There are times when one is forced to address the deliciously ludicrous. When "kabbalistic" red strings, once wound around Rachel's Tomb and then worn to ward off the evil eye, become the latest Hollywood fad -- selling for a staggering $26 a piece! - and dragging Judaism's ancient and holy mystical works onto New York Post's Page Six column, we have most certainly reached one of those times.
A group of Hollywood glitterati have turned contritely to look for the meaning of life in the great tradition of Kabbalah. An astute salesman turned "kabbalist" has taken note of their needs and filtered out the less marketable demands of Kabbalah, and presented a Kabbalah that demands little more than cash from its adherents. The reams of exhortation found in the Zohar and Arizal -- the two most fundamental Kabbalah texts -- against hedonism and lust have somehow been hidden from sight.
Is there anything of substance to this red thread business? Is there really such a thing as an "evil eye"?
There is absolutely no genuine kabbalistic source for wearing a red thread around one's wrist to ward off the "evil eye."
Firstly, there is absolutely no genuine kabbalistic source for wearing a red thread around one's wrist to ward off the "evil eye." While there exists such a practice amongst some devout Jews, it is not mentioned in any kabbalistic work.
Yes, there is a fleeting mention in the Talmud about the practice of tying a bundle of herbs or gems and wearing them in order to ward off the "evil eye." No special color, nor Rachel, nor even thread are mentioned. Also, the comment is an offhand remark concerning laws of Sabbath observance.
One of the late great scholars, the Debreczyner Rav, mentions it as a practice he saw in his father's home, but his extensive search could not find a written source for the practice.
The good news is that there is a clear and early source that mentions tying a red string to ward off an "evil eye" and that is in the Tosefta, an early Talmudic work (Shabbat, ch. 7-8). The bad news is that it clearly states that tying a red string around oneself is severely prohibited. It is characterized as "Darchei Emori," a worthless, superstitious practice, close to idol-worship.
Although later halachic literature implies that we may possibly not rule in accordance with this Tosefta, this still does not make this a commendable practice, but rather a tolerable one.
THE "EVIL EYE"
Let us try to delve a little into the issue of the "evil eye" and its implication. The "evil eye" is mentioned in the Talmud and has practical ramifications in Jewish law. For instance, one is not permitted to stand and stare at his friend's field that is in full bloom, so as not to plague it with an "evil eye" (Baba Basra 2b). The "evil eye" is best described as a situation where "one conspicuously stands out, and there arouses people's jealousy and discomfort."
How does an "evil eye" wreak damage on someone else's field? The answer is most clearly described by one of the last century's great thinkers, Rabbi Eliyahu E. Dessler: God has created the world as an integrated whole of many components. The components are meant to act in harmony with each other. But if one of the elements in the system starts becoming a threat and overstepping its bounds, the system corrects itself and that aggressive unit is checked and contained.
We see examples of this in the ecosystem, where overactive components usually run up against some barriers and/or opponent and are reduced to their natural size. A species that grows beyond a certain point somehow finds a natural enemy that checks its progress. No one species is allowed to dominate and take over.
This is true not only of the purely physical world, but is also true of the human dimension. A person whose fortune stares everyone else in the face is antagonizing the world around him. He is expanding out of his natural boundaries and is, so to speak, infringing on other people's domain. The pain and anguish caused others when they view his success, provokes this "evil eye." It is the term used to describe their anguished look. The jealousy and bitterness that he has engendered will boomerang and take its toll from the one who caused this imbalance and disharmony. The Laws of Metaphysical Nature will right the imbalance, and reduce the person to his proper size and domain. The fall of the provocatively high and mighty is the classical manifestation of this.
A METAPHYSICAL TRUTH
Does this actually happen? This phenomenon belongs to the class of segula-type phenomena. Segula phenomena are a metaphysical effect not easily quantifiable, but present in a general way. To get a sense of this type of reality, let us compare physics to, say, psychology. The laws of physics are applicable to every single event, in precisely quantified parameters. Thus, every mass -- without fail -- attracts every other mass, in exactly the same way.
Psychology, on the other hand, while formulating great truths, cannot define them with the precision and inevitability that physics does. There are exceptions, and every case is slightly different than the others.
The same is true of an "evil eye." It is a metaphysical truth, not a physical one. It works as a general rule, but there are many subtle distinctions and some exceptions. If we look at a lot of examples over an extended period of time, we clearly see a pattern emerging that people who arrogantly flaunt success eventually suffer because of it. We cannot give ironclad rules to govern this phenomenon, and we can give different "natural" explanations for it, but the phenomenon seems to constantly prove itself.
A perfect example of where one can notice the effect of this phenomenon is Hollywood. No society is more oriented at "showing off" -- it is show business after all -- and what society is more dysfunctional? It is a society that has substituted desire for love, wit for wisdom, and appearance for substance, destroying itself in the process. Families, friends and beliefs are ephemeral, begotten in the evening and vaporizing in the morning sun.
REMEDY FOR THE "EVIL EYE"
There is actually a time-tested remedy, and much cheaper than the quick fixes being pushed by dubious institutions: Live modestly.
Is there a remedy for the "evil eye"? There is actually a time-tested remedy, and much cheaper than the quick fixes being pushed by dubious institutions. Devout Jews have always lived as modestly as possible; refraining from boasting and usually understating their accomplishments. Idle boasting and great fanfare are shunned. And it works like a charm.
The Talmud states that "only hidden events generate blessings." For example, the two different presentations of the Ten Commandments are cited as a lesson. The Talmud points out that since the first time Moses brought down the tablets was done with great fanfare, they had to be destroyed when the Jews worshipped the Golden Calf. The second set of tablets was given quietly and modestly, and they lasted eternally.
This modest behavior has as its source -- the Bible, to which presumably all adherents of Kabbalah subscribe to. The prophet Micah says:
"For what does God, your Lord, demand of you? Only that you love kindness, perform justice, and walk humbly with God."
Even when performing charity, justice and "walking with the Lord," it must be done modestly!
My advice to those people sincerely desiring to ward off the "evil eye" would be to return to a modest, inconspicuous lifestyle, ban the press from your life, and stop focusing on yourselves.
But somehow, I don't think that will happen. Pop fashion is a powerful money-making force, one that Hollywood stars are paid to fuel. And thus, we have the ultimate irony. The red thread has become a status symbol… drawing the "evil eye" to its wearers.