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While wandering around Israel, I noticed a group of youths asking the public to recite a psalm for the soldiers. Ok, I recited a Psalm.

I assumed these prayers were fulfilling what I saw as the traditional role, meditation, asking for individual and collective guidance, and asking and hoping for providential action which makes the world more right. But the folks were rather insistent on certain bureaucratic details, for instance that I recite a psalm that had not been read, and in clarifying why, in discussions, I slowly began to understand that they considered the action of reciting all the psalms, once completed, to directly lead to divine intervention. They believe that if they recite the prayers properly, the bombs and missiles will get stopped.

I was freaked out by this, as this sort of supernatural-magic kind of religion seemed to me to have been put to rest at least by the medieval era by Maimonides and others, perhaps earlier. But in later discussions with an ultra-orthodox fellow, I was pointed to a bunch of Rabbinical commentary, which I skimmed, which in an elliptical style he claimed gives support to the idea of Psalm-magic. The commentary was in flowery Hebrew, and it was pretty vague.

It was not clear to me that this was a part of contemporary Judaism. I am aware that the actions of prayer are supposed to be meaningful, but I had assumed that the mechanism of prayer was neither considered a quid-pro-quo, nor supernatural magic stemming from precisely completing a precise ritual, but providential actions and individual and collective guidance stemming from a common faith.

So what gives? Is this type of Psalm-magic universally considered part of Judaism?

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There are certain prayers which help for certain situations and certain formulas used by our forefathers who knew how to pray and what arouses mercy ,I would not call it magic – sam Jul 30 '14 at 23:36
I wouldn't call it magic either, if the prayers were not offered as a quid-pro-quo. I mean, certain prayers are appropriate to certain situations. But here it seemed to claim to be a recipe for direct supernatural protection of soldiers in a secular conflict, not as a way of getting guidance, or making right-action in the world. – Ron Maimon Jul 30 '14 at 23:37
I don't know who these youths are,either they don't know what they are talking about,or you misunderstood their intentions.During war tgere are certain psalms which are said which discuss enemies of Israel and times of suffering ,by saying these specific psalms we hope to arouse HaShems mercy.But no one is relying on the psalms themselves,when ppl say it they say it with intention and pleading ,not just some mystic readings. – sam Jul 31 '14 at 0:05
@sam: That's what I thought too. Unfortunately,this is not what I hear from the religious folks here. – Ron Maimon Jul 31 '14 at 7:57
There are ultra-Orthodox Jews who believe that their prayers and studying "protects" the IDF and Israel as a whole. I understand that some haredi rabbi's have even ignored the "help" of the Iron Shield, instead attributing the fewer than expected casualties to their Torah intervention. So Ron, the answer to your post may be yes given how much credence you place on the effect of prayer and study. – JJLL Aug 1 '14 at 21:35

2 Answers 2

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Without the Rabbinic text which you were shown it's hard to disprove the particular claim, but I would dispute the claim that this is part of mainstream contemporary Judaism which itself is so vague a category that it is practically meaningless. There is no halacha (Jewish law) or Gemarah (Talmud, written redaction of the oral law) that I am aware of which states that if Psalms are said something magical will occur.

Praying to God is meritorious and saying Psalms may increase a personal and collective merit - either by strengthening our relationship with God, adjuring us to be better people, or at the least as a form of Torah study - which may in turn lead to God granting a more favorable outcome than if a person had not prayed/recited Pslams. However, that is not magic. The entire premise of magic is that God is forced to do something based on my actions. Judaism, contemporary or otherwise, proscribes participating in and supporting that kind of thing.

The possible exception is wearing an amulet, however Maimonides explains the permission for use of these items along psychological lines. Not that the amulet actually does anything, but it makes the wearer feel safe.

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Many people explain Segulos as "supernatural" nature, so just like pressing the "on" button doesn't force Hashem to turn on the phone, so too saying the whole Tehillim doesn't "force" Hashem to do anything. – Shmuel Brin Aug 1 '14 at 20:12
רבי חנניה בשם ר' יסא במחלוקת עור שעיבדו לשם קמיע מותר לכתוב עליו מזוזה רשב"ג אוסר א"ר יוסה הוינן... From Yerushalmi Yoma 3:6 – sam Aug 7 '14 at 1:58

Maimonides seems to draw a distinction between recitation of verses, such as Psalms as an expression of the mitzva (to study Torah) which is permitted and recitation of verses as a form of a talisman. He writes in Hil. Avodah Zarah (11: 12):

הלוחש על המכה וקורא פסוק מן התורה וכן הקורא על התינוק שלא יבעת והמניח ספר תורה או תפילין על הקטן בשביל שיישן, לא די להם שהם בכלל מנחשים וחוברים אלא שהן בכלל הכופרים בתורה שהן עושין דברי תורה רפואת גוף ואינן אלא רפואת נפשות שנאמר ויהיו חיים לנפשך, אבל הבריא שקרא פסוקין ומזמור מתהילים כדי שתגן עליו זכות קריאתן וינצל מצרות ומנזקים הרי זה מותר

[Regarding] one who whispers over a wound and reads a verse of the Torah, and one who reads [verses] over an infant to save it from terrors, and one who places a Torah scroll or tefillin on a child so that he sleeps; they are not merely considered sorcerers and soothsayers, but they are considered those who deny the Torah who render words of Torah a cure for the soul, while they are naught but a cure for spirits, as it says "And they shall be life for your spirit" (Proverbs 3: 22).

However, a healthy person who read verses and Psalms so that the merit of their recitation protect him and he be saved from troubles and hurt; this is permitted.

The distinction seems to be that while it is permitted to perform the mitzvah of Torah study with the recitation of Psalms or other verses, with the intent that in the merit of his mitzvah; performance of a divinely mandated activity, he be saved from troubles, it is strictly forbidden to recite verses (such as Psalms) based on the belief that the recitation itself carries power.

This suggestion that recitation of Psalms is prohibited when performed superstitiously rather than as a mitzvah of Torah study is found quoted in the responsa of R. Betzalel Stern (Shut B'tzel HaChochmah vol. 4 ch. 47):

אגב אעיר במש"כ בקונט' דבק טוב (סי' ד' ד"ה בענין) בשם ס' עיני ישראל לתמוה על מנהג ישראל לומר תהלים עבור חולה הלוא אסור להתרפות בדברי תורה ותי' עפ"י מש"כ בסי' ת"ח דהיינו דוקא עפ"י דרך סגולה אבל בכוונה שיתרפא בזכות התורה מותר, אלא שלפי"ז ללקוט ולומר מזמורים מיוחדים וכמו כן לומר פסוקי תמניא אפי' לפי אותיות שם של החולה שהוא דומה לדרך סגולה בודאי אסור ע"כ

To summarize: R. Stern quotes others who wonder why it is permitted to recite Psalms on behalf of the ill in seeming opposition Talmudic dictum. He cites the answer that the only prohibition is recitation as a segulah; superstitious act. But when performed for the purpose of fulfilling the mitzvah of Torah study it is permitted. Accordingly, it would be forbidden to recite particular Psalms or verses containing the letters of the patient's name as these specification have nothing to do with Torah study, but only with segulah.

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