Sunday 9 December 2018


A new amulet for protection.

Segulot or amulets - which are said to bring success, health and prosperity – is a fascinating topic. Not so much because of the nature of something apparently having magical powers and the ability to ward off evil spirits – but because of how much they have become part of mainstream Judaism today.
In this article, we will look at the popularisation, rise and normalization of the amulet in our times.
But first a little background:
The question of the permissibility of amulet usage is strongly debated (posthumously) by Rambam (1135-1204) and Rashba[1] (1235-1310).
Rambam clearly does not believe in magic or demons and certainly does not permit activities which claim to affect or alleviate outcomes relating to such matters.
On the other hand, Rashba points out that the (Babylonian) Talmud is replete with such beliefs and therefore these practices are permitted.[2] Unlike Rambam, he makes a strong case for belief in phenomena for which we have no rational explanation.
But even in Rambam himself, there is a degree of tension in his own words:
In his Guide for the Perplexed, he writes:
"You must beware of joining the mistake of those who write amulets. Whatever you hear from them, or read in their works, especially about the names that they form by combination, is completely meaningless."[3]

Yet in his Mishneh Torah, he permits carrying a "tested amulet" on Shabbat, and adds: "What is a tested amulet? One that has cured three people."[4]

It is probable, though, that in the latter case Rambam was prepared to give a dispensation (as he often did) to the masses who believed in the healing power of amulets.

Here is another Rambam:

הלוחש על המכה וקורא פסוק מן התורה, וכן הקורא על התינוק שלא יבעת, והמניח ספר תורה או תפילין על הקטן בשביל שיישן - לא די להם שהם בכלל מנחשים וחוברים, אלא שהן בכלל הכופרים בתורה, שהן עושין דברי תורה רפואת גוף ואינן אלא רפואת נפשות, שנאמר (משלי ג כב): "ויהיו חיים לנפשך".אבל הבריא, שקרא פסוקין ומזמור מתהילים כדי שתגן עליו זכות קריאתן וינצל מצרות ומנזקים, הרי זה מותר.

A person who whispers an incantation over a wound and then recites a verse from the Torah; who recites a verse over a child so that he will not become scared; or who places a Torah scroll or tefillin over a baby so that it will sleep, is considered to be a soothsayer or one who cast spells. Furthermore, such people are included among those who deny the Torah, because they relate to the words of Torah as if they are cures for the body, when, in fact, they are cures for the soul, as [Proverbs 3:22] states: ‘And they shall be life for your soul.’
It is, however, permitted for a healthy person to read verses [from the Bible] or chapters from Psalms so that the merit of reading them will protect him and save him from difficulties and injury.”[5]

Here Rambam appears to make the distinction between the general ‘merit’ of studying Torah verses as opposed to a more direct use of the verses as a form of ‘incantation’, which would not be permissible.

According to Dr Ishay Rosen-Zvi, we are currently experiencing an
“...awakening in the [secular][6] academic world to the topic of Jewish magic and the return thereof from the margins to the center. Until two decades ago, the predominant view was that rabbinic literature is anti-magical at its foundation, and that in its wake most canonical Jewish literature rejected magic...
In recent years a different view has gained momentum – that Jewish magic is not an external influence, but rather part and parcel of Jewish literature and culture, in all its varieties and through the generations...
...most of the sages also believed in the power of magic and R. Hayim Vital, R. Yosef Karo, the Baal Shem Tov and others - even actually used it.
Today, there is wider recognition that magic was not a commoners’ phenomenon, but rather an elitist one, parts of which, like astrology, were considered a respected science demanding much study.”[7]
Accordingly, we see that the secular academic world has only just awoken to the fact that certain ‘magical’ considerations have always been a strong component to many aspects of rabbinic literature.
According to R. Steven Pruzansky, a former Vice President of the Rabbinical Council of America, and rabbi of one of the largest congregations in the United States:
“The most important contribution that Jewish mysticism has made, especially in recent times, has been the proliferation of segulot – magical amulets, incantations, entities, tchotchkes, vials of water, red strings, etc. – among the people of Israel.”
He continues, rather sarcastically but nevertheless accurately, to note:
“We have thus been able to ascertain with great clarity the varying levels of reverence for G-d, knowledge of Torah, commitment to Mitzvot, and common sense that exist among our people [by their various magical practices[8]].
We have seen how, at one end of the spectrum, Judaism has become almost unrecognizable in its metamorphosis from a religion of reason and rationality, into a series of scams and gimmicks that rob people of a true connection to Hashem.”
He goes on to contrast that with a list of twenty-two ‘genuine segulot’ which are taken from the Talmud and Torah. These include:
Segulah for recovery from illness — go to a doctor.[9]

Segulah for marriage — go out and find a suitable wife.[10]

Segulah for honest parnassah — learn a profession.[11]

Segulah to prevent drowning — learn how to swim.[12]

Segulah for pure faith — don't believe in segulot.[13]

Of course, these rational ‘segulot’ should not be considered typical of the Babylonian Talmud which more often than not goes in the opposite direction - even with 'recipes for seeing demons', such as this:


"Take the afterbirth of a black she-cat, the offspring of a black she-cat, the first-born of the first-born, let him roast it in fire and ground it in powder and let him put some in his eye and he will see them."  

"One who seeks to know that demons exist should place fine ashes around his bed, and in the morning the demons' footprints appear like chickens footprints in the ashes"

"Abba Binyamin says: If the eye was given permission to see, no creature would be able to withstand the abundance and ubiquity of the demons and continue to live unaffected by them." [14] 


The practice of wearing a red string has become very popular. Its purpose is to ‘protect’ against the ‘evil eye’. Some may find it surprising that this common custom is the subject of Halachic debate with the Darchei Teshuva[15] actually forbidding it, while the Be’er Moshe[16] permits it.

Segulot and cures from Morocco 1930.

The following is a current extract from a publication, describing an amulet which is now available from R. Chaim Kanievsky - who thousands consider to be the greatest rabbi of our generation - and which has been ‘imbued with his special blessing’:

When R. Kanievsky’s wife was still alive, he used to tell people who asked him for segulot: “For segulot you speak to the Rabbanit.”
This was her segula for stuttering:  
When baking Challah ask G-d to open the inhibitions of his mouth. The Rabbanit said that a segulah against stuttering is to separate challot that got stuck together during baking over the stutterer’s head and ask G-d to open the inhibitions of his mouth.”[17]

For another post on 'magical' healing and protection within this community - and a comparison to African magic - see here.

What follows from here on, is my own, personal and subjective view on the matter of segulot, and I would sincerely discourage those who do find them meaningful, from reading any further.
It is not my intention to upset anyone who believes in them – only to show that Judaism does present a strong alternative option to those who have difficulty in accepting their sanction, let alone their efficacy.
When a family like the Kanievskys, who are revered by so many, openly and actively promote the notion of segulot, it is no wonder that followers see this as normative Torah Judaism.
There is no doubt that such notions have always existed in Judaism and probably always will.
What is alarming though, is that a strong impression is created that Judaism has unanimously and without question, embraced the authenticity of the seguah tradition. This is fine for those who want to believe in such things – and they certainly do have many sources to rely upon.
There even appears to be a trend amongst non-religious Jews to adopt some of these segulot and thereby believe that they have become more observant.
However, for those with enquiring minds who find these practices to run counter to their intuitive thinking, it should be made known that just because contemporary Judaism has largely adopted popularist approaches and strategies, that does not eliminate a vast body of rational rabbinic opposition to what they would call nonsense and plain superstition.
These segulot, and now a new ‘cryptocurrency’, make G-d appear so very small, unsophisticated, easily manipulated and effortlessly outwitted by anyone looking for a better solution to the reality they find themselves in.
Some years ago I wrote an article All I Want...Are My Two Front Teeth where R. Kanievsky was quoted as saying that:
 “A non-Jew has 31 teeth while a Jew has 32…”[18] 
Highlight this against the wording of the advert for the new ‘Kanievsky amulet’, where “thousands stream to...probably the greatest living Talmudic scholar of our generation...who seek his blessing for...the success of a surgery...a healthy birth...”
Would it not be a safer option, in such instances, to go with a segulah for surgery from a source better versed in basic human anatomy?

[1] Rabbi Shlomo ibn Aderet.
[2] See Shu”t haRashba Chelek Alef, Siman 413.
[3] Guide of the Perplexed, chapter 61.
[4] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Shabbat 19:14.
[5] Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 11:12
[6] Parenthesis mine.
[7] Ancient Jewish Magic; a review by the Shalom Hartman Institute, of the book Early Jewish Magic by Yuval Harari.
[8] Parenthesis mine.
[9] Berachot 60a, Bava Kamma 46b
[10] Kiddushin 2b
[11] Kiddushin 30a
[12] Ibid.
[13] Devarim 18:13
[14] Berachot 6a.
[15] Yoreh Deah 179:21.
[16] 8:36.

[17] 10 Strategies and Segulot for Tranquility From Rabbanit Kanievsky OBM.

[18] Derech Sicha, p 227. Bnei Brak 5764 (2004).

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