Many beliefs abound in Jewish communities today. For these many beliefs, there exists no Torah basis. Torah demands we adhere to truth and not fool ourselves; we are to follow only those ideas based in reality, and Torah alone is the exclusive authority on what is real. When instructing us in Torah, our great Rabbis quoted Torah verses or Talmudic sources.
To insure that the Judaism we follow is authentic, and not based on human fabrication, we too must follow the Rabbis’ lead, and only practice and believe those ideas and acts that are found in the Torah, or in the Talmud. If however, we observe other religious Jews practicing that which is not located in these sources, we must realize that such practices are not from the Torah, but from man. It must not matter to us if the practitioner is a great leader, or a Rabbi, for all humans err, including Moses. Therefore, assuming any leader today is infallible, or that what is found in books must be true, one subscribes to false beliefs. We must adhere to the Torah’s words, or to sources in the Talmud as being the exclusive and final word.
Having made that introduction, it behooves us to further examine our Torah’s opinion regarding a series of topics we have recently addressed here in the JewishTimes. Until now, we have attempted to communicate the fallacy of amulets, segulas, and all Nichush (sorcery) practices prohibited by the Torah. We have cited Maimonides – one of our greatest minds – as clearly prohibiting any act, which claims that naturally unrelated causes will generate some desired effect. For this reason, Torah prohibits rabbit’s feet and horseshoes, as they are unrelated to the desired result of success or wealth. Similarly, Chamsas, Red Bendels, Challas with keys or lucky pennies, are all permutations of the same prohibition. All of these items possess no property, which affects success, health, wealth, or pregnancy...or any other imagined benefit And if one uses these objects in practice, then this person violates a Torah prohibition of Nichush – not to practice sorcery. Sorcery falls under the larger heading of idolatry, the very antithesis to Torah and One God, and is prohibited precisely because it is false. As beings granted with intelligence as God wishes, we are to live by wisdom and proofs, what our minds determine is true. We are not to perform an act that is baseless, based in blind faith, or function with simple acceptance, as do the other religionists.
What has become popular today is the recitation of Tehillim (Psalms) when a person falls sick. Although meaning well, practitioners must ask honestly, “Is this condoned by the Torah?” before practicing. Certainly, we must ask if Tehillim’s author – King David – endorsed this practice of recitation as a means of bodily healing. From reading Tehillim, we learn that King David offered praises to God for His multiple manifestations of salvation, and for His works in nature, what we refer to as “Hashgacha Pratiyos, and Hashgacha Klaliyos”, or individual and general (natural) providence. But we do not read that King David practiced Tehillim recitation when his son fell sick, or for any other tragedy or mishap. King David’s response was Tefilah – prayer. This is what our Rabbis have instructed us to do when we are sick, or if we are in any need of God’s assistance for ourselves, or others. But we do not find that recitation, with the understanding that it “automatically cures” is an acceptable practice. “Studying” Tehillim – not mere recitation – is another matter, and admirable. But reciting Tehillim alone, with no subsequent prayer is not the Torah’s response.
It is appropriate to reprint a recent translation of Jewish law:
“The prohibition against employing charms” (Sefer Chinuch, Mitzva 512)
[That] We were restricted not to make incantations about any matter. In substance, this refers to a man who will say words, then tell people that those words helped or caused harm in any particular matter. About this it is stated, “There shall not be found among you...a charmer (Deuteronomy 18:10-11).” In the language of the Midrash Sifre: It is all the same thing, whether a person casts a charm on a snake or casts a charm on a scorpion — in other words, he says words over them so that they won’t bite him, according to his opinion. So too if one says words over a wound in order to be relieved of the pain (i.e. recites a pasuk to cure a wound).
Now perhaps, my son, you might pose a question to me from what we read in the Talmud Shevuos 15b: The Psalm against evil occurrences is with lutes and lyres (Psalms 91), and then he says Psalm 3. In other words, the recital of these Psalms is of use to provide protection from harm. And it says in tractate Brachos 3a: R. Joshua b. Levi would say these verses and go to bed.
this matter is not similar (perish the thought) to the business of a charmer
that we mentioned. Long ago, the Sages of blessed memory said in this regard
(Shevuos 15b): It is forbidden to heal oneself with words of Torah. Yet they
mentioned to say these Psalms, since they contain words that inspire the soul
that knows them, to shelter in the Eternal Lord, place all his trust in Him,
establish a reverent fear of Him firmly in his heart, and rely on His kindness
and goodness. As a result of his awareness about this, he will be protected,
without any doubt from every harm. This is what was answered in the Talmud in
this regard. For it was asked there, but how could R. Joshua do this? Here R.
Joshua said it was forbidden to heal oneself with words of Torah! And the reply
was given: To secure protection, it is a different matter. In other words, the
Torah did not forbid a man to say words of Torah so as to arouse his soul in a
good direction, so that this merit should shield him to protect him.” (End of
Note: Recitation without understanding cannot possibly be considered something that helps a person focus on the concepts of bitachon, fear of Hashem, and reliance on His kindness. A person’s merit protects him, not the words of Psalms. He gains merit when he ponders the words of Psalms and they become real to him, not when he recites them without understanding them. (Translation and notes by Jessie Fischbein)
Accordingly, what truly protects us is God alone, and only for those of us who come close to Him in study. So if one “studies” Tehillim, he or she brings him/herself closer to God, and God will surely protect them. But mere recitation is not condoned here. Additionally, the Talmud teaches that one may only practice this if he is healthy, but if one is sick and desires the removal of an illness based on reciting Tehillim, this is prohibited. We must understand this distinction.
The Mishna and Talmud state that one, who recites Torah verses intending to heal a wound, loses his share in the World to Come. One source is found in Talmud Shavuot mentioned above. The Talmud describes how certain Torah verses were recited in connection with sacrifices and with afflictions. Rabbi Yehoshua then asks:
“How is it permissible for one to recite Torah verses to heal an illness, for Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi stated [elsewhere] ‘It is prohibited to heal one’s self with words of Torah’. [The Talmud answers,] “To shield one’s self is different [permitted]. But when we said it is prohibited, applies only to a case where one has a wound: if one has a wound, it is prohibited, but if he has no wound, it is permissible.’ [The Talmud then asks,] ‘It is only prohibited, and nothing worse? But have we not learned, ‘One who recites verses over his wound has no share in the World to Come?’ Rabbi Yochanan answered, ‘This applies to one who spat on his wound and then recited a verse, for one must not recite God’s name [in a Torah verse] next to spittle’.”
Rabbi Yochanan clarified that one loses his share in the World to Come only when he recited God’s name (a verse) over a wound where he spat. But if he did not spit, although he does not forfeit the World to Come, the recitation over a wound is still a prohibition. It must be clear: no view permits any recitation to remove an illness. The distinction made by Rabbi Yochanan is that to forfeit the World to come, one must recite a verse next to spittle, whereas others claim this forfeiture happens regardless of the presence of spittle. But all views – with or without spittle present – make clear that reciting a verse for healing purposes is prohibited.
“One who whispers over a wound, or recites a Torah verse, and also one who reads for an infant so it should not be worried, and on who places a Sefer Torah or Tefillin on a minors so they might sleep, it is insufficient for them that they are considered enchanters (Nachashim) and diviners (Chovrim), but they are in the category of deniers of the Torah -- Kofrim -- rendering Torah as a bodily remedy, when the Torah is truly only a remedy for the soul.”
Maimonides teaches that Torah has one purpose: to benefit our souls, not our bodies. This makes sense, since Torah is “ideas” and not a medicinal substance. Assuming a healing property exists in recitations is as idolatrous as any other practice, like rubbing a rabbit’s foot for good luck. It matters none that the object of the idolatrous practice is, in one case, an animal’s limb, or in another, a Torah object. If Torah does not sanction the goal, then one is projecting magical, false beliefs, and this is the prohibition.
Similarly, a mezuza is not a protection for the body, and if one acts so, he forfeits his share in the World to Come. There is no reason to distinguish between a mezuza and Tehillim.
But we must now return to what the Talmud does permit: recitation of Torah verses to “shield” us is permitted, – not “heal” us. What is the difference?
Gilyon M’harsha writes,
“If one affixes the mezuza for the reason of fulfilling the command, one may consider that as reward for doing so he will be watched by God. But, if one affixes the mezuza solely for protective reasons, it in fact has no guidance, and the mezuza will be as knives in his eyes”.
These are very strong words. But what is his lesson? He is teaching us that God is the only source of protection, and that physical objects have no power. Rather, if one feels they do, these objects, even a mezuza, will be the opposite, “knives in his eyes” - something destructive. We say every day, “He (God) alone is the master of wonders”. This means that nothing but God can affect our lives negatively, or positively. Maimonides also teaches that one – who is healthy – may recite songs or Tehillim, and assume that in the merit of such a recital, he will be shielded from mishaps. So why are we allowed to recite Tehillim to shield us, but not to cure us, or others?
I believe the difference is simple. Reciting Tehillim to heal a sick person assumes a baseless notion that a direct cause and effect relationship exists between Torah words, and bodily welfare. However, the Torah and reality provide no grounds for this assumption. Again, Torah words have the sole purpose of benefiting our souls.
The Rabbis unanimously agree: if one “studies” the Torah’s words and is inspired by these truths, or if one performs mitzvahs, then he or she can rest assured that God will protect from all mishap. But we must stress that this applies only to the “performer” of these correct acts, and not another person. So even if one correctly studies Tehillim, this cannot affect another person. That sick person is in need of these perfecting acts on their own. Of course, we must pray for others, for if we do not, then we are at fault for lacking love for others.
In the end, we find no source, or reasoning, that endorses the belief that the mere recital of Tehillim – or any words – will cause any benefit to anyone. The opposite is true: it is prohibited. While it is praiseworthy that so many Tehillim groups exist, any act we perform must come under the direction of Torah law, which we have elaborated upon here. Reciting Tehillim to remove illness is prohibited. Studying Torah and performing mitzvahs will earn us God’s protection, if we are healthy and not seeking a cure. For if we think we can cure existing illnesses with Torah’s words, we thereby attribute false healing powers to something incapable of healing, as the Rabbis taught, “It is prohibited to heal one’s self with words of Torah”.
Practically, what shall we do moving forward? This must be answered in two parts: 1) how do we help ourselves, and 2) how do we help others. For ourselves, we have the answers: we follow Torah law, and continue to study. And if we are ill, the Talmud suggests: (Tal. Baba Basra, 116b) “Rabbi Pinchas said, ‘If one has a sick person in his house, he shall travel to a wise person who shall seek mercy for him, as it is said, ‘The anger of a king is the angel of death, but a wise person will atone’.” Why should one seek a “wise person” as opposed to another? The answer is because the matter of the sick person requires investigation, only possible through a wise person who can uncover our faults, and hopefully enlighten us to a path of repentance. But we cannot recite Torah words assuming any healing powers, nor did the Talmud suggest this. And for others who need healing, we should pray for them, and advise them of a wise person who can investigate the person, and enlighten them to their flaws. But again, reciting Torah words or Tehillim is not the Torah’s prescribed remedy.
As Rabbi Reuven Mann recently recalled, “It could be due to the merit of another more perfected person, that I will obtain God’s favor: God might save me, since my death could negatively impact another person.” This however does not remove the prohibition to recite Tehillim for any sickness, for anyone. This concept stated by Rabbi Mann means – as the Torah taught – that God will intercede on behalf of one person, due to the perfection of another. Thus, God saved the Jews during the Golden Calf, due to Moses’ prayer. God may also save my friend today, if his illness negatively impacts me, and, if God is that concerned for me based on my level or perfection. But who am I to say that God will save my friend based on my prayer? Surely, the correct approach is that the sick person gains contact with a wise person. And even in the case where God saved the Jews due to Moses, Moses was the most perfected person, and even then, it was only due to God’s instructing Moses to pray, that Moses did so, and that it was effective. But until instructed by God, Moses did not feel he could do anything for the Jews. Rashi said he was weak and was not going to pray. So we are not at liberty to determine when prayer is effective, although we must pray in any case, for it might be.
Since Moses did not feel his actions could save the Jews, how can we be certain that our actions will save our friends, or the sick? I am not sure, but we could “study” Tehillim, gain more knowledge about God, and perhaps as God would protect us due to the merit of Torah study and our mitzvahs, God “may” save another person for whom we pray, if we find favor in His sight through our proper performances.
The certain path we must take is what the Torah prescribes. So we must all follow the Torah meticulously, and not continue practicing what might be popular, or intuitively “correct”. We must be concerned for others, and again, it is admirable that so many Tehillim groups exist. But we must reevaluate such groups in light of the Torah’s sources. We will surely not gain God’s favor, if we think Tehillim itself is a cure. It is truly harmful to the sick, and ourselves if we recite Tehillim, assuming ideas rejected by Torah.
May we all continue to reevaluate our ways, and abandon false beliefs not found in Torah, that actions or objects remove illnesses. May we instead, insure we are on God’s path outlined in His Torah, and in that merit, may we earn His future protection. Sharing these ideas with the sick is what appears to be the proper course of action. For if the sick do not increase their knowledge of Torah, mitzvahs and themselves…and repent, why shall God cure them? This was the entire lesson of Job.