Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Spectacular Sufganiya Segula

Today I received an email of segulos for Chanukah, in the name of the very popular Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi (no connection to Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi), from an extremely nice person who unfortunately does not realize that many people are genuinely religiously offended by this sort of thing.

In the long list of segulos were some things that are very valuable. For example:
Mothers should not say to their kids, during Chanukah or at all, "I am tired" or anything in correlation to 'I am tired... not now'. This makes a child feel like they are not important and a burden to their parents and is very hurtful to them and so even if you are tired, and who is not... don't tell them this.
That is very nice advice. Of course, it's not a segulah.

There were other things in the list that are segulos and which, from the perspective of a Maimonidean rationalist, certainly lack any validity:
For all of those who are single or know of someone who wishes to marry, here is one for you: on the Shabbos of Chanukah, you must first light the Chanukah candles and then the Shabbos candles. After both are lit, glance at them both and ask for a zivug, your marriage partner. 
Use olive oil, but not just the regular kind, the best one: the one you would use to dress your salad and cook with. And the reasons are that you'll merit:
• Children that have a great memory, consuming olive oil helps you retain your memory
• Children who are wise/smart, as oil rises above water
• Children who have great eyesight, they will be able to see things with a clearer perception.
And then there was this one, which really made my hair stand on end: 
The Father of the holy RamBam, zt"l, had said that one should not belittle the power of frying soufganiot in oil. Use plenty of oil, don't be skimpy, it is a segula for parnassa. But unless you want to make the local baker wealthy, you must fry them yourself and eat them as well. Better to be rich and fat, I guess, than skinny and poor.... you choose... Anyway, it's the utmost importance that you make them, you fry them and then you say the bracha of "על המחיה" at the end, which mentions the מזבח which is of course of most relevance during Chanukah. 
Why did this bother me so much? Firstly, fried food is positively unhealthy. (In fact, UTJ health minister Yaakov Litzman recently called for people to decrease their consumption of donuts.) Second, it seemed highly unlikely that Rambam's father could have said such a thing, since it goes completely against Rambam's worldview. Third, it was incredibly silly, and yet it was described as being "of the utmost importance"!

So I looked into it, and, much to my complete lack of surprise, it turns out that Rambam's father said no such thing.

Here is the source, first found in a Moroccan manuscript written in 1780:

אין להקל בשום מנהג ואפילו מנהג קל. ויתחייב כל נכון לו עשות משתה ושמחה ומעשים לפרסם הנס שעשה השם יתברך עמנו באותם הימים. ופשט המנהג לעשות סופגנין הנקראים בערבי אלספינ"ג והם הצפיחית בדבש ובתרגום האיסקריטין. והוא מנהג הקדמונים משום שהם קלוים בשמן זכר לברכתו. 

Let us assume that the attribution is correct (though it is difficult to rely on a claim in 1780 regarding something allegedly written 700 years earlier). Rambam's father is indeed saying that it is important to have fried foods. However, he is not remotely saying that it has any "power," and certainly not that it is a segulah for parnasah. Instead, he says that it is important because it serves as a remembrance to the miracle. It's as simple as that.

In the past, I have written about how I am fairly tolerant of superstitions - one person's segulah is another person's fundamental religious belief. How much more inherently irrational are segulos than, say, tefillas haderech (which I am extremely makpid about)? Furthermore, they can be psychologically helpful.

However, I am gradually becoming less and less sympathetic to them. First of all, I have seen how major organizations capitalize on segulos in order to take advantage of people. Second, the entire anti-scientific mindset is clearly very harmful - just look at the measles outbreak, which seems to be caused by the anti-scientific anti-vaccination movement.

It's a pity that people can't make use of more traditional segulos. I would like to once again share the following list of segulos, sourced in Chazal and the Rishonim, and compiled by my late neighbor Rabbi Dovid Landesman ztz"l:

1. Segulah for recovery from illness – go to a doctor [Berachot 60a, Bava Kamma 46b)
2. Segulah for longevity – lead a healthy lifestyle (Rambam, De’ot 4:20)
3. Segulah for marriage – look for a suitable wife (Kiddushin 2b)
4. Segulah for shalom bayit – love and forbearance (Sanhedrin 7a, Bava Metzia 59a)
5. Segulah for children – prayer to Hashem (Shmuel I 1)
6. Segulah for yir’at Shamayim – learning (Avot 2:5)
7. Segulah for spirituality – learning and mitzvah observance (Megillah 6b)
8. Segulah for kavanna in prayer – take it seriously (Berachot 5:1)
9. Segulah for parnasa – learn a profession (Kiddushin 30a)
10. Segulah for pure faith – don’t believe in segulot (Devarim 18:13)

(On another note - tours on Chanukah of The Biblical Museum of Natural History are filling up, so if you'd like to come, book now!)

45 comments:

  1. Did soufganiot even exist in the Rambam's time?

    As to the segula attached to candle lighting, I have heard (but don't remember the source) a teaching that encourages prayer after performing a mitzvah, on the grounds that such a prayer is more likely to be answered in the merit of the mitzvah--but this was applied to all mitzvot, not just lighting the candles for Shabbat/Chanukah.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It seems that sufganiyot, or a prototype thereof, may have originated in ancient Greece (Oy vey! Misyavnim alert!)
      http://toriavey.com/history-kitchen/2011/06/the-history-of-doughnuts/
      The Moroccan manuscript says ופשט המנהג לעשות סופגנין הנקראים בערבי אלספינ"ג והם הצפיחית בדבש - it is referring to the North African sfenj, which are not sufganiyot (as anyone who has eaten them can attest to)
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sfenj
      Chef Shmeel Holland, Ashkenazi food expert, claims that in Europe Jews ate latkes on Chanuka. When they came to Eretz Yisrael, they started to make Polish pazcki or German berliners (which are traditionally eaten in the Christmas-New Year period!) for Chanuka.

      Delete
    2. The Chofetz Chaim used that idea to explain why we say the Harachamans after birkat hamazon.

      Delete
    3. > I have heard (but don't remember the source) a teaching that encourages prayer after performing a mitzvah, on the grounds that such a prayer is more likely to be answered in the merit of the mitzvah

      What does this imply about the way the zechusim system works? Do zechusim degrade over time, so it's best to use them while they're fresh? Or do we burn zechusim just living, so that the zechusim generated by the mitzvah will get used up, and it's best to daven right now while all of them are still in our account? Or are zechusim like money, and more-or-less maintain their value over time, but Hashem has a short memorty, is more likely to approve our metaphysical purchase if we've done something for him recently?

      Delete
  2. Great post!
    A couple of quibbles: I don't think it would be "highly unlikely" for R. Maimon to hold views that don't exactly jive with those of Rambam; anyone who reads הספיק לעובדי השם without knowledge of the author who probably not attribute it to Rambam's son.
    I think you may have mischaracterized R. Maimon's opinion - or at least what is attributed to him. The major importance of sufganyot seems to be its status of minhag: אין להקל בשום מנהג ואפילו מנהג קל. The specific rationale is quoted only at the end and is a secondary consideration.
    חנוכה שמח!!!
    R Stefansky

    ReplyDelete
  3. Another quibble: Why is tefillat haderekh irrational? Do you consider all tefillot irrational? Even Rambam believed in the efficacy of petitionary prayer, as did everyone in Tanakh and Chazal.
    R Stefansky

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't that its irrational, but in its original form, it seems oddly applied. When I leave town, I'm not exactly concerned about robbers, let alone wild animals (although I suppose it could apply to a deer on the highway which can be quite dangerous).

      R Slifkin, on the other hand, can say that section with complete Kavannah :)

      Delete
  4. 1. Tefillat Haderech is not a segulah. It's a prayer? Part of being Jewish is praying to God. By praying, you are attributing power to God. Segulahs attribute power to meaningless objects, whether it be sufganiyot, challah with keys, pots with lead...It's all about attributing power to something other than God. Praying cannot be considered a segulah.

    2. Segualhs can to a lot of harm. A rabbi convinced my mother not to walk me down the isle at my wedding because there is a segulah that a married couple should walk the chatan and kallah down the isle and my parents are divorced. This started a war in my family. Segulahs are dangerous and idolatrous. You should not be tolerant of them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. On your point 2.
      No doubt Segulahs are dangerous, but the specific example that you cited could equally well have occurred with any halachah which hurt some part of your family. Why is it uniquely Segulahs that are dangerous in this particular way?

      Delete
    2. Because we are bound by Halacha. As R' Slifkin pointed out, one man's Segulah is another man's norishkeit. That makes the Segulah a choice.

      Delete
    3. And one man's chumrah is another man's extremism.

      Delete
    4. Unknown 5:25

      Why didn't you fight over both father's escorting the chattan and both mother's escorting the kallah? That way, everyone can think you are extremists in tzniyut. (My family laughs at those weddings.)

      Delete
  5. Mothers should not say to their kids, during Chanukah or at all, "I am tired" or anything in correlation to 'I am tired... not now'. This makes a child feel like they are not important and a burden to their parents and is very hurtful to them and so even if you are tired, and who is not... don't tell them this.
    That is very nice advice. Of course, it's not a segulah.


    It's a segulah for a nervous breakdown and depression.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Also a segulah for spoiled brats.

      And "correlation" is not just a fancier version of "relation."

      Delete
    2. Quite the the opposite: Correlation is the penultimate form of relation.

      Delete
  6. What do you guys do on rosh hashana when you dip your apple in honey and mumble something? Or rely on the tamar so that your enemies will end? I guess you feel like silly jews, don't you? And why did you skip the whole part of the rabbanit's shiur that's discussing the essence of prayer? Oh well. Segulot are not a must. They are accessories that come to express affection, beyond what needs to be done. A true segulla will always be accompanied by a good prayer and kavanah. Just like in rosha hadhana. But, of course, you don't like it? Don't do it. Leave it to us, irrationally loving people...
    Yikrat

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yikrat, the basis for the items eaten on leil rosh hashanna are found in the talmud and explained by the Amora, Abaye, as simanim, i.e., symbols for a good year. Symbols by themselves don't accomplish anything. Their only significance is associated with the accompanying yehi ratzons, i.e., prayer. Without a heartfelt request, the mere act of eating something is meaningless and certainly guarantees nothing. If prayer is involved, then the magical aspect of segulot is irrelevant as well as being false, possibly in violation of the torah prohibition against magical acts, and foolish.

      Y. Aharon

      Delete
    2. Our local Chabad Rabbi, may he live and be well, likes to make the point about simanim and plays on words in multiple languages in a humorous way: The customary one, and then also (or at least talking about) a salad with lettuce, raisins and celery being a siman for "Let us have a raise in salary."

      Delete
    3. It's no sillier than some of the others, whether Yiddish or Hebrew based.

      Delete
    4. @Y. Aharon: You are correct that the custom today is tied into the short Tefillah which is said along with consumption of the symbol. Neverthless, the source in the Gemera indicates that the "symbolism has substance" (השתא דאמרת םימנא מילתא היא). The cases that precede that conclusion are not related to Tefillah:

      Our Rabbis have taught: Kings are anointed only by the side of a spring, so that their rule be prolonged, as it is written: And the king said unto them... and bring him down to Gihon... and anoint him there. Said R. Ammi: ‘When one wishes to know whether he will survive the coming year or not, let him take a burning lamp during the ten days between New Year and the Day of Atonement and place it in a house where there is no draught; if the lamp burns out to the end, he will know that he will survive the year. And if one is about to engage in business and wishes to know whether he will succeed or not, let him get a cock and feed it; if it grows fat and handsome, he will know that he will succeed. When one is about to go on a journey and wishes to know whether he will return home, let him enter a darkened room;42 if he can perceive the reflection of his shadow, he will know that he will return home. But it is not the proper thing [to make these tests], for one might be discouraged and mar his fortune.

      Said Abaye: Since you hold that symbols are meaningful, every man should make it a
      habit to eat on New Year pumpkin, fenugreek, leek, beet and dates.

      Delete
    5. David Ohsie, I don't have that gemara in front of me, but I would say that Abaye refers more to the practice of annointing a Judean king near a spring rather than the questionable advice of R' Ammi which partakes more of superstition than a religious ritual. In any case, I agree with your translation of 'simana milsa' as symbols being meaningful (or of value) rather than a magical formula (i.e., segulah). The point is to use them to invoke a prayer or hope - whether spoken or only in thought.

      Y. Aharon

      Delete
    6. Y. Aharon, I don't really disagree with you (we agree on most of these topics), but I would say that our opponents have statements in the Gemara on their side. I have a hard time saying that someone is violating the Torah by following the Gemara, even if what they are doing is ultimately foolish.

      Delete
  7. The Remo mentions eating cheese on Chanuka. No mention of foods with oil.
    Why are we not makpid on that anymore? It's also healthier

    ReplyDelete
  8. Enjoy!
    http://parasha.ravpage.co.il/chanuka

    ReplyDelete
  9. The last segulah made my head explode.

    ReplyDelete
  10. So I think an ad is in order: the "gedolim" (unnamed) will eat sufganiot / latkes in your honor while saying tehillim / sugya of "mai chanukah" if you send $ £ € ¥ to (named tzedakah.)

    Competing tzedakah will have unspecified "godol" lite chanukah candles followed by rebbetzin lite shabbat candles in honor of those listed in printout provided by litvish tzedakah that refuses to identify who the money goes to. And no "godol" claims to know where the money goes. No claim by the tzedakah where the money goes; sometimes claim it goes to unnamed tzedakah. 990 tax return says it goes by wire transfer to middle East country, with $10,000 to satmar shul in town.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Don't see how a godol lite and a rebbetzin lite can compete with the fully fledged godolim the other tzedakah is offering.

      Delete
  11. Rabbi Shmuel Elazar Halperin, o.b.m. (a noted personality in the Chabad community in general, and in Jerusalem in particular) once said a nice vort: If a person eats מזונות on Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh, or Yom Tov, s/he mentions the holiday in the berachah על המחיה. But there isn't any such addition to על המחיה for Chanukah or Purim. So a type of מזונות was adopted to be unique for each holiday, to serve as a reminder of that holiday: סופגניות on Chanukah, and אוזני המן on Purim.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It might be a nice vort, but it's clearly a post facto explanation.

      Delete
    2. Also Shmuel Apple below brings the opposite idea: since Al Hamichya specifically mentions the Heichal and Mizbeach, the idea is precisely to eat Mezonos without benching. I guess there are multiple ways to skin a post facto :).

      Delete
  12. Apparently the Yaavetz and Rav Shlomo Zalman held that this Segula is accurate.
    http://bshch.blogspot.co.il/2016/12/blog-post_7246.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I cannot locate such a quote in She'elat Ya'avetz by R' Yaakov ben (Chacham) Tzvi [Emden]. Can someone help me out, please? Is there maybe another "Shu"T Yaavetz"?

      Delete
  13. "Segulah for children – prayer to Hashem"

    Rabbi Slifkin or anyone else who cares to respond. Praying to Hashem can bring children ? This can be double blind tested. What if it was found that prayer had absolutely no impact on fertility ?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Since God is omniscient, the study can't be double blind :).

      Delete
    2. @David Ohsie - Nevertheless, we can study if prayer has any effect. If it does not, then for all practical purposes prayer has no effect on fertility. I was taught - infertile couples residing outside of Israel should relocate to Israel to help with fertility. I witnessed more than one couple do so. It was no help at all. I felt so sorry for the couples having their hopes dashed. It did not help my emunah.

      Delete
    3. @ACJA: I was being facetious (note the smiley).

      Nevertheless, I think that a large benefit of prayer is the support it gives to the person who needs the help. The emphasis on communal prayer over individual prayer in halacha is not accidental: the prayers of others lift the person needing help independent of any intercessionary effects.

      Delete
    4. David,

      Can't the same be said of Segulos?

      Delete
    5. Yes, and even the Rambam permits at least some Segulot when they are needed to calm a patient in danger. And prayer as a substitute for action is also harmful.

      Delete
  14. 1. I'm not sure oil is so terrible- just google "Mediterranean diet" and you will discover that there is a case for olive oil in particular.

    2. Also, oil and sugar are indeed a segula for delicious donuts!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Where is the citation for the quote of R Maimon

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=22994&pgnum=8

      Delete
    2. So are we all eating beans or peas on Hoshana Rabba? Milk (fat) on Purim and Motzei Pesach? Why just jelly donuts on chanuka? The Rambam's father quotes all of those.

      Delete
  16. Several years ago, Rabbanit Mizrachi said in a speech to many women (and one that was circulated online) that a newly married couple should not have relations on their wedding night, because everyone assumes this is what they will be doing, and it leads people to impure and malicious thoughts, the result being that a child born from the wedding night relations will suffer from an ayin hara.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. @topshot: Do you have a copy of that? It sounds too absurd to be true...

      Delete

Comments for this blog are moderated. Please see this post about the comments policy for details. ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED - please use either your real name or a pseudonym.

The Evils of Civic Responsibility and National Pride?

A rabbinic colleague of mine recently purchased a Hebrew illustrated children's haggadah, Me-Avdut LeCherut , published by Yefeh Nof, ...