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You’ve probably seen these uniquely shaped symbols on pendants worn by Jewish women or displayed in Judaica stores. And in Israel the hamsa — whether on necklaces, keychains or displayed on walls — is as ubiquitous as the Star of David.
But what is a hamsa exactly? And what makes it Jewish?
Looking to buy a hamsa? You can find a wide variety in most Judaica stores and online.
This symbol of an eye embedded in the palm of an open hand has had numerous other names throughout the ages, including the eye of Fatima, the hand of Fatima, and the hand of Miriam. The form is sometimes rendered naturally and other times symmetrically with a second thumb replacing the little finger.
The hamsa has been variously interpreted by scholars as a Jewish, Christian, or Islamic amulet, and as a pagan fertility symbol. Yet even as the magical form remains shrouded in mystery and scholars debate nearly every aspect of its emergence, it is recognized today as a kabbalistic amulet and as an important symbol in Jewish art.
As the references to Fatima (Mohammed’s daughter) and to Miriam (Moses’ sister) suggest, the amulet carries significance to both Jews and Muslims. One of the most prominent early appearances of the hamsa is the image of a large open hand that appears on the Puerta Judiciaria (Gate of Judgment) of the Alhambra, a 14th-century Islamic fortress in southern Spain.
The Alhambra hand of Fatima seems to draw upon the Arabic word “khamsa,” which means “five,” a number that itself is identified with fighting the Evil Eye. The Alhambra motif, as well as other Spanish and Moorish hand images, hints at the five pillars of Islam (faith, fasting, pilgrimage, prayer, and tax) in the five fingers of the hand.
According to Islamic folklore, Fatima’s hand became a symbol of faith after her husband Ali came home with a new wife one day. Fatima, who at the time had been cooking, dropped the soup ladle she had been using. Yet she was so preoccupied by the new arrival that she continued stirring using her bare hand, hardly noticing that she was burning herself.
It would not be unusual for an Islamic symbol to find its way into Sephardic Jewish culture, which flourished alongside Islam. However, amulets are somewhat problematic in Judaism because the Bible prohibits magic and divination. Still, the Talmud refers on several occasions to amulets, or kamiyot, which might come from the Hebrew meaning “to bind.” One law allows for carrying an approved amulet on the Sabbath, which suggests that amulets were common amongst Jews at some points in history. (Shabbat 53a, 61a)
Art historian Walter Leo Hildburgh also raises the possibility that the hamsa has Christian roots, and might be influenced by the Christian artistic form where Mary often carries her hands in a”fig” pose, or a configuration where the thumb is tucked under the index finger beside the middle finger.
According to University of Chicago professor Ahmed Achrati, the hamsa did not necessarily arise in a religious context. The form of the open hand appears in Paleolithic caves in France, Spain, Argentina, and Australia, including one site in Algeria that earned the name The Cave of the Hands.
In Egyptian art, the human spirit (called ka) is represented by two arms reaching upward (forming a horseshoe shape), albeit with only two fingers on each hand. The symbol of the Phoenician lunar goddess Tanit resembles a woman raising her hands, and hands also found their way into tomb decorations. Etruscans painted hands with horns on their tombs, and some Jewish burial practices featured images of hands (suggesting the priestly blessing) on stone markers of Levite graves. All of these could be considered very early precursors to the hamsa.
Jewish Beliefs About Hamsas
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact time when hamsas emerged in Jewish culture, though it is clearly a symbol of Sephardic nature. Jews might have used the hamsa to invoke the hand of God, or to counteract the Evil Eye with the eye embedded in the palm of the hand. Some hamsas contain images of fish, in accordance with Rabbi Yose son of Hanina’s statement in the Talmud that the descendants of Joseph, who received Jacob’s blessing of multiplying like fish in Genesis 48:16, are protected from the Evil Eye like fish. He explains: “the water covers the fish of the sea so the eye has no power over them (Berakhot 55b).”
Other icons besides eyes and fish have also found their way into the hamsa, including the Star of David, prayers for the traveler, the Shema, the blessing over the house, and the colors of red and blue, both of which are said to thwart the Evil Eye.
The symbol of the hand, and often of priestly hands, appears in kabbalistic manuscripts and amulets, doubling as the letter shin, the first letter of the divine name Shaddai. This mapping of the human hand over the divine name and hand might have had the effect of creating a bridge between the worshipper and God.
The Hamsa Today
The recent revival of interest in Kabbalah, in part due to the efforts of celebrities including Madonna, Brittany Spears, and Demi Moore, has brought with it a new public for kabbalah accessories, including hamsas.
Hamsas can be purchased today in Judaica shops around the world, and even through companies like Sears and Saks Fifth Avenue. Many people hang them in their houses, and it’s not uncommon to see them dangling from the rear-view mirrors of taxis and trucks. In addition to appearing on necklaces and wall hangings, hamsas can be found on mezuzahs, bracelets, earrings, bookmarks, key chains, and candlesticks.
Contemporary Jewish artists are using the hamsa form, and some like Mark Podwal are finding a large public for their work.
Hamsas still play a role in some Sephardic rituals today. During the henna ceremony, when brides are decorated in the preparation for their wedding, brides may wear a hamsa around their neck to ward off the Evil Eye.
Even as the hamsa is today affiliated with kabbalah, Israel and Judaism, it is perhaps the symbol’s mysterious origins and the superstitions surrounding it that attract the attention of celebrities and ordinary people alike.
To read this article, “What is a Hamsa?” in Spanish (leer en español), click here.
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This article is about the amulet. For other uses, see Hamsa (disambiguation) and Khamsa (disambiguation). For the Arabic-language diacritical marking, see Hamza.
"Eye of Fatima" redirects here. For the Camper Van Beethoven songs, see Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart.
The hamsa (Arabic: خمسة, romanized: khamsah, Hebrew: חַמְסָה, romanized: ḥamsā) is a palm-shaped amulet popular throughout the Maghreb and in the Middle East and commonly used in jewelry and wall hangings. Depicting the open right hand, an image recognized and used as a sign of protection in many times throughout history, the hamsa is believed by Middle Easterners, to provide defense against the evil eye. The hamsa holds recognition as a bearer of good fortune among Christians in the Middle East as well.
Khamsah is an Arabic word that means "five", but also "the five fingers of the hand".
The Hamsa is also variously known as the Hand of Fatima after the daughter of Muhammad, the Hand of Mary, the Hand of Miriam, and the Hand of the Goddess.
Early use of the hamsa has been traced to ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) as well as ancient Carthage (modern day Tunisia) and ancient Morocco. The image of the open right hand is seen in Mesopotamian artifacts in the amulets of the goddess Inanna or Ishtar. Other symbols of divine protection based around the hand include the Hand-of-Venus (or Aphrodite), the Hand-of-Mary, that was used to protect women from the evil eye and/or boost fertility and lactation, promote healthy pregnancies and strengthen the weak. In that time, women were under immense pressure and expectation to become mothers. The woman's upbringing was centered on becoming a mother as an exclusive role, and it indicated child bearing as necessary. It was also thought that marriage was a sense of protection for both the man and the woman. In Jewish culture, the hamsa is associated with the number five because of the five fingers depicted on the hand.
One theory postulates a connection between the khamsa and the Mano Pantea (or Hand-of-the-All-Goddess), an amulet known to ancient Egyptians as the Two Fingers. In this amulet, the Two Fingers represent Isis and Osiris and the thumb represents their child Horus. It was used to invoke the protective spirits of parents over their child. Another theory traces the origins of the hamsa to Carthage or Phoenicia where the hand (or in some cases vulva) of the supreme deity Tanit was used to ward off the evil eye. According to Bruno Barbatti, at that time this motive was the most important sign of apotropaic magic in the Islamic world, though many modern representations continue to show an obvious origin from sex symbolism.
This relates to the belief that God exists in everything. Another meaning of this symbol relates to the sky god, Horus. It refers to the Eye of Horus, which means humans cannot escape from the eye of conscience. It says that the sun and moon are the eyes of Horus. The Hand of Fatima also represents femininity, and is referred as the woman's holy hand. It is believed to have extraordinary characteristics that can protect people from evil and other dangers.
It is speculated that Jews were among the first to use this amulet due to their beliefs about the evil eye. The symbol of the hand appears in Kabbalistic manuscripts and amulets, doubling as the Hebrew letter "Shin", the first letter of "Shaddai", one of the names referring to God. The use of the hamsa in Jewish culture has been intermittent, utilized often by Jews during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, then less and less over time into the mid-twentieth century. However, the notion of a protective hand has been present in Judaism dating all the way back to Biblical times, where it is referenced in Deuteronomy 5:15, stated in the Ten Commandments as the "strong hand" of God who led the Jews out of Egypt. The hamsa is later seen in Jewish art as God's hand reaching down from heaven during the times of late antiquity, the Byzantine period, and even medieval Europe. Its use by Ashkenazi Jewish communities from this period is well-known, and evidence has also emerged of the hamsa being used by Jews from medieval Spain, often associated with "sympathetic magic". Historians such as Shalom Sabar believe that after the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492, exiled Jews likely used the hamsa as protection in the foreign lands they were forced to relocate to, however this assumption has been difficult to prove. According to Sabar, the hamsa has also been used later by Jews in Europe "as a distinctive sign of the priesthood, especially when they wished to show that a person was of priestly descent...".
The khamsa holds recognition as a bearer of good fortune among Christians in the region as well. Levantine Christians call it the hand of Mary (Arabic: Kef Miryam, or the "Virgin Mary's Hand"). 34 years after the end of Islamic rule in Spain, its use was significant enough to prompt an episcopal committee convened by Emperor Charles V to decree a ban on the Hand of Fatima and all open right hand amulets in 1526.
Symbolism and usage
The Hand (Khamsa), particularly the open right hand, is a sign of protection that also represents blessings, power and strength, and is seen as potent in deflecting the evil eye. One of the most common components of gold and silver jewelry in the region, historically and traditionally, it was most commonly carved in jet or formed from silver, a metal believed to represent purity and hold magical properties. It is also painted in red (sometimes using the blood of a sacrificed animal) on the walls of houses for protection, or painted or hung on the doorways of rooms, such as those of an expectant mother or new baby. The hand can be depicted with the fingers spread apart to ward off evil, or as closed together to bring good luck. Similarly, it can be portrayed with the fingers pointing up in warding, or down to bestow blessings. Highly stylized versions may be difficult to recognize as hands, and can consist of five circles representing the fingers, situated around a central circle representing the palm.
Used to protect against evil eye, a malicious stare believed to be able to cause illness, death or just general unluckiness, hamsas often contain an eye symbol. Depictions of the hand, the eye or the number five in Arabic (and Berber) tradition are related to warding off the evil eye, as exemplified in the saying khamsa fi ainek ("five [fingers] in your eye"). Raising one's right hand with the palm showing and the fingers slightly apart is part of this curse meant "to blind the aggressor". Another formula uttered against the evil eye in Arabic, but without hand gestures, is khamsa wa-khamis ("five and Thursday"). As the fifth day of the week, Thursday is considered a good day for magic rites and pilgrimages to the tombs of revered saints to counteract the effects of the evil eye.
Due to its significance in both Arabic and Berber culture, the hamsa is one of the national symbols of Algeria and appears in its emblem. It is also the most popular among the different amulets (such as the Eye and the Hirz—a silver box containing verses of the Quran) for warding off the evil eye in Egypt. Egyptian women who live in baladi ("traditional") urban quarters often make khamaysa, which are amulets made up of five (khamsa) objects to attach to their children's hair or black aprons. The five objects can be made of peppers, hands, circles or stars hanging from hooks.
Although significant in Arabic and Berber culture, the Jewish people have long interpreted and adopted the symbol of the hand with great importance since the Ten Commandments. A portion of these commandments state that "Lord took Israel out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm". The "strong hand" is representative of the hamsa which rooted its relevance in the community then. The helping hand exemplified God's willingness to help his people and direct them out of struggle. Around the time of the Byzantine period, artists would depict God's hand reaching from up above. God's hand from heaven would lead the Jewish people out of struggle, and the Jews quickly made a connection with the hamsa and their culture. The hand was identified in Jewish text, and acquired as an influential icon throughout the community.
Amongst the Jewish people, the hamsa is a very respected, holy, and common symbol. It is used in the Ketubah, or marriage contracts, as well as items that dress the Torah such as pointers, and the Passover Haggadah. The use of the hand as images both in and out of the synagogue suggests the importance and relevance that the Jewish people associated with the hamsa. The hand decorated some of the most religious and divine objects and has since emerged from its uncommon phase.
At the time of the establishment of the State of Israel, the hamsa became a symbol in everyday Israeli life, and to a degree, a symbol of Israel itself. It has come to be a symbol of secularity, and a trendy talisman; a "good luck" charm appearing on necklaces, keychains, postcards, telephone and lottery cards, and in advertisements. It is also a commonly used symbol by Jews outside of the Middle East, particularly in Jewish communities of the United States. It is also incorporated into high-end jewellery, decorative tilework and wall decorations.
Similar to the Western use of the phrase "knock on wood" or "touch wood", a common expression in Israel is "Hamsa, Hamsa, Hamsa, tfu, tfu, tfu", the sound for spitting, supposedly to spit out bad luck.
At the Mimouna, a Maghrebi Jewish celebration held after Passover, tables are laid with various symbols of luck and fertility, with an emphasis on the number "5", such as five pieces of gold jewelry or five beans arranged on a leaf of pastry. The repetition of the number five is associated with the hamsa amulet.
In Morocco, the Hamsa is called 'Khamsa' or 'Khmisa' and is widely used as a protection from bad luck and evil people. The Hamsa is incorporated in many home decor items, but still, the most common use is in jewelry. In fact, most Moroccan women have at least one jewelry piece with a Hamsa.
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