Superstition's Powers, Pitfalls

Our rituals are illogical, but we perform them faithfully, anyway.

Wed, 05/14/2014
Editor and Publisher
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

On Shabbat mornings, when I go outside to pick up the newspaper from the front stoop of my house, I am aware of a deep sense of responsibility. I know that where and how I open the paper to check the scores during the baseball season determines whether my beloved Baltimore Orioles won or lost the previous night’s game.

I know, I know. Some might think it illogical — after all, the game has been over for hours and the players are home, asleep, no longer on the field. But over the years I’ve learned that if I check the scores before I bring the paper into the house, they lose/lost. If I can hold off until I’m inside, they win/won.

OK, so it’s not 100 percent foolproof; there are exceptions to every rule. But my job in all this is to do my little part to increase the O’s chances. And trust me, I’m not alone in my behavior, which some may call pure mishegas (craziness).

Managers and ballplayers are known to have a wide range of superstitions. Some are evident to the fans, like players who avoid stepping on the foul lines when trotting on or off the field — or those who, davka, have to step on the lines. And virtually every batter goes through a series of formulaic motions between each pitch, from crossing themselves to cupping their crotch, while pitchers fiddle with the ball — and everyone on the field and in the dugout perfects the art of spitting — adding to the time, and charm, of the game.

Then there are the players who won’t change their underwear during a winning streak, no doubt giving the locker room an additional whiff of victory.

Some of the smartest, most thoughtful people I know are deeply irrational when it comes to sports, believing that their actions have a direct impact on their team’s on-field fortunes.

Truth be told, back in 1979, when I lived in Baltimore and sat in the press box with my law professor friend Kenny at the old Memorial Stadium for the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, we were convinced that when and how we took bites from our brisket sandwiches during those home games were key to the O’s fate.

Sadly, we must have chewed when we should have swallowed because the Orioles blew a 3-1 Series lead, losing the last three games to the Pirates, including two at home. Willie Stargell may have won the MVP, but 35 years later I still feel guilty about my role in The Big Fade.

It should be noted, though, that I am following centuries of Jewish tradition in believing that a ritual act I perform, or avoid, leads to good luck, or bad. And it’s a thin line between minhag (custom) and plain old bubbe meises  (old wives’ tales) in any number of Jewish traditions, many of them involving warding off the Evil Eye, especially in regards to children.

For example, some parents still tie a red ribbon (or bendl, in Yiddish) around a child’s finger to ward off the Evil Eye. We add a Hebrew name like Alte (Yiddish for old) to a sick child to “fool” the Devil from recognizing and claiming him or her. Pregnant women are told to avoid visiting the cemetery. We don’t say “mazal tov” on hearing that a woman is pregnant, and we don’t make public a baby’s name before the birth. Bad luck.

Spending a good deal of time in my European-bred grandparents’ home as a youngster, I also was told that whistling is taboo (it invokes Satan), stepping over a child on the floor is a no-no (she won’t grow unless you step back over her), opening an umbrella indoors is bad luck, and on hearing bad news one should spit three times to ward off the ever-lurking Evil Eye, with the suggested additional option of uttering “poo, poo, poo.”

Sounds reasonable, right?

Many people are familiar with the phrase “ken ayin hora” (may there be no Evil Eye), sometimes shortened to “kenna hora,” invoked when saying words of praise, for example, “oh, that baby is adorable.”

Why tempt fate?

One of the more charming customs we have is shaliach mitzvah gelt, giving money to someone going on a major trip, asking him to use it for charity on arrival. This is based on the belief that no one will come to harm on a charitable mission.

In the end, some people believe in faith healers, others insist in the power of a rebbe; I’m semi-convinced my actions can transmit some kind of positive energy to a group of favored ballplayers.

All of which is to say that whether you call them superstitions, customs, traditions or bubbe meises, they offer a certain comfort for those who observe them. And if you don’t believe me, I won’t even bother telling you how uncrossing my legs at a critical moment while listening to the Oriole game the other night resulted in light-hitting catcher Steve Clevenger’s game-winning double in the bottom of the 10th.

Mock me if you will, but it worked, didn’t it?

And remember this: If I keep at it throughout the season, the O’s could wind up in the World Series.

Poo poo poo. 

gary@jewishweek.org

Gary Rosenblatt has been the editor and publisher of The Jewish Week for 20 years and has written more than 1,000 "Between The Lines" columns since 1993. Now a collection of 80 of those columns, ranging from Mideast analysis to childhood remembrances as "the Jewish rabbi's son" in Annapolis, Md., is available. Click here for details. 

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

Comments

It's not like you not to have something better to write about. Also, you really ought to know better than to write "the O's could wind up..." It's Os, not O's.

I actually enjoyed the light-hearted piece. Not every article in The Jewish Week needs to be about the Middle East crisis, who can and who can not march in the Israel Day Parade, nothing wrong with a human interest story. If it doesn't interest you, no one is forcing you to read. And, by the way, you are wrong about the O's. Check the Orioles' own web site: http://baltimore.orioles.mlb.com/index.jsp?c_id=bal

silly

There exists and is an “ayin hara” which completely legitimizes some Jewish customs, and then there is, as described in Kitzur Shulchon Oruch Chapter 166,by R Shlomo Ganzfried, translated by R Eliyahu Touger the “Prohibition against Soothsaying, Fortunetelling and Divining” (this is strictly forbidden to Jewish people as our devotion to Hashem is all consuming, so He forbade us from sinking so low as to engage, or even think about these). Ayin Hara on the one hand and soothsaying, fortunetelling and divining on the other are quite the opposite of one another. So all that “sports prediction” is not al pi Torah.

Also there is hillul Shabbos (desecration of the shabbos)- carrying in an object from the outside where there is no eruv, touching a muktze object, one that is not allowed to be handled on Shabbos, tearing (the seal on the newspaper) and reading inappropriate matter(sports) on shabbos.

Gary wrote that he picks up the newspaper from the front stoop of his house. That is his very own property. How is that carrying from the public place to the private place, even if there is no eruv? And what do you think makes a newspaper muktze?

It sounds that his “stoop” has not got a fence or eruv around it, therefore it is classified as the public “domain” and the Torah prohibits carrying on Shabbat between a public domain and a private domain, or for more than 4 cubits in a public domain.

Also if a newspaper is indoors then if it needs ripping a seal to open it it is mukze.(cannot be handled). The "unsuitable parts "of the newspaper should not even be looked at on Shabbos and probably on other days too. Certainly “sales” and prices and business news – not on Shabbos.

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.