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Wearing a thin red string (as a type of talisman) is a custom, popularly thought to be associated with Judaism's Kabbalah, to ward off misfortune brought about by an "evil eye" (עין הרע in Hebrew). In Yiddish the red string is called a roite bindele.

The red string itself is usually made from thin red wool thread. It is worn, or tied, as a type of bracelet or "band" on the left wrist of the wearer (the receiving side).

Traditional Jewish beliefs

Some red string is brought from Israelmarker. Sometimes, the string has been wound in large quantities around the tombmarker of the Hebrew Biblical matriarch Rachel, near Bethlehemmarker. It is considered to have great powers of "good fortune" and grant added divine protection to those who wear it. Most rabbis though do not encourage the practice of this "segulah".

On the Ohr Somayach, Jerusalem yeshiva site, the "ask the rabbi" column says:

...There is no written mention in the Torah, Halachah or Kabbalah about tying a red string around the wrist. However, it seems to be a custom that has been around for some time, and may be based on Torah or Kabbalistic ideas. If there is any validity to the custom, it would be considered a segulah or protective type of act...There are sources for such special properties of seguloth. The Torah states, "The Lord your God has chosen you to be His Am Segulah (treasured people) out of all the peoples upon the face of the earth" (Deut. 7:6). Why are the Jewish people called G-d's segulah? Rabbi Chaim of Voloshzin says it's on account of the Torah and mitzvoth that have a miraculous effect on them, enabling their prayers to be answered in a special way. In fact, the mitzvoth themselves are protective: Charity protects from natural death, sanctifying the new moon protects from unnatural death, the succah protects from exile, and so on.


Therefore a custom that is based on Torah ideas or mitzvoth may also have special segula properties on a smaller scale. Regarding the red string, the custom is to tie a long red thread around the burial site of Rachel, the wife of Jacob. Rachel selflessly agreed that her sister marry Jacob first to spare Leah shame and embarrassment. Later, Rachel willingly returned her soul to God on the lonely way to Beit Lechemmarker, in order to pray there for the desperate Jews that would pass by on their way to exile and captivity. Often, one acquires the red string when giving charity.


Perhaps for these reasons the red thread is considered a protective segula. It recalls the great merit of our matriarch Rachel, reminding us to emulate her modest ways of consideration, compassion, and selflessness for the benefit of others, while simultaneously giving charity to the poor and needy. It follows that this internal reflection that inspires good deeds, more than the string itself, would protect one from evil and harm. [207197]


Similarly, Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky writes more critically on the Aish HaTorah site, pointing to the ambiguous origin and controversial nature of using the red string even among the ancient rabbis:

Firstly, there is absolutely no genuine kabbalistic source for wearing a red thread around one's wrist to ward off the "evil eye." While there exists such a practice amongst some devout Jews, it is not mentioned in any kabbalistic work. Yes, there is a fleeting mention in the Talmud about the practice of tying a bundle of herbs or gems and wearing them in order to ward off the "evil eye." No special color, nor Rachel, nor even thread are mentioned. Also, the comment is an offhand remark concerning laws of Sabbath observance.


One of the late great scholars, the Debreczyner Rav, mentions it as a practice he saw in his father's home, but his extensive search could not find a written source for the practice.


The good news is that there is a clear and early source that mentions tying a red string to ward off an "evil eye" and that is in the Tosefta, an early Talmudic work (Shabbat, ch. 7-8). The bad news is that it clearly states that tying a red string around oneself is severely prohibited. It is characterized as "Darchei Emori," a worthless, superstitious practice, close to idol-worship. [207198]


Some Orthodox Jews who worry about the negative powers of the "evil eye" may have an old tradition to tie a small red-colored string near the bed of a baby in hopes of invoking God's mercy, and that no ill-harm should befall the child.

Modern craze

There was a contemporary resurgence of the red string in the 1980's post-Intifada period in Israel, perhaps best understood as a type of folklore created under conditions of personal and national anxiety and stress.[207199][207200].

In the late 1990's the red string became popular with many celebrities in the United States, including many non-Jews. Led by Madonna, those that have taken to wearing them include: Michael Jackson, Rosie O'Donnell, Ashton Kutcher, Britney Spears, David Beckham, Avril Lavigne, Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Lauren Conrad, Anthony Kiedis, English Socialite Ollie Lloyd and celebrity journalist Jeffrey Rodack.

This resurgence is often linked to Philip Berg's controversial Kabbalah Centre.

Criticism

A report in The Guardian newspaper has cast doubt on the claims that commercially sold red string has been taken to holy sites in Israel [207201], [207202].

References

  1. (Teman, Elly. 2008. "The Red String: A Cultural History of a Jewish Folk Symbol," in: Bronner, Simon J. (ed.), Jewishness: Expression, Identity, Representation, Inaugural volume in book series on Jewish Cultural Studies, Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization)
  2. Kabbalah: who has a red string and why?
  3. Kabbalah not a celebrity fashion statement, Jews say
  4. The Thin Red Line, investigative article
  5. Inside Hollywood's Hottest Cult : Radar Online


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