Chaim Ingram
Chaim Ingram

Acute Angles: Jews and Superstitions

Dear Rabbi , I was surprised to see presented in a well-known Orthodox Jewish magazine a bunch of superstitions which surely have no place in Judaism. Breaking a mirror bringing seven years of bad luck? What is this? Is Orthodoxy returning to the dark ages?  Would appreciate your comments.  Sincerely,  Hannah.

Dear Hannah,

I dealt in a previous blog with a related issue Do Jews Believe In Good Or Bad Luck. I need not repeat what I wrote there.

I happened to see the piece to which you refer and I too was surprised as this magazine has excellent credentials.. The column in question presents in haphazard fashion what it generically terms “superstitions you grew up with”.  One of them is the one you mention, about breaking a mirror. (Thank G-D I never grew up with that nonsense.)  It dates back to Roman pagan culture which posits that part of one’s “soul” is trapped in a mirror’s reflection and breaking a mirror can be tantamount to breaking the soul.  The idea that our souls can be “broken” in such a fashion is about as un-Jewish as it gets!

On the other hand, the column also featured the custom that one does not step over people when they are seated or lying down. This has nothing to do with the boobe mayseh that it might stunt a person’s physical growth as the author maintains, but in fact has its origins in Rashi’s commentary to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 7b). Senior Torah students at a rabbinic lecture often would have to sit on the ground.  If someone was attempting to return to his place it would look as though they were stepping over the heads of Torah scholars which is disrespectful.  This is not a superstition but a praiseworthy practice with a cogent basis.

In short, what we loosely term as “superstitions” can be grouped in three categories: (A) Those that have either a rational source (such as the above) or an authoritative Talmudic/Kabalistic source or usually both, or a symbolic meaning rooted in Jewish ethics, morality and spirituality. These are not superstitions at all; (B) Those that are based on ideas assimilated from neighbouring  pagan and Christian cultures among whom Jews lived, and ought to be shunned; (C) Those that are meaningless and are good for a bit of fun but nothing more, for example that how high a girl holds the Havdala candle will determine the height of her husband!

Examples of category (A) to be applauded are: not entering a home suddenly, unannounced; bringing bread and salt into a new dwelling;  not drying one’s hands on one’s clothes; not leaving sefarim open; adding a name to a sick person; not sitting on a table where one eats.  Examples of category (B) to be shunned are: pulling one’s ear after sneezing; touching wood; placing a horseshoe on one’s door; intertwining or crossing the fingers (it never ceases to amaze me how many Jews use the phrase “fingers crossed” without contemplating or being aware of its Christian origins); wearing a hamsa as a lucky charm (yes, it is of Arab origin!)  Examples in category (C) are: exclaiming mazal tov when a household dish breaks; declaring “somebody is talking about me!” when my ear is burning.  (With grateful acknowledgement to Rabbi Pinchas Gelbart’s Rite And Reason Vol 2 for many of these examples.)

On might add that in Parshat Shoftim which we shall read this week, the Torah proclaims: “Do not act according to the anathemas of the nations ……[to] practise divinations, [be] a me’onein [or] read omens …” (Deut 18:10). Rashi cites Rabbi Akiva  (Sifrei 171) who defines a me’onein as who states randomly “such-and-such a time is propitious for beginning a new project”. Rashi continues: a menachesh, one who reads omens, makes decisions based on similarly random occurrences such as a deer crossing his path, bread falling from his mouth or a stick falling from his hand. Apropos of Lev 19:26, Rashi also warns against concerning oneself with black cats and ladders. Sadly many un-Jewish superstitions resembling these have been innocently handed down to us by our (generally) maternal forebears.  At best we call them booba maysehs and tend to treat them tolerantly due to our affection for those who bequeathed them to us. But they may actually constitute offences against the Torah!

Not everything that is handed down to us by those whose memory we cherish is kosher! Far better that we take greater cognizance of the exemplary standards of moral behaviour that our ancestors followed. For some, sadly it is more a matter of “letting the wine flow through and retaining the sediment” (see Pirkei Avot 5:18).

The section concludes: Tamim tiheyeh im HaShem Elokeicha, “Be wholehearted with G-D your G-d” (18:13). We Jews thankfully have a direct route to the Source of true spirituality and need have no fear of irrational forces. Let us never forget that!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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