Tuesday, February 07, 2006

On Reality Altering Rituals

I received several emails today reminding me to recite Parshas HaMon today. Parshas HaMon is the portion of the Torah that describes the manna that was given to the Jews in the Wilderness by God for forty years. Parshas HaMon consists of Exodus/Shemos 16. There is a segulah that reciting this section of the Torah on the Tuesday before it is read in shul on Shabbos will bring one added income during the year.

This, however, contradicts the Gemara (Beitzah 16a) which states that one's income for the coming year is set between Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur.

I suppose that this seeming contradiction shouldn't bother me. After all, there is a long-standing and well-honored tradition among Jews to recite Tehillim (Psalms) for someone who is ill or in situations where one's life is in danger. This practice, too, seems to contadict the idea that we are all inscribed for life or death between Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur. And I'll admit that I engage in this behavour as well. When my mother was near-death a couple of weeks ago, I recited Tehillim and prayed for her recovery. Of course, if her fate was sealed on Yom Kippur, my prayers and the prayers of those who prayed for her should not have made a difference.

To tell the truth, these contradictions do not really bother me so much. I have a mental image of heartfelt and sincere prayer being able to "break open" the seal on the Book of Life and have the name of one who wasn't inscribed therein previously now be written. (I do, however, have more of a problem of a simple recital of Shemos 16 breaking the seal of the Book of Parnassah, but that's another issue for another time).

I often do wonder, however, about the real efficacy of our prayers. Unfortunately, I'm not aware of any reliable data out there that can tell me how often saying Tehillim for an ill person really does work in arousing God's mercy to effect a cure. There are certainly plenty of anecdotal stories out there, but no hard and fast data. And, to me, that's very frustrating.

It's one thing to take something on complete faith because it's unvarifiable. For example, I believe in the existence of God even though there is no data to prove it; indeed, I don't think God's existence is provable. As such, knowing that it cannot be proven or disproven with data, I don't have a problem believing that God exists.

The efficacy of prayer, on the other hand, *is* provable, if the data were available. A rise of income when someone recites Parshas HaMon on the Tuesday of Parshas BeShalach *can* be correlated with the proper data. How safe one stays by wearing a red string can be measured. But sadly, I'm not aware of anyone who keeps systematic data on this.

This is the type of thing that I find difficult to take on faith. It's hard to take it on faith that reciting Parshas HaMon will increase the size of your bank account, because it's something that can be verified, but has not been. It's hard to motivate myself to recite Tehillim for someone because I don't know if it's really effective or not - and the information could be available.

We, as Jews, have many rituals. Some, like Lulav, are done simply because we believe that God commanded us to. Others, however, are done in the hopes of altering reality - of changing something in our lives or the lives of our community members for the better - whether it be for help earning a livelihood, finding one's lifetime partner, or simply staying alive. Are these rituals really effective in altering our reality? Do Tehillim really keep a person alive? Does giving charity or reciting Parshas HaMon really increase one's wealth?

I would love to be albe to keep track of people, setting up a control group of Jews who don't practice a certain segulah and then measuring them against another group that do practice the segulah. Of course, I'd *really* love for it to be a blind study, but that just wouldn't be possible in this case (can you give someone a Tehillim with a few words misplaced here and there so that they are reciting "placebo Tehillim?"). We could then analyze the data and see if the practice of a certain segulah is merited.

Of course, there are those in our community who will disavow any result that doesn't show that the segulah is effective. For example, if we found that people who recited Parshas HaMon actually *lost* money over the year, they would simply dismiss the result out of hand. But I'm not really worried about them. I'd love to just see the data for myself and then make an informed decision as to the efficacy of the segulah in question.

The Wolf

17 comments:

GregoryT said...

I remember that there was a research about prayer and refuah: Prayer Doesn't Help Heart Surgery Patients: Study

Anonymous said...

There have been numerous studies on the efficacy of prayer. None have ever found any evidence for it.

Hayim said...

checking the efficacy of segulos is a good segulah to find sanity of mind, or so I am told.

BrooklynWolf said...

Thanks for the link GregoryT. However, I'm fairly sure that in the study linked to (and in the studies mentioned by Anon), the sample included people who prayed to Jesus (or other deities). Since we, as Jews, take it as a granted that prayers to Jesus don't work, the study is flawed from a Judaic POV. IOW, if I wanted to study the effects of Jewish prayer or recital of Tehillim on recovery, the studies done would not provide me with any useful data.

The Wolf

Mike Koplow said...

I'm relatively new at this O"J stuff, so this may be a naive question, but doesn't all this stuff sort of conflict with Antignos's advice in Avot not to be like a servant who acts only for a reward?

(By the way, maybe this is just me, but it's always seemed to me [not knowing Greek] like the name "Antignos" means "someone who is opposed to knowledge." Which doesn't make any sense and is probably wrong, but when you get into a religion you often find that stuff that doesn't make sense and is probably wrong is in fact a very important truism.)

GregoryT said...

I'm not sure that it's possible to prove the efficacy of praying altogether though. The question is of factors, how valid they are and what they are. If we say that factors such as kavanah affect refuah - then we can't ask people for their kavanah at will. In addition to that, there's an IY"H (If Hashem will Want) factor - what if Hashem doesn't want for a particular person to be alive anymore? Then tehilim even with kavanah wouldn't help. There are other factors which can't be measured as well.

The Jewish Freak said...

I may be able to understand prayer with some metaphysical manouvering, but reciting parshas hamon for increasing wealth is purely magical thinking, and IMHO against the torah. Also there is an edict in the Torah not to test G-d. That may put a damper on your blind study idea - best not to antagonize the Lord, He may take away your wealth instead of increasing it, and you won't be able to afford your shul's dues anymore.

Mike Koplow: Great question. Naive questions are usually the best. Keep it up!

Bill Selliger said...

Tosafos in R"H (16a, s.v. K'man)deals with the question regarding Yom Kippur and everyday tefilla.

Anonymous said...

The other problem with your attitudes is that you think this works with precise cause and effect. Such a reaction would, as we've always been told, completly destroy our 'Free Will'. Your erroneous assumption is that a prayer has to be answered immediately in order to judge it as effective. What if, for example, you utter the Mann Segulah today - when you're in your 20's and well employed. You don't get that raise you've been hoping for. However, 30 years later, when you're in your 50's and just lost your job, and just as all the bills are about to rain down upon you, you 'suddenly' are offered a good job. Since 30 years have passed since the recital of that Mann prayer, most of us would not attribute the new job to it. Yet, in Hashem's world, who knows!

Faith, I think, means believing in something especially when one cannot prove it.

CPB

Rebeljew said...

Wolf
In the prayer studies, they covered all the common dieties. There was a control group, for whom no formal request for prayer was made, and there was an experimental group, for whom prayers were offered. Teh experimental group designations were given to all deniminations. As I remember, to avoid Jews carping on WHICH Jews were praying, the tzetlach were simply placed in the Kotel, to everyone's satisfaction.

One known problem with the controls was that there was no way to know that the control group truly had no one praying for them. However, it is unlikely that frum Jews were praying for them, since frum Jews generally only pray for frum Jews, so that doesn't help alot.

Rabbi Dr. said...

Doing a study on praying is ridiculous. Obviously, the mere act of reciting certain words is not important. It is the sincerity etc. of the prayer which would be determinant. Since each person's sincerity and level of commitment cannot be measured by human instruments and since this also probably depends greatly upon each individual, where they are holding spiritually etc. it is practically of no scientific import. Furthermore, obviously, prayer is only one component out of possibly millions in determining the outcome of any event or circumstance in this world.
The medieval Jewish philosophers (the Sefer HaIkkarim particularly) discussed prayer not in terms of it's external effect, but in terms of how it effects the internal spiritual processes of the individual. If you're looking to find efficacy in prayer- look inside yourself first.

Rebeljew said...

Also, one cannot determine the status quo ante. If a person would have lost money except for saying the parsha, but because he said the parsha, he did not lose the money, and therefore, his bank account has increased, how will we ever measure it? This, and variations of this, seem to be apologetic staple for all "G-d of the gaps" arguments.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Mike, I believe "Antigonus" is the same as the name Antigone, from Greek mythology, the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta. "Antigone" meant "against birth."

baalbatish said...

No mekor for this segula.


baalbatish.blogspot.com/2006/02/segula-for-parnossosh-by-saying.html

Mike Koplow said...

Very interesting, Fred. Keeping your "I believe" in mind, it sounds very plausible. Thanks.

Tobie said...

If one was really to pay attention to Parshat HaMann, wouldn't he learn that all money comes from G-d and he will be provided for when he needs it, but that he's not necessarily going to have money in the bank for tomorrow? In fact, that he's going to have to live day to day, food-wise, without ever having any savings or guarantees about tomorrow's meal? Seems like a pretty odd segulah for money...

yeshivaguy said...

This whole parshas hamon on the Tuesday of b'shalach has almost no mekor; it shouldn't be taken too seriously. If you're looking for segulos for parnassah why not try one from Shulchan Aruch; i.e. to be midakdek in the halachos of netilas yadayim.