What would you say if I told you a “holy man” had promised me I was set to win the lottery as long as I gave $25,000 to tzedaka? Not convinced? Well, what if I told you that this “mekubal” also happens to know some very deserving people I could give my money to? And not only that, he’d even distribute the funds for me! So what do you say? Are you ready to chip in with me? After all, what’s $25,000 when we’re set to win $1.5 million?
While you and I greet these claims with a healthy dose of skepticism, many people, unfortunately, take the bait and are conned out of their life’s savings — or worse! What is it about these frauds masquerading as “mekubalim” that enables them to hoodwink rational, intelligent people? Is it possible for ordinary people to discern the difference between a bona fide mekubal and a con artist?
Something New Under the Sun?
“One Sukkos in Eretz Yisrael, I saw a ‘mekubal’ in the lobby of our hotel who had a whole crowd of people gathered around him. He was ‘reading’ the bumps on their esrogim and telling people all sorts of strange things.”
While predicting the future using an esrog is more exotic than the standard crystal ball, the art of psychic deception has been around since time immemorial. There have always been unscrupulous people who posed as miracle workers. In the 1970s, Uri Geller, an Israeli illusionist and self-proclaimed psychic, amazed everyone with his ability to bend metal spoons and make watches stop just by looking at them. Geller was subsequently exposed by James Randi, a retired stage magician and scientific skeptic who has extensively challenged paranormal and pseudoscientific claims.
While Geller’s activities were harmless, certain fraudulent practices like faith healing and psychic surgery have caused needless deaths by keeping the ill away from life-saving medical care. In 1986, faith healer Peter Popoff, a self-proclaimed prophet and faith healer, was exposed by Randi, who proved that Popoff was using wireless electronic transmissions to receive information culled from prayer request cards filled out by audience members. He has since made a comeback using similar techniques.
In psychic surgery, the “surgeon” allegedly creates an incision using only his bare hands, followed by the removal of pathological matter (made all the more convincing by the use of hidden animal blood and entrails); the incision “heals” spontaneously. Despite having also been debunked by Randi, who used sleight-of-hand to replicate the appearance of psychic surgery to a studio audience, psychic surgery is still seen by many people to be an effective form of alternative medicine.
The Jewish community has its own special breed of tricksters and impostors who target the sick, destitute and broken-hearted of the community — the charlatans who pose as “mekubalim.” These charismatic con artists arrive in town and quickly set up shop. They advertise in the local papers, make claims, and propose so-called miraculous cures, and are sought out by people desperately seeking a miracle worker to end their suffering. The creativity of these fakers knows no bounds, as they transform halachic matters, such as kesubos and mezuzos, into tools for their own agenda.
In truth, the kashrus of a mezuza is the domain of a sofer, and a questionable kesuba needs a posek. Indeed, there have been instances when a “corrected” kesuba caused an actual shaila. Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum, z”l, who was a rebbi at Yeshiva and Mesivta Torah Temimah, director of Camp S’dei Chemed International, and executive director of the Torah Communications Network, was very outspoken about the swindlers who targeted the frum community, and wrote numerous articles on the subject to raise awareness and educate the unsuspecting public.
In order to test the abilities of one kabbalistic healer who claimed to see all one’s problems in a kesuba, Rabbi Teitelbaum once asked an unmarried friend to make an appointment with the kabbalist under the false pretext that he had two sick children. When the friend met with the kabbalist and showed him the phony kesuba, the kabbalist told him that he saw in the kesuba that he had two sick children and that for a small fee of $5,000, he could make the proper corrections and thereby everything would be okay. Rabbi Teitelbaum wrote, “My friend thanked him for his deep insights and said he was going home to talk it over with his ‘wife.’ So much for his brilliant readings!”
Only after Rabbi Teitelbaum exposed this kabbalist’s phony schemes did he move his act elsewhere.
Hot and Cold
“But how could he possibly have known that my daughter’s name was Rivky?”
The seemingly supernatural ability of pseudo-kabbalists to “know things” about the petitioner contributes to their mystique and is often enough to convince even the most skeptical that the person is a true mekubal when, in fact, he could most likely be nothing more than a very gifted cold reader.
Cold reading is a technique used by professional manipulators to give the impression they have some sort of “mysterious” ability to know personal information about the client. The reading is “cold” because it does not depend on any prior knowledge of the client. Instead, the “psychic” will usually begin by making a series of general or Barnum statements. Barnum statements, named after the American showman P.T. Barnum, seem to relate to a particular individual but actually apply to everyone, or almost everyone. A statement like “You’re experiencing some tension with a friend or a relative at the moment” would probably strike a chord with many of us.
A fake psychic might also make vague and contradictory statements, such as, “Most of the time you are happy and cheerful, but there have been times when you were very upset.” Called a rainbow ruse, this conflicting statement covers all the possibilities and sounds like a very convincing description of the subject’s personality. While fishing for details, a skilled psychic will carefully observe the individual’s reactions, quickly picking up on signals such as words, body language, breathing patterns, dilation or contraction of the pupils of the eye, to determine whether their guesses are in the right direction, then emphasizing and reinforcing chance connections and quickly moving on from missed guesses.
Hot reading is another technique used by charlatans. Unlike a cold reading, hot reading involves surreptitiously gaining information from clients in advance. The spiritualist may have an accomplice in the waiting room talk to people, listen in on their conversations, or collect written information from them that is later used in the consultation. Technology, like intercom systems and wireless earpieces, is also used.
Once, while substituting in an English class, Rabbi Teitelbaum told the students he had been studying chochmas hayad, how to read palms, from one of the pseudo-kabbalists who had just come into town, and that he wanted to see if it worked. Unbeknownst to the boys, however, he had made sure to read up on the particulars of each student before entering the classroom.
He proceeded to make what seemed to be a random choice and asked a boy to step up to the front of the class. He took the boy’s hand and pretended to study it carefully, making all sorts of facial expressions as he examined it. Then, in a very halting voice to give the impression that he wasn’t really sure of what he was seeing, he asked if it was possible that the boy’s father was a lawyer.
“Yes,” was the immediate answer.
Acting surprised at his accurate results, Rabbi Teitelbaum continued with his act. “You seem to have a good head for math, but are quite poor in spelling — is that correct?” he asked.
The boy nodded his head vigorously as the class listened in astonished silence. Rabbi Teitelbaum continued reading the palms of other students in the class using the facts he knew and including some random guesses that applied to most children, such as “Your parents seem to find it very difficult to get you out of bed in the morning.”
Once he had most of the students convinced that he was a very good palm reader, Rabbi Teitelbaum showed the boys how they’d all been scammed by his simple tricks.
Rabbi Teitelbaum felt it was important to acquaint the general public with the methods used by these con men, as he wrote, “These [so-called] kabbalistic palm readers and fortune tellers flourish like weeds on a rainy summer day and take advantage of those who are troubled and have great pain and have no one to turn to. They also take advantage of the ignorant who don’t have the faintest idea of how these tricks work.”
He recounted how, many years ago, he carefully watched how a supposed “mezuza-reader” made many direct hits using the methods above. At first he was fooled, as many others were, and thought that the mezuza-reader possessed some mysterious powers and was able to see what no one else could. Rabbi Teitelbaum wrote, “Only after watching carefully and studying his answers did I realize that it was all a hoax and they were practicing the generalization techniques used by all fortune tellers.”
Fortunately for the charlatan, most people are usually eager for him to succeed and are willing to work hard to find personal meaning in whatever he says. We tend to see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear. This subjective validation is an essential element of any successful cold reading and also explains why many people are convinced by the apparent accuracy of pseudoscientific personality profiles and horoscopes.
Selective memory also plays a part in subjective validation. It is very unlikely that any person will be able to find meaning in every statement the psychic makes. This ensures that the person will remember only the times the psychic was right and forget the misses, giving the overall impression of, “Wow, how else could he have known all this about me?”
But not everyone who practices cold reading is a scammer. Illusionists and mentalists are popular entertainers who amaze their audiences with their “mind-reading” abilities. Many illusionists are quick to reveal that all they need for the performance is a sound knowledge of psychology and cold reading, not psychic powers. Additionally, some people are just unusually perceptive and intuitive, and subconsciously do a cold reading without intending to deceive anyone. Unfortunately, after performing hundreds of readings, their skills may improve to the point where they may start believing they can actually read minds.
A Test of Faith
“My brother was very sick and the doctors had given up hope. There was this ‘mekubal’ who said that if we gave him a lot of money he could get rid of the sickness. We gave him the money, but my brother didn’t make it.”
Financial difficulties, illness, shidduchim, children at risk — there’s no end to the troubles that people face; unfortunately, there’s no shortage of opportunists taking advantage of their vulnerability either. What makes people prone to believing in these imposters, however, isn’t necessarily that they’re gullible. People in desperate situations have a powerful need to feel some measure of control over the circumstances they’re in, and when the pseudo-kabbalist identifies something concrete — a faulty mezuza or kesuba, for example — as the source of their difficulties or prescribes a bizarre set of ritualistic behaviors, people feel empowered and hopeful that the situation will improve.
Another factor contributing to the pseudo-kabbalist’s appeal is people’s insatiable appetite for the sensational. It’s much more exciting to hear that a person went to have his mezuzos inspected, such-and-such was found and repaired, and his daughter got engaged, than to hear that he davened Shemoneh Esrei with great kavana and Hashem answered his tefillos. The pseudo-kabbalist’s “success stories” make for great conversation, and his fame spreads like wildfire.
“People in our generation go for segulos, 40 days for this, 20 days for that,” says Rebbetzin Leah Kohn, a popular Brooklyn-based teacher and lecturer, about society’s desire for instant gratification. “It’s misrepresenting Yiddishkeit. The centrality of having a relationship with Hashem, of just turning to Hashem to daven, gets lost.”
People want easy fixes for their problems, and the “mekubal” is only too happy to oblige, offering instant yeshuos that don’t demand any real change on their part. And when the promised salvation doesn’t arrive despite the donation, when the patient succumbs to his illness despite the mystical amulet or when the estranged child doesn’t return home despite the candles lit, “it can be disastrous,” says Rebbetzin Kohn.
Students of various ages and backgrounds have shared with her devastating accounts of going to people who made all kinds of promises to them. “People can really lose emuna in tzadikim. It creates a real crisis.”
True or False: Getting It Right
“Our family used to be close to a certain individual before he became well known. I had received a kameya from him for protection, which got lost. When I called him for a replacement, he wanted a lot of money. I was surprised. He said that he had a business advisor now and that he didn’t do it anymore for free.”
How can we tell a holy man from a charlatan?
Harav Yaakov Hillel, shlita, the author of Faith and Folly, a translation of the sefer Tamim Tiheyeh, and head of the highly acclaimed institutions of Ahavat Shalom, advises that people looking for someone to give them a bracha should first look for a talmid chacham, one reason being that one cannot understand Kabbala without first being a distinguished talmid chacham. And while it is difficult to assess whether a person is truly knowledgeable in Kabbala, Torah scholarship can be evaluated.
“The difference between a mekubal and a talmid chacham is like the difference between a stomachache and a fever,” says Rav Hillel. “Fever can be measured with a thermometer, but there is no way to test a stomachache. So, too, a talmid chacham can be tested, but a kabbalist cannot.”
The ArtScroll biography of Harav Ovadiah Yosef, zt”l, Maran Harav Ovadiah, tells of a time when Harav Ovadiah once acquiesced to Rabbanit Margalit’s request to summon a certain mekubal, who had a reputation for being able to look at the mezuzos in the house in order to determine the source of the family’s problems. The man noticed that one mezuza was full of moisture and asked if someone in the family had rheumatism. Harav Ovadiah said he did. The mekubal then asked if there was a cross in the house. When Harav Ovadiah replied that he had received a medallion from the king of Spain that had a cross as part of the coat of arms, the “mekubal” advised him to destroy it.
Suddenly, Harav Ovadiah summoned his son and asked him a question in learning. After Rav Dovid gave his answer, Harav Ovadiah asked the mekubal for his opinion, at which point they realized the mekubal didn’t understand the subject matter at all.
When the mekubal left, Harav Ovadiah discounted everything he had said and told the family members to put the mezuza back in its place, as the mezuza was kosher l’mehadrin. Harav Ovadiah said that he knew he had developed rheumatism as a result of learning in a freezing, wet library, and that he had written a teshuva about the matter of the medallion, which was permitted because the coat of arms was a symbol of honor, not religion. Harav Ovadiah added that when the Rashba was asked about a person who was able to predict the future and see hidden things, he replied that ruach hakodesh cannot rest on an am ha’aretz.
“I asked you a question,” said Harav Ovadiah to Rav Dovid, “and then I asked the same question of the mekubal to see if he knew how to learn. Since he doesn’t, we don’t have to listen to anything he says.”
One should also keep in mind that just because someone is celebrated by the public does not prove he is holy. Harav Meir Simchah Hakohen of Dvinsk, zt”l, the Meshech Chochma, advises a person to investigate the origins of the miracle worker who has gripped everyone’s imagination. Is he a person of outstanding wisdom and special qualities, who was first noticed and appreciated by the gedolim and only afterwards became known to the public as a holy man? Or is he a person whose strange actions were first noticed by the masses, who then spread his fame as a miracle worker until the rabbanim heard of him and honored him just in case the public’s esteem was warranted?
Before putting one’s faith in a famous miracle worker, one should check if his fame has spread from up downwards or the other way around. Unlike scam artists, gedolei Yisrael don’t seek publicity; they live simply and flee from honor, fame, and wealth.
Beware of anyone who asks for exorbitant sums of money. The tanna Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa performed great miracles; he was able to tell people whether they would live or die. Yet it is written in the Gemara that his wife complained that there was nothing to eat in the house. Gedolei Yisrael don’t charge admission or post a “suggested fee.”
Beware, too, of anyone who does not adhere strictly to mitzvos or who takes advantage of the despair and confusion of the people who turn to him for help. Often, when people see a man known to be a kabbalist doing things against halacha, they attribute it to his doing everything in his power to conceal his righteousness. This is a total perversion of the concept of a tzaddik nistar. A hidden tzaddik is someone whose Torah study, prayer, mitzvos, good deeds and character are perfect. But because he behaves simply and hides his actions from people, the public thinks there is no more to him than what they see.
The Path to Follow
“Once, when I was eight years old, a woman read my palm and told me I would have only three children. I remember being devastated. It bothered me for years. I davened and davened. When I had my fourth child, I breathed a sigh of relief.”
If seeking out a mekubal isn’t the answer to one’s challenges, then what is? According to Harav Yaakov Hillel, the answer is emuna. Bnei Yisrael have been charged with the mitzvah of tamim tihiyeh, of being perfectly faithful to Hashem. This entails believing that Hashem alone knows the future and has power over everything which, in turn, precludes consulting astrologers and the like about one’s destiny. The corollary of faith is prayer. Rav Hillel writes, “If you seek a cure for an illness, or success in learning, business, finding a wife or having children, rely only on your Father in Heaven and ask Him for all that you lack.”
The purpose of prayer is not to solve problems; the purpose of problems is to get us to pray. Prayer is a demonstration of our belief that Hashem alone can help us. It is proof that our faith is perfect. As Harav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, zt”l, wrote in his approbation to Faith and Folly, “Perfect faith has the power to change nature and bring redemption.”
It is a serious error to think that only the prayers and blessings of those who study Kabbala are effective. While a talmid chacham and tzaddik who is learned in Toras Hanistar knows how prayers ascend and rectify higher worlds, all heartfelt prayers ascend and rectify worlds whether or not the person who is praying understands how they work. The Gemara teaches that the Gate of Tears is never locked, and the Chazon Ish is known to have said that some prayers are answered more quickly than others, but no prayer returns unanswered.
Along with faith and prayer, it has always been customary to seek the blessings of a gadol and to ask him to pray for us. There are many instances in the Gemara where, in response to a calamity such as drought or sickness, the people immediately turned to the tzaddik of the generation so that he should intercede on their behalf to avert the decree from Hashem.
It is a mistaken belief to think that only those who study Kabbala can reach great spiritual heights. There are individuals who, because of their tremendous efforts in Torah, prayer, mitzvah observance, and perfection of their characters, merit that their advice, prayers and blessings save many from distress. These tzadikim, through Divine inspiration, know what is hidden from the rest of us and can provide insight and guidance.
The Bottom Line
“My husband used to go to mekubalim all the time when he went to Eretz Yisrael. It was always very interesting to hear what they said. He doesn’t go anymore. He doesn’t feel it’s the right thing to do. It might make you feel good to know things are going to be good, but it takes away from your Yiddishkeit.”
Success isn’t everything. Although the saintly miracle worker who “knows” hidden things is most likely using chicanery, it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that the power to foresee the future and to perform miracles does exist in this world, and some successes are real. According to the Steipler Gaon, out of the many people who turn to a miracle man, a certain percentage is bound to be granted mercy by Heaven. Additionally, in order to preserve man’s freedom to choose between good and evil, Hashem created two domains to the world of the occult: the Side of Holiness and the Side of Impurity.
Even if a miracle worker seems to be honest and scholarly, it is well-nigh impossible for an ordinary person, unlearned and tied to physical pleasures, to have achieved the spiritual levels necessary to attain the Side of Holiness. Harav Chaim Vital, zt”l, said it is more likely that a person will draw down powers and inspiration from the Side of Impurity, which is always available.
There are also those people who did not study enough to become knowledgeable of the deep philosophies of Kabbala, but they made themselves reputations as kabbalists by studying practical Kabbala, which does not require much knowledge. Halachic authorities and mekubalim alike have warned against the use of practical Kabbala. For brachos and advice, one should seek out the teachers of Torah and halachic authorities, the gedolim and rabbanim of klal Yisrael, whose words and deeds are in full accordance with the Shulchan Aruch and whose righteousness and goodness are known to all.
Rav Hillel sums it up succinctly: “If you find a righteous saintly person who is learned in the revealed and hidden Torah, nothing could be better; however, if you’re looking only for a kabbalist, the odds are you will find a fake.”
Reprinted from Binah magazine