2004 Response to letter about segulos
Chananya Weissman

April 30, 2004, The Five Towns Jewish Times

I am truly sorry that Mr. Klien was appalled by my recent article about Segulos.  Mr. Klien's comment about respecting others even while disagreeing with them is well noted, and I would urge him to follow his own prescription.  In particular, one should avoid personal insults, with which the letter is riddled; aside from the severe Halachic issues (which I am confident Mr. Klien reviewed with the Shulchan Aruch, Tur, or some other Adam Gadol before writing his letter), such tactics detract from the credibility of one's arguments, which might otherwise be sound.

This bit of mussar aside, if Mr. Klien believes that my challenge of the prevalent attitude toward Segulos reflects negatively on my faith in Hashem or our Sages, he is probably not alone in this belief, and thus it behooves me to clarify my position.

We need look no farther than Moshe Rabbeinu for several illuminating examples.  The first time the Jews engaged Amalek in battle, Moshe ascended a mountain and raised his hands to heaven.  While his hands stayed raised the Jews prevailed, and when he faltered the Jews faltered as well.  With what could easily be mistaken for vicious sarcasm, our Sages ask whether Moshe's hands determine the outcome of war, before explaining that his outstretched hands served only as inspiration for the Jews to turn to God for salvation.  Similarly, it is not golden snakes on poles that stop plagues, but the prayers that are inspired by the reminder of what this object represents.  (Mishna, Rosh Hashana 29A)

Unfortunately, back then Jews suffered from the same misconceptions as they do today.  Many Jews believed Moshe to be the source of the miracles (Beshalach 16:6), and the golden snake later had to be destroyed after the Jews began to worship it.

As the great prophet Elisha lay on his deathbed, in the throes of his final illness, he was visited by King Yoash, who sought divine aid in the face of an impending invasion by Aram.  Elisha told him to fire arrows out the window as a "Segula" for victory.  Elisha then told Yoash to strike the ground.  He did so three times, then stopped, whereupon Elisha furiously declared that had Yoash continued to strike the ground he would have vanquished Aram.  Instead, he would only prevail in three battles before ultimately being defeated.  (Melachim II, Chapter 13)       

Why does the Mishna in Rosh Hashana not ask rhetorically whether striking the ground wins or loses wars?  Because this question should no longer be necessary; we should have gotten the point by now.  Unfortunately, it seems Chazal overestimated us.  They, too, have faith in us, but perhaps more faith than we deserve.

In Biblical times it was common for prophets to solidify a prediction of future events with some sort of physical demonstration.  This physical demonstration was surely not necessary for the actual fulfillment of the prophecy, but was intended to drive home a point in a dramatic way. Perhaps King Yoash was embarrassed by the act of striking the ground, which reflected an imperfect faith in God's prophet – a perfectly valid reason for his military success to be similarly limited.  But the act of striking the ground is inherently meaningless.

The same holds true with Segulos.  If Moshe's incredibly holy hands are still incapable of winning wars for the Jews, a piece of bread is incapable of bringing a shidduch, and a drop of honey will not bring a sweet year.  My cynicism for the efficacy of Segulos is neither a manifestation of doubt regarding God's miracles, nor that of a Greek mind (the Greeks, by the way, were pagans, and thus not strictly logical).  It is precisely because of my deep faith in our Sages that I believe Segulos are inherently meaningless.  Otherwise I too would be tempted to put false hope in meaningless acts, rather than putting all my hope in God.

Segulos are an important part of our tradition because they can inspire us to perform truly meaningful acts.  Many people believe that when they throw breadcrumbs into the ocean during Tashlich that they receive atonement for their sins.  Not only is this an incredibly foolish belief that brings scorn to our religion, but it inhibits those who harbor this belief from performing an authentic act of Teshuva, which Tashlich is supposed to inspire.

Similarly, the Segulos on Rosh Hashana do not themselves bring good fortune in the coming year.  As my Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Tendler (a Torah Scholar who sees no contradiction in the coexistence of faith and reason) explains, many of these Segulos were created in the poverty-stricken, persecuted European communities.  It would not have been difficult for these Jews to fall prey to depression and despair, to abandon all hope of things ever getting better.  These simple acts on Rosh Hashana were physical demonstrations of hope and faith - inherently meaningless, but psychologically and spiritually therapeutic.  The Sefer Chinuch writes in numerous places that the many symbols and rituals associated with Judaism are often meant to concretize our beliefs through physical acts.  Segulos are not mystical portents of the future, but small acts that are supposed to inspire us to greater observance, which, in turn, may really lead to a better future.

Mr. Klien missed the most significant point of my article, which I expressed in a somewhat subtle fashion.  The reason that shidduch-related Segulos have multiplied recently is an indication of our misplaced efforts to deal with a troublesome situation.  Weddings are deeply poignant occasions for those struggling to find their own mates.  Imagine the pain of a single who attends wedding after wedding, pining for the day he or she will get married, wondering if that day will ever come.  Imagine the frustration of this single when he or she notices many eligible singles sitting at the other side of the room during the meal, so close, yet so very far.  Because some people mistakenly believe that it would be a breach of modesty for these singles to share dinner together at the wedding, that the possibility of them coming to fornicate or otherwise act inappropriately is so severe that they must interact only in a tightly controlled way, this single must continue to sit alone and wonder what might have been, as the days and years continue to roll by.

I have a hypothesis that every Jewish wedding of reasonable size could and should directly lead to another shidduch between single guests at the wedding.  To deny them this real opportunity, with a piece of Challah offered as a consolation prize, is criminal.

Chananya Weissman

PS - Please note the correct spelling of my name.