The phenomenon of Segulos has generated much passionate, well-intentioned discussion among people who are sincerely committed to Torah ideals and practice. To deny the validity of Segulos is to deny the words of Chazal who spoke and wrote about Segulos in very clear terms. In fact, it is the clarity of their words which ought to serve as a guide when we seek to understand the rightful place that Segulos have in our lives.
I recently came across a series of Teshuvos written by the Rashba, which sheds a bright and beautiful light on this topic. In his Teshuvos (I:408,413,825, and Teshuvos HaMeyuchasos LeRamban 286) the Rashba defines what Segulos are. He states that there are physical objects which have clearly observable properties that can help in a medicinal, healing, and prophylactic way. Unlike most medicines, however, we do not know how or why these particular objects work; we know only that they work. And we know that they work because we have observed their efficacy time and again through experience. The Rashba then gives a primary example of a Segulah. He states that there can be found in the world pieces of metal that “have the segulah of being able to attract other pieces of metal to them through some type of force.” He explains that although we do not know at all how this force works, it clearly does. This is the paradigm for Segulos. Just as it is a fact that magnets attract metal, even though we may not know how or why, there are other objects that have different properties that can be helpful to man.
Now it is clear from the Rashba that the framework within which Segulos work is the framework of science and nature; we simply are not privy to all of the workings of science and nature. (A man who thinks that we have reached the height of knowledge in science has reached little more than the height of arrogance). What is equally clear is that these Segulos do not work through some mystical, magical way (mysterious yes, mystical no). In fact, in juxtaposing Segulos with Darkei HaEmori (Gemara Shabbos 67a and Chullin 77b), Chazal are pointing to a critical factor in how we are to view Segulos altogether. If we take the attitude that empirically tested phenomena work through the principles of science despite the fact that we do not understand these principles, then we are relating properly to Segulos; if, however, we think that they are some type of magical force, then we have dangerously crossed the border into a non-Torah perspective. What emerges from all of this is that for something to be a valid Segulah it must be empirically tested and confirmed, and our attitude toward it must humbly remain within the framework of nature, Hashgachah Kelalis.
It seems to me that there is another area of Segulos to which Chazal allude as well, in the area of Hashgachah Peratis. When Bnei Yisroel were afflicted in the Midbar with poisonous serpents, Moshe was commanded to make a Nachash and raise it up for all to see. When they looked at the Nechash HaNechoshes, they were healed. Rashi (Bamidbar 21:8) cites the Mishnah from Rosh HaShannah 29a that asks: Does a (copper) serpent really heal? The answer given is that when Bnei Yisroel would look at it and thereby come to understand certain ideas, they would then be healed by HaShem. Thus, the object had no inherent power to heal; it was HaShem’s Hashgachah that healed, and this Hashgachah was invoked solely because of the people’s proper thoughts. In fact, the Gemara (Berachos 10b and Pesachim 56a) tells us that Chizkiyah destroyed the Nechash HaNechoshes and was praised for his action. Bnei Yisroel had attributed inherent powers to the Nechash HaNechoshes and had begun to relate to it as an Avodah Zarah. The lesson, I think, is that in an area of Segulah having to do with Hashgachah Peratis, the Segulah must be identified directly and only through Nevuah, and we must realize that its efficacy depends not upon any inherent power, but on our proper hashkafah.
Yes, we do have a mesorah that includes Segulos; the world does have magnets. However, it is critical that we understand exactly what this mesorah means. It is part of our heritage of relating to HaShem as the Borei Olam through the divine and noble gift of our minds. Making a mistake in this area can have disastrous effects. As long as we are a nation that relates to HaShem properly, we can bask in the glory of a life of Truth; however, if we take noble ideas and relate to them improperly, we are in danger of violating our mission as a people, and, Heaven Forbid, of ceasing to deserve the praise “Ki lo nachash beYaakov velo kessem beYisroel, etc.” (Bamidbar 23:23). Please, please, dear reader, think carefully about these areas; there is much at stake.