Items generally worn around the neck or on the wrist, meant to protect or aid those who carried or wore them. The Hebrew word for amulet, kame‘a, is evidently connected to the notion of tying or binding. Jewish amulets are usually comprised of texts (either letters or graphic symbols) that are inscribed on some sort of material; some may also contain plant matter or precious stones. For the most part, an amulet has a specific purpose: to ease childbirth, facilitate recovery from illness, improve one’s livelihood, and so on.
Lubok (folk print) of David and Bathsheba that served as an amulet, Western Ukraine, Volhynia/Podolia, 1800-1900. paper, watercolor, india ink. The text includes the names of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs and of angels and demons through to have magical powers, and paraphrases 1 Kings 1:16-17: "And Bathsheba bowed, and did obeisance unto the king. And the king said, 'What wouldest thou?' And she said unto him, 'My lord, thou swearest by the Lord thy God unto thine handmaid, saying, Assuredly Solomon they son shall reign after me, and he shall sit upon my throne.' (The Russian Museum of Ethnography, St. Petersburg, Russia)
Evidence of the use of amulets among Jews dates back to the time of the Talmudic sages. A discussion of whether it is permissible to carry amulets on the Sabbath is found in tractate Shabat in the Mishnah, and in the Talmud, along with an affirmative answer—providing that the writer of the amulet is an expert, or that the amulet is a recognized amulet, meaning that it has proven its effectiveness (Mishnah, Shabat 6.2; Babylonian Talmud, Shabat 61a). The texts of amulets usually include holy names that are believed to have the ability to affect reality, along with incantations summoning angels or other magical powers. Significance is also attributed to the spiritual status of the writer of the amulet, for his spiritual powers determine its strength—though printed amulets did begin to appear in the modern period.
Sometimes amulets are written in what is called “alphabets of angels”—letters that are formed with tiny circles atop their ascenders. Amuletic texts or letters also sometimes have numerological meaning. Among the most common symbols on Jewish amulets are menorahs (seven-branched candelabrums), tablets of the Law, Stars of David, and swords.
Belief in the hidden powers of amulets was widespread among both Jews and non-Jews in Eastern Europe, across all levels of society. There was also some opposition among Jews to their use throughout the centuries; prominent among those who were opposed was Maimonides, who wrote vehemently against them. The maskilim in Eastern Europe openly mocked the use of amulets and considered them to be profane and harmful.
Owing to the paucity of research on this topic, it remains unclear whether amulets in Eastern Europe featured any unique characteristics. It appears that the Ashkenazic tradition of amulets was widespread in all parts of Europe, including Eastern Europe. Contributing to the uniformity of amulets was the prevalence of printed versions, be they stand-alone amulets or those included in books. These were produced in Italy and Amsterdam and in the Land of Israel, as well as in the great centers of Jewish printing in Eastern Europe, whence they were distributed throughout the Jewish world.
Amulets were considered an integral part of the necessary equipment for survival—particularly for the protection of a mother and her newborn child from the dangers of Lilith, a female demon who was believed to pursue and kill mother and infant. Following is an example of such an amuletic text, from an amulet in the collection of Shelomoh Musaief:
I command you, holy and pure angels Sanoi, Sansanoi, Semanglaf, Semanglon, to keep all spirits and demons and all evil misfortunes and all Liline and all Liltine away from this newly delivered mother and from this newborn babe; and from the day on which this amulet, on which are inscribed your names, will be placed in this house in which is to be found the newborn, from this day forward remove Lilith and all her followers and all her servants from this newborn and from this house to the farthest reaches. Let her and all the demons with her flee, that she and her followers may never be able to harm this child for ever and ever.
Sometimes an amulet for childbirth would say, simply, “Adam, Eve; Lilith out.”
Amulet to protect a woman and her newborn son, with invocations of Adam and Eve, Lilith, and several angels; Podolia or Ukraine, late nineteenth or early twentieth century. (The Russian Museum of Ethnography, St. Petersburg, Russia)
Amulets were composed and written by specialists and experts in such matters, known as ba‘ale shem (masters of the Holy Name), as well as by important eighteenth-century rabbis such as Yonatan Eybeschütz and Naftali ha-Kohen Katz (who served as a rabbi in Poznań and in Frankfurt am Main). In his will, Katz ordered that his large amulet be divided into five parts, with each of his sons receiving a portion. Many of the books written by ba‘ale shem in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries include the texts of amulets. The use of amulets was also found among Hasidim, and a number of illustrious rebbes wrote them.
Moshe Idel, Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic (Albany, N.Y., 1995); Esther Juhasz, “Ha-‘Shiviti-menorah’: Ben mufshat le-ḥomri; ‘Iyunim be-yitsug ha-kodesh” (Ph.D. diss., The Hebrew University, 2004); Gershom Scholem, Meḥkere shabta’ut (Tel Aviv, 1991); Theodore Schrire, Hebrew Amulets: Their Decipherment and Interpretation (London, 1966); Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition (1939; rpt., New York, 1970), pp. 132–152.
Translated from Hebrew by Sharon Makover-Assaf