What Wisdom is Eternal? The Maimonidean Approach to Superstition

There are many cases where the Talmud forbids something because of “demons” or spiritual danger. The Rambam merely explains that this concern is for practical reasons (health or safety) and should not be considered literally. Maimonides image

Professor Marc Shapiro, in Maimonidean Halakhah and Superstition, explains:

 When examining how Maimonides treats laws associated with superstition, we must remember that other codifiers also omit some of these laws. Thus, even if Maimonides had believed in the various superstitions, it is unlikely that he would have codified all of the related halakhot mentioned in the Talmud…There can be no question that Maimonides distinguished between halakhah and prudent behavior, and exercised great freedom in rejecting Talmudic advice, particularly with regard to medical matters.  Still, the sheer number of halakhot that Maimonides ignored, many of which are recorded in other codes, is sufficient to establish his great originality in the exclusion of superstitious elements from halakhic codification… I think the best definition that can be given to what Maimonides regards as superstition is any belief or practice which in his opinion resulted from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic, or a false conception of causation.

Professor Shapiro explains Maimonides’ process for determining what Talmudic wisdom is to be included: marc shapiro pic

In his Letter on Astrology, Maimonides writes that it is not proper to accept something as true unless it falls into one of the following categories:

1) It can be proven, such as concepts in arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.

2) It can be perceived through the senses.

3) It is received as tradition from the prophets or the righteous ones of previous generations.

Superstition, of course, was not merely a product of a pre-scientific age. According to surveys, more than half of Americans are superstitious to some degree. We may think it is silly or at least harmless, as when we see a building with a 12th and 14th floor but no 13th floor, or a person who wears a “lucky shirt” to an interview and for some reason feels reassured. However, a gambler who puts his faith in superstition is most likely to lose his lucky shirt, and people who fear certain dates (such as Friday the 13th) might curtail their activities to such a degree that it could increase anxiety and jeopardize their work status. Similarly, women who give credence to astrology columns (much more than men) are in danger of losing opportunities based on this spurious advice. It encourages the idea that we are not in control of our own lives. black cat pic

Japanese researchers have investigated ways in which national superstition has adversely affected people’s lives. An old Japanese superstition relating to the ancient 6-day lunar calendar is that there are “lucky” days (Taian) and “unlucky” days (Butsumetsu). Japanese researchers found that people were much more likely to be released from a Kyoto hospital on a “lucky” Taian day than an “unlucky” Butsumetsu day; significantly, the most discharges occurred on Taian and the fewest occurred on Butsumetsu. In addition, patients were much more likely to have had a longer stay when they were released on a Taian day, strongly suggesting that these patients had extended their stay just to be released on a lucky day. In addition to needlessly taking up hospital beds and adding extra healthcare costs, an extended hospital stay can increase the chance of patients contracting infections within the hospital setting (known as nosocomial infection).

Another Japanese superstitious belief is that the year Hinoe-Uma (Elder Fire-Horse), which occurs about every 60 years, will be unlucky for the birth of girls. In its last occurrence, 1966, there was a decrease of 463,000 live births in Japan, and the number of abortions increased by more than a third. In a more disturbing development, an analysis demonstrated that in 1966 there was a spike in neonatal accidents and violence reports involving girls and not boys born in that year, indicating that parents may have literally injured or killed their infant girls for the sake of their superstitions.

We are accustomed to seeing signs of superstitious beliefs, whether it is a horseshoe over a doorway, a lucky charm carried by the superstitious person, avoiding cracks in a sidewalk when people walk, or some other peculiar sign. However, we must keep in mind the Rambam’s teachings that superstitions can be harmful, and avoid the self-destructive behavior that some engage in for the sake of avoiding “bad” luck. The Torah charges us to break from relying upon irrational fears and to embrace our human autonomy to make hard life choices. Then we actualize the unique human gift of free will.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder &President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”


About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of seventeen books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.