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Mysticism and Judaism – Part III


Incantations, spells, chants…does the Torah permit using anything of this sort? What is the “chover chever”? Why does the Rambam permit whispering chants even if their effectiveness is unknown? Could his permit hint of knowing about, what is today known as, ‘The Placebo Effect’? What is the Torah’s approach to holistic, natural, or other unproven cures? Why are burning incense or lighting candles different? Amulets were the topic of much dispute in earlier generations. Are they permissible or not? Which amulets are permitted, and which must not be written? What is the Torah’s approach to palmists? Which cure is considered natural, and which — unnatural? Some holistic methods may be born of Avoda Zara root but work because of scientific explanations. Can these methods be used? And the seemingly unexplained directives and instructions included in what’s known as Rabbi Yehuda Hachasid’s Will is also touched upon in this third instalment on Judaism’s approach to mysticism.

Sinful Mysticism

In this week’s parasha we read about the calamities that the Torah portends as a result of the Jewish People’s transgressions. The Midrash (Midrash Aggadah, Bechukosi 18) explains: “You transgressed seven sins, come and be afflicted in seven ways. What are the seven sins? Me’onen, menachesh, me’chashef, chover chever, ov, yidoni, doresh el hamitim.” Rabbi Yehuda, son of the Rosh (Zichron Yehuda 91) lists the reasons for the protracted exile, and especially the troubles the Jewish community suffered prior to Spanish explosion. First and foremost on his list are these above-mentioned sins that are, unfortunately, still violated by some Jews.

The previous articles focused primarily on the first three items on the list – m’onen, kishuf and nichush. This week’s article will continue with the other four.

Chover Chever

One of the prohibitions listed here is chover chever. What is included in the prohibition? Rashi (Sanhedrin 65a) explains that chover chever is one who whispers incantations that cause animals to gather (resembling what a snake charmer claims to do). The Rambam (Avoda Zara 11:10-11) explains that chover chever is chanting incantations of meaningless words or syllables to which people attribute powers — healing, warding off animals, the evil eye, etc. Sefer Ha’chinuch (mitzva 512) mentions both explanations and adds his own definition – the prohibition of performing hashbaot (which will be explained further on).

The Gemara (Krisus 3b) writes that when chased by a scorpion one is permitted to “chover chever” in order to save oneself. According to Rashi this permits reciting an animal-inducing chant to prevent being bitten, but the Rambam understands this as permission to whisper even ineffective nonsensical chants after having been bitten in attempt to preserve the sanity and calm the afflicted, which is in itself an important facet in healing.

The Shulchan Aruch (YD 179:4-5) quotes Rashi’s explanation of the prohibition. In case of a life-threatening danger he permits chanting.

As for other chants, the Shulchan Aruch rules (YD 179:11; OC 301:27) that saying them is permitted provided they have not been proven ineffective. The Mishna Brura explains (301:106) that since we know there are indeed effective incantations, all chants recited for their healing properties are assumed effective until proven otherwise.

Amulets (K’mei’ot)

The Shulchan Aruch (YD 179:12) rules that carrying a kame’a which has psukim or holy names for protection from disease is permitted. This permission is only once the kame’a is already written, not to write new ones. The Taz explains (footnote 9) that writing psukim is only permitted for Torah study purposes. Since an amulet is neither for learning nor for prayer, writing it is forbidden. In addition, there is concern the amulet could be defaced or discarded.

The Shulchan Aruch rules that once taken ill or injured, one is no longer permitted to enlist assistance of a kame’a.

An additional issue regarding amulets is mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch. Since carrying on Shabbos where there is no eiruv is forbidden, is wearing an amulet considered carrying a burden or wearing an item of dress (which is permitted)? The discussion noted in OC 301:27 mentions an unprofessionally written kame’a as the object in question (because if it isn’t necessarily effective it loses its status as an article of dress and becomes a simple burden). What defines a professionally or unprofessionally written kame’a?

The level of kame’a is determined by its effectiveness. A professionally written one is one that filled its intended purpose three consecutive times and has not, in three consecutive uses, failed to fill its purpose since. While the Shulchan Aruch permits wearing even the unprofessionally written one on Shabbos, it is praiseworthy to be scrupulous and remove it before steping out to the public domain.

Contemporary Magicians

Everyone knows that contemporary magicians employ swift hand movements and tricks to make their “magic”. Nevertheless, the Shulchan Aruch (YD 179:15), Taz (footnote 10), and Shach (footnote 17) forbid engaging in it. The Chochmas Adam (89) reproaches magicians who use their tricks to amuse crowds at weddings. The Pischei Teshuva (footnote 7) notes this ruling, but adds that a non-Jewish magician can be hired to perform even for Jews.

Modern day poskim including Rav Eliashev zatsal permit doing tricks if the “magician” explains that he has no supernatural powers, adding explanation of several of his tricks. Once the source of his “powers” is clear, Jews are permitted to enjoy the performance.


Several holistic healing methods call for burning incense or candles (Ayurvedic medicine practiced in India, or Hopi candles to cure ear ailments, for example). Are these methods halachically permitted?

The Shulchan Aruch writes that burning incense is forbidden unless done to clear a space from a foul odor (YD 179:18). The Shach (footnote 21) and Gra (footnote 29) explain this prohibition: incense is commonly burned for negative spiritual reasons. So people don’t mistakenly think it is being done for that reason (for the devils, for example) there is a blanket prohibition to burn incense. In their opinion, burning it is forbidden even for its fragrance or as a natural, effective cure. (Note: Medical research has shown that Hopi candles are both dangerous and ineffective).

Sefer Hayetzira and Holy Names

The Shulchan Aruch (YD 179:15) rules that using Sefer Hayetzira is permitted. (Several Gemara sages are known to have created a live calf through these means.) The Shach restricts (footnote 18) the use of holy Names only to those who do so in purity and use them to bring G-d glory. Today, whereas nobody knows how to do so, using the Names that appear in kabalistic works is a grave transgression. Even Yeshayahu the Prophet was punished for invoking a holy Name in order to save himself from the murderous king, Menashe, who wanted to kill him.


Many mistakenly think that face-reading and palming are permitted forms of fortunetelling based on the Zohar’s assertion (Yisro 70b) that one’s fortune appears on his face. This interpretation of the Zohar is oversimplified and untrue – leading commentaries on the Zohar (Ramak; Mikdash Melech; Chida) explain that only with Ruach Hakodesh (divine inspiration) can one read another’s fortune on his palm. The Ramban (Drush Torah Temima) lists palm reading as one of the hidden facets of Torah that may be taught only to modest G-d fearing Jews.

Rabbi Yaakov Hillel shlita, a leading contemporary kabbalist, warns against using any form of palm or face reading. He writes (Vayashav Hayam I, chapter 13) that the way it is done today is a full Torah prohibition of me’onen (according to the Lechem Mishne’s approach — Avoda Zara 11:9) and has no connection to fortune-interpretation as it appears in the Zohar.

Natural vs. Supernatural

Alternative medicine is subject to much halachic debate. What is considered natural, what is considered mystical; which is prohibited, and which permitted?

The Rambam and other Rishonim disagree with the Ramban and Rashba on this point. The Rashba writes (I chapter 413) that while the Rambam permits only those that have a natural explanation, the Rashba disagrees and allows any cure with a good track record, whether or not it can be explained naturally. He notes that this is also the Ramban’s approach.

The Rashba mentions two phenomena that are facts but lack scientific explanation (during his time) – the magnet and the compass. Although researchers had no knowledge of the world’s magnetic field, since the machines worked, using them was permitted. (On the other hand, Galen’s theory of the Four Humors is today considered thoroughly disproven.)

Converted methods

This question is highlighted in light of contemporary alternative healing methods which are based on Christian, Hindu or other religious practices, but actually utilize proven scientific methods to effect healing. Contemporary poskim are undecided on this: The Pesach Dvir (OC 301:25-27) rules that anything proven effective is permitted, but the Maharam Chaviv (Kapot Tmarim Yoma 83a) maintains that if originally done for Avoda Zara it may not be employed at all, under any circumstances. Only what non-Jews do for no reason at all can be done if it actually works. Therefore, things that appear in medical books (of his times: 1654-1696) are permitted even without medical or scientific explanation, provided they work. However, medical treatments not mentioned in medical literature cannot be implemented due to concern of darchei Ha’emori and being born from Avoda Zara.

Ruling on the status of the various forms of “converted” holistic methods depends upon this dispute and necessitates investigating the roots of the method that is practiced by its non-Jewish practitioners.


The Meiri (Shabbos 67a) adds an interesting observation: some actions are thought to be effective despite being absolute nonsense. Since people think it works, it has an emotional effect and actually can cure. Today, this understanding has been coined The Placebo Effect (when a person’s physical or mental health appears to improve after taking a placebo or ‘dummy’ treatment).

The Rambam seemingly refers to a similar concept mentioned above in this article – whispering useless incantations to a person in critical condition who believes in them is permitted since calming him is a facet of preserving his life.

Rabbi Yehuda Hachasid’s Will

Many wonder how important it is to follow Rabbi Yehuda Hachasid’s instructions which are included in his will. Parts of the will are quoted by many poskim. Others researched and found sources for seemingly inexplicable instructions. Knesses Hagedola (YD 179) cites most of the will.

Many poskim understand that the directives mention in the will are limited to a certain issue or time period, or even only to his descendants (Shev Yaakov volume II, EH chapter 23; Noda Yehuda EH 79). Other completely disregard this will. The Chasam Sofer (volume II, chapter 138) is uncertain of the actual author because there are contradictions between the will and Sefer Chasidim.

Let’s examine one such example:

The will cautions people (16-17) not to build a stone house. Instead, one can purchase a built one. One who built it should not inhabit the house for a few days because he or his children will die. Instead he should sell it. In addition, one should not build a house on land that was never lived on.

The Chasam Sofer explains (volume II, 138) the reason for danger to be the first occupant of a new stone house: by building a house outside of Eretz Yisroel, especially a strong and sturdy one made of stone, one shows he has given up on the Redemption and plans on staying forever. Therefore, in Eretz Yisroel there is no such concern, and on the contrary – building a strong house and living in it is a mitzva. Outside of Eretz Yisroel, too, one who is concerned should use the house for the first time for Torah study and prayer. Then there is nothing more to worry about even if one is the first occupant of a new house.

Rabbi Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin (Pri Tzaddik Va’era 8) adds that the negative powers of witchcraft and magic which existed in the past, disappeared when prophecy came to an end. Once the world was plunged under the dark cloak of nature, the negative spiritual powers also diminished and instead of the light and clarity-filled world of the spiritual, the world embraced the Greek philosophic world of science and proof-based facts and evidence.

This explains the greatly diminished powers of magic, ghosts, and witchcraft that functioned in parallel to the spiritual clarity of prophecy.


Today, even Gemara-sanctioned chants and incantations should not be used because we are not proficient in how to use them, and our natures have changed. However for healing, chants may occasionally work and can be used without proving their effectiveness.

Rabbinic sources disagree if it is permissible to use an unproven kamei’a. When necessary there is room for leniency, provided it has not been proven ineffective three consecutive times.

It is prohibited for people today to use the Holy Names and methods mentioned in Sefer Hayetzira. Only those who have received such knowledge from a Torah giant are permitted to use it, and only for a very great mitzva or in extreme times.

Natural phenomena need not be proven scientifically as long as it is known to work. Utilizing these tools is permitted as long as the source is not from Avoda Zara.

Giving a useless medicine to the ill is permitted because Chazal recognize the placebo effect.

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