Tag Archives: Chassidism

Should You Wear a Red String on Your Wrist?

Vestments of the kohen and kohen gadol

This week’s parasha, Tetzave, continues to outline the items necessary for the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, starting with the Menorah and going into a detailed description of the priestly vestments. One of the materials necessary for the holy garments is tola’at shani, commonly translated as “crimson wool”. This was a deep red fabric apparently derived from some kind of insect or worm (which is what the Hebrew “tola’at” means). The Torah speaks of this material in multiple places and in multiple contexts. Today, wearing a “tola’at shani”-like red string on the wrist has become very popular among those calling themselves “Kabbalists” and even by secular Jews and non-Jews. What is the significance of the red fibre, and is there any real spiritual meaning to the red string bracelet?

The First Red String

The earliest mention of a red string is in Genesis 38:27-30, where Tamar gives birth to her twin sons Peretz and Zerach:

And it came to pass in the time of her labour that, behold, twins were in her womb. And in her labour, one hand emerged, and the midwife took a red string [shani] and tied it to his hand saying, “This one came out first.” And he drew back his hand, and behold, his brother came out, and she said: “With what strength have you breached [paratz] yourself?” so his name was called Peretz. And afterward came out his brother that had the red string upon his hand, and his name was called Zerach.

Here, the red string is simply used to designate the firstborn. It didn’t work out as planned, for the other twin ended up coming first. The strong Peretz would go on to be the forefather of King David, and therefore Mashiach, who is sometimes called Ben Partzi. Clearly, wearing the red string wasn’t much of an effective charm for Zerach.

Temple Rituals

In addition to being used in the garments of the priests and various Temple vessels, tola’at shani was employed in a number of sacrificial rituals. In Leviticus 14 we read how someone who had healed from tzara’at, loosely translated as “leprosy”, would bring an offering of two birds which were dipped in a mixture containing the red dye. From this we see that tola’at shani (or shni tola’at, as it appears here) is not necessarily the string itself, but simply the red dye extracted from the insect. Similarly, the red dye was used in the preparation of the parah adumah, “Red Cow”, mixture (Numbers 19) which was used to purify the nation from the impurity of death.

The Talmud (Yoma 67a) describes how a red string was tied to the scapegoat on Yom Kippur. Recall that on Yom Kippur two goats were selected, one being slaughtered and the other being sent off into the wilderness, “to Azazel”. This “scapegoat” had a red string attached to it, and if the string turned white the people would know that their sins had been forgiven, as Isaiah 1:18 states: “…though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Here, then, the red string represents the sin of the people, bound to the scapegoat going to Azazel. If it turned white, it was a good sign, whereas if the string remained red it meant God was unhappy with the nation. Indeed, the Talmud (Yoma 39b) states that in the last forty years before the Second Temple was destroyed, the red string never once turned white.

Red in Kabbalah

In mystical texts, red is typically the colour of Gevurah or Din, severity and judgement. It was therefore generally discouraged to wear red. The Kabbalists often wore garments of all white, and this is still the custom during the High Holidays, a time of particularly great judgement. It was only centuries later that the Chassidic rebbe known as Minchat Eliezer (Rabbi Chaim Elazar Spira of Munkacz, 1868-1937) wrote how having a red cloth may serve to ward off judgement and severity. Another Chassidic rebbe, the Be’er Moshe (Rabbi Moshe Stern of Debreczin, 1890-1971) wrote that he remembered seeing people wear red strings as a child, but did not know why. Still, this does not appear to have been a very popular practice then, nor is it much of a custom among Chassidim now.

1880 Illustration of Rachel’s Tomb

Rather, the red string today has been popularized by The Kabbalah Centre and similar “neo-Kabbalah” movements that cater as much to non-Jews as to secular Jews. The Kabbalah Centre explains that the bracelets are made by taking a long red thread and winding it around Rachel’s Tomb seven times. The thread is then cut into wrist-size lengths, and if worn on the “left wrist, we can receive a vital connection to the protective energies surrounding the tomb of Rachel.” It is not clear where The Kabbalah Centre took this practice from. They claim that the red string wards off the evil eye. While they cite certain passages from the Zohar regarding the evil eye, there doesn’t seem to be any connection to a red string specifically.

The Zohar (II, 139a) does state in one place that the blue tekhelet represents God’s Throne, as is well-known, which means judgement, whereas the red shani is what emerges from the Throne and overpowers the judgement, thus bringing protection upon Israel. The Zohar relates shani to Michael, the guardian angel of Israel, and uses the metaphor of a worm eating through everything to explain the tola’at shani as eating up negative judgement. This is why the famous song Eshet Chayil (Proverbs 31) states that a “woman of valour” has her whole house dressed in shanim (v. 21). She guards her household in this way. (It should be noted that in this passage the Zohar states it is gold which represents Gevurah, and silver represents Chessed. White and red, meanwhile, appear to be aspects within the sefirah of Yesod.)

So, perhaps there is something to wearing a red string.

Bringing Back Shani

The Zohar does not speak of any red string at all, and instead explains the mystical power of the red dye called shani. It is the dye itself that has power, as we see from the Temple rituals noted above. It is well-known that the blue tekhelet dye comes from a certain mollusc or sea snail called chilazon. From where does shani come?

A female and male cochineal bug.

Professor Zohar Amar of Bar Ilan University researched the subject in depth and concluded that tola’at shani is similar to the cochineal insect, famous for producing the red dye carmine (E120) which is extensively used in the food industry. After a round-the-world search, it turned out that a cochineal-like insect is found in Israel as well, and grows on oak trees.

While the cochineal insect is native to South America (where most of the carmine is still produced), its Mediterranean cousin is the oak-dwelling kermes insect. Indeed, kermes was used across the Mediterranean world for millennia, being particularly prized in Greek, Roman, and medieval society. It is best known for its ability to dye wool extremely well. Jerusalem’s Temple Institute was convinced of the professor’s findings, and has begun harvesting the bugs and their red dye in order to produce authentic priestly vestments, as outlined in the Torah.

In light of this, a genuine red string “kabbalah” bracelet—with the protective powers mentioned in the Zohar—would undoubtedly have to be made of wool dyed with kermes red. And according to the Zohar, it probably shouldn’t be worn on the left wrist at all, but instead on the right leg, the body part which the Zohar (II, 148a) states that shani corresponds to.

Imitating Pagans

Judaism is very sensitive about not imitating the ways of the pagans, or darkei Emori. One example of this, as we wrote in the past, is kapparot, which the Ramban (among others) called an idolatrous practice. The Tosefta (Shabbat, ch. 7) has a list of practices that are considered darkei Emori, and one of them is “tying a red string on one’s finger”. So, already two millennia ago it seems there were Jews tying red strings on their body, and the Tosefta (which is essentially equivalent to the Mishnah) forbids it.

The Hindu kalava looks suspiciously similar to the “kabbalah” red string.

In fact, Hinduism has a custom to wear a red string called kalava around one’s wrist in order to ward off evil. This is precisely what The Kabbalah Centre claims their red string accomplishes. Based on this alone it would be best to avoid wearing such a red string. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was one of the recent authorities who stated that the red string should not be worn due to darkei Emori. Factoring in that the red string has no basis in the Zohar or any traditional Jewish mystical text is all the more reason to stay away from this practice.

Is the Lubavitcher Rebbe Mashiach?

Today is the third of Tammuz, the yahrzeit of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, better known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe. There is no doubt that the Rebbe was among the greatest sages of the last century (if not of all time). From the moment he took up the leadership of Chabad, the Rebbe began to make waves in the Jewish world, and quickly transformed Lubavitch into an international powerhouse. Today, Chabad finds itself in 81 countries, operating 3500 institutions.

The Rebbe himself inspired countless souls, both Jewish and non-Jewish. One of the latter was Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (the first black woman in Congress). When Chisholm was first elected to the House of Representatives, she met fierce opposition and outright racism. Shortly after, she received a call from the Rebbe, who quelled her concerns and offered her advice on how to make the most of her situation. Chisholm went on to create programs that benefited millions of poor people, including the expansion of food stamps across the US. At her retirement breakfast, she said: “If poor babies have milk and poor children have food, it’s because this rabbi in Crown Heights had vision.”

With such vision, along with tremendous wisdom, righteousness, and charisma, it isn’t very surprising that a messianic movement would develop around the Rebbe. Despite the fact that he passed away in 1994, many within the Chabad movement continue to believe that he is Mashiach. Is there substance to this belief?

Mashiach Resurrected

One of the major arguments used by the so-called Mashichistim is a verse in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98b) that states Mashiach can come from “among the living” or from “among the dead”. The Talmud states that if Mashiach is of the living, it would certainly be Rabbi Yehuda haNasi (who was also called, simply, Rebbi), the great compiler of the Mishnah; if of the dead, it would be the Biblical Daniel. Within Chabad, this passage is used to support the fact that despite the Rebbe’s passing, he may still return to be the messiah.

However, other texts state that Mashiach cannot be from the dead. For example, Midrash Rabbah (on Genesis 49:18) writes how Jacob saw a vision of Samson—who had the potential to be Mashiach—but when Jacob saw Samson’s death, he was saddened that Samson wouldn’t be the messiah and said, “I await Your salvation, Hashem!”

Some believe the Rebbe is not really dead (besides, if Mashiach is from “among the dead”, the Talmud already told us it would be Daniel!) but he is only “concealed”. Multiple Jewish sources state that Mashiach will come, then disappear for a certain amount of time, and then return again. For example, Midrash Rabbah (on Numbers 11:3), writes:

Just like the first redeemer, Moses, revealed himself to the Jews and then concealed himself… similarly, the final redeemer will reveal himself, then conceal himself… and then return and reveal himself again.

Thus, the Rebbe is said to only be “hidden”, and will imminently return. Of course, this isn’t very different from the Christian belief in Jesus’ eventual “second coming” (although it should be noted that Christians insist Jesus actually died, and was not simply “hidden”). Christians have been waiting eagerly for two millennia—much like some in Chabad have been waiting eagerly for two decades.

In reality, when ancient Jewish sources speak of Mashiach’s concealment and return, they do not mean that Mashiach will disappear for millennia, or even decades. The Midrash cited above itself says that Moses was hidden from the Israelites for three months, and Mashiach would be hidden for only 45 days. Though there are other opinions, the lengthiest is three years (based on Isaac disappearing from the Torah narrative for three years following the Akedah). And so, the potential for the Rebbe being Mashiach appears to have long expired.

The Rebbe on Being Mashiach

One of the things that the Rebbe was adamant about was studying and following the teachings of the Rambam. The Rambam makes it clear who Mashiach is: a Jewish leader who, among other things, successfully reunites the entire nation in Israel (ending the exile), defeats the nation’s enemies, and rebuilds the Temple in Jerusalem. Only one who has successfully accomplished these tasks can be titled “Mashiach”. The Rambam writes that if a person was on his way to fulfilling these, but died in the process, he is clearly not the messiah. The Rambam brings Shimon bar Kochva as an example. Although Bar Kochva was able to push the Romans out of Israel, reclaim the Temple Mount and start rebuilding the Temple, and was even proclaimed the messiah by Rabbi Akiva, he died and his messianic potential died with him.

Although the Rebbe did hint to himself possibly being the messiah in some of his talks (and his followers use those encoded statements as proof), he also said in one of his talks that one is only confirmed to be Mashiach when the Third Temple is built. Obviously, since the Rebbe did not build the Third Temple in his lifetime, he cannot be the messiah. If it turns out that the Rebbe does return somehow in the future, and accomplishes all the messianic tasks, then and only then can he be titled “Mashiach”. To do so now is premature and naïve, if not altogether wrong.

In fact, the Rebbe constantly made clear that he is not Mashiach. In his monumental biography of the Rebbe, Joseph Telushkin devotes a chapter to this question, and writes:

In 1965, Rabbi Avraham Parizh, an elder Chasid who had been with the movement from the time of the Fifth Rebbe, printed letters stating: “With great joy, we can inform you that King Messiah, for whom we have waited so many years, is already among us. He is the holy Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the King Messiah. His address is 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York. He does not need us to choose him since God has chosen him.” Rabbi Parizh printed up many of these letters and started handing them out in Israel. According to one account, Parizh also distributed these letters by dropping them out of a helicopter.

When the Rebbe learned of the letter, he instructed his secretariat to immediately dispatch a telegram to Parizh, dated June 24, 1965: “We were shocked by the letter [you wrote and handed out] and ask that you immediately cease distributing it. Gather and send to the secretariat all copies of the letter, every last one, and please confirm immediately that you have fulfilled this instruction.” Chasidim tell how Parizh spent several weeks scrounging around the streets of Tel Aviv looking for every such sheet he could find…

In 1991, Rabbi Aharon Dov Halprin, the editor of Chabad’s Israeli magazine, Kfar Chabad, wanted to print an article explaining why the Rebbe was worthy of being considered the presumed Messiah. When the Rebbe learned of this he responded sharply, “If you, God forbid, [plan to write] anything even remotely similar, it is preferable that you shut down the periodical completely.”

In an urgent audience to which the Rebbe summoned Chabad activist Rabbi Tuvia Peles, the Rebbe rebuked those who were making Messianic claims about him, saying, “They are taking a knife to my heart” and “they are tearing off parts of me.”

… Some months later, and shortly before the Rebbe’s stroke, the Alaska-based shliach, Rabbi Yosef Greenberg (author of Y’mei Bereishit), brought a letter to be given to the Rebbe in which he referred to him as “King Messiah”. Later that same day, Rabbi Groner told Greenberg that the Rebbe had looked at the letter, thrown it down in frustration, and then wrote on it, “Tell him that when the Moshiach comes, I will give him the letter.”

An even more definitive statement of the Rebbe on this same issue occurred at around the same time. An Israeli journalist, Sarah Davidowitz of the Kol Ha’ir newspaper, approached the Rebbe and said, “We appreciate you very much, we want to see you in Israel; you said soon you will be in Israel, so when will you come?” The Rebbe responded: “That depends on the Moshiach, not on me.” The journalist persisted, “You are the Moshiach!,” to which the Rebbe responded: “I am not”.

In light of this, to call the Rebbe “Mashiach” is highly inappropriate, and against his own wishes. More dangerously, it risks turning Chabad into a religion of its own. After all, Christianity developed in the very same way; in its first decades, it was nearly indistinguishable from Judaism, and was followed almost entirely by Jews. It took a couple of centuries before the divide between Judaism and Christianity was complete, and by that point, Jesus had become a God-like figure.

The same may very well happen with the Rebbe and Chabad in coming decades. Already, there are elements within Chabad who have taken to equating the Rebbe with some kind of god on Earth. Many in Chabad still write letters to the Rebbe, adorn their homes with countless images and elaborate paintings of him, and read out the Rebbe’s letters at important public events (while everyone is asked to rise in honour of the Rebbe’s “presence”, of course). It isn’t uncommon to see children saluting the Rebbe’s empty chair at 770, while worshippers ecstatically chant “long live our master, teacher, and rabbi, the king Mashiach” (see video here). If Chabad’s leaders do not rein in such activity soon, there is little doubt Lubavitch will morph into a religion of its own. And for the Rebbe—who worked so tirelessly to unite all Jews—that would be a most devastating legacy.

The Eighth Day of Pesach: Isaac, the Afikoman, and Mashiach ben Yosef

Of the three patriarchs, the holiday of Passover is most intimately tied to Isaac. According to tradition, Isaac was born on Passover. Commenting on Genesis 18:10, Rashi explains that the angels’ visit to Abraham and Sarah occurred on Passover, and the angels promised a son to be born – Isaac – exactly one year from that time. This important detail helps to solve a key chronological problem. Earlier, God had told Abraham that his offspring would be subjugated for 400 years. However, when one makes an accounting of the timeline, they will find that the Jews were only in Egypt for a total of 210 years! How could this be?

Commenting on that verse (Genesis 15:13), Rashi calculates how the Exodus occurred exactly 400 years from the birth of Isaac. Thus, God’s word was perfectly fulfilled, since Isaac was the very first of Abraham and Sarah’s offspring. Although Isaac was not subjugated in the sense that the Jews in Egypt were, nonetheless he was certainly troubled by the Canaanites and Philistines, as the Torah records, and was considered a “foreigner” in the Holy Land throughout his life, since God had not yet officially granted the land to the Jews, nor did Isaac settle it permanently.

Digging further, if Isaac was born on the first day of Passover, then his brit milah (circumcision) would have been on the eighth day of Passover. Though the eighth day is not celebrated in Israel, it is celebrated in the diaspora. According to Chassidic custom, as initiated by the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of Chassidism) the eighth day of Passover is associated with Mashiach. In fact, it is customary to hold a Seudat Mashiach, a “Mashiach Feast” on the final afternoon of the holiday, complete with matzahs and four cups of wine. Just as Passover celebrates the First Redemption (led by Moses), the last day of Passover is meant to represent the Final Redemption (led by Mashiach). And it is only commemorated in the diaspora since, after all, it is diaspora Jewry that needs the Final Redemption and the Ingathering of the Exiles more than anyone.

Finally, during the Pesach seder we have three matzahs to go along with the Pesach platter. It is taught that these three matzahs represent the three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. One of the fifteen steps in the seder is yachatz, where the middle of the three matzahs is broken in half. The larger half is covered and hidden as the afikoman, while the smaller half remains at the seder table. Thus, the matzah which we break is specifically the one associated with Isaac.

So then, what is the deeper connection between Mashiach and the Redemption, Passover and the Afikoman, and the forefather Isaac?

Who is Mashiach?

The Jewish mystics teach that there are actually two messiahs: Mashiach ben Yosef, and Mashiach ben David. This is derived from a number of texts and principles. One of these is the fact that the Tanakh has a clear pattern when it comes to major national events: first comes a descendant of the matriarch Rachel to usher it in, and then comes a descendant of the matriarch Leah to complete the mission. For example, Yosef (a son of Rachel) came to Egypt first to set the stage, and then came Yehuda (a son of Leah) to prepare the land for the actual arrival of the rest of the family (see Genesis 46:28). First, Joshua (of the tribe of Ephraim, and a descendant of Rachel) brought the Jews into the land of Israel following the Exodus, then Othniel (from the tribe of Yehuda) finished the job of conquering and settling the land. The first king of Israel was Saul (from the tribe of Benjamin, and a descendant of Rachel) and only then came King David (again of Yehuda). Thus, in every major event, we see clearly that first comes a descendant of Rachel to prepare the way and fight the battles, and only afterwards comes a descendant of Leah to finish the job.

In the same way, the Sages teach that first comes Mashiach ben Yosef (a descendant of Rachel), whose mission is to fight all the battles on behalf of Israel, and only after this comes Mashiach ben David (a descendant of Leah), who completes the messianic role. And who is Mashiach ben Yosef? Amazingly, the Sages say that this is none other than Isaac, reincarnated!

Of all the patriarchs and major Torah figures, Isaac is spoken of the least in Scripture. Hardly anything is said of him. It is explained that this is because Isaac has not completed his mission, and his story is not over. He has yet to fight many battles. The Sages permute his name – Itzchak (יצחק) – into the words Ketz Chai (קץ חי), literally that he “will live [again] at the End”. This is one reason why Itzchak (which means “will laugh”) is in the future tense. Isaac is Mashiach ben Yosef, who will come at the End to fight the final battles. Beautifully, the gematria of Itzchak (יצחק) is 208, equivalent to Ben Yosef (בן יוסף), also 208.

This brings us back to Passover and the afikoman. The middle matzah is broken in half. One half – the one associated with the patriarch Isaac – remains on the seder plate, together with the other matzahs that symbolize the other patriarchs. The other half – the larger one – is hidden away, only to be revealed at the very end. This is symbolic of Isaac’s final role as that of Mashiach, whose arrival is also concealed until the very ‘End of Days’. And on the eighth and final day of the Passover holiday – the day on which Isaac was circumcised and entered into the Covenant – we hold a ‘Mashiach Feast’ to celebrate the coming Final Redemption, may it arrive speedily and in our days.

Chag sameach!