Where Are the Superstitions of Yesteryear?
Guest post by R. Eli D. Clark
Rabbi Eli D. Clark lives in Bet Shemesh, Israel. He served as Halakha editor of the Koren Sacks Siddur and also practices international tax law.
What is the role of superstition in Orthodox Jewish practice today? This question struck me this week, when two different congregants asked the gabbai for the honor of opening the aron kodesh. Both have wives who are about to give birth. And both apparently subscribe to the notion that opening the aron kodesh will ease the labor of one’s spouse.
To the best of my knowledge, this is a relatively recent custom; it is cited in Kaf Ha-Hayyim (134:12) in the name of the Hida, who lived in the 18th century. Yet, despite its explicitly Sephardic and implicitly Kabbalistic origin, the practice has spread to Ashkenazic circles. The question is: how many of those who follow this custom, like the two expectant fathers competing for petiha this past Monday, believe their wife’s labor is actually affected by the performance of a relatively insignificant ceremony in shul?
A similar question applies to those Rosh Hashana customs rooted in the Talmudic concept of “simana milta hi” – symbolic actions can affect the future (Keritot 6a; cf. Horayot 12a). These practices, which have been codified in the Shulhan Arukh (OH 583:1-2), include eating a sweet apple in honey, not eating nuts, and not sleeping on Rosh Hashana day (all for Ashkenazim), as well as eating gourds, fenugreek, leeks, beets, dates, and calf’s heads.
Although these customs may be explained rationalistically – and have been, with varied results – the meaning of the phrase as used by Abaye in the Gemara is: what you see on Rosh Hashana will affect the events of the year to come. By the Middle Ages, this was modified to: what you do on Rosh Hashana will affect the events of the year to come.
Neither iteration of this principle resonates with me. And I believe that, outside the Sephardic and Hasidic worlds, the majority of Orthodox Jewry no longer believes in the talismanic power of these customs nor in the magical principles that underlie them. But these customs (except, perhaps, for the calf’s head) remain a staple of normative Orthodox practice. In fact, the observance of these practices seems to be rising. Why?
The answer, I think, is that we have imbued these rituals with symbolism in place of magic. Eating an apple dipped in honey may not ensure that our year will be a sweet one, but it can symbolically express our wishes for the upcoming year. We may prefer pitocin over petiha for inducing labor, but one can still open the aron kodesh to demonstrate his heartfelt hope that the labor will be smooth.
Consider too the custom that the bride and groom not see each other during the week before the wedding. The custom does not appear Jewish in origin; in fact the Rav told Rav Lichtenstein that it had no halakhic basis and need not be observed. But many keep it, not out of superstition, but in order to heighten the anticipation of the wedding day.
However, not all superstitious practices lend themselves to symbolic reinterpretation. Take, for example, the customs related to the reading of the Tokhaha. The custom in many shuls is for the Ba`al Keri’a himself to receive the aliya for the Tokhaha, as opposed to calling up another person. The Mishna Berura (428:16) describes this as a widespread custom and “a correct one.” In a teshuva from 1963, R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, OH II, no. 35) criticizes a related custom – that the Ba`al Keri’a not make a berakha before and after reading the Tokhaha. A more extreme custom is described in the Biur Halakha (428, s.v. be-pesukim lifneihem) – some communities did not read the Torah at all on Parashot Behukotai and Ki Tavo!
In a similar vein, reading the Tokhaha out loud was viewed as courting misfortune. Hence, most Ba`alei Keri’a read the Tokhaha in an undertone. This custom too seems at variance with basic halakhic requirements for Torah reading.
The origin of these customs is clear: People considered it bad luck to receive an aliya for a passage foretelling calamity and catastrophe. Even hearing it read out loud was to be avoided.
But these customs seem to be waning. Based on an informal poll I conducted, many people are no longer reluctant to be called up for the Tokhaha. And the passage is frequently read at full volume. (I invite commenters to present corroborative or conflicting data.)
The explanation is simple: many of us no longer see the public reading of a text, no matter how morbid, as having a real-world effect on future events. So we are not afraid of the reading of the Tokhaha. In addition, the Tokhaha-related customs run counter to the proper fulfillment of an halakhic mandate. This further contributes to their slide into desuetude.
The model proposed here – superstitious customs are declining, unless they can be reinterpreted symbolically – is a tentative one. Ours is a conservative religion. Moreover, there are neo-Hasidic trends, especially in Israel, which reflect a movement away from rationalist Judaism. But we live in an age where technology and science have replaced magic and superstition; this affects the way we think and the way we live.
Submit a Response
You must be logged in to submit a response.