The Red Thread of Judaism
If you’ve ever been to Israel or spotted a Kabbalah-loving celebrity, chances are you’ve seen the ever-popular red thread or kabbalah bracelet. Dangling from a stroller or tied around the wrist, adorned with charms or simply plain, the red string has many origin points and mysterious meanings.
The significance of the color red (adom) is tied to life and vitality, simply because these are the colors of blood. The Hebrew word for blood is dam, which derives from the same root as the word for man, adam, and earth, which is adamah. Thus blood and life are closely tied together.
There is a distinction made between the color red (adom) and a shade of the color called shani. The crimson dye used at the time of the Torah was produced by a mountain worm that infests the trees of eastern Mediterranean countries like Israel (Tosefta Menachot 9:16). In the Torah, this insect is called tola’at shani, or “crimson worm.”
Rashi connected the “crimson worm” to the countless instances of repentance and the color red in the Torah, showing the elevation of something lowly that slithered across the earth to a higher plane through its involvement in acts of repentance.
There are several distinguishing factors in the Torah between the shade of red, called shani.
Some examples of the use of the color in general:
- Esau’s complexion when he’s born (Genesis 25:25)
- Jacob’s lentil porridge (Genesis 25:30)
- Yehudah’s eyes (Genesis 49:12)
- The red cow/heifer (Numbers 19:2)
- The eyes of a drunkard (Proverbs 23:29)
- Wine (Proverbs 23:31)
- Blood (2 Kings 3:22)
- A horse (Zechariah 1:8)
- Bloodshed (Zechariah 6:2)
Some examples of the use of the color shani in reference to a dyed thread or cord:
- A thread tied to Zerah’s wrist at birth, securing his birthright (Genesis 38:28-30)
- The cord let down from Rahab’s window, which protects her and her family from death by the conquering Israelites (Joshua 2:18, 6:25)
- Robes worn by the wealthy and privileged (2 Samuel 1:24 and Proverbs 31:21) as well as the high priest of the Temple (2 Chronicles 2:7, 14 and 3:14)
- Used in the textiles of the Mishkan and, later, in the Temple in Jerusalem (Exodus 25:4, 26:1, 31, 36, and 28:5, 6, 8, 15)
- Used in purification rituals (Leviticus 14:4, 6, 51 and Numbers 19:6)
According to the Talmud, the red string was used in the scapegoat ritual of Yom Kippur in the wilderness. During this rite, the High Priest would place his hands upon the scapegoat, confess the sins of Israel, and ask for atonement. He would then tie a red string between the horns of the scapegoat and another piece around the neck of a second goat to indicate where it should be slaughtered.
The second goat was then killed as a sin offering and the scapegoat was sent into the wilderness. Once there, the person in charge of the scapegoat would tie a rock to the red thread on the scapegoat and shove the animal off a cliff (Yoma 4:2, 6:8).
According to the ritual, if the sins of the Israelites were forgiven, the thread would turn white once the scapegoat reached the wilderness. The ritual continued when the Temple was built in Jerusalem, with a piece of red wool tied to the door of the sanctuary, which would turn white if God accepted the Israelites sin atonement.
Hows and Whys
There are many different reasons for wearing a red string, and the origins of these tend to be connected to the various instances of protection and repentance evident in the aforementioned occurrences in the Torah.
As such, the reasons in the Jewish and non-Jewish world (see Other Cultures below) tend to revolve around protection, whether it’s protecting people, animals, or property against sickness, the evil eye (ayin hara), or other negative energy or occurrences.
Here are some of the classic “hows” and “whys” for people wearing the crimson thread:
- Tying a red string to your left wrist wards off bad luck (ayin hara, or the evil eye).
- Wear a red string until it naturally wears away and falls off and you will subsequently meet the person you’re meant to marry.
- If pregnant or trying to get pregnant, wear a red string around your wrist or waist to ward off the evil eye.
If you visit Israel or, more specifically, the tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem, many of those selling red strings claim to have wrapped the threads around Rachel’s tomb seven times. The purpose of this supposed act is to provide the wearer of the string with characteristics of Rachel, including compassion and generosity.
The Rabbis on the Red String
The Debreczyner Rav, or Be’er Moshe 8:36, wrote about his childhood where he remembered seeing pious individuals wearing red strings, although he could find no written source for the practice. Ultimately, he indicates that it is an accepted practice to ward off the evil eye and Minhag Yisroel Torah Yoreh Deah 179 concurs.
In the Tosefta, Shabbat 7, there is a discussion about the practice of tying a red string on something or tying a string around something red. This specific chapter in the Tosefta actually deals with practices that are forbidden because they are considered darchei Emori, or practices of the Emorites. More broadly, the Tosefta is discussing idolatrous practices.
Ultimately, the Tosefta concludes that the tying of a red string is a prohibited pagan practice and Radak Yeshayahu 41 follows suit. Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, better known as Rambam or Maimonides, says in Moreh Nevuchim 3:37 that it causes misfortune to its wearer.
The practice of tying a red string to ward off bad luck and evil spirits can be found in cultures from China and Romania to Greece and the Dominican Republic.
Just a few examples of the role of the red thread in other cultures and religions:
- A Chinese legend says that when a child is born invisible red threads tie that child’s soul to all the individuals he will meet in his lifetime.
- In English, Irish, and Welsh folklore, the red thread has a history dating to 1040 CE where it was tied to different parts of the body to cure various ailments. Tied around the neck a red thread would cure whooping cough and lunacy “when the moon is on the wane.” In England, in the early 20th century it was reported that a red cord around the neck would cure a baby’s teething pains.
- In Kansas in the late 19th century and Illinois in the early 20th century it was reported that a red thread tied around the neck would cure a nosebleed.
- In Romania, Serbs thought that a pregnant woman should wear a red thread around her middle finger, and in Greece, a pregnant woman would wear a red ribbon around her arm.
- In Italy, red ribbons made appearances prior to the 1980s on pipes, glasses cases, handles of coffee pots, and even sewn into vests or jackets.
By Chaviva Gordon-Bennett