This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

A Study in Scarlet*

Several months ago, the most popular fashion accessory of the day was a bracelet consisting of a simple scarlet thread. The demand for them seemed insatiable.

Those little items were fetching obscene prices, to a large extent because their sellers were able to plug in to the Kabbalah fad that was (and is still, at the time I am writing this) sweeping the entertainment industry. One major American retail chain had to withdraw the red strings from circulation after Jewish organizations complained that they were trivializing a sacred Jewish ritual.

At a major community event in Montreal last year, whose organizers were looking for a meaningful gift idea to distribute to the participants, the choice that they ultimately arrived at was--you guessed it--scarlet strings.

Okay, dear readers, listen carefully: Red strings have nothing to do with Kabbalah, and they are not Jewish symbols. If anything, using them may actually be prohibited by Jewish religious law.

Have a look at any of the major classics of the Kabbalah, at works like the Zohar, or Rabbi Hayim Vital's multi-volume collection of the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria. See if you can find any references there to the wearing of red strings. I have yet to find a single expert--including scholars and rabbis much more proficient in these matters than I am--who has succeeded in turning up such a reference.

In a Jewish ethnographic journal published in Odessa in 1918, the author, writing under a fictitious name (the editor noted that the only thing they were allowed to reveal about him was that he was a rabbi in a Polish village) announced that he had assembled a collection of customs that have never before been documented in any book, or which have not been adequately explained.

Included among these previously unrecorded practices was the following: When there are illnesses circulating in town, the women tie scarlet threads (Yiddish: royteh bendelakh) to the necks or hands of children as a safeguard. The learned author speculated that this custom might have some connection to the older practice of wearing a coral necklace or a collar to avert the evil eye.

If nothing else, the inclusion, by a scholar of impressive erudition, of the red strings in a list of customs that were previously unrecorded, lends further force to my claim that we are not dealing here with an ancient or authoritative Kabbalistic practice.

There is, to be sure, one work of classic Jewish religious literature that mentions red strings. It is a book called the Tosefta, an important compendium of teachings from the early talmudic era. One section in the Tosefta enumerates folk superstitions that might be unacceptable because they border on idolatry. In the terminology of rabbinic law, such practices are known as the ways of the Amorite after the primitive heathens who inhabited the holy land before the time of Joshua.

One of the customs that is forbidden in the Tosefta's list of quasi-pagan practices is placing a red thread on one's finger. A recent commentator to the Tosefta, recalling the use of red threads in his youth in eastern Europe, suggested sardonically that they must have understood the text as permitting the threads as long as they were placed somewhere other than on the finger.

As with several of those superstitions, a quick survey of Greek and Latin authors confirms that red strings were indeed popular in the gentile environment of the ancient world. They are mentioned by the first-century Cilician physician, pharmaceutical expert Dioscorides and by the Church father John Chrysostom.

In fact, the aforementioned Christian theologian John Chrysostom was familiar enough with the Bible to be aware that scarlet threads play a prominent and recurrent role in Hebrew narratives and purification rituals. In one of his sermons, he called attention to such cases as the birth of Zerah, son of Judah and Tamar, where the midwife bound a scarlet thread upon his hand to indicate that he had poked his hand out, even though his twin brother Peretz was afterwards the first to push his way out of the womb. Both Jews and Christians attached great symbolic significance to this episode, since it defined the ancestry of King David and of the Messiah who would issue from that line. In what seems to be a totally unrelated episode in the book of Joshua, Rachab the harlot was advise to tie a scarlet thread to her window to ensure her protection when the Israelite armies captured Jericho.

Chrysostom proposed his own symbolic interpretation of the scarlet thread in those episodes. He saw these and similar passages as prefigurations of the blood of Christ, which provided ultimate protection and salvation. It is possible that these kinds of associations account for the widespread popularity of red threads, corals and necklaces as protective devices in medieval Europe.

As was often the case, Jews replicated the practice of their gentile neighbours without being aware of their pagan or Christian associations.

Collectors of Jewish folk practices mention red strings or necklaces most frequently for protection during pregnancy, childbirth and childhood illnesses, especially scarlet fever. In some communities, pregnant women would wrap around their bellies a string that had been carried seven times around a renowned rabbi. This custom is similar to the standard procedure for preparing scarlet threads in Israel: to be effective in preventing miscarriages, scarlet embroidery twine has to be wound seven times around Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem. Visitors to downtown Jerusalem are likely to be pestered by characters like Golda the bendel-maker, who will insist that her merchandise has undergone that process--but be prepared to have curses heaped upon you and your progeny if you decline her offer.

I am sure that some of you will retort with memories of how your beloved bubbeh tied a red string to shield her children from the envious Evil Eye. I respectfully submit that not every questionable superstition that was followed by Jews in Poland or Russia qualifies as a sacred Jewish tradition, let alone as a Kabbalistic mystery.

Now, I have no personal objection to snake-oil peddlars making a buck or two off the gullibility of ignorant consumers. I just think that my own esteemed readers deserve to be forewarned when the unscrupulous scam artists are misrepresenting Jewish traditions.


This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

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