Omens II

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Reader: I have had a bit of a disagreement with a local rabbi about various 'customs' surrounding the Havdalla wine at the Sabbath conclusion, which seem to me to be omens or amulets and therefore, according to you, forbidden. For instance, wine overflowing and dipping fingers in the wine afterwards and putting it on ones eyes and in ones pockets to ensure success for the upcoming week. I would like your comments please.

Rabbi: Yes, these are Nichush (omen) violations. See Mishne Torah, Avoda Zarah chapter 11. Any act that has no demonstrated effects, yet people claim it causes certain Nichush and a form of idolatry.

The above is a direct reprint of the last Jewishtimes Letters. Subsequently, a few readers wrote in quoting the Shulcha  Aruch (Orech Chaim 296) claiming this source condones placing wine on one's eyes as a means of "attaining success." Unfortunately, the readers did not read carefully. The Shulchan Aruch says one may spill some of the wine as his "sign of blessing," and the placing of wine on the eyes is said to be an expression of "love of mitzvah" – not as the readers suggested, that it causes success. Nowhere in this or any part of Shulchan Aruch will you find superstition. Now that we've clarified the readers errors, let's understand the Shulchan Aruch.

The Shulchan Aruch says one may spill some of the wine as a sign of blessing, "for any house that does not spill wine as water, there is not in it [in the havdalla act, or in the house] a sign of blessing." This means that if one is not generous with his money for the sake of mitzvahs, he will not have a sign of blessing creating in his home. The emphasis is on "sign" of blessing. It does not say, "he will not have a blessing." As this would be nichush, if one spilled wine thinking it would change his fortune. So his spilling of wine means he is generous with mitzvahs. Doing so, just like purchasing a fish head for Rosh Hashana, we create a physical sign of value. As we wish to be the head, not the tail, seeing a fish head drives this point home. It concretizes it for us. That's all. No superstitions here. Spilling wine, we see a generous overflow in the act of a mitzvah, which thereby bolsters our emotional attachment to mitzvah, and that's a good thing. But it's not causative, for that would be superstitious, nichush. The Shulchan Aruch is merely telling us that creating physical attachments to mitzvah via concrete expressions is a good thing. 

We are sensual beings; we have emotions. Calev traveled to Hebron to view the caves of the patriarchs. Although intellectually he accepted the reality of God's oath to the Patriarchs, seeing them with his own eyes would help him bolster his emotions so he might not succumb to the Spies' counsel. Isaac desired to eat a delicious meal before blessing his son; he wished to be in a positive state of mind. We are to use sensual aids, just like the spices we smell at havdalla for the sake of placing our hearts in a positive state to fulfill God's commands. 

 Let us be careful when we learn and share ideas. Careful reading and abstaining from emotional projections is mandatory. Let's be guided by reason and question anything we come across, for this too will help prevent misreading our Torah. Perhaps it is the writer's error, perhaps it is our own.