Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Red String

The Red String

by Rabbi Ari Enkin
Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel

No doubt readers have come across individuals selling mysterious red strings at the various holy sites in Israel claiming that such strings posses mystical properties. Perhaps someone you know wears a red string on their wrist. Proponents for the mass distribution of this red string claim that it becomes infused with mystical protective powers when it is wound around the Tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem while reciting a specific series of prayers. While this intriguing piece of wool jewelry may appear to be a harmless lucky charm, there may actually be much more than meets the eye.

The Tosefta[1] teaches us that wearing a red string is a prohibited pagan practice. In fact, the wearing of a red string was in existence and far predates any documented Jewish practice of such. Its true origins are likely from Hinduism where it is referred to as the Kalava and is alleged to ward off evil from those who wear it. Both ancient and modern Buddhism advocates the use of a red string for protection and blessings. Indeed, such strings are frequently distributed by the Dalai Lama himself. The many cultures of East Asia have also used the red string (known as the “unmei no akai ito” in Japanese) attributing to it a number of superstitious phenomena. According to all accounts, it is to be worn on the left hand. There are even Christian associations with the red string in which it serves as a memento of the red garment that was placed upon their prophet prior to his crucifixion.[2] The wearing of a red string is also recommended according to Feng Shui practices.

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, is said to have been opposed to the use and certainly belief in the red strings,[3] and Rabbi Hershel Schachter is reported to have ruled that wearing them is a Torah violation.[4] The Radak[5] argues similarly. The Rambam[6] goes much further than simply condemning the use of these red strings and similar superstitious practices -- he claims that relying upon them is not simply useless but rather will lead to misfortunes!

Nevertheless, the practice is not completely without some support. There are authentic kabbalistic sources to indicate that the color red has the power to ward off the evil eye.[7] Rabbi Moshe Stern confirms the existence of a custom to make use of red strings for protection against the evil eye. Interestingly, he specifically discusses tying it upon a baby carriage or crib with no mention of any additional usage or wearing of such by others.[8] Furthermore, the source[9] that Rabbi Stern offers for his legitimization of the red string practice is of questionable accuracy.

Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel quotes Chassidic masters who validate the custom of wrapping a string around Rachel’s Tomb and wearing it as a segula for pregnant women to carry safely to term. This account further mentions a practice seen among residents of Jerusalem to wrap such a string around the hand to effect all sorts of salvations.[10] Even according to the justifications mentioned above, this writer has found no association whatsoever between the red string and Rachel’s Tomb anywhere.

Perhaps the use of these strings can be tolerated according to the view that only pagan practices specifically mentioned in the Gemara, to the exclusion of all other sources, are those that should be prohibited.[11] Similarly, it is noted that the Tosefta specifically mentions tying the red string upon one’s “finger” as being a prohibited pagan practice, perhaps legitimizing that practice of wearing it upon one’s wrist.[12] There also exists a view within the halachic authorities that once a Gentile custom falls into disuse it is no longer prohibited and it may be renewed by Jews.[13]

It is indisputable that the place of the red string within normative Jewish practice is weak at best. With Elul upon us and the repeating theme of Torah, Tefilla and Tzedaka having the power to change Heavenly decrees, perhaps we should reconsider the role of strings, hamsas, and segulot in general and focus on those things which are tried and tested.

[1] Shabbat 7
[2] Mathew 27:28
[3] As related by Rabbi Leibel Shapiro
[4] As related by Rabbi Zev Meir Friedman
[5] Yeshayahu 40:21
[6] Moreh Nevuchim III:37
[7] Minhag Yisrael Torah Y.D. 179
[8] Be’er Moshe 8:36
[9] Teshuvot Harashba 2:268
[10] Yesod Likra Ohel Rachel Imenu p. 220
[11] Minhag Yisrael Torah Y.D. 179
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.

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