By Ariel Scheib
An amulet is an object worn as a charm against evil, comprised of holy letters or symbols. These charms were believed to provide magical powers and protect people against evil forces or to promote good health. An amulet’s effectiveness rested upon its message and the piety of the person who inscribed it. According to the Talmud, valuable amulet is one that has cured a sick person on three different occasions or cured three different individuals and therefore could be carried on Shabbat (Shabbat Talmud 61a).
With the advancement of the Kabbalah movement, the use of amulets became widespread. Kabbalists emphasized on Divine names and combinations of numbers and letters on their Amulets.
Amulets could be adorned on paper or metal, worn around the neck or hung on a wall. In the Talmud, an amulet was labeled kame’ah, from the root word in Hebrew “to bind” or the Arabic word “to hang.” Amulets would contain biblical verses and/or kabalistic designs depending upon their specific function.
The most popular amulet is the hamsa, a five finger, hand-shaped charm. It is worn to ward off the powers of the Evil Eye. The hamsa emblematically symbolizes the protective hand of God shielding those who wear the charm against evil. Traditionally a hamsa has a single blue eye located in the middle of the hand. This represents the attentive eye of God or a way to deter the Evil Eye.
Since the emancipation of the Jews, amulets have decreased in popularity among the Jews of the West. Furthermore, since the Holocaust amulets have not been that common among Eastern European Jews. Nevertheless, amulets remain quite common among Jews in the Middle East and North Africa, especially in Israel.
Sources: Eisenberg, Ronald L. The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions. PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2004; Wigoder, Geoffrey , Ed. The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia. NY: Facts on File, 1992.