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Reprinted with permission from Jewish Traditions: A JPS Guide, published by the Jewish Publication Society.
As have all cultures, Jews have developed numerous superstitious practices applicable to a variety of occasions. The following are some of the most common:
Spitting Three Times
Whether done literally or figuratively (by saying “pooh, pooh, pooh”), spitting three times (a mystical number) is a classic response to something exceptionally evil or good. For centuries, Jews have performed this ritual in response to seeing, hearing, or learning of something terrible and as a prophylactic measure to prevent such a tragedy from happening or recurring.
Ironically, it is traditional to perform the same action in response to something wonderful—such as good news or the birth of a beautiful and healthy child—to ward off the Evil Eye. Spitting was long considered a potent protector against magic and demons. Ancient and medieval physicians, including Maimonides, described the positive values of saliva and spittle.
However, this popular Jewish superstition may well have originated from the Christian Bible, which mentions the miraculous power of the spittle of Jesus. “And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech….And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. And straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spoke plain” (Mark 7:32-35).
In another reference, Jesus spat in the dirt and made “clay” and put it in the eyes of a blind man, who subsequently could see (John 9:1-7). Because spitting eventually was viewed as a crude and messy practice, it was replaced by the more refined ritual of simply saying “pooh, pooh, pooh.”
Chewing on Thread
A popular bubbe meise (old wives’ tale) is chewing on a piece of thread whenever one is wearing a garment upon which someone is actively sewing-such as attaching a button or repairing a seam. This practice may relate to the Yiddish phrase “mir zollen nit farnayen der saychel,” meaning that one should not sew up the brains (or common sense). Another explanation is that burial shrouds are sewn around the remains of the deceased. Actively chewing while another is sewing on one’s garments is a clear indication that one is quite alive and not yet a candidate for the grave.
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