The Red Thread, the Red Heifer, and Red Ritual by Jill Hammer

Jill Hammer

There is an old Jewish custom to use a red thread, tied around a bedpost or a child’s wrist, to keep away demons.  In particular, the red thread is said to keep away Lilith, the female demon who steals children.  Women still give away red threads at the Western Wall in Jerusalem as a segulah, or protection amulet.  Feminist poet Alicia Ostriker reclaims this symbol as a reminder of the umbilical cord, the connection between a human childbearer and a child, and an intimation of the cosmic interconnectedness of all things.  She writes:

the disturbing red thread
invisible yet warm
travels between earth and heaven,
vibrates through starless void…

does it carry the pulse
of our prayers
like a bulge in a snake 

dozing, like a stream
of hungry, bloody hope, do all
the red threads join 

form a web

Alicia Ostriker, The Volcano Sequence (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002), p.11-12.

The Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, now ten years old, trains women in Jewish spiritual leadership that is embodied, earth-based, and feminist, and that reclaims the history and practices of women as a resource for our time.  Kohenet studies the priestesses and prophetesses of antiquity and uses them as an inspiration for effective and meaningful ritual today.  The red thread is one of our core symbols.  When we create sacred space at our retreats, we weave a red cord and hang it from the ceiling so that it dangles down to the center of our altar.  Throughout our ritual and prayer, anyone who wants to make a connection to Goddess/Spirit/Cosmos can go and hold onto the red thread.  For us, this symbol does not represent the warding off of the demonic feminine (Lilith) but an intimate relationship to the universe as womb of being.

labyrinth-altarThis summer, the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute was invited to lead a four-day workshop in ancient Hebrew practices for post-moderns at the annual gathering of the Jewish Renewal movement, known as the Aleph Kallah.  We met on a college campus in Fort Collins, CO.  During the class, which welcomed students of all genders, we highlighted four core Kohenet practices: spirit journey (guided visualization), altar-building (the making of sacred space), dreamwork (exploration of our night visions), and a combination of chant, drumming, and dance.  A ball of red yarn sat on the altar at the center of our space, reminding us of our commitment to connect to one another and to our ancestors.

On the Sabbath during the gathering, we were invited to lead a Shabbat service.  The Torah portion of the week described the ritual of the ashes of the red heifer (Numbers 19).  In this ritual, a priest burns to ash a combination of red thread, hyssop, and cedar, and the hide of a red heifer.  This ash potion is then sprinkled on those in a state of tumah (ritual taboo or impurity).  People enter a state of tumah via coming into contact with human death, certain kinds of illness, or fertility (menstruation, birth, seminal emission).  Once one is sprinkled with the ash potion, one can enter the sacred shrine.  Interestingly, one who mixes the ash potion must refrain from entering the shrine until evening.  The potion has the properties of a change agent: it can turn outside to inside and inside to outside.

Some ways we have worked with this text at the Kohenet Institute include: looking at how labeling childbearing and menstruation as taboo or impure excludes the traditional realms of women’s ritual from the sancta; considering the state of tumah as a state of high spiritual power; noting that tumah is associated with wildness and wilderness while taharah or purity is associated with center, community, and shrine, and both of these states can be holy.

At this particular Shabbat service, the leaders wanted to convey the ritual via the senses rather than just reading it to the community, and we wanted to emphasize the sacredness of life and death.  We also wanted to connect the red heifer and the red thread of the biblical ritual to the sacred feminine with its red thread.

We read three portions from the Torah.  Near the Torah scroll was a silver bowl.  In the first reading, we heard of the red heifer.  Taya Shere, Kohenet co-founder, put on a red leather skin and embodied the red heifer, dancing around the room, bringing the life-death energy to us via movement.  She approached the bowl, adding the energy of life and death as the first ingredient of our sacred potion.

Then, kohanot (priestesses), graduates and students of the Kohenet Institute, brought cedar branches, bowls of hyssop, and balls of red thread through the crowd.  The red thread was woven through the hands of many people attending the service.  Then the remaining ball of red thread, the hyssop, and the cedar were placed in the bowl.  Finally, Shoshana Jedwab, a Kohenet Institute faculty member and sacred drummer, embodied the prophetess Miriam.  She added the final ingredient of the potion: water.  After our Miriam completed the potion, we invited the community to sing a healing prayer, praying for all who needed repair, restoration, or renewal.

The Torah service we led that day was powerful, and many told us so in the hours and weeks afterward.  Through our re-enactment of the red heifer ritual, we learned about the sacred plants and tools of our ancestors: the smell and feel of the cedar branches and the windings of the red thread stayed with me a long time.  We experienced the red heifer not as an animal sacrifice to achieve purity, but as an embodied spirit of change and healing.  To me, our ritual achieved what feminist, earth-based ritual is able to achieve: a new understanding of our ancestors’ practices that makes them and us more visible.  This is the red thread: a living and enlivening connection to one another.

Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder, with Taya Shere, of Kohenet: The Hebrew Priestess Institute.  She is the co-author, also with Taya Shere, of the newly published The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership, as well as Siddur haKohanot: A Hebrew Priestess Prayerbook.  She is also the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic Jewish seminary. Rabbi Hammer is also the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, and The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, as well as a children’s book, The Garden of Time, and a new volume of poetry, The Book of Earth and Other Mysteries . Rabbi Hammer was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary and holds a doctorate in social psychology from the University of Connecticut.

Categories: Jewish Feminism, Judaism, Ritual, Sabbath

Tags: ,

8 replies

  1. “According to the spring tradition of “Marti” or “Martia,” adults and children wear a small bracelet made of red and white thread from March 1st till the 31st. The tradition dates back to ancient Greece and is held throughout the Balkans.

    It is believed that the custom of “Martis” origins in Ancient Greece and specifically in the Eleusinian Mysteries, when the people who participated used to wear a thread named “Kroki” around their right hand and left foot. Nowadays, the custom is still carried on with the red and white threaded bracelet and it is worn throughout the whole month of March. The bracelet is threaded on the last day of February.

    The bracelet was said to protect from diseases and the rays of the sun, which are supposed to be very strong during March. Back in the days, dark skin signified impurity, especially for girls, for whom the beauty standards dictated that skin should be pale and the cheeks rosy.

    In several regions in Greece, at the end of the month, the bracelet is placed on rose buses after they’ve seen the first swallow, so it can pick it up and build its nest. In other regions, the bracelet is wrapped around pitchers in order to protect the water from the sun and keep it cold. Others tie the bracelet around a tree so that it fructifies.”
    – See more at:


  2. I am so pleased to see your rituals being incorporated into the Jewish Renewal movement. Next stop: Reform, Reconstruction, Conservative, and then Orthodox. A great model of how change happens: from vision to small group to larger group and on and on.


  3. Beautiful. Thank you for demonstrating ritual that empowers women and their bodies. Have you considered the significance of the red heifer as violence from the perspective of the animal? If on the one hand you are reconstructing an ancient practice to conform to a feminist mindset, why not also consider, as Carol Adams has brilliantly stated in her text The Sexual Politics of Meat: A feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, the connection between women and animals in a patriarchal society?

    Again, thank you!


  4. “The disturbing red thread
    invisible yet warm
    travels between earth and heaven,
    vibrates through starless void…”

    In “The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and Revisionist Mythmaking,” Alicia Ostriker also suggests that we use the myth of Persephone and Demeter “to re-define, to re-affirm and to celebrate female consciousness itself.”


  5. Thank you Jill. The rituals look very powerful and fruitful. I will think of them through the day.
    A friend of mine went to Toronto when the Dali Lama was giving a teaching there. She gave me a red cord when she returned home. It is worn on the wrist for blessing and protection. Red cords seem to be frequent symbols in many places.


  6. Powerful and moving essay that demonstrates how important it is to be embodied. As a woman who has celebrated earth -based ritual for 30 plus years I know from experience how important it is to act out our ritual intentions…when I allow the “Grandmothers” to take the lead my life seems to have a direction I didn’t think was there.


  7. Beautiful ritual, Jill. Thank you for sharing it with us. How exciting to learn about how feminist and earth-based understandings are threading (pun intended) their way into the Jewish tradition.


  8. Thanks, Jill. I have a red threat woven into the tzitzit (usually translated fringes) on my tallis (ritual shawl), to remind me of this on-going connection.


Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: