Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Fair is Fair

In this post, Rabbi Slifkin draws attention to the questionability of certain modern day segulos and for this he should be commended. It is not often that members of this blog find common ground with Rabbi Slifkin and his approaches to yahadus. But this blog is dedicated to an analysis of Rabbi Slifkin’s views and fair is fair. In this case, I happen to identify with his attitude to modern day segulos (I do not speak for the other members). Accordingly, I felt it should be noted.

To be sure, segulos are an important part of Talmudic literature and are discussed in halachic works such as Rambam and Shulchan Aruch. Sometimes the rationality behind them can be detected; sometimes it is difficult (see, for instance, Shabbos 67). But that’s Chazal. Modern day segulos do not possess anywhere near the level of reliability (or rationality) as Chazal’s suggestions. There is a plethora of Torah literature on this subject. I have reviewed much of the material but at this time am not inclined to examine the sugya in depth, at least not publicly.

I’d like to focus on a troublesome statement Rabbi Slifkin made in the aforementioned blog entry. He writes:

Furthermore, one person's segulah is another person's fundamental religious belief. How much more inherently irrational are segulos than, say, tefillas haderech (which I am extremely makpid about)? True, one can draw distinctions, but the efficacy of petitionary prayer may be difficult to justify on a solely rational level.

I find this statement difficult. The entire middle part of our shemoneh esrei is written b’lashon bakasha (supplication). But while it remains true that the purpose of segulos is to effect a change in the current condition, this is not the primary purpose of tefila at all. Chovos Levavos supplies five reasons for the purpose of tefila and none of them relate to "the efficacy of petitionary prayer". Even in instances where the seforim ha'kedoshim discuss tefila in the role of changing the status quo, these cases can be understood rationally. (Rav Dessler speaks about this at length). To my mind, there is no comparison whatsoever between modern day segulos and tefilos bakasha. IMO, Rabbi Slifkin pulled his punches unnecessarily.

12 comments:

  1. Ditto.

    My wife and I had been childless for nine years. When she told me that she was told of a segulah that we should eat a cake baked by a pregnant woman, I absolutely refused. When we did have a child (and Baruch Hashem, more thereafter, and now grandchildren), my ayshess chayil (that’s the same person mentioned before) attributed it to the zechus of obeying her husband.

    Before that, my ayshess chayil was devastated when the specialist told us we could not have a child. (Details would be too personal, but let me just say the situation was not what is normally assumed.) She remembers what I told her then: In Shoftim we learn that Hashem informed Klal Yisroel that they would lose a war. Yet they did teshuva and the gezeyra was reversed. If even after Hashem Himself predicts failure, success can be attained, how can we give up hope based on the opinion of a mere basar v’dam?!

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  2. That is an inspiring story Rabbi Lampel.

    The appeal of the segulas is understandable. They are more palatable to our base desires than earnest introspection, tefila, and change of behavior.

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  3. 100% tefillah is what matters and segulos are worthless(and in my opinion reprehensible, because so many people are taken advantage of because of segulos). Segulos seem more like an easy fix(the mentality of the segula will fix something not Hashem), whereas tefillah and maasim tovim are what really change a gzaar din. If someone calls obeying halacha and Hashem a segula then fine. What bothers me is when people say pay me 1500 dollars for a shinny penny that some Rabbi touched once and this will help you support your family or have children. Those segulos bother me beyond words.

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  4. Segulas aren't reprehensible. Making a market out of it is snake oil salesmanship and deserves no respect though. First came the concept then came the market.

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  5. E-man wrote:

    segulos are worthless

    This, of course, is false. Shas and poskim are full of halachically valid segulos. In fact, you can’t even begin learning Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim) without running into segulos (siman beis). Surely the segulos mentioned in chazal and poskim must have some kind of benefit (if understood and practiced properly).

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  6. Well, I guess that depends on how you define a segula. Is a segula do a mitzva and that might help you achieve what you want because of the zechus of the mitzva? Then yea a "segula" is a good thing. However, most segulas nowadays are say some magic paragraph or wear a magic hat and something good will happen. I don't consider following halacha and doing good deeds segulos, rather I consider that following halacha and doing good deeds. I guess I am just old fashioned like that.

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  7. What is the segula you are talking about in siman beis? That Rav Caro says it happens to be a good time to pray to G-D? Are we speaking the same language? The segulos that I am talking about are the ones that promise you things like give tzedaka to this charity and you will have a baby. Or, my favorite, eat a raisin with some celery in order to have a raise in salary. How is it a segula for Rav Caro to say that a certain time of day is a good time to pray?

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  8. Or were you actually referring to simin beis and the shoes? I am confused as to what you are referring to.

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  9. Simcha, can you give me an example of a halachicly valid segula so I can see if we are A) talking about the same thing and B) agreeing if we are talking about the same thing.

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  10. E-man wrote:

    Simcha, can you give me an example of a halachicly valid segula so I can see if we are A) talking about the same thing and B) agreeing if we are talking about the same thing.

    Certainly. But before we get to halacha, some comments should be made about segulos. In the literature of Chazal, segulos are basically the same as refuos. They are tried and proven remedies for guarding against certain things or assisting in acquiring certain things, or benefits.

    Some halachically valid examples of the former are:

    1) Do not don two items of clothing simultaneously or you will struggle to remember your learning.

    2) Avoid putting on your tunic from the head down or you will struggle to remember your learning.

    3) If you look in the face of a dead person you will struggle to remember your learning.

    4) If you look at the raised writing on a gravestone you will struggle to remember your learning.

    Some halachically valid examples of the latter.

    1) If an impure thought enters your mind during davening, say peh peh peh three times to drive it out.

    2) If you wish to rid your mind of impure thoughts before davening, pass your hand in front of your forehead three times and beseech Hashem “a pure heart create in me, and a proper spirit renew in my innards”

    There are hundreds more segulos but these should suffice to give you a taste of what segulos are…

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  11. "In the literature of Chazal, segulos are basically the same as refuos. "

    I am so glad you admitted this. So, either way we look at it, no one thinks the refuos of chazal work today. Whether we do not understand them and therefore can not use them or that chazal were not physicians and therefore were wrong.

    So, you agree then, the segulos you quote (the first group) are not to be used nowadays, just like the refuos in the gemara are not supposed to be used.

    The second group you quote are chazal giving us advice as to how to overcome thinking about bad things. How is that a segula? It is a technique for clearing your mind.

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  12. E-Man,

    "In the literature of Chazal, segulos are basically the same as refuos. "

    I am so glad you admitted this. So, either way we look at it, no one thinks the refuos of chazal work today. Whether we do not understand them and therefore can not use them or that chazal were not physicians and therefore were wrong.

    No. This is not true. At least not entirely. I agree that if modern medicine tells us to do one thing and Chazal seem to tell us to do another, we should follow modern medicine. However, there are countless practical eitzos supplied by Chazal which relate to health that are just as relevant today as they were in their times. Segulos are the same. They are practical eitzos to help one achieve something or to help guard one from something. They work because, like the refuos of Chazal, they were observed to work. That’s what I meant by conflating refuos with segulos. Your statement “no one thinks the refuos of chazal work today” is simply not true. Some of them don’t work today and there are many possible reasons for this other than just to say they weren’t doctors and are wrong. Of course, you mentioned another reason “Whether we do not understand them and therefore can not use them” which, I believe, is the more prudent approach to follow.

    So, you agree then, the segulos you quote (the first group) are not to be used nowadays, just like the refuos in the gemara are not supposed to be used.

    Only if the segulos currently are observed to be harmful. I can’t think of any examples of such a thing so I disagree with your statement above. I certainly disagree that the particular group I quoted should not be used! They are found in halachic seforim as late as the Mishna Berurah. Now, if I were you, I would challenge me for a rational explanation to these segulos and see if I have anything to say in their defense.

    The second group you quote are chazal giving us advice as to how to overcome thinking about bad things. How is that a segula? It is a technique for clearing your mind.

    That is exactly what a segula is! Practical advice… forget about all the nonsense you hear today about segulos. If it’s not found in Chazal or the gedolei ha’poskim, you don’t have to take it seriously! (in my humble opinion)

    You know, you’re going to get me in hot water. You’re forcing me to say things that will get me in trouble with my chassidishe friends… I already mentioned that I agree with the thrust of Rabbi Slifkin’s message; can we not just leave it at that?

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