Question & Answer With Rabbi Tanchum Burton - Segulos In Breslov
A Simple Jew asks:
Sefer HaMiddos contains numerous segulos such as saying Shemos HaTzaddikim. Are segulos emphasized to a greater degree in Breslov than in other Chassidic groups?
Rabbi Tanchum Burton answers:
These days, it seems like everyone wants a segulah. Many people seem to prefer special hanhagos and practices that are said to have a specific power to make their wishes and desires come true, over the most basic instrument of Judaism: prayer.
I have noticed that "segulah fever" comes in different intensities to match the spiritual level and stamina of its victims: red strings around the wrist for the lightweights (even Madonna wears one); expensive silver amulets if you have money to spend; hire a rabbi to go to the Kosel for 40 days for you. I have seen that many of the tzedaka organizations (even respectable ones) have begun to respond to this type of magic consumerism by advertising - in the name of Gedolei Yisrael - that miracles and long life are assured their donors.
Of course, there are also many people in the environment surrounding Breslov that have succumbed to this mindset. Consider, for example, those people who utter the "Na Nach" phrase because they believe it is "the root of Creation", "the future song", etc.; it seems to be an "off-Broadway Breslov" response to the "Yechi Adonenu" chant of the meshichistim in Chabad. Or the people that make a small fortune selling knives in Uman claiming that toting one around on Erev Rosh Hashanah guarantees parnassah for the next year. Without questioning the greatness or purity of the people who are involved with these things (certainly not that of Rabbi Yisroel Ber Odesser zt"l), I question whether these activities represent the true, authentic Breslov tradition that is grounded in the teachings of Rebbe Nachman and his disciples, and that has been handed down, generation after generation until our very day (and is based on authentic Torah sources!).
Having said that, I will also admit that Rebbe Nachman's writings are loaded with mentions of segulos. A brief glance through Sefer HaMiddos, for example, will confirm this. Of course, the entire body of Torah She Be'al Peh, the Talmud included, is brimming with references to segulos, spells, and formulas - and yes, amulets; that is precisely how and why these items made their way into the teachings of Rebbe Nachman. The question is, what role should segulos and the like play in a person's life, and what position do they occupy in the normative framework of faith of a Jew?
The Jewish people are called am segulah, or "treasured people" (Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 7:6, 14:2, 26:18), indicating the special closeness that the Jewish people share with Hashem. A segulah might be a type of 'treasure' that people can recommend to or give each other as an aid to focus a person on his or her desired change. For example, it is said to be a segulah for a woman who has difficulty conceiving children to immerse in a mikvah immediately after another woman who is in her 9th month of pregnancy. What would be the nature of a segulah like this?
Going back to the aformentioned definition of segulah as signifying closeness with Hashem, it would make more sense that this type of activity is intended to enable to focus the consciousness of the woman wanting to conceive as a type of physical "tefillah" to Hashem, Who is the One Who causes these things to happen. If, however, the woman focuses only on the segulah itself, i.e. she uses it as a type of rabbit's foot as if the act or object itself has the power to bring about the desired result, than this is extremely problematic from a theological standpoint, and is possibly a form of avodah zara. Note that this distortion can occur in any context, and any Torah "object" or behavior can be made into idolatry, including using one's visit to the grave of a tzaddik to "make things happen", which is relevant to Breslov. There is a whole video (on YouTube, in Hebrew), on the miracles that have occurred to people "because" they went to the Rebbe's grave, as opposed to because they focused their teffilos towards Hashem while evoking the merit of the Rebbe - which is what we also do in the first paragraph of Shmoneh Esrei by mentioning Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.
In short, segulos have to bring a person closer to Hashem while expressing his or her requests; He runs the world. They have to be based on authentic Jewish sources - and a real authority should be sought for advice concerning these things.
I should add that, despite the abundance of segulos mentioned in the teachings of Rebbe Nachman and his students, I have heard from Rabbi Nasan Maimon that the Breslov elders whom he knew and from whom he received a mesora made no use of these segulos, preferring to simply pray to Hashem for their needs. Lots of prayer, both formal and hisbodedus, is the simple, unadulterated method of staying connected to Hashem, asking Him for what one needs, no matter what.
There is a story of a meeting between the Rebbe and Reb Noson where Reb Noson's shoelace tore.
"You should have prayed to G-d that it would not tear," said the Rebbe.
"A person has to pray for something like this?" asked Reb Noson.
"Is it beneath you?" asked the Rebbe.
And Reb Noson himself believed so much in the power of prayer that he once said, "anytime a person wants something and has not achieved it, it is because there was either an insufficient amount of prayer or no prayer."
I believe that this is the authentic Breslov approach.