Shabbat 61

All about amulets.

Shabbat 61 includes a discussion of the permissibility of going out wearing a kame’a, an amulet, on Shabbat. An amulet was not an ordinary ornament, of the sort we have been discussing for pages, but a special talisman meant to offer healing or protection to the wearer. Two kinds of amulets are described on our daf: kame’a shel ketav, a written amulet, containing holy names and selections from the Torah, and kame’a shel ikrin, an amulet made of herbal roots.

According to the Mishnah, one may only go out on Shabbat with an amulet if it was made by an expert. The Gemara picks up the discussion:

Rav Pappa said: Do not say that the meaning of the mishnah is that one may only go out with an amulet if the person who wrote it is an expert and the amulet has proven effective. Rather, if the person who wrote it is an expert, even though the amulet has not proven effective, he may go out with it.

In antiquity, it seems, not all amulets worked reliable. But what mattered most was not the size, shape, material, or anything we can specifically pinpoint about the amulet — but rather the person who made it. In other words, the rabbis explain, we trust even unproven amulets if they are made by experts.

But what qualifies as an expert? Or a proven amulet for that matter? Further discussion clarifies that an effective amulet is one that healed a person three times, while an expert amulet maker is one whose amulets have healed three different people.

The Sages also ponder whether or not amulets contain mishum kedushah, an element of sanctity. In answering this question, three laws are revealing:

First, if an amulet somehow becomes engulfed in flames on Shabbat, one does not reach into the flames to rescue it — as one might with a Torah scroll. Second, when amulets are worn out or no longer in use, they are buried only if they contain the divine name (or it is possible to bury just the portion of the amulet that contains the divine name). And third, an amulet may not be brought into the bathroom unless it is covered in leather in order to shield the divine name. Collectively, these rules answer the question about the sanctity of amulets: Amulets are not sacred in and of themselves, but the divine name is. So, if an amulet is inscribed with the divine name, that part of the amulet at least is sacred. It is the divine name that must be buried rather than destroyed, and shielded in the latrine.

Amulets of antiquity did contain a great deal of writing, including examples of the divine name. Today, Jewish charms, such as the hamsa or red string, have remained popular, though often without long incantations and only infrequently containing the divine name. As was true back then, their efficacy and sacredness is subject to debate.

Read all of Shabbat 61 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 6, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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