Dear Jew in the City-
With St. Patrick’s Day approaching, I got to wondering about rabbit’s feet, four-leaf clovers and their seemingly Jewish counterparts of hamsas, blue-glass eye beads, red strings and the like. What is the Jewish view of luck and tokens of good fortune?
Thanks for your question. This is one I answer with great hesitation because, whatever I say, I know it’s one I can’t win. There are going to be a wide variety of opinions and approaches to this topic, so I’m just going to tell you my perspective and let people fight it out in the comments.
The things you ask about have no basis in Judaism; even the red string is baseless.
There are a number of mitzvos that address various forms of superstition. For example, Leviticus 19:26 says “Do not practice divination,” which refers to trying to foretell the future. Divination is if someone takes (or refrains from) a course of action because he attributes significance to some unrelated occurrence. For example, let’s say that you got up early in the morning to go to the airport and got dressed in the dark. When you had a little light, you noticed that you put on mismatched socks. If you took that as a sign that you should cancel your flight, you would be guilty of practicing divination because you’re basing your actions on omens. This would be different from, say, canceling your flight because the weather report is calling for lightning storms, which actually has a bearing on the issue at hand.
Occasionally, people in the Bible appear to be practicing divination but circumstances quickly reveal that such is not truly the case. The most obvious example occurs in Genesis chapter 24, when Eliezer says he’ll know that the girl who gives water to both him and his camels is meant be the wife for Yitzchak. This is not divination because it’s relevant: Eliezer was looking for a girl who excelled in hospitality because she would be joining the family of Avraham, who was renowned for hospitality. Similarly, in I Samuel chapter 14, when Jonathan infiltrates a Philistine camp, he says he’ll know that God has delivered the enemy into Israel’s hands if the sentries say “Come over here” rather than “Stay where you are!” This likewise wasn’t divination. Rather, Jonathan was trying to gauge the enemy’s strength based on their confidence upon encountering strangers. Relevant “signs” are permitted, like the weather forecast in planning your itinerary. Unrelated signs, like black cats crossing your path, are irrelevant, foolish and prohibited as superstition.
According to the Rambam, certain omens are permitted. For example, if a man marries a woman and subsequently becomes rich, he may consider marrying her to be a good sign. This is permitted because he doesn’t actually change his actions based on the sign, he merely establishes a correlation (Avodas Kochavim 11:5). However, after enumerating many different prohibited forms of superstition, the Rambam concludes (ibid. 11:16):
“All the forms of sorcery discussed in this chapter are lies that idolaters used to deceive the nations in order to get them to follow their idols. It is not appropriate for Jews to follow such nonsense, nor to attribute any value to them. Numbers 23:23 says, ‘There is no divination found among Jacob, nor soothsaying within Israel.’ Deuteronomy 18:14 likewise states that ‘The nations you are driving out follow astrologers and diviners but God has not given you things like these.’ If a person believes in sorcery like these, thinking that they are true and wise albeit prohibited by the Torah, then he is foolish. Wise people know that all these magics that the Torah has forbidden are simply forms of emptiness that attract feebleminded people and cause them to abandon the path of truth. This is why, when the Torah prohibits all these things, it adds ‘Be of perfect faith with Hashem, your God’ (Deuteronomy 18:13).”
Certain obscure practices have become widely embraced in recent years, such as the practice to bake a key into a bread on the Shabbos following Passover, or the practice to recite the Torah portion about the manna on Tuesday of the week in which we read the parsha of Beshalach. Each of these is meant to be a “segulah” – an act one performs as a positive omen – intended to help ensure one’s livelihood. But “widely embraced” is not the same as “universally accepted.” Regarding baking the “shlissel challah,” many consider the practice meaningless and some actually consider it prohibited as based on overtly non-Jewish customs. As far as reciting the portion of the manna, the Shulchan Aruch (OC 1:5) says that it should be recited every day, not just once a year. The Mishna Brurah there (1:13) explains that the point of doing so is to strengthen one’s faith by reiterating that our livelihood comes from God. Accordingly, many object to the current practice as it takes a daily practice intended by the Sages to increase our connection to God and turns it into something like a magic spell out of Harry Potter.
Bottom line, if one chooses not to recite parshas haman or to bake a shlissel challah, there is no reason to feel as if one’s practice is lacking. Conversely, there are certainly those to rely upon if one wishes to do such things. As far as I can see, they’re “user’s choice.” Similarly, many religious authorities consider the red string prohibited as a form of superstition, though there are some authorities upon whom one may rely. (The hamsa, however, is by all accounts a piece of jewelry and nothing more.)
As noted at the beginning, there are different opinions and approaches to this topic. If you have a question about whether something represents an actual Torah practice or a mere superstition, it’s always best to consult one’s own rabbi for guidance.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent