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Amulets & Superstitions in Judaism

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Amulets & Superstitions in Judaism Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim The following was sent to the Jewish Press as a response to an article reprinted on July 11, 2003. In this article, the Jewish Press endorsed the ability of “Chassidishe silver rings” to assist in fertility, health, and business success. The article cited many Rabbis who endorsed these rings. The Jewish Press referred to a portion of the Talmud which condoned carrying certain amulets on Shabbos. The author sought to support his claims from Moses’ brass serpent, and claimed that tefillin and mezuza are “universally acknowledged as having powers of protection,” a claim openly refuted by none other than Maimonides, as well as the Gilyon M’harsha in our Shulchan Aruch. The author claims that these rings cure Parkinson’s disease, depression, banish evil thoughts, and cure other maladies. Certain rituals of immersion are “required” when making such rings, as is wearing white clothing – notions not mentioned by the Talmudic portion addressing amulets. The author also states that one must maintain ritual purity when wearing such rings, and they must not be brought into the bathroom, as the rings are “holy.” I wish to examine such claims, in light of what our Talmud, our Torah, and our Sages hold as Judaism's principles. Do Powers Exist Other than God? This question must be asked and answered by any religious-minded Jew. It is a tenet of Judaism. If one remains ignorant to the answer of this question, one forfeits true knowledge of God. This is the gravest crime. As a human does not have power over his own life, can he control another’s life, even with objects? We do not rely on objects of any kind for protection. This is what God commanded, “Do not make for yourself a statue, and any form that is in the heavens above, and that is in the Earth below, and that is in the waters under the Earth (Deut. 20:4).” There is no exclusionary clause permitting objects which have Hebrew writing. Even Moshe himself broke the first set of the Ten Commandments, lest the people deify them, as they did the Golden Calf – and these had God’s own writing on them. Nonetheless, Moshe destroyed objects of God’s own writing, lest the people assume powers to exist in them. God told Moshe he acted properly. One rightfully asks how amulets were permitted by the Talmud. I will address this shortly. For now, allow me to support my claim by the words of the Torah and Rishonim. Each day we recite, “Ki hu livadu po-ale g'vuros; For He (God) alone works might.” Our prayers attest to man’s incapability to perform wonders, or the like. This is clear. This discounts powers in any object. I understand, many may be awed by the reputation of those endorsing these silver Chassidishe rings. However, just as the Rishonim did not follow people, rather, they followed ideas, arrived at only through critical, rational analysis, we too must follow this method of study. We must engage our Tzelem Elokim, our God-given intelligence, and choose a view not based on an author, but based on the validity of its content; its compliance with Torah. The Talmud teaches, “I would not follow (that view) had even Joshua said it (Chullin 124a).” The Rabbis of the Talmud paid no respect to reputation, not even to one as great Joshua, Moshe’s prized pupil. Ramban didn’t simply follow Maimonides due to the fame of the latter. Reputation played no role in Ramban’s Torah adherence or Torah reasoning. We don’t find Ramban arguing with Maimonides, yet saying Maimonides is also right. This is absurd and against reason. Celebrity endorsements play no role in the validity of reality, and Torah. Unfortunately, today, many are impressed with reputation, not chochma (wisdom). Our communities echo with sentiments like, “Who am I to argue with so and so?” People abandon the use of their own minds if someone with a great reputation makes a philosophical statement. People feel if someone is a Rabbi, he must be right and “Who am I to argue?” In Jewish law, yes, we look for psak - a ruling, but not in hashkafa, philosophy. Simple reasoning shows the fallacy of this argument. If there are for example, two Rabbis who argue on a philosophical point, by definition, they cannot both be correct. Astonishingly, I have even heard people say they can both be right. How far we are from honesty. The Ramban showed both he and Maimonides cannot both be right when they argue. So how do people hold such self-contradictory positions? They evidently are not following reason. The Chovas HaLavavos says we must do just the opposite. (See below) The same way we look to the words of the Chumash to determine what is Torah Shebicsav, (Written Torah) we also look to the Rishonim for Torah She'bal Peh (Oral Torah). Torah has at its core the system of the Mesora, the Oral Tradition, which originated with Moshe (Moses) and which was passed down through generations. We must limit our sources to these to determine what falls within the pale of Judaism, and what does not. This is our sole barometer. The Torah View on Objects and their Connection to Changes in Nature Amulets may have been accepted by certain individuals, but keep in mind, they are “muttar,” permissible, not obligatory. This teaches that their existence in limited forms is tolerable, not a suggested practice. What exactly were these amulets, as recorded in Talmud Shabbos 61b? We must be precise and true to the Talmud’s words. Amulets were simple writings, or roots of certain plants. They were not scriptural verses, holy names or angels’ names. They were not written to endow women with fertility, or to make one successful in business. The Talmud clearly understands that an amulet has no power. Its only function was healing one who was sick. So how did it heal? If the amulet was a root, it had real medicinal value, such a strong chest rub. If the amulet was text, it functioned to ease one’s mind and enabled one to recuperate faster. Today, doctors teach that good feelings actually assist in better health. Conversely, stress decreases our health. God’s natural laws – science – and Torah are not at odds. They are both created by God, and therefore, must be consistent and complimentary in the wisdom they contain. But there were no other effects of these amulets. So how do people today suggest silver Chassidishe rings make women fertile, or men successful in business? Such ideas are not sanctioned by the Talmud, or by reason. We must not endorse amulets as they are falsely understood today as having powers. This is clearly false, against reason, and against our Tefilos. Additionally, the Talmud does not say any amulet maker immersed in a ritual bath, or immersed his amulets in such a bath. A ritual bath – mikvah – has its scope of laws clearly outlined in their appropriate areas of Jewish Law. Amulets is not one of them. Therefore, the attempted ritualization of silver rings by association with a mikvah, distorts where and when mikvah is to be used. If the makers of silver rings suggest that any immersion is essential to the creation of these rings, I fear this superimposing of mikvah laws borders on a further error of adding to halacha. You cited the case of Moshe creating a copper serpent. When Moshe was commanded to place a serpent on a pole, the serpent possessed no powers. The serpent was made of copper, an inanimate substance. However, when the Jews gazed at the serpent, they became mindful of their evil speech (reminiscent of the serpent during Adam’’s time). They realized their sin, repented, and God healed them. This is what the verses in the Torah state. (This copper serpent was commanded by God Himself and therefore not Avoda Zara – idolatry. Chazal already explained that the serpent didn't heal, but God did the healing. The serpent had no powers. (Rosh Hashanna chap. 3, last mishna) Did Men Ever Possess Powers? Not a single account in Torah or Talmud, or by any of our Sages endorses powers are possessed by objects on Earth, not even in a mezuzah, and not by man. When Moshe raised his staff in Egypt, it was not Moshe who caused the hail, the locusts or any other plague. Moshe was a human being, as are all men. People are created things. God alone controls nature, as He alone created it. Moshe’s involvement in the miracles was ordered by God so as to imbue others with the truth that the God of the Israelites was effectuating change in nature, and that God selected the Jews as His people. This also teaches that God relates to man. God’s reward and punishment are realities. Pharaoh confessed to this first hand, “God is righteous, I and my people are wicked (Exod. 9:27).” All is empowered by God Himself, as we say in our prayers each day, “He alone works might.” Prior to the splitting of the sea, Moshe said the Jews would witness God's salvation; not Moses’ salvation. When our prophet Elisha (Kings II, 4:34) laid upon the boy and placed “his mouth on the boy's mouth, his eyes on the boy’s eyes, his hands on the boys hands…” and the boy returned to life. The commentaries clearly state this was done so as to concentrate on his prayer to God. The prophet had no powers to revive the dead. This praise we direct exclusively to God three times each day. Reward and Punishment It is crucial to understand that assuming silver rings to contain power, denies God’s unshakeable laws of Reward and Punishment, discussed throughout the Torah, and so clearly in Yeshiah, chapter 18. God teaches us that a wicked person is punished, and a righteous person rewarded. According to this view of “rings,” someone deserving a punishment from God will not receive punishment if he wears one of these rings. Someone deserving infertility by God’s punishment will become fertile by wearing a silver ring. So what is mightier, these rings or God's laws of Reward and Punishment? If people will respond that God still punishes a wicked person, even while wearing these rings, and He rewards the righteous even when they don't wear these rings as we see throughout the Chumash, then these rings do not effect any change. We have now proved conclusively that silver, Chassidishe rings have no powers. This applies to any object. What is the Created, is not the Creator All else but God alone are created things. This means that all that we see, all matter, is assigned a given design, from which, it cannot deviate. A tree cannot produce bovine offspring. A cow cannot be planted and produce branches. All matter follows the design given to it by the Creator. A ring cannot effect change. Its is inanimate. If a silver ring cannot make itself become gold, so how can one suggest that it can help impregnate or fertilize one who is barren, and by God’s hand at that? Torah (Genesis) When Rachel asked Yaakov for children, Yaakov said, “Am I in God's stead?” Yaakov attested to the fact that he had no power to give her children. If people have powers, why did Jacob respond this way? It is clear that Jacob understood that no one is able to do what God does. Those were his very words, “Am I in God's stead?” Additionally, when Yaakov said, according to Rashi, “God has withheld children from you and not me,” he was not acting viciously. He meant to say, “You have the need, not me, and God has not answered you. You must then be the one to pray, as prayer enables you to reflect on your needs, hopefully directing you to your flaws, and then repenting from whatever character trait prevents you from childbearing.” Navi (Prophets) When Naaman requested Elisha to rid him of his leprosy, Elisha did not leave the house, but rather, he sent a messenger to instruct Naaman to bathe, and this would remove his ailment. Naaman was upset with Elisha, that he did not come out, call upon God's name, and “wave his hand over the place of the leprosy and remove it.” A friend suggested wisely, that Elisha desired that God alone retain the grandeur for such a miracle. Therefore, Elisha did not leave the house; he avoided the spotlight, as Elisha knew that God was the performer of all miracles, and did not want to mislead Naaman. Elisha was aware that people desire to believe in man as a miracle worker. Elisha therefore avoided at all cost, taking any credit for that which man has no connection with. Tosefta Shabbos Sabbath, Chapter 7 states the wearing of red threads on fingers is considered “ways of the Emorites” and against Judaism. (This directly denounces red bendels) Maimonides Mishneh Torah (Laws of Tefilin 5:4) “…but these (people) who write on the inside of the mezuza the names of angels or sanctified names or passages or seals, they are in the category of those who have no world to come. Because it is not enough that these fools have taken a command and nullified it, but they rendered a great command – the Unity of God, the love of Him and the worship of Him – as if it's an amulet for personal benefit and they assume in their foolish hearts that this will give them pleasure in their futilities of this world.” Gilyon M'harsha, Yoreh Daah, 289, (page 113 on the bottom) “If one affixes the mezuza for the reason of fulfilling the command, one may consider that as reward for doing so he will be watched by God. But, if one affixes the mezuza solely for protective reasons, it in fact has no guidance, and the mezuza will be as knives in his eyes.” Ibn Ezra, Parshas Kedoshim (Lev. 19:31) “..the brainless people say if it wasn't for the fact that the Ovos (idolatry) and also the witchcraft worked, the Torah would not have prohibited them. But I say opposite their words, as the Torah doesn’t prohibit what is truth, but rather, (it prohibits only that) which is false. And the proof is (the prohibition) against “elilim” and “psilim” (statues of idolatry which all attest to their inability to do anything). If it weren’t that I do not desire to go into this at length, I would bring clear proofs against Ove.” Maimonides - Peirush Mishnayos, Avoda Zara 55a “…the good and pious of our own (Jewish) nation feel ‘there is truth to idolatry, but they are prohibited only from the Torah.’ But they don't know that they are futile and lies, and we are commanded by the Torah not to do them, as we are warned in the Torah not to lie.” Saadia Gaon - "Emunos v'Daos" “I say also that it was for this very reason that God made the prophets equal to all other human beings in so far as death was concerned, lest man get the idea that just as these prophets were capable of living forever, in contradistinction to them, so were they also able to perform marvels in contradistinction to them.” “For if God would have done that (allowed prophets to live without food or drink) men would have ascribed this fact to some peculiarity in the constitution of the prophets wherein they deviated from the rules applying to all other men. They would have said that just as the prophet necessarily deviated [from the character of the rest of humanity] in this respect so too it was a forgone conclusion that they be able to do what we cannot.” “God did not allow the prophets to commit miracles at all times nor permit them always to know the secrets of the future, lest the uneducated masses think that they were possessed of some peculiarity as a matter of course. He rather permitted them to perform these miracles at certain stated occasions and to obtain that knowledge at certain times so that it might thereby become clear that all this was conferred upon them by the Creator and that it was not brought about by themselves.” (This denounces any distinction given to kabbalists or rabbis feigning to have powers. If they defend themselves by stating they do nothing without God’s intervention, they border on being false prophets.) Rabbi Bachya - "Chovas Halavavos" “Whoever has the intellectual capacity to verify what he receives from tradition, and yet is prevented from doing so by his own laziness, or because he takes lightly God’s commandments and Torah, he will be punished for this and held accountable for negligence.” “If, however, you possess intelligence and insight, and through these faculties you are capable of verifying the fundamentals of the religion and the foundations of the commandments which you have received from the sages in the name of the prophets, then it is your duty to use these faculties until you understand the subject, so that you are certain of it – both by tradition and by force of reason. If you disregard and neglect this duty, you fall short in the fulfillment of what you owe your Creator.” Devarim 17:8-10 states: “If a case should prove too difficult for you in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, between (leprous) mark and mark, or other matters of dispute in your courts, you must act in accordance with what they tell you.” Regarding this passage, Rabbi Bachya states: “The verse does not say imply accept them on the authority of Torah sages and rely exclusively on their tradition. Rather, (Scripture) says that you should reflect on your own mind, and use your intellect in these matters. First learn them from tradition, which covers all the commandments in the Torah, their principles and details, and then examine them with your own mind, understanding, and judgment, until the truth become clear to you, and falsehood rejected, as it is written, ‘Understand today and reflect on it in your heart, God is the God in the heavens above, and on the Earth below, there is no other’ (Ibid, 4:39).” Additional Arguments Against Powers in Objects I wonder, can these rings can cause an amputee to regrow that limb? These rings have no such ability. Then what is the system by which the ring may cause certain miracles to occur, but not others? If followers hold of miraculous cures produced by these rings, why do the ring makers not hold that all miracles can be performed by these rings? The phenomenon which ring makers say are caused by these rings, are natural, and for which, man cannot pinpoint the cause. Since there is no way (in their minds) of proving these rings didn’t cause the phenomena, they will give credit to the rings. People do heal in time, make fortunes, find psychological ease from stress, all without these rings. All that is occurring when one wears the rings is the maker takes credit for natural phenomena which will happen anyway. Had the successful business man not worked for months, he would not have made a fortune just sitting at home wearing these rings. But these ring makers still maintain the rings caused the fortune. If a sickly person wears the rings without taking medicine, he will die. I don't think any of these Rabbis quoted would – if sick – abandon medicine in favor of wearing metal rings on their fingers. If they would, they are foolish. Maimonides never prescribed such nonsense, he worked within the confines of natural science, and prayer. The Talmud states (Avoda Zara 55a) that Zunin, a Jew, asked Rabbi Akiva, “We both know that there is nothing to idolatry, so why is it that I see a sick heathen enter a church, and then see him leave all healed?” Rabbi Akiva responded, “Diseases have a duration, they would have left his body at this time anyway, so just because this fool chose to enter a Church at the precise moment his illness was to leave, should the illness remain and oppose natural law because of this fool?” This gemara teaches that people will always try to view a phenomena as cause for events, if such relationships fit a person’s fantasies. In this section of gemara, the heathen undoubtedly felt his prayers to his idols caused his health to return. A chocham (wise man) such as Rabbi Akiva, saw the truth. Unfortunately, these ring makers are falling sway to the same idolatrous emotion as this heathen, as they fabricate relationships between the wearing of these rings and the newfound success or health. When confronted with such stories, the gemara is what we follow. We don’t follow present day stories and throw out the Talmud. We must be honest, learn the Talmud, and realize the truths contained. Even if it opposes a majority of people. Authentic Torah principles are those which sit well with man, they are of ease to his mind and jive with his God-made intellect. Yes, there are Chukim, statutes, but this does not mean they are bereft of reason. Even KIing Solomon knew the reasons for all Chukim except one. This means that for all other Chukim, King Solomon understood their reasons. To arrive at a clear hashkafa, (philosophy) I urge you, read the Torah, see Chazal (the commentators), and understand clearly the precise laws and principles which God wishes we understand. Follow God’s word in the Tanach and Talmud, not current views which differ. What will you do when two Rabbis argue in philosophy? You cannot hold they are both right. You must use your own mind to determine the truth, and without Torah knowledge, you will have no tools to do so. Philosophy has no psak (ruling), so study Torah carefully and accurately. Think for yourself, arrive at conclusions only when matters are clear to you. You are living your life for yourself, and only once. Take great care during your one chance here. Learn what God has placed before you to discern. God designed each of us with reason. We each have the ability to determine what makes sense, and what is false. Don't be afraid to do so. It is God's will that each person use their own mind, as He has given each of us intelligence, and free choice.