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November 20, 2012 By:
Richard Pawlak, Inside Feature
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Are you wary of black cats, first steps, empty ovens and opened ladders? Do you smell the Havdalah candle after it is extinguished? Do you believe that the number 13 is unlucky? You’re hardly alone. Superstitious behavior permeates almost every facet of our lives. 

The ancient Greeks used just two words to explain both good and bad fortunes, as well as the unexplainable events of every day life: “the gods.” They built an entire hierarchy of ritual and practice to appease their gods and engender good luck. Animal sacrifices to the gods were regularly made to ensure success in battles with their enemies, as well as to ward off bad luck and misfortune.

It’s nice to think that mankind has advanced past all of that, but we all still believe, in one way or another, in some kind of superstition. And most of us actually like it that way. But in 2012, when you can find an explanation for anything with a click, why are we still superstitious?

An empty oven yields an empty larder.

A bird in the house is a sign of a death.

An acorn at the window will keep lightning out.

A joint study between the University of Texas and Northwestern University showed that people who feel a lack of control try to impose some kind of order through superstition and ritual. “It’s about gaining control through mental gymnastics,” says Adam Galinsky, professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. Through a series of six experiments, Galinsky and co-author Jennifer Whitson, professor at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin, showed that people who lacked control of a situation were more likely to see images that did not exist, imagine conspiracies and develop superstitions.

“This suggests that lacking control leads to a visceral need for order —even imaginary order,” adds Whitson.

And so we wear our lucky, 24-year-old Kelly green jersey to the next Eagles home game because the team has almost never lost a game when we’ve worn the smelly relic, and it smells because we fear that cleaning it will wash away some the shirt’s mojo.

It’s all part of the universal ritual of sports fandom.

“Superstitions give us a feeling of control when we may not actually have control,” says Stuart Vyse, a professor of psychology at Connecticut College and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. “They give us a sense that at least we’re doing something.”

If someone sneezes while telling a story, they’re telling the truth. 

Eating garlic will ward off evil spirits. 

Never eat from a piece of bread over which you have recited a brachah unless it has been halved.

“When it comes to superstitions, I believe in the ones that have a source in tradition,” says Rabbi Yitzchak Goldenberg, director of Chabad of Lawrenceville, in Lawrenceville, N.J. “They are based on a belief that there’s a relationship between the physical and spiritual. 

“And there are so many, such as not pouring a beverage with your hand under the bottle,” Goldenberg explains, “because that is how water is poured over corpses before burial. Also, there is not having two people dressing a person at the same time, because that is part of burial preparation.”

But there are less morbid ones. “Some of the more famous ‘thou shall nots’ include opening an umbrella under a roof, polishing shoes right before a trip, spilling salt and eating the ends of bread,” adds Goldenberg. “Sleeping with your socks on is thought to bring on forgetfulness, while smelling the Havdalah candle after it is extinguished is said to enhance your memory.

“I believe in all of the ones I’ve mentioned,” Goldenberg continues, “including keeping a Chitas in the car along with a tzedakah box for safety.”

Are superstitions and the many “thou shall nots” ever a topic at the synagogue (Young Israel of Lawrenceville) where the rabbi is spiritual leader? “There are various places that mention superstitions,” says Goldenberg, “some from the Talmud.  I’m ready to speak about them to my children or my congregation whenever it comes up.”

In order to be gifted with children, a bride must carry an egg in her bosom on the way to the chupah.

If a woman finds an egg with a double yolk, and then eats it, she will be blessed with many healthy children.

Jewish superstitions share one particular concept with many other cultures through many generations: the Evil Eye. At its core, the Evil Eye is a look or glance intended to bring harm or misfortune, either out of malice or jealousy. The roots of the superstition trace back to ancient Greece and Rome, where it was thought that the gods (there they are again) used the Eye to punish those who had become too prideful and boastful. But the belief in the Evil Eye is common to almost every continent except North America; Mohammed warned about the Evil Eye in the Koran, recommending a bath for believers to counter the effects of the stare. Ashkenazi Jews believe excessive praise makes one vulnerable to the superstition and repeat the phrase “kin ahora (‘no Evil Eye’)” when praising others, to assure the recipients that they have no envious glances in store for them. Spitting three times — ‘puh, puh, puh” — is also said to ward off the effects of this malevolent glance. Red threads are often attached to clothing or cribs to protect babies from the ahora. 

Italians, especially Sicilians, have strong superstitions about the mal occhio (“bad eye”) or the jettatore (“projection”) and attack it with a familiar hand gesture — the mano cornuto — that extends the index and little finger like horns. The Evil Eye is also a powerful superstition among Hindus, who will offer a bowl of milk to an “admiring” glancer to ward off the threat of an envious stare. 

You can also fight off the Nazar Boncugu (Turkey), Bla Band (Iran), Mal Ojo (Spain), Mauvais Oeil (France) or Busen Blick (Germany) with an amulet or talisman such as a hamsa, most popular in the Middle East and Africa. The hamsa, also known as “The Hand of God,” “The Hand of Miriam” or “The Hand of Fatima,” is a hand-shaped symbol with an Evil Eye on the palm, worn most commonly as a necklace. A stylized Evil Eye necklace or a red Kabbalah bracelet are other kinds of modern-day amulets used to chase away evil. Boldface names from Madonna to Mick Jagger, Ashton Kutcher, Kelly Ripa and Kim Kardashian are frequently seen in public wearing such jewelry.

If the first butterfly you see in the year is white, you will have good luck all year.

If a black cat walks towards you, it brings good fortune, but if it walks away, it takes the good luck with it.

A horseshoe hung in the bedroom will keep nightmares away.

Even the world of politics is not immune to the suggestive power of superstition. Arizona Sen. John McCain is known to carry a lucky rabbit’s foot, a lucky penny, a lucky feather and a lucky compass with him, sometimes all at once. McCain, the 2008 Republican candidate for president, also clings to a ritual on every election night in which he has run for office. As the votes are being tabulated, he’s at a local theater, catching a movie.

Should the bride leaving the chupah touch the groom’s hand first, she will dominate the home, but if he touches her hand first, he will be in control.

If the groom steps on the bride’s foot while under the chupah, he will control her, but if she steps on his foot, she will control him.

If the groom drops the wedding band during the ceremony, the marriage is doomed.

Actors, especially stage actors, are notoriously superstitious, but also reluctant to reveal their specific avoidance lest they jinx the entire process. They have their own fear of the Evil Eye, too, in the form of peacock feathers. The theater superstition warns against bringing peacock feathers onstage as a prop, costume or part of a set, lest chaos ensue. The feathers contain an oval shape in their center, the Evil Eye, which brings a curse upon the production it’s in.

Everyone has heard of the theater tradition of wishing actors good luck with the phrase “Break a leg!” symbolizing bowing — one foot behind the other, breaking the leg line — after a performance. But there are other, weirder superstitions that haunt the realm of the footlights. Whistling on- or off-stage is considered bad luck, because it could get someone fired from a show. In pre-technology times, stage cues were given to theater technicians by the stage manager using whistles. And an ill-timed whistle could spell a stage disaster.

But the most feared theater superstition involves just one word: Macbeth. Theater folk believe that saying “Macbeth” in a theater will result in very bad luck. Actors traditionally refer to the play in interviews as “that Scottish play” or “the Bard’s play.” The history of that belief traces back to Shakespeare himself — and to witchcraft. The Bard was said to have gotten the inspiration for the witches’ cauldron scene in the play (“Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble”) from an actual coven of witches who supposedly cursed the play when they saw it. The remedies for the curse are equally bizarre: exiting the theater building, spitting, cursing and spinning around three times; begging to be let back inside; running around the theater building counter-clockwise three times; or saying the name three times while tapping oneself on the left shoulder.

It is bad luck to build a house where no one has built before.

If you sweep the house with a broom in May, you will sweep the head of the house away.

It’s bad luck not to look someone in the eye and drink after a toast.

Baseball and hockey seem to contain the most superstitious rituals and habits in all of sports. Many baseball players believe in the power of the lucky bat, hat, shirt, glove or puka shell necklace, but players are split on the most common of their superstitions: stepping on the foul line. For every player that always avoids stepping on the foul line, there is another who intentionally steps on it whenever he hits the grass.

Pitchers, whose game day routines and quirky habits are often the stuff of legend, are part of baseball’s most frequently visible superstitions. Pitchers often keep to themselves in the clubhouse and in the dugout on the days they pitch, and their teammates are usually wary of disturbing any part of a pitcher’s self-imposed isolation. Most pitchers find an empty section of dugout bench and rest there between innings, and are rarely even approached by a teammate. And should a pitcher find himself pitching a no-hitter, not even the manager or bench coach will approach him. Baseball broadcasters also feed into the no-hitter jinx — they avoid ever mentioning the no-hitter on the air, and have to find other ways to tell their audience about the rare pitching feat in progress.

Hockey has its share of peculiar superstitions, such as growing beards and banging goalposts, but two of its most enduring rituals are pure Philadelphia. 

Kate Smith, for example. Every Philadelphia Flyers fan knows the legend of Kate Smith and the incredible record that the team has when Smith’s version of “God Bless America” is played before a Flyers home game. Since 1969, when Smith’s singing opened nine of the Flyers’ home games, the team’s most famous good luck charm has returned a record of 92 wins, 28 losses and four ties. And the Flyers continue to play her famous recording at games to this day.

Former Flyers goaltender Ron Hextall had a pre-game routine that involved loudly banging his stick repeatedly on all of the goalposts of the goal he defended, believing it brought him good luck. Nearly every goalie today performs that ritual when they enter a game. Many goalies also believe in talking to their goalposts before and during a game, a superstition started by Montreal Canadiens goalie Patrick Roy. 

Hockey players have built a cult of superstition around shaving their faces during playoff games. In the 1970s, the New York Islanders adopted the good luck practice of not shaving as long as their team was winning, and the team went on to win four Stanley Cup championships. Now almost every player on every team that makes it to hockey’s playoffs every year sports a beard for the duration of their postseason play. If only they could create a superstition effective enough to have avoided the NHL’s second lockout in eight years.

This article originally appeared in the November, 2012 issue of Inside Magazine.

Rich Pawlak is a frequent contributor to Inside and the Special Sections of the Jewish Exponent.

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