'In' string bracelet tied to Jewish tradition

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Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
A sterling silver bendle with red thread woven through is available at Pinskers in Squirrel Hill.
Click photo for larger image.

There it was, right beneath the Target dog's red-ringed eye: a description of a $25.99 red string bracelet said to ward off the evil eye.

The hawking of an ancient Jewish tradition on a commercial Web site completes the red thread's journey from obscure religious item to celebrity cult accessory for the likes of Madonna to mainstream fad ---- so popular it's already sold out at Target's Web site (it wasn't available in local Target stores).

The bendle, as the bracelet is called, has a long history and a full share of bitterness and bounty within its slender circle.

To gain its potency, the scarlet thread must be wound around the Tomb of Rachel, just outside Bethlehem. It is to be tied on the left wrist, knotted seven times and worn until it falls off or falls apart. A prayer is often recited as it is tied on.

The tradition is part of the Kabbalah, a term for a body of Jewish mystical teachings about the mysteries of God and the universe.

The Tomb of Rachel has long been a significant site. The book of Genesis tells of how Jacob buried his wife, Rachel, along the road to Bethlehem after she died giving birth to their second son. Rachel had been barren for many years before finally giving birth first to Joseph, then to Benjamin.

Tradition says she was buried there so that the Jews would pass her grave as they traveled into exile and she would be able to pray for them. There is also a story that Joseph, who was 7 when his mother died, passed by the grave on his way to Egypt after he was sold into slavery a decade later. He escaped the caravan and ran to the grave, beseeching his mother to save him from his captors.

"Don't be afraid," he heard his mother's voice answer him. "Go with them, and may the Lord be with you."

Rachel's tomb became a place of prayer for women who sought fertility or healthy children.

Rachel's lack of malice during the difficulties of her life is said to give the bendle the power against evil eye.

"The term in Hebrew, ayin hare, means evil eye," said Rabbi Yale Butler, former editor and publisher of the B'nai B'rith Messenger. "The concept is jealousy or being hateful or coveting."

The bendle is worn to try to avert those feelings in others and remind the wearer of the qualities of compassion and goodness.

"Rachel was a woman who fell in love with Jacob, was going to marry him," said Brad Perelman, proprietor of Pinskers Judaica Center in Squirrel Hill, who sells bendles and has researched the tradition. "He had worked for his [future] father-in-law for seven years before he was allowed to marry her, and then right before the wedding her father switched her older sister Leah for her."

Rachel knew of her father's plan but didn't want to humiliate her sister and so let it go forward. Then she had to wait another seven years while Jacob worked to gain her hand. "She had no ill will toward her sister -- didn't look to her with jealousy. The idea that Rachel didn't look upon her sister with negative thoughts is the merit, the characteristic, that the red thread is trying to prompt us toward, so that others shouldn't look upon us with negative thoughts," said Perelman.

The bendle has been worn for centuries by some, but its recent, more widespread popularity is mostly due to the fact that Madonna began wearing the red string and touting its efficacy. A number of actresses and singers, including Demi Moore, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, also have worn bendles.

Then it landed on Target's "Red Hot Shop," where items are described as "superfresh + crazy cool." It is sold out and no longer on the site. (It is, however, still available at Pinskers.) Target ordered the pre-blessed bracelets from the Kabbalah Learning Centre in Los Angeles, which is the main source of popularizing Kabbalah. It sold them at $25.99, a penny less than the center's price. The going rate in Jerusalem for plain string is about 22 cents.

The Web site description of the product said that "what makes this particular piece of string so special is, in part, the fact that it has traveled to Israel, to the ancient tomb of Rachel the Matriarch, and returned, imbued with the essence of protection."

Traditionally, the study of Kabbalah has been reserved for the most learned and pious -- it was said that a person should not even begin studying it before the age of 40. The Kabbalah Learning Centre takes exactly the opposite tack.

A recording on the phone at the center terms it "the revolutionary movement that's been around for almost 5,000 years" and says that "for the first time in history, the teaching of Kabbalah, the source of all spiritual wisdom, has been made available to all of us."

The center describes the evil eye as "a very powerful negative force" that comes from "the unfriendly stare and unkind glances we sometimes get from people around us." Those glances and looks of ill will "affect us, stopping us from realizing our full potential in every area of our life."

Some consider what the center offers as a watered-down version of the tradition.

Perelman said he is posting information about the tradition of the red string on his Web site, judaica.com, and will soon make a short film about it available there. It shows the ritual of winding the string around the tomb, which includes reading the 33rd Psalm and reciting a prayer called the ana B'Koach.

"We want to reclaim this tradition or custom as a Jewish tradition. It's sort of been hijacked by popular culture."

Perelman said that until a couple of years ago, the bendle was not widely available. It was most commonly used by Hasidim, and typically was acquired during visits to Israel or via others who went and brought string back. Parents often put the string on the wrists of their children, he said. He knew of a couple in New York who would travel to Israel and come back with quantities of string to be made into bracelets, but for the most part bendles were not sold commercially.

His store and Web site began to carry "Jerusalem bendles," which were from Israel but not necessarily from the Tomb of Rachel, he said. Now a batch of string that has been wound around the tomb is ready and will be available at the store and Web site, he said. Current prices for the plain string are two for $7.45; string intertwined in a silver or gold bracelet is $14.95 and $59.95 respectively. They aren't particularly big sellers in Pittsburgh, he said. He sells more online.

Though the bendle undoubtedly will be replaced by something else on celebrity wrists and the Target Red Hot Shop, it will persist as a reminder of the compassion of Rachel.

Lillian Thomas can be reached at lthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3566.


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