A friend recently told me that her daughter returned from Israel and not unlike many visitors she brought back gifts. She presented her with a red string, blessed at the Tomb of Rachel. She tied it around her mother’s wrist and told her mom that it would guarantee that no harm will ever befall her. Her daughter told her that the red string protects from the dreaded evil eye and that Madonna and Paris Hilton wear them too!
What to do when an ancient Jewish practice turns trendy? Somehow the sight of my Hassidic friend’s children with red threads tied around their wrists looks awfully different than non-Jewish celebrities sporting these suddenly chic red threads spouting all sorts of misguided new-age Kabbalah.
That you can purchase these red strings over the internet with all sorts of promises intensifies my concern.
Here is what the Kabbalah Center pledges regarding the red string, which is for sale for a sum of $26.00 from the Kabbalah Center.
“The Red String protects us from the influences of the Evil Eye. Evil eye is a very powerful negative force. It refers to the unfriendly stare and unkind glances we sometimes get from people around us. Envious eyes and looks of ill will affect us, stopping us from realizing our full potential in every area of our life.”
Let me unravel some of the issues for you. Firstly the evil eye; many of us grew up with notions of ayin hara , the evil eye. My mother, of blessed memory, confided in me the secret incantation in Yiddish that is an assured antidote to the evil eye. I was not, she cautioned me to use this incantation unless it was absolutely necessary. It was not an incantation to be evoked casually. I was dully impressed. I have never squandered its implementation, you can be sure of that.
The core belief of ayin hara is that people who may be envious of you may cast an “evil eye” upon you and in your height of success or good fortune you could be brought down by their evil vibes. Psychologically, I think this actually has some validity; bad vibes can’t ever be helpful. Additionally ayin hara certainly has weight if you believe it to be true.
As an aside, the opposite of ayain hara also exits; it is the ayin tov, the good eye. One who posses an ayin tov, a good eye, looks with a grand heart at what others have and at their talents with no jealousy, but with rather generosity and delight. Our Matriarch Sarah was said to have had an ayin tov, a good eye. She looked upon all and as we say in Yiddish she “fahrgint” them meaning she felt a generosity of spirit towards all. This is a noble magnanimous attitude each of us should strive to embrace. It is the opposite of schadenfreud, delight when someone feels satisfaction and glee at another person’s failure.
Back to the red thread; so far we have established what the red thread is supposed to counteract. Now we need to figure out how it works. Why red? Why a string? Why tied around the wrist?
The color red has obvious associations with blood, the life force and with danger and perhaps impending perils. In the Bible several episodes come to mind involving red threads. In Genesis we read that the midwife ties a red thread around the wrist the first twin to emerge from Tamar. The baby had quickly drawn back into womb and she wanted to mark the firstborn. What do we learn from this? It tells us something simple and maybe useful. Red thread was around. It was tied on the wrist. It was a mark of some kind.
The next episode that comes to mind is an incident from the Book of Joshua. As the spies enter the land they find safe sanctuary with a Canaanite woman, named Rahab who they promise to spare upon their return to Jericho. They suggest that she hang a red rope outside as a sign. They were lowered down by the very same rope and escape back to the Israelite camp. Upon the return of the Israelites this sign of the red rope will protect. No harm will come to Rahab and her family, though the rest of Jericho will be destroyed. Could this be the beginning of the protection notion of the red thread? Perhaps, but still a stretch.
Some think that perhaps the red thread serves as a reminder of some sort. You look at the thread and your remember Matriarch Rachel. You remember her generosity of spirit as she helps her sister, Leah, marry her own intended groom Jacob. It may lead you to recall her weeping for her people. Perhaps in some way your good thoughts can counteract other people’s evil thoughts. Maybe, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of Jewish legal writing to back any of these theories.
Here’s my bottom line. Those who have a family tradition to wear a red thread as do many Sephardic and Hassidic families, this is their practice and I see nothing compelling to stop them. It is certainly not forbidden by Jewish law though we really do not support most superstitions which have tended to become part of Jewish practice as we became influenced by other cultures.
On the other hand for those outside our faith to adopt this practice I think trivializes Judaism and true Jewish practices, and in some ways reduces Judaism to a ridiculous, silly shtick. We are not that! We are a very deep meaningful religion with very real expectations, disciplines, rituals and mitzvoth whose purpose is to turns us towards God Almighty, to Divine service and to doing good in this world. I do not see where the donning of a red thread comes into all of this nor do I understand Jews who traffic these practices to the outside world.