From earliest times, man has tried to protect himself from misfortune by the use of objects which he considered holy or otherwise (e.g., magically) potent. One of the ways of doing this was to keep the object close to his person, frequently wearing it as an article of clothing, or as an ornament. It was felt that the evil spirits which cause misfortune would not dare to attack one so protected. It has been suggested that this desire for protection is the source of man's habit to adorn himself with jewelry and other ornamentation; the female being weaker – and consequently in greater danger – has the greater need for protection. The custom developed for people to have on their persons pieces of paper, parchment, or metal discs inscribed with various formulae which would protect the bearer from sickness, the "evil eye," and other troubles. The use of inscription as a means to ward off evil spirits stemmed from a belief in early times in the holiness and in the power of words. Such artifacts are known as amulets (for other types of charms and protective items, see *Magic). It is not known whether amulets were used in the biblical period. Presumably they were, but there is no direct evidence to prove it. Traditional Judaism does not consider tefillin and mezuzah – whatever their original antecedents may have been – to be amulets. The purpose of tefillin is stated to be "for a sign upon thy hand" (Deut. 6:8) and from the immediate proximity of the verse regarding mezuzah it would seem that its purpose is the same. While one biblical rite involving the doorposts (Ex. 11:7, 13) had an apotropaic function and the current translation for tefillin ("phylacteries") suggests the same purpose, the traditional interpretation of the "sign" was that of a reminder of God's commandments and of the duty of the Jew to bear witness to his God.
Amulets are frequently mentioned in talmudic literature. The term used is kame'a or kami'a (pl. kemi'ot or kemi'in), a word whose origin is obscure. It is possible that it derives from a root meaning "to bind" (cf. Rashi to Shab. 61a), but it might come from an Arabic root meaning "to hang." In either case, the reference is clearly something that is bound or hung on the person (cf. Kohut, Arukh, 7 (19262), 123). The Talmud mentions two sorts of kemi'ot: a written one and the kame'a shel ikrin, a kame'a made from roots of a certain plant. The written kame'a was a parchment inscribed with one or more quotations from a variety of sources, including the Scriptures (cf. Shab. 61b). The question arose whether the amulets were invested with the holiness of the scriptural scrolls and whether they should, therefore, be saved from a conflagration occurring on the Sabbath. A baraita is quoted which specifically states that they are not holy and that they, together with other texts which contain scriptural quotations (lit. berakhot), should be left to burn (ibid.). In the original Tosefta text, however, no mention is made of kemi'ot (Tosef. Shab. 13:4). Unfortunately, there is no record in the Talmud of the inscriptions in the amulets (but see Yoma 84a). Later amulets were inscribed with quotations relevant to their specific purpose. The text of the *Priestly Blessing (Num. 6:24–26) was considered effective against the "evil eye." Permutations and combinations of the letters of the different names of God were frequently used; names of angels were also very common. The simplest amulet had an inscription of the name of God on a piece of parchment or metal, usually made of silver; ה (He),יה (YaH), and שדי (Shaddai, "Almighty") being very popular. These still feature prominently on pendants worn by Jewish women today. The efficacy of the amulet depended not only on the inscription but also on the person who wrote it; the more pious the author the more effective was the amulet.
The Talmud differentiates between "expert" (or proven, min ha-mumḥeh) amulets and others. The former had proved its effectiveness by curing a sick person on three different occasions or three sick persons, and hence one may wear such an amulet outside the home on the Sabbath (Shab. 6:2).
The Talmud (Shevu. 15b) states that it is forbidden to recite verses of the Torah for the purpose of curing an existing illness but it is permitted "to guard" against possible future sickness (see also Maim, Yad, Avodat Kokhavim 11:12). This distinction was equally applied to amulets. During the Middle Ages, the rabbinic attitude to amulets varied considerably. *Maimonides, following the precedent of *Sherira Gaon and his son *Hai, opposed the use of amulets and came out very strongly against the "folly of amulet writers" (Guide, 1:61; Yad, Tefillin 5:4). He also opposed the use of religious objects, such as the Torah scroll and tefillin, for the curing of sickness (Yad, Avodat Kokhavim 11:12). On the other hand, both Solomon b. Abraham *Adret and *Naḥmanides permitted the use of amulets. Earlier magical traditions, including the use of amulets, magic charms, names of angels, combinations of Hebrew letters, etc. subsequently merged with the *Kabbalah and came to be known as "practical Kabbalah." Many mystical texts, such as the Sefer Yeẓirah and the Sefer Razi'el, contain instructions for the preparation of amulets and other charms, for a variety of purposes. After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the belief in the efficacy of amulets spread to Eastern Europe. In Ereẓ Israel, it spread from Safed, the center of Kabbalah, to all parts of the country.
One of the most vehement controversies in Jewish history was caused by amulets. Jonathan *Eybeschuetz, the rabbi of Hamburg, was accused by Jacob *Emden of having used the name of the false messiah Shabbetai *Ẓevi in amulets which he had prepared. Eybeschuetz vigorously denied the charge. It is interesting that the validity of writing amulets was not questioned in the controversy. The congregational burial society of Hamburg officially endorsed the efficacy of Eybeschuetz' amulets. In a particularly sharp attack against Maimonides' rationalism in these matters, *Elijah b. Solomon Zalman, the Gaon of Vilna, a bitter opponent of Ḥasidism, also endorsed the use of amulets (to Sh. Ar., yd 179). The belief in amulets gradually diminished with the emancipation of European Jewry, although in Eastern Europe it remained widespread until World War ii. Kemi'ot, in particular, were worn during pregnancy to prevent miscarriage; amulets called Kimpet-Tsetl, Shir Hamalos-Tsetl, and Shmine-Tsetl were also placed above the head and under the pillow of a woman in labor, to ward off the evil demon *Lilith. Among Oriental communities, amulets are still widely used. Many amulets were inscribed on small discs of silver or other metal and worn as a pendant around the neck. Amulets being small in size, biblical verses and names were indicated by their initial letters, with the result that the inscription is frequently very difficult to decipher. The Samaritan community uses names of angels unknown in Jewish tradition.
For specific laws regarding amulets see Shulḥan Arukh (oḤ 301:24–27; 305:17; 334:14; and yd 179:12).
Amulets for Safe Childbirth and Protection of Infants
Amulets and talismans intended to protect women in childbirth and their newborns were a significant part of Jewish folk religion in Christian Europe and the Islamic world. The late ninth to early tenth century Alphabet of Ben Sira promulgated the legend of *Lilith, the "first Eve," who claimed that she had been created to harm newborn babies. According to this folk tradition, Lilith was convinced by three angels, Sanoi, Sansanoi, and Semangalof, that she would be unable to enter a house to harm either a baby or its mother wherever she saw their images illustrated or their names written on an amulet. Sefer Raziel (first printed Amsterdam, 1701), a compilation of magic, cosmology, and mystical teachings popular among both Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities, contained a recipe for an inscribed amulet to protect a laboring woman as well as for an amulet for a newborn specifically directed against Lilith. Polish and Russian Jews put the book itself under the pillow of women in childbirth; in Iraq it was put on the Chair of Elijah, an object believed to have protective powers which was placed in the center of the birthing room.
In Europe, amulets to protect mothers and infants were generally written or printed on paper, sometimes with illustrations. In the Muslim realm, protective objects made of metal, especially gold and silver, were preferred and also functioned as jewelry for women and for small children. The mystical texts and formulas inscribed on these amulets did not differ significantly in east or west.
[Judith R. Baskin (2nd ed.)]
Childbirth Amulets in Art
While the Hebrew texts inscribed on Jewish amulets in the different countries, East and West, often share similar formulae, names, and selection of biblical verses, the images drawn on those which are ornamented vary greatly, reflecting folk beliefs and traditions, visual ideas and ideals, and the influence of local folk arts. This is best exemplified by childbirth amulets – the most prevalent category of extant amulets produced in Europe and the lands of Islam from the 17th century on, reflecting the high mortality rate of children before the modern era.
Paper German childbirth amulets are often printed with small, crude figurative woodcuts expressing the ideal roles expected for the newborn when he/she grows up. For example, the amulets for a male newborn depict a boy holding an open book from which he reads, while those for a female show her kindling the typical star-shaped Sabbath lamp used by German Jews. The proselyte *Abraham ben Jacob working for the acculturated Dutch community decorated his popular amulet with a biblical image, which he copied from a Christian Bible, depicting a nude Eve and Adam in Paradise. In Poland handmade colorful papercut amulets were preferred, featuring intricate designs, including a wide selection of animals, such as a pair of rampant lions, which symbolize ideal human qualities ("be strong as the lion …" Pirkei Avot 5:23). Images of leading rabbinical authorities, known for their righteous conduct, may appear on East European amulets as a sign of blessing and protection. In amulets of the Old Yishuv on the other hand the preferred "protective" images were conventional pictures of the holy sites (Temple Mount, Rachel's Tomb). Italian Jews created for the amulets of their children attractive silver cases decorated with appliqués of the Temple implements. In Islamic lands silver amulets and jewelry were very common, not only for newborn babies but also for children and women, considered weak and susceptible to the evil eye. Prevalent images included the hand (ḥamsa) mentioned above and fish. Both were interpreted by local ḥakhamim (e.g., *Joseph Ḥayyim of Baghdad) as symbols imbued with deep Jewish meanings. The ḥamsa, as well as the closely related number five, were viewed as bearing potent magical powers based on Jewish textual sources (for example, five is associated with the monogram-maton, he, the holy single-letter name of God, which is often inscribed in the center of amulets). Persian Jews also depicted a fantastic image of *Lilith, usually shown "in chains." In modern Israel some of the designs, the ḥamsa and ḥai [חי], in particular, have been revived and enjoy widespread popularity. Images of rabbis considered holy, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi, are common in modern Israeli amulets as well.
[Shalom Sabar (2nd ed.)]
Illuminations on amulets are seldom applied for purely decorative purposes. The various designs, symbols, and letters were believed to be efficacious in warding off the evil eye, disasters, or sickness. They consist of magical triangles, squares, rectangles, and other geometrical features, e.g., the Hexagram ("Star of David") and the Pentacle ("Star of Solomon"). The menorah with its seven branches, as well as an outstretched hand, is often used. More rarely, birds, animals, human figures, Satan, and the angel Metatron may appear. Letters which are not as yet completely understood and which are known as "kabbalistic writing" have also figured on amulets.
By gradually reducing the size of an inscription, the evil spirit is eased out of its victim and its influence is thus diminished. Magical triangles therefore serve a useful purpose and when used in writing amulets it is with this idea in mind.
squares and rectangles
These are divided into several boxes each of which contains one or more letters. In this way acrostics may be formed in which powerful inscriptions may be secretly placed in the amulets to exert their beneficent influence without the knowledge of the uninitiated. The squares vary from those of nine boxes to those of 64 or even 100 boxes. The rectangles are usually small and often contain hidden verses from the Bible. Their use and influence naturally depend on the particular biblical verse inscribed.
The Star of David as a silver amulet is one usually made by the Jerusalem group of amulet makers. The six points of the hexagram often contain the letters ירושלים or מלך דוד, the latter obviously alluding to the city of David. Hexagrams may also appear in written amulets.
The 7-branched candlestick is often found on the shivviti amulets from Persia. In the silver amulets only the initial letters of the words are used but in the parchment ones the verses are written out in full. These are so called because tradition states that King David's shield was shaped like these silver amulets, and headed with the words "I have set (shivviti) the Lord always before me" (Ps. 16:8).
A frequent occurrence is a hand inscribed on the paper or parchment amulets. Silver amulets made in the form of hands are common and are usually North African in origin and the hand is supposed to ward off the "evil eye." It is considered by some to be the hand of Fatima, who was Muhammad's daughter, but hands have appeared on North African amulets since the times of the Carthaginians and these people antedate the Muslim tradition by more than a thousand years. The tradition of using hands on amulets still persists strongly in Morocco, Tunis, and Algeria, as well as throughout the Muslim world.
the disc, crescent, and cross
The cross and the crescent are rare. The disc and crescent represent Baal and Tanit respectively and may be found as pendants on silver amulets from North Africa. They carry on the traditions of the Semitic colonization of Carthage and its neighboring countries.
the kabbalistic letters
Mysterious and unexplained to this day, the interpretation of these letters has long aroused controversy. Letters of this type are found on ancient amulets before they appeared on Jewish amulets, e.g., on a magic plate discovered in Pergamon from the tannaitic period. There is no proof that they were made in Jewish circles but apparently they were adapted to the needs of Jewish magic. Some scholars derive the origin of these signs from cuneiform writing. Moses *Gaster considered that there were variant forms of Samaritan (i.e., Old Hebrew) writings and in support of this opinion he cites *Rashi (tb, Sanh. 21b), who called them Ketav Libbona'ah and also thought they were of Samaritan origin. However, the Samaritan script bears little resemblance to these curious characters. It may well be that these letters are Hebrew writing in code form. The manuscript "Alphabet of Metatron" in the British Museum is one of the codes that enables the deciphering of some of these letters but much more research is necessary before all the kabbalistic writing can be interpreted. Many manuscripts of practical Kabbalah include alphabets of angels, each alphabet belonging to a different angel, according to the pattern of this writing. It is quite possible that some amulets can be deciphered by the use of such angelic alphabets. Although these characters are often used for ornamental purposes, they should not be dismissed as mere ornamentations. In Hebrew books on magic, many examples and formulas of amulets are published. These sources include Ta'alumot u-Mekorot ha-Ḥokhmah (Venice, 1664); Derekh Yesharah (Fuerth, 1697); Toledot Adam (Zolkiew, 1720); Mifalot Elohim (Zolkiew, 1727; the latter in many editions); Refu'ah ve-Ḥayyim by Ḥayyim Palache (Smyrna, 1874).
T. Schrire, Hebrew Amulets, Their Decipherment and Interpretation (1966), includes bibliography; J. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition (1939), index. add. bibliography: N. Behrouzi (ed.), The Hand of Fortune: Khamsas from the Gross Family Collection and the Eretz Israel Museum Collection (2002); E. Deitsch (ed.), Kabbalah: Mysticism in Jewish Life, Exhibition catalog, Museum of Judaica, Congregation Emanu-El, New York (2003); Living Khamsa: Die Hand zum Gluek / The Hand of Fortune, Exhibition catalog, Museum im Prediger Schwäbisch Gmünd (2004); H. Matras, "Jewish Folk Medicine in the 19th and 20th Centuries," in: N. Berger (ed.), Jews and Medicine: Religion, Culture, Science (1995), 1133–5; S. Sabar, "Childbirth and Magic: Jewish Folklore and Material Culture," in: D. Biale (ed.), Cultures of the Jews: A New History (2002), 6707–22; idem, "The Judaization of the Khamsa: The Motif of the Magic Hand in the Thought and Folklore of the Jews in the Lands of Islam," in: Mahanaim, 14, (2002), 1922–03 (Heb.); Y. Stillman, "The Middle Eastern Amulet as Folk Art," in: I. Ben-Ami and J. Dan (eds.), Studies in Aggadah and Jewish Folklore (1983), 951–01.
amulet (ăm´yəlĬt), object or formula that credulity and superstition have endowed with the power of warding off harmful influences. The use of the amulet to avert danger and to dispel evil has been known in different religions and among diverse peoples. Like the talisman and the charm, the amulet is believed to be the source of an impersonal force that is an inherent property of the object rather than the manifestation of a deity working through that object (see fetish and taboo). Although amulets are most often worn on the body, hanging from the neck or strapped to the arm or leg, they may also serve as protective emblems on walls and doorways (e.g., the Jewish mezuzah). Sometimes the amulet consists of a spoken, written, or drawn magic formula, such as abracadabra and the magic square, or of a symbolic figure, such as the wheel of the sun god and the Aryan swastika. In many cultures the teeth, claws, and other parts of an animal are believed to communicate their properties to the wearer. Although belief in amulets is very widespread in primitive societies, it has survived in modern civilization. Common superstition has endowed such things as the rabbit's foot with the property of being able to bring good luck. In some modern religious practices, amulets such as the Jewish phylactery and the Christian cross are more strictly related to ritual and serve as personal reminders to the wearers of their relationship to God.
am·u·let / ˈamyəlit/ • n. an ornament or small piece of jewelry thought to give protection against evil, danger, or disease.