Does Jewish mysticism exist? What’s the Torah’s view of it? Can mystics be consulted for business advice? Is their advice trustworthy? What is the definition of Kishuf and Kesem, and what’s the halachic difference between the two? Can they be pursued for medical reasons? Is pikuach nefesh (a life-threatening situation) a reason to use them? What are good and bad omens, and of what value are they? What is the difference between superstitions and the foods eaten on Rosh Hashana night? What are segulos? Which segulos are valid, and which are not valid despite being mentioned in Jewish books? Of this and more in the coming article.
Last week’s article discussed on the prohibition of: “You shall not act on the basis of omens or lucky hours” (Vayikra 19:26) as it applies nowadays to horoscopes. This week we will focus on the various forms of fortunetelling: tarot cards, Turkish coffee fortune tellers, palmists, numerologists and others people consult with, in hope of discovering what the future holds. Can they be used? Can their advice be heeded for investing, healing, or making a match? Can an ill person use it to determine if a medical treatment will be successful or not?
Recent years have seen proliferation of treatments for evil eye and curse removal. Are these forms of treatment permitted?
Last week we introduced a discussion on the various forms of Torah-prohibited mysticism – Kishuf, Ov, Yidoni, Meonen etc., and explained the difference between them. We also expounded on the general Torah obligation to “Be wholehearted with the Lord, your G-d” (Devarim 18:13) and refrain from using spiritual means that attempt to “circumvent” G-d.
For practicing the Ov and Yidoni forms of sorcery the Torah prescribes a death penalty, while the other forms are forbidden with a regular negative commandment, along with the general commandment to “Be wholehearted with the Lord, your G-d”.
What is the difference between kishuf and kesem? What does the prohibition include — is it only for practicing it, or does it include consulting others who practice it?
Kishuf vs. Witchcraft
The Maharshal (Yam Shel Shlomo, Chulin 8:13) explains the difference between kishuf and other witchcraft: while other forms might do positive things on the rare occasion, kishuf is strictly a destructive force.
All forms of witchcraft are forbidden. The Maharshal only allows using kishuf for canceling out other kishuf – i.e. a witchdoctor. His experience has shown that witchdoctors can be successful in curing only witchcraft. Other than that, their powers are only destructive and forbidden.
This assertion would make evil eye and curse removal procedures permissible, provided one knows he suffers from the evil eye. However, please note: before consulting practitioners, please ask your local Rov.
Magic – Fact or Fiction
Is witchcraft something real thing or just fairytale fabric? Is the Torah’s prohibition a result of its futility and nonsensical nature, or is it a real negative force which the Torah prohibits utilizing?
The Rambam (Avoda Zara 11:16 and others) asserts quite adamantly that no such powers exist, and anyone who believes in them is a gullible fool. The only reason the Torah prohibits them is their nonsensical nature.
The Rashba (volume I chapter 413) and other Rishonim wonder at this blanket statement since various psukim and Gemara sources indicate these forces do exist. The Gra (YD 179) responds with uncharacteristic sharp language, claiming that this assertion is a mistake the Rambam made as a result of his philosophy studies.
The Maharshal (Yam Shel Shlomo, Chulin, chapter 8:13) writes that most mystics are nonsense and false. While they may succeed on occasion, it happens only rarely. Those suffering from a life-threatening disease may try anything, strange and farfetched as it may seem, and they stands a chance to benefit from it just as one would benefit from a placebo treatment. This does not make it any more real.
While negative forces may certainly have been more rampant in earlier times, we must bear in mind that nowadays impure forces have weakened significantly and even things that worked in the past are no longer efficient.
Most Rishonim maintain that only hiring the Ov and Yidoni sorcerers is prohibited, but for the other forms of witchcraft only performance transgresses a negative prohibition. Nevertheless, commissioning a mystic does invoke other prohibitions: the instruction to “Be wholehearted with the Lord, your G-d”, and the obligation to disengage from Canaanites and their practices. If the fortuneteller is Jewish, commissioning his services transgresses the prohibition of placing an obstacle before a blind man. If he is not Jewish the Tana’im are undecided if practice is forbidden for him or not. If it is — employing him is also forbidden under the above-mentioned prohibition, and if not — it involves the rabbinic prohibition of telling a non-Jew to perform something forbidden for a Jew.
In light of the above discussion the Rama rules (YD 179:1) that asking stargazers for their prediction of the future is forbidden. The Rama adds that all witches, fortunetellers, sorcerers and necromancers are included in this prohibition. The Shach (footnote 1) and Gra (3) see the source for this in the Terumas Hadeshen (96) who includes asking them in the commandment of “Be wholehearted with the Lord.” Only commissioning ov and yidoni involve an explicit negative Torah commandment.
Energy or Spiritual Healing
Terumas Hadeshen (96) was asked regarding healing methods. Can spiritual healing be employed to cure the ill? He answers that if the healer is Jewish employing him is forbidden. However, if the healer is not Jewish, since the prohibition for him is rabbinic, employing him for curing illness (even non-life-threatening ones) is permitted.
The Radvaz (volume I, chapter 185) disagrees with the Terumas Hadeshen. In his opinion all mystics are engaging in a prohibited activity, whether ov, yidoni, or others. Furthermore, in his opinion the Traumas Hadeshen did not mean it is permitted to use a healer to cure the deathly ill. He understands that the Trumas Hadeshen only means to state that utilizing energy or spiritual healing is not a full Torah prohibition. However, since it is avizarayhu (an accomplice) of idol worship, utilizing it even for the deathly ill is forbidden.
The Maharshal (Chapter 3, Yam Shel Shlomo, Chulin 8:13) disagrees with the Terumas Hadeshen and writes that there is no difference between those pursuing it and those engaged in the actual deeds. All are prohibited because they are nonsense and false even though the Rambam does agree they may, occasionally, work. Therefore, trying it for the dangerously ill is permitted because when one’s life is in danger even desecrating Shabbos is permitted.
The Beis Yosef (YD 179:15) notes that the Zohar strictly forbids energy and spiritual healing, even for the terminally ill. Even calling the demons, while permitted by some poskim, is generally unsuccessful. And furthermore — even those who initially saw success were eventually harmed by it. Therefore, anyone who cares about his life should refrain from such activities.
Since the Rama mentions only the prohibition that appears in Terumas Hadeshen and not his own permission to utilize healers for the ill, the Shach and Pischei Teshuva prohibit using healers. However, for people suffering from life-threatening illness, since the Shach follows the Maharshal and permits it, perhaps there is room for leniency. Nevertheless, it not recommended because its damage is greater than its benefit. Instead of looking for baseless cures one should place his trust in G-d. Only if he risks losing his sanity unless he engages with a healer should a rabbi be consulted on the matter.
If a condition is known to be caused by an evil spirit or spell, the Mahrshal permits eliminating it through the same medium, but the Radvaz maintains it is forbidden due to its association with Avoda Zara.
Signs, Superstitions, and Omens
The Shulchan Aruch (YD 179:2) mentions specific actions we are permitted — and even encouraged — — to do, which serve as a sign for good tidings. The most famous are the foods eaten on Rosh Hashana eve symbolizing (hopefully) good tidings in the coming new year. This practice is based on the Gemara (Krisus 6a) that encourages performing symbolic actions with hope their positive outcome will be realized. Therefore kings are anointed near a water source to symbolize their hope for a long life and reign, and a chuppah is performed under the open sky as an omen for the new couple’s descendants to multiply and shine like the evening stars (EH 61).
The Shulchan Aruch (YD 179:2) notes several accepted time-related customs which are mentioned in the Zohar, for example: not starting out on a new business venture on Monday or Wednesday; refraining from marrying after the full moon.
The Shulchan Aruch (YD 179:3) lists superstitions and myths one is obligated to disregard, adding that acknowledging them or acting upon them transgresses the prohibition of “lo senachashu” or Darchei HaEmori (nonsensical actions). These include common myths and superstitions such as fear of breaking a mirror, a flock of birds flying from left to right, Friday the 13th, opening an umbrella indoors, seeing ravens, black cats, etc.
Positive Symbols and Forbidden Omens
The Ramban (283) differentiates between positive symbolic actions and nichush (practicing omens — taking action or avoiding action because of superstitious beliefs). The symbol is directed towards G-d in hope for His assistance and blessing. Once the vessels for blessing are in place we hope the blessing will actualize. A positive symbol prepares the ground for blessing. We don’t believe the signs or omens bring blessing but are more of a positive means of arousing G-d’s mercy.
The Shela (Ner Mitzva 22-23, noted in the Mishna Brura 583:2) wonders why the Gemara tells us to eat certain foods on Rosh Hashana eve to symbolize good tidings if those same food could symbolize the opposite – plenty for us could also symbolize plenty for our foes, etc.. This, explains the Shela, proves that symbols have no intrinsic value. Instead, they serve as a tactile reminder of the Heavenly judgement which takes place at that time, and reminds us to pray for a positive outcome. After praying and eating something to symbolize our prayers, we can rest assured our prayers will be accepted.
This explains why mekubalim instruct one who wishes to arouse the Heavenly Attribute of Judgement to wear red and imagine G-d’s Name in red, while one who wishes to arouse the Heavenly Attribute of Mercy to wear white and imagine G-d’s Name in white: in our physical actions we paint our emotional landscape which, in turn, arouses the spirit and soul in the desired direction. The essence and goal is to that connection which is also accessed through prayer which connects us to those upper realms and creates the desired effect.
Rabbi Shlomo Kluger explains it differently. In his opinion, mealtime is not the time for prayer. He understands that the reason we eat these symbolic foods on Rosh Hashana is to impress upon ourselves our faith and trust in Hashem that the coming year will be good in very aspect. He adds, that one who is happy on Rosh Hashanah and says: “Everything Hashem does is for the best,” brings on everything good. A positive, happy approach brings on a good and happy year.
(Many have the custom of refraining from eating bitter or sour foods on Rosh Hashanah for a similar reason – the sensation of bitter or sour is not something we would like to experience in the coming year; therefore we symbolically do not experience it in our food on Rosh Hashana.)
Today, every Jewish bookstore sports a new genre of Jewish literature – segula collections. While some garner their segulos from reputable sources, others mix in charms and witchcraft. It is important to discern which is authentic and which is not.
Segulos, or auspicious actions, can be divided into two classes. One includes mitzvos which are known to be helpful for specific things: the mitzva of shiluach hakein (sending off a mother bird); saying Amein Yehei Shmei Raba aloud; giving tzedakah; forgiving wrongdoings; concentrating on Birkas Hamazon, and others. These mitzvos certainly carry eternal reward. Furthermore, Chazal teach us that they carry additional merit here in This World.
The second class is those segulos that make no sense, nor have any scientific basis. Segulos such as such as wearing a red string, placing salt in shoes, saying Na Nach, not hanging a newborn’s clothing out to dry at night, ensuring a bride has something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue etc. do nothing to bring one closer to Hashem. Following these rules may be classified as chukot hagoyim or darkei haEmori. While they may be offered on occasion by a Talmid Chacham for his own reasons, dispensing them to the public in book form is improper.