Saturday, January 22, 2011

Prayer Beads in Judaism?

I recently had a question about the use of something similar to prayer beads (rosary beads or mala beads) in Jewish practice, as it seems to be common among many other spiritual traditions, but not in the Jewish tradition. The questioner also heard that it might actually be prohibited in the Jewish tradition. Following is my revised response that I wanted to share here:

While I have thought about many issues and detected many connections between Judaism and other traditions, this question is one that never came to mind before, at least not directly. And of course, when dealing with Judaism, just like almost any other spiritual tradition, you can find answers all across the board to just about any question, so it is not a simple matter to provide a simple answer. However, I will try, and try to keep it brief.

I have never heard of an absolute prohibition of using something like prayer beads in Judaism, although there are all kinds of general prohibitions that such a practice might fall under, particularly, expansive definitions of idol worship, which is an issue of grave concern to orthodox Jews, as it is such a monumental sin. So it wouldn't surprise me that somewhere some authority has said it is prohibited. Judaism is likewise all over the board concerning mantra-like repetition as a prayer or meditation practice. Some sources prohibit or discourage it, I think generally under the prohibition that it would be taking the name of God in vain, but there are other sources verifying that it was/is a common kabalistic practice that generally has been kept secret over hundreds of years. What this question initially brought to mind was if there was anything comparable to the use of prayer beads in traditional Jewish practice. I came up with a few things: the traditional Jewish prayer shawl (tallis) contains knotted tassels on its four corners that are constructed and knotted in a very specific fashion, called tzitzit in Hebrew. There are a specific number of knots and specifications for constructing the tassel, winding the thread separating the knots, and making the knots themselves. While I have seen no reference to using these knots in some kind of rosary practice, it is an interesting proposition. Orthodox men also wear an undergarment referred to as tzitzit on the upper body that has four corners and contains the tassels with the knots. So this could be seen as comparable to wearing a mala in the yoga and Hindu traditions. The four corners are generally regarded as the four corners of the earth/cardinal directions; and the tassels generally are thought to remind one of the commandments (and there are a total of 613 do and don't commandments, not just the 10 generally known). Concerning the repetitions of prayers, the traditional orthodox prayer service generally involves much rapid-fire recitation/chanting of prescribed prayers (called davenning) with an occasional communal coming together. The traditional orthodox service also involves many repetitions of some prayers during the same service. The Torah is chanted regularly in a strikingly similar fashion as the Vedas are chanted by the brahmins. Repetition is also found in a mostly Chasidic practice called niggun. Niggun is often associated with wordless melodies that are repeated over and over, although some niggun have words. It is strikingly similar to kirtan in yoga and Hinduism.


Mel's Bells Jewelry said...

Thanks for the info about prayer beads in Judaism. I have a small business making prayer beads, and the other day one of my customers asked about Stars of David. I'm trying to see what I could incorporate into my product line that would include Judaism, but I'm sensitive to the possibility that I might overstep myself. I'll keep the points you bring up here in mind as I continue my research.

Mel's Bells

Steve Gold said...

Melanie: I looked over your sites, and it looks like you make some nice things. Thanks for your sensitivity about Jewish prayer beads. My site analytics indicate many searches inquiring about Jewish prayer beads, which has really surprised me. My suggestion is that you steer away from any kind of Jewish prayer beads or rosaries. However, there are other ways you can incorporate Jewish symbols in articles of jewelry such as earrings, necklaces, bracelets and ankle bracelets. I think that incorporating Stars of David in any of those, except maybe ankle bracelets, would be okay. Also, Jewish women love the Hamsda symbol, which is not unique to Judaism, so you should check that out. You should also research Jewish ankle bracelets, as I believe there is an ancient tradition concerning those, and you can check on what materials would be suitable. Pomegranates are also a significant symbol in Judaism, although again not unique to Judaism, which could be suitably incorporated into jewelry.

Steve Gold said...

Melanie: I meant Hamsa, no "d".

BD said...

I'm one of those people who would love Jewish prayer beads, because doing Jewish meditation (I follow authors like the late R. Aryeh Kaplan who approve of it) combined with the tactile sensation of beads or knots would be very satisfying.

I did some research into the history of rosaries, and found that they began as knots, not as beads. Beads came on the scene in medieval times, and may have been preceded by stones or shells, which would have been less expensive. So it seems to me that there may be a connection between tzitzit and the rosary, if only that in ancient times it may have been a common practice among many peoples to use knotted strings to count their prayers.

I appreciate what you write about avoiding copying non-Jewish practices, as this is something to which many people object; however, over many centuries practices have gradually migrated from group to group. Nevertheless, I do think it's wise of you to err on the side of caution on this question.

Steve Gold said...

Thank you for sharing that interesting research. I frequently have a hunch about something that turns up having some historical or authoritative support. In response to the original question, I had to ponder it for a while before it came to me about the tzitzit connection, which, quite frankly, I thought was a bit of a stretch, but still possibly plausible. And there you come along and provide some verification for my hunch about knots in cloth being an early form of rosary practice. I guess I need to keep going with my hunches! By the way, the analytics from my web page indicate a great interest in this subject, so you are not alone. Aryeh Kaplan has been a great inspiration for me. Please see my article on him on this blog under the Bibliography/Book Review heading.

Muppetsmum said...

I was researching to organise a group to swap prayer beads and came across this site and what bugs me is that MEN have the tzitzits and do pray holding them but the women do not have any equivalent, thank you for your ver interesting article

Steve Gold said...

What you say is true of traditional Orthodox practice about men only wearing tallit with the tzittzit. However, in most branches of Judaism other than Orthodox, women also wear tallit with tzittzit. There is a growing trend that Orthodoxy is not the "gold standard" by which all others are measured. Other, more egalitarian, approaches may be equally worthy of being designated as genuine Jewish practice.

Ya'aqub Younan-Levine said...

A friend sent the link to me to your article. I find it interesting. There are some ethnic Jews in the Middle East who use small ropes with knots and who use the knots in the fringes as "counters" for specific prayers.

Other than this, there are times when we hold the fringes and when we kiss them during certain prayers.,250207/At-what-point-during-the-prayers-do-I-hold-the-fringes-of-the-tallit-in-my-hand.html

"During two parts of the morning prayers it is customary to hold the fringes of the tallit in the hands: during the Baruch She'amar and during the Shema. Follow the instructions in your prayer book as to when the fringes are gathered in the hands, and when they are to be kissed and released."

Many Orthodox women now wear a tallit during services, however, this is not practiced in all congregations, so one would want to use cuation when visiting if not sure. If it is a Hasidic congregation, then it would be out of the question.

Steve Gold said...

My good friend and fellow Jewish yogi, Mitch Cohen, has provided me with some additional information about tzitzit:

It is the closest thing in Jewish practice to the use of prayer beads. They serve to as a reminder of the 613 commandments/mitzvot. One practice involves tying one of the strings around the finger as a reminder/touchstone.

Each tzitzit consists of four sets of twists separated by five knots.

YHVH (the Tetragrammaton, the four-lettered name of G-d, the ultimate designation for G-d) echad (one)

YHVH Echad = G-d is One (the last two words of the most central of all Jewish prayers, the Shema, incorporating the message of the oneness of

Some exercises in gematria (numerology) related to the tzitzit. Each letter in Biblical Hebrew also corresponds to a number, so analysis is made of the numerical value of words and phrases and their significance on that non-verbal level:

YHVH = 10 + 5 + 6 + 5 = 26; Echad = 1 + 8 + 4 = 13. The sum of both = 39

Each Tzitzit has 7 + 8 + 11 + 13 twists = 39; each tzitzit reminds us that G-d is One and we serve G-d

Tzitzit = 600; + 8 strands that make up each tzitzit + 5 knots = 613 - the number of commandments/mitzvot

Therefore, the tzitzit not only reminds us that G-d is One (the last phrase of the Shema), it reminds us that our lives are played out between the boundaries established by the 613 commandments (note that over half cannot be performed today, because they pertain to the Temple maintenance and sacrificial cult)

Quote of the Week 381 - Heaven

Heaven is all round,

Translated to sound.

--Michael Hedges



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