Thursday, October 2, 2008

Jewish Superstitions

A few months ago a good friend and I walked the boardwalk on Venice Beach in Los Angeles. Venice Beach is a lot like the East Village, filled with cafes and used book stores. We even passed a synagogue with bright blue doors located right next to the beach. As we were strolling along, my friend saw a small booth with a woman offering palm readings. He stopped and said that he had visited this woman before, and wanted to have his palm read. My friend is Jewish, but as I discovered, he was also curious about palm readings.

The woman held his hand and began to interpret the lines upon it. She told my friend that he was a kind and sensitive person (which is true!) Since he is single, my friend asked if love would be in his future. She said yes. She told him that he would be married in a few years and that he would have 2 or 3 children. When the reading ended, my friend handed over his $20. We dissected what she had said for a good ten minutes, and I teased him about his future love life and family.

The belief that the lines on your palm can predict your future is superstitious. According to the dictionary, a superstition is an irrational belief that an object or action not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome. But even if the dictionary takes a bit of a negative approach, our society and culture are filled with superstitions. We notice when Friday the 13th comes around. Even world leaders and politicians practice superstitions. While most people believe that black cats are bad luck, Sir Winston Churchill went the opposite way. He was notorious for petting black cats in the belief that it would bring him good fortune.

Do superstitions work? What is their purpose? Can they help us? Let us delve into the Jewish world of the arcane, filled with garlic, an evil eye and covered mirrors.

Many popular Jewish superstitions are connected to the evil eye, ayin ha rah. A friend of mine practices a classic evil eye supersition. When things were going well for him, he says: “kenna hora,” which means “May the evil eye stay away.” Then he spits a few times into his finger tips and waves his hand in the air. Other people put a hamsa up on their wall, which is shaped like a hand and often has a blue and white eye in the middle. The hamsa is meant to protect the home from the evil eye and other misfortunes. Some people even wear a hamsa, or just an eye itself, around their neck.

The superstitions related to the evil eye are often meant to protect us from bad fortune. We say “kenna hora” when things are going well because we are afraid they might take a turn for the worse. Even a cursory glance at the New York Times affirms the troubles that can come to us from nature, from other people and from the world at large. Will wearing a hamsa prevent problems from finding us? I’m not sure. But if certain practices make us feel more secure in the face of life’s uncertainty, then I believe that they have value.

A psychological study indicates that superstitions are “often a means of pacifying an anxious situation for an individual and empowering them with a greater sense of confidence in their ability.” We live in an uncertain world. Sometimes looking at a hamsa on our wall can help us feel less anxious and more empowered. And if these practices can help us to feel safer and improve our sense of well-being, I think they are important.

Along with the evil eye, Judaism has many superstitions related to life cycle events. Ashkenazi Jews, whose ancestors come from Eastern Europe, name a newborn child after a deceased relative. While this is a wonderful way to remember a beloved relative, this custom also has a superstitious side: If a living relative and an infant have the same name, the angel of death might make a mistake, and take the baby instead of the adult. Sephardic Jews, whose ancestors come from Spain, do not share this belief and practice the custom of naming a baby after a living relative.

Another superstition about names occurs when someone is very sick. You are supposed to change the name of the person, so that the angel of death will not be able to find him or her. Apparently the angel of death is not very good with names!

What about the practice of covering the mirrors when the mourners sit shiva at their homes? While this is surely a reminder to avoid vanity when mourning, it also has a superstitious side as well. Some people feared that the soul of a person in the house might be "caught" in the mirror. Then the ghost of the deceased could snatch the soul away.

Why are there so many superstitions related to the life-cycle events, like naming a child after a deceased relative, or covering the mirrors, or the bride circling the groom at a wedding? One answer is that life-cycle events are times of great change in a person’s life. And with change, there is always anxiety. The birth of a child is a blessing, but also a big change. A son can also lose his place as the only child; parents can fear their new responsibilities. And everyone wants the baby to safe and healthy. Rituals like the bris and baby naming, and superstitions, like tying a red ribbon on the crib to keep away the evil eye, each have their place in helping people to navigate the new changes in their lives.

Likewise, the loss of a loved one is a terrible change. And the rituals of mourning, sitting shiva and eating together, along with the customs of covering the mirrors and sitting on low stools, can help a family cope with their loss. In every life cycle event, we can find comfort in certain practices to help us get through it, whether they are rituals that make perfect sense or superstitions that seem illogical but helpful nonetheless. After all, we are just human beings, and when faced with the powerful and ultimate cycle of birth and death, sometimes we need a little bit of help.

About two months after my friend visited the palm reader, he met a woman, a nice Jewish girl. They began dating, and now my friend says that this is a serious relationship. Was the palm reader right? Did she accurately predict that a new woman would come into his life? Or did the experience inspire my friend to open himself up to the possibility of finding someone, and give him confidence to find love?

I’m not sure if the palm reader worked or not. I’m not sure if superstitions are true or false. But I am willing to go along with what was written in Sefer Hasidim, the 13th Century Book of the Pious: “One should not believe in superstitions, but it is best to be heedful of them.” Or to put it another way: one time when I asked my dad what he thought about Jewish superstitions, he said to me: “Can’t hurt.”


Anonymous said...

Thank you; very interesting. I have become more interested in Jewish mysticism, superstition, magic and Sephardic healing. I have bookmarked this piece of writing.
Thank you again.

Anonymous said...

Hi there. What about middle names? I want to honor my parent who is living by using their name as my childs middle name. That won't invite the evil eye, right?

Anonymous said...

To name an Ashkenazi child after a living relative, name the child for the person the living person was named for. In reality, you honor the child, the living, & the deceased. This works for 1st & 2nd names.