Tuesday, May 19, 2009

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.


At May 19, 2009 at 10:15:00 AM EDT, Blogger Neil Harris said...

Fantastic post.

At May 19, 2009 at 11:56:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post. Here are some more thoughts on this subject, from one of Rav Avraham Greenbaum's books.


I agree that we can and should rely on simple prayer alone, but at the same time, nothing should stop us from studying and trying to live by all of Rebbe Nachman's works, including the Alef-Bet Book/Sefer HaMidot. But the fact that the Rebbe had his larger book of remedies destroyed should make us cautious about relying too much on the remedies or segulos, even those prescribed by the Rebbe.

At May 19, 2009 at 12:55:00 PM EDT, Blogger A Talmid said...

The point of many segulas is to have reminders of Hashem in physical objects. For example, Shlissel Challah, which the tzadikim speak about at length is supposed to remind us that Hashem is the only one that gives us sustenance. If one does a segula as a good luch charm but thinks at the same time his smarts make him money, he is obviously missing the point. Besides the point a segula for parnasa doesn’t mean one will have riches, only that he will have money for his ESSENTIAL needs.

Reb Nachman spoke at length about everything coming only from Hashem and only to rely on Hashem. He spoke about davening to Hashem for EVERYTHING, as Rabbi Burton illustrates with the famous statement of Reb Nachman telling Reb Noson to even daven for shoelaces. I would like to suggest that the “segulas” spoken of in Sefer Hamidos were meant to be looked at in more detail, perhaps with a commentary like that of the Tcheriner Rav. (He brings down pesukim or statements of Chazal that the Rebbes statements are based on) These things mentioned in Sefer Hamidos, or any other segulas, are meant so that even when we are not davening we are constantly reminding ourselves that Hashem is the one that gives the healing, livelihood, children, etc. They are essentially emunah strengtheners if used properly, reminding us that only Hashem can help us. But, as Rabbi Burton pointed out, anything could be turned into an avoda zara.

At May 19, 2009 at 1:00:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Dovid Sears said...

Well said, Rabbi Burton!

Segulos have their place in Judaism, but our intentions in using them have to be correct, as this posting states.

In Likkutei Moharan I, 234, the Rebbe contrasts the miracles performed by tzaddikim with those performed by charletans. The tzaddikim accomplish everything through prayer, while charletans due so through sorcery or manipulation.

Rebbe Nachman also said, "Gohr mein zach iz tefillah . . . My entire endeavor is prayer."

At May 19, 2009 at 2:23:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Rabbi Yaacov Yisroel Bar-Chaiim said...

Y. Koiach to both you and ASJ for such a courageous step forward in bringing sanity back to our holiest of traditions. As the information highway is exploding right and left we can't do enough to keep upgrading the info about such matters. Personally I thank you especially for that last story. Boy do I have a lot of shoestrings that need that chizuk…

At May 19, 2009 at 6:43:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome post! And a great explanation. Thank you.

At May 20, 2009 at 3:58:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Tanchum Burton said...

Just a follow-up thought: how are we to consider practices like Tikkun HaKlali, and reciting Shmos HaTzaddikim?

At May 20, 2009 at 12:01:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

If a given segulah is also a known mitzvah, doing it should be OK, unless:

1. a more pressing mitzvah should be done instead at that time, or

2. the doer thinks of it as a kind of magic (in the pagan sense) to force what he wants to happen

At May 20, 2009 at 7:58:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the baal shem tov used to make segulos/amulets. he was a healer. later in life his segulos were simply writing his name, israel ben eliezer or israel ben sarah.

i agree that we have to be very careful here and never lose sight of the essential nature of simple tefilah.

i can understand that a climate that promotes segulos may not be healthy; however, i wonder in our history how prevalent it actually is...

At May 21, 2009 at 1:19:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

Having just finsihed the sefer for the first time, however I would guess that less than is 10% what we would call segulas, the rest are chazals and the zohar's etzos and ma'amorim on avodas Hashem, distilled through the Rebbe's vast knowledge.

At May 22, 2009 at 9:48:00 PM EDT, Blogger Long Beach Chasid said...

Rabbi Burton!

Amazing Post. Hope you and your family is well and I hope to see you soon in Eretz Yisroel soon. Please contact me so we can keep in touch more. ogmikec@gmail.com www.michaelmordechai.com

Kol Tuv & Good Shabbos

Michael Mordechai Cohen
a Long Beach Chasid


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