Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Strings of Red

Do an online search for the terms “red string” and “Judaism” and you will find a preponderance of discussions about the propriety of wearing a red string as a sign of bracha (blessing) or as a ward against the evil eye. These red strings are frequently handed out in return for charity at the Western Wall and Rachel’s Tomb. Opinions of the red string talisman range from calling it an ancient custom to naming it utter nonsense, with a wide range of opinions in between, and while mystical sources are cited in connection to the talisman, there are no references to it in either the Torah or the Talmud (written and oral law).

Scarlet strings, on the other hand, are mentioned as part of several rituals described in the Torah. “When Rav Dimi came [from the land of Israel to Babylon], he said in the name of Rabbi Jochanan: ‘I heard there were three [scarlet strings]. One for the [red] heifer, one for the scapegoat and one for the leper (a person with the skin disease tzara'at)” (Talmud Yoma 41b). The ritual of the red heifer served as a means of purifying those who had come in contact with the dead. The scapegoat, sent to the wilderness of Azazel as part of the Yom Kippur service, purified the nation of their sins. The third scarlet string helped purify an individual stricken with tzara'at, which was a disease caused by a spiritual impurity.


These scarlet strings all played an important part in significant rituals of Jewish life in the days of the Temple. They were not distributed or worn around the wrist (like the string given out at Rachel's Tomb and the Western Wall). Rather, they were ritually prepared with intention of helping the Jewish people fulfill their mission of becoming a holy nation.


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