Superstition, tradition, and change

Superstition, tradition, and change

A look at some surprising holiday rituals from across the world

The hamsa, representing the hand of God, is said to ward off harm. These all are from Rahel Musleah’s own collection.
The hamsa, representing the hand of God, is said to ward off harm. These all are from Rahel Musleah’s own collection.

I am not afraid to admit I believe in good luck charms.

Not rabbits’ feet or four-leaf clovers, not even kabbalistic red strings. No, it’s the hamsa (Arabic for “five”) that I wear around my neck, a golden hand with a tiny turquoise dot in its center, that provides my protection. It represents the hand of God; its blue stone symbolizes God’s watchful eye, ever ready to deflect harm.

My Baghdadi-Indian heritage is replete with amulets, superstitions, and customs to elude the Evil Eye. I was raised with the belief that evil spirits float around the universe, ready to harm you through your food — they love to feast. They are a moment away from anger if you throw hot water on the ground and burned their heads in their below-ground purgatory. Sephardim don’t have a corner on the market: the ayin hara, a universal belief, works in insidious ways: sometimes a malevolent gaze or a few words of praise, perhaps rooted in envy (“What a beautiful baby!”), are enough to open the gateway to evil.

To me, the Evil Eye is harm or danger in any manifestation. Although I don’t warn the spirits of impending hot water, I do hang onto other superstitions, for no good rational reason. Choosing to suspend my logical side is a tangible acknowledgment that sometimes my destiny is beyond my own control, yet in my feeble way I try to manipulate it anyway. Maybe it’s simply a means of wondering if the hand of God somehow might be present in my own life.

This Rosh Hashanah, like every one, has ushered in a season filled with the mystery of destiny, not as an abstract concept but as one vibrant with images as concrete as my hamsa: The Book of Life; the Throne of Mercy; the Heavenly Court; the Gates of Compassion; the Birthday of the World; God’s shofar-like voice. Sephardic and Mizrahi families respond to it with an equally concrete ceremony in hopes of influencing our destinies just a little more. We transform fruits and vegetables into edible pseudo-good luck charms, matching each with a new year’s wish based on its Hebrew name or characteristic. The short, home-based “seder yehi ratzon” (“May it be God’s will”) asks God to keep evil and enmity far away from us, and to provide us with strength, abundance, and peace.

Apples, pomegranates, dates, beans, pumpkin, beetroot leaves, and chives turned into our wishes for a year full of sweetness, good deeds, prosperity, happiness, freedom, and friendship. Traditionally, the seder concludes with the head of a fish or sheep (savory sweetbreads), for the wish that we should be heads and not tails; leaders and not stragglers. (I suggest using a head of lettuce instead.) By ingesting these foods, we participated in the process of birth and growth inherent in nature, investing Rosh Hashanah with even more power as the birthday of the world.

The fish, which crosses Ashkenazic-Sephardic lines, is a symbol of both fertility and God’s protection. Its eyes never close. Storyteller Peninnah Schram, whose family is from Lithuania and Russia, remembers her mother serving her father a cooked fish head for Rosh Hashanah. “I never looked too closely at it,” she recalls, “but it sat on the plate like a ‘king’ with the fish roe, too.

“My father relished it,” Ms. Schram said. “None of the rest of us would eat it.”

Interestingly, Baghdadi families discontinued the fish head because of the similarity between the Hebrew words dag (fish) and d’agah (worry). The Rosh Hashanah seder’s potency comes not only from the foods, but from the words of the blessings associated with them. Anyone who has been the victim of a lashing insult or the beneficiary of a plump compliment knows that words can convey the most powerful of charms or the most harmful of curses. The Hebrew language itself is endowed with sacred, even mystical powers. Abracadabra? It’s from the Hebrew, avra k’dabra. (It has come to pass as it was spoken.)

When the community assembles for Kol Nidre, the rhyming incantation-like Aramaic formula absolves us of our words: the vows we have made during the year.

To my surprise, Rabbi Manuel Gold, who has studied and written about Judaism and Jewish magic, confirms that Kol Nidre originally was an incantation, its powerful threefold repetition a protective measure against demons. The language, he notes, is similar to that in ancient Jewish Aramaic incantation bowls, many from the sixth and seventh centuries of the common era, found in the Jewish quarter of Nippur, Iraq.

The author and her family; she is standing at the left, wearing a blue dress.
The author and her family; she is standing at the left, wearing a blue dress.

Though the Torah forbade many of the beliefs in and actions against demonology, which saturated every aspect of life, popular Judaism interpreted them through a monotheistic lens instead, Rabbi Gold explains. “It was a struggle between popular and purist religion,” he said. “Judaism fought magic in its early history, but by the time of the Gemara, many rabbis conceded. The Talmud says, in Pesahim, ‘If you’re worried about demons, demons concern themselves with you. If you’re not worried, be careful anyway!’”

Rabbi Gold said that he does not believe in demons; his work grew out of a doctoral dissertation. But he offers a modern interpretation: “Demons live in each one of us. They prevent us from being whom we want to be.”

For Nina Nisanova, originally from Daghistan in the former Soviet Union and now a Brooklynite, atonement takes another tangible and traditional form. Kapparot (literally, atonements), which Rabbi Gold also interprets as a magical act, involve a man spinning a rooster or a woman spinning a hen around his or head three times as he or she recites the appropriate prayers. The bird then is slaughtered and given to the poor. “When the chicken is swung around your head, you think about the sins you’ve committed,” Ms. Nisanova said. “You need to bring a sacrifice for each person in the family.

“If you believe it and bring the chicken genuinely, then God is forgiving. It brings peace to yourself, and you know God remembers you on the fast day.”

Several Orthodox Jewish communities continue this custom, which has fallen into disuse in contemporary synagogues. “It was ingrained in us since childhood,” said Ms. Nisanova, who describes her parents as progressive, educated people who didn’t believe in superstitions. “We do it generation to generation.

“If there was no place to do it, I’d be uncomfortable all year,” she said.

Some High Holiday customs may be less dramatic, but they are no less powerful for their adherents. Cheryl Essers, a high school English teacher from Potomac, Maryland, recalls that her father, a Russian-born Holocaust survivor and Partisan fighter, wouldn’t allow her to nap on Rosh Hashanah afternoon because “you’re not supposed to sleep away being inscribed in the Book of Life.” According to the Jerusalem Talmud, “if someone sleeps at the year’s beginning, his good fortune likewise sleeps.” Ms. Essers still resists the urge to nap on Rosh Hashanah.

But good fortune has to be kept going throughout the year, and if you poke the surface of Sephardic or Ashkenazic traditions, more superstitions spill out, like the hiss of air from a balloon.

As we begin the year 5776, may both our rational and our irrational sides find harmony and blessing.

Rahel Musleah, the author of “Apples and Pomegranates: A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah,” leads tours of Jewish India. Her website is

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