The Red String
A Jewish Response to Stress
by Brian Harris
I believe that I have given a number of talks at these tikkunim, including one on tefillin, tzitzit and now the red string
Everyone in the Shul has their own Meshugas, Neil Cohen’s is to give the source for every word given in his talks and Alan Tunkel’s is to buy the book.
So for Neil, thanks to Elly Teman who researched from many sources and wrote an essay, when a student at HU in 2005 and won Jewish Folklore prizes and was published in the Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation, Jewish Cultural Studies. & for Alan the book was purchased for £6.99 reduced from £19.95 in Waterstones North Finchley
If you go to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, you are likely to be accosted by an elderly Georgian lady sitting on a white plastic chair, who for a few coins will sell you a red string and tie it round your wrist, but they are sold across the country at venerated sites and public places.
Sarah is the most well-known seller and started in 1967 just after the 6 Day war Sarah will bless you with Mazel dir Good luck on you and Zay Gezunt be well, wear it till it falls off and it will protect you against the Ayin Harah, the evil eye. She blesses you in the name of the matriarchs and patriarchs with health wealth and fertility and then adds a general blessing for all of the children of Israel, the soldiers in particular She claims only those who pray for the people of Israel are given the power to bless the red string. She travels every few weeks to Rachel’s tomb and encircles her grave 7 times with her string and begs Rachel for mercy, from Jeremiah Ch31 v 14-17.
A voice is heard on high, lamentation, bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted for her children for they are not.
So says the Lord: Refrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for there is reward for your work, says the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
And there is hope for your future, says the Lord, and the children shall return to their own border.
Use of red string was a response to feelings of social uncertainty and vulnerability among all Israelis.
1980’s to 1990’s terrorist bombings of buses, cafes and other civilian targets, The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the Israeli controlled areas after he first Intifada in 1987
The failure of the Oslo agreements in 1995 to make peace with the Palestinians
National tragedy as when 73 young Israeli soldiers killed in helicopter crash in 1997
So how come the red string became a response to Jewish stress? We are now in the country of psychoanalytical semiotics. The science of linking signs and symbols to physical things.
The symbolic use of red string is found in many cultures, ancient & modern, I will confine myself to the Jewish treatment of these elements
There are three common elements in these cultures, redness, the act of tying or making boundaries and lastly knots.
In Hebrew Red is Adom MDA, linked to Adam the human being, Dam is blood and Adamah is earth or ground. So we are looking at the person, that which keeps us alive the boundary between life & death, and our grounding in the land, Israel.
Knots which we see in the tzitzit are reminders of who we are as Jews and the numerology its 613 commandments and the tefillin and its knots signify the submission of one's mind, heart and actions to the Almighty and they provide us with protection to enable our Jewishness
Binding Girtel represents the separation between the higher and lower spiritual and physical, sealing off from attack, protection against evil inclinations. The circular form of the thread creates a private impermeable area within the circle, the story of Honi Hamaagal, who refused to leave his circle until G-d gave the right rains
Boundaries of the land in biblical times and in current times when Israel is existentially threatened more people wear the string
First sign in Chumash in Parshat Vayeshev, when Tamar tricks Judah into fathering her twins, the midwife puts on a red string on the first baby’s hand that comes out, that is withdrawn and the second baby comes out first, then Zerah with the red string around his wrist. Hut Hashani, the scarlet thread represents a sign of promise of being first born
Then Rahab in the book of Jericho hangs a red thread in front of her house and as she helped Joshua’s spies is saved when the walls come tumbling down. The thread represents promise of salvation
Blood daubed on door posts of exodus saved the inhabits from the angel pf Death represents salvation
More recent customs
Some barren women have a red string tied round there waist by the rabbi’s wife to encourage conception
It string is tied to little boys in the days up to circumcision, the latter symbolises the give
The red string is tied by a mother to her son’s wrist before he goes off to the military, when there fear of losing one’s son at the Lebanese border in the 1980’s, it gave the mother some semblance of control over his fate, binding to her and sealing him off from harm
It is very prevalent among the Jewish population, old & young , rich & poor all professions and jobs, frum & secular, Ashkenazi & Sephardi. The custom for wearing red string is thought by many Ashkenazim to originate with Sephardim and vice versa.
It has become a device used by celebrities including Madonna and other followers of the Kabbala Centre, including Roseanne Barr, Britney Spears and even Mick Jagger. Others wore it when times got bad, including Michael Jackson when he landed up in court, Stella McCartney, in her bad first year and Britney Spears when she broke up with Justin Timberlake.
So there we have it the red string, not just the piece of heather that we might be offered for good luck by an Irish traveller, but an importance safekeep with strong attachment to the Jewish tradition, psyche and the land of Israel