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Amulets are inscriptions on paper, parchment, or metal that are worn on the person or hung in a home in order to ward off the evil eye, demons, or general bad fortune. Jewish law is ambivalent about amulets. The Talmud permits certain kinds of amulets in certain situations. Some leading rabbinic authorities (Maimonides, for example), were very opposed to amulets. Others, however, not only permitted amulets but sold their own. Amulets were common to most Jewish communities and in a few they are still in use today.

Inscriptions on amulets typically consist of Biblical verses or letters and coded formulas invested with mystical significance. Designs and figures generally have more than a purely decorative purpose. Rather, they are symbols and icons which, when used in combination with certain words or letters, were believed to be effective against specific types of misfortune. Common symbols are menorah (7-branched candlestick) and a Star of David. North African amulets often feature a hand to combat the evil eye or crosses, discs, and crescents. Often there are grids of squares or triangles that frame Hebrew characters to strengthen the letters' power and allow for the first letter of each word or verse in a text, that have an independent meaning.



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thumbnail of amulet


Shiviti Amulet

On vellum. Ca. 18th C. Unknown origin.

Shiviti is the opening word, in Hebrew, of the verse from Psalms 16:8 "I have set the Lord always before me." The verse-- included in the daily prayer-- was often written on votive tablets to be hung in synagogues in order to exhort worshipers to greater faith. The verse also appeared on amulets-- like this one-- meant to protect the owner from harm. The most common motifs of ornamentation for both the synagogue plaques and the amulets were the seven branched candelabra (a major symbol in Jewish iconography), representations of the holy places in Israel, animals or mythical beasts and persons. The lion was the commonly used animal and always appears in pairs. This amulet also includes statements in large block Hebrew characters regarding devotion to God.




thumbnail of amulet  


On vellum. Ca. 18th C. Unknown origin.

Meant to keep away the "evil eye" and misfortune, amulets were either worn on one's person or hung in one's home. This amulet was presumably meant to be hung in the home. Though frowned upon by many rabbis over the centuries, the pull of amulets, known in Hebrew as kam 'ot, was such that they were prevalent in most Jewish communities around the world. The illuminations on amulets are usually considered to be efficacious in warding off natural disasters, sicknes, violence, and other aflictions. They include the hexagram (six pointed star), the menorah (candelabra), and the hamsah (outreached hand).

This amulet (left) includes the names of the angels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel in each corner and prayers for protection from the many dangers that threaten life such as childbirth, fire and water. What is of particular interest is that it also contains a special prayer for the protection of love and lovers addressed to the angel Ahavi'el (loosely translated as God is my beloved).


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