Amulets In Jewish Culture
First Published: 2000-06-15
Last Modified: 2007-12-27
Virtually every culture has produced some form of talisman: fertility charms, phallic symbols, fetishes, rabbits' feet, four leaf clovers, totems, crosses. The Jewish culture is no exception. Within the practical Kabbalah there is a history of amulets, or kame'ot (singular kame'a).
One thing which sets Jewish (and other Semitic, e.g., Islamic, Samaritan) amulets apart from others is the relative scarcity of symbols. The power is in the written word, and in the Names of God and the angels. Most amulets rely entirely on words of power, though Judaism is not without references to the curative or protective powers of other items.
Kabbalistic amulets may be parchment, silver (occasionally other metal), and periodically semiprecious stones or other objects. They are most often worn, but may also be found hanging in the home.
The Popularity of Amulets
To my knowledge, very few (if any) amulets of the types described below are produced today, and then only by very specific, very rare people, in very specific places. With the exception of the Hand of God, they have more or less vanished from popular Jewish culture. (the "Star of David" and the mezuzah are generally not considered amulets in their modern contexts). Growing up in a Conservative Jewish household, such things were never even mentioned, nor were they discussed in Hebrew School or in the synagogue. My parents had no idea what I was talking about when I described my research. This really isn't so surprising, considering these items' close ties with a more superstitious age. (they were, however, because of their grandparents, familiar with the Yom Kippur ritual of swinging a live chicken around one's head. As the chicken was a scapegoat, and not an amulet, I'm not even going to attempt to explain that here).
The popularity of amulets has waxed and waned a number of times over the centuries, depending on time and place. Sometimes they were dismissed outright, while at other times their potential power via Divine Names was believed, but the rabbis felt they were used inappropriately. Typical arguments against them were that they were dangerous, that they were nonsense, that they were like the Gentile/Pagan fetishes denounced in the Scriptures (e.g., in the closing verses of Isaia 3), that they distracted people from their trust in God, that they were created by unlearned or heretical people, or that they were an abuse of the Divine Names.
Like practical Kabbalah itself, it was and remains a complicated issue. Everyone has an opinion:
Authors Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked defend the acceptance of the 4th7th century C.E. amulets they describe in their work, Amulets and Bowls: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity (p. 36):
Can any doubt be raised as to the orthodoxy, in terms of Jewish religion, of the people who wrote and used these amulets? Contemporary Jewish sources, notably the Talmudic and Midrashic literatures, are notoriously ambiguous about magic. It must be recalled that we should not take the utterances of the sages in the matter of magic at face value. Magic is officially condemnedm but many people who practiced what we would call "magic" would deny that they indulged in a practice which was against Jewish law. They would say that they practiced healing, protection, etc., and that they relied not on magical powers, but on the power of God and His angles. The argument about the legitimacy of magic, among Jews just as in other cultures, sometimes revlves around the definition of terms.
But later sages and rabbinic authorities continued to find the matter troublesome:
If a scholar or a non-Jew offers to write an amulet for you...You may not even wear them on weekdays because, by wearing them, you show that you believe in this nonsense....Besides, a person wearing amulets is like a man who requests a favor from his feudal Lord; when the lord refuses to grant it, he thinks that his lord is unable to comply with his wishes, so he pledges his fealty to another lord.
Rabbi Judah he-Hasid, Sefer Hasidim. tr. Finkel
This passage seems to indicate that in Rabbi Judah's mindor the context of the time and place he lived, Germany, c. 1150-1217no rabbi or true master of the Kabbalah would write an amulet. In other words, as if they aren't nonsense enough, they are written by plain scholars or even Gentiles with no real concept of what they're doing.
But Rabbi Judah was wonderfully deep man with a very elaborate and specific view of the world. Although strongly opposed to amulets, he accepts the power of the Divine Names, and the idea that miraculous things might be accomplished via using them:
A rabbi was asked the following question: "A man who has knowledge of the mysteries inherent in God's Name, and with this knowledge is able to destroy the enemies of the Jewish people and transform the community into God-fearing Jews, is he permitted to use this mystical power?" Replied the rabbi, "He is allowed to kill the enemy only if he knows with certainty that not one of his enemy's descendants will be a righteous person..."
Rabbi Judah he-Hasid, Sefer Hasidim. tr. Finkel
Amulets were nonsense; accomplishments via Names they sometimes featured were not. Neither were demons, apparently, as Rabbi Judah had no problem discussing them in his writings, and the actions one should take to avoid or be rid them. As long as amulets weren't involved, of course.
Many famous rabbis, including Maimonides (1135-1204), tried to write off amulets and other superstitious practices as wrong or just plain ridiculous. The misnagdim ("enlightened") Jews of Germany, Russia, and Lithuania regarded them as nonsense. The issuing of of amulets by the false messiah Shabbetai Zevi (1626-1676)in his own namecaused an immense scandal which seriously damaged amulets' reputations. Modernization and secularization diminished the need for and belief in them. Amulet production as a whole among Western Jewry began a steady decline from 1750 onward.
Still, they persisted, even into the twentieth century. Polish Jews displaced at the end of the Thirty Years' War (1648) spread to Holland and Germany, where many made a living selling amulets. Rabbi Haim Azulai (1724-1807) and Rabbi Israel ben Eleazar (1700-1760), founder of modern Hasidism, were writers of amulets. Schrire notes in his book that during the Israeli War for Independence in 1948, amulets were issued by a private civilian party to a number of soldiers, and at the time of his writing (1966) new amulets could still be obtained in the Mea Shearim quarter of Jerusalem. In 1998, while discussing amulets, an Israeli woman told me, "Well you know, the Yemenite Jews, some of them wear these things on their clothes." (I cannot substantiate her claim, however.)
"Approved" Amulets and Amulet-Writers
Amulets were problematic for the religious authorities opposed to them. Even if they were not supported by all parties, they did contain Names of God and passages from the Torah, Psalms, and so on. This gave them an odd, "semisacred" status: they were not sacred enough to be saved from a fire, but they were too sacred to be worn or used under certain circumstances (such as on the Sabbath). I found an almost funny story of one rabbi who was chastised for wearing his amulet, which contained holy Names, to the privvy, but he refused to take it off, since it was well-known that demons inhabit such places. This sparked a serious debate. The compromise? The amulet was placed in a protective leather case.
Since the mainline rabbinic authorities never seemed to be able to stop the use and spread of amulets, even during the times they were forbidden, they instead chose to regulate them and the amulet-writers.
An "approved" amulet was one which had been used successfully by three different people. An "approved" or "expert" amulet writer was one who had written and used three different types of amulets, each of which had been successful on three different people. Doctors were sometimes automatically approved.
Approved materials for amulet-writing were parchment, metal, and clay. Deerskin parchment was preferred, but not required; it was required that the parchment come from a kosher animal.
The content of the amulet was also subject to approval. It was forbidden to heal by the words of the Torah (though this rule seems to have been bent slightly), but it was not forbidden to protect by them. Therefore, most amulets are preventative in nature (protection against miscarriages, the Evil Eye, and certain demons; and promotion of good health or fertility), or offer general protection or benediction.
If one is a true writer of amulets, expert and approved, one does not simply write it. Preparation methods varied somewhat for those who wrote amulets on parchment versus those who made them in silver. The writers of parchment amulets generally followed a much stricter regimen of preparation.
If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more, I recommend:
He-Chasid, Rabbi Judah ben Samuel. Sefer Chasidim (The Book of the Pious). Jason Aronson, 1997. Full Listing »
Savedow, Steven. Sefer Rezial Hemelach (The Book of the Angel Rezial). Samuel Weiser, Inc., 2000. Full Listing »
Scholem, Gershom. Kabbalah. Keter Publishing House Jerusalem, Ltd., 1974. Full Listing »
Budge, Sir E. A. Wallis. Amulets and Superstitions. Dover, 1978. Full Listing »
Naveh and Shaked. Amulets and Magic Bowls: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity. Magnes Press, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1985. Full Listing »
Schrire, T. Hebrew Amulets: Their Decipherment and Interpretation. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1966. Full Listing »
Trachtenburg, Joshua. Jewish Magic and Superstition. Atheneum, 1987. Full Listing »
Nigal, Gedalyah. Magic, Mysticism, and Hasidism. Jason Aronson, 1994. Full Listing »
For more titles on this and other topics, you may also wish to browse my annotated biblography for listings of all of my source texts, including descriptions and brief reviews.