As Eagles Soar to Final Four, Jews Embrace Sports Superstitions

Standing on top of a bronze statue, Eagles fans in Jersey hold up an Eagles flag, their fists in the air.
Eagles fans enjoy the team’s 2018 Super Bowl win | Photo by Bradley Maule

Just as Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts and wide receiver A.J. Brown don their green and black jerseys before a game, Main Line Reform Temple member and past President Eric Settle puts on a similar uniform. He pulls a dark green Eagles fleece over a Kelly green golf shirt before securing an Eagles cap on his head.

It’s the same outfit he’s worn during every Eagles game since their Super Bowl win in 2018 and the one he most recently wore on Jan. 21, when the football team secured its playoff win against the New York Giants. Settle has worn some permutation of the green garb since he became a Birds fan in 1973 after moving to Philadelphia.

“There’s a little part of you that feels like you’re sort of suiting up for the game to try to help your team win,” he said.

“It sounds incredibly silly, but that’s what superstitions really are,” he added. “This weird part of our brain that says, ‘It’s worked this way. So let’s keep doing it that way.’”

Settle isn’t the only one following a strict game protocol. Rep. Ben Waxman, the Jewish state representative for Philadelphia’s 182nd district, and his wife Julie Wertheimer attended the same bar to watch the Jan. 21 playoff game that they did during the Phillies’ World Series run. (During the Phightins’ season, Wertheimer wore her late father’s jersey for every game, with no washes in between.)

The efforts were “to try to get some of that good luck going,” Waxman said.

Rabbi Chaim Galfand, Perelman Jewish Day School School’s rabbi, isn’t exempt from superstitions, either. For each Eagles game this season, he was sure to wear his jersey. When things were going well for the team during the regular season, he planted himself in whatever seat he was occupying, being sure not to move.

Even the spiritual leader will admit to his own superstitions. It’s a common practice to participate in certain creature comforts or, for some, to even point one’s finger at the sky during a game, as if to call on a divine presence. Sports have a near-sacred role in our society, Galfand argued.

“Football is one of the main religions in American sports in general. … When we think of the fervor surrounding sports, it rises to a level that that fervor is almost a religious experience for some,” he said.

For Jewish sports fans in particular, this fervor is rooted in tradition. Though Judaism does not condone superstitions, Galfand said, it is replete with them.

A couple wearing Eagles garb stands in front of the field, both of their index fingers making a "No. 1" sign.
Robin and Eric Settle celebrate in their Eagles garb after the team’s 2018 Super Bowl win. | Courtesy of Eric Settle

Most Jewish superstitions have their origins in protecting against ayin ha’ra, the evil eye, according to Itzik Gottesman, a Jewish folklore professor at the University of Texas-Austin who received his doctorate in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania. 

Though the evil eye does not have origins in Jewish folklore and is found broadly in many Middle Eastern-originating religions, documentation of the ayin ha’ra has been found in the Talmud and other rabbinical texts.

“The rabbis say that 99 of 100 deaths are due to the evil eye,” Gottesman said.

In Jewish folk belief, a term Gottesman and other scholars prefer to “superstition,” the evil eye is a manifestation of envy, a universal human emotion.

“We have envy in all of us,” he said. “There’s a Jewish idea of keeping a low profile — don’t stand out —  because when you stand out, the evil forces are attracted to you.”

The word keinehora, often said by bubbes following a piece of good news or expression of optimism, is a contraction of kayn ayin ha’ra, meaning ‘no evil eye.’ It’s said to ward off the evil spirit. Similar superstitious behaviors accomplish the same goal such as spitting three times (“Pu pu pu!”), avoiding putting hats or shoes on a bed or smashing a glass during a wedding ceremony.

Beyond avoiding or partaking in certain behaviors during certain rites of passage, such as a wedding, Jews are unique in using amulets to ward off the evil eye. Traditionally, this could look like a card with a picture of a rabbi on it or a hamsa necklace. Today in sports, Gottesman said, it could take the form of a jersey or hat. Envy is present at sporting events; after all, fans want their team, not the other, to win.

While superstitions can verge on blasphemy or idolatry, putting too much faith in external sources, they can also serve overall as a reminder of a belief in a power outside of one’s self. For Galfand, superstitions, particularly in sports, are an exercise in faith more broadly. 

“We should take joy in all of it,” he said, “and know that whatever the outcome, that there are larger forces at work in the world. … And I say that as a passionate Philadelphia fan.”

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