Pretty much as long as Jews have been around, there have been misunderstandings and myths about us and our religion. Some of them are insidious expressions of antisemitism, like the blood libel and other classic antisemitic tropes–which I already covered in my “Great Post of Jewish Conspiracies.”
Today I want to focus on some common myths about Jews that are more innocuous, but no less untrue, and no less annoying. Sadly, most of these are perpetuated by secular Jews, in the spirit of “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
Let us begin with the ever popular:
NOT A THING #1: Married Jewish Couples Have Sex Through a Hole in a Sheet
Nothing could be farther from the truth!!!
There is actually a requirement in Jewish law that couples be unclothed during relations. My bridal counselor taught me this and I have read it in several sources. And even if that weren’t true, there is absolutely no need for “modesty” of this kind in the context of a sexual relationship within marriage. Marital relations are supposed to be an expression of ultimate intimacy.
There is a theory that this myth came about because of the tallit katan, the four cornered garment that men wear with the tzitzit (tassels) at each corner. It looks kind of like a small sheet with a hole in the middle, and maybe people saw it hanging on Jewish clotheslines and drew this stupid conclusion.
NOT A THING #2: If You Have a Tattoo, You Can’t Be Buried in a Jewish Cemetery
Okay first off let me point out the obvious absurdity of this myth. Do you think this guy wouldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery because of his tattoo?
The biblical prohibition in Leviticus 19:28 is not against having a tattoo, it’s against getting/giving yourself one. And it’s not as clear cut as you may think. The context of the prohibition is clear: the tattoos that were prohibited were a very specific kind with a specific purpose–something to do with idolatry and commemoration of the dead. It is not at all clear that aesthetic tattoos are included in this prohibition. This has practical implications: most rabbis agree that it is permissible for a woman recovering from breast cancer to have reconstructive surgery including a tattooed areola.
It is true that most rabbis agree that aesthetic tattoos (except in cases like the above) are forbidden. But just because you violated Shabbat or ate pork doesn’t mean you can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery–and getting a tattoo is lower on the hierarchy than those prohibitions. Having ink under your skin doesn’t inherently “taint” you or something.
So what’s the origin of this myth? Eitan heard a theory that maybe it was because during the Middle Ages, when an unidentified body was found and they were trying to figure out where to bury it, it was known that if it had a tattoo, it couldn’t have been Jewish, because Jews don’t get tattoos. So unidentified bodies with tattoos were never buried in Jewish cemeteries.
NOT A THING #3: Orthodox Jewish Women Shave Their Heads After They Get Married
To be fair, this one at least has some basis in fact: in some Hassidic circles, women do shave their heads after getting married, to make it easier to wear a wig. But the vast majority of Orthodox Jewish women do not shave their heads. I assure you, I have a full head of hair under there.
NOT A THING #4: If a Utensil Has Been Used for Something Not Kosher, One Must Bury It in Dirt
Oh. My gosh. This one drives me nuts.
As we have discussed (and by “discussed” I mean I ranted at you for a full five minutes and then wrote a long essay on the topic for this blog eight years later), kashering dishes and cookware is complicated and generally involves some kind of heating or boiling.
So where on earth did this burying thing come from?
I’ll tell you: back before we had dish soap and abrasive sponges in every kitchen, it was a lot harder to get stuff off of our utensils, especially oils and fats. Sticking the item in the ground to scrape it off with dirt was a common way to clean it. So this was recommended as a way to get the utensil clean. But there is no reason to leave the thing in the dirt for any period of time, and scraping something in the dirt is no more effective in kashering than washing a dish in the sink with soap and a good sponge. (Namely, this will only work if the forbidden food that came into contact with the item wasn’t hot or strong-flavored.)
And yet time and again I have heard uninformed Jews refer to burying as the proper way to kasher things–or just some bizarre ritual to get rid of the “treifed” (un-koshered) utensil. At first I thought this was an “assimilated American Jew” thing, but then a friend told me that her Moroccan-Israeli roommate had a flowerpot full of forks and spoons waiting to be kashered!
There is no basis whatsoever for this practice!!! It’s probably the result of a weird conflation of the aforementioned scraping-to-get-it-clean thing with the fact that we’re supposed to leave a utensil unused for 24 hours before kashering it.
The most annoying example I saw was in an episode of Larry David’s show Curb Your Enthusiasm. In the episode, Larry is trying to endear himself to an Orthodox Jew in an influential position, by pretending to be Orthodox himself (and pretending that his non-Jewish wife is not his wife). Here’s the scene:
(Might I also point out that the “Orthodox woman” portrayed here is not dressed particularly realistically either–she is covering her hair, even though she’s unmarried, and wearing pants rather than a skirt, which some Orthodox women do, but many don’t.)
Only Larry David would have the chutzpah to make an entire episode about Orthodox Jews without bothering to consult one.
…Actually… no, he’s not the only one.
NOT A THING #5: Sabbath Candles Are Always Lit at the Sabbath Table Immediately Before the Meal
Something always bugged me about this scene from Fiddler on the Roof:
It’s a truly beautiful scene that captures a lot of the spirit of Sabbath Eve… but… this is almost certainly not what a Friday night looked like in a Russian shtetl in the early 20th century.
In this clip it seems that they are lighting the candles before sunset, and then sitting down for the meal. More likely, the mother would light the candles, and then the men would head off to synagogue for evening services. When they got back home after dark, they would have the meal by the light of the already-lit candles.
Lighting candles before Shabbat is a well-known and popular custom that was instituted by the rabbis. It is not a Biblical requirement in any sense. But there’s a common misconception that they must be lit right before the meal–even if the meal takes place, as it usually does, after sundown. I’ve seen this happen in other movies and TV shows about Orthodox Jews, and it drives me crazy!
Because because because
WHY ARE THEY LIGHTING FIRE ON SHABBAT
The prohibition against lighting fire on the Sabbath is one of the few Sabbath prohibitions that is explicit in the text of the Bible: “You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on the Sabbath day” (Exodus 35:3) An Orthodox Jew would never ever ever ever light candles at the Sabbath meal if it started after sundown.
And here’s one last annoyingly inaccurate portrayal of an Orthodox Jew in popular media:
NOT A THING #6: Jews Have a Problem with Porcine Implants
As I was looking around for another Shabbat-candle-related clip, I came across this little scene from the American TV show, Gray’s Anatomy:
Terrible acting AND completely detached from reality:
A) The only clear-cut prohibition we have regarding pigs is not eating them. We are allowed to use any part of them for any other purpose.
B) This is a clear case of pikuach nefesh–a situation where a life is endangered. Not only would she be allowed to have the implant, she would be allowed to eat pork if it would save her life. On Yom Kippur. Cooked in its mother’s milk. By an idol worshiper. 😛
I think this misconception comes from a basic lack of understanding about Judaism and Jewish law… and the fact that Muslims are a lot more strict about pigs and pig products than we are. Muslims are not allowed to touch pigs and see them as having an inherent impurity.
Jewish culture does share a cultural bias against pigs, however, and especially Chabadniks, who take particular issue with non-kosher animals including dogs and cats, might feel uncomfortable with the idea of a porcine implant. But what should have happened in the above scene is that once they told this young woman she would die if she didn’t get the implant, she’d have picked up the phone and called her rabbi, who would have told her that it’s fine.
NOT A THING #7: Food Is Made Kosher by Being Blessed by a Rabbi
Unlike the previous two this one usually comes from non-Jews who have heard that there is some weird thing about Jews and food but have no idea what it is, and draw the conclusion that the food needs to be “blessed” by a clergyman.
As I have exhaustively explained, kashrut has nothing to do with whether it was blessed by a rabbi, and everything to do with the contents of the actual food–kind of like a spiritual allergy. In cases of packaged or prepared foods, we do require supervision by a rabbi–that is, that a rabbi verifies that the product has been prepared in accordance with the laws of kashrut.
Actually, we “bless” our own food. That is, we recite a blessing before taking a bite of anything. But that has nothing to do with kashrut. I elaborated on that here.
THESE ARE NOT THINGS!!!
Just… wanted to clear that up.