amulet iconThings they didn't teach you in Hebrew school.


Parchment Amulets

By: F. Levine

First Published: 2000-06-15

Last Modified: 2007-12-27

The oldest type of amulet is the parchment amulet. Relatively few of these survive, due to their more fragile nature. After being written, the parchment amulet might be hung on the wall (for example, in a childbirth room), but was more often placed in a leather or tubular metal case and worn around the neck.

Parchment amulets tend to be more "complete" or elaborate than their metal counterparts, since the writing surface is larger and easier to affect. They were typically produced by highly skilled scholars and scribes, often for very specific occasions and individuals, and this which made them all the more more powerful. Schrire emphasizes their reputation for accuracy:

"In the parchment amulets we have examined, we have still to find a single error. This is not to be wondered at. The parchment amulets were written by a Sofer or scribe who is a different type of person to the relatively ignorant silversmith or engraver [of metal amulets]. The tradition of the Sofer goes back for thousands of years and to these scribes is entrusted the duty of making copies of the Torah. Such is their accuracy and so hedged about is their occupation with...precautions against errors, that generations of these scribes have transmitted the Biblical literature to us...unaltered for at least one thousand years....

(Schrire, 1966, p. 86)

Prelude To Creation

The writer of a parchment amulet must go through a period of preparation, ritual purification, and prayer; and should be fasting while writing. The Name of God must be written exactly as in the Torah, in squared characters which do not touch. The writing must be on the non-hair side of the parchment. The ink must also be specially prepared. In fact, the rules governing the writer and writing of a parchment amulet are very similar those Maimonides' put forth for Torah scribes.

Before writing, the scribe is to recite:

"Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified Thy great and revered Name, and revealed it to the pious ones, who invoke Thy power and Thy might by means of Thy Name and Thy Word and the words of Thy mouth, oral and written. Blessed art Thou, Lord, King, Holy One; may Thy Name be extolled."

(cited in Trachtenberg, 1939, p. 144)

A similar blessing is quoted from Gaster by Schrire, to be said when the pen is dipped in the ink:

"Blessed art Thou O Lord who hast sanctified Thy great Name and hast revealed it to Thy pious ones to show its power and might in the language, in the writing of it, and in the utterance of mouth."

(cited in Schrire, 1966, p.19)

The Text Structure of Parchment Amulets

Several authors have tried to define the "typical" amulet formula, or at least the typical parchment amulet. Trachtenberg lists the "typical" pattern as:

  1. The Name(s) of God and sometimes angels are invoked.
  2. Biblical passages relevant to the situation are listed.
  3. A statement on the nature and purpose(s) of the amulet is given.
  4. The recipient of the amulet is named as [X], son/daughter of [Mother].

Budge lists the components of the "perfect" amulet as:

  1. The Name(s) of God and sometimes angels are invoked.
  2. Biblical passages relevant to the situation are listed.
  3. A prayer.
  4. A threefold "Amen" and threefold "Selah".

Gaster describes the "principal elements usually found in the amulets written on paper or parchment" as:

  1. "A short invocation to the God, Lord of Hosts, God of Israel..." He cites "In the name of the Lord God of Israel we shall do and prosper" as being a very commonone—compare to Schrire below.
  2. A short invocation to "the angels, intermediaries, and messengers".
  3. The conjuration of demons and/or other evils to be made powerless by means of the Names listed.
  4. A relevant biblical verse.

Schrire lists:

  1. An invocation or introductory phrase, often b'Shem... "In the Name of..." or the initial letters of the Hebrew phrase, "With the help of God we shall act and prosper."
  2. One or more Names of God.
  3. The invocation of angels.
  4. A relevant Biblical passage is given.
  5. A conclusion, to the effect of, "For the protection of X, son/daughter of [Mother], who bears this amulet upon him/her."

Who is "correct"? All of them, in a way. The given structures are all very similar, and probably simply reflect variations in region and time.

One "approved" amulet formula was written as follows:

Khasdiel at my right, Khaniel at my left, Rakhmiel at my head: angels, let me find favor and grace before all men, great and small, and before all of whom I have need, in the name of Yah, Yah, Yah, Yau, Yau, Yau, Sabaot, Amen, Amen, Amen, Selah.

Khasdiel, Khaniel, and Rakhmiel are angels, while Yah, Yau, and Sabaot are Names. As you can see, this actual example does not fully follow the order of any of those given above, nor does it contain a Biblical passage. The three authors cited do admit to variation, and to the fact that some elements they've mention are optional. However, the one element common to every amulet, no matter what the type, is one or more Name(s) of God.

Suggested Reading

If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more, I recommend:

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 »

Gaster, Moses. "A Note on 'A Hebrew Amulet'", presented in Studies and Texts in Folklore, Magic, Mediaval Romance, Hebrew Apocrypha and Samaritan Archaeology, vol. 1. Maggs Brothers, London, 1925-1928.  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.