Red String: Symbol of Cheshvan

There are no holidays in Cheshvan (except Shabbat), so it was harder to decide which object to explore this month.  I thought about exploring Besamin, the spices we use at Havdalah, since according to the Sefer Yetzirah the sense of the month is smell.  I thought about yahrzeit candles because there are many famous yahrzeits celebrated in Chesvhan.  I even thought about umbrellas because rain is so closely associated with Cheshvan.

Finally I decided that the “red string” was the appropriate physical object to explore as a symbol of Cheshvan.  One of the yahrzeits we celebrate in Cheshvan is that of Rachel Imeinu, Rachel the matriarch.  The “red string” as protective amulet is closely associate with Rachel and her tomb, although it’s not the only association.  The use of red as a color of protection and spiritual cleansing is a common on in Judaism, just think of the “Red Heifer.”   Red, or scarlet/crimson, is also one of the four classical colors of Hebrew scripture.  Red generally symbolizes joy, life, and sin.  It also symbolizes the earth and man (think Adam, and Adamah).

These days most people think of the red string around the wrist as the “kabbalah string” because it was made so popular by the Kabbalah Centre, a particular modern school of kabbalah made famous by celebrities like Madonna, but it’s actually a pretty ancient practice.  One of the interesting things about its resurgence is that “knot tying” is one of the forms of magick technically prohibiting in the Torah.

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But the physical act of tying knots is a very satisfying one, and one we are “commanded” to do in other situations like the tying of Tzitzit.  In one of the best articles about the practice of tying red strings as a Jewish practice, author Elly Teman suggests that there are three traits that explain the appeal of this practice:

  1. the color red
  2. the act of tying knots
  3. and the final circular form when tied around the wrist

So the first question I have for you, is what reaction do these three elements trigger in you?

Just in case you think red threads are just a modern folk practice, you can also find them in the Torah.  A red thread was tied around the wrist of Zerah to mark him as firstborn in Genesis 38: 28.  A red thread also appears as a marker of Rachav’s home, after she helps the Israelite spies escape in Joshua 2: 18–21.  In Proverbs 31: 21, we are told that a woman of valor ” is not afraid of the snow for her household; for all her household are clothed with scarlet.”  Red is also a key color of the tabernacle.

If  you are interested in exploring this practice, then the 11th of Cheshvan is a great day to try it out.  Dedicate your red string to Rachel Imeinu and ask G!d/dess to bless and protect you in memory of her.  Be sure to read some midrash (sacred stories) about her, or study Torah about her too.  Use the act of tying a red string around your wrist to symbolically create a sacred boundary.  If you like, recite the words of the “V’ahavta,” where we are told to “bind these words on our wrists.”  See if symbolically binding the words of Torah on your wrists in a physical way changes the way you engage with the word during the month of Cheshvan.

Red String Resources:

Question for you
Have you ever wrapped a red string around your wrist?  What do you think of the practice, whether you have done it or not?

Adapted from a post originally written for Peeling a Pomegranate, 2011