What are segulos? Are they something to be ignored– silly superstitions and old wives tales at best, or dangerous distractions from our connection to Hashem and Torah at worst? Do they work on their own? Do they possess mystical powers? Or are they meaningless practices that give people a false sense of security and comfort?
There seems to be a lot of confusion about the topic of segulos. So, this is my attempt to bring everything together and to answer some of the most common questions surrounding them, including what are segulos and do they really work.
First, what does the word Segula even mean?
The popular translation of segula (סגולה ) is a remedy or an action that will lead to a change in one’s mazel (which is very roughly translated as “destiny”). But, this translation is lacking–for segula, that is– and we need to fix that.
A little investigation reveals three main themes:
1. A segula is something that is above nature
According to the Ohr Hachaim, a segula is something that does not follow the rules of nature. It’s very essence defies logic.
For example, he says, there are certain plants that are “cold” by nature, yet they are capable of curing cold ailments in people. Likewise, there are “hot” plants that can cure hot ailments and symptoms, such as fever.
In several places throughout the Torah (Shemos 19:5 and Devarim 7:6, 14:2, 26:18), Hashem refers to the Jewish People as an Am Segula. In this context, it means that they possess certain traits which supersede the rules of creation. For instance, according to Chazal if a Jew intends to perform a mitzvah and is prevented from doing so, he receives reward as if he performed it. If, on the other hand, he is prevented from performing a transgression, this same principle will not apply. He is not held accountable (Kaddishin 40a).
This is not how Hashem deals with the other nations of the world. In the case of a non-Jew, he is held accountable for the negative deeds that he intends to perform, but receives no reward for the good deeds that he did not manage to carry out.
In his discourse, the Ohr Hachaim also puts an emphasis on a Jew’s ability to do teshuva which as I’ve explained elsewhere does not follow even the spiritual rules of creation; it completely supersedes the whole system. The Jewish People merit such “supernatural” abilities on account of the Torah and mitzvos that they perform which enable their prayers to be answered in a special way (Rabbi Chaim of Voloshzin, Nefesh HaChaim).
2. A segula represents our special connection to Hashem and Torah
According to Rashi, when G-d refers to the Jewish nation as His segula, it means:
A beloved treasure, like… expensive vessels and precious stones, which kings store away. [Hashem says to the Jewish People]… you will be a treasure to Me [more precious] than the other nations.
Segula in this context characterizes Hashem’s special, exclusive relationship with the Jewish People as well as the extra Divine protection that we receive.
Interestingly, the root of the word segula is סגל, which is a vowel-point depicted by three dots in the form of a triangle. There is an opinion that the segol represents the special bond between Hashem and the Jewish People which exists on account of a “third partner”– the Torah we learn and keep. As it says in the Zohar:
ישראל ואורייתא וקודשא בריך הוא חד הוא
Israel, the Torah, and the Holy One Blessed is He are one
It is the Jewish’s Nation’s acceptance of the Torah and its mitzvos that puts it in the category of Am segula. For this we enjoy a special connection to Hashem.
3. A segula is a valuable acquisition
There is a final meaning associated with the term segula that I feel completes the topic: that of a valuable possession or treasure which one acquires or earns for oneself. For instance:
א“ר אימי בן שנראה חלוק בחיי אביו מה שסיגל סיגל לעצמו
If a son was seen doing business with part of the estate during his
father’s life, any earnings he made, he earned them for himself.
Talmud Yerushalmi, Bava Basra 28a
The act of earning or making an acquisition means an object that was not previously connected to you now is connected by virtue of the time, energy, or money you invested in order to receive it. That is, to earn something or to make a purchase you first have to give over something of value from yourself. Generally, the bigger the acquisition, the more you have to invest.
To summarize, the term segula is associated with three different ideas: 1) something that is above nature, even spiritual nature; 2) the Jewish People’s special, treasured connection to Hashem and His Torah; 3) a valuable earned acquisition.
We’ll get back to these points at the end…
Three Main Categories of Segulos
There are many types of segulos, but they generally fall into one of three categories:
1. Reciting certain possukim, holy texts, or tefillas that can seemingly affect the desired outcome. For example, reciting parshas Ha’man or parshas Haketores for parnassa, Perek Shira for hatzlacha, Shir HaShirim for a shidduch.
2. Association with an individual or a thing that is connected in some “obvious” way to the outcome you are looking for. For example, being kvatter at a bris is a segula for having children, or “connecting yourself” to a tzaddik associated with the desired outcome by praying at his kever or doing a mitzvah, like giving tzedakah, in his merit.
3. Finally, there are a group of segulos that involve actions or possessing items that on the surface seem to have little direct connection to the desired outcome, for instance, having a full copy of the Zohar in your home as a source of protection against harm.
However, the biggest, and perhaps most controversial, example of this category of segulos is wearing or possessing a kameya (charm) or possessing amulets, like the now ubiquitous hamsa.
The use of kameyos was wide spread among Jews at various points in history starting from at least the time of the Gemara. They were believed to offer protection from harm for the individual who possessed or wore them.
Written kamiyos are made of parchment and generally include possukim from the Torah and/or combinations of Divine Names. The Gemara makes several references to both written and herbal kameyos. (For instance, see Shabbos 53a and 61a).
Although the use of kishuf (magic and divination) is explicitly forbidden by the Torah, kameyos were accepted by the Sages, who even permitted so-called “effective kamiyos” to be carried on the Shabbos when carrying objects in the public domain is generally prohibited. (See Yoreh Deah 179:12; Sefer Zemanim, Hilchos Shabbos 19:14) Throughout the ages many tzaddikim and talmudei chachamim (wise students of the Torah) not only allowed the use of kameyos, but actually wrote them themselves.
It should be noted that the Rambam, the codifier of the Mishnah Torah, includes kameyos, but personally rejected any belief in their ability to effect a desired outcome. Instead, he believed that it is only permitted on the basis of the psychological relief it can offer to the disturbed mind. We’ll get back to this idea as well at the end…
Segulos Are Baked into Creation
Now, we can build a little understanding about how some segulos may work…
One of the fundamental principles in creation as explained by Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in his sefer, Derech Hashem, is that there is a dynamic connection between the physical world and the spiritual realms. For every thing that exists in our physical world below, there is a spiritual root above that both sustains and influences its counterpart. However, the flow of influence goes the other way, too. A Jew has the ability, through his or her free will decisions and actions, to direct and at times even exert control over these spiritual forces.
Moreover, just as the visible physical world operates according to certain rules and properties, the spiritual realms also have their own set of rules and properties. In other words, Hashem didn’t create the world in a random way. The whole of creation is a dynamic system with an orderly hierarchy that runs with perfect precision. One of the gifts Hashem bestowed to His People is the ability to understand how some parts of the system work.
That understanding comes with Torah knowledge. This includes the written Torah (the Five Books of Moshe), the Oral Torah (as captured in the Talmud and the midrash), combined with the mystical teachings brought down in the Zohar.
Those who recognize the spiritual “levers” that exist in our physical world can in turn use them to encourage certain outcomes. They can spiritually change the mazel of a person in need so that he or she is now worthy of receiving the sought after yeshua, refuah or brocha. There are many accounts of well-known tzaddikim and chachamim throughout the ages who have been able to do just that.
How Do Segulos Work?: Three Potential Ways
Part of the confusion and skepticism surrounding segulos is that people tend to lump all of them together into one category. In reality, though, for a segula to be effective there may be a number of different spiritual mechanisms involved. Here are three such possibilities:
1. Mitzvahs Bring About Spiritual Change
Our actions in this world create a new spiritual reality. When we fulfill any mitzvah, we are different to the person we were before its fulfillment. The mitzvah we did leaves us spiritually changed… forever.
This idea is important because when we work to refine ourselves and our connection to Hashem, we can arouse the Divine Assistance we need to not only succeed in our endeavors, but to also change our very mazel. Through tefilla, teshuva, and tzedakah, we can merit brochos and yeshuos that were previously not suitable for us. A negative Heavenly decree can be rescinded; and a yeshua can come even “when a sword is resting on your neck.”
And, many mitzvahs are well-known segulos, for example, giving tzedakah is a segula against natural death, honoring parents leads to a long life, separating challah and eating the Melava Malka meal after Shabbos is a segula for an easy childbirth, and properly keeping Shabbos is associated with all manner of brocha.
Of course, a person’s level of kavanah while performing a given mitzvah is important and gives the resulting spiritual impact a boost. As a Sages taught, “Praying without proper kavanah is like a body without a soul.” (Tanya Chpt 38) and “…halachah rules that [all] mitzvos require kavanah” (Peninei Halacha, Tefilla 15:8).
However, even where the intent is for some reason limited, it can still have an impact. It’s widely known, for instance, that reciting words of Torah and Tehillim have an influence on the person and in the Heavenly realms even if the person reciting them does not fully understand what he or she is saying.
Along the same lines, any action or thought that we have which helps us to strengthen our connection to Hashem, the Torah, the true Tzaddikim and Torah leaders, Clal Yisroel, and/or to our Chelek Elokah Mi’mal, is also an aspect of segula.
Let’s consider a couple examples of this in action.
There is a segula of saying Parshas Ha’mann on a daily basis for parnassa. The experience of the mann was a living lesson of emunah and bitachon. The Jewish people had to rely on Hashem for their sustenance… day… after… day. Each individual received his portion of sustenance according to his own spiritual level– a level which could fluctuate based on the individual’s actions.
Chazal tell us that a person’s livelihood for the coming year is allocated to him during the ten day period between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur (Beitzah 16a:1). But, just because it’s “allocated” doesn’t mean he’ll receive all of it. It also does not mean that his livelihood will come in an easy or pleasant way. He needs to create a vessel with which to receive it. Moreover, certain transgressions can create a blockage preventing the flow of brocha and parnassa from coming down in a usable way. For instance, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (Z”L) teaches that the trait of anger can make a person lose his wealth since wealth and anger have the same spiritual root.
Someone who recites the possukim of Parshas Ha’mann with wholehearted sincerity and a desire to strengthen his or her own emunah and bitachon, can be inspired to do teshuva. This desire to return not only frees up any spiritual blockages preventing the flow of brocha, but also builds the vessel needed to receive the shefa that was allocated to him at the beginning of the year. Moreover, the very possukim themselves help to ensure than any thoughts of teshuva will benefit the person specifically in the area of parnassa.
Now let’s take a look at being kvater at a bris as a segula for having children. There are many mitzvos associated with participating in another’s simcha. Guests will be fulfilling the mitzvah of ve’ahavtah l’reacha c’mocha, loving your fellow as yourself, and be responding “amen” to the brochos recited during the ceremony. Both would be a source of merit. They may also be davening for the success and welfare of the new born baby and his family, even as they think of their own personal situation. According to Chazal, when someone sincerely davens for the welfare of another, it is a segula to have his or her own tefillas answered (see Bava Kama 92a)
2. Connecting to the Tzaddikim
Another way in which a segula can be effective is when it connects a person to a true tzaddik or talmud chacham.
Such a connection can happen in several ways, for instance:
Requesting that a Tzaddik daven on your behalf
Going to a tzaddik or a talmud chacham to request a brocha or a tefilla is a well-known, wide-spread custom. It doesn’t matter if the Tzaddik is alive or has passed on from this world. In fact, according to many sources a Tzaddik’s power is greater after death:
“…Rav Chama bar Chanina said: ‘Tzaddikim are greater
in death than in their lifetime” (Chullin 7b)
“A Tzaddik who has departed can be found in a great many more
worlds than during his lifetime” (Zohar Vol III)
“The righteous, even after their death, are called alive...”
While it is forbidden to pray to a tzaddik directly and ask him for your needs, you can request that a tzaddik be a melitz yosher and a shaliach to daven to Hashem on your behalf. There are many sources for this practice:
- The gemara states, “If there is someone ill in your house, go to the wise man of the city and ask that he should pray for him.” (Baba Basra 116a)
- Aharon HaKohen asked Moshe Rabbeinu to daven for Miriam’s recovery. (Bamidbar 12:11-13)
- Kalev ben Yafuna went to Chevron, beseeching the Avos to pray on his behalf that he should be saved from the wicked counsel of the spies. (Sotah 34b).
- One of the reasons Hashem concealed the kever of Moshe Rabbeinu is that He didn’t want the Jewish people to daven there after the destruction Beis Hamikdash, since the tefillos of Moshe would have the power to annul all decrees and end the galus. (Sotah 14a)
Arousing Divine Favor
There is a Story of told of the Baal Shem Tov (Z”L) who once stayed in the city of Istanbul on his way to Eretz Yisroel. There he heard about the intense opposition against Rebbe Naftoli Hacohen for his distribution of kameyos. The Baal Shem Tov requested that a kameya be brought to him and opened it. Only the words “Naftoli Hacohen” were written on the parchment inside. Apparently, his name alone was sufficient to protect and heal or aid the recipient (Divrei Dovid).
While they were alive, the tzadikkim made a favorable impact in the world through their work and their accomplishments. Any action that strengthens their memory in this world arouses Divine favor in the heavenly realms that then can help an individual seeking a yeshua.
Thus, learning a sefer written by a particular tzaddik, or doing a mitzvah like giving tzedakah in the merit of his neshema, or trying to emulate a quality or a teaching attributed to him, all arouse Divine favor. Since the individual through his actions is connecting himself to the tzaddik, that Divine favor extends to him. So, not only may the tzaddik himself pray for the individual’s welfare, by strengthening and sustaining the tzaddik’s memory in the world, a person can merit a yeshua by association.
An Expression of Emunas Tzaddikim
An acquaintance of the Holy Baba Sali (Z”L), once recounted the following incident:
“I asked the Baba Sali what brocha he said together with the water that he gave people [who were seeking yeshuas]. He answered very sternly, in Arabic. ‘…What do I have? I have nothing!’ When I asked him about the holy water, he explained that their power lay only in people’s faith that it would help them. ‘It’s emuna that grants the water its power; it’s the emuna that’s making miracles.’ ”
Of course, the great merit of the Baba Sali no doubt had an influence in the water’s ability to bring refuas and yeshuos. But, his statement reveals another way in which a segula from a tzaddik can be effective. When the individual receiving the segula believes in the holiness and purity of the tzaddik’s soul, his or her emuna alone can influence how effective the segula will be.
The topic of emunas tzaddikim is no small matter. Even the segula from a Chacham or Torah leader who doesn’t have much personal merit can still be effective if the individual seeking a yeshua truly believes that this person is a shaliach from Hashem.
3. Restoring a Sense Hope
Finally, earlier I mentioned the view of the Rambam who noted that segulos are permitted due to the psychological relief it brings to the disturbed mind. Let’s examine this further…
One who is broken-hearted and suffering, yet makes an effort to see Hashem through the circumstances and call out to Him for assistance will actually be opening up the gates to his own yeshua:
יִקְרָאֵנִי, וְאֶעֱנֵהוּ—עִמּוֹ–אָנֹכִי בְצָרָה
He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in [his] pain;
However, when we are in a state of atzvus, an inconsolable, bitter sadness and an overwhelming sense of self-pity, we actually push Hashem away. In process, we can end up blocking the very flow of brochos, yeshuas, and refuahs that are meant for us in the same way that anger does. In fact, despair and depression are directly related to anger:
Atzvus is like someone who is angry and enraged, as if he is fulminating against God and complaining against Him for not arranging things the way he wants them to be.
Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom #42
We cannot help ourselves in such a state, yet we don’t let Hashem help us, either. As it says, “The Shechinah does not rest on the one who despairs…” (Shabbos 30b).
Regardless of whether a given segula itself has the potential to be effective, the sense of hope and mental relief that it offers has the power to lift us out of a destructive state of depression, self-pity, and grief and gives us a chance to reconnect to the Source of brocha and an eventual yeshua.
Bringing it All Together
In closing, for a segula to truly be effective, we need to be aware of the three points mentioned at the beginning of this article:
- There is the recognition that we are trying to tap into a spiritual reality which is above the physical nature of this world.
- The segula should ultimately strengthen our special, treasured connection to Hashem, His Torah, and the tzaddikim
- There is some personal investment on the part of the individual seeking the yeshua, for instance, thoughts of teshuva, emuna in the tzaddik who created or suggested the segula, or emuna and bitachon about the potential for a yeshua.
Where these qualities are absent, it can diminish a segula’s ability to be effective, and worse, could end up pulling us away from Hashem and the yeshua we are looking for.
However, when these qualities are present, they can help to create positive spiritual change. This change can actually help to bring about the very outcome we are hoping for. But more importantly, it brings us closer to who we really are, and that’s an even greater gift.