Ask the Rabbi: Red strings

What is the propriety of wearing red strings as a protection against the evil eye?

red string 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
red string 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Q As a follow-up to your column on the evil eye: What is the propriety of wearing red strings as a protection against the evil eye? - B.H., Jerusalem A As I look out the windows of Yeshivat Hakotel, I see an old lady blessing Western Wall visitors as she hands out red strings (bendeles) for a small donation. This scene is repeated at many holy sites, especially as New Age spirituality movements have made the red string fashionable, with celebrities like Madonna sporting them. Despite its popularity within all streams of Judaism, the string and its alleged protective powers raise a number of legal issues. The Torah warns the Jewish people to avoid various forms of foreign practices, including superstitions, divinations and sorcery, commanding that we instead live wholeheartedly with God (Deuteronomy 18:13). Consistent with this theme, the Torah forbids emulating contemporary alien rituals, known as "Amorite practices" (darchei Emori), even if they do not constitute actual foreign worship (avoda zara) of idols or other gods (Leviticus 18:3, Exodus 23:24). Although it remains difficult to firmly characterize the forbidden rituals, "darchei Emori" practices are nonbeneficial and unproven rituals which assume unnatural means or sorcery to accomplish certain goals. Foreign practices that honor someone or serve another concrete benefit, however, remain permissible (Rema YD 178:1). For this reason, the talmudic sages permitted the burning of a deceased monarch's properties on a pyre, an honor performed to show that no one could replace him (Tosafot AZ 11a). As Dr. Elly Teman has shown, the red string serves as an amulet in many cultures, although its origin remains unknown. While it is frequently used for therapeutic purposes - "healing" everything from sore throats to smallpox - it is most often used for "preventive medicine," aiming to ward off the evil eye or in difficult pregnancies and labor. (Teman speculates that the vitality of the red color, along with the ring's bound characteristics, symbolize its ability to keep out dangerous phenomena.) These convictions all exist within Jewish folklore, with some scholars believing that it gained credence because Rahab spared herself from Jericho's destruction by hanging red string on her house (Joshua 2). Among a long catalog of "Amorite practices" - including pulling a child through a cemetery and dancing and clapping around a bonfire - the Tosefta lists wearing a red string on a finger, clearly wary of this ancient folk practice (Shabbat Ch. 7-8). Despite this seemingly explicit source, a number of decisors have defended red strings because a more important talmudic text leaves this example, among many, off its shorter list (Shabbat 67a). They further contend that the Tosefta only mentions one's finger, permitting one to adorn a wrist, pregnant stomach or baby's carriage. While this seemingly technical point seems overly pedantic, a few medieval scholars asserted that only foreign rituals explicitly denounced in the Talmud are forbidden as "Amorite practices," thereby opening the door for a series of popular folk practices (Yereim 313). Others, however, advocate more restrictive regulations, contending that we must avoid all specious alien rituals (Maharik 78, Bach YD 178). Significantly, the Talmud, followed by later codes, specifically permits medicinal practices - including wearing a tooth from a fox or an egg of a grasshopper - thereby opening the door for the alleged therapy of the red string (OC 301:27). The criteria for efficacious medicine, however, vary greatly. Rabbi Solomon ibn Adret (13th century, Spain), in defense of widespread folklore practices, contended that as long as a ritual had not been proven ineffective, it remained permissible, provided that it was performed for therapeutic reasons (Responsa 1:167, 1:413). Maimonides and others, however, adopted a more restrictive criterion, contending that one the alleged healing device must be proven to grant it legitimacy (Moreh 3:37). Maimonides, however, slightly nuanced his opposition to these non-scientific devices by permitting them if their use would comfort a patient distraught over their absence. This paternalistic attitude, essentially a placebo treatment with superstitions, drew the scorn of the Vilna Gaon (18th century, Lithuania), who accused Maimonides of ignoring deep truths by adopting rationalistic positions (Gr"a YD 179:13). While their efficacy remains difficult to prove, one modern decisor, Rabbi Yair Bachrach (17th century, Germany), argued that one should not forbid any long-standing practice within the Jewish community, since it must have proven its worth over the years (Havot Yair 234). Indeed, following this logic, two contemporary writers, Rabbi Moshe Stern (Be'er Moshe 8:36) and Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt (Rivevot Ephraim 8:51), have both defended adorning red strings as ancient customs whose legitimacy, if not veracity, must be affirmed. Others, however, forbid the red string, scorning its popularity as an undesirable "voodooization" of Jewish practice, where amulets and charms replace genuine prayer and a more authentic Jewish belief in the healing powers of God. The writer, on-line editor of Tradition, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.