"One should not believe in superstitions, but still it is best to be heedful of them..." - Sefer Hasidim (Book of the Pious) 13th c. Germany
- Do superstitions help highten your sense of Jewish tradition?
- Or do they take away from the real business of Jewish life?
“Rava said, ‘If one is righteous, he could create worlds [like God].’ As it says, ‘For your sins separate you from your God.' Rava thereby created a man, and sent him to Rav Zeira. He spoke to him but he did not answer. Rav Zeira said, ‘You are from the chavrei [sorcerers], return to your dust’. On each Friday evening Rav Chanina and Rav Oshiah would indulge in Sefer Yetzira [book of Creation] and would create a third-grown calf and eat it.” - Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 65b
The word Abracadabra may derive from an Aramaic phrase meaning "I create as I speak." (Wikipedia)
Nachmanides - Responsum 282
The study of astrology is not forbidden. Even though the Talmud (Shabbat 156a) states: “There is no mazal (celestial, source of influence) for Israel,” there were sages who did not share that view. Thus, even though the latter was a minority opinion, the fact that it exists demonstrates that astrology is not nonsense, nor is involvement in its study forbidden.
Jeremy Rosen - “Why Judaism and Superstition Don’t Mix”
I understand that people are insecure and weak, and need props, supports, and placebos. I understand that for all the technological advances of society, humans remain fragile, insecure organisms that need to feel protected. But what is really troubling is that hardly any rabbis of note are prepared to speak out against this epidemic of delusions.
Maimonides, in his rational moments, was clear that references in our ancient sources to spirits, evil eyes, and other such supernatural phenomena were of significance only in that people actually believed in them and therefore psychosomatically, as we would say today, they were actually affected by them. If someone believed he had been cursed, he felt cursed, and it took its toll on him. In parts of Africa I am told, to this day if the Witch Doctor says someone will die, he or she goes off to a special hut and dies. I often encounter people who explain their failures or tragedies in terms of the “Evil Eye.”
Until relatively recently, the way everyone looked at the natural universe was through astronomy and its daughter, astrology. The Biblical word Mazal simply meant the heavenly bodies, and people knew that the sun and the moon affected things on earth one way or another. But people believed that spells, charms, and incantations carried out by shamans and witches could change the course of the stars and our fates. Paganism asserted that we were the playthings of the gods and our fates were decided by them and the planets. The more you worshipped, the more gods you had, the less the likelihood of trouble.
In contrast, monotheism posited that in so far as anything could be affected on earth, it was our relationship with God and our actions that determined what happened. We might be able to avoid some or certain tragedies. But even then we had to accept and resign ourselves to whatever the Divine Will was. There were indeed things beyond our control, and if we could not change them we had at least, like Job, to bear them and accept them and make the best out of it all. There were no lucky charms with any guarantee. But that did not stop people from wanting them, from needing them.
(The Algemeiner, November 11, 2013)
"...to one person it is a custom, an important tradition that ties them to their Judaism and to another person it was simply “ridiculous” or antiquated act or belief. In many ways, some of what we do for certain holidays or dealing with death may now be considered custom, but could have at sometime been considered mere superstition. And just as we liberal Jews decide which mitzvot have meaning, for many of us, we decide which superstitions or customs also have meaning. When I pull on my ears after sneezing while speaking of someone who passed away, I do it because my grandmother used to tell me to do it- it connects me to my traditions my history. I don’t know that I believe in any repercussions from not doing it, but I am just compelled to do it and it makes me smile and think of my beloved grandmother." - Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov
- Throwing clod of earth behind you from the burial as you walk away
- Step on the glass at wedding
- You should never have a baby shower or buy anything for a baby before it’s born. (In fact, we don’t even say “Mazel Tov, but rather B’sha’ah Tovah to a pregnant woman.)
- If a child is laying on the floor and you step over him, you must walk back over him or he won’t grow anymore (my mother was a strict enforcer of this one!)
- A pregnant woman is not supposed to go to a cemetery
- Don’t open an umbrella in the house (or it will rain at your wedding)
- IF you eat an olive, you have to have at least two (a lone olive is only eaten as part of the meal after a funeral)
- Don’t put shoes on a dresser or a table or bad luck will ensue. Never sew clothes while someone is wearing them and if you must, tell the person wearing the clothes to chew on a string.
- When you move into a new house you must make sure to have a broom, salt, sugar, loaf of bread (or flour) and of course a mezzuzah, and it’s even more good luck to move in right before Shabbat.
- Give Tzekadakah to someone embarking on a trip (especially to Israel) to ensure his safety as he becomes a “Shaliach Mitzvah” and donate the money while away. (Though this could be up for debate as for being a superstition, or a custom.)
The most famous golem narrative involves Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late 16th century rabbi of Prague, also known as the Maharal, who reportedly created a golem to defend the Prague ghetto from antisemitic attacks and pogroms. Depending on the version of the legend, the Jews in Prague were to be either expelled or killed under the rule of Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor. To protect the Jewish community, the rabbi constructed the Golem out of clay from the banks of the Vltava river, and brought it to life through rituals and Hebrew incantations. The Golem was called Josef and was known as Yossele. It was said that he could make himself invisible and summon spirits from the dead. The only care required of the Golem was that he couldn't be active on the day of Sabbath (Saturday). Rabbi Loew deactivated the Golem on Friday evenings by removing the shem before the Sabbath began, so as to let it rest on Sabbath. One Friday evening Rabbi Loew forgot to remove the shem, and feared that the Golem would desecrate the Sabbath. A different story tells of a golem that fell in love, and when rejected, became the violent monster seen in most accounts. Some versions have the golem eventually going on a murderous rampage. The rabbi then managed to pull the shem from his mouth and immobilize him in front of the synagogue, whereupon the golem fell in pieces. The Golem's body was stored in the attic genizah of the Old New Synagogue, where it would be restored to life again if needed. According to legend, the body of Rabbi Loew's Golem still lies in the synagogue's attic.
The Evil Eye (ayin ha-ra) is often defined as the ability to bring about evil results by a malicious gaze. In most cultures the belief is prevalent that some human beings have the power of sending destructive rays, so to speak, in order to cause harm to those of whom they are envious or otherwise dislike. The concept of the evil eye seems to have come about in stages in Jewish thought. Originally, in the Mishnah, for example, the “evil eye” simply denoted that its possessor could not bear with equanimity the good fortune of others. In this sense the term is used in contrast to the “good eye,” the possessor of which enjoys seeing others happy and successful.
But, especially in the Babylonian Talmud, the notion developed that some persons do have this kind of baneful power and there are a number of superstitious practices to ward off the harmful effects of the evil eye, for example, spitting out three times when a person seems to be at risk.
"We often hear people, upon mentioning something good that has occurred, say the formula, "bli ayin hara" - without the evil eye. From the words of Chazal, as illuminated by Rabbi Nachman's interpretation, a far more effective method of avoiding the spiritual effects of ayin hara would be to avoid any smidgen of jealousy in own lives." http://www.yesodei.org/archives/13-tevet-5768.html
"kine-ahora, keineinehora, kanehore, keyn ayin hara, kaynahara, kein ayin hara"
"no evil eye" (Rosten). "An expression said to ward off the evil eye or bad luck in general; the verbal equivalent of knocking on wood."
Wearing a thin scarlet or crimson string (Hebrew: חוט השני) as a type of talisman is a Jewish folk custom as a way to ward off misfortune brought about by the "evil eye" (Hebrew: עין הרע). The tradition is popularly thought to be associated with Kabbalah and Judaism.
The symbol of an eye embedded in the palm of an open hand has had several names throughout the ages, including the hamsa, the eye of Fatima, the hand of Fatima, and the hand of Miriam. The form is sometimes rendered naturally and other times symmetrically with a second thumb replacing the little finger.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact time when hamsas emerged in Jewish culture, though it is clearly a symbol of Sephardic nature. Jews might have used the hamsa to invoke the hand of God, or to counteract the Evil Eye with the eye embedded in the palm of the hand. Some hamsas contain images of fish, in accordance with Rabbi Yose son of Hanina’s statement in the Talmud that the descendents of Joseph, who received Jacob’s blessing of multiplying like fish in Genesis 48:16, are protected from the evil eye like fish. He explains: “the water covers the fish of the sea so the eye has no power over them (Berakhot 55b).”
Spitting Three Times
Whether done literally or figuratively (by saying “pooh, pooh, pooh”), spitting three times (a mystical number) is a classic response to something exceptionally evil or good. For centuries, Jews have performed this ritual in response to seeing, hearing, or learning of something terrible and as a prophylactic measure to prevent such a tragedy from happening or recurring.
Ironically, it is traditional to perform the same action in response to something wonderful—such as good news or the birth of a beautiful and healthy child—to ward off the Evil Eye. Spitting was long considered a potent protector against magic and demons. Ancient and medieval physicians, including Maimonides, described the positive values of saliva and spittle.
However, this popular Jewish superstition may well have originated from the Christian Bible, which mentions the miraculous power of the spittle of Jesus. “And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech….And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. And straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spoke plain” (Mark 7:32-35).
In another reference, Jesus spat in the dirt and made “clay” and put it in the eyes of a blind man, who subsequently could see (John 9:1-7). Because spitting eventually was viewed as a crude and messy practice, it was replaced by the more refined ritual of simply saying “pooh, pooh, pooh.”
Chewing on Thread
A popular bubbe meise (old wives’ tale) is chewing on a piece of thread whenever one is wearing a garment upon which someone is actively sewing-such as attaching a button or repairing a seam. This practice may relate to the Yiddish phrase “mir zollen nit farnayen der saychel,” meaning that one should not sew up the brains (or common sense). Another explanation is that burial shrouds are sewn around the remains of the deceased. Actively chewing while another is sewing on one’s garments is a clear indication that one is quite alive and not yet a candidate for the grave.
Pulling or Tugging One’s Ears When Sneezing
Especially common among Jews from Galicia and Lithuania, the practice of pulling on one’s ears when sneezing has engendered heated arguments. Should one ear or both be pulled (or tugged) and should one pull up or down? The reason for this custom is unclear. Originally, it was performed if the sneeze occurred when speaking about one who was dead. However, tugging has long been extended to all sneezes and is usually accompanied by reciting the Yiddish phrase “tzu langehmazaldikker yohrn” (to long, lucky years).
Sneezing on the Truth
Midrashic legend maintains that a sneeze used to announce impending death: “The story is told that until the time of Jacob, a person, at the close of his life,sneezed and instantly died.” Some ancient peoples believed that the”little explosion in the head” ensured approaching eternity.
Rather than a mere irritation of the nasal passages, a sneeze was deemed a grave omen. Indeed, this may be the underlying reason for the development of the custom of saying “long life” and “good health” to one who has sneezed.
A traditional belief is that when a person sneezes during a conversation, whatever has just been said will occur, based on the concept of “sneezing on the truth.” While not as foolproof as direct prophecy, it is said to indicate that events that are rational and plausible will actually come to pass or that an event that has already occurred really happened just as the story related.
Closing Books That Have Been Left Open
Closing prayer books, Bibles, and talmudic tracts is a common practice in synagogues and study halls. The explanation appears to be related to the medieval fear of the evil power of devils and demons, who would take “holy knowledge” and somehow use it for their own nefarious purposes.
Placing Salt in Pockets and Corners of the Room
Demons and similar creatures were known to reside in new houses and cause such chaos that people were actually paid to live in them before the arrival of their intended occupants. Because salt was generally regarded as having superb powers against evil spirits, it was often placed in the corners of a room where these creatures hid. The same reasoning applied to new clothes, where smaller goblins and elves could secret themselves in pockets. By placing a small amount of salt in the pockets, the owner of the clothing hoped to drive these beings away and foil their evil designs.
Wearing a Metal Pin on Clothes When Embarking on a Trip
In some communities, a safety or straight pin is attached out of sight under a shirt collar or on a sleeve before taking a journey. Metal was thought to be a powerful protective substance. According to the renowned Eleazer of Worms (a leader of the pietistic Hasidei Ashkenaz of the medieval period), metals were the products of civilization and thus could successfully attack and repel the evil spirits of a less sophisticated society.
The protective power of metal also can be derived from the biblical discussion of the first plague, in which God states that all water stored “in vessels of wood and stone” (Exod. 7:19) will turn to blood. According to this, metal receptacles are not mentioned because they must have protected the water from changing. Another explanation is that metal means luck, since“barzel” (the Hebrew word for iron) is an acronym for the names of four of the mothers of the Children of Israel (Bilhah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Leah), who could ward off all dangers to their progeny.
Knocking on Wood
Knocking on wood to protect from evil is a non-Jewish practice, even though many Jews do it. Many connect this action to Christian beliefs that relate wood to slivers of the cross, which were believed to bring good luck. However, this practice has a more universal, pantheistic origin. Long before the time of Jesus, some cultures regarded trees as gods; believers were convinced that touching (or knocking on) wood could produce magical results.