8/21/202365 min read

Superstition and Magic


1. Introduction

2. Superstition in the Torah

3. The Reasons for the Prohibitions against Superstitious Practices

4. The Validity and Effectiveness of Superstitious Practices

5. The Validity of Astrology

6. Different kinds of Prohibited Magical and Superstitious Practices

7. The Evil Eye

8. ‘Korbanot’, Sacrifices - Challenging and Denying Idolatry or Divinely Required?

9. Use of Holy Names, Incantations, Blessing and Curses

10. Amulets and Using Mitzvot as Magic

11. Red Strings

12. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Though we live in a technologically advanced society and consider ourselves many more times ‘smarter’ than our ancestors certain old superstitious ideas and practices still persist. It seems that modern man will clutch at any straw to learn about the future however remote from the truth it may be. There are those that make up for their lack of faith in an all-powerful God to protect them from all harm with belief in charms and voodoo. Superstitious practices proliferate in society around us in some of the following ways:

• Fortune tellers, palm readers and psychics abound.

• There are people who still believe in astrology, that fate is tied to the stars and the wisdom still exists to decipher it. Many daily newspapers still carry horoscope predictions.

• Many believe in the concept of auspicious times for various events, Friday 13th of any month is considered unlucky.

• The number thirteen is considered unlucky. Some buildings in different parts of the world skip a thirteenth floor entirely.

• Charms of different shapes, sizes, and colors are often worn to bring good luck or protection against evil forces and the evil eye: Hai’s; garlic; blue stones; red threads; are sometimes worn not only for decoration but also for luck or protection.

• Chinese fortune cookies are very popular.

• Self-titled magicians and mind readers are still around and witchcraft and Satanism seems to be making somewhat of a comeback.

• Reliance on signs or omens is still widespread. Tossing coins or casting lots to make decision on ones future is still common.

• Fear from evil spirits and the ‘evil eye’ are still prevalent.

• Knocking on wood and other pagan customs are still commonplace.

• People practice unproven popular cures sometimes through desperation.

• People try to contact dead relatives through séances or other mediums.

The Torah refers to these practices in the books of Vayikra and Deuteronomy in two short paragraphs that warn us not to be a part of the prevalent decadent and superstitious culture that existed over 3300 years ago.

2. Superstition in the Torah

One Biblical source for the prohibitions dealing with superstitious practices is in Deuteronomy 18:9-13.

‘When you come into the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to do the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire of Molech (an idolatry practiced at that time), or who uses divination, or a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord; and because of these abominations the Lord your God drives the nations of Canaan out from before you. You shall be perfect with the Lord your God.’

3. Reasons for the Prohibitions against Superstitious Practices

a. To develop a perfect relationship with God. As stated in the closing verse in the above section “You shall be perfect with the Lord your God.” We are commanded to develop a perfect relationship with our Creator; anything which detracts from a complete faith in God causes a schism in our relationship with Him and is deplorable. Superstitious practices usually ascribe powers to agencies other than God and detract from our relationship with Him.

b. To abolish idolatrous practices. Rambam1 states2 that “the object and purpose of the entire Torah is to abolish idolatry and utterly uproot it, to eliminate the opinion that any of the stars could interfere for good or evil in human matters, because it leads to worship of the stars.” He notes that all the evil practices, discussed below, were all connected with idolatry and were prohibited in order to save people from idolatrous practices and the evil entailed. This reason is explicit in the Torah passage above that starts with the instruction not to emulate the pagan nations beliefs and practices.

c. To avoid manipulation of the common folk by tribal chiefs and witch doctors. In his Commentary on the Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 4:7), Rambam explains that tribal chieftains used idol worship as a means to unite their people and develop a communal identity. Accordingly, they assigned a name of a god and a personality to many of the heavenly bodies and built temples to their worship. In this manner, astrology and idol worship grew. The astrologers would describe the gods’ motives and behaviors based on the movements of the heavenly bodies, and the idol worshipers would invent different means of service to appease, pray for beneficence and give thanks to these imagined deities hoping that they would thereby be protected from harm and be recipients of heavenly bounty. One of the books of idolatry often quoted in Rambam’s ‘Guide to the Perplexed’ is the Nabatean work entitled the ‘Book of Agriculture’ which details the deity responsible and the form of service required for a bountiful harvest.

Rambam also attributes a similar motive to magic, divination, and other occult arts. In order to impress the common people of their power, the pagan priests would perform ‘wonders’ through these different crafts. Similarly, they would predict the future through various techniques of divination to demonstrate their mastery over the forces of nature.

4. The Validity and Effectiveness of Superstitious Practices


Rambam in Hilkhot Avodah Zara (Laws of Idolatry), Chapter 11, Halakhah 16, stated that all these practices were: “falsehood and lies, with which the original idolators deceived the gentile nations to lead them after them. It is not fitting for Jews who are wise to be drawn into such emptiness and vanity which attracted the feebleminded and caused them to abandon all the paths of truth…Whoever believes in and thinks that these matters are true and wise but are prohibited by the Torah, is foolish and feebleminded.3 He explained4 that the Torah forbade these practices, not because they tap a spiritual force of undesirable origin, but because they are foolishness and of no avail. Therefore, in Iggeret Teiman,5 he advised his readers to “wash your minds from these ideas as one washes a filthy garment.” Rambam’s view of Divine Providence excluded any possibility of astrological influences


Ramban and others were of the opinion that the occult arts represent a field of wisdom and knowledge, which though prohibited by the Torah, contain deep truths. In some areas, there are rabbis who maintain that gaining such knowledge does not involve a prohibition however putting them into practice may be prohibited depending on the circumstances.

Ramban’s view on astrology and black magic is that part of God’s plan was that higher celestial objects do have some control over human affairs. ‘Nature’, according to this view, includes astrological influences.

In his commentary on the Torah7 Ramban discussed the prohibitions of sorcery and divination and concludes that there is some truth to them, they have a basis in nature and are part of God’s design of the universe.

“Know and understand concerning the subject of sorcery, that when the Creator, blessed be He, created everything from nothing, He made the higher powers guides for those below them. Thus He placed the earth and all things that are thereon in the power of the stars and constellations, depending on their rotation and position as proven by the study of astrology. Over the stars and constellations He appointed guides: angels, and ‘lords’ which are the souls (of the stars and constellations). Their behavior from the time they come into existence for eternal duration, is according to the pattern the Almighty decreed for them. However, it was one of His mighty wonders that within the power of these higher forces, He put configurations and capacities to alter the behavior by those under them. (I.e. people can override them by performing certain rituals.) Therefore, the author of the Book of the Moon, the expert in (the field of) necromancy, said, “when the moon, termed ‘the sphere of the world’ is, for example, at the head of Aries (the Ram) and the constellation thus appears in a certain form, you should make a drawing of that grouping, engraving on it the particular time (when this relative position appears) and the name of the angel - one of the names mentioned in that book - appointed over it. Then perform a certain burning (of incense) in a certain specified manner, and the result of the influence (of the relative position of the stars) will be for evil, to root out and to pull down, and to destroy and to overthrow. And when the moon will be in a position relative to some other constellation you should make the drawing and the burning in a certain other manner and the result will be for good, to bud and to plant.” Now this, too, is the influence of the moon as determined by the power of its (heavenly) guide. But the basic manner of its movement is by the wish of the Creator, blessed be He, Who endowed it so in time past, while this particular action is contrary thereto.

This then is the secret of (all forms of) sorcery and their power concerning which the rabbis have said8 that “they contradict the power of the Divine agency,” meaning that they are contrary to the simple powers (with which the agencies have been endowed) and thus diminish a certain aspect of them. Therefore, it is proper that the Torah prohibit these activities in order to let the world function in its customary way, which is the desire of its Creator. This is also one of the reasons for the prohibition of kilayim (mixing seeds), for the plants resulting from such grafting are strange, giving rise to changes in the ordered course of the world for bad or good, aside from the fact that they themselves constitute a change in Creation, as I have already explained.”9

Ramban is of the opinion that knowledge of divination is considered wisdom. In his commentary on the Torah10 he states:

“Now all this is not considered abominable for the nations, instead it is considered wisdom for them.”

Nimukei Yosef & Rashba

Nimukei Yosef11 explained that although the means of divination mentioned by the Rambam are “foolishness,” there are means of divination which are effective. Some are prohibited and some are acceptable. A similar perspective is shared by the Rashba12 who wrote13 that the Torah appears to recognize the power of black magic, describing the magicians of Egypt.14

Shulhan Arukh and Rema

Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 179, and Rema appear to subscribe to the latter view, and many of the subsequent authorities also make statements which ascribe a certain degree of power to the practitioners of the occult. Rambam’s perspective is, nevertheless, mentioned by all authorities and so is the verse in Deuteronomy 18:13: “Be of perfect faith with God, your Lord.” Our faith in God should not be a mere abstract acceptance of the Master and Creator of the world but an active sense of trust which realizes how much He is involved in our everyday life. When people live with such an awareness, they will seek to fulfill God’s will as revealed in the Torah and mitzvot instead of seeking fake spiritual experiences and/or answers from the occult arts.

The Rema in Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 179:4 paraphrases Psalm 32:10 “…a person who walks with simplicity and trust in God will be surrounded by kindness.”

5. The Validity of Astrology

The discussion regarding the validity of astrology is found in the Talmud Shabbat 156a paraphrased as follows:

It was recorded in Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s notebook: A person born on Sunday shall either be completely virtuous or completely wicked because light and dark were created on Sunday.

A person born on Monday will be bad-tempered because the waters were divided on Monday. Rashi explains: Division or disunity is caused by bad temper, so will the person be estranged from other people because of his/her temper.

A person born on Tuesday will be wealthy and unchaste because herbs were created on Tuesday. (Herbs multiply rapidly and continually intermingle with other herbs.)

A person born on Wednesday will be wise and of a retentive memory because the luminaries were created on Wednesday.

A person born on Thursday will be generous because fish and birds were created on Wednesday. (Fish and birds are fed by God’s loving kindness.)

A person born on Friday will be a seeker. Rabbi Nahman ben Yitzhak commented: A seeker after good deeds.

A person born on a Shabbat will die on Shabbat, because the great day of the Shabbat was desecrated on his account. Raba son of Rabbi Shila observed: And he shall be called a great and holy man. (Maharsha: Not all born on the Shabbat die on the Shabbat, but only those who are very holy.)

Rabbi Hanina said to his disciples: Go out and tell the son of Levi, Not the constellation of the day but the hour a person is born is the determining factor. A person born under the constellation of the sun will be distinguished; bright and handsome; will eat and drink of his/her own and his/her secrets will lie uncovered; if a thief, he/she will have no success.

A person born under Venus will be wealthy and immoral because fire was created therein.

A person born under Mercury will be of a retentive memory and wise because Mercury is the sun’s scribe.

A person born under the Moon will suffer evil: building and demolishing; demolishing and building; eating and drinking that which is not his/hers and his/her secrets will remain hidden: if a thief, he/she will be successful.

A person born under Saturn will be someone whose plans will be frustrated. Others say: All nefarious designs against him/her will be frustrated.

A person born under Tzedek (Jupiter) will be a tzaddik (righteous person).

Rabbi Nahman ben Yitzhak observed: A person born under Mars will be a shedder of blood. Rabbi Ashi observed: Either a surgeon, a thief, a slaughterer, or a mohel (a performer of ritual circumcision). Rabbah said: I was born under Mars. Abaye retorted: You too inflict punishment and kill (in Rabbah’s capacity as Judge.)

It was stated. Rabbi Hanina said: The planetary influence (ie astrology) gives wisdom, the planetary influence gives wealth, and Israel stands under planetary influence, (yesh mazal leyisrael). Rabbi Yohanan maintained: Israel is immune from astrology-planetary influence, (en mazal leyisrael).

The Talmud goes on to bring many proofs that Israel is immune from astrology-planetary influence:

a) Rabbi Yohanan asked: How do we know that Israel is immune from planetary influence? Because it states:15 “Thus says the Lord, learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the nations are dismayed at them; they are dismayed but not Israel.”

b) Rav too is of the opinion that Israel is immune from planetary influence. For Rav Yehudah said in Rav’s name: How do we know that Israel is immune from planetary influence? Because it states:16 ‘and He took him outside.’ Then behold, the word of God came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” Then he believed in God; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.…

“Sovereign of the Universe,” Abraham cried, “I have looked at my astrology and find that I am not fated to beget child.” “Cease your planet gazing, for Israel is free from planetary influence...”

c) From Shemuel too we learn that Israel is immune from planetary influence. For Shemuel and Ablat (a famous astrologer) were sitting together observing people passing by. Said Ablat to Shemuel: “That man is going but will not return, a snake will bite him and he will die.” “If he is an Israelite,” replied Shemuel, “he will return.” While they were waiting the man went and returned. Ablat arose and threw off the man’s knapsack, and found a poisonous snake inside cut up into two pieces. Shemuel said to the man, “What good deed did you do to be saved?” The man answered: “Every day we pool our bread and eat it; but to-day one of us had no bread, and he was ashamed. I told them “I will go and collect (the bread)”. When I came to him, I pretended to take bread from him, so that he should not be ashamed.” “You have done a good deed,” said Shemuel to him. Then Shemuel went out and lectured: charity (righteousness) delivers from death; (Proverbs 10:2) and this does not mean from an unnatural death, but from any death.

d) From Rabbi Akiba too we learn that Israel is free from planetary influence. For Rabbi Akiba had a daughter, astrologers told him: “On the day of her wedding a snake will bite her and she will die.” He was very worried about this. On the day of her marriage she took off a brooch that was uncomfortable and placed it into a crevice in the wall and by chance it penetrated the eye of a poisonous serpent. The following morning, when she took it out, the snake came trailing after it. “What good deed did you do?” her father asked her. “A poor man came to our door in the evening.” she replied, “and everybody was busy at the banquet, and there was none to attend to him. So I took the portion which was given to me and gave it to him.” “You have done a good deed,” said he to her. Thereupon Rabbi Akiba went out and lectured: “Charity delivers from death, not only from an unnatural death, but from any death.”

e) From Rabbi Nahman ben Yitzhak too we learn that Israel is free from planetary influence. For Rabbi Nahman ben Yitzhak’s mother was told by astrologers, “your son will be a thief.” She did not let him go bareheaded17, and said to him, “Cover your head so that the fear of heaven may be upon you and pray for mercy.” He did not know why she said that to him. One day he was sitting and studying under a palm tree without a head covering; temptation overcame him, he climbed up and ate a cluster of dates even though the tree did not belong to him.

From these stories we see that planetary influence can be counteracted by prayer and/or good deeds.

In his famous Letter on Astrology,18 Rambam forcefully promoted the notion of God’s Providence while disparaging belief in any astrological influence over human life. However, most medieval philosophers, including Ibn Ezra,19 and Ralbag,20 were believers in the effects of the stars upon human life, and based their positions on empirical evidence.21

Ramban (Responsum 282) and Nimukei Yosef (Sanhedrin, Chapter 7) explain that the study of astrology is not prohibited. They note that though the Talmud quoted above (Shabbat 156a) states: “There is no mazal (celestial, source of influence) for Israel,” there were sages who did not share that view. Thus, even though the latter was a minority opinion, the fact that this view existed demonstrates that astrology is not nonsense, nor is its study prohibited.22

The statement from Shabbat can be explained as follows: The mazalot (stars and signs of the zodiac) do exert influence on the world. A Jew, however, can rise above these influences and exercise total free will.

6. Different kinds of Prohibited Magical and Superstitious Practices

Rambam23 lists the different kinds of prohibited magical and superstitious practices under the general category of laws forbidding idol-worship because of the conceptual similarity between the two. The prohibited actions are:

A. Nahash - Signs & Omens.

B. Kosem – The Use of Oracles to Tell the Future, Divining.

C. Meonen – Using Astrology to fix Auspicious Times, Horoscopes.

D. Hovver – The Use of Magical Spells and Incantations

E. Doresh El Hametim - Inquiring of the dead.

F. Ov and Yidoni, Divination.

G. Mekhashef – Sorcery, Performing ‘black’ magic.

A. Nahash – Signs & Omens

A very common prohibited superstition is for a person to take mundane events that occur and consider them signs to help decide which decisions to make in life. A linkage is placed between a previous occurrence and a future one for no rational reason. Instead of running one’s life according to Torah and reason a person runs it according to arbitrary omens. Rambam gives the following examples of prohibited omens:24

a. A person says that since bread which he/she was eating fell out of his/her mouth or because the walking stick he/she was carrying fell down he/she will not do business that day because these events are signs that he/she be unsuccessful.

b. A person who says that if the bird will chirp with a certain melody I will be successful to do this and if in a different melody I will be unsuccessful doing this.

c. A person who makes arbitrary signs for him/herself. “If so-and-so happens I will do so-and-so. If so-and-so happens I will not do so.”

Rambam then states that the last case scenario was that of Eliezer, servant of Abraham who went to Haran to find a wife for Yitzhak and prayed to God to give him a sign, that the first girl who would offer him water and his camels would be the chosen one for Yitzhak.

Rambam based this statement on the Talmud25

Rav said an omen which is dissimilar to that used by Eliezer servant of Abram or that used by Yonatan son of King Saul26 is not considered an omen.

Ra’avad contemporary of Rambam and commentator on Rambam’s Mishneh Torah argued with Rambam’s understanding of the Talmudic source - the Talmud does not say that the omens used by Eliezer and Yonatan were prohibited, on the contrary, omen’s that are not like theirs are prohibited.

Rabbi Yosef Karo in his classic commentary on Mishneh Torah entitled Kessef Mishneh stated that Rambam by using Eliezer’s story as an example of prohibited omens must be of the opinion that this law even applies to Bnei Noah and not just to Jews since the story of Eliezer took place before mattan torah. Kessef Mishneh is of the opinion that this is only the case according to the one who is of the opinion that Bnei Noah are also prohibited to practice black magic however since we do not follow that opinion this case would not apply to a Ben Noah. Rambam himself27 is of the opinion that there are only seven commandments to Bnei Noah and the prohibition of practicing magic is not one of them.

Kessef Mishneh also discusses why Rambam does not quote the case of Yonatan and offers two answers:

a) Rambam had a different text of the Talmud which did not mention Yonatan or because the case of Yonatan and Eliezer are dissimilar. Eliezer gave jewelry to Rivkah even before finding out which family she was from.

b) He was under oath to only bring back a relative of Abraham. He relied totally on a sign without making any inquiries of his own. Whereas Yonatan son of Saul was a righteous individual who would never depend on a sign for his decision making process, he only made a sign in order to encourage his young companion, but either way he would have attacked the Philistines.

Ran28 explained that prohibited signs and omens are totally illogical and unrelated to the matter at hand, whereas signs that are logical and normal to the human condition are permitted. For example if a person decides not to go outside because it is raining, or defer a business trip because of a natural disaster is perfectly reasonable and allowed. The signs that Eliezer and Yonatan used were also totally logical and therefore allowed.

Eliezer knew that only a woman who does good deeds and has refined traits would be a suitable match for Yitzhak and therefore the sign he asked for was a guage to see whether she possessed these qualities.

Yonatan used a psychological test to see if the Philistines were scared or not. If they would tell him to come toward them it was an indication that they were too scared to approach him and then he and his comrade would attack them, for a few brave warriors can vanquish many terrified enemy soldiers. But if they told him to stay where he was and they would approach him then he and his comrade-in-arms would run away because the Philistines were confident of their might and had high morale.

Hagahot Maimoniot explains that before Eliezer gave Rivkah the jewelry he asked her who she was, as he states when he recounts the story of how they met to her parents. The Torah is not in any chronological order and therefore the first account of the story does not follow the right sequence of events.

Rambam continues that a person may however say that some past action of his brought him good fortune for example:

a) This apartment that I built was a good omen for me.

b) The woman I married was blessed. From the time I married her I became wealthy.

c) This animal (today – car) I purchased brought me wealth.

d) A person may ask a child which verse he learned in school if the child answers with a verse of blessing the person may rejoice.29

Rambam stated30 that the above cases are not considered prohibited omens and are allowed because the person does not amend any future plans due to these signs rather is relating them to past events.

B. Kosem – The Use of Oracles to Tell the Future, Divining.

Kosem is the action used by a person in order to enter into a trance-like state and clear the mind of all other thoughts in order to divine the future. The person then states his or her prediction of the future in any of four ways:

This matter will come to pass.

This matter will not occur.

You should do this.

You should not do this.

It is a Torah prohibition for a Jew to practice these forms of divination. Asking a diviner the future is a rabbinical prohibition.

Lehem Mishneh31 is of the opinion that inquiring of the future from a diviner is also an act prohibited by Torah law. The later authorities however disagree and explain that although the inquirer’s act is deplorable it does not constitute a violation of a biblical prohibition.32

Rambam in Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah 10:3 asked:

Diviners and sorcerers also predict the future, what difference between them and a prophet? Some of the prophecies made by diviners, sorcerers and the like materialize, some do not...Also, it is possible that none of their predictions will come true and they will err completely as (Isaiah 44:25) states: “He frustrates the omens of impostors and drives diviners mad.” In contrast, all the words of a prophet come true, as (II Kings 10:10) states: “God’s word will not fall to the ground.”

Ramban singled out meonen and menahesh as not included among the abominations mentioned in the Torah.

The Torah states: For ‘all’ that do these things are an abomination unto the Eternal, but it does not say “for those that do ‘all’ these things…” because the Torah (in calling the practitioner an abomination) refers to most (but not all) of these practices. For the meonen who divines by observing the clouds and the menahesh who divines by means of the wings or chirping of birds are not abominable, and God did not dispossess the Canaanites on their account, because all human beings desire to know the future and consider this to be a legitimate pursuit of wisdom.

Meonen and menahesh were considered by Ramban to be praiseworthy sciences for pagans to delve into, and even wisdom for Jews.

Now all this is not considered abominable for the nations, instead it is considered wisdom for them. Thus the Rabbis said:33 “And Solomon’s wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east. What was the wisdom of the children of the east? They were wise and astute in divination of birds.”... And Solomon learned all this as part of his wisdom. Now, the knowledge referred to by the Midrash is: understanding the meaning of the chirping of birds, and explaining a matter through the way they fly and spread their wings. However, these activities though allowed to be studied by Jews are prohibited to be acted on because we have direct access, through prophecy and the Urim Ve Tumim34 to the Creator Himself.

When the Torah included the diviner of clouds and other diviners with the other abominations it explained, these nations, that you are to dispossess, hearken to diviners by clouds, and other diviners for their wisdom is to know future events, but the Eternal your God has not allowed you to do so…He further forbade the enchanters and the diviners to you, because He will raise up prophets in your midst and you will hear from him what God will do...prophecy informs us of God’s desire and not one of its words will fall to the earth.” You are His portion and His treasure, hearing His counsel from His mouth, while theirs is the portion of the constellations which they follow, this being the sense of the verse, but as for you, the Eternal your God has not suffered you so to do.

Ramban continues this theme on the next verse35:

‘You shall be whole-hearted with the eternal your God.’ The meaning of this is that we are to direct our hearts to Him only, and believe that He alone does everything. It is He Who knows the truth about all future events and from His prophets, or from His pious ones, in other words we are to inquire about future events from the Urim and Tumim. We are not to inquire of the astrologers or from anyone else. Instead, if we hear any prediction (of the diviners) we should say, everything is in the hands of Heaven, for He is the God of gods Who is supreme above all, the Omnipotent One over everything, Who changes the set order of the stars and constellations at His Will, Who frustrates the tokens of the impostors, and makes diviners mad and we are to believe that future events will occur according to man’s drawing closer to His service…

Ramban dismissed the opinion of Rambam and stated that divination is effective. He based this on firsthand accounts of bird divination that were successful and on various Talmudic and other rabbinic statements:

Many scholars dispose themselves to be liberal with regard to these enchantments by saying that there is no truth in them whatsoever,36 for who tells the raven or the crane what will happen? But we cannot deny matters publicly demonstrated before the eyes of witnesses. Our Rabbis also, acknowledged their existence, as they have said in Midrash Rabbah: “For a bird of the air shall carry the voice”37 - this refers to the raven and the craft of tiarin.38 This subject is also mentioned in the Talmud.39

But there is a secret to this matter. We have already made known40 that the constellations have lords that lead them…it is through them that the signs in the birds indicate things to come…they tell…of events that are about to happen. Some make them known by utterance of bitter sounds resembling wailing over the dead, and some by spreading their wings. This is what has been said, for a bird of the air shall carry the voice - a reference to birds who suggest by their wings.

According to Ramban there is some truth in divination, sooth-saying and astrology however Jews are only to believe in God alone and inquire through prophecy and the Urim VeTummim of the Supreme Being who is in control over the whole system and not through His celestial deputies who He appointed under Him. Ramban utilized this principle to explain a large variety of biblical verses and laws. Yet, he maintained that this idea also assumed a universe determined by the celestial constellations.

C. Meonen – Using astrology to fix auspicious times - Horoscopes

Who is a fortuneteller? A person who tries to predict auspicious times, using astrology saying, “This day will be a good day,” “This day will be a bad day,” “It is appropriate to perform a particular task on a certain day”; or “This year” or “This month will not be opportune for this particular matter.”

It is interesting that Rambam avoided quoting as law the widely known dictum that a Jew should not enter into litigation with a gentile in the month of Av unlike Tur and Shulhan Arukh41 from the Talmud Taanit 29b:

With the beginning of Av rejoicing is curtailed. Rabbi Yehudah the son of Rabbi Shemuel ben Shilat said in the name of Rav: “Just as in the beginning of Av rejoicing is curtailed, so too in the beginning of Adar rejoicing is increased.” Rabbi Papa said: “Therefore a Jew who has any litigation with Gentiles should avoid it in Av because his luck is bad and should make himself available in Adar when his luck is good.”

Rambam also avoids quoting as law the latter half of Rav Papa’s statement that a Jew should litigate in Adar when his luck is good, neither does Shulhan Arukh, it is however quoted by Magen Abraham.42 Hatam Sofer43 stated that the reason that Rambam does not codify the statement as law is because of the general rule that eyn mazal leyisrael there is no such thing as lucky seasons for Jews.44

It is prohibited to tell fortunes even though one does not perform a deed, but merely relates the falsehoods which fools consider to be words of truth and wisdom. Anyone who performs a deed because of an astrological calculation or arranges his work or trips to fit a time that was suggested by the astrologers transgresses,45 Vayikra 19:26: “Do not tell fortunes.”

Also included in the scope of this prohibition is one who performs magic tricks and deludes those who observe them into thinking that magical wonders are being performed although in reality it is just sleight of hand.46

D. Hovver - The Use of Magical Spells and Incantations

A person is proscribed by Jewish law from casting unintelligible incantations that have no meaning in any language. People should not believe in the efficacy of casting spells on snakes or scorpions or other animals to prevent harm to anyone; or casting spells on a person to cause or prevent harm. This is prohibited from the Torah only if moving ones hand or finger or holding a key or a rock or other talisman in the hand while uttering the incantation. However it is prohibited by rabbinical edict when not accompanied by another act.47

All these deplorable incantations and strange names will not do harm, nor will they bring any benefit.48

Rambam stated that for the sake of saving the life of a person bitten by a poisonous scorpion or a snake, who believes in the power of spells and incantations it is permitted to recite incantations over the bite - even on the Shabbat49 - for psychosomatic purposes in order to calm the injured person’s mind even though we know that the incantations are of no avail.50

A person who whispers an incantation over a wound and then recites a verse from the Torah, who recites a verse for a child not to become scared, or who places a Torah scroll or tefillin over a baby so that it will sleep, is considered to be a soothsayer or one who cast spells.51 Furthermore, such people are included among those who deny the Torah,52 because they relate to the words of Torah as if they are cures for the body, when, in fact, they are cures for the soul, as (Proverbs 3:22) states: “And they shall be life for your soul.”

It is, however, permitted for a healthy person to read Torah verses or chapters from Psalms53 so that the merit of reading will protect and save him/her or others from difficulties and injury.54

Shakh (Siftei Cohen 179:12) explains that the prohibition applies only when one expects the mystic power of the verses alone to heal. If, however, one views God as the source of all cure and recites the verses in order to increase one’s merit, there is no prohibition involved even when a person is already sick. This opinion is accepted throughout the Jewish community.

While Rambam is unconditionally negative to magical practices he is positive toward rational medical practice. For example, the Mishnah in Pesachim mentioned a ‘book of cures’ that was hidden by King Hezekiah.55 Rambam argued strongly against the view56 that Hezekiah hid the book because people were putting their faith in medical books and not in God as the ultimate Healer. He maintained that the book that Hezekiah hid contained magical cures based upon the use of amulets. The author of the book had intended only that readers of his work study the phenomena described in it and not apply the procedures suggested therein to real situations. However, when people began to make practical use of the text, Hezekiah hid it.

Rambam did concede the validity of empirical medicine, i.e., cures that “worked” even though their causes remained unknown. In Moreh Nevukhim (3:37) he stated:

It is allowed to use all remedies that experience has shown to be valid even if reasoning does not require them…

Three categories of cures exist according to Rambam:

a. Effective ones based upon the laws of natural science.

b. Fake occult cures.

c. “Empirical medicine,” that works despite no scientific cause can be found.

If a supposed cure would be shown in reality not to work, it would fall into the second category above and be prohibited.57

Ramban discussed the halakhic imperative for a physician to heal. He understood the Talmudic statement ‘it is not in the manner of people to use medicines’58 to mean that the pursuit of medicinal aids was once a deviation from the norm. The ideal procedure followed in Israel during prophetic times was for a sick person to realize that the illness was a punishment from God, one of His manifold ‘hidden miracles’ and to respond by consulting a prophet. Eventually, however, the deviation became the norm, and the populace in general began to consult doctors. Responding in kind, God left the Jewish people to the vicissitudes of the elements. The responsibility of a doctor to heal came, therefore, only as a result of lack of faith.

Ramban discussed whether a demon or some other potent supernatural agent with whom the Torah has prohibited consultation can be used in the context of medicine, a pursuit itself advocated only as a concession to human nature? In Torat ha-Adam he permitted such activity, as long as the sorcerer did not invoke the names of other gods. Rashba recorded that Ramban personally used the lion-amulet, an astrologically based talisman. Ramban’s position was that as long as no idolatrous practice takes place, one may employ means of divination or sorcery to cure, even in a case where one’s life is not threatened.

E. Doresh El Hametim – Inquiring of the dead

It is prohibited for anyone to starve him/herself and sleep in a cemetery59 or wear special clothes, recite incantations, burn a type of incense, and sleep alone so that a deceased person will communicate to them in a dream. It is prohibited to ­perform a deed to communicate with a deceased person,60 “There shall not be found among you one who seeks information from the dead.”61

F. Ov & Yidoni - Divination

It is prohibited to inquire of a person who practices divination with an ov or a yidoni, “There shall not be found among you one who…seeks (information) from an ov or a yidoni.”62

A person who practices divination with an ov or a yidoni and a person, who inquires of them, will violate a negative commandment. One who acts according to their instructions is liable.63

G. Mekhashef – Sorcery, Performing ‘black’ magic

A sorcerer must be executed.64 This applies when a deed of sorcery was performed. If, however, he/she merely deludes those who observe the deed into thinking that it is sorcery, like todays ‘magicians’, it is rabbinically proscribed.65 The reason is that the prohibition against sorcery is stated in the prohibition (Deuteronomy 18: 10-11): “There shall not be found among you one who... practices sorcery.” (Exodus 22:171 states: “Do not allow a witch (or wizard) to live.”66

According to Rambam:

All the above matters are falsehood and lies with which the original idolaters deceived the gentile nations in order to lead them.67 It is not fitting for Jews who are wise sages to be drawn into such emptiness, nor to consider that they have any value. This is implied by Bilaam in Bemidbar 23:231: “No black magic can be found among Yaakov, or occult arts within Israel.” Similarly, (Deuteronomy 18:14) states: “These nations which you are driving out listen to astrologers and diviners. This is not what God... has allowed you.”

Whoever believes in occult arts of this nature and thinks that they are true and words of wisdom but are prohibited by the Torah, is foolish and feebleminded.68 The masters of wisdom and those of perfect knowledge know with clear proof that all these crafts which the Torah forbade are not reflections of wisdom, but rather, emptiness and vanity that attracted the feebleminded and caused them to abandon all paths of truth. For these reasons, when the Torah warned against all these empty matters, it advised us in (Deuteronomy 18:13): “Be of perfect faith with God, your Lord.”69


According to Ramban there is some truth in Divination, sooth-saying and astrology but we Jews are only to believe in God alone and inquire through prophecy and the Urim VeTummim of the Supreme Being who is in control over the whole system and not through His celestial deputies who he appointed under Him.

Despite disagreeing in principle between the philosophical underpinnings of these laws there is an understanding of all our great authorites that these practices are prohibited to Jews and obstruct the attainment of complete faith and trust in Almighty God.

7. Evil Eye – Ayin Hara

According to most authorities, with the exception of Rambam, Ayin Hara is not a superstition but a proven phenomenon that existed in earliest Jewish history. Quasi belief in ayin hara exists today even in the most secular intellectual circles.70


1) Sarah ‘gave’ Hagar an Ayin Hara, causing the miscarriage of her first pregnancy.71

2) Yaakov instructed each of his sons to enter Egypt via different entrances, so as to avoid ayin hara because they were all strong and handsome.72 It appears from this that gentiles can also create an ayin hara against others and since they were only benei Yisrael at the time and not technically Jewish, it seems that it would apply to gentiles, too. This Midrash also indicates that Ayin Hara exists and we need to take precautions not to be affected by it.

3) King Saul was jealous of the future King David’s military prowess and “gave” him an Ayin Hara. Samuel 1, 18:9.

4) Rabbi Yochanan said “I am a descendant of Yosef over whom Ayin Hara had no control.” The Talmud also says that fish represent a form of life that is free of the influence of Ayin Hara.73

5) According to one opinion of the Talmud, a first-born daughter prevents Ayin Hara from affecting the family, Bava Batra 141a.

6) Ayin Hara also has Halakhic ramifications. The Talmud Bava Batra 2b states that it is prohibited to create a new window overlooking someone else’s property or to stand in a neighbor’s field when their crops are fully grown. Rashi explains that this is prohibited because of Ayin Hara. While Rashi, Ramban, Rav Yosef Karo (Hoshen Mishpat 378:5) affirmed this explanation, Rambam explained the prohibition as a protection of another’s privacy, and dismissed the reason of ayin hara. The halakhah prohibits not only the act of looking into a neighbor’s home, but also prohibits one from maintaining the ability to do so. Therefore, in many cases, a bet din can force the building of a wall or fence to block one neighbor’s view of another. Normally, when a person remains silent in the face of a neighbor’s encroaching behavior, it indicates that he has agreed to the behavior and is willing to lose his right to stop it. However, many Rishonim maintain that the damage of visual intrusion is so great that remaining silent does not indicate acceptance of it.

7) In the daily Morning Blessings Sepharadim pray ‘Save me today and each day from…evil occurrences and ayin hara’.

8) The Talmud prohibits caring for lost property while in the view of strangers, lest the Evil Eye destroys the property (Bava Metzia 30a), Rambam only mentions the second reason offered in the Talmud, that the onlookers might steal it.74

9) The eye frequently serves as a metaphor to describe Divine providence as well as the interest people take in each other. The Torah depicts the watchful eye of God over the Jewish people (Devarim 11:12, Tehilim 33:18) and further demands that people not close their eyes to the needs of the less fortunate (Devarim 7:16, 15:9). It cautions us from being led astray by the wandering eye (Bamidbar 15:39), understanding that visual stimulation cause the most temptations (Sota 8a).

10) The Sages admonish a person for possessing an Ayin Hara (Pirkei Avot 2:9, 11). One should instead adopt the trait of Ayin Tova (good eye), taking satisfaction with one’s lot in life and wishing the best for one’s friends and neighbors (Avot DeRabi Natan 16).

11) The sage Rav75 attributed fatal illnesses to the Evil Eye; he would enter cemeteries and determine that 99 out of 100 people died prematurely from Ayin Hara causes (Bava Metzia 107b).

12) Rashi and many other medieval scholars explained that the Torah prohibited directly counting Jews to avoid inflicting an “Evil Eye”. We do not count people directly even for a minyan.76

13) Many medieval philosophers affirmed the power of Ayin Hara. Both Ralbag (1288-1344, France) and Rav Yitzhak Arama (15th century, Spain) explain how eyes can emit certain vapors that wreak havoc on their objects. Others, like Rav Ovadia Seforno (1475-1550, Italy) adopted a more spiritual approach, contending that escalated individual attention causes God to examine the actions of the given person, increasing the possibility of divine reproach, since no one is without sin.

14) Despite Rambam’s opposition, many popular customs based on belief in the Evil Eye became part of Jewish Law. Double weddings within families or congregations are not held to avoid the harm of noticeable celebration (Even Ha’ezer 62:3). Fathers and sons and brothers were prohibited from receiving consecutive aliyot to the Torah. Rav Yehiel M. Epstein permitted one to forgo this custom if he was not concerned with the Evil Eye (Arukh Hashulhan 141:8), however, the majority of contemporary halakhic authorities believe that this custom should never be waived (Mishnah Berura OH 141:19).

15) Contemporary scholars continue to affirm the historic belief in the Ayin Hara. Rav Meshulam Roth (d. 1963) chastised another scholar for dismissing its significance and importance (Kol Mevaser 2:7). Rav Ovadia Yosef A’H gave a fascinating devar Torah detailing the measures one can take to avoid the Ayin Hara. The main precaution is to lead a modest lifestyle. This includes dressing and behaving with Tzniut (modesty), not showing off, and not boasting about one’s accomplishments, achievements, and possessions.

16) There are many cases in the Talmud of the eye of Torah Scholars: Moed Katan 17b, Chagigah 5b; Nedarim 7b; Bava Metzia 59b

17) Pessahim 50b lists professions that cause ayin hara: Involvement in business with reeds and barrels, which are visible and seem to be plentiful, cause jealousy: For example: Merchants in the market; Those who raise animals who graze in other people’s property; Those who make money chopping down beautiful trees and selling the wood; Those who consistently take the finer portion when splitting an item.

18) Acquiring wealth without effort causes jealousy. (Eruvin 64a-b).

19) Putting one’s beauty on display. Berachot 20a

20) Evil Eye caused Rava to suffer at the hands of Shevor Malka, despite his payments to the government. Chagigah 5a-b.

21) Evil Eye caused the death of Rav Pappa’s parents. Yevamot 106a.

22) Evil eye of Rabbi Eliezer caused destruction.77 Bava Metzia 59b.

23) Damaging another person’s growing plants by looking at them. Bava Batra 2b.

24) The Talmud Berachot 20a lists things that are immune to the Evil Eye: Some people have a natural immunity to ayin hara. The descendants of Yosef78 have such immunity. Rav Yochanan stated that he was also immune to ayin hara by virtue of his having descended from Yosef. The question arises as to why this is so. Why are some immune and others not? What factor is at play here? The Talmud is silent about this issue. The Talmud and Rashi (Bereishis 48:16) further tell us that fish are also immune to ayin hara presumably because they are not visible to people. Another factor that protects a person from ayin hara lies in the multitudes of people that are casting them.

25) Someone who refuses to benefit from that which belongs to others is immune from ayin hara.79

26) Balak hired Bilaam to fix his evil eye on the Jewish people (Bamidbar 24:2). Bilaam had already established a track record as an expert in the art of harnessing evil forces for destructive purposes. His potent curses had enabled Sichon to conquer the Emorite cities (Bemidbar 21:27). Fortunately God in his mercy protected us from Bilaam’s evil gaze.80

27) The Midrash Tanhumah relates that the first set of tablets (the Aseret HaDibrot) because they were given publicly, attracted ayin hara from the nations around and as a consequence were destroyed. But what exactly is being taught to us by this Midrash? Wasn’t it God who commanded that the Aseret HaDibrot be given publicly? The apparent answer is that God arranged things in this manner to teach us that we must employ modesty in the manner in which things are presented, or the natural laws of ayin hara take over.

28) Shulhan Arukh allowed wearing a kind of knot which was made to guard against the evil eye on Shabbat in a place without an eruv and not transgress the prohibition of carrying on Shabbat. 81

29) Shulhan Arukh (HM 378:5) stated that “if a person’s vision is harmful to his friend, it is prohibited to stare at him…” Hazal called this type of damage hezek re’iah, damage caused by visual trespassing. Sema explained that there are two reasons for this prohibition. The first reason is that Hazal were concerned about the damaging effect of the ayin hara. The second reason: Staring at one’s neighbor can infringe on his/her ability to use his/her property. Since people are typically uncomfortable doing work under the scrutiny of others, the person may not use the part of the property exposed to his neighbor’s view.

30) What would happen if a modern-day disciple of Bilaam would try to cast an evil eye against another? Say a person tells his enemy, “I’m going to put my eye on your house and it’s going to burn down,” and then, that night, a lightning bolt strikes the house and it burns down. Would Jewish law consider the person monetarily responsible for the damage? The Steipler Gaon, Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky, zt”l, discussed this issue (Kehillat Yaakov, Bava Kamma, Siman 45). He is of the opinion that an evil eye can do real damage, and, theoretically, a person who damaged by means of an evil eye can be held monetarily responsible. However, practically speaking, the victim would find it difficult indeed to prove to a bet din a causal relationship between the burning gaze of his enemy and the burning of his house.

The widespread Ashkenazi practice of saying “Beli Ayin Hara” (literally “Without the Evil Eye”) or in Yiddish “Ken Ayin Hara” is a prayer to God, so that if there are any silent cries going up to the Heavenly court, He should not listen to them, and He will protect us from any harm. The Sephardic custom is to say “Ben porat Yosef ben porat aley ayin”82

There are other popular Ayin Hara ‘antidotes’ such as tying red strings around one’s wrist (see the section on the red thread later on whether it is allowed), and the Hamsa (‘Five-Fingers’) Many Jews believe that the five fingers of the hamsa hand remind its wearer to use their five senses to praise God or alternatively to remind us of the letter ‘Heh’ that is a short form of God.83

The symbol of the hand appears in Kabbalistic manuscripts and amulets, with the thumb and little finger bent and three fingers showing doubling as the Hebrew letter ‘shin,’ the first letter of ‘Shaddai,’ one of God’s names that is written on the outside of a mezuzah that denotes protection.

Be careful not to use any folklore remedy or segula unless it is halakhically sanctioned, since some practices are forms of voodoo or ‘Darkhei Ha’Emori’ the way of the pagan Canaanite nations which we are prohibited to follow.

How Does Ayin Hara Operate?

a. Hazon Ish: Human thoughts can trigger a variety of natural phenomena that can cascade and eventually lead to the destruction of physical bodies. When something successful engenders the amazement of people, its future is endangered.

b. Rabbi Menachem Recanati84 explains that the entire power of ayin hara lies in its ability to awaken midat hadin, God’s attribute of strict justice. Generally speaking God judges us with the attribute of kindness, but during periods of “Divine anger,” He judges us with midat ha’din. Ayin hara can cause the midat ha’din to be aroused instead of midat harahamim.85

c. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler86 asked “Where is the justice in a system that causes people to suffer for the jealousies of others?” Rabbi Dessler answered that what happens is: A person who has what another person lacks is ‘careless’ and lets the other person see what he/she has. This causes pain to the other person, and his/her cry goes up to the Heavenly court. Many people yearn to have what others have, and suffer real pain when they see others casually flaunt those things. True, they shouldn’t be jealous, but we cannot expect everyone to be a Tzaddik. Divine justice demands retribution for causing this pain to another person.

How Can We Protect Ourselves From Ayin Hara?

a. Rav Eliyahu Dessler: A person who wishes to safeguard him or herself against ayin hara should strive to be a giver, not taker. Such a person, ever occupied with hessed, will give no cause for jealousy and will not be on the receiving end of ayin hara.87 Such a person, filled with thoughts of blessing for others, will also deserve to be counted in the ranks of the disciples of Avraham Avinu, who were known for their ayin tova, their good and generous eye for all (Pirke Avot 5:22).88

b. Rav Ovadia Yosef: Be sensitive to others, and don’t flaunt what you have. The best protection is to behave modestly with a genuine concern for the feelings of others.

c. Keli Yakar (Bereshit 24:14, 22) informs us of the best way to avoid ayin hara: The gift that Eliezer gave Rivkah alluded to the shekalim that were used in the census of the Jewish people in order to avoid ayin hara. The Keli Yakar points out that hessed, the criterion that Eliezer used in order to select Rivkah as a wife for Yitzhak, is the remedy for ayin hara. There is an intrinsic connection and association between ayin tova, giving generously and ayin ra, the evil eye. Generosity is a cure for ayin hara. Using this explanation we can answer the question why some are immune from ayin hara? Because they have ayin tova in their genes, they are spiritual descendants of Yosef HaTzaddik.

d. The best antidote to the evil eye is mentioned by the Talmud Pessahim 110b: If people do not believe in ayin hara it has no effect on them i.e. it is psychosomatic. A person may rationally not believe in the ayin hara however on an emotional level may still be afraid and panic. The best defense against these feelings is to increase ones bitachon - trust in God89 and rely on Him for protection from all physical and spiritual damage. The reward for this trust is pure kindness from God.

e. The Talmud90 stated that the antidote for the evil eye is to say a verse from Yaakov’s blessing of Yosef,91 implying that Yosef was successful in countering the effects of the evil eye.92 We may infer from this that the evil eye is jealousy. Yosef successfully survived the jealousy of his brothers and the selfish desires of Potiphar’s wife. Although these episodes had negative impacts on his life, he successfully overcame all obstacles and achieved fame and fortune. He finally married Potiphar’s daughter Asnat and financially supported his brothers and their families. The Talmud continued by asking how Yosef was successful in countering the effects of the evil eye and answered, “The eyes that did not partake from that which did not belong to them - the evil eye has no power over.” Yosef did not partake of any pleasure derived from Potiphar’s wife and had no illicit desire or conquered any desire that he had for her. He was thus spared from other people’s jealousy and desire. If we are not jealous, or covetous of other people’s property, then other people’s jealousies and desires will have no effect on us.

Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Yabia Omer Vol. II E.H. 7:11) discussed the prohibition outlined by Rabbi Yehuda Hahasssid in his spiritual will that two brothers should not marry two sisters because of ayin hara. He quoted the Noda Biyehuda who allowed this based on the Talmud Berakhot 44a that 80 pairs of brothers who were Kohanim married 80 pairs of sisters who were Kohanim, and also because Rabbi Yehuda Hahasssid wrote this will only for his own descendents who he wanted to live on a higher form of piety.

Rav Ovadiah Yosef then quoted Hida93 (Sefer Berit Olam, Ch. 477) who also quoted theTalmud above and argued that at different times in history and in different places things change. Medications mentioned as effective in the Talmud no longer work today. So too, the power of the sitrah ahara of ayin hara is even stronger today than in earlier times. Secondly, since it is unusual today for two brothers to marry two sisters it arouses more ayin hara than before.

Rav Ovadiah Yosef pointed out from Tosafot in Hullin (107b) that there are many kinds of ruach ra that no longer exist and this can be extended to ayin hara too, that ayin hara in our days is much weaker than ever before. This is because of the important idea that there is always a balance between the holiness and unholiness, during times of more holiness the there is more unholiness in the world. In our present reality the power of holiness is so weak that evil is too, and we do not need to overly concern ourselves with ayin hara.

Rabbi Yosef Karo is of the opinion that one should be concerned about the evil eye in certain situations. Shulhan Arukh94 quotes an interesting law that the owner of the house and not his or her guest should break and allocate bread to people around the dinner table. The reason given is that the host has a ‘good’ eye. In this context, this means that the host will allocate generous helpings of bread, while a guest may be hesitant to give away too much of his host’s bread. We see that the ‘good’ eye is that of a generous person. If we assume that an ‘evil’ eye is the opposite of a good eye, this law reveals to us its definition as miserliness and jealousy.

‘Keeping up with the Jones’ is the motivation for the lives that many of us lead. Its core is jealousy. The Torah is replete with tales of jealousy: Kayin and Hebel; Yosef and his brothers; Korah and Moshe; King Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard, to mention but a few, are all classic tales of jealousy. Jealousy is a motivator so extremely powerful that it can sometimes lead to committing three terrible crimes: murder, adultery and robbery. It is no coincidence that the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2 & Deuteronomy 5:6) end with the prohibition of coveting one’s neighbor’s possessions. The Torah also prohibits desiring one’s neighbor’s property. (Deuteronomy 5:17)

On the other hand, a certain type of jealousy is highly recommended. In the words of the Talmud,95 ‘Jealousy of scribes increases wisdom.’ It is desirable to be jealous of the deeds, good qualities and character of righteous people. This will encourage a person to raise their sights and perform more good deeds.96


No mention is made by Rambam of the evil eye. Rambam also skips all mention of the evil eye from the text of the morning blessings.97 It would seem that he considered ayin hara as a form of prohibited superstition and not a real phenomenon. However, Shulkhan Aruh and others mention it and Sepharadim every morning pray not to be affected by it.

8. Korbanot, Sacrifices - Challenging and Denying Idolatry

Rambam in ‘Moreh Nevukhim,’98 discussed the philosophy of the korbanot (temple sacrifices) and the choice of the different species of animals. He stated that the types of sacrificial animals to be used in the holy temple (Bet Hamikdash) were chosen specifically because they were considered to be gods by the pagan religions which abounded at that time and some that are still existent.

‘The Torah according to Onkelos99 tells us that the Egyptians worshipped Aries,100 and therefore abstained from killing sheep, and held shepherds in contempt. “For every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians...”101 and “Behold we shall sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians...”102 Some sects among the ancient Babylonian Pagans (Sabeans) worshipped demons, and imagined that these assumed the form of goats (seirim). This worship was widespread. “And they shall not offer their sacrifices unto demons, after whom they have strayed...”103 This is the reason those sects refrained from eating goat meat. Most idolaters objected to killing cattle, holding this species of animal in great reverence. The people of India to this day do not slaughter cattle…In order to eradicate these false principles, the law commands us to offer sacrifices only of these three kinds: “You shall bring your offering of the cattle, of the herd and of the flock...”104 Thus, the very act which is considered by the heathen to be the greatest crime, is the means of approaching God, and obtaining his pardon for our sins. In this manner, evil principles, the diseases of the human soul are cured by other principles which are diametrically opposite.

This is the reason why we were commanded to kill a lamb on Pesach, and to sprinkle its blood on the door posts. We had to free ourselves of evil doctrines and to proclaim the opposite, that the very act which was then considered the cause of death would be the cause of deliverance from death. “And the Lord will pass over your door, and will not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to smite you.”105 They were rewarded for performing openly a service that was objected to by the idolaters.’

According to Rambam one of the objectives of God through the Torah is to wean the Jewish people away from idolatrous practices. One of the missions of the Torah is to destroy the idolatrous taboos and superstitions that are rooted in idolatry. This goal is to be achieved by advocating the very opposite of that demanded by the surrounding idolatrous cults.106

Ramban in his commentary on the Torah107 responds to Rambam’s words above:

‘But these words are mere expressions, healing casually a severe wound and a great difficulty and making the table of the Eternal polluted, as if the offerings were intended only to remove false beliefs from the hearts of the wicked and fools of the world, when Scripture says that they are ‘the food of the offering made by fire, for a pleasing odor.’108 Moreover, if the offerings were meant to eliminate the foolish ideas of the Egyptians, their disease would not thereby be cured. On the contrary, it would increase the cause of sorrow, for since the intention of the above-mentioned wicked ones was to worship the constellations of the sheep and the ox, which according to their opinion possess certain powers (over human affairs), and which is why they abstain from eating them in deference to their power and strength, then if these species are slaughtered to the Revered Name, it is a mark of respect and honor to (these constellations). These worshippers themselves were in the habit of so doing, as He has said, ‘And they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices unto the satyrs.’109 And those that made the (golden) calf sacrificed to it.110 Now Rabbi (Moshe ben Maimon) mentions that the idol-worshippers used to sacrifice to the moon on the days of new-moon, and to the sun when it rose in a particular constellation known to them from their books. The disease of idolatry would surely have been far better cured if we were to eat (these animal-deities) to our full, which would be considered by them prohibited and repugnant, and something they would never do!

Furthermore, when Noah came out of the ark with his three sons, there were as yet no Chaldeans or Egyptians in the world, yet he brought an offering, which was pleasing to God, concerning it Scripture says, ‘And the Eternal smelled the pleasing odor and on account of it He said in His heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake.’111 (An additional proof is cited from the verse,) ‘Abel likewise brought of the first-born of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Eternal accepted Abel and his offering.’112 Yet there was as yet not the slightest trace at all of idol-worship in the world! Bilaam said, “I have prepared the seven altars, and I have offered up a bullock and a ram on every altar.”113 His intent then was not to eradicate from Balak’s mind evil beliefs, nor was he commanded to bring the offerings. Instead, Bilaam did so in order to approach God. The Scriptural expression concerning the offerings is, ‘My food which is presented unto Me for offerings made by fire, for a pleasing odor unto Me.’114 Far be it that they should have no other purpose and intention except the elimination of idolatrous opinions from the minds of fools!’

It is far more fitting to accept the reason for the offerings which scholars115 say, namely that since man’s deeds are accomplished through thought, speech and action, therefore God commanded that when man sins and brings an offering, he should lay his hands upon it in contrast to the (evil) deed (committed). He should confess his sin verbally in contrast to his (evil) speech, and he should burn the innards and the kidneys (of the offering) in fire because they are the instruments of thought and desire in the human being. He should burn the legs (of the offering) since they correspond to the hands and feet of a person, which do all his work. He should sprinkle the blood upon the altar, which is analogous to the blood in his body. All these acts are performed in order that when they are done, a person should realize that he has sinned against his God with his body and his soul, and that ‘his’ blood should really be spilled and ‘his’ body burned, were it not for the loving-kindness of the Creator, Who took from him a substitute and a ransom, namely this offering, so that its blood should be in place of his blood, its life in place of his life, and that the chief limbs of the offering should be in place of the chief parts of his body. The portions (given from the sin-offering to the priests), are in order to support the teachers of the Torah, so that they pray on his behalf.

The reason for the daily public offerings (Temidim) is that it is impossible for the public (as a whole) to continually avoid sin. Now these are words which are worthy to be accepted, appealing to the heart as do words of Aggadah. By way of the Truth, (the mystic teachings of the Kabalah), there is a hidden secret contained in the offerings...’

9. Use of Holy Names, Incantations, Blessing and Curses

According to Rambam’s concept of the transcendence of God, letters, words, and names have no intrinsic significance. They are simply symbols pointing to meaning outside them.116 Though he speaks of the kedushah of Hebrew (Kedushat Halashon),117 Rambam does not mean that there is a sacred quality in the language. He uses kedushah in the sense of moral restraint, pointing out that Hebrew has avoided coining words for the reproductive organs and bad language.118

Rambam acknowledged that the Torah and Talmud speak of the holy four letter name of God, the unique name which expresses God’s essence, independently of any attribute of action. But he neutralized the possible mystical application of this name asserting that its correct pronunciation has been lost together with the knowledge of how to pronounce original Hebrew.119

‘As for the name that, if pronounced, is composed of Yod, He, Vav, and He, no commonly accepted derivation of it is known and none other than He has a part in it. There can be no doubt about the fact that this great name, which as you know was not pronounced except in the Temple by the sanctified Priests of the Lord and only in the Priestly blessing, also by the High Priest on the day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Perhaps it indicates the notion of a necessary existence, according to the (Hebrew) language, of which we today know only a very little and also with regard to its pronunciation. Generally speaking, the greatness of this name and the prohibition against pronouncing it are due to its being indicative of the essence of Him, may He be exalted, in such a way that none of the created things are associated with Him. As the Sages, may their memory be blessed have said of it: “My name that is peculiar to Me.”

As for the other names, they don’t indicate an essence alone, but an essence possessing attributes. For this reason, they produce in one’s mind a concept of multiplicity; they produce in one’s imagination the thought that the attributes exist, and that there is an essence and an assumption of something added to this essence…However…God, may He be exalted, is not a substratum with which some notions are connected. The derived names are to be understood either with reference to the relation of a certain action to Him or with reference to directing the mind toward His perfection. For this reason, Rabbi Haninah would have shrunk from the description in the Torah, the Great, the Valiant, and the Terrible, were it not for the two necessary obligations mentioned by him…when the names deriving from the actions pertaining to Him, may He be exalted, were multiplied, they produced in the fantasy of some men the thought that He has many attributes, just as there is a multiplicity of actions from which these names derive. Hence the Torah promises that an understanding that will put an end to this delusion will come to men. Thus it says: “On that day shall the Lord be one, and His name one,”120 which means that in the same way as He is one, He will be invoked at that time by one name only, by that which is indicative only of the essence and which is not derivative. In Pirke de’Rabbi Eliezer they have said: “Before the world was created, there was only the Holy One, blessed be He, and His name.”121 Consider how this clearly states that all the derivative names have come into being after the world has come into being. This is correct, for all these names have been laid down so as to correspond to actions existing in the world. However, if you envisage His essence when divested and stripped of all actions, He no longer has a derived name in any respect whatever, but only one original name that indicates His essence. In fact we have no non-derivative name except the one in question, namely, Yod, He, Vav, He.

Do not think anything other than this and do not be fooled by the vain imaginings of the writers of kamiyot (protective amulets or charms) or by names you may hear from them or may find in their stupid books, names that they have invented, which are not indicative of any notion whatsoever, that they think necessitate holiness and purity and work miracles. All these are stories that it is not seemly for a perfect man to listen to, much less to believe. None is called the ineffable name except the name having four letters that is written but not read in accordance with the way it is written. The Sages have stated clearly in Sifre: “Thus shall you bless the children of Israel (Koh tevarekhu et beney Yisrael.” The sages state that the word ‘Thus, (koh)’: teaches us, that the Kohanim should bless the people using the exact same words; also that the Kohanim should bless the people using the ineffable name. The Sifre further states: In the Temple, the name is pronounced as it is written, whereas in the rest of the country the name used to replace it is pronounced instead.”122 And in the Talmud it is said: ‘Thus’ means with the ineffable name. And if you ask: With the ineffable name or with the name used to replace it, this may be learnt from the words: “And they shall put My name” - that is, My name that is peculiar to me. Thus it has become clear to you that the ineffable name is the name having four letters and that it alone is indicative of the essence without associating any other notion with it. For this reason the sages have said of it that it is the name that is peculiar to God.

The Talmud123 enumerates stringent qualifications for the student of the twelve-letter and forty-two letter name of God. Subsequent writers proceeded to “identify these names with the nature and essence of what is named by them” with the result that a creative magical potency could be said to be inherent in them. Rav Hai Gaon, for example, believed that the forty-two letter name of God played a role in creation.

Rambam seems to reject these claims.124

Now I shall make clear to you what has incited men to the beliefs with regard to the names…We have received a commandment with regard to the Priestly blessing in which the name of the Lord figures as it is written. This name is the ineffable name. Not everybody knew how this name was to be pronounced and how its letters should be vocalized and which of the letters, if any, should be repeated. Accordingly, wise men have transmitted the mode of pronouncing it but they did not teach it to anyone except ‘once a week to a worthy scholar.’125 I believe that this statement refers not only to their teaching the mode of pronouncing this name but also to their making known its origin without any derivation. This knowledge is a divine secret.

Furthermore, though they used a name having twelve letters, that name was in sanctity inferior to the name having four letters. In my opinion the most probable supposition is that the name that had twelve letters was not one name but two or three, the sum of the letters of which came to twelve. This name was uttered in all the cases in which the name having four letters occurred in the reading of the Torah, just as we in the same cases use the name aleph, daleth, nun, yod. Now this twelve letter name is undoubtedly indicative of a notion more particularly pertaining to God than the indicated by Aleph, daleth, nun, yod. But this name was not prohibited and withheld from any of the men of knowledge; on the contrary, everybody who sought to learn this name was taught it…in consequence, reprehensible people started learning the name having twelve letters, and through this corrupted beliefs. This happens whenever anyone who is not perfect comes to know that something is not as he had imagined it to be in the first place. The sages therefore made a secret of this name, and taught it only to the discreet among the Priests so that they might use it in giving their blessing to the people in the Temple, as they had ceased mentioning the ineffable name in the Temple because of the corruption of the people. As stated: ‘After the death of Simon the Just, his brethren the Priests stopped using the name in giving their blessing instead they used the name having twelve letters.’126 They also say: ‘At first the name having twelve letters was transmitted to everyone. However, when amoral people became numerous, it was transmitted only to the discreet among the Priests; and the discreet among the Priests uttered it in such fashion that it should be inaudible, hidden by the vocal melodies of their brethren.127

They also knew a name having forty-two letters. People of intelligence are aware that it is impossible for forty-two letters to form one word; these were certainly several words, the number of the letters of which amounted to forty-two. There is no doubt that these words were necessarily indicative of several notions and that these notions came near to a representation of the essence of Him, may He be exalted, in the way we have stated.

These words that had numerous letters were called a ‘name’ only because of their alluding to one notion only, and like the other name originated without any derivation. These words were numerous only with a view to making the notion in question understood. Sometimes many words are used in order to make a single notion understood. They were taught the notions indicated by these names as well as the pronunciation of the letters. The term “ineffable name” is never applied to the “name having twelve letters” or to the “name having forty-two letters” For “the ineffable name” is “the name that is peculiar to Him,” as we have made clear, whereas the two others necessarily taught some sort of divine knowledge. The fact that it taught divine knowledge is proved by the following declaration on this subject in the Talmud Kiddushin 71a: “the name having forty-two letters is holy and sanctified and only transmitted to one who is discreet, has reached the middle of his life, not prone to anger or to drunkenness, does not arouse criticism by his way of life, and speaks agreeably with people. He who knows it, is heedful thereof, and observes it in purity, is believed on high and popular below. He is feared by the people, his learning is preserved by him, and he inherits two worlds, this world and the next.” How very remote is the way in which this saying is usually understood from the intention of its speaker. Most people think that it deals solely with the pronunciation of letters, and it is not taken into consideration that these letters may have a meaning, so that great things may be acquired through them and that for this reason there is needed the moral preparation and the multiple forming of dispositions that were mentioned. It is clear then that all this is solely instruction in divine…mysteries of the Torah...

When wicked and ignorant people found these texts, they would put together any letters they liked and would say: this is a name that has efficacy and the power to operate if it is written down or uttered in a particular way. These lies invented by the first wicked and ignorant man were written down, and these writings were transmitted to good, pious, and foolish men who lacked the ability to discern truth from falsehood. These people accordingly made a secret of these writings, and the latter were found in the belongings left behind, so that they were thought to be correct. To sum it up: “A fool believes everything.”128

If names of God cannot produce magical results, how can one the recitation of names of angels, or other unintelligible invocations produce results? They must all be fraudulent.

And all those strange, disagreeable sounds and names will do no evil, but neither will they do any good.

Rambam is the only rabbinical authority who considered the use of incantations as a violation of Biblical law, interpreting the ban against incantations hover haver in such terms,129 in contrast to the Talmud and medieval commentators who see hover haver as the activity of drawing animals to one place through magical means.

Ramban’s View

Ramban discusses the idea of the holiness of the Hebrew language in his commentary on the Torah130 while explaining the phrase “half a shekel ‘beshekel hakodesh’, of the shekel of holiness.”

Since the standard shekel of valuation and the redemption of the firstborn,131 which are holy matters, were given in that coin, also shekels are mentioned in connection with the tabernacle, and all money the amount of which is specified in the Torah,132 therefore the Torah calls it the ‘shekel of holiness’.

I am of the opinion that this is the same reason why our Rabbis call the language of the Torah “The Sacred Language,” because the words of the Torah, and the prophecies, and all words of holiness were all expressed in that language. It is thus the language in which the Holy One, blessed be He, spoke with His prophets, and with His congregation (when He said), - I am the Eternal your God, etc. and You shall have no other gods before Me, and the other communications of the Torah and prophecy - and in that tongue He is called by His sacred names: El, Elohim, Tzeba’ot, Shaddai, Adonai, and The Great Proper Name (i.e., the Tetragrammaton). In that tongue He created His world, and called the names shamayim (heavens), eretz (earth) and all that is in them, His angels and all His hosts - He called them all by name. The names of Michael and Gabriel are in this Sacred Language. In that language He called the names of the holy ones that are in the earth: Abraham, Yitzhak, Yaakov, Shlomo, and others.

Now the Rabbi (Moshe ben Maimon) has written in the Moreh Nebukhim: “Do not think that our language is called the sacred language just as a matter of pride, or an error on our part, but it is perfectly justified; for this holy language has no special names for the organs, male or female, nor for semen, nor for urination or excretion, except in indirect language. Be not misled by the word sheigal to take it to mean the act of intercourse. It says yishgalenah in accordance with what has been written on it, and it means that “he will take the woman as a concubine.” Now there is no need for this reason (why Hebrew is called the sacred Language), for it is clear that the Hebrew language is most holy, as I have explained. The reason (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon) mentioned is in my opinion not correct. The mere fact that (the masters of the Masorah) have circumscribed the word yishgalenah (to be read as) yishkavenah he will lie with her, shows that the word mishgal is the term for sexual intercourse itself. Similarly the fact that they circumscribed the expression, to eat ‘choreihem’ to be read ‘tzo’atam - their dung’ shows that choreihem is an indecent term. And if the reason were indeed as the rabbi (Moshe ben Maimon) has said, they should have called the Hebrew language not “the Holy Language” but “the modest language,” similarly to that which we have been taught in a Mishnah: “until he grows a beard - the lower one and not the upper one is meant”, except that the Sages spoke in modest language. The Rabbis have further said: “Save the bread which he did eat”, - this is a refined expression, for it refers to his wife, and so also in many places.133

Rambam stated that there is no tangible result of a human blessing or curse; the reason why the Torah prohibits one to engage in such activities is to instill proper modes of behavior and discipline in people. He explained that punishment was meted out for cursing ones fellow man by use of the Divine Name because “according to the opinion of the multitude” such curses have a deleterious effect.

10. Amulets and Using Mitzvot as Magic

The use of amulets containing ‘divine’ names of angels is repeatedly noted in Rambam’s writing. The theory underlying their potency is explained by Rambam as concentrated spiritual energy in their contents, and the rebuke follows:134

‘Do not be fooled by the vain imaginings of the writers of charms, or names you may hear from them or may find in their stupid books, names that they have invented, which are not indicative of any notion whatsoever, but which they call the names which they think work miracles. All these are stories that it is not seemly for a perfect man to listen to, much less believe.’

Rambam’s stance was extremely brave considering that in the Jewish medieval period amulets abounded not only among the masses of the Jewish communities, but among scholars as well. A Geonic responsum recommended the use of amulets in order to exert influence on the angels for “regarding certain affairs of man, only angels have jurisdiction, with no possibility of recourse to a Higher Power.”135 Rav Hai Gaon reviewed some magical practices of his day in a responsum, dismissing the magical use of “names” but affirming the effectiveness of amulets.136

Rambam was aware of the penetration of magic into the thought and practice of large masses of his contemporaries, including the “good and virtuous:”

“I know that most people, perhaps all, are tempted by talismans. Even good and virtuous ones from among our Torah community believe those are effective and have only been prohibited by the Torah.”137

In his commentary on Mishnah Sotah 7:4 he simply notes the absurdity of their use:

Yod, He, Vav, He is the exalted name of God, know this, and do not preoccupy your mind with what the writers of talismans and the stupid among men vainly imagine.

He uses his sharpest critique in the Guide I, 61-62:

Do not let occur to your mind the vain imaginings of the writers of charms... they would put together any letters they would like and would say that this is a name that has potency.

In case of health emergency (snake or scorpion bite), he permitted an incantation to be recited solely for the psychological relief it may provide the afflicted one even though medically it is futile.138

One who was bitten by a allowed to recite an order to settle his mind and to strengthen his heart, though this practice avails for was allowed in order that he not go crazy.

He recorded the Mishnaic law that a tested amulet (kamiyah shel mumheh) may be worn on the Shabbat if the amulet worked at least three times or was prepared by a scribe whose effectiveness was proved at least three times.139

However Rambam is very strict not to use elements of the religion itself, its sacred literature, sacred objects, and its ritual as a kind of magic.

It is prohibited to attribute magical curative powers to a Torah scroll, to employ a Biblical verse as an magical sedative, to treat a mezuzah as an amulet, because these practices constitute a blasphemous abuse of religious articles and ritual.

One who recites an incantation and reads a verse of Torah over a wound; or one who reads (a verse) over a baby so that the baby will not become frightened; or one who places a Scroll of Law or tefillin on a child so that the child may sleep…are in the category of deniers of Torah because they make the words of Torah medication for the body while they are only medication for the soul.140

Those who write on the inside (of a mezuzah) names of angels or names of holy ones or a verse of psalms are in the category of those who have no share in the world to come, for they made a great mitzvah. i.e. the unity of the name of God, love of Him, and His service, as if it were an amulet for their own benefit,…making the mezuzah into something that brings benefit through the vanities of the world.141

Here in Egypt we saw them taking tablets of gold or silver, inscribing on them Yoshev Beseter (Shir Shel Pegaim, Psalm 91) and hanging them around the necks of young boys. We strongly protested against this.142

Although Rambam objected to use of Biblical verses for healing he approved their use to prevent evil befalling the reader.143 The difference between using verses of Torah as cures and as prevention is made in Shavuot 15b where the Talmud discussed the permissible uses of Psalm 91.144

Ritual was meant to educate man to intellectual perfection and, ultimately, to communion with God. Instead, it was used by predecessors and contemporaries of Rambam to combat demons.145

Most people, says Rambam, view their religious obligations as a quid pro quo: they expect to be rewarded by God for their practice of religious rituals.146 For them, a ritual evokes material benefit from God. However, the elite must transcend this “quid pro quo” attitude to religious observance. They should strive for a more exalted worship, adopting the view that the performance of mitzvot is worthwhile because “it is the truth” and the truth, requires no further justification.147

Rambam himself stated in many places148 that compliance with God’s will brings about good fortune, while disobedience brings trouble. What he is criticizing is reward as a motive for observance.149 In Hilkot Teshuvah Chapter Nine he elucidates on this theme:

As explained, the reward for the mitzvot and the good which we will merit if we observe the path of God as prescribed by the Torah is the world to come, as (Deuteronomy 22:) states: “So that good will be granted you and you will live long.” The retribution which is exacted from the wicked who abandon the paths of righteous prescribed by the Torah is karet as (Bemidbar 15:31) states: “This soul shall surely be cut off. His sin shall remain upon him.” If so, what is the meaning of the statements made throughout the entire Torah: “If you observe the Torah’s laws, you will acquire such and such. If you do not observe the Torah’s laws, such and such will happen to you,” all of the benefits and difficulties promised being matters of this material world, for example, plenty and famine, war and peace, sovereignty over other nations or humble national standing, the settlement of the land or exile, success in one’s deeds or loss and all other points mentioned in the covenant?

All those statements are true. They have been realized in the past and will be realized in the future. When we fulfill all the mitzvot in the Torah, we will acquire all the benefits of this world. Conversely, when we transgress them, the evils written in the Torah will occur. Nevertheless, those benefits are not the ultimate reward for the mitzvot, nor are those evils the ultimate retribution to be exacted from someone who transgresses all the mitzvot. Rather, the resolution of the matter is as follows: God gave us the Torah which is a tree of life. Whoever fulfills what is written within it and comprehends it with complete and proper knowledge will merit the life of the world to come. A person merits a portion of the world to come according to the magnitude of his deeds and the extent of his knowledge.

In addition, we are promised by the Torah that if we fulfill it with joy and good spirit and meditate on its wisdom at all times, (God) will remove all the obstacles which prevent us from fulfilling it, for example: sickness, war, famine, and the like. Similarly, He will grant us all the good which will reinforce our performance of the Torah, such as: plenty, peace, and abundance of silver and gold in order that we not be involved throughout all our days in matters required by the body, but rather, will sit unburdened and thus, have the opportunity to study wisdom and perform mitzvot in order that we will merit the life of the world to come.

This principle is expressed by the Torah. After (Deuteronomy 6:11-12) Haashem promises us all the benefits of this world, he concludes (ibid: 25): “And charity will remain for us if we take care to perform (all these commandments).” Similarly, the Torah has informed us that if we consciously abandon the Torah and involve ourselves in the vanities of the time in a manner similar to that stated (by Deuteronomy 32:15): “Jeshurun became fat and rebelled,” then, the True Judge will remove from us all the benefits of this world which reinforce the rebellion of those that abandoned (the Torah). He will bring upon them all the evils which prevent them from acquiring a portion in the world to come so that they will be destroyed in their wickedness. This was implied by the Torah’s statement (Deuteronomy 28:4-48): “Because you did not serve God, your Lord, with will serve your enemies whom God sends against you.”

These blessings and curses can be interpreted as follows: If you serve God with happiness and observe His way, He will grant you these blessings and remove these curses from you in order that you may be free to gain wisdom from the Torah and involve yourselves in it so that you will merit the life of the world to come. “Good will be granted you” - in the world that is entirely good; “and you will live long” - in the world which is endlessly long, (the world to come). Thus, you will merit two worlds, a good life in this world, which, in turn, will bring you to the life of the world to come. For if a person will not acquire wisdom in this world and he does not possess good deeds, with what will he merit a portion in the world to come?

Conversely, if you have abandoned God and become obsessed with food, drink, lewdness, and the like, He will bring all these curses upon you and remove all blessings until you will conclude all your days in confusion and fear. You will not have a free heart or a complete body to fulfill the mitzvot in order that you forfeit the life of the world to come. Thus, you will forfeit two worlds for when a person is occupied in this world with sickness, war, and hunger, he cannot involve himself with either wisdom or mitzvot which allow him to merit the life of the world to come.

In Chapter 10 he continues this theme:

A person should not say: “I will fulfill the mitzvot of the Torah and occupy myself in its wisdom in order to receive all the blessings which are contained within it or in order to merit the life of the world to come. Similarly, I will separate myself from all the sins which the Torah warned against so that I will be saved from all the curses contained in the Torah or so that my soul will not be cut off from the life of the world to come.” It is not fitting to serve God in this manner. A person whose service is motivated by these factors is considered one who serves out of fear. He is not on the level of the prophets or of the wise. The only ones who serve God in this manner are common people...and minors. They are trained to serve God out of fear until their knowledge increases and they serve out of love.

One who serves (God) out of love occupies himself in the Torah and the mitzvot and walks in the paths of wisdom for no ulterior motive: not because of fear that evil will occur, nor in order to acquire benefit. Rather, he does what is true because it is true, and ultimately, good will come because of it. This is a very high level which is not merited by every wise man. It is the level of our Patriarch, Abraham, whom God described as, “he who loved Me” for his service was only motivated by love. God commanded us (to seek) this rung (of service) as conveyed by Moses as (Deuteronomy 6:5) states: “Love God, your Lord.” When a man will love God in the proper manner, he will immediately perform all of the mitzvot motivated by love.

Red Strings in the Torah


a. A scarlet thread, tied about the wrist, is mentioned in Bereshit 38. Tamar becomes pregnant by her father-in-law, Yehudah, and gives birth to twin boys: ‘And it came to pass in the time of her delivery, twins were in her womb. And it came to pass, when she delivered, one baby put out his hand: and the midwife tied a scarlet thread around his hand, saying, “This came out first…and his name was called Zarah.”’

b. Vayikra 14: 3-4: ‘If the skin disease (Tzaraat) has disappeared from the afflicted person, the priest will order two live clean birds, cedar wood, scarlet yarn, and hyssop be brought for the one who is to be purified.’

c. When Rav Dimi came from the Land of Israel, he said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan that there were three red threads: one in connection with the ‘red heifer’ in Bemidbar 19:6, the second in connection with the ‘scapegoat for Azazel’ in the Yom Kippur service of Vayikra 16:7–10 which Mishnah Yoma 4:2 indicates was marked with a red thread, and the third in connection with the person with leprosy in Vayikra 14:4. Rav Dimi reported that one weighed ten zuz, another weighed two selas, and the third weighed a shekel, but he could not say which was which…150

None of the above sources attribute any segula protective power to the red string. On the contrary in three of the above cases mentioned by the Talmud it seems that a red string symbolizes sin and failure.

The Tosefta (Shabbat 7:1) lists practices that are prohibited because they are darkhei Emori, which literally means ‘the practices of the Emorites’ (an ancient Canaanite people), but more broadly refers to customs associated with idolatry, included in the list: tying a red string around one’s finger.

The wearing of a red string by pagans and others far predates any documented Jewish practice.151 Despite this somehow, the red string became part of a whole genre of folk traditions having to do with the evil eye.

Some people believe that tying one of these red strings around your left wrist will ward off bad luck. Others believe that a woman should wear the string until it falls off naturally, at which point she will meet the person she will end up marrying. Still others connect the string to increased fertility, or to protection from bloodshed in war or wearing it as a segula for pregnant women to carry safely to term. Some residents of Jerusalem can be seen with a string around the hand to affect all sorts of salvations. The source of the red string within halakhah is practically non-existent.

Reputedly the custom is to tie a long red thread around the tombstone of Rahel, the wife of Yaakov. Rahel selflessly agreed that her sister marry Yaakov first to spare Leah shame and embarrassment. Later, Rahel willingly returned her soul to God on the way to Bet Lehem, in order to pray there for the desperate Jews that would pass by on their way to exile and captivity.152 Often, one acquires the red string when giving charity. Perhaps for these reasons the red thread is considered a protective segula. It recalls the great merit of our matriarch Rahel, reminding us to emulate her modest ways of consideration, compassion, and selflessness for the benefit of others, while simultaneously giving charity to the poor and needy. It follows that this internal reflection that inspires good deeds, more than the string itself, would protect one from evil and harm.

Even if the above segula works, one of the problems with the red strings is that many of the strings sold online are straight from their Chinese manufacturer without any prior stop at Rahel’s grave in Bet Lehem and are sold for a tremendous markup with no charity involved.

Rabbi Moshe Stern153 confirmed the existence of a custom to make use of red strings for protection against the evil eye. He specifically discussed tying it to a baby carriage or crib with no mention of any additional usage or wearing of such by others.154

Perhaps the use of these strings can be tolerated according to the view that only pagan practices specifically mentioned in the Talmud, to the exclusion of all other sources, are those that should be prohibited.155 Maybe because the Tosefta specifically mentions tying the red string upon one’s finger as being a prohibited pagan practice, tying on one’s wrist may be permitted. There also exists a view within the halakhic authorities that once a Gentile custom falls into disuse it is no longer prohibited and it may be renewed by Jews.

The actual prohibition of Darkei Emori refers to matters that have no reason, or are related to immorality, and these practices do not fall under this category, as ruled by the Maharik and the Ran, and cited by the Rema (Yoreh De’ah 178:1). The Maharik further writes that the prohibition applies only where the issue is observed as a law (religiously), and not where the matter is optional.156

In Devarim 18:9-13 the Torah commands Tamim tihyeh im Hashem Elokekha, Rashi explained that we are commanded to be complete i.e. trusting Hashem with whatever life brings us, without trying to see into the future.

Ramban wrote that we must focus entirely on Hashem, recognizing that from Him alone everything emanates and all that occurs depends on the level of our relationship with Him.

Radak157 stated that the world has a ruler and it is only fitting to go through Him.

Rambam158 goes much further than simply condemning the use of idolatrous practices — he claims that relying upon them is not simply useless, but rather will lead to misfortunes!


All the matters mentioned above should be avoided. Only Torah, Tefillah (prayer) and Tzedakah (charity) and total belief in Divine providence have the power to protect and change heavenly decrees, not strings, hamsas, and other segulot.