Sunday, July 25, 2010

11. Fetish and Taboo

These terms stem from modern comparative studies, especially in the field of anthropology. A fetish is an object or practice that attracts great (and perhaps irrational) devotion. The fetish object often ranks as a site of mana, a Polynesian term for a special indwelling potency or charisma thought to confer special benefits.

By contrast, taboo, also a term of Polynesian origin, refers to objects and situations that must be avoided as dangerous, possibly life-threatening. In the broadest sense, a taboo is a powerful prohibition (or ban) pertaining to any area of human behavior or social custom that is endowed with qualities of the sacred. Breaking the taboo was considered abhorrent, and might place the transgressor in great danger. For example, in old Hawaii it was thought that if a woman dared to eat a banana her death would inevitably ensue. Yet when a missionary’s wife calmly unpeeled and ate a piece of the forbidden fruit and survived the spell was broken.

The term comes from the Tongan word tabu, meaning set apart or forbidden; cognates appear in many Polynesian cultures. In those cultures, a tabu (or tapu or kapu) often has specific religious associations. When an activity or custom is taboo it is forbidden and interdictions are implemented concerning it. Some taboo activities or customs are prohibited under law and transgressions may incur severe penalties. Violating other taboos has a milder effect, resulting in embarrassment, shame, and nervousness.

The concept of taboo includes dietary laws (kosher and halal diets, religious vegetarianism, and the prohibition of cannibalism); restrictions on all sorts of sexual behaviors and relationships (sex outside of marriage including adultery, miscegenation, incest, human-animal sex, adult-child sex, sex with the dead); banning of ingestion of feces and urine; discouragement of public nudity, defecation, and urination; bans on the use of psychoactive drugs; gender restrictions (cross-dressing, circumcision, sex reassignment); discouragement of exposure of certain body parts (the neck in pre-modern Japan; women's hair in parts of the Middle East); and avoidance of touching food with the left hand in many cultures.

The concept of taboo also affects language, ranging from names that are considered sacred (such as the avoidance of naming the Erinyes, Greek goddesses of vengeance; the traditional Jewish reluctance to pronounce the word Yahweh), through grudging respect for the malevolent (the fear of naming the Devil in medieval England), to the lowly (avoidance of “four-letter words”). As a rule, these linguistic sensitivities are handled by the devices of circumlocution and euphemism.

No taboo ranks as a cultural universal, but some (such as the cannibalism, exposing of pubic parts, intentional homicide, and incest--however defined) occur in the majority of societies. Taboos may serve many functions, and often linger after the original rationale has expired. Some scholars hold that, through their inherent tenacity, taboos offer valuable clues regarding the prehistory of societies when most other records are lacking.

In an extended sense then, the terms fetish and taboo refer not just to things, but to behavior. Some types of behavior are required, others are forbidden. Over time, the actions classified as fetish and taboo may come to seem almost ordinary: mere do’s and don’ts. Yet this commonplace description fails to capture the superstitious awe which commonly envelopes them.

Several terms from the Abrahamic traditions are relevant, especially for behavior that is forbidden. The Hebrew Bible labels things that must not be done with the expression to’ebah (usually rendered as "abomination" in Christian Bibles). Treif is a term common among modern Jews for foods that must not be eaten (“not kosher”). The New Testament uses the term anathema (Greek for something that is set aside). In Islam the appropriate negative term is haram.

In the Jewish tradition--perhaps uniquely--the term mitzvah (pl. mitzvot) refers to behavior that is r e q u i r e d.


Historically, male circumcision, or the cutting away of the foreskin of the penis, has been practiced by a number of peoples as a religious custom. It has been speculated that the custom originated in Africa in a region where water was scarce and the ability to wash was limited. Thus the Western Semites (Israelites, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Arabs, Edomites, Syrians), who lived in an area where water was never really plentiful, also observed the custom, while the Eastern Semites (Assyrians and Babylonians), dwelling in Mesopotamia, an area where water was more abundant, did not circumcise. This avoidance is true also of the Greeks and other Aegean peoples who always lived near the water.

In the fifth century BCE the Greek historian Herodotus provided the follow­ing information about the ancient Egyptians: "They practice circumcision, while men of other nations--except those who have learned from Egypt--leave their private parts as nature made them.... They circumcise themselves for cleanliness' sake, preferring to be clean rather than comely." (Histories, Book II). There is also some evidence suggesting that the Israelites learned it in Egypt (Exodus 4:24-26; Joshua 5:2-9). However, they may simply have adopted circumcision from their neighbors up to the time of their Babylonian Exile, for all those who lived around them until this time were also circumcised except for the coastal-dwelling Philistines, a people of Aegean origin who are often mentioned on the pages of the Old Testament quite distinctly as "the uncircumcised" or "the unclean" (Judges 14:2; I Samuel 14:6). Around 1000 B.C. the Israelite king Saul demanded of David as a bride-price for his daughter Michal one hundred Philistine foreskins (I Samuel 18:25), alluding to the practice of stripping the foreskin off a slain foe.

Jesus never mentioned circumcision, though the Jewish rite was performed upon him on his eighth day (Luke 2:21), as it was with all other males of his community of faith: hence the designation of the calendar in which the first day of the year is January 1 as "circumcision style." In the early church the party of Paul of Tarsus which opposed circumcision was victorious, and uncircumcised Greeks and Romans flocked to the new faith, so that to this day the majority of European men have retained their foreskins.

With the coming of the faith of Islam, however, in the seventh century the Middle East and North Africa became a stronghold of the practice of circumcision. Hindus and Buddhists avoid it, hence East Asians--and Amerindians--retain their foreskins.

Among Americans in general circumcision, was relatively rare until Victorian times when it was thought to be a deterrent to the practice of masturba­tion. But it was not until World War II that it came into widespread use, supposedly to overcome soldiers' occasional infections associated with poor hygiene. Circumcision of male infants became popular in the United States, but was believed unnecessary in most of Europe.

Recent years there have seen some renewed advocacy of circumcision, especially in Africa, as a partial defense against the spread of AIDS. In the United States it remains controversial, with many defending the practice while others passionately oppose it.


Kashrut is a generic term for the vast ensemble of Jewish dietary laws and taboos. In common parlance in English food that is in accord with halakha (“Jewish law”) is termed “kosher,” reflecting the Ashkenazi pronunciation of the Hebrew term kashér (כָּשֵׁר), meaning "fit" (in this context, fit for consumption by Jews according to traditional dietary injunctions). Food that is not in accordance with Jewish law is called treif (Yiddish: טרײף or treyf, derived from Hebrew: טְרֵפָה‎ trēfáh).

Many of the kashrut injunctions stem, or are thought to stem from passages in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. However, they are only fully expounded in the Oral Law as codified by the Mishnah and the Talmud. In many cases these do’s and don’t's represent extrapolations that the ancient Israelites would have found inexplicable.

The Hebrew Bible offers little guidance in understanding the reason for kashrut laws (or, for that matter many other laws), so that various rationales have been advanced to explain the origins of these laws, ranging from philosophical and ritualistic to practical and hygienic. Traditionally, Orthodox Jews have held that it is not necessary to base all of the laws on reasoning, a point discussed by Maimonides in the Guide to the Perplexed.

Generally speaking, there are three categories of Kosher food: Meat, Dairy and Parve (or Pareve). The kashrut injunctions pertaining to these are ascribed to various passages in the Hebrew Bible. Some practices have only the most tenuous connection from the texts from which they ostensibly derive. The following are some key features, from various passages in the Torah. The rationales are numerous and complex, but the key principles can be summarized.

The most familiar aspect has to do with meat. Only meat from particular species is permissible. Mammals that both chew their cud (ruminate) and have cloven hooves qualify as kosher. Animals with one characteristic but not the other (the camel, the hyrax, and the hare, because they have no cloven hooves), and the pig (because it does not ruminate)--these animals are banned outright (Leviticus 11:3-8).

Non-kosher birds are listed in some detail (Deuteronomy 14:12-18), but the exact zoological references are disputed and some references refer to families of birds (24 are mentioned). Fish must have fins and scales to be kosher (Leviticus 11:9-12). Shellfish and other non-fish water fauna are not kosher. In general insects are not kosher, though a few communities recognize an acceptable kosher locust.

This complex set of taboos (only a few details are given above) reflects an underlying distinction between clean and unclean animals. An insightful explanation of this distinction has been advanced by the British anthropologist Mary Douglas (1921-2007) in her 1966 book Purity and Danger. Approaching the matter from a comparative perspective, Douglas attempts to clarify the differences between the sacred, the clean and the unclean in different societies and times. Through a complex and sophisticated reading of ritual, religion and lifestyle she challenges Western ideas of pollution, making clear how the context and social history is essential.

In Purity and Danger, Douglas held that the laws of kashrut were not, as many believed, either primitive health regulations or randomly chosen as tests of Jews’ commitment to Yahweh. Instead, Douglas argued that the laws were about symbolic boundary-maintenance. Prohibited foods were those which did not seem to fall neatly into any category. For example, pig’s place in the natural order was ambiguous because they shared the cloven hoof of the ungulates, but did not chew cud.

Later in a 2002 preface to Purity and Danger, Douglas offered an alternative explanation, proposing that "the dietary laws intricately model the body and the altar upon one another." Regarding land animals, Israelites were only permitted to eat animals which were also allowed to be sacrificed; these animals which depend on the herdsmen. Since God made the animals that one should not eat, it would seem that they are not impure, but simply unsuitable for certain purposes.

A familiar observance among Orthodox Jews and some others is that milk and meat (or derivatives) cannot be mixed in the sense that meat and dairy products are not served at the same meal, served or cooked in the same utensils, or stored together. Observant Jews have separate sets of dishes, and sometimes different kitchens, for meat and milk, and wait anywhere between one and six hours after eating meat before consuming milk products. The claim that this taboo reflects Deuteronomy 14:21 is not convincing, as the passage says no such thing.

Mammals and fowl must be slaughtered in a specific fashion: slaughter is done by a trained individual (a shochet) using a special method of slaughter, shechita (Deuteronomy 12:21). Among other features, shechita slaughter severs the jugular vein, carotid artery, esophagus and trachea in a single continuous cutting movement with an unserrated, sharp knife. Despite claims to the contrary, some of these practices cause unnecessary pain to the animal.

Horror of horrors, utensils used for non-kosher foods will become non-kosher, so that they make even otherwise kosher food prepared with them non-kosher. Some such utensils, depending on the material they are made from, can be made suitable for preparing kosher food again by immersion in boiling water or by the application of a blowtorch. Food prepared by Jews in a manner that violates the Sabbath may not be eaten until the Sabbath is over.

Passover has special dietary rules, the most important of which is the prohibition on eating leavened bread or derivatives of this, the general term being chametz (Exodus 12:15). Utensils used in preparing and serving chametz are also forbidden on Passover unless they have been cleansed (kashering).

Certain foods should be prepared in whole or in part by Jews, including wine, certain cooked foods, cheese, and (according to some) butter, certain dairy products. and (under certain circumstances) bread.

A common rationalization is that the the rules of Kashrut are designed to protect human health. This assertion serves only in part. Prohibitions upon consuming carrion eaters (Leviticus 11:31) or the use of bowls and vessels in which animals have died (Leviticus 11:31–32) can be seen as preventing disease. Likewise, rules for processing meat, such as glatt, the requirement that lungs be checked to be free of adhesions, would help prevent consumption of animals that had been infected with tuberculosis. Similarly, the ban on slaughtering unconscious animals would prevent certain sick and possibly infectious animals from being consumed. Yet these claims account for only a certain number of cases, and other stipulations cannot be so easily explained as health measures: e.g. certain rules, such as permission to eat locusts and beetles (Leviticus 11:22), or the prohibition against eating the harvests of the first three years and the seventh year (Leviticus 19:23-25; 25:3-5).

Clearly, Kashrut is not set forth solely as a guide to healthy diet. The people are to be different from the other nations: "I am the Lord your God, who have separated you from the peoples." (Leviticus 20:24-26; Deuteronomy 14:2-21)


The dietary laws observed by Muslims show a number of significant similarities to the Jewish ones. The term halal means lawful or legal); it designates any object or an action which is permissible to use or engage in, according to Islamic law. It is the opposite of haram. While it has a more general application, the term halal serves to designate food seen as permissible according to Islamic law (Sharia).
Islam observes various regulations regarding which foods can and cannot be eaten and also on the proper method of slaughtering an animal for consumption, known as dhabidah. Yet if there is no other food available then a Muslim is allowed to eat non-halal food. The Qur’an (2:173) states:

“If one is forced because there is no other choice, neither craving nor transgressing, there is no sin in him. Ergo, in Islam there is a distinction between the term halal & the term dhabihah. For example, it is halal in Islam to marry women from the Christians and Jews.”

Sura 5:5 states:

"This day are (all) things good and pure made lawful unto you. The food of the People of the Book [ahl al-Kitab, that is Jews and Christians] is lawful unto you and yours is lawful unto them. (Lawful unto you in marriage) are (not only) chaste women who are believers, but chaste women among the People of the Book, revealed before your time, when ye give them their due dowers, and desire chastity, not lewdness, nor secret intrigues if any one rejects faith, fruitless is his work, and in the Hereafter he will be in the ranks of those who have lost (all spiritual good)."

A variety of substances are considered as harmful (haram) for humans to consume and, therefore, forbidden in accordance with various Quranic verses. These prohibited things include: pork (2:173); blood (2:173), animals slaughtered in the name of anyone but Allah (a provision designed to ban meat from pagan sacrifices (2:173; 5:3; cf. 6:121); carrion (2:173); an animal that has been strangled, beaten to death, killed by a fall, gored to death, or slain by a beast of prey (5:3); and alcohol and other intoxicants (5:90).


Anthropologists have documented many instances where names that are thought to be particularly sacred or dangerous are not pronounced, at least for a time. If the taboo is permanent the new name replaces the old one. It is thought, for example, that out of fear of an animal the original Indo-European word corresponding to arktos (Greek) and ursus (Latin), “bear,” went out of use in proto-Slavic and proto-Germanic, yielding the substitute terms “medved” (honey eater) and “bear” (brown one). In early modern England it was thought that merely pronouncing the name of the devil would make him appear, hence the substitutes “the Dickens” or “the Evil One.” In other languages there are instances of the names of powerful leaders being put out of use on their death, out of respect for the memory of the deceased.

By a singular paradox words that are unutterable, or “unspeakable,” may be for things and persons that are highly honored or, conversely, despised and feared.

The term Tetragrammaton (from Greek τετραγράμματον, meaning "[a word] having four letters" refers to the chief Hebrew name of the God of Israel YHWH (Hebrew: יהוה‎), as used in the Hebrew Bible. The Tetragrammaton occurs 6,828 times in the Hebrew text; it does not appear in the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, or Esther. It first appears in the Tanakh in Genesis 2:4. The vowels are not indicated in the Hebrew text. Older English versions of the Bible render it as Jehovah; today the vocalization Yahweh is thought to be more likely. As a rule pious Jews decline to pronounce the name at all, substituting “Adonai” (Lord), or simply using "ha Šem" (the Name). The latter reflects a double taboo: first Yahweh is judged unutterable, then its surrogate Adonai. A mitigated form of the Hebrew taboo may appear in the Christian tradition of Nomina sacra (singular: nomen sacrum) means "sacred names" in Latin. This expression refers to traditions of abbreviated writing of several frequently occurring divine names or titles in early Greek Christian texts. Bruce Metzger's book Manuscripts of the Greek Bible (1981) lists 15 such expressions from Greek papyri: the Greek counterparts of God, Lord, Jesus, Christ, Son, Spirit, David, cross, Mother, Father, Israel, Savior, Man, Jerusalem, and Heaven. The nomen sacrum for mother did not appear until the fourth century CE, but all the other nomina Sacra have been found in Greek manuscripts from the first-third centuries CE. The contractions were indicated with overline, bars or squiggles hovering over the letters.

There is disagreement about the nature of nomina sacra: do they represent a mere shorthand, or or are these overlined words endowed with special holiness that prevents them from being written out in full. indeed bear a sacred meaning.

At all events, the facts are as follows. Starting in the second century the nomina sacra were commonly shortened by contraction in Christian inscriptions, resulting in sequences of Greek letters such as IH (iota-eta), IC (iota-sigma), or IHC (iota-eta-sigma) for Jesus (Greek Iēsous), and XC (chi-sigma), XP (chi-ro) and XPC (chi-rho-sigma) for Christ (Greek Christos). Here "C" represents the "lunate" form of Greek letter sigma; sigma could also be transcribed into the Latin alphabet by sound, giving IHS and XPS.


In Jewish tradition Gematria is a system of assigning numerical value to a letter, word, or phrase. The corollary is the belief that words or phrases with identical numerical values bear some relation to each other, or bear some relation to the number itself as it may apply to a person's age, the calendar year, or the like. The word "gematria" is generally held to derive from Greek geōmetriā, "geometry,” though some scholars prefer to derive from Greek grammateia (from gramma, “letter”). It is possible that both words influenced the formation of the Hebrew word. Although the practice is common in rabbinic literature, it reached particular heights of sophistication in the Kabbalah.

A well-known example of Gematria is the Hebrew word Chai ("life"), which is composed of two letters which add up to 18 [Chet (ח), or 8, and Yod, or 10 (י)]. This reckoning has made 18 a lucky number among Jews, who sometimes give gifts in multiples of $18.

Since the ancient Jews did not use the Arabic alphabet with which we are familiar, they used letters of the alphabet in their normal order. Thus aleph is 1, bet, 2 and so forth. When yod, 10, is reached, counting begins by tens. With qoph, 100 is reached. Normally, only consonants are used, though vowels may be accepted in some of the more obscure methods.

Various other complications occur. The technique known as Atbash exchanges each letter in a word or a phrase with opposite letters. Opposite letters are determined by substituting the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (Aleph) with the last letter (Tav), the second letter (Bet) with the next to last (Shin), etc. In the Albam method the alphabet is divided in half, with eleven letters in each section. The first letter of the first series is exchanged for the first letter of the second series, the second letter of the first series for the second letter of the second series and so forth.

Gematria is most often used to calculate the numerical values of individual words. Yet Biblical verses (psukim), Talmudical aphorisms, sentences from standard Jewish prayers, personal, angelic and Godly names--all these lend themselves to numerological interpretation.

Kabbalistic astrology seeks to determine the planetary and zodiacal influences on a particular person. According to one method, the gematria of the person's name is added to the gematria of his of her mother's name; the result is then divided by 7 and 12. The remainders signify a particular planet and Zodiac sign.

Because ancient Greek also assigned numerical values to the letters of the alphabet it is possible to practice the technique in that language. Latin-script languages, which used a different way of indicating numbers proved less receptive. However, instances are occasionally found in the Christian Middle Ages, where ADAM, for example, is interpreted as 46 (A + 1, D = 4, A = 1, and M = 40).


In Christianity, some numbers are of special importance, such as three (for the Trinity) and twelve (for the apostles; following the example of the twelve tribes of ancient Israel). Of broad Biblical significance, the number forty is thought to symbolize testing and trial; the years of the Deluge; the years of Israelite wandering in the desert in Exodus; the days Moses spent on Mt. Sinai; and Christ's days in the desert, In millenarianism, also known as chiliasm, the number 1000 is of special significance.

One number mentioned in the New Testament has provoked almost endless speculation. The “number of the beast” is a concept embedded in the Book of Revelation, ascribed to Saint John. In most manuscripts the number is 666, a figure retained in critical editions of the Greek text of the New Testament and in translations into modern languages. (A few early manuscripts give a figure corresponding to 616.)

The relevant passage occurs at Revelation 13:17-18, which the King James Version translates: “And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.”

In the Hebrew Bible, both I Kings 10:14 and II Chronicles 9:13 state that King Solomon collected "six hundred threescore and six" talents of gold each year. John's reference to "wisdom" and "understanding" might also point toward Proverbs 1 and 2, where understanding, discernment, wisdom and insight are explained and advised by King Solomon. In the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament the fateful number is rendered concisely in Greek numerical form as χξϛʹ, or sometimes written out literally as ἑξακόσιοι ἑξήκοντα ἕξ, hexakósioi hexēkonta héx, “six hundred and sixty-six."

It is reasonable to surmise that the reference in this passage was a way of speaking in code about some then contemporary figure, whom it would have been politically dangerous to criticize openly. But who was the figure?

A common solution to the problem is that 666 refers to the hated Roman Emperor Nero, whose name, written in Aramaic, can be valued at 666, using the Hebrew numerological technique of gematria.

Another approach relies on the fact that Revelation is an apocalyptic book, one that focuses on "the end of time" or "the end of an age." It is a futurological text. It would follow then that the number 666 encodes the letters of the name of someone who is yet to be identified, who will turn out to be the Antichrist (1 John 22).

Some speculators claim to have the number of the Beast in the Greek word "Maometis." Some medieval Christians believed that Muhammad was in fact the Antichrist and that 666 fitted his name. In Quia Maior, an encyclical calling for the Fifth Crusade, Pope Innocent III identifies Muhammad with the beast of Revelation. This Islamophobic notion has occasionally resurfaced in modern times.

The English occultist Aleister Crowley (1875–1947) went so far as to claim that he himself was the Beast prophesied in the Book of Revelation. He took the name Τὸ Μεγα Θηρίον ("To Mega Therion"), Greek for “The Great Beast,” which adds up to 666 by isosephy, the Greek version of gematria.


The sabbath is generally a weekly day of rest or time of worship that is observed in Abrahamic faiths (sometimes analogized to other religions as well). While it is normal the first (or last day) of the week, the term may also refer to every seventh year. From this last usage derives the academic term “sabbatical” for a year (normally the seventh) in which one is released from teaching duties.

The term "sabbath" stems from the Hebrew shabbat (שבת), "to cease," first used in the account of the seventh day of Creation (Genesis 2:2-3). Keeping the sabbath figures as one of the Ten Commandments (reckoned as the fourth in the original Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, and most Protestant traditions; the third in Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions). Ostensibly sab

By synecdoche (naming a part for the whole), the term "Sabbath" also came to mean simply a seven-day week in Jewish sources by Hellenistic times--namely, the interval between two sabbaths.

In the Jewish tradition, seven annual Biblical festivals, called by the name miqra ("called assembly") in Hebrew and “High Sabbath” in English, serve as supplemental testimonies to the Shabbat principle. Three of them occur in spring: the first and seventh days of Passover (Pesach) and Pentacost (Shavuot). Four occur in fall, in the seventh month, and are also called shabbaton: Rosh Hashanah (“head of the year”), Yom Kippur (the "Sabbath of Sabbaths"; Atonement); and the first and eighth days of Sukkoth (the festival of booths).

The year of Shmita (Hebrew שמיטה, literally, "release"), also called the Sabbatical Year, is the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle mandated by the Scriptures in the Land of Israel. During Shmita, the land is to be left to lie fallow and all agricultural activity—including plowing, planting, pruning, and harvesting—is forbidden. In the traditional interpretation, other cultivation techniques—such as watering, fertilizing, weeding, spraying, trimming, and mowing—may be performed as preventative measures only, not to improve the growth of trees or plants; additionally, any fruits which grow of their own accord are deemed ownerless and may be picked by anyone, and a variety of laws apply to the sale, consumption, and disposal of Shmita produce. A second aspect of Shmita concerns debts and loans: when the year ends, personal debts are considered nullified and forgiven. In similar fashion, the Torah required a slave who had worked for six years to go free in the seventh year.

What is usually meant by sabbath is the weekly observance of a day of rest. Jews observe Shabbath (shabbos, shabbes, shobos, etc.) from sundown on Friday until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night. No less than thirty-nine activities are prohibited on Shabbath; they are listed in Tractate Shabbat of the Talmud. Customarily, Shabbath is ushered in by lighting candles shortly before sunset, the actual time differing according to the place and the season.

Throughout their history and today most Christians have observed Sunday (also known as the Lord’s Day), as a day of communal worship, a practice that seems to have begun in the second century CE. In several European languages the word for Sunday is derived from “Lord” (Domenica, Dimanche, etc.) In the history of the church from the fourth century onwards, Sunday worship has merged into the observance of a rest day on Sunday.

While the matter is complicated, the Christian preference for Sunday (instead of Friday or Saturday) probably reflects pagan usage, which regarded the first day as the “dies solis,” commemorating the most important celestial luminary. Christ was sometimes referred to as the “Sol Iustitiae” (or Sun of Justice. The selection of December 25 for the observance of the Nativity reflects similar reasoning, since that was the day of the Victorious Sun in the Roman calendar.

Many Christians hold that the details of the sabbath law of the Old Testament are no longer binding on Christians. These Christians understand the sabbath as a symbol of the eternal "rest" that Christians enjoy in Christ, rather than a weekly observance. Despite the foregoing, the word for "Saturday" in many European languages is derived from "sabbath."

Since the time of Hippolytus of Rome in the early third century, some Christians have concluded that some particular thousand-year Sabbath, expected to begin six thousand years after Creation, might be identical with the millennium described in the Christian Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation. In the nineteenth century this view popular among dispensational premillennialists.

Jumu’ah, also known as "Friday prayer," is a congregational prayer (salat) that Muslims hold every Friday, just after midday, in place of the otherwise daily dhuhr prayer; it is held to commemorate the creation of Adam on the sixth day. The Qur’an states: "O ye who believe! When the call is proclaimed to prayer on Friday [the Day of Assembly], hasten earnestly to the Remembrance of Allah, and leave off business [and traffic]: That is best for you if ye but knew" (62:9). Attendance is strictly incumbent upon all free adult Muslim males who are legal residents of the locality.

Most Muslims do not necessarily consider Friday to be a rest day; because of the Quranic verse "And when the prayer is ended, then disperse in the land and seek of Allah's bounty, and remember Allah much, that ye may be successful (Qur'an 62:10). However, in many Arab countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, Friday does serve as a rest day, while in others like Pakistan it counts as half a rest day (after Friday prayer is over).

Somewhat confusingly, Saturday is still classified as Sabbath, hence Saturday is called Youm Al-Sabt in Arabic. Jumu'ah is not the same as the Sabbath. (In Arabic the word sabt means the number seven.)


Jewish tefillin (sometimes transliterated as tefilin), or phylacteries are a set of small cubic leather boxes painted black, containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, with leather straps dyed black on one side, and worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers. The hand-tefillin, or shel yad, is placed on the upper arm, and the strap wrapped around the arm, hand and fingers; while the head-tefillin, or shel rosh, is placed above the forehead, with the strap going around the head and over the shoulders. They are worn to serve as a "sign" and "remembrance" that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt. Attempts to derive this superstitious practice from the Torah are unconvincing.

However, use of tefillin is quite old. Excavation of Qumran in the Judean Desert in 1955 indicated widespread employment of tefillin as early as the first century CE (though not during the Biblical period proper). The dig revealed the earliest remains of tefillin, both the leather containers and scrolls of parchment. A mezuzah (Hebrew: מְזוּזָה‎ "doorpost") is a piece of parchment (usually placed in a decorative case) inscribed with specified Hebrew verses from the Torah. These verses comprise the Jewish prayer “Shema Yisrael,” beginning with the phrase: "Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One."

A mezuzah is affixed to the doorframe in Jewish homes ostensibly to fulfill the Biblical commandment to inscribe the words of the Shema "on the doorposts of your house" (Deuteronomy 6:9). Some zealots interpret Jewish law to require a mezuzah on every doorway in the home apart from bathrooms, and closets too small to qualify as rooms; others view it as necessary only to place one in the front doorway.


Many religious traditions honor the use of water as a means of spiritual cleansing. In Christianity baptism (from Greek βαπτίζω baptizo: "immersing", "performing ablutions, i.e., "ritual washing") is the ritual act, with the use of water, by which a person is admitted to membership of the church. Many Christian denominations also regard the rite as a means of erasing sin.

Jesus himself was baptized (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:9-10; Luke 3:21). Among the earliest Christians the usual form of baptism among was for the candidate (or "baptizand") to be immersed totally or partially. While John the Baptist’s use of a deep river for his baptism suggests immersion, pictorial and archaeological evidence of Christian baptism from the third century onward indicates that the normal form was to have the candidate stand in water while water was poured over the upper body. Other common forms of baptism now in use include pouring water three times on the forehead. In early Christian times, and sometimes later, imposing buildings, termed baptisteries, were constructed for the site. Today it is mostly thought sufficient to use a special font, which is kept in its own chapel. Some denominations prefer to practice baptism in a river or large body of water.

Baptism was generally seen as in some sense necessary for salvation, until the protestant Huldrych Zwingli in the sixteenth century denied its necessity. Early in Church history martyrdom was termed "baptism by blood,", enabling martyrs who had not been baptized by water to be saved. Later, the Catholic Church identified a baptism of desire, by which those preparing for baptism who die before actually receiving the sacrament are considered saved.

Today some Christians, including Quakers and the Salvation Army, do not regard baptism as necessary, so that they do practice the rite. Among those who do, differences can be found in the manner and mode of baptizing, as well as in the understanding of the significance of the rite. Most Christians baptize "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (following the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20), but some baptize in Jesus name only. Most Christians regularly baptize infants, but others hold that only believer’s baptism (that is, adult baptism) counts as true baptism. For those converted later in life, of course, adult baptism is the only option.

Some insist on submersion or at least partial immersion of the person who is baptized, others consider that any form of washing by water, as long as the water flows on the head, is sufficient.

One of the prime Christian sacraments, Baptism is often thought to require the use of holy water. Holy water is water that has been sanctified by a priest or bishop for the purpose of baptism: the blessing of persons, places, and objects; or as a means of repelling evil.

The use of holy water does not seem to go back to the earliest days of Christianity. The apostolic constitutions (ca 400 CE) ascribe the tradition to the apostle Matthew; this is unlikely, because early baptisms used flowing water (generally from rivers) which as such could not be properly blessed.

Today, holy water is generally kept in the font, the church furnishing used for baptisms, which is typically located near the entrance to the church. Smaller vessels, called stoups, are usually placed at the entrances of the church. As a reminder of baptism, Catholics dip their fingers in the holy water and make the sign of the cross when entering the church.

The clergy may sprinkle holy water upon the congregation; this practice (dating back to the ninth century) is called aspersion, from the Latin, aspergo ("to sprinkle").

Regrettably, holy water fonts have been identified as a potential source of bacterial and viral infection. Bacteriologists found staphylococci, streptococci, coli bacilli, Loeffler’s bacillus and other bacteria in samples of holy water taken from a church in Sassari some hundred years ago. More recent studies have confirmed this finding.

Claims of the magical efficacy of holy water have not been absent. Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) was a strong believer in the power of holy water. She wrote: “I know by frequent experience that there is nothing which puts the devils to flight like holy water.”


In Christianity a relic is a portion of the body of a saint or some item of clothing and the like that has been in intimate contact with the holy person. By extension the concept extends to earth, oil, and water from holy places. For many believers, relics are held to have an almost magical efficacy, capable of warding off danger and contributing to the general well-being of those who come in contact with them.

Analogous practices have been found in Buddhism, Islam, and other religions. Nowhere, however, has the cult of relics been so pervasive as in early Christian and medieval times.

Jewish prototypes are scanty. However, one of the earliest texts that purports to show the efficacy of relics is found in 2 Kings 13:20-21: “Elisha died and was buried. Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring. Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man's body into Elisha's tomb. When the body touched Elisha's bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.” (NIV)

The underlying claim is that God can perform miracles through the bodies of his servants, or objects associated with them. An early Christian attestation is the veneration of relics recorded in the Martydom of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (written ca.150–160 CE) . After the martyrdom Christians "took up his bones which are more valuable than refined gold and laid them in a suitable place where, the Lord willing, ...we may gather together in gladness and celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom."

From its inception, the cult of the relics was criticized by purists who regarded it as pagan. In a dispute with St Jerome, Vigilantius condemned the veneration of all inanimate objects such as the bodies of saints. Jerome responded by saying that the relics themselves were not worshiped but were an aid to the veneration of martyrs of undoubted holiness whose lives were a model to later generations.

Despite continuing uneasiness on the part of Christian intellectuals, relics enjoyed vast popularity among the faithful. Beginning in the early centuries of the church tales of miracles and other marvels were attributed to relics. These tales appear in books of hagiography, such as the Golden Legend of Jacobus of Voragine and the works of Caesarius of Heisterbach.

By definition, it would seem, there are no bodily relics of Jesus, who ascended whole into Heaven. Well, not quite. He left behind his foreskin, of which several fragments are said to be preserved in European churches.

Among the external relics controversially attributed to Jesus is the Shroud of Turin, said to be the burial shroud of the Savior. In reality it probably dates from the fourteenth century. Pieces of the True Cross were one of the most highly sought-after relics.

In modern terms the saints might be termed radioactive, though presumably in a good way. In rare cases they could speak directly to the worshiper, demanding, for example, that they be housed in a more imposing shrine. Some relics functioned as palladia, protecting cities from being conquered, or so it was thought.

In due course the traffic in relics became big business. Unscrupulous individuals took to stealing them from relic-rich countries, such as Italy, selling them in places where there were relatively few saints. Famous relics had an enormous monetary value, and their owners could pawn them when they felt a need for ready cash. They were commonly housed in lavish containers called reliquaries, which can still be admired in museums today.

The pilgrim saw the purchase of a relic as a means of bringing the vital essence of sanctity back with him or her upon returning home. Instead of having to travel hundreds of miles to frequent a hallowed personage, the pious individual could venerate the relics of the saint at home, or in one's parish church.

Beginning in the sixteenth century, the Reformers vehemently attacked the cult of relics as superstition. In some instances they cast them on bonfires, challenging the holy items to intervene to avert their threatened combustion. Needless to say, the threatened objects failed to do so and were duly consumed.

Nonetheless, relics continue to play a part in the Roman Catholic church. For valid consecration, an altar is supposed to contain a relic. The examination of the relics is an important step in the process of canonization of new saints. In some cases, one of the signs of sanctification is the condition of the relics of the saint. Some saints’ bodies will be found to be incorrupt, meaning that their remains do not decay under conditions when they normally would. Sometimes even when the flesh does decay the bones themselves will manifest signs of sanctity. They may be honey-colored or give off a sweet aroma. Some relics will exude myrrh. Still, the absence of such signs does not necessarily indicate that the person is not a saint.


Ferguson, Everett. Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2009.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge, 1963.

Glick, Leonard B. Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Hopper, Vincent Foster. Medieval Number Symbolism: Its Sources, Meaning, and Influence on Thought and Expression. New York: Columbia University Press, 1938.

Sora, Steven. Treasures from Heaven: Relics From Noah's Ark to the Shroud of Turin. New York: Wiley, 2005.

Trachtenberg, Joshua. Jewish Magic and Superstition. New ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.