The article below appeared in the email edition of the Yated sent out on 6/12/08. Part II may be read at Part II

The Kishke Segulah - Part I

 by Rabbi Yossi Rosenberg  

Someone once ask a respected rosh yeshiva, "How should we instill the awareness of the coming of Moshiach in our children? How did the Jews in Europe go about it, for example?"

The rosh yeshiva smiled wryly. "You're asking two different questions. In Europe, every time a goy beat a Jew - and this happened all the time - the Yid would sigh and say, 'Oy, Moshiach zol shoin kummen - Moshiach should come already.' There was no need for any other chinuch on the matter."

It is safe to assume that many other Jewish ideas and ideals were similarly learned back then through actual life experiences, with little need for them to be taught directly.

When someone fell ill - in the days before x-rays, blood tests, and the thousands of other medical advances we have today - there was surely a much greater feeling of helplessness, uncertainty, and vulnerability than almost anyone experiences today. There were times, not too long ago, when it was quite normal for families to lose one or more of their children in infancy. Epidemics raged, fires ravaged whole towns, and poverty and hunger were either personally experienced or witnessed firsthand. Earning a livelihood was extremely difficult, and hard physical labor was part and parcel of housekeeping.

Yet, because of these hardships, the name of G-d was not far from the lips of most religious Jews, and the Jewish attitude towards hardship and suffering were imbibed by children together with their meager daily fare. Today, we thank Hashem a million times over for the blessings we have been shown, our easier lives, and the health of our families. At the same time, we are witness to the curious phenomenon of fervently frum people who never had a reason to think about - and often simply don't know - so many basics of Jewish thought and belief. Hashkafa, Jewish thought, has become, at best, a peripheral 'extra' of Jewish knowledge.

Our inadequate grasp of so many elemental Jewish concepts becomes all the more glaring when something, chas veshalom, suddenly goes wrong. Understandably, we seek comfort and a proper perspective. Too often, however, we are left confused, unsure, and in doubt.

There are numerous manifestations of this phenomenon, and we hope to delve into many of them over time. Our present focus, however, is on a topic which was mentioned recently, and which seems to evoke much confusion and doubt. That topic is segulos, tefillah, and the general Jewish attitude to when things in our lives are not going the way we'd like them to.

When something seems to be going badly, a natural reaction of people is to ask, "How can I make things go better?"

We daven and we do mitzvos - and innumerable things, beyond what we can count, surely go right in our lives - but sometimes, we still find ourselves in need of that one, often major, elusive yeshuah.

Then we hear about some segulah or other. It may be an age-old segulah, or a new segulah of unknown origin making the rounds. It may involve something to recite, a candle to light, a trans-Atlantic flight, or a letter to write. It might entail an esrog to bite, a madurah to ignite, an impulse to fight, or perhaps eating kishke at midnight.

Are segulos as acceptable as prayers? Are they an alternative to prayers? Is there a difference between different types of segulos? Must we know the origin of any segulah we try and how it supposedly works?

Often, we find ourselves thinking that we'll just try it and see if it works. We feel that it can't hurt to try. If it ends up working, great, and if it doesn't, at least we'll know that we tried. "What's the big deal?" we say. "People need yeshuos. Let them try whatever they feel like trying."

Let's examine, though, some basics of Jewish belief, things which used to be elementary knowledge for every Jewish boy and girl.

The Mesillas Yeshorim (Perek 1) explains that man was put into this world because Hashem inherently loves doing good and, as such, He desires to reward our souls with eternal Heavenly reward. That is the entire reason for our existence - so that Hashem can reward us in the Next World. In order for us to earn this reward, we are put into this world to serve Hashem, heed His commandments, and grow close to Him. Our entire reason, then, for being here, in this world, is to serve Hashem. When we do that - and as much as we do that - our souls receive their eternal reward. As such, our lifelong question should always be, "What does Hashem want me to do now?"

In this light, when something is not going right for us, our question should be, "What does Hashem desire of me in this situation?" If we find ourselves focusing on, "How can I improve my situation?" we have already started on the wrong foot. Of course we would like our situation to improve. We are human, and Hashem made us this way. He wants us to turn to Him and pray to Him for all our needs. However, our focus should be on what we can do for Hashem, not on what we can get Hashem to do for us.

Rabbi Akiva Tatz points out that if one studies the worshippers of the ancient Greek gods (as well as other pagan idol-worshippers), he will discover that they had quite a number of 'gods'. There was a god of rain, a sun god, a god of love, a god of strength, a god of youth, and on and on and on. Interestingly, we don't find that they ever had a god who created the world.

Now how do we understand that? Here these people have gods for everything under the sun, but they seem to be missing the most basic of gods! Which god was it who they believed created the heaven and earth, mankind, and all of creation? How could they have missed this most basic god?

The answer is that the very question was entirely irrelevant to them. The Greeks focused on one thing: Man. These people thought, "We want rain, we want to live, we want to be strong, healthy, successful, etc. How do we attain all these things? Well, let's see which god we can appease and please so that we will get our heart's desires."

None of these people worshipped an idol for the idol's benefit. They had idols simply to benefit themselves. That's why all Greek or other pagan gods serve some human purpose. Who needs a god who created heaven and earth? What purpose does such a god serve, if I don't need that god to attain my worldly desires? It serves no purpose at all - and that's why they never thought about any such god in the first place. Their entire religion was about, "How can I improve my situation?"

Rav Chaim Volozhiner in Nefesh Hachaim (3:9) explains that as the world progressed, an awareness of G-d's existence spread. People now understood that Hashem was the cause behind every single circumstance. At the same time, there were many whose focus did not change. They still were in it for themselves, and their sole focus was not on how they could please Hashem, but rather on how they themselves could continually be pleased.

These people understood that Hashem uses various angels and other entities to control many different aspects of the world. As such, writes the Nefesh Hachaim, "These people focused their avodah on the stars and mazalos, and on the angels which controlled them, so as to manipulate them for their own benefit in order for these powers to bring them worldly goods with the powers granted them by Hashem to do so."

The Nefesh Hachaim lists various other means which such people used in order to bring worldly good upon themselves. They sought to be on the good side of holy men, or of people who obviously had a good and powerful mazel. The Nefesh Hachaim stresses that these people fully understood and believed that Hashem was the ultimate provider, yet they are considered idol-worshippers because they did not focus their service directly to Hashem. Although Hashem creates intermediaries, and wise humans can come to understand how they work and how to manipulate them, we are expected to focus ourselves on Hashem and on what He desires of us. If we do so, we can fully trust that Hashem will shower us with all the blessings (which are beneficial to us) at His disposal.

Rav Chaim quotes the second of the Aseres Hadibros (Shemos 20:3), "Lo yihiyeh lecha Elohim acheirim al ponai - Do not worship other gods before me." "Al ponai," explains Rav Chaim, means even if we recognize that the ultimate source of this power is G-d. "It means that we should not focus, for any purpose, on any power or individual source, even were that source to be considered ponai, such as the power of a specific person's ruach hakodesh or a holy power found in Heaven."

Rav Chaim writes how the Torah forbids us to even focus on a specific middah or sheim of Hashem, such as to address Hashem's middas horachamim, His mercifulness. Rather, our focus must be solely - and directly - on Hashem in His Oneness, and on no specific characteristic of His being, nor on any intermediary, no matter how real, how powerful, or how effective. This, says Rav Chaim, is also how we understand the eternal words of the Jew: "Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad."

In the fifth of the Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith, we say, "I believe with complete trust that solely to Hashem must we direct our prayers, and we must not direct our prayers elsewhere."

In the Rambam's Pirush HaMishnayos in Sanhedrin, where he wrote the Thirteen Principles upon which the wording found in our siddurim is based, the Rambam writes, "The Fifth Principle is that we worship Hashem alone�and not anything under Hashem in creation, such as angels, stars, etc., only Him. Also, we do not even turn to them to be intermediaries to bring us closer to Hashem. Solely to Hashem do we focus our thoughts, and we leave everything else. �And this is the prohibition of idol worship which the Torah constantly warns us about."

Clearly, the Fifth Principle of our Faith, to serve Hashem and no other, is, in the Rambam's own words, referring not to one who replaces Hashem and instead prays to other powers, but rather to one who acknowledges Hashem fully, but is simply trying his luck with an intermediary.

Does that mean that it won't 'work' if we try intermediaries? Not at all. Hashem created the world with enough leeway for us to err and make mistakes. He allows the powerful intermediaries which He created to be manipulated by people. Bad choices we make do not automatically result in a negative response.

The Nefesh Hachaim quotes the posuk in Yirmiyahu (44:18), where those who worshipped the sun complained to Yirmiyahu Hanovi, "Umin az chadalnu l'kater l'meleches hashomayim�chosarnu kol� - Ever since we stopped serving the sun, we are lacking for everything." However, they said (posuk 17), in the days when they still worshipped the heavenly gods, "�vanisba lechem venihiyeh tovim verah lo ra'inu - we were sated, everything was good, and we experienced nothing bad."

In other words, they knew what they were doing, and what they were doing 'worked'. That did not make it any less idol-worship. Obviously, whether or not focusing on a certain power 'works' and 'delivers the goods' is no way for a Jew to decide if such a focus is or isn't proper.

Where does that leave us as far as segulos? Do they have a place in Judaism? Are we allowed to do any at all?

Obviously, there are segulos that are mentioned in seforim and, therefore, segulos cannot be completely ruled out. How these segulos work, though, must, beyond the shadow of a doubt, fit into the framework of the basics of Jewish belief which we have just discussed. Our focus is solely our Creator, and we seek our salvation from no other power in the world other than Him.

In our next article, be'ezras Hashem, we will discuss various practical ramifications to which this leads us.

This article was written l'zechus refuah sheleimah for Baruch ben Baila.