Sunday, October 24, 2010

Baby's Blue Beads


Hi Rabbi! I hope you are doing well. Some sephardic family members of mine have recently approached me and urged me to use "blue beads" on our baby's crib (due in three weeks, G-d willing) to protect it from the "evil eye." I responded that, as an observant Jew, I believe there is no other power other than G-d, thus, I need only turn to Him for protection. They were quite upset by this and insisted I reconsider. What exactly is the rationalist approach to amulets such as blue beads and chamsas in Judaism? Are there any sources on the subject so that I can show that our sages rejected such seemingly irrational and pagan practices (which seem to be rampant in many sephardic circles)? Thanks!!

Robert


Hi Robert,

There are a few issues here. Things like this relate to disputes stretching back at least 600 years as to what Judaism is about. Rambam certainly would have opposed such things as harmful nonsense. But even Rambam okayed certain segulos for their placebo benefits. Now, there aren’t any placebo benefits here, but there is another factor to take into consideration: the importance of maintaining a good relationship with your extended family! But only you can figure out how much of an issue this will be.

Can I post your question (with a different name) and my answer on my blog?
B’shaah tovah!
Natan Slifkin

73 comments:

  1. Its funny how things have changed since the middle ages! Sephardic rishonim (mostly) were the rationalists while Ashkenazi rishonim were more kabalistically inclined (and also more anti non Torah sorces). Today, Sephardim are more into Kabalah than Ashkenazim.

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  2. I like your answer, R' Slifkin. May I make two relatively not-so-important comments?

    > "Rambam certainly would have opposed such things as harmful nonsense."

    Just curious: Nonsense, or harmful nonsense?

    > "But even Rambam okayed certain segulos for their placebo benefits. Now, there aren’t any placebo benefits here"

    Maybe to the family there is?

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  3. I must disagree with you Meir. I notice a large change with regard to belief in superstitions over the last decade or so. Just look at the visitors at mekubbalim or promos for different tzedakkos, so many Litvaks are falling into the irrational gimmicks. Just a few years ago, there was a supposed dybbuk, and the crowd of people there to see it was largely Sephardic. Last year, another supposed dybbuk was around and although the same Sephardic mekkubal was back doing the removal, the crowd was Litvaks.
    How many people here in received seggulos from R Chaim Kanievsky's aravos last year. It came to me in the mail! Kupat Hair, Vaad Harabonim are offering segullos every day!

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  4. Why don't you point out the argument between the Gra and the Rambam about amulets? That might be useful for him.

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  5. To be fair to people who use segulas, maybe TEFILLA should only be permitted as a "placebo".

    After all, is it any less superstitious to believe that we can "coax" Hashem with our tefillot? To "convince" Hashem that a sick person should be healed, how many people need to daven? 1, 10, 1000? What if we daven 515 times? How about 516 times?

    Point being, ALL our practices can be viewed either in rational, reasonable terms (like tefilla as effecting change in the person doing the davening, or giving chizuk to the person being davened for) - or in an irrational, superstitious way.

    So don't be too quick to judge or look down your nose at people who use segulas. Other "mainstream" practices are commonly invested with just as much superstition.

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  6. But there's a difference between attributing power to God, and attributing power to blue beads. It's the difference between monotheism and polytheism.

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  7. @Doggett

    If you took a poll of people who use segulas, how many do you think would say that they hold a power "independent" of Hashem?

    Honestly, I think a little limud zechut is in order!

    Segulot are considered to be pathways for shefa enabled by Hashem just like any mitzva, tefila, etc.

    It is really the "shefa flow" concept itself which is superstitious, not the specific mechanism.

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  8. Lawrence Kaplan Coments:

    David Meir : Do you really not see the difference between tefillah and beads? Moreover, here the relatives specifically said they wanted the beads in order to protect the infant from the evil eye. So much for shefa.

    That said, when my son was born, I allowed a relative to put some, if remember correctly, red string on the crib. Family harmony.

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  9. > Segulot are considered to be pathways for shefa

    It’s funny, I never heard that word growing up either at home or in yeshiva.

    > It is really the "shefa flow" concept itself which is superstitious

    Maybe we can just say that kaballah in general tends towards superstition.

    > After all, is it any less superstitious to believe that we can "coax" Hashem with our tefillot?

    I think it is. If you tell your kid he has to go to bed, and he asks you if he can stay up a while longer, that’s a reasonable thing for him to do. If he notices bedtime is approaching and sticks a toy in his pocket with the intention that doing so will make you forget to tell him to go to bed, that’s just ridiculous.

    > What if we daven 515 times? How about 516 times?

    How long does your kid have to cry before you relent and let him stay up for a few more minutes?

    On the other hand, as it says in “The Devil’s Dictionary:”

    “PRAY – To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy.”

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  10. R' Asher Weiss suggests sticking to segulot specifically mentioned in the Talmud. R'YBS relates that Tfillah is certainly a chiddush ,and there are debates as to how to understand its impact, yet it's a chiddush that HKB"H himslef revealed to us so we don't necessarily havve to analyze in the detail that a segulah that appeared iin the middle ages might need to be analyzed. BTW placebo effects can be second order as well (e.g. the impact of telling someone that something they hold dear is likely chukat hagoyim can be very severe)
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  11. >Today, Sephardim are more into Kabalah than Ashkenazim.

    They're not "Sephardim." They're Mizrachim; some of them are mizera Sepharad (Spain) others are not - but Morocco and Syria are not and never were Sepharad.

    The Sephardim which maintained their Spanish identities went to England and Holland and Germany. And for the most part they are not Orthodox or even Jewish anymore. The ones which went to the Middle East and North Africa went native, but convinced the natives that they're actually Spaniards, much like the Pakistanis believe they're descended from the Arabs, not the Indians, even though they're actually identical to the Hindus.

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  12. I believe in the power of prayer to "convince" Hashem. I oppose beads, strings, and other superstitions. I do see a big difference between the two.

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  13. "Segulot are considered to be pathways for shefa enabled by Hashem just like any mitzva, tefila, etc.

    It is really the "shefa flow" concept itself which is superstitious, not the specific mechanism. "

    This is an important point. If I can slightly change your formulation: It is really how rational or irrational you imagine God that determines what is superstition. If you believe God is arbitrary to begin with then "shefa" can come through anything. If you believe God has human-like purpose in his commandments, then things that make sense to us are acceptable but amulets are not. (Your post perhaps indicating you lean toward the arbitrary understanding? )

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  14. "If you tell your kid he has to go to bed, and he asks you if he can stay up a while longer, that’s a reasonable thing for him to do. If he notices bedtime is approaching and sticks a toy in his pocket with the intention that doing so will make you forget to tell him to go to bed, that’s just ridiculous."

    Here we have the other end, the rationalist. Ironically, the rationalist is the one who imagines God to be a big man up in the sky. I guess humanity is stuck between a rock and a hard place in conceiving God. Either he's arbitrary or a powerful human.

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  15. "R' Asher Weiss suggests sticking to segulot specifically mentioned in the Talmud."

    As long as we're analyzing things, I especially like this approach for its honesty: the line between acceptable religiosity and superstition is how old the idea is and in which texts it appears.

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  16. @Lawrence Kaplan

    Re: the similarity between tefilla and beads, it depends on the mindset of the person, wouldn't you say?

    When tefilla or tehillim is recited as a protective formula, it is virtually identical to beads - in fact beads are arguably more "efficient" since they keep "working" even when you're not around. A person's mind is freed up by not having to worry about whether they could be saying more and more tefillot.

    When davening is a means of beseeching Hashem, the aspect that genuinely expresses a person's deep feelings and wants is not in any way similar to beads. However, the notion that by one can change the physical reality by "hoping" is a kind of magical thinking, just like changing that reality by affixing beads to a crib is magical thinking.

    About the evil eye, in a system that presumes the existence of positive "flows" is it a big leap to think of there being destructive ones as well?

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  17. Did you hear about the 95 year old man who needed a refuah sheleima, so he called kuppat hair? he got the answering system "for parnassah press 1 for a zivug press 2 ..." he pushed 4 instead of 5 and gave birth to a baby boy 9 months later.

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  18. When tefilla or tehillim is recited as a protective formula, it is virtually identical to beads.

    Rambam does say that someone who recites tehillim for protection is kofer bekol haTorah.

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  19. @G*3

    About Kabbalah being superstitious, it all depends on your lens. There's some fantastically rich and relevant material to be found in Kabbalah. But you have to tease it out from the esoteric terminology. I would agree though that it has the tendency to feed on people's susceptibility to wacky thinking!

    About the bedtime analogy, it assumes of course that Hashem is analogous to a human parent - listening, responding, deciding, reacting emotionally, etc. Which is certainly not muchrach - either by reason or by classical Jewish thought. (Though I'm guessing R. Slifkin would be able to elaborate better than I can.)

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  20. Please get me in touch with this family. I have some swamp land in Florida that was once flown over by the Ostricher rebbe and has tremendous segulah properties. I am willing to part with it for a very reasonable price.

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  21. There is a discussion in BT Shabat 61 regarding how to ascertain if an amulet is efficacious. Chazal did not use a comparison group for that study as Daniel had done in the sefer that bears his name, nor do they consider a denominator as their do in BT Taanit 21.

    I'm sure the blue beads must have been followed by no-problem births at least three times. But today we would compare the problem rate in the children whose mothers used the beads to the rate in the children whose mothers did not in the same way that we find in Sefer Daniel. Even better, we would randomize families to beads or no beads to avoid confounding. Chazal never do talk about randomizing, but then again, the first randomized clinical trial in a human population was not done until after World War II, so it is hard to blame them!

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  22. Anonymous,

    You neglected to mention all those Sephardim who went to Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey (perhaps the heart of Sephardic culture).

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  23. koillel nick: What I should have said was that the rationalist leadership shifted from Sephardi to Ashkenazi. For example, todays hashkafic equivilent of the Rambam and Rav Yoseph Albo are most probably Rav Hirsch and Rav Soloveitchik (even Modern\Centrist Orthadox Sephardi Rabanim such as Rav Mordechai Eliyahu are kabalistically inclined). Off course you get people on either side who are rationalists and kabalists. I for one am Sephardi but consider myself a rationalist!

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  24. Anonymous: Sephardi has become the term used to describe any Jew who lived under Muslim rule during the middle ages and not only those who lived in Adolusian Spain. Simmilarly, Ashkenazi refers to Jews who lived under Cristian rule and not only those who lived in Germany. The question of homogeneity amongst Sephardi\Mizrachi comunities is higly debatable (Rav Ovadia Yoseph believes that all Sphardim should follow the same minhagim even if it means changing minhagim which were followed in you particular eida).

    While the cultural distinction between Sephardim and Ashkenazim is clear (they do not even share a common language - Yidish vs Arabic), there cirtainly does not exist such a distiction amogst eidot within the Sephardi community despite the nuances in minhag.

    Your comparison to the Pakistanis is not valid. There is a clear ethnic difference between Hindis and Arabs where as Jews from Spain and Jews from Morroco are of the same ethnicity. Even the non-Jews who lived in Andolusian Spain at the time were of Arab decent, just like their brothers in Morroco, Egypt and Syria!

    Furthemore, there was open communication amongst Jews who lived under muslim rule (eg the Rambam was able to pasken for Jews living in Yemen). This allowed for greater homogeneity amongst Sephardim.

    My final point. The ratinlist\kabalist debate hinges quite a bit on cultural influences. The cultural simmilarity between Jews from middle age spain and morroco and syria is great. Rationalism thrived in an open more secular culture which existed in the middle ages amongst the Muslims but did not amogat the Cristians, resulting in the Rambam defending Judaism from a rational perspective. In the last 200 years, secular culture has shifted to the west resulting in the need for a rational Jewish response.

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  25. @Avi

    Superstition (excerpted from Webster's definition) is "a belief or practice resulting from ignorance; a false conception of causation".

    How then is belief in a "human-like" or "rational" God (to use your words) devoid of superstition?

    Doesn't theology itself involve questionable suppositions of causation, historicity, etc?

    Unless you want to argue that "rational" means we're keeping the mitzvot entirely as a rishut - making no claims on God as an agent of causation (explanation or justification). Then there starts to be a meaningful distinction between the superstitious and non-superstitious.

    Again, my point is that the philosophical "high horse" that theological rationalists often see themselves on vis-a-vis mystics (gee, those guys are really superstitious!) is a bit absurd considering the rather venerable set of unprovable, unfalsifiable and superstitious beliefs they themselves hold.

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  26. In the case of the blue color keeping away the evil eye, this is more than just a placebo affect.

    The color blue that is popular in ztfat, and would be the same color found on any anti-evil-eye beads actually has a concrete affect on human beings.

    To quote Color and Psychology:
    Physiological Effect: In contrast to red, blue proves to lower blood pressure. Blue can be linked to the throat and thyroid gland. Blue also has a very cooling and soothing affect, often making us calmer. Deep blue stimulates the pituitary gland, which then regulates our sleep patterns. This deeper blue also has proved to help the skeletal structure in keeping bone marrow healthy.

    Psychological Effect: We usually associate the color blue with the night and thus we feel relaxed and calmed. Lighter blues make us feel quite and away from the rush of the day. These colors can be useful in eliminating insomnia. Like yellow, blue inspires mental control, clarity and creativity. However, too much dark blue can be depressing.

    These are VERY SUBTLE affects on a person, but the affects exist.

    So, while some amulets and segulot might be nonsense, colors are actually proven to have slight,subtle affects on people.

    There is a whole study done as to what color walls hospitals and other such buildings should have because of the affects it has on patients.

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  27. "Rambam does say that someone who recites tehillim for protection is kofer bekol haTorah."

    Doggett, where does the Rambam say that?

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  28. Ameteur -

    You quoted from "Color and Psychology" - is that a scientific paper, a textbook, a scientific study, a pop psychology book, a magazine?

    For anyone quoting and claiming things that on the surface appear to be less than rational, please give specific references if you can. Thanks.

    I'm not saying that colors do NOT have proven medically and physiologically significant benefits. I'm just interested in the actual source of that information, as I think others might be as well. Thanks.

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  29. Koillel Nick - Great laugh! Thanks!
    :D

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  30. Rabbi Slifkin,

    I'm wondering what you would say to David Meir's points (ending in his post October 25, 2010 12:52 AM).

    Thanks.

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  31. R'YBS relates that Tfillah is certainly a chiddush ,and there are debates as to how to understand its impact, yet it's a chiddush that HKB"H himslef revealed to us so we don't necessarily havve to analyze in the detail that a segulah that appeared iin the middle ages might need to be analyzed.

    Joel Rich - Where did HKB"H Himself reveal to us the chiddush of tefillah? Is it in the Chumash? Nach? Gemara?

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  32. Where does the whole concept of Ayin Hara come from? I can think of at least one gemara that says it is irrelevant or nonsense (ie. superstition).

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  33. These are VERY SUBTLE affects on a person, but the affects exist.

    I used to be into the idea of "subtle energies" flowing, due to a mitzva, or kabbalistic practice, or alternative healing technique, until one day I woke up and realized that there are so many NON-SUBTLE things going on that truly deserve our focus.

    Why worry about esoteric practices where if you're on a "high enough level" then maybe you kinda might be able to feel it if you really focus, tune in, etc, (which even then could be chalked up to imaginative self-suggestion) when simply greeting a person with a warm smile produces such REAL, PALPABLE, POSITIVE energy that anyone can readily and immediately perceive?

    Besides, the sheer neurosis and anxiety produced by worrying about "subtle energies" certainly trumps any positive effects!

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  34. I think I can take back my second question above (see second post), but my first question still applies.

    Also, I'm a bit curious (half-facetiously) if the family is using an even number of blue beads, or an odd number.

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  35. Michapeset,

    To be honest, the first and last time I really learned about the affects of colors on people was for my 5th grade science fair project. It is such common knowledge for me, I never really bothered to look it up further.

    However, I did find the following links which might help you find more data on the issue.


    http://www.psychologistworld.com/perception/color.php

    http://www.rochester.edu/news/show.php?id=3268

    http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2008494010_bluelight11.html

    http://www.scienceline.org/2008/09/ask-locke-greenbluescrubs/

    http://www.artipot.com/articles/624222/paint-colors-for-hospital-walls-what-are-the-best.htm

    http://www.buzzle.com/articles/missouri-jail-painted-pink-with-blue-teddy-bears.html

    @David Meir:
    This has nothing to do with "energies" or magic or anything of the kind. This is a purely evolutionary affect that color has on the human brain.

    The reason why I stressed that it was subtle, is because you can not use colors to heal a person of any illness or anything of the sort. However the colors can be used as a preventative or cautionary mechanism when such subtle changes in behavior are important. Such as hospitals, or police stations, and perhaps even the first few months of life.

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  36. David Meir -

    I can very much relate to what you are saying (6:44 AM). Thank you for putting it so well.

    And I also relate to what you wrote in your earlier posts.

    When someone I was very close with was dying of cancer that had spread to that person's liver (a death sentence 10 years ago) I davened like there was no tomorrow. I was bargaining with Hashem, begging and pleading daily, trying to pile up the merits with the understanding (what I had been taught) that you never know if that ONE extra tefilah or mitzvah could be THE key to "open the gates" or “tip the scales” for the request to be accepted by Hashem, so that He would heal the cancer that ravaged the liver of this person that I loved.

    It was not about an honest pouring out of my heart. You can do that once, twice, a hundred times, or whenever the mood strikes (like in your pillow in the middle of the night). It is very hard (almost impossible) to turn that heart-spigot on, no matter how hard you try. And sure, I did that outpouring of my heart too, but it didn’t come along with preprescribed Hebrew words or while I was in shul.

    The loads of davening may have been about sincerely begging Hashem at first, but after begging numerous times (with no result), I knew He knew what I wanted. And after that, in all honesty it was more about accumulating davening points (and/or mitzvah merits) with the idea that if I would just "daven enough" I could "tip the scales" in that person's favor so that Hashem would then change the reality (or have the doctors find a cure).

    After said person died, people were saying that all the tefilos and tehillim and zechuyos would (a) be a merit for that person in their olam habah; (b) prevent other bad things – that we didn’t even know were lurking in the dark – from happening; (c) be a powerful zechus for us because of our emunah/bitachon; (d) all of the above.

    My cynical thought to all of that was, boy, Hashem’s bookkeeper in shomayim must be really busy sorting out all the zechuyos in terms of who gets what credit for which tefilah or mitzvah, and how much credit each person, soul, evil decree gets, etc. What a job! In other words – do all these “tefillah-formulas” which we rely upon really have anything to do with reality? And what is this really all about? Does Hashem really need all that lip service to change His mind about a parent in their mid-40’s dying? And if Hashem is all knowing – doesn’t He know that the kid wants to stay up past his bedtime (G*3’s mashal) and does Hashem really need the kid (human being) to cry out in agony in order to grant him his wish? (Or to not grant him his wish?) I remember learning that Hashem made the eemahos barren because He wanted their tefilos. Isn’t that a little cruel? The answers: “But we just don’t understand, we have to accept that our little minds can’t understand these things.” So, maybe G-d in his infinite wisdom can figure out a way to explain it so that my little mind CAN understand?

    I know I jumped around a lot, and brought up different points. If you’re still reading, thank you, and I’d appreciate your input.

    If I had to summarize in one sentence it would be – what would be Rationalist Judaism’s approach to tefillah for personal requests – especially requests for things which are not likely to happen?

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  37. "Rationalist Judaism" is not a monolith. For a study of Rambam's take on personal tefillos, see the chapter in Marvin Fox, Interpreting Maimonides. Warning: Not for the hashkafically faint of heart!

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  38. @Amateur

    You're 100% right. There are very real effects from stimuli such as color, sound, etc. which although they're sometimes "subtle" have nothing whatsoever to do with superstition or metaphysics.

    I think the mention of "subtle effects" just touches a nerve with me!

    @Michapeset

    Thank you for opening up with a real experience. I'm very sorry about the loss... I think the questions you brought re: davening and general hashgacha are ones which many people share but aren't able to articulate as well as you have. Especially the part about the kind of cruelty which all this implies. To me, there is no level of "tikun" that justifies the immense suffering that human beings constantly endure. As a friend of mine put it, "If Hashem is our parent, this is child abuse." I would add that maybe we should seek a restraining order!

    I personally can't abide by such a notion (nor a great deal of the thinking which goes on in the frum world) and have found myself moving into more of a Torah-humanist position. It's a much longer discussion which I'm open to having. R. Slifkin knows me, so you're welcome get in touch with me through him. Please do!

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    One more thing... In answer to my own kashya on rationalist theology:

    Just as with "miracles", where the rationalist says we should not seek out more miracles than is minimally necessary, so too we should not add more beliefs or belief-rooted practices than necessary. The concept of God as "m'tzaveh", as well as the specific set of mitzvot that springs from that concept, constitute that minimum. Adding more non-rational practices (such as segulot), or ascribing non-rational explanations to mitzvot (e.g. shefa flow) when there could be rational ones (pragmatic, symbolic, etc.), should therefore be discouraged.

    I think that would be a fair answer.

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  39. Meir,
    I'll be more specific. The Ashkenazic Rabbinic leaders today, specifically Litvish, are more open to kabbala and segullos. Neither R Elyashiv nor R C Kanievsky are too anti kabbala affecting their psak lechumra. They are 2 of the more major influences. Hence it makes sense to me when acquaintances tell me they see many litvaks visiting Baba Baruch Abbuchatzeira asking for brachos and segullos.
    On the other hand the Sephardic world today (for the guy above with a pet peeve, he can replace that word with edot hamizrah) is influenced greatly by R O Yossef, who is very anti using kabbala in halacha or in anything else. He insists that pshat always overrules kabbala. You mentioned that R M Eliyahu was a kabbalist. His style is Bagdadian - Ben Ish Chai , yet his influence is limited to a very small crowd. The majority of Sephardic rabbis today in Israel and abroad lean toward R O Yossef's method. Hence I note a reversing of roles.

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  40. @ David Meir

    As I see it, there are four reasons for suffering in this world:

    1) People sin and get punished. (However, since we don't know the full rules of this we can't use it as an explanation for events often).
    2) People cause other people suffering. (Bichirah allows for actions not prescribed by divine justice, so one could damage/benefit another without the second person deserving it.)
    3) Suffering that would lead to good, personally or socially. (Ex. The invention and use of atomic weapons was catastrophic, but has led to a situation were a World War is nearly impossible [I know this is a human action but its a good example of the idea].)
    4) Natural laws, random chance, wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time. (Ex. Haiti lies in a seismic hot zone, so earthquakes that strike them aren't necessarily their fault, but rather an accident of where they happen to live.)

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  41. Can we keep the discussion on topic, please, and leave theodicy for another time.

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  42. Michapeset said...
    =============
    Sorry I missed your question till now

    short answer:This is not all. We are in fact commanded to pray. We find in Ta'anit (2a): "'To love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart' (Devarim 11:13) - what is Divine service that is performed by the heart? This is tefilla."

    Longer -see this series: http://www.vbm-torah.org/archive/ralpray1.htm

    KT
    Joel Rich

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  43. Meir wrote:
    "While the cultural distinction between Sephardim and Ashkenazim is clear (they do not even share a common language - Yidish vs Arabic), there cirtainly does not exist such a distiction amogst eidot within the Sephardi community despite the nuances in minhag. "

    I don't understand this comment.

    Ladino?

    And, no cultural distinction between Syrian Jews and Iraqi Jews and Iranian Jews? Cordim? Moroccans... You obviously never met any.

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  44. I'm in favor of eliminating all superstitious beliefs and practices - regardless of source. Such actions foster magical thinking which is foreign to the message of the torah. However, those superstitions that appear to derive from pagan sources such as the red string and, apparently, the supposed protection against an alleged 'evil eye' offered by blue things, are particularly objectionable. The red string appears to have a pagan European origin whereas blue is considered protective in the Arab world.

    Of course, anything commanded in the torah or clearly derivable as a torah principle doesn't fall under the superstition category. The importance of prayer to GOD alone is indicated in the torah and made explicit by the prophets - if for no other reason than connecting the one who utters a heartfelt prayer to GOD.

    What we do traditionally on Rosh Hashana eve is purely symbolic. Abaye called those foods, "simana milsa hi" (a symbol is something). It's not a segula. If it were, then traditional Jews would be expected to only have good years.

    Having said that, I agree with R' Natan and prof. Kaplan that it's not worth fighting with parents or a spouse over such matters. It should be sufficient to offer an objection but to consent to their insistence on such actions. If symbols are something, then human feelings - even if mistaken, are also of consequence.

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  45. Student V: First of all, i am of morrocan decent and where i live i go to a Sephardi shul with Sephardim from all different eidot. The cultural differences between the eidot are small compared to the cultural differences between Askenazim and Sephardim (even amongst Israelis). Yes there are nuances in mihagim but the simmilarities far outway the differences.

    What I meant by the language is that the Rambam (in Spain) wrote all of his non-hebrew works in Arabic, a language that a Jew from Bagdad and Syria could understand but a Jew from Germany could not.

    It would be interesting to know how prevalent Ladino was in the middle ages. Most (non-hebrew) Sephardi literature was in Arabic.

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  46. koillel nick: point taken, though Rav Ovadia is certainly not a rationalist (hashkafically). Also, see his psak on kaparot, where he paskens against the Shulchan Aruch in favour of a kabalistic custom (to use a chicken in stead of money). Often enough he does pasken in favour of the minhag kadmon of Yerushalayim, which is generally more kabalistic.

    The fact that Litvish poskim pasken according to the kabalah lechumrah i think has more to do with being as machmir as possible than with being kabalistic. The chareidi world expects the most chumrah psak possible hence the Poskim are pressured to perform even if that meens comprimising on conviction.

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  47. Did Rambam consider things like "blue beads" nonsense, or did he consider them harmful nonsense? Did everyone miss this question of mine, find it too hard to answer, or too insignificant to answer?

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  48. Me too, but if you do you’re going to destroy the religion. You draw the line at, “anything commanded in the torah or clearly derivable as a torah principle.” Does this exclude things not in Tanach, like practices derived from the Zohar or long-standing minhagim (like, say, wearing a yarmulke)?

    Also, very few things are “clearly derivable as a torah principle.” Most of what we do that is supposedly based on tanach is really the product of extrapolation and interpretation. Even granting that TSBP was given at Har Sinia, we obviously lost most of it at some point or there would be no gemara.

    Take the “command to pray” cited above in the comments: "'To love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart' (Devarim 11:13) - what is Divine service that is performed by the heart? This is tefilla."

    serve Him with all your heart = Tefilla is an interpretation. Taken at face value, the pasuk means to serve Hashem whole-heartedly. If I was being cynical, I would say that someone went through the Chumash looking for something to justify the already-existing practice of prayer, and this pasuk was the best they could do.

    So do we now dismiss tefilla as a superstitious practice with only a tenuous connection to the Torah, or do we accept the gemara’s interpretations as binding? What about the rishonim, or the Shulchan Aruch?

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  49. What about blue strings on rectangular garments?

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  50. What hashgacha. I injured my shoulder just in time to realate to this post. A friend just sent me no less than 6 text messages with assorted segulos, things to do, learn and say. Here’s the new one I had never heard, I’m supposed to say it in a “crying tone.” Wonder how it’ll come across if I say them in the doctor’s office.

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  51. What about blue strings on rectangular garments?

    They are not a segulah, they are a reminder. Cf. the article about mezuzah linked on the right.

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  52. @Phil:

    I don't know what the Rambam says, but nira li that nonsense is not harmful in-and-of itself, but when people think there is substance to it that false belief is harmful.

    So here, perhaps the author of the letter would have no problems putting on the beads, because he knows they are nonsense. His relatives would have a problem because they actually assign substance to it.

    On the topic of unanswered questions: Where does the whole idea of Ayin Hara come from?

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  53. Rabbi Slifkin – Thank you for the referral.

    @ Ameteur – Thanks for all the great links! And especially for teaching me something new! I didn’t realize how much this was actually studied. It’s fascinating. (My excuse for my ignorance = I went to a Chareidi school where we didn’t get much in the way of a breadth of exposure to non-NY-Regents-based scientific studies.)

    @ David Meir – Thank you for your thoughtful and very validating comments. I will contact you through Rabbi Slifkin. Thank you.

    @ Joel Rich – Thank you.

    @ Phil – I’d also like to know the answer, if anyone knows it.

    I'm in favor of eliminating all superstitious beliefs and practices - regardless of source… Of course, anything commanded in the torah or clearly derivable as a torah principle doesn't fall under the superstition category.

    @ Y. Aharon – The Karaaim do this. Is that what you mean? (And ditto the questions of G*3.)

    The chareidi world expects the most chumrah psak possible hence the Poskim are pressured to perform even if that meens comprimising on conviction.

    @ Meir – So much for “mesorah” and Toras Moshe M’Sinai… It begs the question as to when else and how often were piskei halachah “compromised” along the way in the past 3,500 years. (Even to the point that they could now be a significant distortion of their original intent.)

    @ Seeker – If you say the segulos “in a crying tone” in the doctor’s office – you may find yourself with medications for more than just your shoulder! Anyway, Refuah Sheleimah.

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  54. Regarding the excellent article on mezuzah that Rabbi Slifkin referred to (link is on the right), called “Mezuzah: Protective Amulet or Religious Symbol,” and taken together with another excellent article by the same author, Rabbi Dr. Martin L. Gordon, (also linked on the right) called “Netilat Yadayim: Ritual of Crisis or Dedication” – it would seem that what is known today as “Kabbalah” is the source for much of these things that we are calling “superstitions” “magical” “segulos” and not spoken of in halachic sources until relatively recently. The Zohar, the Ari, the teachings on the teachings of the Zohar and the Ari (etc etc), which are now known as “Kabbalah” somehow became translated into and “evolved” into not only the hashkafos of the mainstream frum world, but the halachos and minhagim as well. (When I say “frum world” I mean the “Yeshivish” world, and not the Chassidish world, as Chassidus itself openly claims to be based upon Kabalistic teachings).

    If so much of the problem is rooted in Kabbalah teachings which is rooted in the Zohar, why has no one in the Orthodox world published an English book from an Orthodox (not a secular) perspective, about the Zohar and Kabbalah, it's history, it's problems, and how a book (the Zohar) with such a questionable source history and with so many new, different and questionable contents has become as canonized and as heavily relied upon as it is for informing the current practices of Orthodox Jews?

    [Btw – my understanding is that Rav Yaakov Emden wrote a series of seforim (I think in Hebrew) called the “Mitpachas Seforim” pointing out many problems with the Zohar. My understanding is that in the same book he also tried to explain away some of those problems and defend the Zohar. And I heard that the Mitpachas seforim are currently banned in Chareidi circles (maybe this is only in Israel, I don’t know). Translating them (even in part) into English could be a starting point for an honest Orthodox book on the inherent problems, history and questionable authenticity of the Zohar.]

    The answer to why such a book was not yet written (in English and from an honest but Orthodox perspective) could very well be that seeing how other, seemingly less controversial books are banned so quickly (and without due process) by the Gedolim (or those who manipulate them), is a good indication of how well received such a book would be. Then again, a book banning would be sure to generate sales and capture people’s interest. Such a banning could very possibly backfire much like the banning of Rabbi Slifkin’s books did. But then again, who on this earthly planet would voluntarily subject themselves to go through that kind of ordeal?!

    Any volunteers?

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  55. G*3, you misinterpreted my comments. I was only referring to clearly superstitious beliefs and practices such as the red strings, blue beads, etc., not to the gamut of religious beliefs and practices even if they can't be directly derived from the torah. Those practices have symbolic value even if not intuitively reasonable. Examples are tefilin, mezuza, and tzitzit which are meant to serve as reminders of other mitzvot and of GOD. Wearing a kippah or head-covering is a much later custom which, however, has the same motivation. Other symbolic practices veer on superstition and are problematic - to my mind. An example is kapparot with chickens. It looks too much like an unhalachic sacrafice with origins among medieval European Gentiles to pass muster for me - not to mention the scandalous treatment of the live birds and their disposal after slaughter.

    I certainly did not intend to cast aspersions on general Jewish practice except for those which have a clear superstitious character. I feel that it is important to eliminate the ancient but pagan idea of magical acts as part of religious performance.

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  56. In a now-famous speech that he gave at YU, Rav Hershel Schachter said that red strings and the like are a violation of an issur de'oraita. I suppose that whether or not one should object to a family member's strong desire to do this would be the same, according to Rav Schachter, as objecting or not objecting if they want to eat non-Kosher food in your house.

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  57. Shumlie-
    Can you link to that shiur, since it's famous?

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  58. I don't know the link offhand, but I think you can access it from YU's archived shiurim. I think the whole speech was around 30 minutes long.

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  59. This is just my uninformed opinion and speculation, but I think the reaction to questioning the zohar - either its authenticity or its authority - and delving into the superstitious elements or some outdated medieval concepts that underlie the work, will probably be the most visceral and I think moreso than any subject, even the evolution issue. The difference is that you don't really see this happening in print, unlike the evolution issue which has been a fairly prominent issue, relatively speaking, in recent decades.

    Personally, I think the reaction against an intellectually honest historical approach to the zohar would be even stronger than the reaction against Rabbi Slifkin. Even many reasonable people who would not necessarily go "on the attack" over it would nonetheless feel it's out of bounds or offensive to question that work.

    I too want a work to appear in English dealing with this subject at length but don't know if that will ever happen.

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  60. I suppose the following case can demonstrate the intersection between anti-rationalism and rationalism:

    http://www.avakesh.com/2009/12/the-last-remaining-lachash-chazal-shabbos-67a-teach-that-if-a-person-rl-has-a-bone-stuck-in-his-throat-one-should-br.html

    "Chazal (Shabbos 67A) teach that if a person, R’L, has a bone stuck in his throat, one should bring a bone of the same type and
    place it on the person’s skull and say “Chad chad, nochis bola, bola nochis,
    chad chad.” Rebbi Akiva Eiger (Yoreh Deah 335, D’H Nasnah) brings from the
    Maharil that this lachash is the last one we can generally use even in our
    days--as it is still “boduk um’nuseh.”

    I guess when a segulah is empirically proven...

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  61. ""Chazal (Shabbos 67A) teach that if a person, R’L, has a bone stuck in his throat..."

    For a rationalist explanation of how this actually works, and makes sense, see my response post:

    http://parsha.blogspot.com/2009/12/surely-youre-choking.html

    kol tuv,
    josh

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  62. "I too want a work to appear in English dealing with this subject at length but don't know if that will ever happen."

    It can't happen.

    Translating the zohar is like translating a pun, or explaining a joke.

    Your best bet is to read an academic translation of the Zohar and have the Aramaic open as well, and do the best you can.

    And read all the zohar derivative books fist so you get some idea of what they could possibly be talking about.

    the latest Zohar translation isn't all that bad actually.

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  63. Student V –

    I agree with you that it might possibly be more controversial and there might be more of a battle cry to ban it. But does that mean it should not be written?

    I would be willing to initiate and oversee the writing of such a book, if I could gather enough people together to fund the writing and initial publication of it. Right now, the lack of funds is all that is standing in my way. (The only other problem is that I have a day job. But if we could get a committee together of 3-4 people who would each be willing to give some time to overseeing the details, I think we could get it going with some funding. Again, the funding is the major obstacle at the moment.)

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  64. Chazal (Shabbos 67A) teach that if a person, R’L, has a bone stuck in his throat, one should bring a bone of the same type and place it on the person’s skull and say “Chad chad, nochis bola, bola nochis, chad chad.” Rebbi Akiva Eiger (Yoreh Deah 335, D’H Nasnah) brings from the Maharil that this lachash is the last one we can generally use even in our days--as it is still “boduk um’nuseh.”

    In a conversation I had recently with someone about Chazal and science, this person said that Chazal spoke about things in the way they “appear” to us (hence lice from sweat and mice from dirt). What would those people who use this rationale say about the above? It does not “appear” that a person stops choking, or the bone pops out when you put another bone on their head and say a few words.

    Additionally, if Chazal knew science, they would know that the Heimlich maneuver would work much better than the above utterances if someone had a bone stuck in his throat. And for the excuse that Chazal did not want to “reveal” scientific knowledge which “the world was not ready for” – this does not seem like it would apply. There is a big difference between building nuclear reactors, electricity, cars, video games and industrial machinery from the rather simple Heimlich maneuver which is not much more than a thrust into the upper stomach. Not to mention the fact that it saves lives.

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  65. Rabbi Waxman – Very interesting. Thank you.

    Ameteur – You misunderstood. It would NOT be a book translating the Zohar, but rather a book talking about the authenticity, authority and accurate history of the Zohar. (I wrote about a translation only in regard to a book which points out the problems of the Zohar.)

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  66. "It can't happen.

    Translating the zohar is like translating a pun, or explaining a joke."

    I wasn't referring to a translation of the zohar. Please reread my comment.

    And indeed, charlatans like the kabbalah center have already produced their "translations," but I'm not interested.

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  67. Mory Yahia Kafah wrote a book called מלחמת ה' in which he denies the authenticity of the Zohar.
    The book was never printed, (as was the case with most books written in Yemen). However, parts of it are printed in the response book אמונת ה', and could be found in Yemenite book stores.
    Rav Emden questioned the authenticity of the Moreh Nevuchim as well.
    Bottom line, Rav Emden accepted most of the Zohar, but none of the Moreh

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  68. -I don't know the link offhand, but I think you can access it from YU's archived shiurim. I think the whole speech was around 30 minutes long.-

    i don't think that advice is going to prove too helpful as the number r. shachter's archived talks at yutorah.org is currently well north of two thousand.

    -..how a book (the Zohar) with such a questionable source history and with so many new, different and questionable contents has become as canonized and as heavily relied upon as it is for informing the current practices..-

    well, not really all that heavily relied upon. the standard formulation, articulated by r. joseph caro's uncle yitzchoq - is that zohar may be relied upon only in those instances where the halokhoh had been left undecided. there are a number of excellent (hebrew) articles by the late jacob katz on the interplay of qabboloh and halokhoh which ought be read by anyone wanting to comment the subject.

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  69. And I heard that the Mitpachas seforim are currently banned in Chareidi circles

    Yes. RNS is indeed in good company.

    I once printed out the sefer from אוצר החכמה, and never read it. Anyone who wants to put it to good use, I'd be willing to mail it anywhere in Israel. send an email to mialpouhte@garrifulio.mailexpire.com.

    My understanding was the Rav Emden did not accept the Zohar as authentic.

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  70. "My understanding was the Rav Emden did not accept the Zohar as authentic"

    To quote Shadal's summary of Rav Yaakov Emden's position (see here in my translation of the Vikuach), Rav Yaakov Emden held that the Zohar was authentic, but 280 additions which were added in later generations.

    Meanwhile, regarding the Raya Mehemna and the Tikkunim portions of the Zohar, that they were entirely forged.

    Meanwhile, Shadal felt (see here) that Rav Yaakov Emden was being too kind, in not labeling the entire Zohar totally forged.

    kol tuv,
    josh

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  71. StudentV writes: "I too want a work to appear in English dealing with (the authenticity of the Zohar) at length but don't know if that will ever happen."

    It's been done. Have you heard of Milchamot Hashem? No, not Gersonides' version, but Rabbi Qafiḥ's grandfather's version.

    http://www.angelfire.com/ak2/book55

    Wiki says that Rabbi Kanievsky has condemned Rabbi Qafiḥ's work as being heretical. (Now you'll really want to read it!)

    Note, the fellow who put together the angelfire site could use a less or two (or a thousand) in writing English well.

    For more information (such as a critique of the book) see footnotes at:
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yi%E1%B8%A5yah_Qafi%E1%B8%A5

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  72. > "could use a less or two"

    Err, make that "could use a lesson or two".

    YY, although you said, "The book was never printed," the wiki site has a link to chayas.com where you can find R' Kafih's book in Hebrew.

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  73. rabbi yosef chaim of Baghdad brings down in his sefer ben ish chai (shana bet parasha pinchas) the custom of hanging a 5 finger hand with a letter "hey" on it to take away evil eye

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