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  • Serious or Silly: Making Meaning from Jewish Superstitions

    Posted on August 6th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 7 comments
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    By Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov

    Do you spit three times when you see a funeral procession go by or even when you hear good news? Or do you feel compelled to pull on your ears if you sneeze while speaking about someone who is dead? And do you tie a red string on a baby’s crib to keep the evil eye away?

    Most likely, you’re either thinking- “Oh my goodness, I thought I was the ONLY one who did that,” or you may be thinking, “that is ridiculous and just some crazy superstitions.”

    Author: Emily Losben-Ostrov

    Well, despite the fact that one of our central prayers- the Aleinu reminds us to strive for the day when, “superstition no longer blinds the mind,” we, as Jews, have many, many superstitions. For some of us, the superstitions can be seen as mere customs, such as “throwing salt over your shoulder if you knock over the salt shaker, or uttering certain words to prevent something bad from happening like saying, “Ken-eyin-o’hara.”

     

    Personally, I’ve been interested in Jewish superstitions and Jewish magic for as long as I can remember, but it even became part of my rabbinical world when I took Dr. Susan Einbinder’s class “Magic and Popular Belief in Medieval Ashkenaz” in the Spring of 2007 while a student on the Cincinnati Campus. In this incredibly interesting course we studied all kinds of texts and learned about Jewish traditions on the “power” of amulets, reciting various psalms, and eating “magic foods” and much more.

    A few months ago this course became a practical issue at my congregation when a debate ensued over an upcoming meal. A recent widow had donated some of her untouched leftovers from when she had been sitting Shiva. Two other women wanted to use that food for a synagogue function and two different women couldn’t possibly dream of eating that food, holding fast to the idea that “you never take food from a Shiva House.” Was this a real custom or simply a ridiculous superstition? Was it even food from a Shiva House if the widow was no longer sitting Shiva? As you can imagine, there were more opinions than people involved in this debate. The particulars aside, the bigger issue was, how do we, as Jews look at superstitions?

    What I learned was that, it didn’t matter what the superstition is, because 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.

    To deal with the debate from the women in my congregation, I began doing some research, posed a question on Facebook and then even offered a class entitled- “What’s a Jew to do- A look at the differences between superstitions, customs and laws.” The class afforded us the opportunity to get to the real meanings behind what we do. Not only was the class fun and really successful, but I also learned about more Jewish superstitions than I could ever have imagined!

    So let me know what you think, do superstitions help highten your sense of Jewish tradition? Or do they take away from the real business of Jewish life? I’d love to hear your opinions and add your superstitions to my growing list. In the meantime, here is a list of 10 more of my “favorites:”

    1. 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.)
    2. 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!)
    3. A pregnant woman is not supposed to go to a cemetery.
    4. Don’t open an umbrella in the house (or it will rain at your wedding).
    5. Don’t put a hat on the bed or there will be a death.
    6. 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).
    7. Don’t put shoes on a dresser or a table or bad luck will ensue.
    8. Never sew clothes while someone is wearing them and if you must, tell the person wearing the clothes to chew on a string.
    9. 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.
    10. 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.)

    When it comes to Jewish superstitions, these are just the tip of the iceberg. What other superstitions do you know and even hold by? Or do you think these are all just “bubbe-meizas” (old wives tales) that no longer hold a place in our Jewish tradtion? While I don’t need to become any more superstitious, God-Forbid; I’d love, God-willing, to hear what you have to say!

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    7 responses to “Serious or Silly: Making Meaning from Jewish Superstitions”

    1. Editor’s note, if you want more information on Jewish superstitions, Emily recommends these sources
      1. For many the Authority on superstition- Joshua Trachtenberg’s , Jewish Magic and Superstion, available in print or in its entirety at :http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/jms/index.htm
      2. The Jewish Encyclopedia from 1906 has a great entry- http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14119-superstition
      3. A great piece on Jewish superstitions-http://www.myjewishlearning.com/beliefs/Issues/Magic_and_the_Supernatural/Practices_and_Beliefs/Popular_Superstitions.shtml

    2. I’m surprised you didn’t mention covering the mirrors in a shiva house — typically justified as preventing vanity or thinking about one’s appearance, but probably instituted to keep evil spirits away. When I complained on a URJ list-serv about this being practiced in Reform households, Elyse Frishman told me she justifies the practice as a way to remind visitors that they are at a shiva, not a cocktail party. That strikes me as part of the elegance of Reform Judaism — imbuing dubious rituals with contemporary meaning.

    3. Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov

      Larry- Thank you so much for your wonderful comment! I love your quote of Elyse Frishman and beautiful interpretation of how we as modern, liberal Jews can still find meaning in otherwise “old” traditions, customs or even superstitions. Your comment also gets to the heart of this issue- for some people they may feel compelled to cover mirrors in a shiva home because it’s a superstition, while others may feel compelled because it’s a tradition, and others still will find a new meaning altogether to justify it! Thanks!

    4. Your whole article was very interesting~~ some of these are superstitions that I have never heard about in our area (olives, hat on the bed). We do say not to open an umbrella in the house because it will bring you bad luck. I look forward to hearing more about the background of some of these, as well as learning about more of them! It is a link to our past and some of us do things just out of habit because our mothers and grandmothers told us to do these things! Andee

    5. Very interesting post, Emily. And, I’m sitting here thinking, “Wow. I didn’t know that!” on some of them. I’m noticing how prone to think of those things I do or don’t do and the ones I didn’t know about as “fact”. So I’m glad I wasn’t aware of some of them.

      Yes, I know salt over the shoulder is superstition. On the other hand, I don’t question it. I just do it, or did. don’t eat much salt, so that one’s not a “worry.” :)

      My mother probably said, ““Ken-eyin-o’hara” as much as several times a day. I always thought it was an expression of appreciation for something good happening. I would never have thought it was to “prevent something bad from happening.” And thanks, btw, for the transliteration spelling. I’ve never been able to write it out.

      Thanks for the queries, getting my brain going. I’m likely to continuing “practicing” those “rites” that are ingrained in me for over 7 decades! Thought I won’t dwell on what might “happen” if I did not. Thanks also for emailing me the link to this.

      I’m now going to pass it on to my cousins and see what conversations and memories might emerge.

    6. It surprises me to no end that how these superstitions have managed to survive for so many centuries! And not just Judaism, all the major religions in the world have countless superstitions that people continue to follow even today.

    7. I remember my Nana telling me to chew on a string when she was sewing something I was wearing. She did all these superstitions.
      Others were slapping me when I firts began my period (to keep the blood in my cheeks!) and spitting three times (really saying “puh, puh, puh” after ANY compliment. Also calling us less complimentary names like “funny face” to avoid the evil eye. The slap and name calling were all done in love with lots of gentleness! I really miss my dear Nana and remembering all these bubbe-meizas makes me remember her and feel full of happiness!

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