Between the Bones

Fragments of language and story extracted from the body

–by Temim Fruchter

What Kept Us Awake

“The use of fingernails for the purposes of divination is a longstanding Jewish practice – one uses the light of the Havdalah candle (used for a ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath) to gaze into one’s own nails. Young girls do so in hopes of seeing the man they will marry, but earlier authorities held that all kinds of omens, for good or for ill, could be detected in the reflection. Conversely, there is a belief that cutting one’s nails can adversely affect memory unless a specific order of trimming is followed: starting with the left hand, begin with finger four (ring) and end with one (thumb), and avoiding doing any two in sequence; right hand two to five. Fingers can be used in magical formula, and, most dangerously, in witchcraft. The careful disposal of trimmings is therefore imperative.”

– Geoffrey W. Dennis, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism


Nobody could quite disagree that, when you thought about it, fingernails were upsetting. Strange little interruptions, dirtcatchers, fossils, afterthoughts. But we were the only ones we knew who were actually afraid. We trimmed our nails in corners and over careful containers. Our fingernails, we’d heard, could cause harm. Could curse unborn babies. Could annoy the dead. We whispered prayers in threes, mostly that we hadn’t done anything incorrectly, that we hadn’t dropped any on the floor.

What kept us awake at night: death, eternity, our fingernails. Continue reading