How Superstition Infiltrated Torah Life

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Reader: Shalom aleichem Rabbi. Deuteronomy 18:10-12 forbids all sort of false, superstitious beliefs and practices:

Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is a fortune teller, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead. For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to the LORD, and it is because of these abhorrent things that the LORD your God is dispossessing those nations from before you.

Where, when and how did all the present false practices like astrology, praying to the dead, red strings, talisman, amulet, and invoking angels names creep its way into Toras Moshe [Judaism]? Was the Rambam and Rashbam orthodox or orthoprax? 

Thank you,

Mark Stanley Gomez

Vetturnimadam, India

Rabbi: Mark, Rambam, Rashbam and all our great Rabbis followed Torah, which means they followed truth and what reality validates. They all rejected what is not validated by realty, like astrology, and Rambam wrote his Letter to Marseilles to this effect.

Man is insecure by nature, but he is to mature and follow Torah which opposes the baseless claims that superstitions and idolatry alter reality, claims that have never been substantiated throughout history. But the human psyche is insecure, commencing life as a dependent infant, and although maturing physically, many people remain psychologically infantile until death. They can’t abandon their need for the parent. So as they age and come to realize their parents are not the powerful beings once thought to be in the child’s infancy, they seek replacements. Idolatry and superstitions now step in to provide a sense of security for these individuals as these practices “forecast the future.” They eliminate the unknown. The fear of the future is now removed with beliefs in “powers” that favor their success. And even with failure after failure, people don’t abandon their superstitions. This unveils just how out of touch with reality these people are.

Despite Torah prohibitions, insecure people follow their fantasies, instead of following God. God’s prohibitions exist precisely due to man’s false emotional leanings and fears. The Gold Calf is a prime example of Jews creating superstitions and idols which are defenseless and provide no power. Moses’ destruction of that idol should be a lesson of idolatry’s lifeless and powerless nature. Yet, Jews throughout time have committed idolatry and still today believe in powers of red bendels, keys in challahs, they think mezuzah physically protects them, and they disregard great minds like Rambam and Meharsha who condemn those who place trust in the mezuzah for physical protection. Mezuzah’s true intent is to remind us of God, the same as tefillin and tzitzis. And as one can burn a mezuzah, as it is defenseless of itself, how can it be imagined it offers protection for anything else?!

The only cure for these false notions is Torah study. Our prophets repeatedly denounced idolatry. And in their denouncements can be found sublime reasoning that Jews can use to abandon these idolatrous ways. Haftoras Vayikra includes these verses:

The makers of idols all work to no purpose; and the things they treasure can do no good, as they themselves can testify. They (idols) neither look nor think, and so they shall be shamed. Who would fashion a god or cast a statue that can do no good? (Isaiah 44:9,10)

The prophet tells the Jews that their idols neither see or think. How then can a one bow to it? Radak severely criticizes one as foolish, who labors and expends money to create emptiness [lifeless idols]. The same applies to Jews today wearing lifeless red strings, imagining that this red emptiness protects from other imagined things like evil eyes. Isaiah continues:

For his use he cuts down cedars; he chooses plane trees and oaks. He sets aside trees of the forest; or plants firs, and the rain makes them grow. All this serves man for fuel: He takes some (wood) to warm himself, and he builds a fire and bakes bread. He also makes a god of it and worships it, he fashions an idol and bows down to it! (Ibid 10:14,15)

The prophet tells the Jew to recognize their contradiction. The same stump of wood they view as firewood, they also carve into idols. Rabbi Israel Chait said the prophet’s message is this very contrast, that one should see his contradiction. 

Part of it he burns in a fire: On that part he roasts meat, he eats the roast and is sated; he also warms himself and cries, “Ah, I am warm! I can feel the heat!” Of the rest he makes a god—his own carving! He bows down to it, worships it; he prays to it and cries, “Save me, for you are my god!” They have no wit or judgment: Their eyes are plastered from seeing and their hearts are plastered from understanding. They do not give thought, they lack the wit and judgment to say, “Part of it I burned in a fire; I also baked bread on the coals, I roasted meat and ate it— Should I make the rest an abhorrence? Should I bow to a block of wood?” He pursues ashes! A deluded mind has led him astray, And he cannot save himself; He never says to himself, “The thing in my right hand is a fraud!” (Ibid 10:16,20)

The prophet repeats his message. But now he describes the Jews’ crime of not trusting their eyes which see no help from idols, and their crime of not using their minds which should question any distinction between two halves of a single block of wood. Both, physical reality and common sense invalidate this wood as deserving deification. The Jews’ sin is in denying their senses and their minds. Torah demands one follow reality. God gave man senses precisely to trust them. He gave us minds, precisely that we follow its dictates. 

Today, what more can we add to the prophet’s words? The only cure to superstitious and idolatrous beliefs is to study Torah and nature. Share the prophets’ teachings, and hopefully misled Jews might open their plastered eyes and minds. But the Jew must also abandon the need for peer approval. This is the harmful element of cultures, and why orthodox community members follow superstitions. It’s not that all community members agree with a practice, but they fear being ostracized if they would deviate. The fear of condemnation and the need for approval forces many people to follow the masses, regardless of the masses’ insanity to believe superstitions and idolatry. This is why Abraham was so great: he deviated from the idolatrous world as his mind  told him they were all wrong. His independent thought steered him towards monotheism, and ultimately, to God’s prophetic communication. God established Abraham as the founding father of Judaism. Thus, Judaism is literally built upon independent thought rooted in reason, proof and the love of truth. One cannot separate reason and proof from Judaism. But those who follow superstitions and idolatrous practices, be they amulets, notes to dead rabbis, notes in walls, checking mezuzahs, and wearing red bendels are diametrically opposed to Abraham and the core of Judaism. The rabbis teach, “All who endorse idolatry deny all of Torah” (Rashi, Num. 15:23).