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Jews, Sports, and Superstitions

Jews, Sports, and Superstitions

The Detroit Red Wings didn’t invent oddball sports superstitions, but they certainly have one of the oddest: the throwing of an octopus onto the ice during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

In 1952, the National Hockey League had six teams, and taking the Cup required eight wins. The Cusimano brothers, then owners of a Detroit fish market, heaved an octopus onto the ice between periods; each of the eight legs signified one of the wins required to clinch the cup. By April 15, the Red Wings had swept their series with the Montreal Canadians, 4-0. Even playoff hockey now runs deep into June, the Wings’ octopus tradition continues for good luck.

In the early 1980s, hockey’s “play-off beard” made its appearance, starting with the New York Islanders. The history here is sketchy; one story maintains it was the result of the Islanders playing and winning four playoff games in a five-day span. Because the players were tired, many of them didn’t bother to shave, and a winning superstition was born. Another story ties it to the myth of Samson. In yet another origins story, an unshaven face in the morning mirror reminds a player of his singleness of purpose during playoff season.No matter its origin, the superstition remains: During the 2003 play-offs, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks’ number-one center, Adam Oates, decided that, because the playoff beard worked for only one team each season, he’d continue to shave throughout the Cup playoffs – and the Ducks lost in Game 7 of the playoffs.

Every sport has its share of superstitions. In baseball, it’s considered bad luck to throw a hat onto a bed. And don’t ever cross bats that are lying in a pile. And it’s terrible luck to speak of a no-hitter while it’s underway. And let’s not forget Robert De Niro’s character in Silver Linings Playbook! Pat “The Bookie” Solitano and his mishegas (craziness) – the correct seat, correct foods, correct gestures – all had to take place during NY Jets football games.

Sports can make you a little crazy.

Of course, people have been superstitious since Adam and Eve:

“After they ate of the Tree of Knowledge, the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked." (Genesis 2)

The Jewish people are good at superstition, don’t you agree, fellow members of the tribe? Jewish superstition teaches us to chew on a piece of thread if someone is mending a garment in which we are dressed. Burial shrouds, you see, are sewn shut around the dead; by chewing on a piece of thread, you prove that you are, as the old man in Spamalot says, not yet dead. And haven’t we all had a bubbie who, when hearing bad news, would spit three times? Or at least make spitting sounds. Certainly, every bubbie everywhere has a “Gesundheit” for any sneeze within earshot. More than a mere nasal irritation, a sneeze is an evil omen.

As a people, our list of superstitions is long. This is odd, when you consider that warnings against witchcraft, sorcery, and general Harry Potter-ness are all over Torah. Exodus 22:18 says,

One shall not allow a sorcerer to live.

Leviticus 19:31 says.

Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them.

In Deuteronomy 18:10, we read,

Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, or engages in witchcraft.

And yet, we all do it. I have my lucky bumblebee striped green and white socks, worn only during Michigan State home games. My friend Derek has been wearing the same Oklahoma ball cap since high school. Another friend immediately turns off the TV if he misses the kick-off of a Detroit Lions game and the Lions are winning by the time he finally turns on the game.

What are your sports superstitions? A special seat? A certain snack? Clothing? A particular time for your bathroom break? Leave your comments here or on the Facebook page. Thanks for reading, and for sharing your shmontses (my mother’s old word for “nonsense”) with me.

David Stanley is a member of Temple Beth El in Flint, MI. He is a teacher, athlete, coach, and cancer survivor blogging about education, cancer, sport, society at DStan58-Rants & Mutters .

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