Those familiar with it as a sartorial accessory might note that the red string has undeniably been a force of incredible success — for those selling the strings at the astounding price of $25 apiece. The real question, however, is whether the rest of us have anything to gain from this esoteric tradition. These red threads, which are (supposedly) wound around Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem seven times and then cut into cords to make bracelets, are traditionally used to ward off the “Evil Eye” from those who wear them.
Contrary to popular belief, however, there are no genuine sources in the Torah or in Kabbalah regarding this so-called power. There is mention in Genesis 38:28 of a midwife who wound a crimson string around a newborn baby’s wrist, but commentaries clearly explain that the red string was not an act of protection, but rather a means to differentiate between this first-born baby and his twin who followed. Furthermore, a source from the Tosefta — a compilation of Jewish oral law from the 2nd century — denounces the act of tying a red string around one’s finger as Darchei Emori, or “the ways of the Emorite” — a useless, superstitious behavior comparable to idol worship. But don’t freak out just yet! This prohibition in the Tosefta included many other various witchcraft-like customs, of which tying a red string specifically around one’s wrist was not enumerated. Regardless, although the commentary does not explicitly condemn tying a red string around one’s wrist, it does not in any way imply that the custom is commendable or legitimate.
That said, the “Evil Eye,” which is at the center of the conversation regarding red strings, is indeed a real concept in Jewish literature. The Evil Eye, or Ayin Ha’ra, is the term used to describe a malicious or harmful energy targeted toward an individual who sparks envy or ill-will in others. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler — a Jewish philosopher and ethicist of the 20th century — explains that the Evil Eye is a force created by G-d, which is meant to maintain harmony by keeping aggressive people “in check.” If an insensitive person sparks pain or anxiety in another by flaunting success or boasting of means, the victim’s “Evil Eye” is provoked and directed toward the individual engendering bitterness.
Growing up, I always rebelled against the “heeby-jeeby” superstitions of my Russian upbringing, including the whole enterprise of red strings and evil eyes. Although I was relieved to hear that red strings do not have a clear, legitimizing source, (red just wasn’t going to go with my earth-tone wardrobe) I was surprised to learn that Judaism does, in fact, endorse the concept of the Evil Eye.
My mother would always say that really special things are meant to be kept private and that good news need not be shouted from the rooftops. I took her advice but struggled with the idea that sharing happiness could be a bad thing. I was floored when I learned that the Talmud articulates the same idea my mother had been trying to instill in me: “Blessing is found only in what is hidden from the eye” (Bava Metzia 42a). Whether giving charity, doing a kind deed, or simply interacting with people, the Torah constantly emphasizes that we must “walk humbly with G-d” (Micah 6:8). Modesty, unlike red strings, has clear and abundant sources within Kabbalah and the Torah itself.
When I asked Rabbi Eliyahu Rivkin of Chabad of Northridge to shed some light on this strange idea behind the Evil Eye, he explained that one should understand it as less of a fear for oneself and as a concern for others, since, after all, one attracts the Evil Eye only by causing anguish in another through insensitive interaction. For example, if you are schmoozing with a friend who you know is a bit down about her complicated love life, it would not be wise to chat her ear off about how wonderful your boyfriend is. Similarly, if you just scored an awesome internship or bought a brand new car, the idea behind the Evil Eye should prompt you to be more in tune with whom you’re talking, where the conversation is taking place (whom you’re talking in front of), and how you’re sharing the information. Not because you’re afraid of an Evil Eye, Rabbi Rivkin explained, but because you want to be sensitive to people’s feelings or insecurities.
At the end of the day, if you’re looking for a solution to the sinister impact of the Evil Eye, a red string may or may not do it. The most powerful, Torah-endorsed protection includes moral behavior, pursuing acts of kindness, and a sincere, growth-oriented relationship with G-d. The force of the Evil Eye prompts a reevaluation of one’s deservedness of various blessings, but if you’re constantly doing your part to bring goodness into the world, surely you are worthy of the good in your own life. This isn’t to say that sharing good news with others is wrong; rather, it means to take others’ feelings into account when sharing that news.
Of course, buying one’s way out with a red string certainly seems more enticing. But let’s face it, since when has Judaism been known for taking the easy way out? The red string is supposed to deflect negative energy, not eliminate it. And that’s precisely what is missing from the entire red string enterprise. If, at the end of the day, we choose to wear a red string, let it be less of quick-fix accessory, and more of a constant reminder that it is our moral obligation to be sensitive to others. In that way, perhaps the red string really will work after all.