Where Are the Superstitions of Yesteryear?

 

Guest post by R. Eli D. Clark

Rabbi Eli D. Clark lives in Bet Shemesh, Israel. He served as Halakha editor of the Koren Sacks Siddur and also practices international tax law.

What is the role of superstition in Orthodox Jewish practice today? This question struck me this week, when two different congregants asked the gabbai for the honor of opening the aron kodesh. Both have wives who are about to give birth. And both apparently subscribe to the notion that opening the aron kodesh will ease the labor of one’s spouse.

To the best of my knowledge, this is a relatively recent custom; it is cited in Kaf Ha-Hayyim (134:12) in the name of the Hida, who lived in the 18th century. Yet, despite its explicitly Sephardic and implicitly Kabbalistic origin, the practice has spread to Ashkenazic circles. The question is: how many of those who follow this custom, like the two expectant fathers competing for petiha this past Monday, believe their wife’s labor is actually affected by the performance of a relatively insignificant ceremony in shul?

A similar question applies to those Rosh Hashana customs rooted in the Talmudic concept of “simana milta hi” – symbolic actions can affect the future (Keritot 6a; cf. Horayot 12a). These practices, which have been codified in the Shulhan Arukh (OH 583:1-2), include eating a sweet apple in honey, not eating nuts, and not sleeping on Rosh Hashana day (all for Ashkenazim), as well as eating gourds, fenugreek, leeks, beets, dates, and calf’s heads.

Although these customs may be explained rationalistically – and have been, with varied results – the meaning of the phrase as used by Abaye in the Gemara is: what you see on Rosh Hashana will affect the events of the year to come. By the Middle Ages, this was modified to: what you do on Rosh Hashana will affect the events of the year to come.

Neither iteration of this principle resonates with me. And I believe that, outside the Sephardic and Hasidic worlds, the majority of Orthodox Jewry no longer believes in the talismanic power of these customs nor in the magical principles that underlie them. But these customs (except, perhaps, for the calf’s head) remain a staple of normative Orthodox practice. In fact, the observance of these practices seems to be rising. Why?

The answer, I think, is that we have imbued these rituals with symbolism in place of magic. Eating an apple dipped in honey may not ensure that our year will be a sweet one, but it can symbolically express our wishes for the upcoming year. We may prefer pitocin over petiha for inducing labor, but one can still open the aron kodesh to demonstrate his heartfelt hope that the labor will be smooth.

Consider too the custom that the bride and groom not see each other during the week before the wedding. The custom does not appear Jewish in origin; in fact the Rav told Rav Lichtenstein that it had no halakhic basis and need not be observed. But many keep it, not out of superstition, but in order to heighten the anticipation of the wedding day.

However, not all superstitious practices lend themselves to symbolic reinterpretation. Take, for example, the customs related to the reading of the Tokhaha. The custom in many shuls is for the Ba`al Keri’a himself to receive the aliya for the Tokhaha, as opposed to calling up another person. The Mishna Berura (428:16) describes this as a widespread custom and “a correct one.” In a teshuva from 1963, R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, OH II, no. 35) criticizes a related custom – that the Ba`al Keri’a not make a berakha before and after reading the Tokhaha. A more extreme custom is described in the Biur Halakha (428, s.v. be-pesukim lifneihem) – some communities did not read the Torah at all on Parashot Behukotai and Ki Tavo!

In a similar vein, reading the Tokhaha out loud was viewed as courting misfortune. Hence, most Ba`alei Keri’a read the Tokhaha in an undertone. This custom too seems at variance with basic halakhic requirements for Torah reading.

The origin of these customs is clear: People considered it bad luck to receive an aliya for a passage foretelling calamity and catastrophe. Even hearing it read out loud was to be avoided.

But these customs seem to be waning. Based on an informal poll I conducted, many people are no longer reluctant to be called up for the Tokhaha. And the passage is frequently read at full volume. (I invite commenters to present corroborative or conflicting data.)

The explanation is simple: many of us no longer see the public reading of a text, no matter how morbid, as having a real-world effect on future events. So we are not afraid of the reading of the Tokhaha. In addition, the Tokhaha-related customs run counter to the proper fulfillment of an halakhic mandate. This further contributes to their slide into desuetude.

The model proposed here – superstitious customs are declining, unless they can be reinterpreted symbolically – is a tentative one. Ours is a conservative religion. Moreover, there are neo-Hasidic trends, especially in Israel, which reflect a movement away from rationalist Judaism. But we live in an age where technology and science have replaced magic and superstition; this affects the way we think and the way we live.

 

Share this Post

 

Related Posts

About the author

 
The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.
 

73 Responses

  1. RJM says:

    Look at מסכת שבועות דף ל”ו עמוד ב where the Gemara describes the study of Mishnayot that contain terms like “May Hashem curse you” and how it is imperative to change it to third person rather than say it directly to one’s חברותא. The reason is not superstition but care in avoiding the prohibition of cursing someone with the name of Hashem, even unintentionally. This is a basis for lowering the voice during the reading of the תוכחה.

  2. Steve Brizel says:

    See the explanation of RYBS re Simana Milsa in the Machzor Mesoras HaRav.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think this post engages in a rather large dose of “This is what I see around me.” Orthodox Jews are not nearly as rationalist as the author thinks, and magical thinking/ folk religion is hardly confined to the benighted “Sephardic and Hasidic worlds.” Far, far from it.

  4. Baruch says:

    I wish you were right about superstition and the frum community, but I don’t think you are. The yeshivish world almost certainly believes in superstition and so does, I believe, a large swath of the MO community. If anything, I would say the Orthodox community has gotten worse in this regard, not better, in the past few decades.

    (So has society as a whole incidentally.)

  5. Moshe Shoshan says:

    R. Eli,
    I would agree with you that the people we hange around with in givat sharet are not a particularly superstitious lot, but am not sure that I would extend that to the parents of some of wifes students who come cross town from ramat beit shemesh.

    Also, while it may be true that chassidim are more likely to practice kabbalistic minhagim that have sympathetic or theurgic elements to them, this does not mean that they are necessarily any more superstitious than misnagdim, I know full blooded, highly rational kalte litvaks who are extremely concerned with issues of ein hara.

    I also think that you underestimate the extent to which many superstitious practices can be “naturalized” into a scientific world view.

    Also, while superstition easily slides into avodah zarah, the complete rejection of it slides easily into kefirah. choose your poison.

  6. Jay Neustadter says:

    It is not immediately clear why the custom of reading the Tokhaha in an undertone is any less susceptible of symbolic interpretation than the other customs you mention.

    My personal impression from my community (urban dati leumi in Israel, mostly non-Anglo) is that the customs that express wishes for good fortune (e.g. eating more simanim on Rosh Hashana) are on the rise, and that the customs that express our wish to avoid disaster (e.g. not sleeping on Rosh Hashana) are on the decline.

    When these customs don’t have the power that they used to, we just do the ones that make us feel good.

  7. Reb Yid says:

    Baruch: Rhetorical question: Do you think that acceptance of these practices reflects a belief in superstition, or does it reflect a desire to adopt all known customs, and the superstitious ones are included memeilah in the mix? For example, upsherin is trending upwards–does that mean that people do it for superstitious or even kabbalistic reasons, or because they don’t want to be missing out on a minhag, or being looked down upon as being less frum?

  8. Sholem says:

    No way!
    There are MANY crazy (as in superstitious and/or loosely based in mainstream Halachah or minhag) things people do, generally the ‘frummer’ you are the more of these you adhere to.

    Examples?
    40 women separating challah for an invalid, “key challah”, tefillot for parnasah and kids etc. on different days/Shabbatot, not buying baby supplies prior to the birth itself, etc.

    I would have to disagree and suggest that there are few willing to forego their own free will and subject themselves to Halachah while still maintaining their own common sense and some vestiges of rational thought. Unfortunately, the ‘surrender’ to Halachah seems to invite surrender of all one’s faculties to anything that seems to be Jewish.

  9. Dude says:

    1) Don’t compare a custom mentioned in the Talmud to a late Kabbalistic/Chassidic custom!

    2) To understand the symbolism of simanei milta, see Cheshek Shlomo to SA OC 583.

    3) Also, there is much evidence that many late (and popular!) customs are the product of Gentile influence, eg: Upsherin, Shlissel Challah, etc.

    You have to make that disntinction.

  10. shmuel says:

    Its not that getting the Tochechah is considered a bad omen but rather an insult. The one called up feels like “this is what you think of me?” so therefore so as to not insult anyone the baal koreh takes the aliyah himself. In most shuls Ive been to its read in an undertone and quickly, the idea seems to “get it over with” so that we dont need to ponder the bad things listed therein and can thing about more pleasant aspects of life.

  11. Ari Kinsberg says:

    R. Clark:

    “Based on an informal poll I conducted, many people are no longer reluctant to be called up for the Tokhaha. And the passage is frequently read at full volume. I invite commenters to present corroborative or conflicting data”

    I have been leining on and off for almost 25 years, in various shuls with various minhagim. In one minyan in one shul (I leined there in 2 minyanim) the gabbai called someone from the kahal for the tokheha. I thought he made a mistake and reminded him that it is the tokheha and he responded that he knows but there is no reason to give it to me rather than anyone else. This was about 17 years ago; never before and never since have I have ever been passed over for this aliyah.

    And I’ve never understood the minhag to read it in an undertone. It is still part of the Torah that needs to be heard by the kahal . . . and in some shuls they davka need to hear the tokheha!

    And what happened in the olden days, when there was no designated baak kore and everyone leined their own aliyah?

    By the way, if anything I think the rabbi should be the one to get this aliyah. (I don’t mean this cynically as a slight against rabbis.)

    As far as leining and superstitions, what about calling up 2 close relatives in succession?

    SHMUEL:

    The degree to which it is considered an insult rather than a bad omen is an interesting question, but in any case it being an insult still stems from the fact that it is considered a bad omen.

    “much evidence that many late (and popular!) customs are the product of Gentile influence”

    and some early customs too.

    Moshe Shoshan:

    “the complete rejection of it slides easily into kefirah.”

    please clarify. thank you.

  12. Ari Kinsberg says:

    “superstitious customs are declining, unless they can be reinterpreted symbolically”

    I really don’t think so. Red bendelech are more popular than ever. I know plenty of MO women who have taken upon themselves a weekly ritual to bake challas for segulas, which turns the Mishnah that references challah baking upside down. And shilu’ah ha-ken for segula purposes has become increasingly popular, even though this not only turns a Torah mitzvah on its head but completely perverts it.

  13. Gavi says:

    In our shul the tochacha is always read in an undertone… Furthermore, minhag ashkenaz has a special mi shebeirach for the oleh who takes the tochacha; it’s quite impressive.

  14. The Dude says:

    Ironically it’s many of the frumma that violate “lo t’nachashu.”

  15. Anonymous says:

    The consensus of the comments is that superstitious customs are on the upswing in Orthodoxy.

    Although I identify with the Dude’s distinction between older customs and recent ones, I do not think that “the amha” pays attention to these distinctions.

    Reb Yid’s point is a good one (that many people are just trying to appear “frum”), especially concerning customs that are performed in public; I am thinking particularly of customs like raising a pinkie during Hagbeha.

    But there are many new customs that are being established from the bottom up — such as having special kavanot while kneading halla or being mafrish halla, that are sincere attempts to imbue spirituality in mundane acts.

    Laining customs are less subject to change, because they are controlled by a small, select group consisting of Gabbaim and Baalei Keriah; the majority of Baalei Batim do not pay much attention to these.

    The fact that a custom originates from gentile sources matters more to historians than the average Jew. And, as long as the custom is mentioned in a sacred text, it will be considered sufficiently “Jewish” by most people.

  16. joel rich says:

    I am thrilled to see a post by R’ Eli who I consider a true TC and whose aliyah left a hole here (but one more than made up for by the happiness of seeing someone on the destiny track).

    I do have to disagree in at least one respect with R’ Eli, ISTM that especially when it comes to health or shidduch related issues there has been an increase in what a sarcastic individual once labeled “practical magic”. My guess is that it stems from a sense of helplesness to effect desired results (and if we needed a reminder lesson, Sandy has certainly given us one)
    KT

  17. Eli D. Clark says:

    The previous comment was mine.

  18. Aaron Ross says:

    I agree with those commenters who note the increase of various types of superstitious acts – the challah-related ones sprang instantly to my mind as I was reading Rabbi Clark’s piece.

    To my mind, these various rituals, made-up or based on obscure sources or even based on solid sources but just overblown (think of “Amen” parties) are what I call “the low-hanging fruit of frumkeit” – they seem frum and they are purveyed initially or primarily by frum people, and therefore performing these rituals can make you feel frum or actually be frum, and it is certainly a lot easier than detailed attention to many other things that are actually mitzvot (i.e. Torah study).

    Of course, as Rav Amital z”l often said – ein patentim – there are no shortcuts to a religious life. I can’t see how a religion based on putting keys into challah once a year translates into stable relationship with God.

  19. Ari Kinsberg says:

    GAVI:

    could you please link to or reproduce that misheberach. thanks!

    R. CLARK:

    In addition to the tokheha practices you mentioned in the post, there was also a practice to call up the oleh without mentioning his his name. Or for the oleh to go up without being called. Some communities called the shamash or someone who was hired (sokharin oto?). Also a discussion of what happens if someone refuses the tokheha aliya. See Sha’are Efraim, somewhere in sha’ar zayin.

  20. Shmuel says:

    I think its more a phenomenon of ease of communication than increased “frumkeit” or superstition
    As the global community shrinks through improved communication and travel these minhagim segulos and superstitions are disseminated
    MO are in general more purely rational oriented than Charedim Chasidim and Sephardim and less mystical so these minhagim lose favor and gain less traction in the MO community

  21. Y. Aharon says:

    Also, while superstition easily slides into avodah zarah, the complete rejection of it slides easily into kefirah. choose your poison. – R.D. Moshe Shoshan

    Rejecting Something that you characterize as ‘superstition’ can’t, by definition, be considered ‘kefira’ – whether of ancient or more recent origin. Those items that are treatable as symbolic (‘simana’) and associated with a request, however, aren’t in the category of superstitious practices (‘darkei Emori’).

    One aspect of reading the tochachot in an undertone that has not been mentioned is that it appears to counter the divine will. The tochachot in Bechukotai and Ki Tavo were intended to be publically enunciated – aside from the generally instituted public reading of the entire torah. Reading in an undertone defeats the intended purpose of the verses which were meant to be taken to heart. Besides, the aliyah which includes the tochacha in Bechukotai starts with glorious berachot(‘vehithalachti betochechem’). I would gladly receive that aliyah. Even the very long tochacha in Ki Tavo starts with a listing of berachot that will ensue if k’lal yisrael does the divine will, i.e., focus on the positive, but take to heart the negative.

  22. shmuel (a different one) says:

    Some of this is a reaction to the society around us. People hear arguments that the universe is totally mechanistic, which of course all believing Jews reject (even if we realize we don’t understand God’s actions). And so people are reluctant to reject a practice such as baking keys in a challa, because to them it feels like they are rejecting God’s control over the world in favor of a totally secular mechanistic view. In reality that’s not what it is, but most people are either not learned or not thoughtful enough to realize this. I think if people took tefila more seriously they would not get so hung up on these practices.

  23. Eli D. Clark says:

    Shmuel: I do not think that people are driven to superstitious practices because of secular arguments about a mechanistic universe. All people seek ways to assert control over their lives. If you are religious, you look for ways to influence events that are consistent with your religion.

    I agree that prayer has the potential to satisfy that need, and for some it does, but evidently many people want to do more than pray. So they perform this or that segula.

  24. emma says:

    “My personal impression from my community (urban dati leumi in Israel, mostly non-Anglo) is that the customs that express wishes for good fortune (e.g. eating more simanim on Rosh Hashana) are on the rise, and that the customs that express our wish to avoid disaster (e.g. not sleeping on Rosh Hashana) are on the decline.”

    I would not have thought to put it this way but it comports with my experience as well, and is very interesting.

  25. emma says:

    also, i hate to be the one to always beat the gender-issues horse, but, well, i will:
    The go-to examples of superstitions are often challah-baking related, amen parties, etc – women’s work, if you will. This is no accident.
    The less charitable would say it shows women’s lesser capacity for rationality.
    The more charitable would say that it shows women struggling to find “religious” meaning in traditionally feminine performances that looks something like the halachic regulation of male rituals. Let’s say women buy that their avodah is to run the Jewish household while their husband’s is to daven 3x/day in shul, etc. They want something that makes that avodah special – something that makes it matter whether they do it or whether they buy prepared food and spend the day at the spa (or work)(, something to say they are really being spiritual Jewish housewives, doing something that could not be done just as well by hired help. Turning baking into a theurgic act does that.

  26. Shlomo says:

    If you were visiting your king and had to discuss to him possible ways in which he could punish you, you would probably do it in an undertone. It would be an indication of respect, showing that you take the danger seriously.

    That’s basically the situation when we read the Tochecha in an undertone. If it’s superstitious, then all prayer is superstitious.

  27. Shlomo says:

    Of course, as Rav Amital z”l often said – ein patentim – there are no shortcuts to a religious life. I can’t see how a religion based on putting keys into challah once a year translates into stable relationship with God.

    Neither does blowing the shofar once a year. The key custom (BTW, likely based on an Easter custom where the key was cross-shaped and the rising dough alluded to the rising of Yushkeh) is just one superstitious custom, and there are many others with which to fill the rest of the year. So I am confident these people have a stable relationship, but I doubt it is a meaningful relationship, or if it is really a relationship with (the Jewish) God.

  28. Shlomo says:

    I would not have thought to put it this way but it comports with my experience as well, and is very interesting.

    Corresponds to R’ Shalom Carmy’s observation that people nowadays are much more bother by “why do bad things happen to good people” than “why do good things happen to bad people”.

  29. Shlomo says:

    The more charitable would say that it shows women struggling to find “religious” meaning

    Absolutely agree, and it parallels the phenomenon of LWMO women struggling to wring more and more substance out of the limited set of rituals they have been given.

  30. shmuel says:

    Do MO do nanuim with lulav and esrog even though the gemmara says its to negate the ruach ra?

  31. Shlomo says:

    shmuel: yes but they’ve never learned that gemara :)

  32. Mark Symons says:

    I do follow the minhag of leining the tochacha at a lowered volume and somewhat faster, but I try to do this as part of an “Expressionist” approach to leining that I often try to do in general. Doing it this way conveys a sense of drama that helps focus the listeners’ concentration and awareness of what’s being read, and heightens their involvement (when it works). In lowering my voice for the tochacha I’m trying to convey a sense of dread at the subject matter (“this is so terrible I can barely read it” etc). One of the difficulties doing this is that you can’t do it so quietly that you won’t be heard clearly – a technique to get round this (which I imagine that many kor’im use) is to go extra loud for the section immediately beforehand).I don’t know if this was behind the original reasons for the minhag though. (This is similar to use of the eicha trop for the relevant p’sukim in Esther – to convey a sense of sadness etc)

    Re the question of a special mishebeirach: I haven’t heard that, but in a (M.O.) shule I used to lein at (when the gabbai at the time was “old school”) I always got the Aliya, and he made the standard misheberach for a choleh for me at the end.

  33. IH says:

    To Shlomo and Shmuel’s point, the Talmud contains much that could arguably be called superstition, much of which we just simply ignore. B’rachot had some classic examples: e.g. demons in ruins and toilet-rooms, meaning of dreams…

  34. IH says:

    Gesundheit (or לבריאות), btw :-)

  35. Anonymous says:

    Re ayin hara, a popular explanation that seems to be shared and accepted by many people I have spoken to is that “When someone says something nice about you, or really anything at all, then in shamayim automatically your record book is opened and you are judged whether you really deserve it. If not, it is taken away. This is automatic, cause and effect.”

  36. Steve Brizel says:

    I agree with Dude-one should not conveniently conflate customs mentioned and rooted in the Talmud with customs that are of Kabbalistic influence, and, others which some Rishonim view as Darchei Emori ( Kaparos) and others which are completely a Minhag Shtus. RHS frequently comments that it is always important to remember Rabbeinu Tam’s observation noted in Tosfos in one of the first blatt in Maseces Gittin that Osiyos MINHAG are R”L Gehinnom.

  37. Eli D. Clark says:

    I assume everyone is familiar with the Rema’s comment in Orah Hayyim 291:2:
    יש אומרים דאסור לשתות מים בין מנחה למעריב בשבת דאז חוזרות הנשמות לגיהנום. ועל כן אין לאכול בין מנחה למעריב אלא יאכל אותה קודם מנחה.

    I am not aware of anyone who follows this nowadays, or the other variations on the minhag the Rema mentions there. But perhaps I am simply moving in the wrong circles.

    I also wonder how many people today accept the stated rationale for the custom.

  38. ruvie says:

    R’ Eli – isn’t that the same reasoning for the early custom of first saying kaddish for a lost one – only at maariv of motzei shabbat?

  39. Eli D. Clark says:

    Ruvie: I don’t think so. That is the suggested basis for saying צדקתך צדק. Mourner’s Kaddish came later.

    Any way, mourning customs are inextricably tied to superstition. Prof. Sperber claims that we cover mirrors in the house of a mourner, so as not to see the spirit of the departed reflected in the mirror.

  40. IH says:

    See the end of Siman 144 in Machzor Vitri: ועל כן נהגו לעבור לפני התיבה במוצאי שבת אדם שאין לו אב או אם לומר ברכו או קדיש

    http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=33694&st=&pgnum=178

  41. Eli D. Clark says:

    IH: If you read the sentence you quote in conjunction with the beginning of siman 145, you will see that the final sentence is an interpolation.

  42. Larry Lennhoff says:

    At the shteible where I usually daven, the Rebbe usually takes the aliyah for the tochacha.

  43. IH says:

    It is fair to quibble about או קדיש, but the ברכו is also mentioned a few lines earlier. In any case, it butresses Ruvie’s point that the Rema reference has an earlier source (the R. Akiva midrash whose earliest known source is the Machzor Vitri) and that an evolution of that earlier source is normative today.

    This is covered more extensively in both Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish and in R. Freundel’s Why We Pray What We Pray.

  44. addess says:

    How is this any different then the idea that putting mezuzot on the house protects it and it’s residents from calamity? Yet the vast majority of Orthodox Jews absolutely believe that is the case!

    Ultimately the only reason why we perform any of these customs is our heartfelt belief that, somehow, the act is pleasing to Hashem, and he will look kindly at us for doing it. But psychologically I believe that performing acts based in superstition ultimately plays into a very real psychological phenomena called the “self-fulfilling prophecy”.

    Imagine the husband after performing the act of opening the Aron in the hopes it will ease his wife’s potential labor, goes home and says “Honey, I did pesicha in shul this morning, hopefully that will ease your labor!! May Hashem help you have an easy time!” Not only does he feel he has done something positive to help his wife, in doing this maybe he implants in her mind the POSSIBILITY that she WILL have an easy labor!

    Maybe she will, herself, pray to Hashem to have an easy labor, and maybe she will now be better prepared psychologically to go through with labor, knowing that both she and her husband has appealed to Hashem and hoping for a positive outcome!

  45. Melech Tanen says:

    With regard to the ancient custom of opening locks and doors as a superstitious aid to brithing mothers, see R. Daniel Sperber’s Minhagei Yisrael volume 3 page 126 ff.

  46. ruvie says:

    R’ Eli – to ih’s point see ta- shma – i don’t have the exact source in front of me(that he quotes) – kaddish yatom- an ashkanazi minhag which began in the middle ages – “a man who lost his father or mother conducts the prayer service on a saturday night reciting barechu or kaddish.” this arose from the deep rooted belief that, with the sabbath’s termination, departed souls were condemned to undergo further punishment or purification in gehinnom. by conducting or participating in the services at this hour the mourners were thus able to delay or alleviate a parent’s suffering. as a result a custom developed -widely- where many jews with one living parent -esp. a father – became adverse to saying kaddish;by r’ israel isserlein’s time -15th century- when no mourner was available to lead services some cancelled them on a saturday night. later on sephardim adopted kaddish yatom to rabbinical opposition – see abudarham,r’issac de leon and also,r’ yosef caro. apologize for no citations from”the kaddish” by david telsner.

  47. Ploni Almoni says:

    Here in Williamsburg during the tokhakha the ba’al koreh is called to the aliyah. I think this article seems to go too far in condemning things it sees as “superstitious”, even to the point of criticizing practices endorsed by Chazal in a b’pherush Gemara. By what criteria do we decide if something is “superstitious”? That it goes against the scientific world view?! Certainly he isn’t using the criteria that it isn’t in Chazal or the Shulkhan Aruch, because he uses examples from those. I have a hard time, perhaps because I’m a ba’al teshuvah and relatively unlearned, understanding how this article can be included in the umbrella of Orthodoxy. Certainly some Rishonim were rationalists, but they tended to explain practices rather than condemn them. (With few exceptions such as kaparas, but it can be demonstrated that this isn’t a consequence of the Beis Yosef’s world-view towards all segulos…)

  48. Anonymous says:

    >I am not aware of anyone who follows this nowadays, or the other variations on the minhag the Rema mentions there. But perhaps I am simply moving in the wrong circles.

    Precisely. You are.

  49. Steve Brizel says:

    For those interested, see R B Wein’s views on the elevation of superstitions, http://www.rabbiwein.com/blog/post-1406.html

  50. vernue says:

    this whole issue troubles me – perhaps someone could suggest a book or two on the subject. superstition, use of words or fear of words as incantations and invocations, manipulations of nature by talismanic actions or objects, the pervasive influence of ruach ha-ra (my wife throwing away a cut onion left uncovered during the night – ever heard that one?) – I can only go by the smattering of learning that I have in order to base my understanding of Torah, but this type of this seems utterly foreign to the teachings of the Torah. What do we do when our sages base a mitzvah on ruah ha-ra? assume that they are relating or the primitive fears of the amcha or relating to a reality we can’t see (dark matter and spooky action at a distance)?

  51. Eli D. Clark says:

    Vernue: Most of the books on the subject are authored by academics, who tend to view superstition from an anthropological perspective. In other words, Jewish folk customs are just like non-Jewish folk customs and answer the same psychological and sociological needs. This kind of scholarship does not address your concerns. Throughout Jewish history, the religious leadership has tried to curtail practices of which they did not approve. (See, for example, Tosefta Shabbat Perek 8.) The Rambam fought superstition very hard. But the people continue to adopt superstitious practices that make sense to them — kapparot being a prime example — and attributing magical effects to verious mitzvot — such as mezuza.

    Ru’ah ra — this is one of the basic reasons why we wash hands in the morning.

  52. IH says:

    But the people continue to adopt superstitious practices that make sense to them — kapparot being a prime example — and attributing magical effects to verious mitzvot — such as mezuza.

    How do you rationalize B. Shabbat 32a – 33a in which the Mezuza example is explicit (on 32b)?

  53. IH says:

    But the people continue to adopt superstitious practices that make sense to them — kapparot being a prime example — and attributing magical effects to verious mitzvot — such as mezuza.

    How do you rationalize B. Shabbat 32a – 33a in which the Mezuza example is explicit (on 32b)?

  54. DF says:

    A well-written article by the always well-written R. Eli Clark. But the previous commenter took the words out of my mouth regarding Mezuzah. There is one passage in Menachos in which the phrase “sakanah”, as applied to mezuzah, can be interpreted rationally. But there are other instances where it is clear that the mystical meaning is intended.

    As to R. Clark’s query of why observance of superstition is rising, or better, so prevalent – it is because all of orthodoxy is predicated on such beliefs. Why do we shake lulav in 4 directions? Why do we beat the hoshanna on the floor? Why do we dip our fingers in the spiled havdalah wine? Why do we kiss our tzitiz in shma? Why do our tzitis have winds davka of 7,9, 11, and 13? Why do wrap our tefillin 7 times around our arm? Why do we wash our hands in the morning?

    Thus, I respectfully disagree with the authors tentative conclusion.

  55. Shlomo Zalman says:

    Hello Eli,
    A comment on the low-volume reading of the tochecha. A story my father told me from the early 60′s in Boro Park, before the Hungarian chassidic influx.

    Lazer the tailor (the names have not been changed) is a Polish immigrant who arrived before the war, and has a well established dry cleaning and tailoring store. In fact, I remember him well from my childhood. He has given up Orthodox observance but hadn’t opened his store on Shabbat till recently. He decides that he has “had enough” and is now open on Shabbat. The natives are unhappy. One of them decides to park himself right outside the store and reads the tochecha out loud every day. Due to Lazer’s European upbringing, he knows very well what he is hearing. After a few days, Lazer has indeed had enough, comes outside and pours a bucket of putrid water on this tzaddik’s head. He never came back and the store remained open on Shabbat.

    The point is that the tochecha evokes strong emotions among us even to this day. I guess it should. Reading it in a low tone is a symbol of its powerful message regarding our religious observance, or lack thereof. It does not necessarily imply superstitious or even mystical implications.

    Let the ba’al koreh continue to read this section in a low tone. It can have a very powerful effect without embarrassing anyone.

  56. Emily says:

    I’d really like to see more scholarship on this.
    Also for me, mezuzah immediately came to mind, but from another angle. Mezuzot are one of the few “relics” of religious Judaism for many secular Jews. Just take the “carzuzah,” the mezuzah for your car. I am pretty sure the people who install carzuzahs are not doing so to be reminded to love God, but in the vain hope they might not crash.

  57. Rafael Araujo says:

    The funny thing is that while many want Judaism to be as rational as possible, to the outsider who is not observant or who is not a religious non-Jew, even Maimonides is an “irrational”. In other words, while we can try to rid Judaism of superstition, the fact that we have beliefs that of there existing G-d, who created the universe, to whom we pray, and perform mitzvos, is itself irrational. So rationality is in the eye of the beholder.

  58. avi says:

    I am troubled by the comment that seems to imply that reading the Torah is a prayer towards Hashem, rather than a lesson for the Jewish people and the audience as a message from Hashem.

  59. Shlomo says:

    I am troubled by the comment that seems to imply that reading the Torah is a prayer towards Hashem, rather than a lesson for the Jewish people and the audience as a message from Hashem.

    That was my comment… I meant that when we are in shul we should have an awareness of being in God’s presence – not that the Torah reading itself is a request made to God.

  60. ACB says:

    It seems to me that superstitions are definitely on the rise in secular society and, probably as a result, in Judaism.

    My favourite comment that I saw on this a while back was a comment by Rabbi Aviner that the best segulot are Tfilla, Tshuva, and Tzedaka. It was very liberating in my (now) happily ignoring all such superstitions and segulot, and focusing on those three alone.

  61. Eli D. Clark says:

    IH: Regarding Shabbat 32b, I do not feel any need to rationalize the statement that a person’s children die as punishment for not fulfilling the mitzva of mezuza. In the context of the sugya there, different Tannaim are quoted as associating the punishment with a range of different sins. All of these statements are midrashic, rather than halakhic. Hence, they require us to decide whether the point of these midrashic lessons is to teach us about the mitzvot in question or about the way Hazal understood reward and punishment. In context, I think the latter is the more cogent explanation. Even Tosafot there find a need to moderate the opinion that children die as a punishment for not wearing tzitzit, given that Tosafot see tzitzit as a mitzva kiyyumit. In short, these are mini-sermons whose purpose is to make sense of child mortality in the context of a religious worldview where God is just and suffering is a punishment for sin.

  62. Eli D. Clark says:

    DF: Your list of customs is instructive. Most of the customs you mention are easily explained as symbolic acts, not magical ones, the numerical ones especially. I am trying to draw a distinction between customs that are inherently superstitious – the red bendel for example – and customs that have a symbolic aspect – such as drowning out the name of Haman on Purim.

    Regarding some of your specific examples: I do not dip my fingers in the Havadala wine; I wear tekhelet, so they do not have the number of windings you mention; and kissing tzitzit is strongly disapproved in the halakhic literature. As for Hoshanot, it is my impression that the Amoraim already did not understand the rationale behind the custom.

    Rafael: There is a difference between praying to God and praying to angels. So too there is a difference between putting up a mezuza because you believe God commanded you to do so, and putting up a mezuza to ward off evil. The middle ground is believing that God wants you to put up the mezuza, in order that He will protect you from evil. The Rambam’s view on this is clear.

  63. Harold Males says:

    There is a practical reason why the engaged couple should avoid seeing each other in the week before the wedding. Simply put, their nerves are already stretched to the breaking point. Small irritants can become major. Cruel words may be uttered, then regretted, but not forgotten. I know of a case where a mealtime argument resulted in a broken engagement, not to mention the loss of various deposits for the hall and caterer, etc. It may be a superstition, but the underlying psychology is sound.

  64. Eli D. Clark says:

    Harold: With respect, I disagree. The potential for argument exists even if the couple do not see each other, as long as they speak on the phone. The custom also causes major delays at the wedding, where photographs of the newlywed couple are taken after the Huppa, leaving the guests to sit in the hall doing nothing for an hour or more. If the pictures were taken before the Huppa, is there a high likelihood that the couple will break into an argument? I doubt it.

    Also using your logic, why only a week? Why not a month?

  65. Y. Aharon says:

    The struggle of the Orthodox rationalists amongst us against superstitious practices must acknowledge that it would be a herculean, if not impossible, task to uproot all such practices. There are simply too many and too deeply ingrained practices that could be so characterized. Moreover, some are brought down in authoritative halacha sefarim. As an example, washing hands in the morning (‘negel vasser’) is based primarily on the idea of having clean hands before mentioning the divine name in birchot hashachar. That is a perfectly rational attitude towards towards the deity and prayer. On the other hand, washing hands 3 times in an alternating fashion is not a rational act, but a kabbalistic one. Nonetheless such an act is so deeply ingrained in us from the time we were very young that it would be non-productive to attack it.
    The types of superstitions that must be condemned are those whose origins are from the Gentile world of the middle ages such as the red string to alledly protect against the supposed ‘evil eye’, and casting lead to guide one’s actions (similar acts like reading tea leaves). The first is merely stupid; the second appears to violate a very serious biblical prohibition (nichush),i.e., pick your fights carefully.

  66. Rafael Araujo says:

    “Rafael: There is a difference between praying to God and praying to angels. So too there is a difference between putting up a mezuza because you believe God commanded you to do so, and putting up a mezuza to ward off evil. The middle ground is believing that God wants you to put up the mezuza, in order that He will protect you from evil. The Rambam’s view on this is clear.”

    Great. However, in our world, believe in and praying to G-d or to angels makes no difference. Both are irrational in great scheme of things. I am just pointing out that when it comes to religion, rationalism has its limits because you trying to make sense and rationalize something which is essence is perceived as irrational. In other words, even if I am strict rationalist, the fact that I put on black boxes every morning means I am doing something that makes me a “kook”.

  67. IH says:

    In the context of the sugya there…

    In the context of the 3+ amudim there, one sees a pattern of thinking that is analogous to what many would call superstitious practice. It seems to me a weakness of your jeremiad that you are cherry picking without addressing the obvious Yesh Al Ma Li’Smoch. But, I won’t belabor the point.

    I do however want to highlight a previous comment that helped me understand a particular aspect of this phenomenon in new light.

    emma on November 7, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    also, i hate to be the one to always beat the gender-issues horse, but, well, i will:
    The go-to examples of superstitions are often challah-baking related, amen parties, etc – women’s work, if you will. This is no accident.
    The less charitable would say it shows women’s lesser capacity for rationality.
    The more charitable would say that it shows women struggling to find “religious” meaning in traditionally feminine performances that looks something like the halachic regulation of male rituals. Let’s say women buy that their avodah is to run the Jewish household while their husband’s is to daven 3x/day in shul, etc. They want something that makes that avodah special – something that makes it matter whether they do it or whether they buy prepared food and spend the day at the spa (or work)(, something to say they are really being spiritual Jewish housewives, doing something that could not be done just as well by hired help. Turning baking into a theurgic act does that.

    I still winced when I saw the latest such baking event on my Facebook feed, but I now understand it in a way that I didn’t previously. Thanks for the insight, Emma!

  68. Eli D. Clark says:

    Re Mezuza: See Teshuvot Maharam Mi-Rothenberg (Kahana, ed.) vol. ii, no. 161: ואילו היו יודעים כמה המזוזה טובה היא להם שמא לא היו עוברים עליה. מובטח אני שכל בית שמתוקן במזוזה כהלכתא, אין שום מזיק יכול לשלוט בו.

  69. aiwac says:

    Rafael,

    What’s not rational about belief in a God who created the world? It’s not scientific, but it’s not irrational.

  70. Mr. Cohen says:

    This message is condensed from an
    article by Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky from
    LIFESTYLE Magazine, September 2004:
    =============================
    There is absolutely no genuine Kabbalistic source for wearing a red thread around the wrist to ward off the Evil Eye. It is NOT mentioned in any Kabbalistic work.

    The Debrecyzner Rav mentions it, but his extensive search could NOT find a written source for the practice.

    The Tosefta on tractate Shabbat, chapter 7 paragraph 1 and chapter 8 paragraph 4
    teaches that tying a red string around oneself is Darchei Emori
    [a worthless, superstitious practice, close to idol-worship].

  71. IH says:

    Another small example of Talmudic text caught between inadequate scientific knowledge and superstition comes up in yesterday’s Daf (B. Shabbat 39a): תולדות אוּר הוא, דחלפי אפיתחא דגיהנם — Derivatives of fire [i.e. the hot springs of Tiberias are hot because] they pass over the entrance to Gehenna.

  72. ksil says:

    one problem i see is that the halacha is often rooted in superstition and becmes more important than d’oraysah laws and common bein adam lechavero.

    one example, my wife is more careful about cutting the nails of my kids and making sure the nails do not fall on the floor or end up in the garbage, but are collected and flushed down the toilet – becasue if one steps on them something bad happens (i think a woman will die in childbrith or some such nonense) than she is about many other basic laws. i find this happening a lot.

    checking mezuzot is another, when a few “bad” things happen in the family, the first thing is to run and check all the mezuzot for mistakes….its mind boggling to me

  73. IH says:

    Another example on today’s daf, B. Shabbat 43a. In the note on ביצה וכרעי המטה Koren comments: “Other authorities explain that it is indeed referring to an actual bed. The egg was not used to support the bed. Rather, the egg was placed alongside the leg of the bed at a talisman for fertility.”

    For the avoidance of doubt: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/talisman

 
 

Submit a Response

 

You must be logged in to submit a response.