Top 5 Myths About Jews and Judaism

Horns, the Hole in the Sheet, Shaved Heads, and More

Flag of Israel flying over a sunset landscape.

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The myths and urban legends about Jews and Judaism could fill a library. They have been compounded through the years by both fear and lack of proper education. Although many of these myths will make you laugh, the shocking reality of their origins and the painful manifestations of the belief that these fictions are fact has caused many difficulties for Jews over the centuries.

01
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Jews Have Horns

Women at the Kotel in Jerusalem during the day.
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In the Middle Ages, a widespread misunderstanding about a verse from the Torah resulted in false stereotypes and even murder across the medieval world. The myth came about through a Latin mistranslation of Exodus 34:35, which says,

And the children of Israel saw Moses’ face, that his skin became karan, and Moses put the veil back upon his face, until he went in to speak with God.

The Hebrew term karan, which means “radiance,” was mistranslated by St. Jerome as keren, which means “horn” in Hebrew. Yikes! The translation ended up reading that Moses was horned, which worked its way into many pieces of art by artists like Michelangelo and Donatello. The statue that Michelangelo created is actually a relief in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The outcome of this misunderstanding was artistic portrayals of Jews as devil-like creatures with horns and tails. These images were even used by the Nazis in their campaigns during the Holocaust to portray Jews as an inferior race.

02
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They Have Sex Through a Hole in a Sheet

Young couple silhouetted against a sunset as they prepare to kiss.

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One of the more amusing myths about Jews and Judaism, the myth of having sex through a hole in the sheet likely arose out of misunderstandings about Jewish views of sex. Although Judaism restricts the type of sex individuals can have (it’s not an “anything goes” policy and focuses largely on relations between husband and wife), it also does not view sex as sinful or dirty.

Although the origins on this one are unknown, many theorize that the misunderstanding might have arisen out of non-Jews seeing tzitzits drying on clotheslines and being unfamiliar with the garment. A four-cornered garment worn by religious Jewish men, tzitzits have a large hole that goes over the head (like a poncho) and the rest of the garment drapes over the body, ending around the waist.

There is also a theory that the misunderstanding could come from an obscure Jewish divorce law, which discusses a spouse who will only have sex through a sheet. This stringent personal preference is viewed to be so negative that the other spouse can cite “the sheet” as a reason to get divorced without suffering any financial penalties. 

So the truth is, having sex through a hole in a sheet would actually violate Jewish laws on sex because Jewish law encourages full body contact during sexual relations and offer up “the sheet” as grounds for divorce.

03
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Orthodox Women Are Required to Shave Their Heads

Dark-haired women standing on a riverbank with their backs to the camera.

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Believe it or not, there is no requirement in Jewish law for a woman to shave her head once she is married, even if she’s covering her head and hair. In fact, most women grow their hair long. They simply keep it tied up and bound, out of sight. There are plenty of women who keep their hair short, and there are those who shave their heads.

The custom of shaving one’s head after marriage exists in the world of Chasidic Judaism. Although there are many origin stories for this tradition, the main reason a woman might want to shave her head is to make visits to the mikvah easier. The reasoning behind this is that all of a woman’s hair must be covered by the mikvah waters for the dip to be considered “kosher,” or acceptable. If her hair is very long, she might have to dip a dozen times to get a few good dunks because her hair will always float to the top. Shaving the head, then, makes the concern about hair floating to the top an impossibility.

However, Jewish law does dictate that it is important for a husband and wife to be attractive to one another, so a shaved head might be out of the question.

04
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Religious Jews Can't Use Birth Control

Birth control pills and dispenser on a white fabric background.

BetteDavisEyes at English Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

A look at a religious Jewish community anywhere in the world might give the impression that Orthodox Jews either can’t or won’t use birth control. Although the latter is true for many, the former is not a hard-and-fast part of Jewish law.

The obligation to “be fruitful and multiply” in Genesis 1:28 and 9:7 is considered fulfilled in Jewish law by having just two children (a boy and a girl). Beyond this biblical requirement, if a couple can mentally and physically handle it, having more children is considered a continuous mitzvah.

There are a lot of details surrounding fertility and infertility and the merits that will be gained by reproducing, but there are plenty of discussions about other ways to help along the mitzvah of being fruitful and multiplying. 

Although many types of birth control are widely permitted, there are prohibitions against “wasting the seed” in Judaism. As such, it’s important to speak to your local rabbi because rabbinic authorities vary in opinion about which modes of birth control are acceptable in different circumstances.

05
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Chanukah is "Jewish Christmas"

Menorah holding lit candles and casting a dramatic shadow on a white wall.

Dov Harrington/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Much like the idea that Purim is the Jewish Halloween (it’s not), the idea that Chanukah is the "Jewish Christmas" is popular because the two holidays tend to fall out around the same time every year.

Although pop culture has popularized aspects of Chanukah and even created the “Chanukah bush” as the counterpart for the Christmas tree, very few Jews celebrate Chanukah as a more Jewish version of Christmas.

After all, Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus through the traditions of trees, presents, an advent calendar, and other markedly Christian and pagan customs.

Chanukah, on the other hand, celebrates the miracle of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. The miracle is that a meager amount of oil for lighting the menorah lasted beyond the expected one day to burn for eight days. Modern celebrations, as a result, celebrate the miracle of the oil through deep fried donuts and potato pancakes (latkes) and the lighting of a chanukiah (an eight-branched menorah with a ninth branch called the shamash, which is used as a lighting source).

The two holidays couldn’t be more different, as they celebrate vastly different concepts and events. Among those that do celebrate, it tends to be a hybrid of Christmas and Chanukah within an interfaith Christian-Jewish family

Sources

"Blood Libel: A False, Incendiary Claim Against Jews." Anti-Defamation League, 2019.

"Exodus 34." Holy Bible, New International Version, Bible Gateway.

"Genesis 1." Holy Bible, New International Version, Biblica, 2011.

Isaacs, Rabbi Ronald H. "Does Judaism Allow Birth Control?" My Jewish Learning, 2002.

"Is Birth Control Kosher for Orthodox Jews?" Episode 2, Season 2, Jew in the City, October 4, 2010.

MJL. "Ask the Expert: Should I Get A Hanukkah Bush?" My Jewish Learning 2002.

"Women in Judaism." Study Sheet #3, Nishma, 2002.