By: Ludwig Blau
The word "Amulet" used to be considered as derived from an imaginary Arabic word "hamalet" (something hung on); but it is in reality an ancient Latin word of unknown etymology. It is found several times in Pliny, "Naturalis Historia," xxviii. 38, xxx. 2, and elsewhere (Pauly-Wissowa, "Realencyklopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft," i.1984). Amulets are referred to in the Bible, but without any technical designation. In Talmudic literature the specific term ḳemi'a is found, from a root meaning "to bind." A ḳemi'a is therefore something bound on or around, so that the supposititious etymology for the word Amulet as "something hung on" would be correct as concerns the Jewish form. But this designation refers simply to the Amulet's external application, and indicates nothing of its purpose or contents. Biblical, Talmudical, and post-Talmudical passages supply information on both of these points.
Amulets were employed to protect man, or his possessions, such as houses, cattle, etc., from the evil influences of witches, demons, and other mischievous powers likely to be encountered, or to counteract misfortune, illness, and damage of various kinds already being endured. The Amulet is found both in the Orient and in the West, among wild tribes and among civilized nations down to the present day. Assyrians and Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, Jews and Christians, fostered this ancient superstition, and, in varying degrees, foster it to-day. Among the Israelites, therefore, the Amulet has a history extending over several thousand years, and it may conveniently be considered under the heads of the Biblical, Talmudical, and post-Talmudical periods.Biblical Age.
All ornaments worn on the person seem to have been originally amulets. The majority of them derived their supposed power from the fact that they either bore the images of idols or were consecrated to idols. The patriarch Jacob buried "all the strange gods which were in their [his household's] hand, and all their earrings which were in their ears" (Gen. xxxv. 4). Seeing that the weak were more likely to suffer from the evil influence of witchcraft and demons than the strong, it was usually only the women and children who wore such means of protection. Aaron said to the men (Ex. xxxii. 2), "Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters," whereupon "all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears." The Midianite kings wore crescents and earrings; even their camels had chains about their necks, evidently as amulets (Judges, viii. 26). Jewelry was worn by the women and maidens not only for ornament, but also for protection and as charms. Among the twenty-four ornaments of the daughters of Zion, referred to in Isa. iii. 18, mention is made of leḥashim. This word usually denotes magic, but here evidently signifies an ornament intended to counteract magic and at the same time perhaps to exert magical influence itself. The lover says (Song of Solomon, iv. 9), "Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse; thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, with one chain of thy neck." The adulterous wife puts on her earrings and jewels before she goes after her lovers (Hosea, ii. 13). In Prov. xvii. 8 a bribe is compared to a favor-giving precious stone, whose owner prospereth whithersoever he turneth. That here denotes a magical stone is evident; and so, too, in Nahum, iii. 4, something of the same kind is alluded to with regard to "the well-favored harlot, the mistress of witchcrafts." The Book of Proverbs, which was written for the people, and mirrors popular views of life, also makes reference to prevailing conceptions about amulets when it says of wisdom, it "shall be an ornament of grace unto thy head, and chains about thy neck" (Prov. i. 9). Similarly, when it says (ib. vi. 21), concerning the admonitions of father and mother: "Bind them continually upon thine heart, and tie them about thy neck. When thou goest, it shall lead thee; when thou sleepest, it shall keep thee." Parental precepts protect, like an Amulet worn upon the heart and neck. In many passages of Scripture which speak figuratively of a necklace, an ornamental crown, or of the protection afforded by the Law, the popular conception of the power of amulets is constantly referred to (Ps. lxxiii. 6, ciii. 4, Prov. iii. 22, iv. 9, xiii. 5). Especially significant is Prov. iv. 22, where it is said "they [my words] are life unto those that find them, and health to all their flesh." But amulets were sometimes hidden; carried upon the body, that they might not beexposed to the counter-influence of other amulets, and were thus supposed to be even more potent. Amulets were found upon the bodies of Jewish warriors; they had come from the heathen temple in Jamnia (II Macc. xii. 40). The signet-ring, carried over the heart or upon the arm (Song of Solomon, viii. 6, Jer. xxii. 24, Hag. ii. 23), served as an Amulet, either owing to the material of which it was composed or frequently from the inscription upon it.Talmudical Age.
The use of amulets was very extensive in the rabbinical period; that is, from about the first century
Every nation in turn seems to have held that the magical arts of other nations were superior to its own; and therefore it is easy to understand why the greater portion of the amulets described in Talmud and Midrash are of foreign extraction, as evidenced by their foreign appellations or by other indications. Genuinely Jewish, however, were those talismans which consisted of strips of parchment bearing the name of God, or various permutations of its letters, Scripture passages, or the like. An important quotation concerning these is found in a Baraita (Shab. 115b): "Talismans and amulets, although containing in their letters the name of God or sundry passages out of the Torah, may not be saved on Sabbath from a conflagration; let them burn where they are." By letters of God's name are meant anagrams and transpositions of the same; see Abraxas. Upon an Amulet, said to be potent in curing the bite of a mad dog, was written "Yah, Yah, Lord of Hosts" (Yoma, 84a). As stated above, medicine did not disdain the use of amulets. Abraham wore a jewel on his neck which healed every sick person he looked upon. A "stone of preservation" ( ) was said to protect women from miscarriage. The egg of a grasshopper was said to protect against earache; the tooth of a living fox against sleepiness, and of a dead one against sleeplessness. A nail from a gallows protected against wounds. The sages of the Talmud, however, forbade the use of all such remedies, as being "heathen practise." Tefillin (phylacteries) and mezuzot (inscriptions on door-posts) are designated by the Targum on Song of Solomon (viii. 6), as permissible amulets, preserving Israel from the power of demons. Sources and citations concerning the use of amulets in Talmudical times may be found in Blau, "Das Altjüdische Zauberwesen," pp. 86, 146; Strasburg, 1898.Post-Talmudical Age.
Jewish thought and action in the Middle Ages were dominated completely by the Talmud. Since this authority did not forbid the use of written amulets, the Jews were entirely exposed both to the growth of this superstition among themselves and to the overwhelming inroads of the superstitious practises of the nations among whom they dwelt. It is therefore not surprising that the Amulet superstition grew apace among them. It flourished most in the Orient, the ancient home of all magic and superstition. Hai Gaon, the enlightened head of the Pumbedita Academy, wrote (about 1000), "Sorcery and amulets sprang from the Sura Academy, because that lies near to Babylonia and to the house of Nebuchadnezzar." He denies the powers of amulets, as, for instance, that a papyrus or an olive-leaf inscribed with the mystic name of God would put robbers to flight; or if the same were written upon a new tile, that it would calm the sea; or, if thrown upon a man, would kill him. He admits, however, that amulets may be effective as means of cure and protection. All depends upon the writer and upon the moment of application; for at certain times the best are ineffectual (Ashkenazi, "Ta'am Zeḳenim," 56b).
That in the Middle Ages the Jews were influenced by the Babylonian magic especially, and not by the Egyptian—the latter distinguished twenty different sorts of amulets (see Budge, "Egyptian Magic," p. 25, London, 1899)—is shown by the Jewish-Aramaic charm-inscriptions upon Babylonian clay bowls which possibly served as a protection for the utensils; that is, as amulets (Wohlstein, "Dämonenbeschwörungen aus Nachtalmudischer Zeit," Berlin, 1894; Stübe, "Jüdisch-Babylonische Zaubertexte," Halle, 1895; Schwab, "Les Coupes Magiques," etc., in "Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archeology," April, 1890; idem, "Coupes à Inscriptions Magiques," ib. June, 1891). In Gaster's edition of "The Sword of Moses" (London, 1896)—a work evidently written under Egyptian influence, but Oriental in its origin and said to belong, according to its editor, to the fourth century—a whole series of ḳemi'ot is given as protective against various ailments and evils. These consist of transpositions of the names of God, quite unintelligible to the modern mind, written upon paper or engraved upon metal plates, and thus resembling the magic papyri of the Greeks. Exactly as with Egyptian amulets, the requisite color and material ofthese are sometimes indicated; thus one charm was to be written on a red plate, another on a silver plate, and so on. By the employment of these amulets, paralysis, sciatica, eye and ear ailments, leprosy; and other evils were to be cured. With a certain plate fastened around the thigh, a man might enter a fiery furnace and come out unscathed. Material and inscription of the Amulet varied according to its purpose. By its means fish could be caught; the love of a woman secured and retained; the sea crossed dry-shod; wild animals slain; terror diffused through the world; communion had with the dead; a sword obtained which would fight automatically for its owner; one's enemies set to tearing each other to pieces; oneself rendered invisible; springs of water found; cleverness attained; and many similarly wonderful things accomplished. In one passage a device that is frequently met with in Babylonian and Egyptian magic is mentioned; namely, the preparation of an image and working the charm desired by its medium. The prescription runs:
"If thou desirest to cause any one to perish, take clay from two river banks and make an image therewith; write upon it the man's name; then take seven stalks from seven date-trees and make a bow [here follows the word with horsehair (?); set up the image in a convenient place, stretch thy bow, shoot the stalks at it, and with every one say the prescribed words, which begin with and end with , adding, 'Destroyed be N., son of N.!'"
Gaster (l.c. pp. 12-19) explains why these means were thought to be effective. It appears that every angel and demon is bound to appear and obey when he hears a certain name uttered (p. 25, lines 2-10). Even Hai Gaon ("Responsen der Geonim," ed. Harkavy, 373, p. 189) says, "Amulets are written, and the divine name is spoken, in order that angels may help." But a great deal was made to depend upon using the right name at the right time, a condition likewise frequently insisted on in the Egyptian and Babylonian magical works.Cabala.
"Practical Cabala," or the art of employing the knowledge of the hidden world in order to attain one's purpose, is founded upon the mysticism developed in the "Sefer Yeẓirah" (Book of Creation). According to this work, God created the world by means of the letters of the alphabet and particularly those of His name, , which He combined in the most varied ways. If one learns these combinations and permutations, and applies them at the right time and in the right place, one may thus easily make himself master of creation, since God Himself not only permits but desires this; for these formulæ all proclaim monotheism. The Egyptians held a similar view (Budge, l.c. xiii.). The mystic book "Raziel" (eleventh century), in so far as it is to be considered here, is also of Oriental origin, and reflects similar views. Instructions are given for the preparation of amulets; and particular days and hours are indicated as suitable for the manufacture (ed. Amsterdam, 42b). As samples, the two ḳemi'ot in the next column may serve.In Europe.
In Europe, Spain comes most prominently into view in the consideration of amulets, that country being a hotbed of superstition and Cabala. NaḦmanides and Adret permit the employment of a metal plate with the image of a lion as a remedy against a painful cough (Adret, "Responsa," 1st ed., 167, 413). This superstition was a universal one, and is mentioned also by Manasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam (seventeenth century), who remarks that Leone Soavio recommended it to Paracelsus as a cure for stomach-pain ("Nishmat Ḥayyim," third treatise, chap. xxv.). Other amulets were written upon parchment, on the skin of a fetus or of a deer (Adret, ib.), but were of avail only when the writer and the chosen time were propitious. Adret also forbids such charms as are clearly useless ("Novellæ" on Shab. 67). In Germany, red cords with corals were worn as protection against the evil eye. Christians employed Jews to make amulets for them; for these had the reputation of being "wise folk." Strangely enough, in the later Middle Ages, Jews attached to their arms, where the phylacteries were applied, amulets containing the names of Christ and the three holy kings (Berliner, "Aus dem Leben der Deutschen Juden im Mittelalter," pp. 97, 101). Insanity or epilepsy was cured by hanging beets around the patient's neck. People were warned, however, that the preparation of these amulets would irritate demons. Against miscarriage women carried a stone around the neck, called , a word evidently derived from the French enceinte; a hole was pierced through it; it was as large and as heavy as a hen's egg. These stones, which had a glazed appearance, were found in the fields, and were esteemed of priceless value. A similar purpose was served in antiquity as well as in the Middle Ages by actites. For lightening labor, both Jewish and Christian women wore a piece of a man's vest, girdle, or other clothing. Luther relates that a Jew presented Duke Albert of Saxony with a button, curiously inscribed, which would protect against cold steel, stabbing, or shooting. The duke made the experiment on the Jew, hanging the button around his neck and then slashing him with a sword (Güdemann," Gesch. des Erziehungswesens und der Cultur der Juden in Frankreich und Deutschland," pp. 205, 207, 214, 226, Vienna, 1880). The Italian coin, with its abracadabra-like inscription, described by Güdemann ("Gesch. d. Erz. und der Cultur der Jud. in Italien," p. 335), was probably of Jewish, and not of Christian, origin. The medallion bears on the one side the words below, theHebrew transliteration of "Majestas YHWH regis domini mei animum benignum mihi foveat" (May the majesty of YHWH foster a kindly disposition in my lord the king toward me). Upon the other side is "Majestas YHWH animum mei regis ad me inclinet" (May the majesty of YHWH incline the king's soul to me).The Eibenschütz Controversy.
The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 caused the dissemination of the Cabala far and wide through the East and the West. Their unexampled sufferings served to foster their mystic bent more than ever. The Holy Land, as far as repeopled by Spanish exiles (notably Safed), became the hot-bed of the most abstruse secret lore, which favored, among other things, the employment of amulets. From Turkey on the one side, and from Italy on the other, the Cabala spread to Poland and lands adjacent; Ḥasidism arose there and flourishes there today. This mysticism also prepared the ground for amulets, so that there are whole books devoted exclusively to ḳemi'ot still extant in manuscript (compare Benjacob, "Oẓar ha-Sefarim," p. 530). This socalled "practical Cabala" recommended a number of talismans, a description of which must be omitted here in order to describe a celebrated ḳemi'a contest of the middle of the eighteenth century. Jonathan Eibenschütz, remembered by Jews to-day as an eminent Talmudist, prepared a number of amulets. He issued them in Metz, where he was rabbi, and later in Hamburg, Altona, and Wandsbeck, over the united communities of which he presided as chief rabbi. He made them for sick children, for expectant mothers, also as remedies against nose-bleed, epilepsy, and the evil eye. He furnished one that would banish "croaking demons" from a house; upon digging into the foundations, the demons would then be found in the shape of veritable croaking frogs. To find the body of one drowned, he provided a charm in the shape of a written parchment to be laid on the bank of the river or pond. He claimed to have been particularly successful with his amulets in helping women in various emergencies; and statistics were said to support his statements that since he had officiated as rabbi in Hamburg scarcely one Jewish woman had died in childbirth, while in the year preceding his arrival "God's wrath had raged widely" in such cases. The congregational Ḥebrah Ḳadisha (burial society) confirmed this claim officially. All of this became matter of public discussion when Jacob Emden, then residing in Altona, and Jacob Joshua Falk, chief rabbi of Frankfort-on-the-Main, both learned and respected men, openly charged Eibenschütz with invoking as Savior in his amulets the false Messiah, Shabbethai Ẓebi. The contest waged furiously; the scholars and communities of Germany, Holland, Italy, Turkey, the Holy Land, Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, and elsewhere took active part in a most vehement discussion. Even the temporal authorities were appealed to by Eibenschütz's opponents, application being made to the City Council of Hamburg, and to the king of Denmark. The charge was based particularly upon five amulets issued by Eibenschütz while officiating in Metz, and which were certified to by the congregational officials, as having been written by him.
It is a curious fact that in all the voluminous discussion, the only point at issue was the employment of the false Messiah's name in these amulets; not a voice was raised against the folly of amulets in general. The common impression probably was that they could do no harm and might serve as spiritual stimulants in the way of the wearer's reassurance and mental comfort. This widespread discussion, however, marks the turning-point in the history of the medieval faith in amulets; since then it has gradually diminished and may now be said topractically extinct except in the Orient. The "Shulḥan 'Aruk" does not forbid amulets (see "Oraḥ Ḥayyim," § 301, 24-27; § 305, 17; § 334, 14; "Yoreh De'ah," § 179, 12). It is important to note the fact that the Jews, the "people of the Scripture," employed mainly written parchments for such purposes, not bits of wood, bone, stone, or other natural objects.
Modern Judaism of course approves the sentiments of Maimonides, who pronounced against them; he denies them all potency or virtue whatever ("Moreh," iii. 37), and speaks of the "craziness of the amulet-writers, who hope to accomplish miracles by permutations of the Divine Name" (ib. i. 61, end).
- On the Eibenschütz controversy, see the collected pamphlets , Lemberg, 1877;
- Eibenschütz's own defense, , Altona, 1755;
- Grätz, Gesch. d. Juden, vii. note 7.