“Segula”: Empty Promises



Recently a Jewish newspaper ran an ad selling the promise of Divine intervention, commonly called “segulas”. For $40 an organization called Chasidei Yerushalayim advertised it would read Tehillim and Shir HaShirim, promising these recitations to afford a “proven segula” or “guaranteed positive change” in one’s life. Although I know that a wise person well versed in Torah texts will immediately dismiss such absurd claims, I was bothered by the ad’s gross misrepresentation of Torah truths, and false hopes sold to ignorant Jews.

This concept of a “segula” – that some action will cause an unrelated result – is alien to Torah Judaism, regardless of the masses of frum Jews who espouse such beliefs, and regardless of the segulas’ inclusion of Torah verses. I’ve heard of people baking challas with keys inside, or praying for 40 days at a precise location, believing this will somehow locate their mate, or make them fertile. But I also know God’s words, “In every place you mention My name, I will come to you and bless you.” (Exod. 20:21) Thus, God states that location is inconsequential. A close friend “AS” met with a Mekubbal and did as instructed. He was guaranteed to marry within the year. Ten years later, he is still single, while the Mekubbal profited. Another close friend “MK” inquired of a great Rebbe about a sick relative, and was told she would recover. But she died.

Although inexplicable according to the precise, natural laws that God created, people believe in segulas, for they emanate from Jewish communities, and many people are desperate. And although these attempts continue to fail, as they must, they try again, never admitting as Yeshaya said, “It does not save the soul, is there not falsehood in my right hand?” Yeshaya 43 – HafToras VaYikra – rebukes man for accepting powers assumed to exist in physical objects and invented practices. The popular Red Bendel is just another permutation of this same idolatrous rite, that by performing some arbitrary act, like wearing a string, life will improve. Tosefta Shabbos (chap. VII) refers to this red string as the “ways of the Emorite” and is idolatrous. Alarmingly, frum Judaica stores and individuals peddle these strings even after being informed of Torah prohibitions. What does this prevalent, red string theory say about God’s system of reward and punishment? According to supporters of challa keys, red strings and other nonsense, I might sin, but if I wear a Red Bendel…I’ll be protected. Conversely, if I do not sin, but I do not wear this string, I will be harmed. Is this God’s just Torah system? No. Furthermore, if my arm is amputated in an accident, donning this thread, reciting Tehillim, or any segula cannot reattach my arm. Such absurdities truly expose these practices as fallacy. Why do followers deny the string’s ability to reattach an amputated limb, but accept fertility as within its capabilities? The answer: they believe what cannot be overtly disproved. In other words, they possess blind faith in their imagination, and do not follow reason and objective reality as Rambam teaches.

All these practices are adopted from idolatrous nations, and are ridiculed by God, Yeshaya, Rambam, and by the Tosefta. Yet, our fellow Jews follow them, and profit from the ignorance and insecurities of others, ignoring open sources prohibiting them.

It is irrelevant that many Jews, or even Rabbis, place their hope in segulas, for Rambam wrote regarding astrology, “I know that you may search and find sayings of some individual sages in the Talmud and Midrashim whose words appear to maintain that at the moment of a man’s birth, the stars will cause such and such to happen to him. Do not regard this as a difficulty, for it is not fitting for a man to abandon the prevailing law and raise once again the counterarguments and replies (that preceded its enactment). Similarly it is not proper to abandon matters of reason that have already been verified by proofs, shake loose of them, and depend on the words of a single one of the sages from whom possibly the matter was hidden.” Also, “It is not proper for a man to accept as trustworthy anything other than one of these three things: 1) clear proof deriving from man's reasoning; 2) what is perceived through one of the five senses; 3) what is received from the prophets or from the righteous. Anyone who accepts as trustworthy anything that is not of these three species, of him it is said: ‘The simple believes everything’ (Prov. 14:15). –Letter to the Community of Marseille”

Rambam teaches that we do not ignore what our minds tell us is proven fact, or accept matters with no basis in reason, perception, or Torah tradition. Segulas fail to meet any one of these three criteria.

Furthermore, we do not find our forefathers or prophets assuming arbitrary relationships to exist. When the matriarchs were barren, they and their husbands prayed to God and perfected themselves. No segulas were used. When the Jews were about to be attacked by the Egyptians they prayed to God. No segulas. And when the children fell sick, Eliyahu and Elisha prayed to God, and they did not use objects or amulets. We are supposed to learn from the Torah and the Prophets, not ignore them and prefer today’s foolishness instead. In our precious Torah, we do not find in even the most dire of straits, that the prophets, Jews or the Avos resorted to anything outside the laws of nature, or prayer. Even when Shmuel was ordered by God to replace King Saul and anoint David, he feared for his life, that “Saul will hear this and he will kill me”. (Shmuel I, 16:2) Here, Shmuel was under God’s prophetic command, yet, he did not feel natural law would change and protect him from a mad, jealous King Saul. How much less are we to assume natural laws to halt, simply because we wear dyed thread? And do not think that reciting Tehillim or Shir HaShirim are any different, simply because one utters Torah verses. For we already read Rambam’s ridicule of this practice. We are not allowed to add new practices viewing them as part of Jewish life. This violates God’s command to not add to the Torah. Why then are Jews manufacturing amulets and seeking quick fixes and not the path of the Avos? The answer: lack of proper Torah education on Judaism’s Fundamentals. If Torah was properly taught, Jewish students, now parents and elders, would know the Fundamentals, one being that Reward and Punishment is based on perfection, not magical cures. With this conviction, no intelligent person would accept the promise of segulas, as they contradict the Fundamentals.

Tell an investor to bake a key in a challa, in place of an intellectual analysis of the market. He will laugh in your face, and will rightly not risk his hard earned dollars with foolish acts. Tell a doctor to wear a red thread, instead of administering chemotherapy to a cancer patent, and he too will mock you for your idolatrous ways. And ironically enough, tell the authors of this segula advertisement to rely on their segulas, instead of placing their ad in newspapers, and they too will realize their empty claims.

Rambam teaches (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry, 11:12) regarding one who recites Torah verses for ulterior motives, “It is not enough that they are like enchanters and warlocks, but they are categorized as heretics, that they render the Torah a remedy for the body, when it is only a remedy for the soul. But it is permitted to recite Tehillim so that the merit will shield one from future harm.” Rambam distinguishes between reciting Tehillim so as to remove an existing negative, which is heresy, and between reciting Tehillim to be a merit somehow to avert future harm, which is permitted. However, even “permitted” does not mean it is “suggested”. For Rambam wrote in his previous law (11:11) the reciting of verses to heal snakebite “does absolutely nothing”. Nonetheless, it was permitted for the psychological ease it affords. But with no effects whatsoever – psychological or physical – reciting Torah verses not for learning purposes would be heresy.

Following Rambam’ rule, we realize the lies of segulas in all three areas: 1) “Reason” – our investor example teaches segula’s nonsense; 2) “Experience” – segulas do not work practically, or conform to natural law, and 3) “Torah” – God, Yeshaya, Rambam and the Tosefta ridicule man’s adherence to lies. Segulas violate reason, natural law, and God’s words respectively. Such claims merely lift the hopes of the foolish and ignorant, letting them down time after time.

God granted us a Tzelem Elokim, “intelligence”, precisely that we engage it to distinguish between that which conforms to reason, and that which does not. And our barometer of reason is that which accurately explains universal laws. Chovas HaLevavos’ author Rabbi Bachya states that if one does not use his mind, he sins.

We do not blindly cross a highway depending on red strings to stop a car darting at us at 90mph. Similarly, we must not accept the unreasonable practices of our fellow Jews, and rely on objects to save us, when it is only God who can do so, and only through His prescribed means: basing our actions on sound reason, proven natural law, or the words of the Torah. And nowhere in the Torah, Neveim or Kasuvim do we find the Avos or the Neveim relying on objects or practices alien to reason and natural law.

If we truly wish to help our brothers and sisters who are off the true path, we must first teach what is authentic Torah Hashkafa, not popular “cures” which in fact disappoint, circumvent the use of our Tzelem Elokim, and ignore the Torah lessons of the Avos, our Rabbis, and the Neveim.