Why do we blow a shofar?
Why does the groom smash a glass underfoot at the end of the wedding ceremony?
Where do demons live anyway?
And what does this have to do with anything?
Abraham Eckstein, the longtime leader and now rabbi emeritus of the Little Neck Jewish Center in Queens, has considered these and many other questions; he’ll discuss the answers either to them or to similar ones on July 17 at Congregation Sons of Israel Nyack. (See box.)
It’s folklore, he says; ancient Jewish folklore, superstition, with centuries if not a full millennium of rabbinic midrash and other explanations accreted to it.
Before he plunges into a discussion of where his understanding of folklore, as well as his fascination with it, comes from, Rabbi Eckstein wants to make clear that he is not saying — he would never say — that these are customs that should be abandoned, because of their provenance. Not at all, he says. It’s just fascinating to know where they come from.
He is “a rationalist,” he said. “I am a person who always asks why something is. Why is it done that way? What does it mean?”
Rabbi Eckstein’s background is wide-ranging. He was born in 1931 and went to Orthodox yeshivas; his undergraduate degree is from Yeshiva University, and so is his rabbinic ordination. Then he went to the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, where he earned a doctorate in Bible. It was there, at JTS, which then was home to the scholars Nahum Sarna and Louis Ginsburg, among others, that Rabbi Eckstein first was exposed to biblical criticism, and the idea that the Bible and Jewish law and lore have antecedents and parallels in other ancient cultures. “No one had ever told me that there were other flood stories,” he said; it was there that he first heard about Gilgamesh.
From JTS, Rabbi Eckstein became an Army chaplain; after that he was a pulpit rabbi, moving around the metropolitan area before settling in Queens. Now, in retirement, he lives in Great Neck. He was not an academic — “I had a pulpit! Who had time?” — but he was an insatiable reader, and superstition intrigued him.
“My interest always was in Bible rather than in Talmud because it deals with people; the Talmud is legalistic, and I am a people person. My doctorate is in biblical literature compared to ancient Near Eastern literature. And I went from there to folklore — superstition.”
Some Jewish superstitions are similar to other cultures’; some probably were influenced by the outside world, and others probably by human needs that undergird cultural understanding.
That’s fancy! What about a real-life application? “If someone is lying down, what happens if you walk over them? If they’re maybe lying on the floor watching television, and you have to get something? If you walk over them, they will not grow any more, so you have to walk back over them to cancel it.
“Or say that you lost a button on your blouse, and you say, ‘Hey, Ma, will you sew my button back on?’ And you’re still wearing the blouse? If you sew something on while you’re wearing it, you will sew up your brains. You counteract that by chewing something — sometimes thread — in your mouth.
“Some superstitions are distinctly Jewish, but these two are not.”
Okay. What about distinctly Jewish superstitions?
Start with the understanding that demons live in caves; they yearn for darkness and silence. That’s not a particularly Jewish understanding, Rabbi Eckstein said. It’s more general than that. But it has Jewish implications.
Why do we blow a shofar on Rosh Hashanah and at the end of Yom Kippur? The Bible doesn’t specify a reason; we’re told, in later sources, that it’s to get our attention, to call us to attention, to repentance, to spiritual reawakening. It does mean all those things, Rabbi Eckstein said, but at its base it is to scare away the demons. A shofar traditionally is inside a tallis bag; the shofar blower walks up to the bimah with his horn hidden in the bag. That’s to ensure that demons don’t catch sight of it too soon and thus have the chance to prepare themselves for its blast, he said.
Why do a bride’s mother and about-to-be-mother-in-law accompany her down the aisle carrying candles, as they do in very traditional weddings? Why do they walk around the groom seven times? It’s because the candles and their light, and then the circles, protect him against Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who would suck his soul.
Rabbi Eckstein also has been struck by non-Jewish applications of this principle. He remembers his time at Fort Dix, when he saw a Catholic mass. At the moment of transubstantiation, when the wafer and wine become Jesus’s body and blood, according to Catholic belief, “when the priest picks up the wine and turns it into blood, all of a sudden the bells ring.” It’s the only time during the mass that they are sounded, Rabbi Eckstein said. Why? “The priest said it’s to emphasize it — but it’s because the noise scares away the demons.”
In all these stories, the sound and light ward off the attacks that would happen at liminal moments, times of change, when people are open to that change, and therefore vulnerable.
Back at a Jewish wedding, why does the groom smash the glass? “We’re told that it’s in memory of the destruction of Jerusalem,” Rabbi Eckstein said. “Where does that come from? Not the Bible. And the Talmud tells the story of the great rabbi whose daughter was getting married, and the party was getting out of control. Glass was very expensive, and he took up a very valuable glass, and smashed it, and that shocked everybody into sobriety. That had nothing to do with the Bible.” That was an accretion on top of an accretion; the original reason for smashing the glass was to scare away demons.
And that is absolutely not a reason to stop smashing a glass at the end of a wedding, Rabbi Eckstein said. Of course smash the glass!
The most basic reason for superstition is “superstitious people believe, although they may never verbalize, that there are evil spirits in this world that want to harm humans. We have to combat them, and there are certain things that we can do to prevent them from doing their wickedness. If we don’t do those things — we’ve got problems.”
In Nyack, Rabbi Eckstein will talk about the evil eye. That’s not a uniquely Jewish concept, he said; “every culture has an evil eye. In Turkey, you can buy jewelry against it that actually is an eye.” That jewelry — usually a necklace — usually is a blue stone with an eyeball, with a pupil centered in it. “The Italians wear a horn, to stick it in the evil eye — they call the evil eye malocchio.” That’s literally “evil eye.” “And Jews wear the hamsa, the hand with the fingers extended, to stick it in the evil eye,” he said.
Rabbi Eckstein will be in Nyack for the M. Nathan Cember Memorial Lecture Series. It’s presented by Mr. Cember’s widow, Esther. Both the Cembers were very active members of Sons of Israel. “He was very prominently involved locally,” Ms. Cember said. “He was president of Bnai Brith District 1, head of the Israel Commission, a former president of the shul — a major macher in Jewish life, so I figured that this would be a nice way to memorialize him.”
She heard Rabbi Eckstein speak twice in Florida, where she spends six months every year. “He was very entertaining, very knowledgeable, and everybody loved him,” Ms. Cember said. If only he could get to Rockland County to speak. Once she learned that he’d been visiting Florida but lives in Great Neck, everything fell into place. “I’m thrilled about it,” Ms. Cember said.
Who: Rabbi Abraham Eckstein
What: Will talk about “The Evil Eye: Superstition in Jewish Life”
Where: At Congregation Sons of Israel, 300 North Broadway, Upper Nyack
When: On Wednesday, July 17, at 7 p.m.
Why: For the M. Nathan Cember Memorial Lecture Series
How much: Free, but RSVP is requested; email email@example.com or call (845) 358-3767
For more information: Go to www.csinyack.org or call (845) 358-3767