Popular Superstitions

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Pulling or Tugging One's Ears When Sneezing

Especially common among Jews from Galicia and Lithuania, the practice of pulling on one's ears when sneezing has engendered heated arguments. Should one ear or both be pulled (or tugged) and should one pull up or down? The reason for this custom is unclear. Originally, it was performed if the sneeze occurred when speaking about one who was dead. However, tugging has long been extended to all sneezes and is usually accompanied by reciting the Yiddish phrase "tzu langehmazaldikker yohrn" (to long, lucky years).

Sneezing on the Truth

Midrashic legend maintains that a sneeze used to announce impending death: "The story is told that until the time of Jacob, a person, at the close of his life,sneezed and instantly died." Some ancient peoples believed that the"little explosion in the head" ensured approaching eternity.

Rather than a mere irritation of the nasal passages, a sneeze was deemed a grave omen. Indeed, this may be the underlying reason for the development of the custom of saying "long life" and "good health" to one who has sneezed.

A traditional belief is that when a person sneezes during a conversation, whatever has just been said will occur, based on the concept of "sneezing on the truth." While not as foolproof as direct prophecy, it is said to indicate that events that are rational and plausible will actually come to pass or that an event that has already occurred really happened just as the story related.

Closing Books That Have Been Left Open

Closing prayer books, Bibles, and talmudic tracts is a common practice in synagogues and study halls. The explanation appears to be related to the medieval fear of the evil power of devils and demons, who would take "holy knowledge" and somehow use it for their own nefarious purposes.

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Ronald L. Eisenberg

Ronald L. Eisenberg, a radiologist and non-practicing attorney, is the author of numerous books, including The Jewish World in Stamps.