Utilizing Spiritual Realities (Segulot) – Part 2: Soothsaying vs. Propitious Signs or Omens

Part 1

Segulot Part 2 – Nichush (Soothsaying) or Darkei Emori vs. Simanei Milsah (Propitious Signs or Omens)

When it comes to healing, the Rashbah wrote –

A person who falls sick should not rely on miracles. He should seek the help of a doctor while directing his heart to Heaven in full recognition that Hashem is the true healer… And both use of a segulah and amulets that are effective are permitted, just like conventional medicine. (Teshuvot haRashbah 1:413, 1:408)

In other words, the Rashbah permitted any practice which was known to be effective, whether on the basis of natural laws or on a segulah, even if we don’t understand their inner workings. There simply needs to be a recognition that all healing is ultimately in G-d’s hands.

The Rambam, however, disagreed –

A person who whispers an incantation over a wound and then recites a verse from the Torah, one who recites a verse over a child so that he will not become scared, or who places a Torah scroll or tefillin over a baby so that it will sleep, is not only considered to be a menachesh (soothsayer) or a chover (one who casts spells). Such people are also included among those who deny the Torah, because [based on Gemara Shavuout 15b] they relate to the words of Torah as if they are cures for the body, when they are really cures for the soul…

It is, however, permitted for a healthy person to read verses [from the Tanach], particularly chapters from Tehilim, so that the merit of reading them will protect him and save him from difficulties and injury. (Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 11:12)

The Rambam’s position seems to be that reciting verses is allowed if it is done as a prayer, rather than with the belief that they possess magical healing powers, and for protection (like saying the Shema before going to sleep at night).

However, since the Gemara recorded many examples of incanting spells to effect healing, other Rishonim (Rashi, Rosh, and Ran – Chullin 77b) did permit it.

And even the Rambam allowed incantations for one that was bitten by a scorpion or a snake – to settle the mind, or to strengthen the heart of the one that was bitten. Although he held that they actually accomplish nothing at all, this was allowed lest the person become distraught (Hilchot Avodah Zara 11:11).

The Rambam forbade asking a child – “What verse did you learn?” and acting on the reply. However, the Rema (Yoreh De’ah 179:4) rules according to the opinion held by other Rishonim (Rashi, Reivad and Smag) that it is permitted, and that the child’s reply is considered to be like a minor form of prophesy.

The Gemara Shabbat 67a states the general principle that everything which has a clear theraputic value has no prohibition of darkei Emori. Any method of healing that is not applied directly to the sick person’s body is, therefore, forbidden because it has no medical benefit. 

The Meiri explained that the prohibition of darkei Emori was referring to practices that have no real basis to them – neither natural nor supernatural (i.e., derech segulah), but are being done by the ignorant masses as an aspect of idolatry.

The Shulchan Aruch 301:27, therefore, wrote – All is permitted as long as it is clearly theraputic (derech refuah); otherwise it is assur because of darkei Emori.

And the Mishnah Brurah (#105) explained – Even that which is known to be theraputic as a segulah is also allowed.

The Shulchan Aruch 301:27 further stated  All incantations are [also] allowed except for those that were checked and found to be ineffective.

And the Mishnah Brurah (#106) explained this – Even incantations that have not yet been proven effective to heal are also permissable. Since we know that some incantations are effective theraputically, we will say that this one may also heal… The only prohibition is for those that are known to be ineffective. 

In terms of violating a prohibition for the sake of a segulah, the Rambam (peirush l’Mishnayot – Yuma 8:4) wrote –

The halacha is not according to Rebbe Masiya ben Charash who permitted feeding the liver from a wild dog [i.e., non-kosher meat] to the one that had been bitten by it. This would not help except as a segulah. And the Chachamim (Sages) hold that we can not violate any of the mitzvot [such as eating non-kosher meat] except for what will actually heal someone according to normal teva (nature), logic and experience. But to attempt to heal through a segulah is forbidden. Their power is weak, they are not logical, and they have no experience behind them.

In other words, the Rambam held that the only practices allowed are those that have some logical basis, either in science or in the laws of nature.

Chazal (the Sages of blessed memory) discussed whether one could carry from one domain to another (i.e., what would normally be a full Torah prohibition) with a kamia (amulet) or even a doubtful type of segulah on Shabbat.

Mishnah Shabbat 6:10 – We may go out with [a kamia that was written by an expert (Gemara Shabbat 61a),] a locust’s egg (hanging from an ear which could heal an earache), with a fox’s tooth (from a dead fox for insomnia, and from a live fox for being overly sleepy), or with a nail from a gallows/cross (for swelling on a wound, or for a severe fever) for the purpose of healing – divrei Rebbe Meir. But the Sages said that these are forbidden even on a weekday because they are darkei Emori(Hishtadliyot Ruchniyot – Perek Daled – Kochan shel Segulot v’Kami’ot)

Gemara Shabbat 66a – A woman may go out on Shabbat with an ehven tekuma – a special type of stone that is considered a miscarriage preventer – even if she is not presently pregnant, but may become pregnant.

Therefore we see, use of a segulah is forbidden because of idolatry, some because of darkei Emori, and some because they are simply nonsense. In addition, what may have been an effective segulah in the times of Chazal may no longer work today, because as Tosfot (Moed Katan 11a) points out, there are cases where the teva (nature) itself has changed. The Magen Avraham (173:1), in fact, wrote –

We see many things that the gemara told us have the danger of ruach ra’ah and other issues, but today are not dangerous. This is because the teva (nature) has changed. Everything therefore depends on the teva of the place.

Casting Lots

Casting lots to predict the future is forbidden. However, opening a Torah scroll in order to find an answer to a question through the verse that appears (i.e., the method known as goral haGra) is permitted, provided that it is done (1) privately and (2) to solve a problem that can not be solved with one’s own logic, or with the advice of a Torah scholar. Doing it as a matter of course for the public, however, is forbidden (Yoreh De’ah 179:6).

Amulets (kamiot) for charm, wealth, influence, success, and the like are strictly forbidden.

The Sefer Chasidim wrote –

If your prayers are not answered, blame your transgressions. Do not wear an amulet given to you by a gentile or a Jew to help you attain charm, wealth or influence, lest you be like the person who approached a prince with his request after the king had refused it. The only amulets that might be permitted are those for protection against illness or to save a life.

Nefesh HaChaim 3:12 –

Based on the verse – “Ein ode milvado – there is none besides Him” (Devarim 4:39), the Rabbis (Chulin 7b) learn that not even magic can work without G-d’s consent… Since all of the spiritual powers ultimately come from what Hashem created, He can nullify them entirely. Therefore, there is a great and wondrous segulah to remove and prevent all other powers from having any control or effect on us. When one fixes in his heart and declares that only Hashem is real, and that there is no power other than Hashem in the world, and this person absolutely nullifies in his heart, and completely ignores any other force in the world, while clinging entirely with his pure thoughts to Hashem alone, then Hashem eliminates the ability of anything else in the world to affect him at all.

Simanei Milsah (Propitious Signs or Omens)

However, we do sometimes use simanim (signs or omens), most commonly with various foods on Rosh Hashanah, seemingly as a good omen for the coming year. Why is that allowed, and not considered to be the prohibition of nichush (soothsaying)?

The Gemara Horayot 12a tells us –

We annoint kings only by a flowing spring – a steady reliable source of water – as a good siman (sign) that this kingship should last.

The gemara then discusses other types of simanim:

One that wants to know if he will live out the year or not, should light a lamp during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in a house with no wind. If the light continues to burn, steadily and without flickering, we know that he will live out the year.

One who wants to begin some business and to know if he will be successful or not, should raise a rooster – which the Maharal explains is a symbol of zerizut (alacrity) – important for success in business. And if the rooster is fat and healthy, he will be successful.

One who wants to know if he will return safely from a journey should stand in a dark house; if he sees a shadow of a shadow (i.e., a double shadow) – then he knows that he will return safely. The Maharal explains that a shadow is a symbol of Divine protection.

The gemara objects to this last suggestion [of the shadows] according to Rashi, or, possibly to all three suggestions, according to the Meiri –

But this is not a good idea because he may become discouraged or depressed [if he doesn’t end up seeing the siman] and this discouragement may end up weakening his mazal (spiritual influence).

Rashi explains that while he may be able to return safely even without seeing the shadows, his not seeing them could hurt his mazel, making him more succeptible to some other danger on his journey.

Other examples of simanim:

We should pour wine through a pipe in front of a chatan v’kallah (groom and bride) as a siman that positive mazel should flow for them. Brachot 50b.

We should learn Torah by a river of water – just like the water flows continuously, our learning should also flow continuously. Horayot 12a.

Shulchan Aruch – The accepted practice is not to start something new on Yom Sheni (Monday) or Yom Revi’i (Wednesday), and not to get married except while the moon is increasing [i.e., the first half of the month]. Rema – This is why it is customary to begin a new period of learning on Rosh Chodesh because, even though we don’t consult divination, we do utilize positive signs. [One should consult with a proper halachic authority to determine whether to follow any of this in practice.] If a person knows that some activity is against mazel, he should not do it, since this may then require him to rely on a miracle. This verse – “be tamim (wholehearted) with Hashem” prohinits us from seeking out this information, [but one could and should utilize the information if it has somehow already come to his attention.]

Why are simanei milsa allowed and not considered to be the issur of nichush?

Me’iri on Hora’ot –

Many simanim have been permitted, even though they look somewhat similar to nichush, in order to inspire our hearts to go in a good path. The Rabbis [specifically] established that we should say words that would inspire us to do teshuva [i.e., like the “yehi ratzon – May it be G-d’s will” on Rosh Hashanah] to ensure that we would not stumble in this and relate to these simmanim as nichush. Of course, this is only an inspiration; the important point is to do the teshuva and good deeds, not merely to say the words. When it comes to nonsensical actions, however, they are both wrong to rely on and forbidden.

Chayei Adam –

We are accustomed to eat foods on Rosh Hashanah that express the idea of a good upcoming year. This is based on the principle of the Ramban in Lech lecha (Bereshit 12:6) – the rule of ma’aseh avot siman l’banim – what occurred to the Avot (forefathers) was an indication of what would later occur to their descendents. When a heavenly decree is expressed in a physical act – that crystalizes it and ensures that it will ultimately be fulfilled. Nevi’im (prophets) would, therefore, often do physical actions for their nevu’ot to be established. In a similar way, what we do at the beginning of the year, with the simanim that we eat on Rosh Hashanah, can ultimately affect the whole year to be good. And, therefore, it is obvious that we need to [also] be extremely careful not to get angry on these days [at the beginnng of the year] in order that we will have a [truly] good year. Our hearts should simply be proper and filled with simcha, trusting in Hashem, along with teshuva and good deeds.

Maharal based himself on the same Ramban in Lech lecha (Ber. 12:6) –

Simanei milsah are no problem of nichushNichush is only when there is no logical connection between a particular action and what it leads to. These simanim don’t act as a cause at all, but rather they simply facilitate something that had already begun to then be able to finish. (Be’er HaGolah #2)

Mishnah Brurah –

The Eliyahu Raba wrote in the name of the Shelah [in terms of the simanim that we eat on Rosh Hashanah] –

One should be inspired to do teshuva when saying the “yehi ratzon” and be sure to recite it with a leiv shaleim (complete heart). Since we are doing all of these as a siman tov for the new year, it is obvious that we should be extremely careful not to get angry during these days [as well] in order that it really will end up being a siman tov. Rather our hearts should be filled with simcha and we should trust in Hashem with our teshuva and good deeds.

Summary – While these simanim do affect things, they are not at all the only factors that matter. As both the Chayeh Adam and the Mishna Brura emphasize – we need to be very careful not to get angry on Rosh Hashanah. And while simanim do work, they also have a danger – if something goes wrong, they may end up psychologically affecting us negatively.

While changing one’s name may have some metaphysical impact, the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva 2:4) speaks about it specifically as a part of the teshuva process, what he calls – darchei hateshuva (the ways of teshuva).

The principle of the Ramban on Lech lecha (Bereshit 12:6) – ma’aseh avot siman l’banim also explains the Gemara Chulin 95a, that while BayitTinok, and Isha (house, baby, and woman) are not nichush, they do act as simanim. The gemara says –

If after one builds a house, has a baby, or marries a woman, he has success, that is a siman that he will continue to have success. And if after these three things he does not have success, that is a siman that he will not be likely to have success afterwards either. To’elet HaSimanim (Hishtadliyot Ruchniyot – Perek Gimmel)

Rav Asher Weiss explains that the Rambam holds the only reason BayitTinok, and Isha are not nichush, but rather permissable simanim, is because there is no physical action which is being done with them. The person is simply strengthening himself in his heart that these are positive simanim. And it seems logical that this would also be the basis of the Rambam’s allowance of all of the simanim that are used on Rosh Hashanah.

After discussing the topic of simanei milsaRav Asher Weiss concludes –

“And besides the words of the early Sages, it seems reasonable to say that with all the use of a segulah and simanim that were passed down to us from Chazal and established with ruach hakodesh (a type of Divine inspiration), there is no prohibition or concern. However, all non-Jewish customs and all which is similar to them, which have no source in Chazal, they are all included within the prohibition of “lo t’nachashu.”

This finishes Part 2. Part 3 will address the issue and reality of Ayin HaRa (the “evil eye”).

Part 3

More articles on this and related topics can be found on the Jewish Clarity web site.