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Jewish Amulets

Belief in the power of amulets persisted widely among Jews for many centuries, and still exists in some communities today.

An amulet (in Hebrew, kamea) is a magical charm to protect from harm the one who possesses it or wears it. Despite the strong biblical opposition to magic and divination, white magic in the form of the amulet was tolerated by the talmudic rabbis, who allowed a tried amulet (one written by an expert in the art, which had worked successfully on three different occasions) to be carried even on the Sabbath when carrying objects in the public domain is normally forbidden.

Even the rationalist thinker Maimonides records this rule in his code; although he scorns any belief in the amulet’s efficacy and holds that it is only permitted becauseof the psychological relief it offers to the disturbed mind. Even rabbis were not entirely free from superstition and many not only tolerated the use of amulets but actually wrote them themselves.

Healing & Protection

The belief in amulets persisted widely among Jews until, along with similar superstitious practices, it was attacked by the Haskalah and Reform movements in the 18th century. To this day the belief is still held in some circles, where amulets are worn as a protection against the evil eye and are hung around the room of a woman in childbirth to protect her against the machinations of Lilith.

The inscriptions on amulets in ancient times would appear to have been various scriptural passages that spoke of healing or protection. In the practical Kabbalah, various combinations of divine names are used for the writing of amulets on parchment.

Ibn Adret

Contrary to Maimonides and some of the Geonim, who were strongly opposed to the writing of amulets, the notable halakhic authority Solomon Ibn Adret said that the amulet works according to special properties with which nature is endowed by the Creator.

For Ibn Adret, the cures and protection from harm afforded by amulets are governed by natural, though incomprehensible, law. If the Greek-influenced philosophers had never actually observed a magnet, says Ibn Adret, they would have scorned any belief that an object can attract to it other objects without any direct contact with them. In other words, if the empirical test is applied, amulets work, or so it was believed in the Middle Ages, and that gives us the right to resort to them.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion, published by Oxford University Press.

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