula passed down to us by our Avos.
Let’s look at segulas more closely. How do they work? How does it work, that a woman, who goes into the mikvah after a pregnant woman, will become pregnant?
There are a couple of possibilities. 1) There is something “mystical” about the water or the act, which causes her to become pregnant. 2) Hashem causes her to be pregnant because she does this act. (if you can think of other possibilities, please let me know).
We know that there is nothing in the laws of nature that would cause an infertile woman to become pregnant after going into the mikvah after a pregnant woman. Also, as you mentioned, it is clearly not a mitzva (any more than if she had immersed not following a pregnant woman), that the act would bring the woman to a higher spiritual level and make her worthy of divine intervention. We also don’t maintain that the waters have been infused with spiritual power, because according to the Torah objects don’t have power. Only Hashem has power. When Moshe raised his staff and did miracles, it wasn’t Moshe and it wasn’t the staff. It was Hashem.
If we say that Hashem causes her to become pregnant because she did this act, then this is a breach of justice. As it says in parshas Haazinu (Devarim 32:4): “the Rock, His actions are perfect, because of all His ways are justice; a God of faithfulness and no iniquity, He is tzadik and straight.” If you have 2 women, both on the same spiritual level, and both daven and do good deeds, but one immerses in the mikvah after a pregnant woman and one does not, then on what basis should Hashem respond to that one? Immersing does not make her spiritually more elevated, and it does not access any laws of nature. Or what if a woman who is not worthy and does immerse, will she be answered, when her more worthy counterpart who doesn’t immerse won’t be answered?
I am interested to hear what you think of this approach to segulas.
The way I handle segulas is that if I can only understand it in a superstitious way, I will not do it. Three times I have come across explanations for segulas.
1) Shiluach hakan. The sefer chinuch explains that when a person sends the mother bird away, he is involved in preservation of the species. It is Hashem’s will that species be preserved. Because he engages in this, he is rewarded by children (continuation of the human species). This strikes me as a “midah k’neged midah” reward (measure for measure), ie, hashgacha.
2) Eating the esrog after Succos. I actually just heard this explanation this year, attributed to the Rav. According to the opinion that the fruit of the etz hadaas (tree of knowledge) was an esrog, the woman sinned and ate the esrog and now has trouble with childbearing. During Succos the esrog is assur in hana’ah (forbidden in non-mitzva use). By eating the esrog after Succos, the woman demonstrates that she is being careful about this prohibition, and this is a correction of the original chet (mistake) and perhaps will remove some of the punishment. This also fits into hashgacha.
3) Having a ruby to prevent miscarriage. I read the Rabbenu Bachya on it. He explains that grinding up the ruby into a powder and eating it was thought to prevent miscarriage (laws of nature, which we currently know isn’t true) and that it was Reuven’s stone on the kohen gadol’s breastplate. Reuven brought the dudaim (mandrakes) to Rachel, and Reuven represents the middah (character trait) of teshuva (repentance). This is either a psychological effect, which is laws of nature, or teshuva is a way of activating hashgacha.
I have not yet heard anything that explained immersing in the mikvah after a pregnant person, as a method of either the laws of nature, or hashgacha. (There is the psychological element, as I mentioned, which is why perhaps some rabbis permit it, but it is only effective if a person is superstitious, in the way that a rabbit’s foot will only psychologically help a person do well on a test if he’s superstitious and believes on some level that it will help). It seems to me that in a superstitious manner, the water is assumed to be “infused” with the fertility of the pregnant woman and is figuratively or imagined to be “passed on” to the infertile woman.
I’ve gone on at length; this is a subject that is dear to my heart. I hope I was clear and not too long-winded. Please let me know what you think, and if there is anything that isn’t clear, please ask.
I hope you are recovering from being accused in that manner. I really feel like it is super unfair because it is such a widespread thing that goes on in the frum Jewish community. It’s not like breaking Shabbos, where if you do that you can’t maintain that you are Orthodox. Superstition is a very challenging area, and many people have tzoros.”
Rabbi, I have been thinking hard about the concept of ‘freedom’. It seems from your articles (I don’t remember which one) you hold that a truly free person is the man of Torah, a man of chachma. Now let’s say such a man of Torah manages to become a navi, a prophet. Now let’s leave that for a moment and go back to Sinai. The Rabbis have been quoted as saying; it was as if a mountain was hanging over the people’s heads, so that the (God’s) reality was so strong that they couldn’t refuse the Torah. From what I see that was not an ideal way of doing things, but it was necessary for that time only. Am I correct?
So going back to our man who happens to be a navi, one would say he understands the mitzvos very well and the ideas of Torah are even more real to him, than the physical world. When confronted with a situation, e.g. stealing a million dollars, he rejects such temptation immediately since he understands very well WHY such an action is bad for him. Contrast this to someone like us who will decide not to steal the money because we don’t want to get caught and go to jail. My point is that the navi seems to have less freedom that the rasha (evil person). I came to this conclusion after hearing how the Rambam explained that we could never have a truly spiritual life on earth since the physical pleasures would not be appealing compared to the ‘true good’ (Torah). This will translate to no free will. The man of Torah of course is much closer to that state of no free will, as he is much more removed from the physical.
Unless of course the Torah has a
different meaning of freedom, in which case I would like to hear it.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Omphile, “yes”, the Rabbis do state that the Jews experienced coercion at Sinai, meaning, not the best of conditions for accepting Torah. This is because Sinai proved God’s existence beyond any doubt. And as they could not deny God’s existence, they were left with “no choice” but to accept the Torah, “as if” the mountain was suspended over their heads in coercion. The Rabbis actually say this: “God held Sinai over their heads and said, ‘Accept the Torah, otherwise, this will be your burial place’. “ Of course this is a metaphor. Sinai was necessary, as God desires man to use his intellect, and therefore, He provided man with a proof of His existence. Sinai’s goal was not coercion, rather, a proof. However, coercion was unavoidable.
Regarding free will, one who sees the truth clearly, in a manner, has less choice: since the truth is so clear to him, he sees no other option, like Sinai. But understand, that free will is never removed.
We learn that God designed man in such a manner, that the good, the truth, is that which he gravitates towards, and feels compelled to select. In this respect, God is quite kind in His design of humans, forging our psyches I a way that we desire that which is beneficial.
What does it mean when a Tzaddik or a Gadol Hador dies? I heard that it is like the Temple was destroyed and that it is atones for our sins. But at the same time we know of the Pasuk: “Each man in his own sin will die” (Deut. 24:16). Is this then a contradiction, or a totally different idea?
Thank You, Heshy
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Heshy, the method for approaching the answer, is to first understand what “atones” means. When one is atoned for his sins, it means his previous flaw is gone; the necessity for a corrective measure is no longer required. This may be initiated in two fashions: internally through repentance, and externally, when one recognizes a value based on events witnessed, and then follows a new truth. When the righteous people die, what happens? We stop, and reflect on their lives. We recognize their values, and admire their devotion to truth. We are moved to follow in their footsteps, and we are then perfected in doing so. We are “atoned”, as we no longer cleave to our flaws, thanks to the shining examples they set for us.
Similarly, we are told in a midrash, that Rachel exuted her tomb and prayed for the Jews when the Jews passed her gravesite during Nevuzaadraan’s exile. Certainly, Rachel did not exit her grave and pray. But the Jew who literally did pass by her tomb, and reflected on her, could be likened to those for whom Rachel prayed: just as Rachel’s prayer could effectuate atonement, so too, the Jews’ reflecting on Rachel’s righteousness at that moment had an effect on their values.
Does God Have Emotions?
Numbers XIV, sentence 34, “And ye shall know My displeasure.” The Jewish Times, No.32, June 23, 2006, page 6 states, “God is devoid of human emotion.”
I am having difficulty reconciling your statement “God is devoid of human emotion”, when the Chumash uses the word “My displeasure.” Pleasure and displeasure are descriptions of the human experience. God is not human. Does God need pleasure? “Vengeance is Mine!” sayeth the Lord. From these two examples, it looks like God is very emotional.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Maimonides explains in the commencement of his work, the Guide for the Perplexed, that such expressions are merely a means to educate man in his own language and terms. “The Torah speaks in the language of man.” God’s “anger” means His “disapproval”. His “pleasure”, refers to that which He desires. His “vexation” means that which goes against His will. “Smelling a sweet savor” means He approves of man’s sacrifices.
God has no emotions, as emotions are His creations, and therefore, subsequent in time to His nature, by definition.