Letters – Rosh Hashannah
Chaim: Dear Rabbi Moshe-Ben Chaim, in reference to Chapter 10 of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s “HOREB”, Trust in God: “To those who are capable of improvement, God gives suffering in order that they may improve themselves, and misfortune is their greatest good fortune.” He continues, “Give thanks for our sufferings”. I am constantly trying to improve, and have extra help from my wife who is a “Tzadekas”, who daily shows me through her example how to get to the next madraga (level). My wife has been afflicted with aging health problems. Guess who is driving 2 times a week to Manhattan? Guess who is trying to find a parking spot in the Upper East Side. In order to be considerate of me, she squeezes three doctor appointments into one trip. She really loves me, and tries to minimize the number of trips. I truly love my wife, and am concerned for her, and pray every day for her ailments to be gone. According to Rabbi Hirsch, I’m supposed to be happy for her sufferings. Am I to give thanks for her suffering? Through her suffering, I am suffering. Am I to give thanks for my suffering too? I cannot reconcile these concepts with logic. Please explain. Did I misunderstand Rabbi Hirsch?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: As Maimonides states, afflictions have three sources: natural, social, and self-inflicted. Of course, God can administer the first two as a means of directing a worthy individual towards character traits requiring improvement and perfection. And the Talmud teaches that when sick, one should consult a wise person so as to learn of their poor character, and improve. But without an overt miracle, we do not know when God afflicts us, so we consider that possibility as real, and we reflect. Sometimes we abuse our bodies and this is why we fall ill. In this case, it is not a punishment, but it is yet God’s natural design to alert us to such bodily abuse. Sometimes our illnesses come with age, and again, this is God’s design to remove our energies from the physical world, as we approach our afterlife. And sometimes, the feelings we have of being afflicted have to do with our perspective. We may feel inconvenienced and thus, “afflicted”, but isn’t that worth the health of a dear one? Perhaps with improved perspectives, we will not view inconveniences as afflictions, and we will aspire for when we can assist others.
I understand and truly identify with you. Even with a correct outlook as you have, at times, it is truly burdensome. But if the tables were turned, would you feel that way? That is always a helpful consideration. “Do unto others as you would have them to you.” Perhaps too there are others who can lend a hand and lighten your load?
Heshy: What is the gravity of Ammon and Moab, that God prohibits their conversion to Judaism…forever?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Yes, God eternally prohibits a Moabite or Ammonite male from converting to Judaism. What was their offense that warrants such a grave response? The Torah writes as follows:
“There shall not enter an Ammonite or Moabite into the congregation of God, even to the tenth generation they shall not enter God’s congregation, eternally. An account that they did not prepare for you bread and water on the path when you exited Egypt, and [on account] that they hired for you Bilaam, from Pethor Aram on the Euphrates to curse you.”
We must ask why God did not also prohibit converts from Edom, who also prevented Israel from traversing their land, and who also did not provide bread and water to the Jews’ upon their exodus. Edom’s sin is apparently identical to the sin of Ammon and Moab. Ramban answers this question.
Ramban explains that Ammon and Moab were Lot’s sons, and Lot was Abraham’s nephew. Lot was spared from death due to Abraham’s merit, as God sent His angels to save Lot from the destruction of Sodom. As such, Ammon and Moab, the sons of Lot, became specially obligated to recognize Abraham and his descendants, since their very lives were directly due to Abraham. Now, as these two nations refused entry and provisions to Abraham’s descendants after they left Egypt who they should have recognized more than any other nation, and as they desired to curse his descendants, they were singled out from others like Edom, who transgressed similarly. This explains why only Ammon and Moab were punished, but it does not explain the gravity of their prohibition from conversion to Judaism, and also, that this prohibition is eternal. I wish to suggest the following.
Prohibition from conversion indicates a sin on a “national” level, since conversion, by definition, is from one nation, to another. Ammon and Moab were thereby sentenced on a national level, never to convert to Judaism…measure for measure. This explains the ‘nature’ of their punishment, but not the ‘duration’. Simultaneous with their withholding food and water and their curse, they wished to attack the Jews physically, and spiritually, respectively. This would result in the Jews’ extinction, both physically and spiritually. This is an eternal result. As such, Ammon and Moab were refused entry to the nation of Israel, eternally.
So their sin of not recognizing Abraham’s descendants resulted in a national prohibition on conversions, and the result of their sin, which would have had eternal repercussions, demanded that their punishment extend eternally.
Heshy: How is that a punishment/consequence? What is so severe about a prohibition to convert to Judaism? It seems like we should treat them like another nation; the only difference being they may not convert. It is not like they are harmed in any way.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: The prohibition to convert is not to harm the Ammonites and Moabites, but to call to mind the gravity of their ancestors’ sins who violated God’s will that Israel is favored. And if they choose, they may follow Noachide law and even more, not losing a chance at their own perfection. God does not place a person on Earth without affording each person an opportunity to live by God’s words. So like any other gentile, Ammonites and Moabites may keep most of the Torah, even without converting. Noachide law is a minimum that must be observed, not a maximum.
Permission vs. Validation
Reader: Dear Editor; While I am not personally a fan of segulas, particularly when done “blindly”, I find Rabbi Ben-Chaim’s recent articles on segulas very disturbing, not in its presentation of his philosophy against segulas, but in its attempt to invalidate any other philosophy in this regard. I write this in the spirit of “limud zechut” (finding merit in others) and “shiv’im panim le’Torah”, there are many facets to Torah.
Regarding the sources brought to show that all segulas are sorcery: the articles quote Maimonides’ ruling that “one who whispers over a wound” is prohibited as sorcery. However, the Shulchan Aruch, when citing this law in Yoreh Deah 179:8-9, limits the prohibition to a sick person, but says that in matters of life and death it is permitted, and also when used to protect a well person against harm, it is permitted. The validity of using these practices in matters of life and death makes it clear that the Shulchan Aruch does not question their effectiveness. Rather, the practice is prohibited in the case of a sick person regardless of its effectiveness.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: While I appreciate your admirable intent to find good in other philosophies, this intent must not blind us from truths.
You must ask yourself this question: why should a segula be effective for a dying person, but not for a sick person? If a segula works, then it works. If it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t. Your suggestion that segulas work intermittently admits of a contradiction, and we know the Torah does not contradict itself. Therefore, based on this inconsistent ‘permission’ – not validation – of segulas, reason forces us to seek a response other than your suggestion, that this permission proves the effectiveness of segulas.
In truth, permission does not equate to validation of effectiveness as you suggest. If you recall, when at war, a gentile woman normally prohibited in marriage, is ‘allowed’. Of course, it is preferable that one, who can, restrains himself from taking advantage of such permission. Rashi explains this temporary permission is because the Torah does not forbid that which man cannot control. The Torah recognizes a few cases where man’s emotions are triggered, to the point that a prohibition is futile, and therefore, the command is suspended. This in no way condones this rarely permitted act of marrying a gentile, but merely indicates man’s feeble nature, and inability to cope with certain, few circumstances. As a Rabbi explained: in war, man’s triumph over his enemy escalates his ego, to the point, that he will express this victorious sensation over a conquered, subservient gentile woman. The feeling of triumph does not quell quickly, it seeks further expression, and cannot be controlled. Therefore, the Torah does not prohibit a gentile woman, in this case. The same I believe is the case when one’s relative or child is at risk of life: one panics, and the Torah suspended the prohibition until he returns to his senses. He is “permitted” to recite verses, only in this case. But such permission does not mean the incantations are effective. They are not. They cannot effect any change, since there is no causal relationship between words, and bodily well-being. In his conclusion to his laws of sorcery, Maimonides writes this:
“And these things [listed herein] are all fallacy and lies. They are what the original star worshippers misled the gentile nations to accustom themselves after them. And it is not fitting that Israel, who are very wise, be drawn after these futilities, and they shall [also] not assume they afford any help...But wise people, with complete knowledge know with clear proofs that all these matters prohibited by Torah, are not wise matters, but they are emptiness and futile...and because of this, the Torah prohibited them.” (Paraphrased, ibid, 11:16)”
Reader: The Shach also points out that saying verses to protect a healthy person is no different from saying Shima before bed.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: This act of study to shield one from future mishaps is permissible, provided one is not ill. The Shima endorses one’s good acts as a means of securing future reward for such meritorious acts…but this is a general promise of success…no specific bodily healing is mentioned. But to suggest Torah verses cure existing illnesses is to suggest a causal relationship in specific that is baseless.
Reader: Regarding the claim that there are no sources supporting use of segulas: Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 179:12 and 16 permit, in some circumstances, the use of Kemiyot (amulets with Divine Names, but not with verses) and enlisting help of demons (to find stolen objects, not for health). While each is restricted, the permission to use each in certain circumstances indicates the Shulchan Aruch’s belief in their effectiveness despite their sometimes being prohibited.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Again, permission in rare cases must not be construed as validation of any assumed effects. And as we stated, the Rabbis explained “demons” as “imaginary people”. The Talmud states that demons are “encountered” only when man is isolated. The examples given are mountaintops, deserts, caves, and at night, when others are not around. In all these cases, the Talmud states one must not give greetings to them. This is because talking to one’s imagination elevates that fantasy, to reality, when the reality is false: “Midvar Shekker Tirchak”, “From a lie, distance yourself”. Solitary confinement is the worst punishment in prison. Why? Because man is a social being, and requires company over all other psychological needs. When alone for too long, man imagines he sees others, as a means of comforting his severe loneliness. However, it appears the reason why one may inquire from a demon about a lost object, may be akin to a panicked state when one’s loved one is at risk of death. Some people love their money more than their lives, so the Rabbis again could not prohibit one from talking to imaginary forces when one cannot adhere to such a command, due to his severe trepidation.
Reader: For sources earlier than the Shulchan Aruch, one currently practiced segula, wearing a ruby to prevent miscarriages, is mentioned by Rabbeinu Bechaya in his commentary on Exodus 28:15, where he connects the segula to his understanding of the ruby’s significance in the Priest’s garments.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Perhaps some earlier scientific facts became exposed as falsehood. Would you continue to accept those facts, just because a Rabbi years ago did so? Better yet, if the Rabbis said to eat a certain food, now proved cancerous, would you eat it? Or shall we do as the Rabbis did in the Talmud who admitted to the Greeks of their inferior knowledge in certain areas? Of course, when new facts unveil fallacy in previously held views, we abandon falsehood in place of fact. Rubies have no effect on miscarriages, certainly if not ingested. And be mindful, this is not an area of Jewish law, but of philosophy, where there are no mandatory “rulings”.
Reader: Regarding the claim that belief in segulas contradicts the principle of Reward and Punishment: Segulas no more contradict Reward and Punishment than prayer, or that specific mitzvot are “ma’avirin et ro’ah ha’gzeira”, remove the evil decree of our punishments, which is true. There is no philosophical problem with saying that someone who uses a segula will receive reward for the belief in Hashem that is implied by his or her use of the Segulah.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: You make a mistake here. Prayer is an activity where one reviews his life, determines what will assist his Torah lifestyle, and requests God to assist him. This activity improves the person, as he reflects, changes his ways, and is therefore worthy of God’s intervention. But what has a person done to his character when carrying an amulet? He has done nothing to gain God’s mercy. Your equation is false.
Reader: There is also no problem philosophically in saying that segulas are physical acts that will lead someone to particular beliefs, such as opening the ark leading someone to think about the sanctity of things being taken out, which indirectly lead to their effectiveness as reward.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: But God commanded us not to add to His Torah. Had God warranted this activity, He would have commanded it. Since He did not, it can only damage us, for God knows all that we need. Addition to or subtraction from Torah destroys Torah, and our lives. Furthermore, this is a violation of a Torah law.