“Luck” in Judaism

Dear Rabbi Fried,

You once wrote at the end of a column, “best of luck.” As far as I know (from my own understanding and from hearing the teachings of a Rabbi on the subject), Jews do not believe in “luck.” The rabbi’s reasoning is that “luck” actually requires randomness, fortuitous “chance” and an assumption that nobody and nothing is in charge. Judaism’s core is “Ad-noy Ehad,” “ein od mi lavado,” there’s no power but G-d. G-d is the very fabric of all there is, and is continuously re-creating all. Luck is a contrary belief to His omniscience. I’m sure you know all that, but I write just because I always find it interesting when our language, even of trivial phrases, runs against our actual understanding.

Robert

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Dear Robert,

Thanks for calling me out on that one! I use that phrase, as you surmised, as the common vernacular for “best of success.” It is simply because there isn’t really a normally used English closing for best of success other than best of luck, so I have used it; not without some amount of cringing for the reason you correctly cite. So now that you have called it to my attention that it’s actually noticed for what it literally means I see I need to revert to some other closing, which is not misleading, and thank you for the wake-up call!

Once we’re on the subject, it’s very true that our common language is saturated with terminology which runs strongly contrary to our beliefs and we use it, without much or any thought, because it is the vernacular. I’ll cite a couple of common examples which I often notice: 

  • One is “knock on wood.” It is done to ward off “bad luck,” or to make sure nothing negative happens. The origin of knocking on wood for this purpose is believed by some to be from early pagan mythology. They believed that wood gods, or dryads, lived in trees, and people would go to them for blessings and to prevent bad luck. Some pagans thought that trees were the homes of fairies, spirits, dryads and many other mystical creatures. In these instances, people might knock or touch wood to request good luck, or to distract spirits with evil intentions. When in need of a favor or some good luck, one politely mentioned this wish to a tree and then touched the bark, representing the first “knock.” The second “knock” was to say “thank you.” The knocking was also supposed to prevent evil spirits from hearing your speech and as such stop them from interfering. Alternatively, some traditions have it that by knocking upon wood, you would awaken and release the benevolent wood fairies that dwelt there. Some feel it is to invoke the cross, made from wood.
  • Another is “keeping your fingers crossed.” There is some evidence to suggest that the origins of the gesture are founded in early Christianity, both as a plea for divine protection and as a covert signifier of Christian belief. Modern usage however is almost exclusively secular and considerably more diverse in meaning, but using a sign with its origins in the cross is certainly not a way for a nice Jewish boy or girl to express themselves!

These are the more obvious examples. The more subtle examples are much more difficult to discern. These involve concepts which are Jewish ones at their core, but the understanding of concepts by the typical Jewish member of western culture are deeply affected by that culture. This is the result of the myth of a “Judeo-Christian culture.”

This can often cause us to replace Jewish understandings of key concepts with Christian understandings which are completely at odds with our Jewish beliefs. This goes as deeply as our understanding of such core concepts as heaven and hell, and even our definition of G-d. Most Jews today envision hell as a place of fire, devils and pitchforks which are controlled by the forces of evil or by a vengeful, angry god, enjoying the spectacle of the person burning in his eternal damnation. Although this is the common western vision of hell, nothing could be further than our understanding of hell, although the same word is used by both cultures. The usage of the same word misleads many to assume we all believe the same thing.

The same thing would apply to the understanding of G-d. You could have a room full of people all saying they believe in G-d. But what many in the room will define as their belief in G-d would, undoubtedly, be considered blasphemy through the eyes of the 13 principles of Maimonides – which clearly define our Jewish beliefs. 

The only solution to get straight what we believe as Jews is through the study of Torah, and in particular those Torah-based works which define our core beliefs. 

Sincerely,

Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried

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