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Thursday, August 19, 2004

Bracelets string the public along

As with most things in Hollywood, a new fashion statement has made its way down to the masses. Those red-string kabbalah bracelets you've seen Madonna and Demi Moore wearing are now sold at Target for $25.99.

Madonna says she's now a devout practitioner of kabbalah (the interpretation of Judaism in terms of the workings of the 10 powers of God through which God created and interacts with our world). But those who study it say calling them kabbalah bracelets is misleading.

"They have nothing to do with kabbalah; that's the trick of the marketing," says Eliezer L. Segal, a professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary. "The public that's being catered to doesn't know any better."

Segal says the red string dates to Greek and Roman times, and the practice was later adopted by Jews. The only mention of red string in Jewish texts, says Segal, is in the Tosefta, a supplement to the Mishnah, a book of oral laws. It's in a section that discusses superstitious practices -- which ones are forbidden and which are accepted. Putting on red strings is one of the things that's forbidden.

In Eastern Europe, families nevertheless tied the red string to cribs to divert diseases such as scarlet fever. There it was called a bendel ribbon in Yiddish. They also attached it to the clothing of older children. Now they are used to keep away "the evil eye."

These days they're available in gold, too -- the red string is weaved into a gold chain. For those who have been to the Old City of Jerusalem, the fact that they're going for $25.99 is laughable: Visitors can buy them in Israel for about 22 cents.