Sefer Hasidim, the Book of the Pious states “one should not believe in superstitions, but it is best to be heedful of them.” A superstition, according to the Oxford American Dictionary, is a practice based upon an unjustified belief where a specific action leads to a specific consequence.
Here are a few of my favorite Jewish superstitions:
Putting on shoes in the right order
The Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law, instructs us on the proper order for putting our shoes and socks on. The right shoe goes on first, and the left shoe is tied first. When removing shoes, the left foot is removed before the right. The origin of this custom comes from the favor given to the right side of the body in several verses in the Torah. The left shoe is tied first in connection with Tefillin being bound on the left side. The right side is thought to represent chesed or loving kindness and the left side to represent gevurah or restraint. The right foot is not to be uncovered when the left foot is still covered. If you are a lefty, however, you tie Tefillin on your right arm and tie the right shoe accordingly.
Pooh, pooh, pooh
The expression kenahorah pooh, pooh, pooh stems from the literal action of spitting. Kenahorah is a Yiddish expression meaning without the evil eye. For obvious reasons, it is said when bad things happen. It is also uttered when good things occur or compliments are given because a good or boastful statement may invite the evil eye in. One utters kenahorah to show that their compliment does not also contain envy or negative feelings.
Don’t keep an oven empty
Have you ever been to someone’s house and noticed that they keep a cookie sheet or baking pan in their oven? Perhaps, it stems from this Jewish superstition that an empty oven means a family will go hungry. Keeping something in the oven will protect a family from famine.
Naming babies after deceased or living relatives
Even within our tradition, there are vast differences. Ashkenazi Jews, for example, tend not to name a newborn baby after a living relative. The reasons? It most likely stems from the Talmud where we are instructed to avoid naming children after sinners or wrongdoers. The custom eventually extended to any living relative. Since there exists a custom to name a child for a deceased relative, naming a child for a living relative may give an impression of anticipating death. There is also a thought that if a child and his grandfather share the same name, the Angel of Death may confuse them and take the child instead of the intended grandfather.
Sephardic Jews, however, have a custom to name a newborn for a living relative as a sign of honor and respect. They will wish upon their child the qualities and character traits of the loved one the baby is named for.
Changing the name of a very sick person
Speaking of names, there is also a tradition of changing the name of an individual who is very, very sick. The name change is instituted in order to trick the Angel of Death and protect the sick individual from death.
In the Jewish tradition we are told that a person on her way to do a mitzvah is afforded extra protection. When people travel, it is customary for family or friends to give the traveler money. The intention is that the person will fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah once they have reached their travel destination. Thus, the Shaliach mitzvah – the courier of the mitzvah – is deemed to travel with extra protection.
Kissing a dropped holy book
Siddurim and Chumashim are traditionally kissed prior to putting them away and after accidentally dropping them on the floor. Holy books are treated with respect and reverence. The Jewish religion shows us over and over how to elevate the ordinary into the extraordinary. The protocol with which we respond to a dropped holy book echoes that theme.
Jewish superstitions may be part of our lives “just because”. Taking a few moments to learn about their origins provides insight and a bit of an “aha!” reaction. Though they may be unjustified, we will continue to adhere to them…. just in case.