Jewish magic amulets

In last week’s post about the Adne ha-Sadeh I talked briefly about necromancy, which is magic for speaking with the dead. The Torah is pretty clear, this is bad stuff. But the objection isn’t a rationalist one, the Torah is absolutely clear that necromantic magic works (1). Jews are just supposed to keep away from it.

There are other kinds of magic, though, that have thrived within the Jewish tradition. For the Jewish monster hunter, the place to start is with protective amulets. Amulets are written texts, sometimes cast or scribed in metal but more typically written on parchment, that include one of God’s names, or one or more angel names, or some permutation of these names, along with bits of psalms, prayers, halachic (legal) writings, and pleas for some specific form of assistance. (For a primer, see Trachtenberg‘s write up (2)).

Right now, there are a variety of amulets available from Jewish auction houses and from scribes around the world (3). This week, for example, the latest auction catalog from the Kedem Auction house in Jerusalem (4) was released. Lot 6 from the catalog is a Birkat Kohanim amulet from 18th or 19th century Italy, which is intended for the “Protection from Evil Eye and for a Mother and Her Newborn.” (5)

18th Century Jewish amulet with the text of the Birkat Kohanim (Priestly Blessing)
Birkat Kohanim Amulet – Italy, 18th/19th Century – Protection from Evil Eye and for a Mother and Her Newborn. From Kedem’s Auction Catalog 65 “Rare and Important Items, including items from the of collections of Prof. Shlomo Simonsohn and Uzi Agassi.” (5)

The Kedem auction house describes the amulet as follows

Amulet containing the verses of the Birkat Kohanim (Priestly Blessing) “May God bless you and protect you…” and a 22 letter Holy Name, derived from the verses of the Birkat Kohanim.

Kedem Auction Catalog 65 (5)

The Kedem auction catalog is worth a read. It justifies the validity of the amulet in critical two ways. First, it spends time explaining where in the Talmud Birkat Kohanim amulets were described. This is intended to show that an observant Jew can carry such an amulet. Second, it shows that the power of the amulet is “proven” by telling the story of a similar amulet. I put quotes on the word proven because it’s a loaded term in Jewish amulet lore. According to the Talmud (Shabbat 61 A) only amulets that are proven can be carried on Shabbat. There are specific rules for proving an amulet, which typically involve three demonstrations of the amulet’s power (6).

R. Kalfon Moshe HaKohen Rabbi of Djerba (Tunisia) once wrote the verses of Birkat Kohanim on a plain piece of paper, and gave it to his granddaughter as an amulet for an easy birth. The residents of Djerba regarded it as a proven amulet, and would use it as a segulah for easy birth and recovery….

Kedem’s Auction Catalog 65 (5)

This description of R. Kalfon writing the amulet talks about R. Kalfon creating a segulah. A segulah is a charm, the text that gets put on the amulet. A segulah can be used without putting it on parchment, though amulets are usually how they’re applied. Having a holy sage put the words on parchment gives it its power.

MONSTER HUNTER PRO TIPS

1. Having a connection to a holy sage who can scribe amulets is a practical necessity. If possible, a Jewish monster hunter should have amulets against demons, curses, and the evil eye.
2. Keep an amulet kit handy, in order to repair or improvise a new amulet if needed. Improvised amulets will work better if you’re taking your mitzvot (commandments) seriously and have some scribe training.

A
My personal amulet making kit, including kosher parchment, quills, Torah ink, and scraping tool. I am completely unqualified to use this kit, but maybe someday!

Amulets such as the Birkat Kohanim offered by Kedem aren’t that rare. They come up at auction regularly. The last few Kedem auctions have included amulets and the current auction from the Ishtar auction house has a lot of 45 of them being auctioned together. (I really really wish I could afford to bid on this!)

Lot of 45 amulet scrolls, on paper, parchment, and leather.
Large lot of approx. 45 amulets, mostly Jewish, written on paper, parchment and Gvil (leather sheet). Including amulets against the Evil Eye, curses, protection for pregnant women and the sick and more. Various sizes and conditions, overall good condition (stains, tears, wear and worming to some items). Ishtar Auction 76, Lot 105. December 5, 2019 (7)

These amulets are part of the family and religious life of Jewish communities around the world. This past spring, I was able to visit my daughter in Israel where she was studying for a semester (8). While there I visited the Israel Museum on a tour with the parents of some of the other students. At one point one of the parents, an American Jew of Persian descent and truly lovely person, got very excited and started pointing to one of the displays. Specifically, she was pointing to a metal amulet in a display on child birth. Her family had a very similar amulet and she had given birth to both of her children with the amulet on her chest. After her successful deliveries, the amulet was re-claimed by her mother who was ready to pass it along to other family members.

Sterling Silver Childbirth Amulet. Replica. Persia. 18th-19th Century
Replica of an 18th Century Persian Jewish amulet intended to ease childbirth. The inscription is taken from the Psalms and includes the name of Jochabed, the mother of Moses, Miriam, and Aaron. From the Israel Museum’s collection. The replica is available from the Judaica Web Store (9)

Notes and References
(1) The story of the Woman of Endor, in First Samuel, for example, clearly shows necromantic magic in action. First Samuel tells of how King Saul, despite the bans on necromancy, finds a woman who can summon the spirit of the dead king Samuel. The summoning went fine…but Saul was cursed for doing it. https://www.sefaria.org/I_Samuel.28?lang=en
(2) For a more thorough overview of Jewish amulets see Tractenberg’s 1939 book, Jewish Magic and Superstition. https://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/jms/jms12.htm#page_132
(3) I’ll write more about Practical Kabbalah, and PK amulet makers in a later blog post. But if you can’t wait, Itzhak Mizrahi is a good place to start. https://www.p-kabbalah.com/seals-incantations-and-virtues/the-amulet/
(4) Kedem Auction 69.While this auction will be over on Dec 3, 2019, Kedem has historic Judaica auctions on a regular basis and they’re always fascinating. https://bidspirit-uploads-1.global.ssl.fastly.net/kedemauctionDocs/458/catalog/catalog_69_-_web.pdf
(5) Birkat Kohanim Amulet – Italy, 18th/19th Century – Protection from Evil Eye and for a Mother and Her Newborn https://il.bidspirit.com/ui/lotPage/source/catalog/auction/7839/lot/152251/Birkat-Kohanim-Amulet-Italy?lang=en
(6) Shabbat 61 A https://www.sefaria.org/Shabbat.61a.14?ven=William_Davidson_Edition_-_English&lang=en
(7) Ishtar Auction Catalog 76, Lot 105. https://bidspirit-uploads-1.global.ssl.fastly.net/ishtarauctionDocs/140/catalog/Ishtar_76.pdf
(8) She was a high school Junior, participating the URJ’s Heller High program. Which was amazing. https://hellerhigh.org/
(9) Persian amulet replica, available from the JudaicaWebStore. https://www.judaicawebstore.com/-sterling-silver-childbirth-pendant-replica-persia-18th-19th-century-P4613.aspx

Author: Jack Zaientz

Jewish nerd who not-so-secretly wants to be Bobby Singer from the Supernatural TV show or Mordechai Byreika from the Monster Hunters International book series. I'm studying Torah, Talmud and other Jewish writings to learn about demons, angels, dybbuks, ghosts, giants and Jewish magic. Because you can't be too prepared. Email me at jackzero@gmail.com or tweet me at @adnesadeh

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