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Question: The last time I was in Israel I went to the Western Wall and there were all these old women selling red string bracelets like the ones Madonna used to wear. What are they, what do they do, and should I get one?
–Rachel, Great Neck
Answer: Congratulations on surviving the experience of being harassed by scary women in babushkas, Rachel–it’s part and parcel of visiting the Holy Land these days.
The red string bracelets these women are hawking are part of a whole genre of folk traditions having to do with ayin hara, or the evil eye. Some people believe that tying one of these red strings around your left wrist will ward off bad luck. Others believe that a woman should wear the string until it falls off naturally, at which point she will meet the person she will end up marrying. Still others connect the string to increased fertility, or to protection from bloodshed in war.The source of the practice is somewhat murky. The Hasidic Rabbi known as the Be’er Moshe, or the Debreczyner Rav, wrote that as a child he saw pious people wearing red strings, but he was never able to find any written sources that explain why they would do so.
Some scholars see a reference to the practice in the Tosefta (Shabbat 7). Among a list of superstitious practices is an ambiguous mention of the custom of either tying a red string or tying a string around something red. This chapter in the Tosefta deals with practices that are prohibited because they are darkhei Emori, which literally means “the practices of the Emorites” (an ancient people), but more broadly refers to customs associated with this idolatrous nation.
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