I'm not afraid to admit that I'm superstitious. The hamsa (Arabic for "five") I wear around my neck, a golden hand with a tiny turquoise dot in its center, is my constant protection. It represents the hand of God; its blue stone symbolizes God's watchful eye, always alert to deflect harm. If I wear a different necklace, I pin or carry a hamsa somewhere else.
My Baghdadi-Indian heritage is replete with amulets, superstitions, and customs to elude the Evil Eye (ayin hara). I was raised with the belief that evil spirits float around the universe, ready to harm you.
Sephardim don't have a corner on the market: The ayin hara, a universal belief, works in insidious ways; sometimes a malevolent gaze or a few words of praise, perhaps rooted in envy ("What a beautiful baby!"), are enough to open the gateway to evil.
To me, the Evil Eye is harm or danger in any manifestation, and I hang onto superstitions for no good, rational reason. Choosing to suspend my logical side is a tangible acknowledgment that sometimes my destiny is beyond my own control, yet maybe my belief in a protective energy will shield me.
Rosh Hashanah ushers in a season filled with the mystery of destiny--not as an abstract concept, but one vibrant with images as concrete as my hamsa: The Book of Life; the Throne of Mercy; the Heavenly Court; the Gates of Compassion; the Birthday of the World; God's shofar-like voice.
Sephardic and Mizrahi families respond with an equally concrete ceremony in hopes of influencing our destinies just a little more. We transform fruits and vegetables into edible, pseudo good luck charms, matching each with a new year's wish based on its Hebrew name or characteristic. The short, home-based "seder yehi ratzone" ("May it be God's will") asks God to keep evil and enmity far away from us and to provide us with strength, abundance and peace.
Apples, pomegranates, dates, beans, pumpkin, beetroot leaves, and chives turn into our wishes for a year full of sweetness, good deeds, prosperity, happiness, freedom and friendship. Traditionally, the seder concludes with the head of a fish or sheep (savory sweetbreads), for the wish that we should be heads and not tails, leaders, not stragglers. (I suggest a head of lettuce.) By ingesting these foods, we participate in the process of birth and growth inherent in nature, investing Rosh Hashanah with even more power as the birthday of the world.
The fish, which crosses Ashkenazic-Sephardic lines, is both a symbol of fertility and of God's protection: its eyes never close. Storyteller Peninnah Schram, whose family is from Lithuania and Russia, remembers her mother serving her father a cooked fish head for Rosh Hashanah. "I never looked too closely at it," she told me, "but it sat on the plate like a ‘king' with the fish roe, too. My father relished it. None of the rest of us would eat it."
Interestingly, Baghdadi families discontinued the fish head because of the similarity between the words dag (fish) and d'agah (worry). The Rosh Hashanah seder's potency comes not only from the foods, but from the words of the blessings associated with them. Anyone who has been the victim of a lashing insult or the beneficiary of a plump compliment knows that words can convey the most powerful of charms or the most harmful of curses.
In my book, Apples and Pomegranates: A Family Celebration for Rosh Hashanah (Lerner/Karben) I’ve recreated, explained and enhanced the short seder. I wanted families today to be able to access this easy, meaningful, tasty ritual in their home celebrations. In addition to the actual seder in Hebrew, English and transliteration, Kiddush and Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals), you’ll find a seder shopping list; a description of each food and its special characteristics; short folk tales, parodies, and biblical and original stories (The Story of Deborah; Jacob and the Beanstalk); activities (create a bean mosaic or a pumpkin centerpiece); questions for thought (“How can we turn a curse into a blessing?”); songs (Eretz Zavat Halav U’Dvash), recipes (Date Muffins, Apple Preserves), and new year’s customs from around the world.
The Hebrew language itself is endowed with sacred, even mystical powers. Abracadabra? It's from the Hebrew, avra k'dabra. (it has come to pass as it was spoken). When the community assembles for Kol Nidre, the rhyming, incantation-like Aramaic formula absolves us of our words, the vows we have made during the year.
To my surprise, Rabbi Manuel Gold, z”l, who studied and wrote about Judaism and Jewish magic and passed away in 2020, around the same time as my father, confirmed that Kol Nidre was, indeed, originally an incantation. Its powerful triple repetition was intended as a protective measure against demons. He told me that the language is similar to that in ancient Jewish Aramaic incantation bowls, many from the sixth and seventh centuries CE, found in the Jewish quarter of Nippur, Iraq.
Although the Torah forbade many of the beliefs in and actions against demonology--which saturated every aspect of life--popular Judaism interpreted them through a monotheistic lens instead, Rabbi Gold told me. "It was a struggle between popular and purist religion. Judaism fought magic in its early history, but by the time of the Gemara, codified around 500 CE, many rabbis conceded. The Talmud says [Pesahim]: ‘If you're worried about demons, demons concern themselves with you. If you're not worried, be careful anyway!'"
Rabbi Gold said he did not personally believe in demons; his work grew out of a doctoral dissertation. But he offered a modern interpretation: "Demons reside in each one of us. They prevent us from being whom we want to be."
Rabbi Gold also interpreted the Kapparot (literally, atonements) that precede Yom Kippur in Orthodox communities as a magical act. Kapparot involve spinning a rooster (for a male) or a hen (for a female) three times around a person's head while reciting appropriate prayers. The bird, which is supposed to absorb an individual's sins, is then slaughtered and given to the poor.
Some High Holiday customs may be less dramatic but are no less powerful for their adherents. In some Ashkenazic communities, taking a nap on Rosh Hashanah afternoon was forbidden because you're not supposed to sleep away the time when you're inscribed in the Book of Life. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, "If one sleeps at the year's beginning, his good fortune likewise sleeps."
Good fortune has to be kept going throughout the year, not just on Rosh Hashanah. If you poke the surface of Sephardic or Ashkenazic traditions, more superstitions spill out like the hiss of air from a balloon. As we enter the year, may both our rational and irrational sides find harmony and blessing.
Tizkoo L'Shanim Rabot! May you merit many years.