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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Wearing Red Thread

On our recent trip to Israel we noticed at several sacred locations that there were ladies selling red threads, to be worn on one’s wrist. I believe it was claimed to ward off the “evil eye”. I tend to be skeptical of such magical cures. But I was curious what the basis for this practice is and if you would recommend it.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

As a matter of fact, the red thread (“roiteh bendel” in Yiddish) is one of those Jewish practices which has very little Jewish about it. The peddlers of red threads today claim that they come from a string wrapped around Rachel’s Tomb seven times and that they possess Kabbalistic powers, in particular warding off the Evil Eye. And in fact, there are rabbis who attest that similar customs has been practice going back several generations. (Many tie a red string to a baby’s crib for protection.) Yet there is no known early source which mentions or condones the practice. If it has any Kabbalistic powers, there is no work on Kabbalah which makes any mention of it.

The only classic source which does mention the red thread expressly forbids its use, saying that tying a red thread on one’s fingers is an idolatrous practice (“darkei emori”) which we may not follow (Tosefta Shabbat 7:1). This is loosely based on Leviticus 18:3: “You shall not follow their ways.” Any heathen practice which relates to idolatry, superstition or immorality we may not imitate.

My friend Rabbi Ari Enkin researched the matter thoroughly and found that the custom of wearing a red thread to ward off evil spirits is a religious practice found in several cultures, all idolatrous – in particular Hinduism and other religions of the Far East. Based on this, we should not subscribe to the custom of wearing the red thread. In fact, it’s quite possible that the rabbis who condoned the recent prevalent custom were simply unaware of its idolatrous associations.

Rabbi Enkin does find a few possible grounds to permit the custom. But I would certainly recommend playing it safe and staying away from it. In any event, prayer and good deeds are always far better guarantors of warding off the Evil Eye and blessings in general.

For an interesting discussion of the red thread and good luck charms in general, see this article: Threadbare

Red Heifer

I was reading the Book of Numbers, chapter 19, which describes the Red Heifer. The whole thing seems quite mysterious. Can you explain?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

In Temple times, the red heifer was used for the purification of those who had come into contact with the dead. This had great practical importance during Temple times, because all participants in the Temple service needed to be ritually pure.

The unique feature of this cow is that it must be two years old and could have no more than two non-red hairs. (Mishnah Para 1:1, 2:5)

Maimonides writes that from the time of Moses until the destruction of the Second Temple, only nine red heifers have been used to prepare the “purifying waters.” The tenth red heifer, says Maimonides, will be prepared by the Messiah.

As for the deeper reason for the red heifer, that is regarded as one of the deepest secrets in the Torah. So much so that even King Solomon, the wisest scholar who ever lived, was unable to fathom its full meaning.

There have been numerous cases of red heifers being born, the most recent being last year in a northern Israeli village called Kfar Chassidim. When these red heifers are born they usually draw quite a bit of attention – which tends to fade as the calf gets older and black hairs begin to appear.

But no need to worry. When the Messiah comes, rebuilds the Holy Temple and reinstitutes the use of the Red Heifer, one will surely be available!

Nipples - Men

This one has puzzled me for a long time, and I thought maybe you would have an answer:

Why do men have nipples?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Nipples represent the ability to nurture. Women can obviously experience this from both a physical and spiritual perspective. As modern research has shown, mother's milk provides the best possible nutrition for a baby. But the same applies to the spiritual nourishment an infant absorbs from its mother. For example, a tender, caring mother will impart those deep feelings to the child. Thus, the physical act of breast-feeding passes crucial spiritual influences to an infant. (see Talmud - Avodah Zarah 10b)

Since a man does not breast-feed, his ability to nourish is limited to a purely spiritual level. The physical existence of nipples, however, remind him that although he lacks the means to nurture a child physically, he must still take a primary role in the child's spiritual nourishment. This is alluded to in the verse, "From my flesh, I will see God." (Job 19:26)

Throughout Torah literature, we see the breast frequently used as a symbol of spiritual nourishment. In his deeply symbolic work, "Song of Songs," King Solomon writes: "I am a wall and my breasts are like towers" (verse 8:10). The reference here is to Torah scholars: Just as the breast provides physical sustenance, so too Torah scholars provide spiritual sustenance to the world. (Talmud - Pesachim 87a, Rashi)

Furthermore, breasts symbolize the idea that each person must draw sustenance on his own level and must not seek a lifestyle that is inappropriate to his current abilities. For this reason, breasts are termed "Shadayim," which contains the word "Dai - enough!" The message is that there is no need to look beyond one's own source of bounty to fulfill one's needs; there is ample spirituality available for everyone. (see Rabbi Chaim Kramer - "Anatomy of the Soul")

On a more medical note, while only females have mammary glands, we all start out in a similar way in utero. The embryo follows a female template until about six weeks, when the male sex chromosome kicks in. By that time, the nipples have already formed.

By the way, there's one more reason for men's nipples. The Midrash (Genesis Rabba 30) describes the case of a man whose wife died shortly after giving birth. God then made a miracle and granted him the ability to breastfeed the baby. A miracle!