A Brief Look at Some Popular Jewish Superstitions
By Christine Green
Are you superstitious, do you cringe in awe whenever Friday 13th descends, never walk under ladders and emphatically avoid putting up an umbrella indoors? Superstitions, whether you believe in them unequivocally, regard them as a collection of unfounded ideologies or perhaps waiver on the periphery of indecision, historical data confirms that they have been in existence for centuries, many inherited from distant ancestors, their logic often lost in the passing of time.
Delve through the history books and you will find a varied selection of famous people with their own superstitions: Samuel Johnson, English author was said never to enter a house with his left foot first because he contended it 'brought down evil on the inmates'; Sir Winston Churchill was notorious for petting black cats in the belief it would bring good fortune and even members of the Royal Family are known to be superstitious on certain issues.
But whichever way they are regarded, fascinating, intriguing, mind-boggling, superstitions have formed part of our lives for centuries and depicted in many dictionaries as - 'a way of being in control of a situation', 'an irrational fear without little if any substance'. Psychologists who have undertaken studies into the role of superstitions, have defined them as 'often a means of pacifying what could well prove to be an anxious occasion for an individual, empowering them with a greater sense of confidence in their ability'.
Yet we all have our thoughts and ideas about them but according to the words found in a 13th century German-Jewish treatise entitled The Book of the Pious, Sefer Hasidim wrote: One should not believe in superstitions, but it is best to be heedful of them' wise words indeed.
Generally most superstitions are found to be prevalent in moments of worry, or anxiety those occasions in life when human beings may call on a helping hand to guide them, consequently some have rational explanations whilst others are clearly inherent of some deeper personal significance.
In the Jewish religion superstitions are plentiful, referred to as bubbe meises, and on reflection in today's highly educated world some may yield a smidgen of a smile, take for example the belief that if you sew a button on shirt then a piece of yarn must be put into their mouth to keep it mobile because the only time one is supposed to sew on a person is on a shroud; another equally entertaining superstition relates to the normal bodily function of sneezing, it seems that if anyone should sneeze whilst telling a story that would indicate they were speaking the truth, (so what if they didn't sneeze and were still being honest!) proof that some superstitions are so outlandish to be perceived as believable!
But many strong beliefs did and still do exist amongst the Jewish community, none more so than those in relation to the Evil Eye which in different sectors of the community represent different things. Many Rabbis have their own concepts of the Evil Eye; some Talmudic rabbis conceded it as, a certain individual who could, at a mere glance, turn mankind into a heap of bones. In broad terms the Evil Eye is frightening and something which most Jews live in awe of with parents of newborn babies going to great lengths to protect their child. Hence the practice of tying a red ribbon or string to an infant's crib or in some instances their underwear to ensure safekeeping from bad vibes.
Historians have documented that red was the chosen colour simply because it was used when creating the original Temple, the red thread derived from a certain species of worm and it was Rabbi S R Hirsch who pointed out that although the worm may be the lowest form of creation without its thread the Temple would never have been built. And so whenever mankind looks at the red ribbon, he is reminded that a person is really as humble as a worm, this humbleness being ultimately the main weapon against the 'evil eye'.
Although there are countless superstitions relating to the evil eye they are all as significant as the other: reciting 'kein ayin hora' which roughly translated means 'may the evil eye stay away'; spitting three times on one's finger tips and each time make a quick movement with one's hand in the air: many believe it is bad luck to boast or brag of one's success or good fortune as such behaviour may incite the evil eye and some people go to extreme methods such as eating large amounts of garlic to ward off the evil spirits; for the sick and dying it was thought by changing the name of the departed would deceive the Angel of Death; and for a newborn, if that child is named after a person who also died many of the elderly Jews said it must also be given a name after someone who lived long.
Along with superstitious beliefs many Jews carry their own good luck charms as extra protection from evil sprits: one of which is a Hamsa, in the guise of a hand shaped amulet with the palm facing outwards and the fingers spread open. This amulet can often be seen on bracelets or other items of jewellery and is popular adornment draped from car rear-view mirrors ensuring that good fortune will follow those within the car. Some amulets even have verses contained therein, a common one taken from (Psalm 121:6) which reads: The sun shall not smite thee by day, neither the moon by night'.
Moving on to a subject closer to all of our hearts is that of food and within the Jewish religion boundless superstitions can be located, some based on past heresies; some inherited from the church whilst others have been found hidden in the diaries and written accounts belonging to local families. Eating garlic to ward off bad spirits is a common superstition, but even good spirits would want to keep their distance from an overabundance of that such a highly charged food; and one should never eat from a piece of bread over which you have recited a berakah unless it has been halved; for the childless couple should the woman find an egg with a double yolk then eating it will reward her with many healthy offspring. And an empty oven will yield an empty larder, one reason why it was important that a stove never be left empty or an oven door open, the premise that in doing so will deprive the household of having anything to cook when needed thus, in order to override this belief people would always leave a piece of wood in an empty stove.
Although there are superstitions appertaining to all sectors of life there are none more so than those relating to the dying and those who have died; many believe that the deceased hear and know everything that is being said about them until the final spade of earth is thrown over; and a common precept in Russia amongst the Jewish community is that if one is sick then his female relatives should go to the graves of some religious men, measure the graves and the distances between them with wicks; candles should then be made of the length of these wicks and then presented to the synagogue or bet ha-midrash.
Shackled within the world of superstitions there is a rich assortment conformed to by the unification of husband and wife many of which have their seeds planted in the Jewish religion and which form part of their culture. One in particular states that if a groom should break a glass at the conclusion of his ceremony then not only does he cast away the demons but also awakens himself to the reality that married life, as well as it being romantic demands a certain amount of commitment and responsibility which could well turn out to be a frightening thought for the new groom.
But beware, should the bride returning from the huppah, take the groom's hand first superstition denotes she will dominate over the home although should he take her hand first then he will be in control. And to complicate matters even further should the groom step on the bride's foot when both are under the huppah it is a clear indication he will rule her, the opposite applies if she should perchance step on his foot. For the couple who want soon to be blessed with offspring some Russian Jews live by the concept that in order for a bride to be gifted with children she must carry an egg in her bosom whilst going to the huppah and in the orient the bride who steps over a fish roe will give birth of many healthy babies.
And finally, some of the superstitions that have been handed down throughout the generations; it is purported as being bad luck to come across an empty bucket on first going out, but lucky to pass a full one: itching feet, could well be an indication that you will soon be visiting some unknown place: a man's home is his castle and this applies equally to Jewish people whom many believe is bad luck to build a house where no one has built before, if you do then it would be wise to get someone to live in it for one year, the premise being that the first tenant in a newly constructed house is likely to become poor. Furthermore there is extra thought that neither door nor window should be totally closed but left open a small but for the demons; still within the home never throw sweepings out of the room at night for it is said to be bad luck.
Although these are a mere random selection of the many superstitions connected with the Jewish community they are by no means alone and it must be borne in mind that some are general and have been inherited from ancestors. But whether you believe in them or not the world of superstition allows us all to take a fascinating look into the historical archives and see what life was really like.
Christine Green is a professional writer on superstitions and folklore.
from the November 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine