Should I give in to my in-laws' superstitions?

Question: My in-laws want us to tie a red ribbon on the cot of our new baby to protect from the evil eye. I am adamant that I'll have no truck with such superstitious mumbo-jumbo but my wife says it can't do any harm and I should give in just to humour her parents.

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

I have to say I am with you on this. While the wearing of a red string is prevalent, particularly among those returning from a gap year in Israel, it is not intrinsically or exclusively a Jewish practice. Many cultures believe that the colour red wards off the devil or evil eye. In fact, we have a Greek Orthodox friend who recently visited us with her newborn baby who had a red string tied around her tiny wrist.

While those of a more mystical bent may find room for such practices in Judaism, my guide in this matter is Maimonides who - while not referring to the red-string charm in particular - vehemently opposed the superstitious belief in magic and the charm-wearing and incantation chanting that accompany it. In his commentary to the Mishnah Avodah Zarah 4:7, he writes that talismans are: "nonsensical false things that the Torah warned against, just as it warned us against believing in falsehoods [....] they are the root of idolatry and its offshoots."

Maimonides is not just saying that such practices are inherently foolish but he asserts that they are the source of idolatry.

He then offers a sociological explanation as to why such foolish practices became so popular and widespread in the first place: "In times past, these beliefs were used to unify nations, fooling the general masses. They were told that the welfare of their land depended on these practices and that they should therefore gather into their temples showing respect to the elders who instruct them and in this way the government maintained stability."

What Maimonides means is that those in power had a vested interest in promulgating superstitious beliefs as through mass fear and bogus ritual they were able to control the masses - a remarkable insight that many modern day anthropologists would concur with.

I am not suggesting that the contemporary popularity of red-string wearing is the result of a ploy devised by those in power. I think it is a natural reaction by so many people feeling vulnerable in an age of flux and uncertainty. We instinctively latch on to anything that promises to safeguard what we hold dear, no matter how nonsensical it might appear on reflection. But that does not make it right. Judaism demands more from us. It requires that we face up to our uncertain world with trust in God alone while at the same time striving to improve it every day.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

The background is that the colour red is supposed to be a protection against the evil eye (malicious words or thoughts by someone who is jealous of, or has a grudge against, the child or the family).

This magical power is apparently derived from the association of red with the blood of sacrifice, for which it is a substitute, and therefore it is thought to appease the power of evil.

This should tell you all you need to know: that there is nothing of Jewish value to it whatsoever. Instead it is pure superstition, concocted from a mixture of ignorance, gullibility and paganism. Just because some Jews subscribe to it does not give it any validity or mean that you have to perpetuate such nonsense yourself.

You could argue that it does not do any harm and is a quaint custom. But if anyone asks you about the reason behind it, and you have to mention the explanation above, then you may find yourself reddening deeply and decide that, for the sake of your own integrity, you are not going to let the ribbon remain.

Still, there are two other aspects. One is your wife and the thought that you should take her views into consideration: she may not believe in it, but the ribbon will please her parents, particularly at a time when she herself is emotionally stretched.

That is a noble, but flawed, argument, for your opinion counts too, and the pleasing has to be two-way, so her views do not automatically take precedence. You need to sit down and chat through what the two of you feel and what is more important: your objections as a matter of principle or her lukewarm agreement based on family diplomacy.

There is also the question as to whether, irrespective of the pros and cons of the ribbon, this is a test case as to what level of involvement (to put it positively) or interference (to put it less so) your in-laws, and hers, will have in the way you run your home and bring up your children.

You may feel that how you react now on a relatively small matter - taking a stand or giving-in - will determine the nature of future relationships, along with the need to set clear boundaries for any future issues.

And if the answer is "no", work out who will tell her parents and how.

    Last updated: 10:40am, March 10 2011