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Spit and Pray


Ever since I first encountered the very insular Jews who live in parts of Jerusalem in 1957, I have been aware that some of them have the habits of throwing stones at people they do not approve of and of spitting. I don’t mean spitting to clear the throat. Lots of people do that. It is common in the Middle East and on European soccer pitches. No, I mean the primitive custom of spitting when passing non-Jewish places of worship and in prayer when reciting the ancient Aleinu prayer with its often censored text which thanks God for not making us like those nations “who bow down to vanity ‘varik’ (literally ‘and emptiness’) and to gods who cannot save them”.

The word “rik” has the same Hebrew root as “spittle”. And the numerical value of the Hebrew letters “varik ” is 316, the same as Yeshu, Jesus. (It is also the reference to the Gospel of John 3:16, in which Jesus proclaims that he is the Son of God.) Never mind that the Aleinu text is based on Isaiah, written six hundred years before the emergence of Christianity, and applied to Idol Worshippers. Still, under a medieval and oppressive Christianity that put Jews to death for their religion, spitting upon seeing a church or a priest gained in currency the more the anti-Semitism increased. I can understand the visceral reaction, “If you rubbish us and our religion, we will rubbish yours.” But I certainly deplore it.

As relations began to get better, Western European Jews in particular began to drop the custom, as well as the text. Of course, the Holocaust set the whole relationship with Christianity back, and it is one of the miracles of the subsequent sixty years that it has improved so much that popes now visit synagogues on missions of peace and cooperation rather than conversion.

But still, in parts of Israel the custom has persisted in its ugliest form, of spitting at Christian clergy, mainly in Jerusalem. Here is an extract from a letter by the well-known teacher and commentator Devorah Weissman and circulated it to her community, Kehillat Yedidya, in Jerusalem:

Some of you may remember that on Yom Kippur of this year, I reacted, or should I say perhaps overreacted (I often do that when I’m upset about something) to the shaliach tzibbur’s recitation aloud of a line in the Aleinu prayer, “…that they kneel to nothing and emptiness, and pray to a god who cannot save…” To the best of my recollection, we had never recited that line publicly before at Yedidya—at least not in the minyanim I have attended. There is a recent trend in some parts of the Jewish world to bring it back, especially in Artscroll and many Israeli editions of the prayerbook. It is missing in editions by Hertz, Adler, and Birnbaum, and in the new siddur of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth), although it is present in the Koren edition of his siddur produced for the US. In a recent article in the Jerusalem Post, Father Samuel Aghoyan, a senior Armenian Orthodox cleric in Jerusalem’s Old City, says he’s been spat at by young Chareidi and national Orthodox Jews “about 15 to 20 times” in the past decade. The last time it happened, he said, was earlier this month. “I was walking back from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and I saw this boy in a yarmulke and ritual fringes coming back from the Western Wall, and he spat at me two or three times.” Aghoyan said, “Every single priest in this church has been spat on. It happens day and night.”

Dr. Weissman urged her community and the Orthodox world to do something. The issue was raised with the Chareidi rabbinate in Jerusalem, who are usually much better at talking to Muslim clerics, whom they regard as monotheists, than with Christians, who worship the trinity and are therefore regarded as idolatrous (and don’t ask about the Kabalistic idea of the Ten Sefirot). And they responded.

This JTA report appeared in Haaretz:

A rare meeting between clerics from various churches, representatives of the Foreign Ministry and the Jerusalem municipality, and the Edah Haredit, the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox stream, gathered in Jerusalem in an effort to stave off a diplomatic crisis between Israel and a number of foreign states.

The meeting was spurred by the growing number of complaints from churches in the vicinity of Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim quarter about violence and harassment toward them on the part of ultra-Orthodox Jews. …News of the harassment of the clergy was published abroad and met with shock. Complaints were lodged with the Israeli embassies and began piling up at the Foreign Ministry.

…Edah Haredit representatives denied that members of their community were involved, but said it was possible that “fringe youth” who had participated in the demonstrations were causing the problems. …Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim, a member of the Edah Haredit leadership, met at the Jerusalem municipality … [and] brought a letter from rabbis of the community’s religious tribunal denouncing the attacks.

…”In addition to the desecration of the Lord’s name that is involved,” the letter states, “our rabbis, may the memory of these righteous men be a blessing, have already forbidden harassment of gentiles.”

After all the negative things I have had to say about sectors of Orthodoxy I am so pleased to be able show another side. There are impressive, sophisticated, and sensitive–I would say saintly–Chareidi rabbis like Rabbi Papenheim, and they must be encouraged and recognized. It is not ALL black.

19 thoughts on “Spit and Pray

  1. I am appalled that what I had thought of as a mediaeval custom is still alive today. (But also amused at the presumably unintended double meaning of "fringe youth", not to mention your own "not all black"…)

  2. Of course we get your subtle humour and it is good to know that their are Charedim with wisdom, something that knowledge does not always imply.

    Tell me, Jeremy, where does the habit of spitting 3 times (as in "pe pe pe" without the venom or sputum content) come from? Is it from the same source? I trust not; but it is interesting because I know many non-Jewish eastern Europeans who us the same anti-evil expression. And where does kein anhora come from? Is it kosher?

  3. Leila:
    Doing things twice (Zuggot) is forbidden in the Talmud because it suggests Gnosticism, Good God and Bad God. Three times was the ideal, I guess from Kadosh Kadodsh Kadosh, so you should down a cup in three goes and think of Shalom Aleichem.
    Though it's surprising that when much later Christianity turned 3 into the Trinity the rabbis didn't reverse the custom or make it four or five. But I suspect there was somewhere a link between three spits and the trinity. This is the sort of thing that Danny Sperber must have done research into. Will look it up.

  4. Dear R.Rosen,
    R.Pappenheim may well be a saint for several reasons(although Toldos Aharon has certainly had its share of controversy lately, some of it quite ugly), but for telling people not to spit at gentiles?

  5. Martin:
    He is not, to my knowledge, a single-minded Toldos Aharon devotee, and his record in a wide range of issues over many years, including interfaith, is quite remarkable and exemplary. Sadly, he is the exception rather than the rule.

  6. Blogger ss said…

    Great observation, Martin!
    You think maybe we should raise to bar on our expectations for Chareidim?

    1:40 PM

    No more or less than any other observant Jew.
    And yes, I expect more from observant Jews than the non-observant, because we claim to have Torah

  7. Martin:

    I had thought you were implying that we must have very low standards for someone's behavior if we consider them "saintly" to speak against spitting on others. So when I said we should raise the bar for Chareidim, I meant raise it to the same level of behavior that we expect from "any other observant Jew". 🙂

  8. Leila:

    Ayin Hara is mentioned in the Gemara and there are three approaches: those who accept it is something to be worried about and can be excited by envy, those who think there is nothing to worry about if you are God-fearing, and those who say that all descendants of Yosef are protected because of Yaakov's blessing that Yosef is Alei Ayin (Gen 49:22) which they pun to mean "Overcome the Eye" (as opposed to the literal rising up over the well). But no one suggests spitting as a remedy, though the Gemara in Brachot has one or two other counter-spells!

    Rambam was most categorical in denying it had any validity and was simply. Since his time, however, most Sefardim have ignored him and are inveterate Evil Eye watchers, as are Chasidim and other kabalists! I am tempted to state the obvious.

    I follow the rationalists and regard it together with curses as primitive stuff and nonsense!
    As a rabbi, however, I would advise anyone who is afraid or concerned simply to say the first line of the Shema or Bilaams description of Israel in Numbers 33:33.

    Spitting IS associated with idolatrous apostates (Sanhedrin 93a).

  9. " ss said…


    I had thought you were implying that we must have very low standards for someone's behavior if we consider them "saintly" to speak against spitting on others. So when I said we should raise the bar for Chareidim, I meant raise it to the same level of behavior that we expect from "any other observant Jew". 🙂

    12:13 AM"

    I was just questioning R.Rosen beatifying this fellow on the basis of objecting to spitting at gentiles.

  10. Thanks for the explanation, Jeremy – most illuminating. I suppose many of us still use these silly, largely superstitious expressions because we were brought up with them, rather than thinking about what we're actually implying by using them. And most of us (I hope) would not be spitting at anyone in particular. As for curses: don't knock them all: many of them are really funny (Yiddish ones) belonging to a peasant shtetl society and are just archaisms today but part of our heritage to be treasured in literary terms.

  11. Leila:

    Indeed, your point about Shtetl society is correct. I find it interesting how so many people nowadays romanticize it as if it was a spiritual and physical Garden of Eden!

  12. Could there be any connection to the habit in theatres and the like
    to spit the actors three times over the left (?) shoulder, saying
    toi,toi,toi,before they go on stage?

  13. Of course not, it happens back stage! It doesn't seem so strange to me as it is a way of averting
    the evil eye=failure.

  14. Has there been any follow up on this issue? Any proclamations made within the Hareidi culture not to spit; a decrease in these incidents?

  15. Anonymous:

    Yes, pressure is being exerted, so I have heard from friends down in Meah Shearim. Except of course Charedi society is fragmented and not easily controlled. And also it seems many of the offenses were/are committed by Chardal kids, Charedi Leumi (Religious Nationalists) who live in their own world. In that world, Rabbi Furman of Tekoah is, I am told, working hard to deal with the issue.

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