Are Segulot Part Of Avodat Hashem?

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This topic is one particularly dear to me, as the community I grew up in seems to cherish the mystical concept of segulot as a given and legitimate part of the Judaic worldview. Rather than compose a long polemic against the concept to dispel the mystical segulah, it may be better to ask ourselves a legitimate question, “Are segulot a way to serve G-d, or to serve ourselves?” It would be very difficult to claim the former.

One need only consult the Tanach for the answer. When it comes to serving G-d, what are the prophets of Judaism concerned about? Do they berate people for the kashrut of their mezuzot or Tefillin? Do our Israelite ancestors, when they are at their best, seek out methods of consolation through ancient sorcerers? Do the prophets offer our suffering ancestors solace through some form of segulah? It seems clear when reading Tanach that the answer to these questions is a resounding NO.

Our prophets concern themselves with the plight of the poor, the orphan, and the widow. With the suffering of the individual in this life and the fight against injustice. Yeshayahu (Isaiah) and Yirmeyahu (Jeremiah), amongst the myriad of prophets before and after them, berate our ancestors for gathering on Shabbat in vain while worshipping idols, fasting without giving charity, giving into consumerism and our lack of involvement with acts of kindness. The prophets were not in the business of solace. They made us look deep within ourselves to first question of what it could be where we need improvement. In the most desperate of times, our ancestors turned to a prayer from genuine faith and despair that stemmed from the closeness they felt with G-d and the seeming injustice of their plight. When Chana felt this way, she was not blessed with a child because of a mystical segulah. She was blessed with Shmuel because G-d heard genuine sorrow in her cries. Her tears “broke the barriers” as it were. Something about this plea seems to have caused Divine intervention on her behalf. She showed Hashem that all she wanted was a child to grow up in the ways of the Torah and be a G-d inspired individual. The same with Shimshon’s mother, Tzlelponit. She wanted a son to be wholly devoted to G-d and promised that her son would be raised that way. If only more of us would promise to Hashem, in the depths of our despair, that we would raise our children to be noble and G-d inspired!

Now I understand that inevitably, the question of “what if those things don’t work” may arise. While this is very difficult to hear, we must remember that the question comes from a place of our actions serving ourselves. Rav Noah Weinberg believed if we are pursuing something worthwhile, there is a three-step process; hishtadlut (which would not include segulah), prayer and reevaluation. Under this formula, if we desire financial prosperity, the proper method to attain it would possibly include learning the intricacies of finance and finding a pursuit where you can be successful enough to provide for your family – reflect in prayer that you go about it in a noble fashion, recognize that the good that comes your way is ultimately beyond you – and in a case where that fails, reevaluate.

While this is not a perfect formula, as everyone’s personal case will vary, it is already millennia ahead of mystical segulot. Rav Weinberg’s approach can be clearly traced back to our ancestors and prophets. The approach of mystical segulot is far murkier in terms of its history and methods of accomplishment.

We might be tempted to resist and say that sometimes things just seem beyond our control. Almost like there seems to be no recourse other than to pursue these “beyond natural” methods. We must recognize that these instances of complete despair are rarer than we make them out to be. They are tragic in many cases, such as difficulty conceiving and sudden deaths or illness, lo aleinu. These instances are truly one that there are simply no answers. But this lack of answers extends to mystical segulot. There is nothing in our tradition from Tanach indicating that these mystical methods were approved by G-d or even that they work. The evidence on the other side of the scale seems to far outweigh those notions. When it comes to what we can do in every circumstance however, we have an accepted mesorah of hishtadlut and prayer. No one disagrees regarding common sense hishtadlut (ones that does not require an unnatural and seemingly unrelated method to attain a goal). In fact, a list of common sense hishtadlut segulot can be found at Rabbi Moshe ben Chaim lists segulot directly found in the Talmud and other foundational sources. Some of these segulot include “Segulah for recovery from illness — go to a doctor (Berachot 60a, Bava Kamma 46b), Segulah for avoiding sin — avoid temptation (Sanhedrin 107a), and Segulah for honest parnassah — learn a profession (Kiddushin 30a)”. We can already sense the different direction these segulot take us. They are hand in hand with personal responsibility in life. Unlike mystical segulot such as rubbing snow on our forehead to help memory due to the gematria of sheleg, segulot such as those suggested by our Chachamim, adapted for modern times would include things like getting enough sleep, reading in a manner that challenges oneself and reflects what you read. Is this not a better more noble and appropriate outlook on Judaism? I believe our Nevi’im would agree.

Dovidchai Abramchayev graduated with a BS in accounting from Lander College for Men. He is pursuing a CPA and works in the NFP audit industry. In his spare time, Abramchayev learns Torah, philosophy, and theology.