In our last blog, we talked about superstitions, particularly the “evil eye.” One of the many ways to ward off the lurking evil eye – or ill wishes from a malevolent person – is by uttering the phrase “kineahora” (no evil eye). It’s the Jewish equivalent of not counting your chickens before they hatch. And it’s no surprise that those who believe in superstition the most are most anxious to protect the kinder.
After all, who needs protection from the evil eye more than a defenseless child?
That’s why it’s traditional for Ashkenazic Jews to name a new baby after a deceased relative, preferably one who lived a long time. Of course, it’s a way to honor a loved one and remember his or her name, but it also provides protection. If you name a child for someone who is still alive, the worry is that when the Angel of Death comes for the older person, he might get confused and take the child. If you name a child for someone who is no longer living, you avoid all that confusion and the child is extra safe.
Another way to keep the evil eye at bay is to refrain from purchasing baby clothes, a crib or other paraphernalia until after the baby is born. If the evil eye should see you getting a nursery ready, who knows what would happen? That’s why many Jewish women don’t have baby showers. We love baby gifts as much as anyone, but please wait until the baby actually arrives to give them to us.
In Israel, where they’ve adopted so many western customs, like white wedding dresses and fast food hamburgers, it’s still unheard of to hold a baby shower before the baby is born. In the United States, modern Jews usually arrive at some compromise, like hiding the baby clothes in a closet or buying a crib but not assembling it until the baby is born – but it still feels like one is tempting fate.
Other ways to protect the kids:
- Tie a red ribbon or red thread to a baby’s crib or a child’s underwear. Mitzi, Joyce’s mother-in-law, was a big believer in this one. Not only did she tie ribbons to her sons’ cribs, but she also put a red ribbon in every drawer in the house and every pocketbook she owned.
- Refuse to name exactly how many children or grandchildren are in your family. If the evil eye doesn’t know how many children there are, how can they be harmed? That’s why when some Bubbes are asked, “How many grandchildren do you have now?” they might reply “Kinehora, not seven.” To the most prying of nosy bodies, Ellen’s mother has been heard to say, “I don’t know; I haven’t counted.”
- Make sure the children have the best piece of meat. This won’t protect them from the evil eye but it will guarantee that they have a full tummy. Ellen’s great aunt, Bea, was famous for being a kitchen-table martyr for the children. “Give the boys the white meat. I really do like the dried out turkey wings the best!”
Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer, who writes as “the fly-fishing rabbi,” says that many superstitions are related to life-cycle events, like the birth of a child or a marriage. The birth of a child is a blessing, but also a source of anxiety, according to Rabbi Eisenkramer. New parents might be nervous, siblings unsure of changes in the family. And everyone wants the baby to be safe and healthy. “Superstitions, like tying a red ribbon on the crib to keep away the evil eye, help people to navigate change in their lives,” he says.
Did your mother ever tell you not to leave your dishes in the sink or your book open on the table? Okay, so the first one isn’t a bubbe meises (an old wives’ tale) – it’s just good housekeeping. But the second one is. This superstition probably started with prayer books or Talmudic tracts. If such books were left open on a table, clever devils or evil spirits who happened by would have the chance to “read” the holy books, take the knowledge, and use it to make trouble. So you should always close your books – even if you’re reading Danielle Steele. And turn off your Kindle.
At a recent book talk, a man told us that when he was a boy, if his mother sewed a button back onto his shirt while he was wearing it, she would make him chew on a piece of thread while she sewed. He never knew the reason, but like a good son should, he obeyed. We found out the idea behind this superstition: It’s important to distinguish this sewing action from that of the burial shroud, which is sewn around the body of the deceased.
Obviously, sewing someone’s clothes while they are still wearing the item might tempt the evil eye. But if you are moving your mouth and chewing on something while someone mends your shirt, it is a sure indication that you’re still alive and not ready for a shroud yet!
When our kids were small, it was easy to know where they were and what they were doing. We could protect them. But now that they are globetrotting on semesters abroad, texting while crossing city streets, and driving up and down the East Coast, it’s not so easy. So we will text them a kineahora emoticon >-) and hope it works.
P.S. This emoticon is supposed to look like the wink of the devil!