From Parsha to Halakha: Chayei Sara Signs, portents, and segulot
In this time of war, there are various segulot (protective charms or rituals) circulating to protect soldiers from harm. How does the Torah feel about these segulot? Should we put our faith in them?
The problem with magic
Throughout Jewish history there has always been a broad range of attitudes towards anything having to do with mysticism. The Torah forbids us from worshiping other gods, as well as using magic or witchcraft, but the Torah doesn’t make it clear what the problem is. One approach explains that there are supernatural forces in this world that certain people, like magicians and diviners, know how to use. Several biblical stories can be read in ways that support this opinion such as the description of the magicians in Egypt, the saga of Bilaam, and the story of Saul and the Ba’alat Ov (Witch of Endor). Accordingly, while these forces do exist, Israel is not permitted to use them because we are told “tamim tehiyu,” “be genuine with the Eternal, your God.”
Another approach asserts that, just like all claims of sorcery, the Torah’s stories of magic and divination are mere illusions. Just as there are no other gods, so too there is no substance to the actions of magicians, soothsayers, and witches. The Torah prohibitions against turning to other gods and using sorcery are there to prevent us from relying on nonsense and delusions because we are meant to cleave to the truth.
Signs and portents
Likewise, Chazal (Talmudic sages) provide several approaches to reading signs and portents – simanim – and relying on them. The gemara teaches that the prohibition of “nikhush” (often understood as divination or soothsaying) forbids us from determining our actions based on omens or signs in the physical world. If someone decides not to embark on a journey because their bread fell on the floor that morning or a fox crossed their path they have violated the prohibition of nikhush. So too, it’s forbidden for a person to request they not to be visited first to pay taxes because they believe it’s a bad omen. Deciding to set out on a journey because it’s a nice day is also a violation.
Nevertheless, in other places the gemara determines that one can interpret a Torah verse quoted by a child as a good omen or check if a candle is burning during the Ten Days of Repentance to ascertain if the year will be a good one. The same passage also states that one can enact simanim to influence the world for the better. Therefore, kings are anointed by springs so that their reign will continue to flow and we eat certain foods on Rosh HaShana so the year will be blessed.
When are we permitted to employ signs (or even create them) and when is it prohibited?
A significant basis of the discussion surrounding simanim involves a story in Parshat Chayei Sarah – when Avraham’s servant determined that a certain action would determine his choice for Yitzchak’s bride. The gemara bring’s Rav’s statement that: “Any nikhush that is not like Eliezer Avraham’s servant and like Yonatan son of Shaul is not nakhash.” Eliezer decided that a maiden who watered his camels was the proper match. Yonatan and his attendant based their decision to attack the Philistine outpost on the guards’ reaction to their approach, attacking if the enemy told them, “come up to us.”
Surprisingly, the gemara seems to define the prohibition of nikhush based on the actions of generally positive figures. Indeed, some commentaries explain that Rav asserts these are the only permitted types of nikhush, because the sign has a concrete, solid rationale. The servant’s “sign” wasn’t arbitrary, it was a test of character. Yonatan’s test can also be understood as an attempt to gauge the complacency or preparedness of the enemy forces at the outpost. It’s understandable that this type of nikhush, based on rational grounds, may be permitted.
Alternatively, others suggest that the sign itself wasn’t the problem; we can learn from certain aspects of the stories that the difference between permitted and prohibited nikhush is the degree one relies on the sign or test. Avraham’s servant and Yonatan both committed themselves to a future course of action based solely on this one criteria. In such cases nikhush takes the entirety of choice out of the person’s hands and entrusts it to external elements. Accordingly, it seems that we may use signs or tests (possibly even arbitrary ones) to help us make decisions or influence reality as long as we are not completely reliant on them. According to many Rishonim (early Torah scholars), we may use signs as a factor when making a choice, they are prohibited due to nikhush when the presence of the sign alone determines the choice.
Notwithstanding, several Rishonim thought it was permissible to rely on such signs. The phrase “simana milta hi” (a sign is something) states that signs do have power. Still, they must be tested to see if they really work. Such opinions teach that one can rely on a siman that has proven itself three times.
It seems that the issue of simanim is also disputed. How appropriate is it to look to the world around us for hints from a higher power meant to guide our actions? To what extent should we remain “tamim,” “genuine,” and determine the correct course of action based solely on its rectitude?
This dispute carries over into discussions of segulot and their purpose. Do we use segulot to enhance our faith, as a kind of security blanket or phylactery – a physical expression or reminder of our prayers and hopes that are ultimately directed to God? Or are segulot used like magic spells or potions to circumvent the will of Heaven and impose our will on the world? Much like we saw previously, some halakhic authorities approve of such behaviors when the segula has a rational explanation or there’s proof that it works.
There’s also another type of segula, whereby people fulfill a certain mitzvah to merit Divine intervention, siyata dishmaya. For example, organizing hafrashat challah for a speedy recovery or Israeli soldiers who don tzitzit when going to war. Sometimes there’s some sort of connection between the mitzvah and the desired result. Our tradition teaches that “teshuva, tefilla, and tzedaka (repentance, prayer, and charity/righteousness and justice) can revoke a bad decree.” Since the Torah teaches us that tzitzit are supposed to remind us of God and the mitzvot, they can guide the soldier to act with faith and integrity.
Chazal cautioned us, “Do not be like servants who serve their master in order to get a reward.” We do not fulfill the mitzvot to benefit in this world; God is not an ATM and we can’t withdraw for a bank of merit whenever we feel like it.
On the other hand, how can strengthening faith and mitzvah observance be a bad thing? The Torah tells us that one who is “fearful and weak of heart” is dismissed from battle; one explanation is that this person is scared of their sins, which would mean that strengthening mitzvah observance and our mutual responsibility for one another could help in battle.
Once again, it seems that the deciding factor is our mindset. If we are trying to impose our will on reality and bend God to our will then we are perpetuating the pagan ideology that focuses on our desires. If we are trying to fulfill the will of God and hope that this will help us merit Divine protection or assistance, it’s possible that such actions are truly valuable.
We’ve seen a significant range of opinions, but there’s some consensus. It’s clear that it’s problematic to put our faith in signs and portents, especially those used by other peoples. The prohibition of nikhush prohibits using such arbitrary signs to determine our behavior without any deviation. We are permitted to look back on certain events in our life and see them as an indication of what was to come, or to use physical objects or actions as a medium for our prayers, making our own signs or symbolic gestures for mazal or success.
What’s less clear is the area in between – signs that have worked in the past and are used to determine future behaviors. Some Rishonim claim that this is prohibited nikhush, a person should decide their actions based on what is right and not what has been “determined” for them. Regardless, there’s a clear preference to “genuinely walk in the ways of God.” If we think we’ve found a sign we can hope that it’s a message from God, but we should not impose our wishes on God.
 Shemot 20:2 and more; Vayikra 19:21; Devarim 18:10-12.
 The Hebrew word Tamim does not have an English counterpart. The root means complete or whole and it’s often connected to innocence, purity, and authenticity.
 For example, see Ramban Shemot 20:2; Ramban Devarim 13:2; Ran Sanhedrin 65b; Responsa Rashba attributed to Ramban 283…
 See for example Rashi Shemot 20:2; Ibn Ezra Devarim 13:2; Sefer HaChinuch Mitzvah 249…
 TB Sanhedrin 65b-66a
 TB Horayot 12a
 TB Chulin 95b; Rambam Hilkhot Avoda Zara 11:4.
 Bereishit 24:12-14; Shmuel I 13:1-13.
 For example Ra’avad on Rambam Hilkhot Avoda Zara 11:4.
 For example Yerei’im 335; Radak Shmuel I 14:9.
 Rambam Hilkhot Avoda Zara 11:4; compare to Shulkhan Arukh and Rema YD 179:3-4.
 TB Chulin 95b, based on Yaakov in Bereishit 42:37. Rema YD 179:4 (who brings two possibilities).
 See Meiri on Horayot 12a who connects simanim to a type of prayer.